Post-classical history



The ‘Gleaming King’ – Henry V

I am the scourge of God

The First English Life of King Henry the Fifth1

The gleaming king

On the afternoon of 19 January 1419 Henry V entered Rouen, which he had been besieging since July. Gloomy faced as usual, in black from head to foot, riding a black charger with black trappings that swept the ground, he was accompanied by a single squire who carried a lance with a fox’s brush fastened to the tip – one of the king’s badges. Through streets lined by living skeletons, littered with dead or dying men and women, he rode to the cathedral to hear Mass in thanksgiving.

The hero of Agincourt, Henry V is ‘the gleaming king’ in our national myth (Winston Churchill). Stubbs saw him almost as the French see Joan of Arc, calling him ‘one of the greatest and purest characters in English history’.2 Twentieth-century English historians agreed. ‘Take him all round and he was, I think, the greatest man that ever ruled England’ was Bruce McFarlane’s opinion.3

Even so, if Bolingbroke had been Macbeth, then Henry of Monmouth was Macbeth’s son and no less of a usurper. His claim to the throne of France was based on Edward III’s claim through a female line, but if a female line descent took precedence over a junior male line descent, then by the same logic Edmund, Earl of March was Edward III’s heir and rightful King of England. Henry’s solution lay in reviving the Hundred Years War, as trial by combat. As he saw it, success in battle would prove that God acknowledged his title.

Henry was born in September 1386 on the Welsh border, in the gatehouse of Monmouth Castle. When Richard II banished Bolingbroke, he took charge of the boy whom he knighted on his Irish campaign. Henry developed a deep loyalty to his father’s enemy, briefly rejoining him during the coup of 1399 and later reinterring his remains at Westminster. In no way Shakespeare’s dissipated Prince Hal, as a very young man he was a highly effective commander-in-chief in Wales, whose siege-craft, accompanied by artificially induced famine and systematic terror, followed by conciliation, finally broke Owain. After the end of the Welsh war in 1409, his participation in the government of England was so enthusiastic that, as has been seen, he contemplated replacing his father on the throne.

Henry took an active part in persecuting Lollards. At Smithfield in 1410 he superintended the burning of a Worcestershire tailor, John Badby, who had declared that a toad or a spider were worth more than the Host because they were living things. Tied in a barrel, the tailor screamed horribly when the fire reached him, and the prince ordered the faggots to be removed, offering him a pension if he would recant. When Badby refused, Henry had him replaced in the flaming barrel. The prince’s future confessor, Friar Thomas Netter, said he saw a black spider trying to enter the dying man’s mouth, so big that several people were needed to beat it off. Even so, the parliament of 1410 still contained a group of knights who were secret Lollards.

He was crowned at Westminster on Passion Sunday (9 April) by Archbishop Arundel, a blizzard blowing outside that some believed to be an ill omen. A chronicler across the Channel was told that many in the abbey thought the Earl of March should have been crowned instead and there would be civil war.4 During the anointing the king looked gloomy, while he ate and drank nothing during the banquet – it was said he did not eat for three days. It may have been bad digestion, but some suspected it might be conscience. However, nobody was prepared to raise March’s standard, least of all the earl himself.

Henry quickly rid himself of any misgivings. His brother John, Duke of Bedford, became his second in command, another formidable if very different personality, a big, hook-nosed, young man with an unusually gracious manner. Clarence, now heir to the throne, proved impeccably loyal, as did Gloucester. His Beaufort uncles were useful, too, the Earl of Dorset capable of dealing with any military emergency. However, Thomas Dorset’s immensely rich younger brother Bishop Henry Beaufort – Henry’s former tutor – was a domineering figure, who needed careful handling. Luckily, he was devoted to his nephew.

The king appointed Bishop Beaufort as chancellor, Arundel conveniently suffering a stroke. The Earl of Arundel was made treasurer. Self-confidence showed in his reburying Richard II at Westminster Abbey and restoring the sons of the earls involved in the Epiphany Plot of 1400 – Huntingdon, Oxford and Salisbury – to their family estates. His rival, the Earl of March, now twenty-one, was released after being confined since 1399 and given back the Mortimer lands in England, Wales and Ireland. He was even allowed to marry a cousin who was also a descendant of Edward II since he was no danger, an amiable mediocrity with a weakness for gambling. Nevertheless, Henry saddled Edmund with a marriage fine so big that it forced him to mortgage several of his estates, ‘an abuse of the crown’s feudal rights without parallel since the reign of King John’.5

Early dangers

In September 1413 Sir John Oldcastle, who had served under Henry in the Welsh wars, was arrested for heresy. Having insisted that the Host was only bread and bishops were tools of the Devil, he was sentenced to death and imprisoned in the Tower. Escaping, he plotted with fellow Lollards to kill the king and his brothers at Eltham on Twelfth Night, after a Lollard army assembled in St Giles’s Fields and took over London.

