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  • William Shakespeare and Henry V by Teresa Cole

    One of Shakespeare’s most enduringly popular plays is Henry V. Indeed Henry appears as a main character in three plays, although in the first two his star is undoubtedly eclipsed by the fat knight, Falstaff. Despite the fact that Shakespeare was writing some 180 years after the death of his subject, Henry’s story had never been allowed to fade from the public consciousness, championed first by those who survived him, and later by Tudor kings such as Henry VIII, who saw himself as a similarly heroic figure.

    There were, therefore, many sources available to Shakespeare on which to base his works. Notable among them was the Chronicle of Edward Hall and the collaborative work known as Holinshed’s Chronicles, while the play, The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, being performed in the late 1580s, has so many points in common with Shakespeare’s own acknowledged work that some have suggested it might have been an early attempt by the bard himself. Given this wealth of material to draw on, it is interesting to consider how much of the story is told in the plays matches what we know as historical fact about this ‘star of England’.

    Henry V 1 The battlefield at Shrewsbury

    Certainly Shakespeare telescoped the timescale within his three plays. We see Henry first as a grown man, Prince Henry, king-in-waiting, consorting with thieves and scoundrels at the time of the Percys’ revolt and the battle of Shrewsbury. In fact at that time Henry was a boy of sixteen, while Hotspur, shown as his contemporary, was a generation older and recently the Prince’s mentor and governor. In spite of this the boy did fight in the battle, not rescuing his father as depicted in the play, but still contributing substantially to the king’s victory, and in the process receiving a severe wound to the face that might easily have ended his career there and then.

    As for the tales of consorting with low-lifes and frequenting the taverns in Eastcheap which make up a large part of the first two plays, there is again some basis for this in the records. Henry, made Prince of Wales immediately after his father’s accession to the throne, spent a large part of his teens actively and dutifully subduing the Glendower rebellion in his principality. There was, however, a period in his early twenties when something of a rift appeared between him and his father, Henry IV, though this seems to have been more of the king’s making than his son’s.

    The Prince had been effectively running the country for some time during the king’s prolonged illness when abruptly he was dismissed and stories began to circulate about his behaviour. Accused of drunken brawling, womanising and even stealing the wages of the Calais garrison while Captain of Calais, Henry himself always flatly denied these stories, claiming that someone was deliberately trying to blacken his name. Certainly he was present in Eastcheap. He had a house there, formerly known as Poulteney Inn, given to him by his father, but the only concrete evidence of brawls names his brothers rather than himself.

    Maybe the strongest evidence for these accusations is the fact that many people commented how much the Prince changed for the better as soon as he became king. Shakespeare’s comment, “The breath no sooner left his father’s body but that his wildness … seemed to die too,” only reflects what people were saying at the time.

    The strangest part of the unruly episodes depicted in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, however, is the naming of the fat knight himself. Though he comes down to us today as Sir John Falstaff, Shakespeare originally called him Sir John Oldcastle, and only changed the name under sustained pressure from the descendants of the real Oldcastle, one of whom was chamberlain to Queen Elizabeth I. Why the playwright originally chose that name is puzzling since there seems nothing whatever in common between the historical character and the drunken head of a thieves’ kitchen.

    Henry V 2 Oldcastle escaped from the Tower of London

    Sir John Oldcastle was indeed a friend of Prince Henry, first becoming acquainted with him during the Welsh wars. On marrying an heiress he became Lord Cobham with a seat in the House of Lords, and his notoriety is based not on thieving and drunkenness but on his membership of what was at the time seen as a heretical sect, the Lollards. These predecessors of the Protestant revolution to come, followed the teaching of John Wycliffe, believing that the Catholic Church was corrupt and in need of reform, and far too involved in meddling in state rather than religious matters. Lollard involvement in the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 led to the sect being banned, and from 1401 Lollards in England who refused to recant could be burned as heretics.

