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Gilbert: Henry V at 600

(Host) It's rare that one can note a 600th anniversary, but it was six hundred years ago today that England's Henry V became king upon the death of his father, Henry IV. Commentator and Vermont Humanities Council executive director Peter Gilbert has the story.

(Gilbert) Most of us know of Henry V because of Shakespeare's history plays. He appears in three: Henry IV, Parts I and II , and Henry V . Particularly well-known today are two highly acclaimed but very different film versions of Henry V, Lawrence Olivier's patriotic film, made in 1944, during World War II, and Kenneth Branagh's 1989 antiwar production.

In Shakespeare if not in history, Prince Hal, the Prince of Wales, had a riotous youth, full of drinking, lawbreaking, and troublemaking with Falstaff and other friends. But then, according to Shakespeare's version of the story, when Henry became king, he put such behavior behind him, rejected his old compatriots, and became a good and devout monarch. (His riotous behavior when he was prince brings to mind today's Prince Harry of Wales and his periodic lapses in judgment; perhaps he'll mature in time, too, but in any case, he'll soon move from being third to fourth in line to the throne, and so it's unlikely that he'll ever become king.)

When Henry became king in 1413, he quickly solidified power, a significant achievement, particularly given that he was only the second king to come from the House of Lancaster. His father, Henry Boling broke, had deposed his cousin King Richard II and become Henry IV;that's how his son became, in due course, Henry V.

According to Shakespeare's play, Henry V was a highly successful king because he took the advice his father offered on his death bed - that he busy giddy minds/With foreign quarrels, that is, that he distract and keep potential domestic adversaries busy by declaring war against a foreign enemy so that they don't scheme against him. It wouldn't be the last time in world history that international conflict and war were used for domestic political purposes.

Henry went to war with France, and in the anxious night before the Battle of Agincourt, Shakespeare's King Henry inspires his heavily outnumbered troops by invoking their manhood and the kinship they feel for one another. His stirring St. Crispin's Day speech concludes:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

The next day, Henry's army achieved one of the most dramatic victories in history, in part due to the army's novel use of the longbow; French dead outnumbered English perhaps fourteen to one. Moreover, the French lost numerous lords, princes, dukes, and counts while the English lost two.

In due course, Henry was recognized as heir to the French throne; he married Catherine, daughter of France's King Charles VI; and his young son eventually became King Henry VI. He was an enormously successful monarch, especially considering that he died at the age of only thirty-five, ironically not in battle in France, but of dysentery.

Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.
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