Post-classical history

Christmas Day 1414

IT WAS THE second Christmas since his father’s death. Henry V, wearing his full royal robes and his golden crown, was seated on a marble chair beneath a tall silk canopy. He looked along the full length of the palace hall, beyond the gilt-silver goblets and golden plates before him.1 Servants bustled around in their short tunics and coloured hose, serving the hundreds of knights and gentlemen seated on benches at the lower tables. The previous evening they had decked the hall with evergreens: ivy around the doors, and holly within, and they had prepared thousands of candles to burn through Christmas morning. Dozens of silver chandeliers hung from the rafters, adding a golden glow to the winter light of the windows on either side. Now, as the king began to eat, minstrels were playing: the notes of their harps, pipes and tambourines drifted over the hum of the assembly. Faces were bright, looking forward to courses of roast beef, pork and goose in rich sauces – so welcome after the long fast of Advent.2

Twelve days of festivity lay ahead of them. There would be music, carolling, dancing, play-acting and jokes. One servant would be appointed the Lord of Misrule, to oversee the household games. William, the king’s fool, would perform for the select few. There would be serious events too: the re-enactment of the Nativity, the dole of pennies to paupers, and many more religious services in the king’s presence, in the royal chapel of St Stephen, just a few steps from the hall. Outside the palace, in the cold streets of Westminster and London, people were preparing to carry antlers, carved animal heads and masks in their processions. Later the king would watch mummers dress in outlandish costumes and perform ‘disguising games’. With such celebration and excitement in the air, one might almost say that men’s cares had been laid aside.

Almost, but not quite. Henry knew his father’s legacy still cast a shadow over many of those present. Men might have said that England now had a young, strong and pious king – but they had said the same about his father fifteen years ago. Everyone in that hall knew what Henry IV had achieved. He had been the greatest tournament fighter the English royal family had ever produced; he had fought a crusade with the Teutonic Knights in Lithuania; he had been on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem; he had three times led an army to victory in battle and had taken control of England when Richard II was threatening to become a tyrant. And yet even he had found it impossible to control the kingdom. He had suffered vicious political attacks in almost every parliament he had held. He had survived at least three assassination attempts, three armed insurrections, three other seditious plots, a decade of Welsh revolt, and continual piratical attacks by the French. His reign had been synonymous with rebellion, unease, heresy and doubt. No one could be certain that his son’s reign would be any different.

Everything came down to the means whereby Henry IV had taken the throne. Whichever way you looked at it, to take the throne was not legally defensible. In 1376, the ageing Edward III had drawn up a settlement in which he made his grandson, Richard II, his heir. According to this document, if Richard died without sons, then John of Gaunt and his son, Henry of Lancaster (the future Henry IV) would become kings in turn. Thus Henry IV had grown up believing he had a right to succeed to the throne. But in 1399 he had deposed Richard – the rightful, anointed king. This was not inheritance; many men held that it was against God’s law. Worse still, Richard apparently drew up his own settlement of the throne prior to his deposition, making not Henry but the duke of York and his sons his rightful heirs.3 Although the old duke had no wish to become king, Richard’s settlement automatically nullified that of Edward III. So Henry IV had been forced to find an arcane and highly dubious legal basis to justify his succession. He took the throne as the male heir of Henry III, who had died more than a century earlier.4 In reality, his succession was due to overwhelming political support and an election in parliament. When that popular support sharply declined in early 1401, and parliament started to oppose him, the real basis of his kingship was undermined.

The great problem for Henry IV was that any sign of divine disapproval of his rule could be attributed to his illegal occupation of the throne. In this respect, he was doubly compromised. Not only had he removed the previous king in an unlawful move, he had put forward his own claim to be Richard’s successor in defiance of the dynastic rights of another family descended from Edward III, the Mortimer earls of March. Edmund Mortimer was the great-great-grandson of Edward III through Philippa, only daughter of Lionel, Edward III’s second son. Henry IV was descended from Edward III’s fourth son. Edmund therefore had a claim to the throne which was arguably stronger than that of the Lancastrians. Even though he was descended from Edward III through a woman (Philippa), the common law of England held that a woman could transfer her father’s property and titles to her own heirs if she had no brothers – and Philippa had no siblings at all. So, if the crown of England was a ‘property’, then Henry’s father had broken the law in taking it in 1399, for it should have descended to Edmund. All the opposition that Henry IV had suffered during his reign – from piratical attacks and the harvest failures to rebellions and bad weather – could be blamed on God’s displeasure that the Lancastrians and not the Mortimers were occupying the throne.

Of course, we do not know what Henry V was thinking at that moment, as he ate, looking at his household over the great gold eagle-topped spice-plate.5 But we can be certain his father’s legacy had not been forgotten. His family’s claim to the throne was tainted – twice over. In fact, one may say it was tainted thrice over, for it was tainted in respect to France too.

When Henry IV had claimed to be king of England as the male heir of Henry III he had claimed the throne of France also, even though Henry III had never been king of France. The English claim to the French crown had been inherited in 1328 by Edward III through his mother, Isabella, last surviving child of Philip the Fair. It was thus demonstrably the case that it could be inherited through a female, and so legally it should have passed to the heir general of Edward III (not the heir male). This was Edmund Mortimer again. Regardless of the merits of Edmund’s claim on the throne of England, his claim on that of France was immeasurably stronger than Henry’s. In reality there would have been little or no value in the Mortimer family laying claim to the throne of France – they could not have enforced it – but the right of inheritance should have passed from Edward III to his second son, Lionel; and then to Lionel’s only child, Philippa; and then to her children, the Mortimers. It was a double embarrassment that many men saw Henry’s claim to the throne of England as based on a half-truth, and his claim to that of France as based on an outright lie.

On such things did men brood, and think, and whisper darkly, even at Christmas, with holly around the hall and the bright chandeliers burning above them.


