10 things you (probably) didn’t know about Henry V and the battle of Agincourt

He is one of England’s most popular kings, famed for leading England to victory at the battle of Agincourt. Yet surprisingly little is known about Henry V…

This article was first published in April 2015

Henry V. (© Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library / Alamy)

Teresa Cole explores the life and legacy of the medieval warrior king in her book, Henry V: The Life of the Warrior King & the Battle of Agincourt 1415. Here, writing for History Extra, she reveals 10 lesser-known facts about Henry V…

 

1) Nobody knows when he was born

Henry V was born at Monmouth castle, perched high above the River Monnow, but there is no record of his birth, and even the year is uncertain. Some say his birthday was 9 August 1387, but an alternative date is 16 September 1386. The latter comes from a horoscope drawn up for the king and apparently commissioned by him just before the Agincourt campaign.

However, the French astrologer who drew the horoscope was later accused in Paris of being an English spy, and it is possible the work was just an excuse for the man to come to England and meet with Henry. The king apparently showed no interest in the horoscope afterwards.

 

2) He was in Ireland with Richard II when his father seized the throne

When his father, Henry Bolingbroke, seized the throne, the young Henry was in the custody of King Richard II as a hostage for his father’s good behaviour. Had it been a few centuries earlier he could have expected, at the least, to be blinded if not put to death.

Richard, however, was made of different stuff. He had treated the boy well, spent time with him, took him with him on the expedition to Ireland, and even knighted him on the way. Even when he heard of the attack on his crown, he made no threats against him.

It seems that, in return, Henry saw Richard as something of a father figure. According to one account, when his own father – now secure in the palace of Westminster – sent for him, Henry went instead to Richard in the Tower, and only at his insistence went on to his father. When Henry himself became king he had Richard’s body exhumed from its obscure grave and reburied in Westminster Abbey.

 

3) His first battle was nearly his last

Henry’s first battle [before he was king] was not against the French, but the English. At Shrewsbury on 21 July 1403 the 16-year-old Henry, Prince of Wales, lined up alongside his father to face the forces of the rebel lord, Henry Percy.

At Shrewsbury Henry led his forces well, and made a major contribution to the victory. In the course of the battle, however, he was shot in the face by an arrow that entered below his eye, missed both brain and spinal cord and stuck in the bone at the back of the skull. To remove the embedded arrowhead, special tongs had to be designed, made and carefully inserted nearly six inches into the wound to grip and extract the metal.

It took a further three weeks to cleanse and close up the hole – and all this in the days before anaesthetics.

 

4) He learnt his military tactics in Wales

The tactics used by Henry V in his French wars were first tried out in Wales. At about the same time that he became Prince of Wales (aged 13), Owain Glyndwr began a violent rebellion against the English. The king’s policy of attack and withdraw was unsuccessful, and Glyndwr rapidly spread his influence from north Wales to almost the whole country.

When, however, in his late teens, Henry was given a freer hand, he changed tactics. Now he concentrated on taking strategic castles which were then garrisoned and held securely, cutting off supply routes and enabling further advances. Gradually Glendower was forced back to two strongholds on the west coast – Aberystwyth and Harlech. Each was besieged and battered by traditional siege weapons, and, for what is thought to have been the first time in Britain, cannon were used.

Eventually Glyndwr’s supporters were starved into submission, and though Glyndwr himself was never captured, the war was ended. A few years after this, using the same tactics, Henry conquered first Normandy, and then a large part of northern France.

 

5) Legend has it his claim to France resulted from a Templar’s curse

In 1307, Philippe IV of France seized the property of the wealthy Order of Knights Templar, and tortured and put to death its members. The story is told that, as the last Grand Master died, he laid a curse on Philippe and his descendants, saying the king would die within a year. Eight months later Philippe died in a hunting accident.

Two years after that his son, Louis X died, aged 26, after a strenuous game of tennis. His son, John I, born five months later, lived only five days, and in the next 12 years the last direct male descendants of Philippe also died.

Those closest in line to the empty throne were Jeanne, daughter of Louis and Jeanne of Navarre, and Edward III of England, whose mother was Philippe’s daughter. Navarre and England, however, were equally unacceptable, and Philippe de Valois, a cousin of the last king [Charles IV], was crowned instead. Edward challenged this starting the so-called Hundred Years’ War, and it was his claim that was later revived by Henry V.


