Henry V abbreviated

As noted late in the last play, Henry IV died in 1413.  He was succeeded by his oldest son, Prince Harry, now Henry V.  The young Henry V was considered an easy mark by some, not coming in with a strong reputation.  As Henry IV Part 2 ended, Prince John, the new young king’s younger brother, having an insider’s view, had predicted that the new king would soon set his sights on France.  Prince John was right on target. 

This play opens with two of England’s leading clergymen, the Bishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely, expressing serious concern over an act of Parliament that has re-surfaced; a proposal to heavily tax the church.  The two clergymen figure they need to come up with a strategy to derail the proposed legislation.  The resourceful Bishop of Canterbury finds one. (Inspiration, Act 1, Scene 1) His plan is to have the church give more money to Henry V than the church has ever in the past given to a king, figuring, correctly, that this strategy will better position the church to influence tax policy.  But, as well, the bishop has in mind a second strategy: to get the king to focus on external affairs.  His dual plan is to convince the young king that he is the rightful heir to the French crown, and then to have the church financially support a military encounter with France, if that’s what it takes.

As we’ve said, Henry V’s great grandfather, Edward III, was the trunk of this powerful Plantagenet family-of-kings tree.  Edward III’s mother, Isabella, was the daughter of the then French king.  The bishop’s plan is to convince Henry V that through his great-great grandmother he is the rightful heir to the French crown. The Bishop of Canterbury does his homework. Through a persuasive presentation of his “French strategy” to Henry V, basing his argument on France’s Salic law, he convinces the young king that the plan is sound, the play’s central theme. 

Later, the French ambassador along with the heir to the French crown, the Dauphin, pay a visit to England’s new king, the ambassador saying “Since you claim certain dukedoms in the right of your Edward III, the prince therefore sends you this chest of treasure.”  The king asks “What treasure?”  Exeter, the king’s uncle, looks inside the chest and says to the king “Tennis balls, my liege.”  The Dauphin, the French prince, has seriously misread the young Henry V.  The king proceeds to make his point and sends the French ambassador and prince on their way. (Resentment, Act 1, Scene 2) Exeter comments “This was a merry message.”  Exeter is one of the sons of John of Gaunt, John of Gaunt being the king’s late grandfather, and his second wife, Catherine Swynford.  We figure Exeter is Henry V’s half-uncle.  As noted in the last play, Westmorland is Ralph Neville, the husband of Joan Beaufort, John of Gaunt’s and Catherine Swynford’s only daughter.  Westmorland and some of his brothers-in law, their sons and grandsons have huge roles well into the future.

Shakespeare draws in two side issues here.  Three friends of the king are captured, accused of being traitors and are executed.  Richard, the Earl of Cambridge, is one of them. (Anger, Act 2, Scene 2) This Richard was the second son of the duke of York, known as York, Edward III’s fifth son.  York and John of Gaunt, the king’s grandfather and Edward III’s fourth son, were brothers and close friends.  The significance here is that this Richard had a powerful son and grandsons, two of the grandsons becoming kings, both featured as principals in Richard III, the last play in this series.  In part, the execution of Richard, the Earl of Cambridge, leads to the War of the Roses.  We also learn here that John Falstaff, close to the king when the king was a wayward prince, Falstaff being featured in the second and third histories, has died.  Hostess Quickly believes his death was the result of a broken heart. 