If you could have been there that day, standing before Henry V as he ate, what would you have seen? A thoughtful-looking man of twenty-eight, seated at a linen-covered table, with his brothers, other great lords, and bishops dining on either side of him. He had a long face, a straight nose, and a broad forehead. The scar of an old arrow wound disfigured his right cheek. Despite this, there was a certain innocence about his expression, a vestige of the earnestness of boyhood.6 He had thick brown hair, cut short at the sides and the back, and hazel eyes. His ears were small, his neck thick and manly, his lips full and red, and his chin modest with a slight cleft. As for his physique, he was above average height, slim and athletic. He loved hunting and was an excellent shot with a crossbow. To his contemporaries he was tireless, his energy and determination being sufficient to power his lithe figure longer than his fellow huntsmen.7

He was conscious of his appearance. In his household you would have found several mirrors, as well as golden musk balls and a pomander – the former to hold perfume and the latter to sweeten the air and help prevent him breathing in noxious vapours.8 Unlike most of his royal predecessors he was clean-shaven, like a priest. In this he took after the king whom his father had deposed – Richard II – who had knighted him at the age of thirteen. He wore several rings, and a Lancastrian livery collar over his shoulders, and a golden crown. His clothing was, of course, every bit as splendid as you would expect: kings had to dress the part in rich velvet cloth and ermine-trimmed robes. Whether wearing a high-collared, loose-sleeved long gown, or a gold-embroidered hanseline (very short tunic), his clothes were elegant and rich. Sleeves were slashed to reveal golden linings, or hugely extended to show elaborate embroideries within the cuffs.9

As you continued to look at Henry, you would have seen that this careful outward display had nothing to do with boyish showing-off. The man was not a fop. He spoke very little, although always paying close attention to the speaker. There was nothing about him that was easy-going or even particularly joyful; there was no frivolity in his personality. When he did say something, his words were succinct and well chosen, and he tended to deliver them in ‘a low tone of voice’.10 A monk of Westminster Abbey described him as ‘devout, abstemious, liberal to the poor, sparing of promises – but true to his word, once given; a quick, wide-awake man, though at times reserved and moody, intolerant of laxity in priests, chivalrous towards women and rigid in repressing riot and crime’.11His closest friends claimed that he never took a mistress or slept with a woman after becoming king.12 According to a chronicler who was personally acquainted with his youngest brother, Humphrey, Henry’s youthful experimentation with the fair sex was renounced as sinful upon his accession.13 The chronicler Thomas Walsingham, who attended court at this time, wrote that Henry was suddenly transformed at his coronation into a new man in gravity, honesty and moderation.14 Adam Usk described him as ‘upright … full of wisdom and virtue’.15 Indeed, the words that most accurately reflect the man’s character are ‘circumspect’, ‘fastidious’, ‘solemn’, ‘conscientious’, ‘firm’ and – apart from a deep pride – ‘virtuous’.

His pride was probably his greatest weakness. When his honour was impinged he could suddenly become very angry. He allowed no one to look him in the eye – even though it was normal behaviour for men to look at their lords directly – and he could be roused to anger by anyone who dared to do so, even to the point of sacking an officer for looking at him in a manner that he found disrespectful.16 Such pride inevitably affected his judgment. Pride had contributed to the volatility of his relationship with his father, especially after his father had overlooked him for the command of the expedition to France in 1412. Another example of pride getting the better of him was his determination to obtain a French bride. In 1400 the French royal family had refused to allow Henry’s father to arrange a marriage between Henry and Isabella of France, the young widow of Richard II. Henry himself never seriously entertained any marriage other than with a French princess. After being rebuffed with regard to Isabella’s hand, he sent ambassadors to negotiate his marriage with first one of her sisters, and then another.17 When he declared he would marry no one but Katherine of France, in June 1414, she was twelve, less than half his age, and he had never seen her or spoken to her.18 In all his negotiations, union with a daughter of the king of France – any daughter, it did not matter which – was a key objective. It was as if he was determined to reverse that original slight to his dignity. To him, marriage was not a matter of love. It was a matter of pride.

Henry was a sophisticated, educated man. He had had only a limited opportunity to benefit from his highly educated mother, Mary Bohun, who had died when he was not quite eight. But his father, who could read and write in English, Latin and French, intended that all his children should be similarly literate.19 So young Henry had been brought up to be a polymath, and taught grammar, logic and rhetoric – perhaps under the tutelage of his uncle, Henry Beaufort, chancellor of the University of Oxford.20 He also learnt music, just as his father and mother had done, playing the harp and singing. From the age of seven or eight he had a military tutor, and learnt to emulate his progenitors in jousting, horsemanship and wielding a sword. He was keen to use English as well as French in daily conversation, writing letters in English and commissioning translations of French and Latin books. Although it is often said that Henry was not born to be king, by the time of his birth – on 16 September 1386 – his father deemed his chances of succession very good indeed, and gave him an education fitting for a prince.21

The older men at that feast would have left you in no doubt that Henry V was every inch his father’s son – intellectually, linguistically and musically. Father and son had much in common spiritually, too. Both were fervent in their beliefs and sufficiently confident in their personal religion that they could challenge church leaders when necessary.22 Both men were ardent supporters of the Trinity: the mystical union of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost that bound many of the senior members of European nobility into a spiritual compact. In this they followed the by-now legendary eldest son of Edward III – Edward of Woodstock, known today as the Black Prince – who had died on Trinity Sunday 1376 and had been buried in the Trinity Chapel in Canterbury Cathedral. Henry IV had been buried alongside him. Henry V was keen also to publicise his devotion to the English saints, St Edmund and St Edward the Confessor, as well as St George and the Virgin Mary – all of whom had been the subjects of Edward III’s devotion in his wars against the Scots.23 He was also inspired by St Bridget, St John of Bridlington (his special patron), and St John of Beverley, under whose banner English kings had often marched against the Scots.24 It was said that he heard Mass three times a day, and conducted no other business when in his oratory.25 One could say that Henry’s religion was traditional and nationalistic, but, if so, then the tradition in question was that of the most serious personal commitment to the Catholic saints, and the nationalistic aspect was not just a means to a secular end but a spiritual one, too.