‘Along the footpaths and highways and at crossroads, you could see crowds of men hurrying to the meeting place, from every county in the kingdom, recruited by the promise of big rewards’, writes Walsingham. ‘If the king had not acted so shrewdly that night, up to 50,000 servants and apprentices, with some of their masters, would have risen.’6 Walsingham’s reaction shows the fear aroused. In reality, only 300 Lollards went to St Giles’s Fields, and they were nearly all killed or captured by royal troops. Seventy were condemned to death within two days, but Oldcastle escaped to lurk on the Welsh border. Parliament passed savage new measures to ensure the Lollards would never again be a threat.

From the moment Henry became king, he prepared for war with France, stockpiling munitions. The army he assembled consisted partly of men who enlisted and were paid wages by him, partly of indentured men raised by magnates. Before invading, he tried to divide the Burgundians and Armagnacs, but lost patience when an Armagnac ambassador, Archbishop Guillaume Boisratier, told him he did not even have a right to the crown of England, which belonged to Richard II’s heirs. Declaring war in July 1415, he called on God to witness how Charles VI refused to do him ‘justice’. The invasion fleet assembled at Southampton.

On 1 August the Earl of March reported a plot. Its leader was his brother-in-law, Richard of Conisburgh, Earl of Cambridge, who was supported by Lord Scrope and Sir Thomas Grey of Heaton. They planned to take March into Wales, proclaim him king and issue a proclamation denouncing ‘Henry of Lancaster, usurper’. Northumberland’s outlawed heir would raise the North, while Owain’s followers rose in Wales and Sir John Oldcastle’s on the Welsh border. The king reacted swiftly, arresting, trying and executing the three ringleaders, claiming untruthfully that they had been bribed by the French.

The Southampton plotters’ motives are obscure. They had a low opinion of the capabilities of March, whom Grey called ‘but a hog’ and would have been a mere figurehead had he become king.7 That all three were in financial straits can only be part of the reason – if penniless, the Earl of Cambridge was heir to his childless brother, the enormously rich Duke of York. Scrope, whom Henry had considered a close friend, may have joined to avenge his uncle, the martyred archbishop. The most likely explanation, however, is that all three genuinely believed the king was a usurper.

Had they succeeded, they would have found supporters. The French astrologer Jean Fusoris, who accompanied Archbishop Boisratier’s embassy, heard that many Englishmen would have preferred the Earl of March. The next year a canon of Wells Cathedral, John Bruton, was charged with telling one of his tenants that, like his father before him, the king possessed no right to the throne. Scrope and his accomplices had been right, said the canon, adding that he was ready to give £6,000 to help depose Henry V.

The man

Bruce McFarlane considered Henry V ‘a paragon and a hero, a Bayard and a Solomon in one . . . a faithful exponent of the chivalric ideal’.8 This has not been every historian’s opinion, however. In the 1960s E. F. Jacob thought the traditional picture owed too much to biased Tudor historiography, and that in the last analysis Henry was an adventurer and not a statesman.9

The popular image of Henry is the National Gallery portrait (a sixteenth-century copy) of a prim young man with a high-coloured, clean-shaven face, long nose, full-lipped mouth and hazel eyes beneath brown hair cut in pudding basin style. This was how he appeared on coming to the throne – Jean Fusoris, who met him in 1415, says he looked more like a bishop than a warrior. But a miniature of St George in the Bedford Book of Hours, painted a few years later and modelled on the king, shows him with a small forked beard like that worn by Richard II. His effigy on a stone screen at York Minster from about 1425 also shows a forked beard, with thick, elaborately curled hair over a handsome if frowning face. He was lean and slightly built, and all sources agree that he was very good-looking, with a terrifying presence.

