By Andrew Latham and Rand Lee Brown II
“Owre Kynge went forth to Normandy
With grace and myght of chyvalry
Ther God for hym wrought mervelusly;
Wherefore Englonde may call and cry
Deo gratias Anglia redde pro victoria!” -The Agincourt Carol, circa 1415
Despite decades of reversals experienced in the waning years of Edward III and throughout the reign of his turbulent grandson, Richard II, England’s role in the Hundred Years War was by no means finished and, in fact, was fast approaching its highest level of achievement under the bold leadership of a new royal dynasty. In 1399, Richard’s penchant for erratic and despotic behaviour (possibly – at least according to some modern scholars – the result of an undiagnosed personality disorder) finally caught up with him. He was unceremoniously deposed by Henry Bolingbroke, son of John of Lancaster. The latter returned from exile and rapidly won the English nobility and commons’ loyalties – both exhausted by domestic turmoil and failures abroad.
King Henry IV began what became known later as the Lancastrian Dynasty, a political creation that would have dire consequences for England in the long term but would produce possibly one of the realm’s most famous monarchs. Sometime in 1386 at Monmouth Castle, a son was born to Henry Bolingbroke. This boy, also named Henry, would go on to raise the fortunes of English France to heights not achieved even by his great-grandfather and win for himself a legacy that still resounds to this very day.
Contrary to the Shakespearian portrayal of young Prince Harry (based mostly on Tudor-era political sentiment, exacerbated by dramatic license), the future Henry V’s youth was a far cry from a carefree and riotous one. Prince Henry was crowned Prince of Wales at the age of 13, merely a year after Richard’s overthrow and death. He was then thrust into active political and military leadership to bolster his father’s shaky hold on the throne he had usurped. In 1403, he led his father’s right flank at the Battle of Shrewsbury against the rebel forces of the highly competent Henry “Hotspur” Percy and the enigmatic Welsh prince, Owain Glyndŵr. During the battle, the teenaged Prince received a rebel cloth-arrow to the face. He had to be carried off the field where an ingenious royal surgeon named John Bradmore skillfully extracted the bodkin arrowhead from the Prince’s skull. This wound would have been a death sentence for many less fortunate. By the time he succeeded his father in 1413, Henry V already possessed a degree of political and martial credibility that few others in Christendom did. Writes C. T. Allmand in his seminal biography of King Harry:
In 1413, England lived in hope of better days, and the main reason why Henry V came to be so well regarded was that he revitalized his country and its people, partly through his personality, partly through his ‘professional’ approach to the tasks in hand. The contemporary view of Henry recognized that he was, in every sense of the word as it was then understood, a real king.
Immediately turning his attention towards his realm’s now-ancient foe across the english Channel, Henry’s timing could not have been more perfect. France found itself under the rule of the unstable Charles VI – known to history as “the Mad” due to his frequent and extreme bouts of, well, madness. France was not only wholly unprepared for a resumption of the war in earnest but especially for the determined and aggressive manner in which Henry would prosecute the war from here on out. Unlike his forebears – who had been content to crisscross France’s length and breadth with fast-moving and destructive chevauchées – Henry adopted a strategy of take and hold.
In 1415, Henry invaded Normandy and, when attempting to reach the English enclave of Calais, fought a battle that is perhaps the best-known engagement of the entire Hundred Years War. Much ink has been spilled on the Battle of Agincourt, and there is not much left to say about it here that has not been said already. However, the fact that it set the tone for the Lancastrian takeover of nearly all northern France cannot be understated. With nearly a third of French nobility dead in Agincourt’s mud, France was once again left reeling in the wake of an English onslaught led by a king whose aggressive ambition was matched only by his unique brand of dynamic leadership.
While many of Henry’s subsequent military successes get lost in Agincourt’s shadow, his campaigns of 1417 to 1420 would prove to be perhaps the most decisive for England in the entire war. By 1419, English forces were at the walls of Paris, and it was then that a stroke of providential good fortune occurred. In the fallout of Agincourt, France’s remaining Valois leadership had divided sharply between the factions of the Armagnacs (who supported the Dauphin Charles) and the Burgundians (led by their duke, John the Fearless). During a parlay on a bridge in Paris, Armagnac partisans rashly attacked and killed Duke John – a deed the Burgundians decried as premeditated murder. Consequently, the Dukedom of Burgundy enthusiastically allied with Henry – backing his family’s ancient claim to the French throne and flinging open the gates of Paris to his victorious armies. The very next year, the feeble Charles VI mustered what fragile remnants of his sanity remained and agreed to the Treaty of Troyes that officially recognized the English king as his heir, sealing the terms with the marriage of his daughter Catherine to Henry.
Never before had a King of England come so close to achieving the goal of an English France as did Henry V – and yet, it was still not be. In a cruel twist of fate, King Henry would never live to see his ambitions realized. While besieging Armagnac holdouts in Meaux in 1422, he contracted dysentery – that bane of Englishmen in France – and died at the age of 35. As if to make it all the more ironic, Henry was followed to the grave by the broken King Charles mere months later. Leaving behind a conquest only half-finished, Henry’s dreams of a unified realm seemed more uncertain than ever and with him passed the apogee of English fortunes in the Hundred Years War.
Allmand, C. T., Henry V (University of California Press, 1992)
Dr. Andrew Latham is a professor of political science at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is the author, most recently, of a monograph entitled Medieval Sovereignty, to be published in 2020 by ARC Humanities Press. You can visit Andrew’s website at www.aalatham.com or follow Andrew on Twitter @aalatham
Capt Rand Lee Brown II is a commissioned officer in the United States Marine Corps currently assigned to Marine Forces Reserve. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Military History from Norwich University with a focus on medieval warfare, Capt Brown has written on military history for a variety of forums, including the Marine Corps Gazette and Medievalists.net.
Top Image: Battle of Agincourt depicted in Les Vigiles de Charles VII, a 15th century manuscrit – BnF MS Français 5054 fol. 11r