The scar on Henry’s face was a legacy from the battle of Shrewsbury twelve years earlier. That was arguably Henry’s true education – armed campaigning and military leadership. From 1400, when he was just fourteen, the responsibility of putting down the revolt of the Welshman, Owen Glendower, was partly delegated to him. In this he was assisted by Henry Percy, known as ‘Hotspur’. But in 1403, Hotspur and his uncle, the earl of Worcester, rebelled. They raised an army in the hope of joining forces with Glendower, and marched to Shrewsbury. Young Henry held the town while his father led a hastily gathered army to relieve him and to attack the rebels on the English side of the River Severn. It was the first time on English soil that two armies of English longbowmen had faced each other. The battle was terrifying. Three thousand men ran away at the start. Many others were torn to pieces by the clouds of arrows in the first few minutes. The king’s vanguard was destroyed, the earl of Stafford was killed. Henry and his father both put themselves into the thick of the fighting, and Henry himself was struck by an arrow in the face. It penetrated to a depth of six inches below his right eye, but he refused to leave the field of battle. His father eventually prevailed, leading his army to victory, killing Hotspur in the course of the battle, and capturing and beheading Worcester.

After his recovery from his arrow wound, Henry increasingly assumed responsibility for the defence of Wales. It was a testing period. Glendower’s successes meant that more men deserted the English cause. Henry’s own chamberlain at Chester, John Trevor, bishop of St Asaph, joined the revolt. Although the king led annual expeditions into Wales, normally in conjunction with Prince Henry, the Welsh were too manoeuvrable, and evaded battle each time by retreating into the mountains. After the English had withdrawn, they would emerge again and devastate the borders and lands of English loyalists. Thus fewer and fewer Welshmen contributed to Henry’s income and more and more Englishmen were in need of protection. There was a financial strain as well as a military one; and this led to a shortage of men to garrison the Welsh castles as well as a lack of soldiers in the field. The castles of Harlech and Aberystwyth fell to the Welsh in 1404. Henry’s first victory, at Grosmont, in March 1405, was a rare English success. Only with the battle of Usk later that year did the tide turn: Glendower’s brother was killed and one of his sons was captured. By 1407, when Henry laid siege to Aberystwyth, the Welsh revolt was losing strength. The following year Aberystwyth was recaptured, and the year after that Harlech was retaken.

What had the conflict taught Henry? Obviously he had acquired certain leadership skills, and had come to understand an army’s needs in the field. Equally obviously there were the military and strategic lessons of fighting a protracted campaign. But there were more subtle lessons too. Henry saw for himself that, while battles might be won by courageous men and teams of well-organised archers, wars required high finance. He had lost Aberystwyth and Harlech in 1404 because he had not been able to maintain large enough garrisons. Even more importantly, in Wales he discovered his own fallibility. At Aberystwyth in 1407 he had been on the point of re-taking the castle when he made a serious mistake. He agreed to allow the Welsh to have free entry and exit from the castle for a full month in return for bringing Owen Glendower and a Welsh army to do battle with him at the end of October.26 But he did not allow sufficient time for an English army to be gathered. Glendower appeared, found no army to fight, and was able to reinforce the castle. Henry achieved nothing except to cast doubt upon his own judgment. Aberystwyth was recaptured the following year by men acting in Henry’s name, not by Henry himself.

There were two further lessons that the Welsh wars had taught him, and they are both essential to an understanding of him as a man. The first was an awareness of his position in relation to God. The battle of Shrewsbury was not just a fight between a king and a rebel lord; it was a battle to determine in the eyes of God whether Henry’s father had been right to depose Richard II and take the throne. If it was not God’s will, then it would have been Henry IV’s death that would have been commemorated by the church built on the battlefield. As it was, Hotspur was killed, and the king had given thanks to God for the victory. But the divine judgment had also contained a warning – in the arrow that found its way deep into Henry’s face – and Henry himself was unlikely to forget it. Every time he saw men looking at his scar he must have been conscious of it. When his men won the battle of Grosmont in March 1405, he was quick to attribute the victory to God’s will, not his own leadership. In 1408, after his failure at Aberystwyth, he set off on a pilgrimage to the shrines of St John of Beverley and St John of Bridlington. In Henry’s mind there was no difference between the pursuit of military objectives and the enactment of God’s will. If religion was a way to attain a military advantage, then victory was a means of demonstrating God’s blessing.

This combination of nationalistic pursuits and the enactment of divine will, wrapped together in the person of the king, was hugely powerful. It permitted Henry and his father to justify their claim to the throne of France even though it had no basis in law. They could claim the French title on the basis that it was God’s will – for God could over-ride and overrule the law. The only problem was that one had to take risks to invoke the approbation of the Almighty – to put oneself to the test, to show that God really did favour those who claimed to be acting in His name. No coward could claim to be exercising the will of God.

The other important lesson from the decade of conflict in Wales was that of the importance of loyalty. As far as medieval kings were concerned, loyalty was the cardinal virtue. One chronicler noted that Henry, when trying to reassure his father that he would protect and love his brothers, stated that he would not fail to execute justice on them, as if they were ‘the worst and simplest persons’, if they were not loyal to him.27 He had good reason to place a high value on loyalty. In January 1400 he had experienced the treason of the Epiphany Rising, when certain lords loyal to Richard II had attempted to kill Henry’s father as well as Henry himself and his three brothers. The subsequent rebellions against his father merely confirmed Henry’s perceptions of his vulnerability. Hotspur had been Henry’s lieutenant prior to his revolt in 1403, and the earl of Worcester had been his governor. How could men such as these take arms against him? How could men like Bishop Trevor, his chamberlain at Chester, desert him for Glendower? His closest friends became more important to him than ever. Those with whom he served in Wales – men such as the duke of York, the earls of Arundel and Warwick and Richard Courtenay, – became the closest and most trusted friends he ever had.