Henry had a first-class mind, iron self-control and inflexible determination. His administration cannot be faulted nor his statecraft. Militarily, he demonstrated that he was a superb strategist and tactician, an inspiring leader on the battlefield. A man who never rejoiced even when he won a battle, he was without either optimism or pessimism. ‘The fortunes of war tend to vary’, he told troops who had been defeated. ‘If you want to make sure of winning, keep your courage at exactly the same level, regardless of what happens.’10

‘From the death of the king his father until the marriage of himself, he never had knowledge carnally of woman.’11 He saw his queen Catherine of Valois as a tool for becoming King of France rather than a wife. ‘I shall honour and love my brothers above all men, as long as they be to me true, faithful and obedient’, he had told his father. ‘But any of them fortune to conspire or rebel against me, I assure you I shall as soon execute justice upon any one of them as I shall upon the worst and most simple person.’12 In early years, he had friends, although not in his later. However, he gave lavish rewards to men who served him well on the battlefield, such as the Earl of Salisbury.

An athlete when a boy, a runner and jumper, as an adult Henry had no taste for hunting or hawking, although he enjoyed watching wrestlers and mummers. Like his father, he took pleasure in songs and musical instruments, spending large sums on choirs and singing men, even composing motets himself. He was fond of reading, constantly adding to his library, which included histories of the Crusades, treatises on hunting, books of devotion, some Seneca and Cicero, the works of Gregory the Great and contemporary productions such as Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, Lydgate’sLife of Our Lady and Hoccleve’s De Regimine Principum – the last two dedicated to him. While he spoke, read and wrote French and Latin, his preferred language was English. He was the first king since the Conquest to use it for business, in terse letters and directives. Some experts see his letters on the progress of the war in France as the beginning of Standard English.

On the night his father died, Henry ‘called to him a virtuous monk of holy conversation to whom he confessed himself of all his offences’.13 Almost immediately, he founded two monasteries for austere orders, one next to the palace he rebuilt at Sheen that was for the Carthusians – where nobody was allowed to interrupt him when he was hearing Mass. Like his father, he was always visiting shrines, developing a devotion to St John of Bridlington, a Yorkshireman who had supposedly cast out evil spirits, walked on water and changed water into wine. His choice of the Carmelite friar Thomas Netter as confessor reflected his orthodoxy. Netter was a famous scourge of heretics, who when Henry came to the throne preached a sermon at St Paul’s accusing him of laxity in persecuting them. Understandably, Lollards called Henry ‘the prince of priests’.

Sometimes the king’s religion degenerated into superstition, as when he ordered the prosecution of all sorcerers. No English monarch was more terrified of warlocks and necromancers.

First expedition to France

On 13 August 1415 the English armada entered the Seine estuary. Within days Henry’s troops were besieging the port of Harfleur, isolating it with stockades so that no one could get in or out, while his ships blockaded the harbour. Harfleur had strong walls and deep moats, however, and a determined commander, Raoul de Gaucourt, who had brought in 300 experienced men-at-arms.

Battering rams could not be used so the king employed artillery, as he had learned to do in Wales. Although his primitive cannon needed to be trundled within range on huge wooden platforms and took several minutes to load and fire, their stone cannon balls, which were as big as millstones, demolished masonry and burst like shrapnel. Whole sections of the town walls came crashing down, even buildings in the centre, while fires were started by flaming arrows or cannon balls wrapped in flaming tow. Eventually enough damage was done for the English to push siege towers across the moats, capturing the barbican that defended the main gate. Starving, with no hope of relief, the defenders surrendered on 22 September.

The siege, which had lasted nearly six weeks in the heat of summer, took its toll on the English, too, and not just because of accurate shooting by the defenders’ cannon and crossbows. Bad wine and cider and dirty water contributed. ‘In this siege many men died of cold in nights and fruit eating, eke of stink of carrion’, wrote Friar Capgrave, who says that casualties from disease (which meant dysentery and malaria) included the king’s friend Bishop Courtenay of Norwich, and the Earl of Suffolk, while the Duke of Clarence and the Earls of March and Arundel were so ill that they had to be sent home.14 In all, 2,000 Englishmen died, with 2,000 sick shipped back to England as hospital cases.