To get on with the story, most of the French nobles and military leaders continue to harbor the impression that the English king remains the carefree prince of his youth, dismissing him as any kind of threat.  But the French king is more suspect, remembering how Richard, the Black Prince, Edward III’s first son, had run roughshod over France.  Henry V sends his uncle Exeter as his ambassador to meet with France’s king and suggests to the French king “that you divest yourself of your crown” to Henry V “and to his heirs.”  (Threat, Act 2, Scene 4) The French king says “We will consider of this further.”  Meanwhile, Henry V, prepared to invade France, leads his troops across the Channel, landing on France’s northern coast at Calais.  He quickly moves his men to the gates at Harfleur, prepared to scale the ladders and rush the city.  He there offers his men one of his several immortal pep talks. (Inspiration, Act 3, Scene 1) The French capitulate and Henry V takes the city. (Counsel, Act 3, Scene 3) Montjoy, representing the French, in what almost seems to be a joke, asks the English king what he might consider as a reasonable ransom.  Henry V tells him “My ransom is this frail and worthless trunk” and that my army is “but a weak and sickly guard, but we will come on.”  Henry V condescendingly offers Montjoy money “for thy labor,” saying “fare you well” as Montjoy exits. (Resentment, Act 3, Scene 6) Both the English and French forces prepare for a battle the next day.  The English army was probably tired, cold and hungry, just as the king had told Montjoy.  The French military men are giddily confident.

Henry V enforces discipline on his troops.  His boyhood friend, Bardolph, a friend from his Gad’s Hill caper and Eastcheap Tavern days, is found guilty of stealing a silver symbol of the crucifixion. He is hanged.  We learn that Nym, another boyhood friend of the king’s, also has been hanged.  In a successful attempt to relieve fears and offer encouragement, the king disguises himself and mixes with his exhausted troops the night before the battle. (Insight, Act 4, Scene 1) Shakespeare here has Henry V speak to the moment, and it’s beautiful. (Introspection, Act 4, Scene 1) The famous battle at Agincourt begins early the next morning. (Prayer, Act 4, Scene 1) As dawn breaks, the French troops admire their horses and note how beautifully the sun reflects off their armor.  The day is Saint Crispin’s Day; Saint Crispin being the patron saint of shoemakers.  As the battle is about to begin the king says to Westmorland, “If we are marked, we are strong enough to do our country proud; and if to live, the fewer men, the greater share of honor.” (Chivalry, Act 4, Scene 3) The battle ends a few hours after it begins, with the French conceding defeat, a one-sided victory for the English.  The French army is decimated. Montjoy returns to ludicrously offer Henry V one more ransom opportunity. (Braggadocio, Act 4, Scene 3) When his men try to praise the king, he defers saying “Take it, God, for it is none but thine.” 

Aumerle was one of the few English officers who died in the battle.  Aumerle was the duke of York, having inherited his father’s title, having been the older son of Edmund of Langley, the original duke of York, Edward III’s fifth son; the young man who had given his cousin Henry Bolingbroke so much grief back in Richard II, only to be pardoned by Bolingbroke when he became King Henry IV, Aumerle admitting at the time to having been part of a plot to take Bolingbroke’s life.  But here on the fields of Agincourt, Aumerle, a heroic son of England, gave his life, fighting on behalf of England and its king, Henry IV’s oldest son.  As noted earlier, Richard earl of Cambridge, Aumerle’s younger brother, had been hanged by Henry V as a traitor.  These two were the original York’s only sons.  But this Richard had married Anne Mortimer, the great-granddaughter of Lionel, Edward III’s third son, and they had grandsons.  Being a descendent of Edward III’s third son puts one in a stronger position that being a descendent of the fourth son, as is Henry V.  We’ll hear more of the conflicts around succession issues in future histories. 

On behalf of the French, Burgundy, who had married into the English royal family, diplomatically makes the case for reestablishing the greatness that is France. (Acceptance, Act 5, Scene 2) Henry V, however, makes it clear that peace will be on his terms.  Henry V sends his brothers and other aides to negotiate an acceptable peace, while as security requests that Katherine, the French king’s daughter, along with her English teacher, remain behind with him.  The French king agrees.  Henry V proposes marriage to Katherine in what has to be the sweetest and most awkward proposal ever written, she barely understanding what he is asking. (Proposal, Act 5, Scene 2.1) The French princess agrees to marry the English king, so long as her father agrees. (Proposal, Act 5, Scene 2.2) He does. Westmorland returns to report that the French have accepted England’s suggested terms of peace.  The queen of France nicely offers the young couple her best wishes, along with hopes that this union will bring peace between their two countries.


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