For these reasons, had you been looking into the eyes of Henry V on Christmas Day, 1414, you would have added another word to that list. In addition to ‘circumspect’, ‘fastidious’, ‘conscientious’, ‘solemn’, ‘firm’, ‘proud’ and ‘virtuous’, you would have added ‘intense’. The man was vulnerable, and had repeatedly been made conscious of the fact – from the arrow in his face in 1403 to the tactical blunder of 1407, his sacking as regent in 1411, and the public questioning of his trustworthiness in 1412. His succession to the throne did not make him any less vulnerable, quite the reverse. His safety now rested upon his ability to command his friends and his continued enjoyment of God’s blessing. At any moment he could be betrayed, or even murdered, or fall from God’s grace through some unfortunate turn of events, as his father had done in his protracted sickness. It is not surprising, therefore, to find signs of worry and superstition at his court. Among his possessions we find such things as a triacle (a container for an ointment to protect against poison), and rings and crosses containing relics of saints. He took astrology very seriously – he possessed several astrolabes for charting the position of the stars. The idea of sorcery haunted him, as it did many of those in and around the late medieval court.28 In the prince’s palace at Westminster was a seat hanging worked with the inscription, Je vous ayme loialment (I love you loyally), as if the emphasis on loyalty somehow made it more substantial.29 At his court there was a sense that everything good, noble, virtuous and worth loving hung by a slender thread, and might vanish in an instant.


As Henry sat dining at the high table in Westminster Hall, he would have been surrounded by family, friends, lords, bishops, servants and other members of the royal household. On his left would have been his three brothers.30 First of these was Thomas, duke of Clarence, the next-in-line to the throne. He was only a year younger than Henry, having been born in the autumn of 1387. The two boys had grown up together, staying with their mother in childhood and, following their mother’s death in 1394, with their grandfather, John of Gaunt. By 1398 Thomas had been singled out as his father’s favourite son, his name appearing high on the list of recipients of Henry IV’s New Year presents (while Prince Henry’s name does not appear at all).31 It is possible that their rivalry developed at this time, and perhaps was even caused by their father’s favouritism. When their father was exiled by Richard II in October 1398, the two boys were separated: Richard II took Henry with him to Ireland, and knighted him there. Thomas was left behind in England – and had to wait until his father’s coronation in 1399 for his own knighthood.

In 1401, the fourteen-year-old Thomas was appointed King’s Lieutenant of Ireland. The intention was that he should be educated in the tough environment of a war zone, like his older brother at the same age. Although restricted to Dublin for much of the time, Thomas soon developed as a military commander of remarkable courage and ferocity. Four years later – and now an admiral – he ravaged the coast of France. In 1408 he returned to Ireland to fight in Leinster. By this time his martial career was beginning to outshine that of his elder brother, and their rivalry resurfaced. After Thomas returned to England in 1409, Prince Henry accused him of neglecting his Irish duties, and urged him to give up his Irish position. Thomas refused, and further irritated his brother and Henry Beaufort when, in 1410, he obtained papal permission to marry the widow of his uncle, John Beaufort (Henry Beaufort’s elder brother). The king further compounded the breach between his rival sons in 1412, when he created Thomas duke of Clarence and appointed him commander of the expeditionary army to aid the Armagnacs, passing over Prince Henry in the process.

This rivalry continued after the death of their father. Henry held his coronation quickly, before Thomas could return from Gascony; in so doing he deprived Thomas of the chance to officiate at the coronation in his capacity as steward of England. Later Henry stripped Thomas of the stewardship altogether. He also sacked him as King’s Lieutenant of Ireland. He gave him no other position of responsibility or important command. Henry’s antipathy to his brother might have been exacerbated by the knowledge that Thomas had sealed important and binding treaties of support with many of the Armagnac lords while in France in 1412, including the duke of Orléans, the count of Armagnac, and Charles d’Albret, in direct opposition to Henry’s own policy of favouring the Burgundians.32Alternatively it might have been because Henry suspected Thomas of being a closet heretic – a sympathiser of the Lollards, the followers of John Wycliffe, who denied transubstantiation in the Mass, who sought to strip the church of its wealth, and promoted the use of a vernacular Bible (a copy of which Thomas owned).33 Whatever the true explanation, the rivalry challenged Henry’s pride. Whether it went so far as to prevent Thomas attending the Christmas feast in 1414, it is not possible to say. If Thomas was there, then he would have been seated near to the king. His status as next-in-line to the throne would have demanded it.

John, duke of Bedford, was perhaps the most gifted of all four of Henry IV’s sons. Aged twenty-five, he was just as solemn, religious, conscientious and circumspect as Henry himself; and yet he was also as brave as Thomas (although he did not have Thomas’s hot-headedness). He also displayed many of the intellectual characteristics of their younger brother, Humphrey. The warrior, the thinker, the cultural patron and the man of God were most evenly balanced in John; one might even say that all these attributes were more evident in him than in any other individual of the age.

John was a large, strong man; one chronicler referred to him having ‘powerful limbs’.34 He had a round head with a beaked nose, and wore his hair cut short around the sides and back of his head, like the king. He could read and write in English, French and Latin, like his brothers. His practical education from the age of fourteen had been the control of the north of England, as one of the two wardens of the Scottish Marches. In 1414 Henry raised John to a dukedom, making him duke of Bedford, earl of Kendal and earl of Richmond. Henry valued him greatly, and trusted him absolutely.

The youngest of Henry’s brothers was the twenty-four-year-old Humphrey, duke of Gloucester. Although he had been knighted along with his brothers Thomas and John in 1399, and nominated to the Order of the Garter the following year, he was nowhere near as gifted in military affairs as his three older brothers. Probably because of this, he alone of the four sons of Henry IV was not given a military command at the age of fourteen. Nor did he receive a title from his father; it was Henry V who created him duke of Gloucester. The talents Humphrey had inherited rather lay in the intellectual side of life: in argument and learning. In later years he would establish great collections of classical texts; the oldest part of the Bodleian Library at Oxford is still called Duke Humfrey’s Library in his memory. He became an early patron of Italian humanism in England. His patronage of writers was extensive, and his own court came to include poets, astrologers, doctors and musicians, as well as those who simply engaged with his ideas. Like many intellectuals, he was not actually given over to intense scholarship himself, perhaps lacking the patience required to master ancient works. He is suspected of reading his classical texts in French, not Latin or Greek. But his failure to master foreign tongues should not detract from the fact that his intellectual abilities were of the highest order, for his engagement with contemporary writers and thinkers was genuine, ambitious, enthusiastic, impressive and important in the cultural development of the nation.