The garrison’s leaders and sixty hostages were forced to kneel in shirts with halters round their necks for several hours until admitted to Henry’s presence. In cloth of gold, seated on a throne, for a time he ignored them, then delivered a tirade of abuse for trying to stop him taking ‘our town of Harfleur’. Finally, the king entered the town barefoot to give thanks at the main church. The Host was borne before him through the streets, to demonstrate that God was on his side. (Had he lived, he would have been outraged by the Maid of Orléans’s similar claim.) Sixty knights and 200 gentlemen were ordered to present themselves at Calais for ransom, while rich bourgeois were sent to England until they bought their freedom. The ‘poorer sort’ of men, women and children were expelled, so their dwellings could be given to English settlers, and they were forbidden to take goods or valuables with them; these were shared out among Henry’s troops. Houses were allotted as rewards, while a man who had brought two shiploads of provisions to the siege obtained ‘the inn called the Peacock’. The king’s uncle, the Earl of Dorset, was appointed governor.

Instead of sailing back to England, the king decided to take his battered army to Calais and show the enemy was powerless to stop him. He marched out on 6 October with supplies for eight days. Most of his archers and not just his men-at-arms were mounted. ‘Marvel it was, that he with so few durst go through all the thick woods in that country’, comments Capgrave.15 It was not the forests that threatened, however, but a French army. The English did not realize this until they were attacked 2 miles from Harfleur. Then they found the bridges over the Somme demolished and fords guarded, only managing to cross waist deep near the source on 19 October. The rain beat down, while they ran out of food, living on walnuts and a little dried meat. Many suffered from dysentery, riding or marching with their breeches down, which grew worse when they plundered stocks of wine. They struggled on, archers taking care to keep their bow strings dry. Despite insisting God was on his side, Henry was desperate to avoid a confrontation with the French.


However, on 20 October French heralds came to Henry, announcing that their masters would intercept him and take revenge for Harfleur. He warned them to get out of his way. But four days later the Duke of York’s scouts sighted the French army, ‘an innumerable multitude’,16 which meant there was no chance of avoiding a battle against alarming odds. Starving and terrified, the English spent the night in fields near Maisoncelles beneath pouring rain. Apart from confessing their sins, they were ordered to stay silent, under pain of forfeiting arms and armour if gentlemen or an ear if of lesser rank (the reality behind Shakespeare’s ‘touch of Harry in the night’).

Rain was still falling on the morning of 25 October. The English took up a position east of the village of Agincourt, halfway between Abbeville and Calais, in a huge field of new sown wheat that narrowed to about 1,000 yards where there was a small wood on each side. They had about 800 dismounted men-at-arms in the centre and a little under 5,000 archers on the flanks, who planted a line of stakes in front of them. Henry commanded the centre, the Duke of York the right and Lord Camoys the left.

After hearing three Masses and taking communion, the king mounted a grey pony and, wearing a gold-plated helmet with a diadem of pearls, rubies and sapphires, addressed his men. He told them he had come to France to recover his lawful inheritance, adding that the French had sworn to cut fingers from every captured English archer’s right hand. ‘Now it is a good time, for all England prayeth for us’, he told them. ‘And in remembrance that God died on the Cross for us, let every man make a cross on the earth and kiss it, and in [so] tokening that we will rather die on this earth than flee.’17 ‘Sire’, they yelled back. ‘We pray God will grant you a long life and victory over our enemies.’18

Led by Charles d’Albret, Constable of France, and Marshal Boucicault, their opponents were 9,000 dismounted men-at-arms in plate armour, who included the greatest names in France, with 3,000 crossbowmen. Because of their number, the French front was twice as wide as Henry’s. The constable wanted the smaller English army, weakened by hunger and dysentery, to attack him, but had no control over his blue-blooded troops. For several hours each side stood waiting for the other’s onslaught. Finally, Henry advanced to within 300 yards of the enemy so that his archers could shoot. Seeing the archers’ weariness as they trudged across the field, and infuriated by being shot at, the French, who lacked any proper command structure, could no longer be restrained. A preliminary cavalry charge against the English bowmen by their mounted men-at-arms disintegrated, the horses becoming unmanageable and bolting beneath the arrows. The field was too narrow to deploy their crossbowmen.

Grasping sawn-off lances, dismounted French men-at-arms forced their way through soft soil churned into knee-deep mud towards the English, whose archers kept on shooting. Heads down to avoid arrows penetrating the eye-holes of their helmets and unable to see, their wide front narrowing into an inchoate mass when they reached the two woods, they crashed into the line of the English men-at-arms, almost knocking them over.

