Henry V, English hero
Ad majorem Dei gloriam
Nov 19th 2009
From The Economist print edition
1415: Henry V’s Year of Glory. By Ian Mortimer. Bodley Head; 640 pages; £20. Buy from Amazon.co.uk
WHAT Shakespeare does for a monarch, it is very hard to undo. Richard III, though softened and cleaned up by assiduous researchers, still limps murderously through the public imagination. And Henry V, even soberly revisited, never quite loses that stirring flap of standards, or the thwack of the Dauphin’s tennis balls deep into the hazard.
Ian Mortimer, who has galloped with panache through the English monarchs from Edward II onwards, promises a different Henry: a king set “on the path to his own self-destruction and the negation of his humanity”. He thinks 1415 marks the crucial moment on that path: the year when Henry, pretending to want peace with France, in fact slowly mobilised the whole of England for war. His last letter to the king of France, on July 28th, just before the invasion, threatened “a deluge of human blood”. He delivered.
This was also a year when rebels were stirring in the kingdom and when religious dissidents, from the Lollards at home to Jan Hus abroad, claimed their own way to salvation. Absolutism and divine right were under attack. The king, who exemplified both, leapt to their defence. Mr Mortimer’s Henry—rigid, unsmiling, religious and obsessive as the year begins—ends it as “a militant Catholic fundamentalist”.
The device of putting just one year under the microscope is a bold one in the medieval context. Medieval sources are scanty. Virtually no royal accounts survive for 1415, and almost no private letters. Mr Mortimer nonetheless luxuriates in what he has: grants to chantries and hospitals, rewards for service, reports from ambassadors, requests for provisioning (all those thousands of longbows, arrows, barrels of beer, sides of beef) and the ceaseless pawning of a large part of Henry’s treasure to pay for his whim of a war. Day by day, the reader is in the thick of things.
The effect of this is new and unexpected, in several ways. The drama of the year is heightened, as the drumbeat of the days rolls towards Agincourt. The religiosity of the age is emphasised, as the saints’ days and the natural rituals of the year gain new prominence in the narrative. Medieval bureaucracy, with its constant duplicating, petitioning and delaying, sometimes threatens to bury the reader. The personalities emerge sharper, firmer and more duplicitous.
And what of Henry? Shakespeare’s image of the king has certainly been altered—but to workaholic, rather than villain. Here was a man who saw personally to everything, whether a petition from a gunner, or the proper painting of antelopes on his flagship, the Trinity Royal, or the ordering of horseshoe nails. He thought of nothing but ruling England, for God. The three most memorable images in this book, among many, are of the king asleep, in his grand bed, chastely alone; sitting on his cushion in his great chamber, listening to his subjects’ problems; and scribbling, at the end of his will, the plea of a man who has taken on far too much: “Jesu Mercy and Gremercy Ladie Marie help.”