Humphrey’s logic, confidence and clear-sightedness impressed his contemporaries. Yet men did not rush to follow him into battle. He was opinionated, fervent in his beliefs, and judgmental – but he was not reliable or particularly courageous. On this basis one might agree with a later pope who declared that Humphrey was ‘more given to pleasure and letters than to arms, and valued his life more than his honour’.35 But this would be a little misleading, for it would suggest that he harboured no martial ambitions. This was not the case. Like a true Renaissance man, Humphrey saw no end to his abilities. When in later years he encouraged an Italian poet in his service, Titus Livius Frulovisi, to write the history of the reign of Henry V, he was very keen to see his own military roles given prominence. So, although he lacked his older brothers’ leadership skills, his ambitions also extended to commanding armies and winning chivalric glory. This fact was not lost on his eldest brother, the king, whom he idolised. If ever Humphrey was going to prove himself in battle, it was in the service of Henry V.

Before turning to the other people in the hall that day, it is worth considering the collective force of all four of these royal brothers. Past studies of Henry V have described him in terms of individual greatness, as a man isolated in his genius – quiet and circumspect in his speech because no one could match him for political and spiritual insight. Contemporary chroniclers presented the king as an individual, a saviour. Shakespeare played this up, for the sake of heroic drama. But Henry was far from being alone in his royalty. He certainly was his father’s son, and displayed many of his father’s talents; but so did his brothers. Never before or since has so much brilliance, energy, courage and intellectual understanding been packed into one generation of the royal family. Henry V’s brothers might have looked up to him – idolised him – but that was because they expected so much of him. And in return he had to show that there was more to his kingship than royal blood. The respect of these intelligent, high-born men counted, and it was not something that he could simply have claimed as an inheritance.


Given that Westminster Hall was the largest medieval hall in England – 67ft 6ins wide and 240ft long – and given that there were more than five hundred men in the royal household, it hardly needs saying that there were many other people present. The width suggests that between twenty and thirty people were seated on the daïs. Among them would have been Henry’s first cousin once-removed, Edward, duke of York – a great huntsman, and one of Henry’s closest companions since the days of his youth. Edmund Mortimer, earl of March, may have been there too, having spent much of the year 1414 with Henry.36 No doubt both Henry’s uncles, Henry and Thomas Beaufort, were seated at the high table. They were the two surviving sons of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford, and so half-brothers of Henry’s late father. The elder of the two, Henry Beaufort, was now in his early forties. He was bishop of Winchester, chancellor of England, and one of the most ambitious men of the age. Not satisfied with being born great, he wanted to achieve great things as well. Not much happened that did not come to his attention – whether as chancellor, bishop, or a member of the royal family. Thomas Beaufort, a year or two younger than his brother, was the earl of Dorset and admiral of England. He too was eminently capable, and had himself been chancellor of England in the past. Henry was close to them both.

Also at the high table would have been several high-ranking churchmen. Picture them, clean-shaven and tonsured (the tops of their heads shaved), and dressed in their ceremonial robes, seated directly on the king’s right hand. Closest to Henry would have been Henry Chichele, the archbishop of Canterbury, aged about fifty-three. The slightly older bishop of Durham, Thomas Langley, would have been close by. Another priest, Stephen Patrington, deserves particular mention. He was in his mid sixties, and from Yorkshire: a friar who had been head of the Carmelite Order in England from 1399 until his appointment as Henry’s personal confessor on his accession. To say he was delicately positioned – confessor to a warrior king – is an understatement.

Among the hundreds of men seated at the lower tables were lords, knights, esquires, gentlemen, sergeants-at-arms, priests, singers, minstrels, clerks, heralds and many other sorts of men. Most of the officers of the royal household would have been present. Old Sir Thomas Erpingham – the steward and the most senior officer of the royal household – would certainly have been standing with his staff of office somewhere near the king. So would the second most senior officer, Sir Roger Leche, the treasurer of the household (also known as the keeper of the king’s wardrobe). Somewhere in the hall would have been William the king’s fool, and Hugh Mortimer, who had served Henry as both a chamberlain and an ambassador.37 Thomas Chaucer, the king’s chief butler (and son of the great poet, Geoffrey Chaucer), may have been supervising the wine. The sixty-year-old John Prophet, keeper of the privy seal, would also have been in attendance on the king.

It is with respect to the women who may have been present that we start to encounter a problem. There is very little evidence of Henry having much to do with women at this time in his life. This was certainly due in part to the nature of the court of an unmarried king, and it is undoubtedly a consequence of the sorts of evidence that have survived. But it also seems to be due in part to the king himself. He did not sleep with women, and he seems to have spent little time in their company. He did not tolerate prostitutes in the royal household (unlike some of his forebears).38 His petite stepmother, Queen Joan, might have been seated near him on the daïs that Christmas, but if so she was there as a guest; she was not a member of the royal household.39 It is possible that Henry’s aunt, Elizabeth, wife of Sir John Cornwaille, was present. The dowager duchess of York, now married to Henry’s friend Lord Scrope, might also have been in the hall. But it is difficult to identify many other women who might have been there as guests. Henry waschivalrous towards women, but he was not close to them. He mentioned more than forty people in his will by name, but only two were women – his grandmother and his stepmother – and the reference to his stepmother, Queen Joan, was more out of duty than affection. He was single, celibate, facially disfigured, somewhat aloof and obsessed with religion, justice and war. In this respect it is interesting to see how determined he was to marry a French princess whom he had never met, and who was still sexually immature, rather than a woman of his own age to whom he was already close. Most of his predecessors had married for love – including his father, grandfather (John of Gaunt) and great-grandfather (Edward III) – but Henry was not so inclined.