The attackers were so tightly packed that they could not use their lances. More and more of them were pushed off their feet into the liquid mud from which, weighed down by heavy armour, they were unable to rise – many drowned or were suffocated by the bodies on top. In contrast, the comparatively few English men-at-arms stayed on their feet, swinging pole-axes. Even unarmoured English archers had an easy advantage over the French who remained standing, before finishing off those on the ground. John Hardyng, a former squire of Hotspur’s who was there, tells us ‘more were dead through press than our men might have slain’.19 Some, however, were lucky enough to be taken prisoner.

Within half an hour a second mass of the enemy lumbered forward, to die the same way. Waiting for a third French onslaught, Henry heard shouting from the rear and, assuming he was being charged from behind – in reality, it was peasants trying to loot his baggage – ordered that the prisoners should be killed, detailing 200 archers. All except those worth valuable ransoms were, in the words of a Tudor chronicler, ‘sticked with daggers, brained with pole-axes, slain with mauls [mallets]’.20 One group was burned alive in a shed.

The remaining French men-at-arms were so demoralized that they remounted and rode off the battlefield. In four hours the English had defeated an enemy force twice as large. Among the 8,000 French dead were the constable d’Albret and three dukes, with ninety other great nobles and over 1,500 knights. The English lost only 500 men – including the Duke of York, an immensely fat man who fell down and was trampled to death. Henry had won a great victory. He saw it as confirmation that God recognized his right to the thrones of England and France.

The king reached Calais without further trouble, but had a stormy voyage to Dover, landing amid a blizzard. At London, on 23 November, he was welcomed ecstatically. Adam of Usk says ‘the City wore its brightest appearance, hearts leaping for joy’.21 Henry rode to give thanks at St Paul’s, where the next day he had a requiem sung for those on both sides who had fallen at Agincourt. There was an unmistakably xenophobic atmosphere. Adam quotes a poet whose verses praising the king refer to the ‘odious might of France’ and ‘the invidious race of French’, while a huge effigy on a tower of London Bridge bore the words:

A giant that was full grim of sight

To teach the Frenchmen courtesy.22

No longer did anyone question Henry’s right to be king.

In summer 1416 the King of the Romans, Sigismund of Hungary, who was the future emperor, came to England to persuade Henry to make peace. Instead, he recognized Henry’s claim to the French throne. Henry also hoped that Sigismund would obtain an endorsement of his claim by the council currently meeting at Constance to end the Great Schism, but here his guest could not help him.

The diplomatic offensive distracted Henry’s attention from Harfleur, which he nearly lost by leaving insufficient food. The Count of Armagnac blockaded it by land and sea, and it was about to surrender when in August the king’s brother John, Duke of Bedford arrived with a fleet. After a sea-battle lasting seven hours, Bedford routed the enemy’s carracks despite a hail of quicklime and flaming tow from their tall superstructures, and relieved the beleaguered port. The next year, the Earl of Huntingdon sank the remaining French warships off the Chef-de-Caux.

Henry prepared to subdue his new kingdom. Subsidies were granted by parliament, and loans obtained from City corporations and merchants, upper clergy and rich landowners by pawning everything in the royal coffers, whether jewels or plate – Bishop Beaufort lent £14,000 against the royal crown. Foodstuffs and munitions were collected, cannon, rock-throwing catapults, siege-towers, leather bridges, scaling-ladders, spades, shovels, picks, sheafs of bows, tubs full of arrows. The invasion force consisted of 12,000 men-at-arms and archers. There were miners, engineers, armourers and farriers, with gunners and masons who were not only demolition experts but quarried gun-stones. (Newly developed artillery could fire 800 lb missiles as far as 2,500 paces.) The king’s brothers – Clarence, Bedford and Gloucester – and his uncle the Duke of Exeter, formerly Earl of Dorset, provided the senior commanders, together with the Earls of Salisbury, Warwick and Huntingdon.

Henry had expanded his navy to more than thirty vessels, not only the usual cogs but square-rigged nefs or ‘great ships’ (one of over 1,000 tons) and two-masted carracks – three captured from the Genoese. There were also nine ballingers, oared, shallow-draughted sailing barges that could sail up rivers and move troops fast along the French waterways. Transport vessels for men and horses were collected from every port in England.