    In 1413, soon after Henry became king, Oldcastle was arrested, put on trial for his beliefs which he made no attempt to deny, and condemned as a ‘most pernicious and detestable heretic.’ The king, however, intervened and insisted Oldcastle should have 40 days to consider his situation before the death penalty should be carried out. In that time Sir John escaped from the Tower, led a failed plot against Henry, escaped again and then spent four years at large, probably in his own territory of Herefordshire, before being captured and finally put to death in December 1417. At that time Henry was busy at the siege of Rouen so we don’t know whether he would have tried again to save the life of his old friend.

    Of course by the time Shakespeare was writing the Protestant religion held sway in England and it was dangerous to be a Catholic. Oldcastle’s stand against the old church would, by then, have been seen as heroic. When the bard changed the name of his character, therefore, he added a clear disclaimer in the epilogue to Henry IV Part 2. “For Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man.” Some have suggested that the Shakespeare family held secret sympathies with the outlawed Catholic Church, and it is just possible that the name Sir John Oldcastle was chosen deliberately in an attempt to blacken the name of that martyr. If so it seems the playwright did not allow for the determination of high-placed family members to protect the image of their ancestor.

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    Teresa Cole's new paperback editon of her book Henry V: The Life of the Warrior King and the Battle of Agincourt is available now.

  • Agincourt - October 1415: The Long March by W. B. Bartlett

    The English army set out for Calais. No doubt there was much grumbling in the ranks. Thousands had been invalided home through the effects of dysentery and the expedition would have to survive on the rations it could carry with it and those that they could obtain from the lands through which they passed. Enough food was carried to last the men for eight days which was how long it was expected to complete the march if it was unimpeded. This turned out to be a hopelessly optimistic assumption.

    To add to the dangers, it was now very likely that a French army was waiting to intercept the English force. Even early on during the march there were skirmishes between French and English forces though these were minor. Henry managed to negotiate passage past several important local towns, Arques and Eu. There was no time for a siege so the English had to do what they could to negotiate their way past these places unimpeded.

    They had one specific target in mind, a crossing of the River Somme at Blanchetaque. This was a crucial destination, a ford which had been forced successfully by the invading armies of Edward III during his Crecy campaign over half a century before to his great glory; it was an action that resonated in recent English history. If Henry V could get across here then there was every chance of making it to Calais and then England without a fight.

    Then disturbing news came in. A Frenchman was captured and interviewed. He told the English that an army lay ready and waiting for them at Blanchetaque. It has taken up a strong defensive position to block the way ahead. Henry pondered on the news, realising that a powerful army opposing him here could lead to disaster. Eventually he decided on his move: another way across the Somme must be sought.

    So the English army diverted inland, moving along the southern bank of the Somme seeking in vain for a way over. Each mile they moved away from the coast was a mile further from Calais. Each day that passed extinguished another day’s rations. There was only a very limited supply of provisions easily available from the areas through which the army journeyed and it was no position to involve itself in a fight. Morale began to plummet and petty pilfering broke out. In one incident that deeply disturbed the pious English king a church was robbed. The offending archer was discovered and promptly hanged as an example to his comrades.

    But then, a glimmer of hope. The army was thinking that it would have to make its way to the very source of the Somme before they could cross it. However, spies came in with the news that a crossing had at last been found. The French had taken steps to damage it beyond repair but had failed to do so. The army crossed gingerly over, just in time for French cavalry rode up to impede them but in insufficient numbers to successfully do so.

    The English army advanced towards Calais once more, the Duke of York in the lead. His men reached the village of Blagny where a small river was traversed. They climbed the hill that hid the way ahead from them. As they crested it, they drew up their horses in a state of shock. Before them they saw a huge army barring the way. Many of the men had hoped desperately to reach Calais without a fight. It was now clear that this was unlikely to happen. Few can have had any hope that the result would be in their favour.