On the night of 20 March 1413, after his father had breathed his last in the Jerusalem Chamber at Westminster, Henry had left his brother Humphrey and his stepmother, and gone into the abbey alone. Although he was king, the actual first day of his reign would be the following day, in accordance with tradition. He would take no royal actions on the day of his father’s death, other than to issue the traditional order for the ports to be closed, to stop the enemies of England taking advantage of a transition in their government.

In the abbey he walked by candlelight among the silent tombs of his ancestors. Here was the jewel-encrusted shrine of Saint Edward the Confessor, founder of the abbey. There was the tomb of Henry III, the king who had rebuilt the abbey on a lavish scale. Under a plain black slab beside him was his son, Edward I, the most formidable warrior of his age. Opposite Edward I was the tomb of Richard II and his wife, Anne, although at that point Richard’s body was still at Langley and had yet to be placed in the tomb. And next to Richard, surrounded by figures of all twelve of his children, there was the great Edward III, the king who had been prophesied to be a new King Arthur: who had defeated the Scots and French in battle repeatedly, who had reclaimed his French inheritance, and built such magnificent palaces as Queenborough Castle and the royal apartments of Windsor Castle. He had introduced a considerable programme of new legislation, delivered justice for his people, and created a sense that England was a kingdom of the first importance. Men sang songs about him, and based their stories of King Arthur on him. He had become the very epitome of great kingship.

Henry walked through to the south transept of the abbey church. Here in a cell near St Benet’s chapel, there lived a hermit, called William Alnwick.40 Henry sat down and began talking to him. He remained there all night. The personal qualities of a king, especially the king’s morality, may well have entered the conversation. The duty of a king to prevent conflict among the nobles – the principal exhortation to kings for at least the last century – perhaps also entered the debate. Perhaps Henry’s father had mentioned the same matter to him on his deathbed, having been worried that Henry and his brother Thomas would end up fighting for the crown.41 There were certainly nobles who thought that the earl of March should be king. Even at that moment there was a protester, John Whytlock, taking sanctuary in the precincts of that same church. He had raised the old cry ‘King Richard is alive!’ This was tantamount to declaring that the Lancastrians had no right to the throne. Such a declaration on the eve of the new reign was not a good sign.42

Worse portents were to follow. A blizzard struck as Henry made the traditional procession from the Tower of London to Westminster before his coronation in early April, and the snows continued to fall in some counties for two days, covering men and animals. The chronicler John Strecche declared the heavy hail that day as exceeding anything since the days of the legendary ancient British king, King Lear!43 The interpretation of some contemporaries was that this reign would be cold and stern. Henry ate nothing through the whole feast that followed his coronation. If that was a penitential fast, it did no good. The summer of 1413 was one of excessive heat and widespread sicknesses. Terrible fires broke out at Norwich, Tewkesbury and Robertsbridge. The autumn saw another destructive hailstorm, and the winter was no better. Three days after Christmas the church of St Giles at Winchelsea was struck by lightning.

The ill portents heralded evil events. Early in January 1414 two men had come to the king with news of a Lollard rising planned by Sir John Oldcastle. He had already been sentenced to death for his heresy, but had escaped from the Tower of London. Now he was planning to assassinate Henry and his brothers. This was not just treason, it was personal disloyalty – for Oldcastle had fought alongside Henry in Wales. He had been captain of Hay Castle, and attended the siege of Aberystwyth with Henry. He had been a commissioner of the peace in Herefordshire and sheriff of the county. He had even fought with the earl of Arundel in France in 1411, in Henry’s mercenary army. If anyone should have been trustworthy, it was Oldcastle. But on the night of 9–10 January 1414 he gathered a crowd of several hundred of his fellow Lollards at St Giles’ Fields. Henry, having inside information from his two informants, had no difficulty rounding them up. Sixty-nine were accused of treason and condemned to death. Thirty-one were hanged, and a further seven burnt at the stake for heresy.44 Oldcastle himself escaped. It was deeply worrying for Henry that the Lollards gathered there in St Giles’ Fields came from all over southern England, from as far as Bristol in the west and Essex in the east.

Oldcastle’s plot was never likely to succeed, but ironically for that very fact it was symbolically dangerous. It was a sign of desperation. Men like him could hardly change the customs of the Church by carrying out acts of treason against their king. Oldcastle was a peer of the realm – being also Lord Cobham in right of his wife – so he had the king’s ear. If he had harboured a grudge against the king he could have come to see him personally. Instead he had given this influence up in order to stage a coup. When he could have recanted and saved his life, he had declared that ‘the pope is [the] very Antichrist, that is, the head; that the archbishops, bishops and other prelates be his members, and that the friars be his tail’.45 The worrying truth was that Oldcastle and his friends were as committed, sincere and fervent in their heresy as Henry himself was in his religious orthodoxy. If heretics as fervent as this were to be found right across the realm, from Bristol to Essex, then Henry had many potential enemies.

Henry’s reaction to Oldcastle’s plot – burning seven men alive – marked a profound change in his attitude to heresy. In 1410, when John Badby had been sentenced to the flames for his heretical utterances, Henry had tried all he could to persuade him to recant, dragging the fire away and offering him a pension. Badby had refused, preferring to suffer the agony of the flames. In 1414 Henry did not try to save any of the men similarly destined for the stake. Shortly afterwards he declared in parliament that the intent of Lollardy was not only ‘to adnull and subvert the Christian faith and the law of God’ but also ‘to destroy our sovereign lord the king himself’.46 For an anointed king, who believed he reigned by divine right, heresy and treason were now intertwined, and deviation in matters of faith was synonymous with political rebellion. Those who saw their faith as a justification for treason could expect no mercy.


