Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Henry V

Tuesday, as Jacob Rees-Mogg helpfully reminds us, is St. Crispin's Day, the anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt and memorable as such for Henry V's famous speech about it in Shakespeare's play. Our online Shakespeare reading group, having crawled through Richard II and Henry IV last spring, and then taking a detour through Windsor with its merry wives, has just finished Henry V, and here's the historic notes I wrote for the first half of the play:

Prince Hal of the H4 plays has succeeded to the throne as King Henry V. Domestic rebellions behind him, he chooses to offer plot excitement to his realm by making an appearance in the French wars. This, according to Shakespeare and his sources, was gingered up by the Church so that they'd have something they could offer to finance the king and distract his attention away from confiscating church lands, which kings were wont to do. But there's a genealogical justification for this too, and in Act 1 Scene 2 the Archbishop of Canterbury offers it at tedious and numbing length.

I believe I can put it simpler. England had been fighting for territory in France since Henry II's time, but the current conflict has a more recent origin. Nearly a century before the time of this play, the direct father-to-son line of French kings had died out. The French had, or invented on the spot, a rule that the throne could only descend in the male line, so the crown was handed over to a cousin, Philip of Valois.

However, the last French king of the old line had had a sister. The English said crowns could descend through the female line, and lucky for them, that sister had married an English king and her son and heir was ... the then-current English king, young Edward III. So Edward declared his claim to the French throne, which his successors kept up. The French, of course, were having none of it. Active fighting, off and on, went on long enough that the conflict became known as the Hundred Years' War. Edward III and his son the Black Prince had won mighty battles in France, but the war fell into abeyance when Richard II tried to make peace, to be revived here by Henry V who takes the field against the current Valois king, Charles VI, who is not known for his mental stability.

The French King is accompanied by his son and heir, Louis the Dauphin, and his daughter Katherine, whom he offers to Henry as dowry. (Slinging daughters around this way was standard practice for centuries to come.) King Henry is accompanied by his brothers, of whom John of Lancaster of the H4 plays is now Duke of Bedford; the others are the Dukes of Gloucester and Clarence. The Duke of Exeter is his uncle who was of illegitimate birth and is not in line for the throne. The Earl of Cambridge, the conspirator against the king, is Henry's cousin, son of that nasty old Duke of York you remember from R2. And that about sums up the royal families.

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