    This must have been a blow to King Henry. His march across France had been a huge gamble and it is probable that he did not want to provoke a fight. The outcome of medieval battles was uncertain and defeat could destroy not only his claims to the throne of France but also his powerbase in England. He was young and inexperienced and, although he had fought in battle before, never in a position where the stakes were so high. The days ahead would provide the sternest test he was ever likely to face and the outcome of the battle that loomed would determine his place in history.

    9781445639499

    W.B. Bartlett's book Agincourt is available for purchase now

  • Agincourt - September 1415: Disaster Beckons by W. B. Bartlett

    Agincourt - The attack by Henry V's army on Harfleur The attack by Henry V's army on Harfleur

    The days were hurrying past and Harfleur showed no sign of losing its will to fight. An action that was supposed to last for days had now turned into a siege, a slogging match. The determination of the defenders to slug it out increased the chance that the French king and his generals would be able to raise an army to counter-attack and drive Henry and his men back into the sea.

    Sieges were a lottery. They put great pressure on the supply situation, both for those inside the walls but also for the besieging army. This was made far worse for the latter given the fact that they were far away from home. Ships scuttled to and fro from England bringing provisions with them whilst foraging parties were sent out locally to grab what food they could for the troops.

    Problematic though it was to keep up the flow of supplies, this was not the main issue for the English. Siege camps in medieval times were unsanitary places to live. Thousands of men living close to each other with little concern for hygiene made for a breeding ground for disease. And it was now that one of the medieval world’s greatest killers played its hand: dysentery.

    Soon it started to take its toll, decimating the army. It hit common soldier and knights and nobles alike. On 1 September 1415, Lord Fitzwalter, a mere sixteen years of age, succumbed, having barely reached manhood. By the middle of the month, matters were approaching epidemic proportions. It touched Henry V personally. One of his closest advisers was Richard Courtenay, Bishop of Norwich. He too fell ill with dysentery and it became clear that he had not long for this world. The king himself tended him as he was dying.

    The death of Courtenay hit the king hard. But he could not afford to be overwhelmed by it. With each passing day there was an increased risk of a French counter-attack. Time was running out so it was decided to gamble everything on a shock attack on Harfleur. When it came it was carried out by a group of men who might be thought of as his storm troopers, individuals like John Holland, Sir John Cornwall, Sir Gilbert Umfraville and Sir William Bourchier.

    The English has been busy, smashing the walls with their cannon and breaches had been made. Through the shattered defences the English charged. A counter-attack was launched but the English were ready for them. Archers carrying fire-arrows shot their missiles into the French ranks and they were forced back. The barbican, an important part of the outer defences of Harfleur, had fallen.

    Agincourt - King_Henry_V_from_NPG Henry V

    The defenders were now beginning to realise that they were running out of time. A delegation was sent to Henry V, asking for terms if no help from the French king was received. Permission was granted to allow a rider to make his way to the headquarters of the French seeing if help would be forthcoming in time. He returned with the news that they would not.

    So at 8 o’clock in the morning of 22 September a procession of hostages made its way from out of Harfleur and towards a waiting English king, seated imperiously in front of his royal pavilion with a stern look on his face. He kept them guessing. By the harsh terms of medieval war, he would have been within his rights to slaughter the menfolk of the town who had resisted his calls to surrender. But he decided that on this occasion he would be magnanimous.

    The men would be allowed to live, though the more important of them would be forced to raise ransom before they would be released. The humbler of them would be allowed to stay in Harfleur thought this would soon be turned into an English enclave, a counterpoint to Calais further to the north. The women though were forced to leave, useless mouths to feed in a town that was short of supplies. Their lot would be a harsh one.

    With Harfleur fallen, Henry entered its shattered walls, walking barefoot through its gates like a Christian pilgrim. It was a great moment no doubt but it was a worried English king who acted the part of humble conqueror. The time spent on taking Harfleur had allowed the French to organise their defences further afield. Quite what to do next was a major concern. The most obvious next move perhaps was to hold what he had taken and send the part of the army that would not be needed back home.