He began his Norman conquest in reverse by landing on 1 August 1417 at the mouth of the Touques, between what are now Deauville and Trouville. Burgundian and Armagnac feuding ensured there was no one to oppose him. After a fortnight Caen, whose walls had been breached by his artillery, fell on 4 September. Herded into the marketplace, its inhabitants were massacred in an orgy of rape and looting, but he ordered the killing to stop when he saw a baby sucking at the breast of its headless mother. Terrified, city after city, town after town, surrendered, so that by early the next year half Normandy was in his hands.

The king recommenced in spring 1418, taking Louviers in June. When it surrendered, he hanged eight enemy gunners for firing at his tent – one source says he crucified them. Pont de l’Arche fell in July after the English crossed the Seine in what seem to have been portable Welsh coracles, cutting off Rouen downstream.

The siege of the Norman capital began at the end of July. Well fortified, with large stocks of food, it was defended by 22,000 men under veteran commanders, who outnumbered their besiegers. At first, the Rouennais were defiant. The vicar-general of Rouen excommunicated Henry from the walls, while when he hanged prisoners from gibbets in front of them, the captain of the crossbowmen, Alain Blanchard, hanged English captives from the ramparts with dead dogs tied round their necks. But by October its citizens were eating horseflesh and 12,000 useless mouths, old folk or nursing mothers, were driven out into the city’s ditch. Henry refused to let them leave it. ‘I put hem not there and that wot ye’, he reminded the Rouennais,23 and they died in the ditch. Envoys were told, ‘Rouen is my heritage’.

When the city surrendered on 19 January 1419, after kissing each one of forty-two crosses borne by the clergy the king attended a Mass of thanksgiving at the cathedral of Saint-Maclou. Among those excluded from the terms of surrender, the vicar-general who had excommunicated Henry spent five years in chains while the captain of the crossbowmen was hanged on the spot. The surviving inhabitants looked like funeral effigies, deaths from hunger continuing for days despite the arrival of food carts. The English quickly conquered the rest of Normandy, which saw no chance of rescue.

In May a hell-fire Dominican preacher, St Vincent Ferrer, came to Caen and in a sermon rebuked Henry for killing Christian men and women who had never done him any harm. After it, he told Vincent, ‘I am the scourge of God sent to punish people for their sins’. Emerging from their meeting, Vincent assured everybody that while he had once seen Henry as the worst tyrant in Christendom, he now believed him to be the most pleasing to God of all rulers. He added, ‘His quarrel is so just and true that undoubtedly God is and shall be his aid in these wars.’24 The story conveys some idea of the impact of Henry’s personality.

Meanwhile, the political situation turned upside down. In 1418 the Burgundians had captured Paris, slaughtering the Armagnacs and their count, whose surviving followers became known as Dauphinists. In September 1419 John, Duke of Burgundy was hacked to death as he knelt in homage before the new dauphin, dividing the French irreparably. John’s successor, Duke Philip the Good, wanted revenge and in December allied formally with Henry, promising to help him conquer France.

In July Henry had already taken the first step towards capturing Paris, his men storming Pontoise which they sacked brutally. The little city commanded the River Oise, so its new English garrison was able to cut off the capital’s food supplies. Led by Clarence, they terrorized the area around, robbing, raping, killing, seizing landowners and bourgeois for ransom. St Germain fell to them in September.

In the meantime the king isolated Dauphinist France diplomatically, allying with Emperor Sigismund and the Rhineland elector-archbishops and with the republic of Genoa. He tried – unsuccessfully – to marry Bedford to the Queen of Naples, and Gloucester to the King of Navarre’s daughter, while his ambassadors visited the King of Poland and the Teutonic Knights. The most important treaty of all came in May 1420 when at Troyes in Champagne he met Queen Isabeau, who controlled the insane Charles VI. On his way there, he took a circular route, riding within view of the walls of Paris and praying at St Denis – burial place of the French kings. Isabeau declared that the dauphin was a bastard, while Henry became ‘Heir and Regent of France’ and married Charles’s nineteen-year-old daughter Catherine.