Henry’s problems at Christmas 1414 were far from insignificant. Oldcastle was still on the run. Lollardy was growing in strength. And Glendower was still a free man. Although the Welsh rebel no longer had command over an emergent independent nation, as he had briefly in 1404–5, he still attracted enough support for parliament to describe Wales as ‘a country at war’ in May 1414. There had been no knockout blow. Despite nine years in the field, in person, Henry had failed to secure the land of which he was nominally the prince.

Much the same could be said for Ireland and the Marches of Scotland. Henry had sacked his brother Thomas as King’s Lieutenant of Ireland, and replaced him with Sir John Stanley soon after his accession. This had been a bad move. Whereas Thomas had commanded respect and support, Stanley had been a selfish failure. The English lords in Ireland claimed he had enriched himself through extortion. Unfortunately for him – but fortunately for Henry – Stanley died within six months. The Irish lords established their own interim government under Thomas Cranley, archbishop of Dublin, and sent the treasurer of Ireland back to England to give the king a full report of their calamitous position. A veteran of the Welsh wars, Sir John Talbot of Hallamshire (also known as Lord Furnival), was appointed as the next King’s Lieutenant of Ireland in February 1414. However, he did not actually set sail until November.

As for the Scottish Marches, Henry’s brother, John, had written to him about the state of the north in May 1414. Men loyal to Henry were suffering, John declared, because there had been a ‘lack of good governance’ for many years. Even though the king of the Scots was still a prisoner in the Tower, the Scottish lords had made frequent incursions into their lands. The gates, walls and drawbridges of Berwick, the border town, were in ruins. No gunpowder or cannon were available for its defence. The finances of the East March were more than £13,000 in arrears. John had had to melt down some of his plate to pay his men. He had also pawned his jewels and borrowed heavily from his friends to try to make ends meet. As with Ireland, this was a situation bordering on desperation, similar to the circumstances that had lost Henry possession of the castles of Harlech and Aberystwyth in 1404.

The situation in Gascony was similar. There were too many enemies and not enough men or supplies to guarantee the safety of the region. The financial situation there was chaotic, with taxes not agreed, let alone paid.47 The only help that Henry’s Gascon subjects had received since his accession was his authorisation of a campaign into the Saintonge area in 1413 under his uncle, Thomas Beaufort. Thomas had captured a number of small places quickly, and did manage to control access to the Charente for a few months, but ultimately he succeeded only in attracting more French troops and cannon to the area. A truce was agreed at the end of January 1414, which was to last until 2 February 1415. After that, war could be expected again. On 15 October 1414 Henry wrote to the Jurade – the mayor and jurats – of Bordeaux apologising for having done so little for them, and promising he would soon send them some artillery and a master gunner. The letter did not arrive for another eight months. Soon he was writing to the Jurade asking them to send him siege engines and cannon. His policy towards the defence of Gascony was chaotic – in fact, he seems to have had no policy at all.48

On top of all this, there was the situation in France.

Henry’s alliance with John the Fearless, duke of Burgundy, had proved to be problematic. He had pursued it firmly, believing that it not only represented the best way to destabilise the French kingdom but also justified involving England in the French civil war. However, following the Cabochien revolt in Paris in late April 1413, the Armagnacs had gradually seized the initiative. On 23 August that year John the Fearless had fled from the city.49 It left him in a desperate condition, prepared to enter any agreement to bolster his position, even entertaining the idea of swearing allegiance to Henry as king of France.50 At the same time he had no qualms about agreeing with Henry’s enemies that he would send troops to fight in Scotland against the English. Partly because of this duplicity, Henry’s alliance with Burgundy was unstable. But Charles VI of France was no more reliable. He refused even to recognise Henry as the rightful king of England, describing him as ‘our adversary of England’. From Henry’s point of view, a more decisive intervention was necessary.

Henry sent an embassy to France in July 1414. Through his spokesmen he issued outrageous demands for the settlement of the war. He demanded the restitution of all the lands settled on Edward III by the Treaty of Brétigny in 1360, sovereignty over the duchies of Aquitaine, Normandy, Brittany and Flanders, and over the counties of Touraine, Maine and Anjou, half the county of Provence, and the repayment of 1.6 million crowns (£266,666) still owing from the ransom of John II of France (who had died in England in 1364). As if that were not enough, they also demanded the hand in marriage of the French king’s daughter, plus a further two million crowns as a dowry.

Obviously the French could not have agreed to such demands. But they did not simply reject them. They offered to restore the whole of the duchy of Aquitaine to English control, in line with the illegal Treaty of Bourges in 1412.51 They declared that a marriage between Henry and a French princess was acceptable in principle, and that her dowry might be as much as 600,000 crowns (£100,000). Provence was not a French lordship, but part of the kingdom of Sicily; so that was not within their gift. As for the outstanding portion of King John II’s ransom, they declared that payments should be deferred, but it was not out of the question.

It was, on the face of it, a huge step towards what Henry wanted. But still he was not happy. He demanded satisfaction of his terms in full, even though they were so far beyond reasonableness that many people scoffed at them. The reality was that he wanted the French to fail. He wanted to restart the war.

There is no doubt about Henry’s willingness to renew hostilities. He had been amassing money, armour, munitions and weapons ever since his accession. In June 1413 he had written to the people of Salisbury asking for money to aid his ‘forthcoming expedition’.52 In September that same year he had hired oxen and horses to bring heavy guns from Bristol to London. Smiths were commissioned to help make cannon in the Tower in February 1414.53 In September 1414 he had commissioned Nicholas Merbury, master of the ordnance, to enlist stonemasons, carpenters and other workers to provide necessaries for the king’s guns.54 The same month he had prohibited the export of gunpowder. According to a contemporary chronicler, Thomas Walsingham, royal agents were scouring the country, looking for guns.55 Another contemporary chronicler, John Strecche, noted that Henry was accumulating ‘hauberks, helmets, shields, corslets, bucklers, lance-heads, gauntlets, plate-armour, swords, bows, many thousands of arrows, casks full of bowstrings, axes, saws, wedges, hammers, forks, mattocks, hoes, spades, caltrops and other tools for felling and splitting wood and mining walls’.56 In October 1414 he had paid the expenses of those who had gathered and shaped 10,000 stone cannonballs.57 It is very difficult to avoid the conclusion that the reason why Henry had issued such outrageous demands in 1414 was precisely so they would be rejected. He did not want terms; he wanted the French to break off negotiations and to appear unreasonable.