    That was the safe option but having thought long and hard about what to do next, the decision when it came was surprising and to some no doubt alarming. Henry would march its way to Calais and return home from there. The only problem with this was that it meant crossing over 100 miles of French territory with the strong possibility that the enemy’s army would be lying in wait for them. Henry V had turned gambler and the stakes for which he was playing could not have been higher.

    Agincourt - 9781445639499

    W. B. Bartlett's Agincourt Henry V, The Man-at-Arms & the Archers is available now

  • August 1415: The Agincourt campaign off to a stuttering start…

    The armada sailed across the English Channel at last. The preparations were over, the die was cast and even a last minute plot to depose Henry V could not stop the invasion. The crossing was no doubt nerve-wracking but the weather behaved itself. Then came the really anxious time when the ships approached their final destination. Like all amphibious operations the most dangerous moment was when the men started to disembark. If an opponent attacked before they were properly assembled then disaster might follow.

    Agincourt - The attack by Henry V's army on Harfleur The attack by Henry V's army on Harfleur

    And so they moved in close to land, their target at last clear. It was Harfleur, an important sea port (near to modern Le Havre which would eventually replace it) which dominated the entrance to the mighty Seine river. From here Rouen and even Paris would be under threat. With baited breath, the English army started to move onto land. Would they be faced with stern opposition and would the campaign be stopped dead in its tracks?

    The answer was no. There were no French soldiers to stop them and with great relief the army made its way ashore. Supplies were unloaded along with thousands of soldiers. The English got themselves into position, laying siege to the town. The landing could not have gone better. It was a great start; it was not to last.

    For one thing Harfleur was strongly fortified. Its walls had been strengthened not too long before and the defenders even had access to a cannon. As for the men manning those walls they were heavily outnumbered by the English army crowded around laying siege but they would soon show that they had the stomach for a fight.

    Agincourt aug pic Thomas, Duke of Bedford, Henry V’s eldest brother. Thomas was invalided back to England after the siege of Harfleur. (Courtesy of Jonathan Reeve)

    The English could not afford a long delay. The campaigning season was moving on. Although it was not yet clear what Henry’s next move would be, once they had taken Harfleur presumably it would involve moving onto the offensive. If they were to do so as the autumn rains hit, that could cause problems.

    So Henry wanted a quick surrender so that he could move on. He was not to get it. The defenders were further encouraged when early on reinforcements arrived and badly deployed besieging forces were unable to stop them. Henry learned the lesson quickly: the noose was tightened and there would be no repeat. But to a large extent the damage had already been done.

    The siege settled down to a hard grind. English cannon and more old-fashioned siege engines battered the walls remorselessly but there was no sign of any weakening in the defence. Each passing day not only slowed up the English, it also made the arrival of a large French relieving force more likely. They could attack the besiegers from the rear with disastrous results. Henry settled in for a longer than expected siege whilst at the same time not knowing what to expect in terms of a counter-attack from the direction of Rouen. Just weeks in things were already starting to go badly wrong.

    Agincourt - 9781445639499

    W.B. Bartlett's book Agincourt: Henry V, The Man at Arms & The Archer coming September 2015 pre-order your copy today.

  • Agincourt - July 1415: Henry V survives the Southampton Plot by W.B Bartlett

    Henry V was now ready for war as July 1415 began. The last ditch attempts of the French to stall through more peace negotiations having failed, he moved off to Portchester on the shores of Portsmouth Harbour where his great armada was assembled. En route he spent some time at the monastic house at Titchfield where he fortified himself spiritually for the great invasion of France that was at long last imminent. Everything was ready and time was of the essence. The campaign season was already quite advanced and any more delay could create problems.