The king spent his honeymoon besieging Montereau on whose bridge John of Burgundy had been murdered. As at Rouen, he hanged prisoners in view of the ramparts to encourage their comrades to surrender. Next, he invested Melun on the Seine, which took eighteen weeks to capture. When it surrendered Henry wanted to hang the garrison commander, Arnaud Guillaume de Barbazan, who escaped by appealing to the laws of chivalry – as he had crossed swords with the king in the siege-mines beneath the walls, he was a brother-in-arms. Instead, Henry placed him in an iron cage, but he hanged twenty Scottish prisoners on the grounds that they were technically his subjects. He was ‘much feared and dreaded by his princes, knights and captains, and indeed by people of every class’, the chronicler Waurin (a veteran of Agincourt) tells us, ‘as he put to death anyone who disobeyed his orders’.25

On 1 September, accompanied by Charles VI and the Duke of Burgundy, Henry rode into Paris, cheered by the Parisians, who were relieved they would not suffer the fate of Rouen. They were miserable enough. It was a bitterly cold winter and the price of bread had doubled – houses were pulled down for their beams to make firewood while many of the poor starved to death, wolves regularly swimming the Seine to devour corpses in the street. The English king spent the twelve days of Christmas of 1420–1 in splendour at the Louvre, in contrast to his mad old father-in-law, who, dirty and unkempt, was all but deserted at the Hôtel de Saint-Pol. Burgundian noblemen did not care for Henry’s arrogance – he had Jehan de l’Isle-Adam, Marshal of France, arrested for daring to look him in the face when answering a question – but saw no alternative. Philip of Burgundy, who besides the duchy and county of Burgundy and the entire Low Countries ruled large areas of northern France, thought only of revenge on the dauphin who had murdered his father.

Before returning to England to raise money, Henry presided over a meeting at Rouen of the estates of ‘our duchy of Normandy’ – nobles, clergy and bourgeois. There were representatives from other conquered provinces which, with Normandy, formed a separate entity from the Lancastrian kingdom of France. Since 1417 the king had been distributing lands, castles and titles to adventurers as well as great lords, bringing in English settlers. While replacing the Norman nobility, he tried to win over bourgeois, reducing the gabelle, the hated tax on salt. The military establishment was English, however, with strategically sited garrisons in towns or castles near rivers which were patrolled by ballingers so that garrisons could be rushed in quickly. (A garrison’s average strength was three men-at-arms and nine archers, all mounted.) After announcing there would be a new Anglo-Norman currency, he travelled to Calais from where he and his new queen set sail for England.

They went straight to London for Catherine’s coronation. While he was away, Bedford and then Gloucester had ensured there was no trouble. Richard II’s supporters abandoned the struggle, the Welsh remained cowed and the Lollards were crushed, Sir John Oldcastle having been caught in 1417 to be roasted in chains as he swung from a gibbet, promising to rise on the third day. Even so, shortly after Henry’s return a kinsman of the Earl of March, Sir John Mortimer, was arrested for treason and sent to the Tower. The unspecified charge can only have been scheming to put March on the throne.

Welcomed joyfully, the royal couple went on progress through the West Country, the Midlands, East Anglia and the north country, visiting the richer towns – including Bristol, Coventry, Lynn, Nottingham and York – as it was a fundraising tour. While in Yorkshire they visited the shrine of St John of Bridlington and that of St John of Beverley – to whose intercession Henry attributed his victory at Agincourt. In March news came that on the day before Easter the English had suffered a defeat at Baugé during which the ‘Regent of France’, Clarence, had been killed. ‘To avenge it as thoroughly as he can, the lord king is busy fleecing everyone who has any money, rich or poor, all over the kingdom, in readiness for returning to France with as many troops as possible’, wrote Adam of Usk on the last page of his chronicle. ‘I fear the kingdom’s entire manpower and money will be wasted.’26

England was war weary. Even so, the king raised £38,000 from clergy, landowners, burgesses, artisans and yeomen, and despite complaining of poverty, parliament confirmed the Treaty of Troyes, granted further subsidies and gave the royal council power to act as security for debts incurred by the king. His financial dealings could be devious, as when he confiscated lands legally entailed on Lord Scrope’s children. In autumn 1419 he arrested his stepmother, the queen dowager Joan of Navarre, for trying to kill him with sorcery and employing a necromancer to do so. Never brought to trial, she was imprisoned at Leeds Castle, in luxury with a large allowance. Joan was entitled to a dowry of more than £6,000, when his government’s basic income was rarely over £56,000, and he wanted it.