However, Henry could not just dismiss the generosity of the French ambassadors; he had to acknowledge their diplomatic readiness to compromise. So he summoned a council of lords and knights within days of hearing the news from France. The council recommended that he send ambassadors to ‘every party’ to state his case, stipulating that he wanted the terms of the Treaty of Brétigny satisfied in full. In the meantime, they said, he should continue preparations for his voyage, and take measures for the safety of the realm.58 Henry took this as a sign to summon a parliament to arrange a grant of taxation to cover the expenses of the forthcoming war.

There was no ambiguity about the purpose of the parliament that followed in November 1414. In his opening speech the chancellor, Henry Beaufort, declared

our most sovereign lord the king desires especially that good and wise action should be taken against his enemies outside the realm, and furthermore he will strive for the recovery of the inheritance and right of his crown outside the realm, which has for a long time been withheld and wrongfully retained, since the time of his progenitors and predecessors kings of England, in accordance with the authorities who wish that ‘unto death shalt thou strive for justice’.59

Obviously Henry had no wish to await the outcome of further – negotiations. There was no provision to return any of the tax if war did not ensue. Members of Parliament thus knew that they were being asked to decide whether England should go to war or not. Although many were reluctant, and the Speaker, Thomas Chaucer, had considerable difficulty in persuading those present to voice support for the war, there were sufficient lords and knights who were convinced of the need to defend the realm for Henry to be granted his tax. If the ambassadors whom Henry had sent to ‘every party’ failed in their mission, as Henry knew they would, then he could take military action.

This determination to go to war explains why he rejected the most generous terms he could have possibly expected from the French – something which has long confused historians. It had always been his intention to go to war, even before he became king. His father had intended to lead an army into France and had failed to do so. Invading France was a chance for Henry to go a step further than his father. This ambition did not change with his accession; in fact it seems to have grown more profound, becoming more of a religious responsibility to complete the work that Edward III had left unfinished, which God had clearly blessed through delivering so many English victories. Hence Henry’s military preparations did not slow down. Eight days after the parliament in which he declared that he was going to war in France he commissioned William Woodward, founder, and Gerard Sprong, to take ‘copper, brass, bronze and iron and all other kinds of metals for making certain guns of the king’ as well as pots, bowls and other vessels relating to the king’s kitchen; and timber, saltpetre, stone for the guns, and coals for making the guns, and workmen.60

It was not a situation that boded well for peace.


This was the state of the realm that Christmas Day. Not only was Henry’s kingdom being frayed at the edges, and fractured by internal religious dissent, it was on the very brink of a full-scale war with France, a kingdom with a population of about sixteen million people – more than five times as many as in England. The security of the realm was precarious, to say the least, and the fault for that lay partly with the king.

What did Henry have to show for his reign by Christmas 1414? He had started rebuilding Sheen, the palace on the Thames that Richard II had destroyed after the death of his first wife there.61 He had reburied Richard II’s body at Westminster, in his proper tomb, and had commissioned the completion of the unfinished nave of the abbey church.62 He had begun a process of reconciliation with the heirs of lords who had rebelled against his father’s rule.63 He had opened negotiations with Scotland for the return of their captive king, James I. He had issued commissions to try and restore law and order in Wales.64 These were all positive moves, but none was especially impressive. His French diplomacy had been dramatic and dangerous, but had yielded no positive results.

To date his most significant achievement had been the passing of three statutes in the Leicester parliament of April 1414. These were the Statute of Lollards, which placed responsibility for revealing religious dissenters and heretics upon all royal officers; the Statute of Riots, which increased the powers of the chancellor to enquire into the causes of riots and to fine those involved; and the Statute of Truces, which sought to eradicate piracy against ships of kingdoms whose sovereign lord had a truce with the king of England. This hardly amounted to greatness. Henry commanded huge respect amongst the peers of the realm for his conscientiousness and virtuous character, and he had begun to show that he was keen to maintain law and order, and to uphold the dignity of the Church, but that was all.

However, had you been present at the feast, you would have realised that the situation on the ground and the situation in the king’s mind did not match. For Henry was motivated by the most powerful vision. It amounted to a sort of compact with God to deliver a perfect religious kingship. He would eradicate heresy, as God surely wished, and reform the Church in conjunction with the Holy Roman Emperor. He would end the civil war in France and the war between France and England by subjecting both kingdoms to the rule of one spiritually enlightened monarch – himself. He would end the string of disasters that had befallen France by challenging something which he felt was displeasing to God: namely the refusal of the French to accept the divinely sanctioned, ‘rightful heir’, Edward III, as king of France. In setting about this he would himself emulate King Edward, his great-grandfather. Men were talking about that reign as a golden age; but he did not aspire to become a second Edward III just for the benefit of the English nation; it was more for the purpose of doing God’s work. If he could combine military endeavour with the exercise of God’s will, and be seen to win divine approval as the saviour of both England and France, then he would achieve more even than his semi-legendary great-grandfather. Then Scotland, Gascony, Wales, Ireland and Lollardy would all appear like trivial issues, quibbles that he could silence with a word.

This was the true state of the realm at Christmas 1414. It was not the unsatisfactory small-scale conflicts around the periphery that mattered so much as the awe-inspiring spiritual vision of the man at the centre. It was not the long shadow of the last reign but the new king’s intensity and commitment, and the support he enjoyed in the men around him. It was not Henry’s sense of vulnerability that would direct policy but his means of overcoming it. But at that moment, as he lifted the wassail cup and saluted all the lords, bishops, knights, men-at-arms, officers and servants with the traditional shout of ‘Wassail!’, very few men inside or outside that hall understood what his vision really meant. And no one – not even Henry himself – could have predicted the outcome.

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