    Unfortunately for Henry his plans were to suffer a spectacular setback. He was far from a universally popular king yet and one man in particular had an axe to grind. This was Richard, Duke of Cambridge, himself a member of the royal bloodline and a man who felt that he had not been well treated by the king. Even as the time for departure drew near, he was at the heart of a plot which had as its aim no less than the removal of Henry from the throne of England.

    Who was to replace Henry? The man identified to do so was Edmund Mortimer, the Fourth Earl of March. He was also in the royal bloodline and in the time of the late king Richard II had indeed been the heir to the throne. But although he was also probably ambitious enough, he was not well-equipped for the part of a plotter. He lacked much military or political experience and he does not seem to have had a lot of personal attributes to compensate for these shortcomings. However he had recently had a bad falling-out with the king who had issued him with a heavy fine for marrying a prominent heiress (also part of the royal bloodline) without getting permission to do so.

    So March allowed himself to be convinced. He went along with the plan which basically foresaw the Earl and his supporters escaping to Wales with their men just as the fleet was about to sail for Wales. As the month of July went on, Henry remained blissfully unaware of the plot. But as the decisive moment approached, March got cold feet. He reasoned that the plot would be a terrible failure and that the personal consequences for him would be fatal.

    Things were so far gone it was difficult for March to stop the momentum of the plot. The only way out that he could see was to throw himself on the far from certain mercy of the king. This is what he did, making his way to the great castle at Portchester. Breaking the news to Henry in an interview which must have been a terrible ordeal, Henry was both shocked and angry. Shocked because of the betrayal and angry because the date of the invasion would have to be delayed.

    March survived the fallout though he was a marked man. His co-conspirators were not so lucky. The Duke of Cambridge was executed in Southampton for his part in the plot, along with several other prominent plotters. The invasion was further delayed and Henry V was faced with the far from welcome prospect of leaving the country when the after-effects of the plot were still playing themselves out.

    Agincourt - 9781445639499

    W.B. Bartlett's book Agincourt: Henry V, The Man at Arms & The Archer coming September 2015 pre-order your copy today.

  • Agincourt - June 1415: England prepares for war by W.B. Bartlett

    The plans were all in place, the invasion army was assembling, the ports of southern England were full of ships and sailors. Vast amounts of supplies had been collected, as the fleet looked south across the English Channel towards the beaches of Normandy. Everyone hoped that the June weather would hold, allowing the armada to make it safely across to France. Things were not so different in 1415 than they were in 1944.

    Agincourt - Microsoft Word - Document2There had been various diplomatic missions to and fro for several years ever since the young, untried Henry V became king. He was determined from the start of his reign to stake a claim to France but the French ruler, Charles VI, had unsurprisingly rejected any such suggestions. Now the time for talking was over, or so Henry thought. Everything was ready until at the last moment there was an unwelcome complication.

    Towards the end of June a peace delegation from France arrived. They chased after Henry, who had already moved off to Winchester on his way to captain the invasion army. The French delegation caught him up and for a few days desultory negotiations took place. These were in all likelihood just an attempt to buy time by the French and Henry had no interest in further delay. His large army, some 11,000 men strong, had not come cheap; this was an army that was recruited, not conscripted. Delay could lead to desertion by the men and the chance to invade might never come again. The discussions got nowhere as they were doomed to do from the start.

    Agincourt - Microsoft Word - Document2

     

    This was the scene in England in June 1415, 600 years ago. Men-at-arms and archers had been recruited from across England and Wales and there were some Europeans there too from the English-held land of Gascony and expert gunners from Germany. Ships had been impressed in their hundreds. The Hundred Years War as it later became known had been essentially dormant for decades with just the occasional flare-up in between. Now Henry was ready to renew the conflict and England prepared for a decisive confrontation with the armies of France. The journey to Agincourt had begun.

    Agincourt - 9781445639499

    Agincourt: Henry V, the Man at Arms & the Archer coming September 2015 pre-order your copy today.

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