The battle of Agincourt. (© 19th era / Alamy)

 

6) Dick Whittington contributed to Henry’s wars

A large slice of the money needed to pay for the French campaigns was raised by loans rather than taxes. In May 1415 Henry sent letters appealing for money to individuals, and to towns. Typically a town would decide on the amount of the loan, and then every citizen would be assessed to contribute even a few pennies to the sum agreed.

Royal jewels, plate and regalia were handed out as security for repayment. Not only did this raise a large amount of money, but it meant almost everyone had an interest in the outcome of the French wars.

One individual in London who lent money to Henry was Sir Richard Whittington, a rich cloth merchant who was indeed the same Dick Whittington as in the children’s story. He was lord mayor of London three times.

 

7) ‘The Dauphin’ was three different people

With the French king subject to fits of madness, his son the dauphin plays a prominent role in the accounts of Henry’s campaigns. The impression is often given that ‘the dauphin’, who, if Shakespeare is to be believed, insulted Henry with a gift of tennis balls [a sign of mockery], was the same ‘dauphin’ who would later be crowned Charles VII by Joan of Arc at Rheims cathedral.

In fact there were three different dauphins over this period. The first was Louis of tennis ball fame, who, though kept away from the battle of Agincourt, died soon after, possibly of dysentery or pneumonia. Louis was followed by his brother John, who was the son-in-law of the Burgundian leader, John the Fearless.

This dauphin died suddenly in April 1417, some said by poison, and he was succeeded by his last remaining brother, Charles, who after the death of Henry V, and with a great deal of help from his mother-in-law, Yolande of Aragon, finally became Charles VII in 1429.

 

8) A French commander told Henry how to win at Agincourt

The French plan at Agincourt was to use massed cavalry to charge down the English archers. Henry V learnt of this from a French prisoner some days before the battle, and immediately took steps to counter it: every archer was to drive a sharpened stake into the ground in front of him on the battlefield to stop a charging horse.

The plan worked very well but was probably not Henry’s own plan. The French commander, Marshal Boucicaut, had earlier fought against the Turks at the battle of Nicopolis, and had seen a cavalry charge halted by a similar mass of sharpened stakes. He had written an account of this and it is possible that either Henry himself, or perhaps one of his commanders, Edward Duke of York, had read it and remembered the effectiveness of the tactic.

 

9) A number of those who died at Agincourt were suffocated

There are no reliable figures for the size of the French army at Agincourt, but they numbered many thousands, and in their eagerness to get at the English most of the leading figures were crammed into the front ranks.

When the action was triggered by a flight of arrows from the English side, the French charged forward in accordance with their battle plan. Funnelled into a narrower part of the field where Henry had taken up his position, the French were crammed together, and though many did not reach the English ranks, many more did. As these were cut down, those pressing behind climbed over them, and anyone who slipped or fell in the muddy ground had little chance of getting up again.

As the battle progressed the pile of bodies rose higher, and any who were wounded or simply knocked over were crushed beneath the weight of those coming behind. Very few were found alive when the heaps of bodies were at last unpicked after the battle.

 

10) Henry V died of dysentery and is buried in Westminster Abbey

Sieges were dangerous places for both those inside and out: insanitary conditions and a shortage of fresh water frequently led to outbreaks of dysentery among the besieged and the besiegers, and it is likely that Henry contracted his final illness at the siege of Meaux – though it took some time to weaken him and claim his life.

His body was brought back to England for burial, and after considerable ceremony he was laid to rest behind the altar in Westminster Abbey, close to his hero Edward the Confessor, and within yards of the tomb of Richard II. A magnificent chapel was erected around him, and a life-sized effigy placed on the tomb with a head of solid silver.

Sadly the silver was stolen in the 16th century, and the later Tudor building dwarfs his resting place. Thousands of tourists pass the spot without realising he is there, and all that can be seen of the effigy is the soles of its feet.

To find out more about Teresa Cole’s Henry V: The Life of the Warrior King & the Battle of Agincourt 1415 (Amberley Publishing, 2015) click here.
 

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