Henry struck a godly attitude before returning to France, listening sympathetically to a group of monks who denounced relaxations in the Benedictine way of life. After consulting a Benedictine who had joined the Carthusians, the most austere religious order, he summoned 400 brethren from monasteries all over England to Westminster Abbey in May 1421 and read out a list of criticisms, urging them to reform. Among his motives may have been an awareness that support for Richard II had survived longest at several famous abbeys.

The next month he landed at Calais with 4,000 troops. Learning that Paris was threatened by raids from two Dauphinist strongholds, Dreux and Meaux, the king besieged and captured Dreux. Before marching to Meaux, he took the castle of Rougemont, whose garrison he hanged, drowning those whom he caught later.

On a bend of the Marne, Meaux was guarded on three sides by the river and on the fourth by a canal. Although a bloodstained brigand, its garrison commander, the Bastard of Vaurus, was a fine soldier. Henry invested the city in mid-October and the siege dragged on through the winter, his camp waterlogged as rain fell incessantly and the Marne burst its banks. The king went down with dysentery, a physician being sent from England to attend him. By Christmas a fifth of his army had deserted. The defenders felt so confident that they took a donkey up on to the wall, flogging it until it brayed, shouting that it was the King of England who spoke.

Henry held on, with draconian discipline, ordering a man who ran away during an ambush to be buried alive. His troops plundered the entire area for miles around the city, which even then was famous for its mustard. When a delegation of local dignitaries came to complain to him about the burning of farms, he made his only recorded joke. ‘War without fire is like sausages without mustard.’27

From his tent he ran the entire war effort as well as affairs at home and abroad, issuing edicts and ordinances, sending a stream of letters. The supply of guns, gun-stones, saltpetre, coal and sulphur, of bows, arrows and remounts, needed watching, so a king’s clerk of the ordinance was in attendance, to keep Henry in close touch with the artillery depot at Caen and the arsenal at Rouen. Like a modern staff officer, the king paid special attention to food and transport. He also found time to answer a stream of petitions, whether from England or Normandy.

He moved cannon on to an island in the river, to shorten the range, protected by earthworks. Wooden bridges brought other guns nearer the walls. A floating siege-tower, higher than the ramparts, was mounted on two barges. After several attempts at relief had failed, Meaux surrendered in May. The Bastard of Vaurus was hanged from his own execution tree, after which his head was stuck on a lance next to it with his body wrapped in his banner at the foot. A trumpeter who had mocked the king from the walls was beheaded while the donkey beaters vanished into dungeons; 250 prisoners were sent to Paris in barges, chained by the legs, many dying of starvation; 800 more were shipped to England to work as ‘indentured servants’ – slaves.

Henry returned to Paris, rejoining his queen, who had borne him a son. In July, however, there were public prayers for the Heir and Regent of France. Although a very sick man, the king tried to ride to the relief of a Burgundian stronghold besieged by Dauphinists, but was carried back to Vincennes in a litter. ‘Because of a long period of over work, he had contracted a high fever and dysentery, which so weakened him that the doctors dared not give him medicine.’28 Told that he was on the point of death, he appointed Gloucester Regent of England but under Bedford’s authority. Bedford was to be Regent of France although only if Philip of Burgundy declined the post. Henry also instructed Bedford to concentrate on saving Normandy should the war go badly.

The king died at Vincennes in Friar Netter’s arms on 20 August, aged only thirty-five. There was a moment when he feared for his salvation, screaming as if in reply to an evil spirit, ‘Thou liest, thou liest, my portion is with the Lord Jesus Christ!’29 (Significantly, he left orders in his will for 20,000 Masses to be said for the repose of his soul.) As his cortège passed through London to lie in state at St Paul’s a man stood in front of every house, holding a flaming torch. ‘Among Christian kings and princes before him none could be compared’, wrote the octogenarian Walsingham on almost the final page of his chronicle.30 Henry’s helm, sword and shield still hang above his tomb at Westminster, in the chantry chapel for whose building he gave instructions in his will.


Despite his demon’s energy, Henry V did not have the resources to complete his grand design. The unwinnable war he bequeathed ended in bankruptcy and humiliation for the Lancastrian monarchy, then destroyed it, since Henry’s marriage to the daughter of an insane Valois gave England a king unfitted to rule. His ultimate legacy was the Wars of the Roses.

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