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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.


    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.

  • Sir Henry Neville was Shakespeare: The Evidence by John Casson & William D. Rubinstein

    In science knowledge develops through experiment and evidence. Starting with questions and doubts, new hypotheses are developed and their predictions are tested against experimental experience. This research approach often generates new evidence that corroborates or refutes previous ideas and so increases the probability that a new hypothesis is correct or indicates it must be modified. In this way is knowledge advanced. In literature and the arts this procedure may be followed (for example in authenticating a newly discovered painting by Rembrandt), but another process is also at work: the accretion of academic opinion. Careful study leads to opinions being formed. These may be based on available evidence and develop authority because of the status of the academic and their institution. Aristotle and Galen developed great authority in previous times though their ideas were later superseded.  Opinion can harden into “facts” that become the basis for belief. Belief can then influence practice and a quasi-religious orthodoxy develops. The theory that human health was the result of a balance between four humors is an example: this belief lasted for hundreds of years.

    Casson58 An example of Henry Neville’s annotations in books that offer evidence of his authorship of Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar is a note about Mark Anthony’s speech (epitaph) to the crowd after Caesar’s death: “λογοs επιταφιοs M. Antonii in G. Julium Caesarem” in the Greek volume of Appian (Dionysius section), page 170. It is suggested by Casson that this annotation dates from Neville’s student days at Merton College, Oxford, long before the play was written. Another annotation in the same volume on the same subject but possibly written later, shows Neville was especially interested in this speech over Caesar’s dead body. (See Chapter 5)

    The Shakespeare Authorship is such a case where orthodoxy has developed that has been accepted by generations. Questioning the authorship of William Shakespeare, the actor/theatre sharer from Stratford-upon-Avon, has been labeled by senior figures in the field as “heresy”. Yet doubts about the authorship date back centuries, indeed to the playwright’s life time (Hall and Marston in 16th century satires named the author as “Labeo” and in 1611 John Davies named Will Shake-speare “our English Terence” in his Scourge of Folly. Terence was a Roman actor who passed off other people’s plays as his own). These doubts and questions about the Stratford man’s authorship have led recently to a number of researchers checking all available facts and finding that the case for his authorship is indeed very weak and owes more to opinion, hearsay and myth developed after his death than to any documented evidence during his lifetime.

    One reason why the Stratford man has remained in place as the author is the weakness and eccentricity of other proposed candidates who either died too soon or lived too long or for whom the evidence is just not convincing. The Stratfordian establishment has also been an impediment to enquiry into the authorship as their scholars have ridiculed rival claimants and denied there is any problem. However substantial recent research has illuminated the field and shown there are new reasons for doubting the Stratford William Shakespeare’s authorship.

    Casson222 One of the portraits of Henry Neville at Audley End House is the uppermost picture on the pillar. The “Incomparable pair” of William and Philip Herbert, the 3rd and 4th Earls of Pembroke, are diagonally opposite looking across at Neville. These brothers were the dedicatees of Shakespeare’s First Folio and became patron and mentors of Henry Neville’s oldest son Henry and grandson Richard.

    As stated above science proceeds through gathering of evidence, testing and modifying hypotheses until eventually the truth emerges. In the case of the Shakespeare Authorship the latest evidence points to Sir Henry Neville (1562-1615). Ten years of research and nine books have now established a strong case backed by more documentary evidence than is available for any other candidate, including notebooks, letters, annotated library books relevant to the Shakespeare plays and the facts of Neville’s life and experience which exactly match what we would expect for the writer of these works. Neville knew the key people, used rare vocabulary employed by Shakespeare, had a documented interest in theatre, hid his authorship of documents put before parliament and was described as “discreet”. However Neville left tell tale traces of his authorship. Neville’s authorship is a testable hypothesis: new evidence continues to emerge. He was in the right places at the right times. He visited France, Italy and Scotland. He was a member of the Mermaid Club, a friend of Southampton, the Sidneys, Jonson, Fletcher and Beaumont. Above all it is his annotated library books which provide startling new evidence of his authorship as he made notes on Julius Caesar, Anthony and Cleopatra, Brutus, Claudius and the rapist Tarquin. He left notes in books relevant to The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Titus Andronicus, Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V, Hamlet, Macbeth, Coriolanus, and Cymbeline. Other notebooks and manuscripts contain marginal notes on every reign covered by the history plays and include rare vocabulary and even spellings that the Bard used. An avalanche of documentary evidence is now available in support of Henry Neville as the answer to the Shakespeare Authorship Question. Neville’s life matches the evolutionary trajectory of Shakespeare’s works written between about 1590 and 1613, and always explains why he wrote a particular play at that time, especially why there was a great break in the writing around 1601, after which he wrote the great Tragedies, starting with Hamlet.

    More discoveries are to come as three more books are in preparation. Sir Henry Neville was Shakespeare: The Evidence is a comprehensive summation of the evidence so far.


    Sir Henry Neville Was Shakespeare: The Evidence by John Casson and William D. Rubinstein is available for purchase now.

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