Henry V: 5 facts you might not know about the king’s softer side

Fretting about the dispossessed and trying to save heretics from the flames aren't acts often associated with one of England's great military heroes. But King Henry V did a lot more than put hapless Frenchmen to the sword on the battlefield. As Malcolm Vale reveals, the hero of Agincourt was also a sovereign with a softer side...

Portrait of King Henry V. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

As Netflix releases The King, starring Timothée Chalamet and Robert Pattinson, find out more about the caring side of Henry V…

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Henry V was genuinely worried about the plight of the poor

Henry V was an exceptionally hard-working king. He spent as much, if not more, of his time dealing with the burdensome affairs of church and state as he did on military matters. Henry’s direct intervention in the business of ruling, his speaking voice, and his decisive – often abrupt – manner are spelt out in the surviving documents. Some of these are endorsed with his signature, or ‘sign manual’, in the form ‘RH’ (Rex Henricus or Roy Henry).

Around one in 10 of these documents survive today, and some are annotated in the king’s own hand. His extraordinary grasp of detail and his concern that a just resolution be reached, are striking. Humble men and women, not only the great and good (or not so good), sought his judgment, his pardon and his mercy. Their petitions to him are witness to that.

So, after receiving a petition from some needy supplicants, in April 1419 he ordered his officers:

“To do justice unto them, and especially so that the poorer party shall suffer no wrong.” Similarly in May 1421, petitioned by a poor woman, he instructed that she should “receive justice the more favourably, considering the poverty of the said Margery”.

A particularly striking case was that of Robert Gunthorpe, a London carter, who in February 1419 told the king that he had been in charge of a brewer’s dray, carrying a consignment of ale for the royal household, which had to be delivered to the Tower of London. But, as he got near to the Barbican, the cart was overturned, and the barrels of ale broken open, for the horses had “bolted, because of the great fear they had of the roaring of the king’s lions [in the Lion Tower there] and… unless he receives your merciful grace and succour… he will be forced to pay for the said ale… but as he is only a poor labourer, who has to work for his living, he requests pardon for its loss…” Henry granted his petition.

Here then was a king who felt what seems a genuine concern for the welfare of his subjects.

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The king tried to save the lives (and souls) of heretic

“It seemed to him that he was better suited to be a man of the church than a soldier, and that his eldest brother seemed to him to be more suited to being a soldier than the said king…” Remarkable as it may appear today, given the king’s reputation as one of England’s great military heroes, this contemporary description of Henry V wasn’t so far from the truth.

Henry was a vigorous monastic reformer. He created two new monastic foundations during his reign – the Carthusian monastery of Sheen and the Brigittine convent of Syon, both on the Thames – and also attempted a reform of the older-established religious orders. The black monks – the Benedictines – rich and heavily endowed, should, he thought, be restored to the ascetic and austere religious life advocated by their founder, St Benedict. In May 1421, the king assembled 60 English abbots and priors, and over 300 monks of the order, at Westminster and personally addressed them on their shortcomings. If the church could, or would not set its house in order, he would do it for them.

Henry was a studious, bookish prince, and he listened to the dictates of his conscience. That conscience may not have been unduly disturbed by episodes such as the notorious killing of prisoners at Agincourt, yet this was by no means unprecedented in later medieval warfare.

Here was a king who at least tried to practise what he preached. He was not a bigot. He remonstrated with the dissident Sir John Oldcastle, attempting to persuade him of (what Henry regarded) as the error of his ways. In 1410, Henry, as prince, tried to save the life (and soul) of John Badby as he was being burned as a condemned heretic. And he pardoned large numbers of Sir John’s Lollard followers (religious radicals fiercely critical of the established church) convicted for their parts in the Oldcastle rising of 1414.

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Henry V played the harp, the flute and the recorder

The hero of Agincourt has traditionally been more associated with trebuchets than treble clefs. But, in reality, Henry V loved music – and he wasn’t content with passively listening to it. Henry, like the biblical king David, had learned the harp at an early age, and continued to play into later life. We know that a new harp, with a leather case and 12 spare strings, was dispatched across the channel to him in France, while was on campaign there in September 1421.

Henry also played the recorder and the flute. And he found time to compose settings of the Gloria and Sanctus from the Mass. (Musicological opinion once attributed these to Henry IV but is now confident that they were crafted by his son.) This is sophisticated choral polyphony, worthy of the best composers of church music of his time. Its authorship is identified by the words ‘Roy Henry’ in the British Library’s Old Hall manuscript of contemporary musical Mass settings.

Henry’s band of secular minstrels went everywhere with him. He even remembered them as he lay dying at the Castle of Vincennes to the east of Paris, when he gave, “by word of mouth”, life annuities to 11 of them.

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The king spoke the people’s language

“Trusty and well-beloved, we greet you well.” With these opening words of address in some of his letters, Henry V made himself part of a momentous process in the history of our language and our political culture. If we’re looking for that rare phenomenon – a permanent legacy left by a medieval ruler – the establishment of English as a language of government, administration, politics and diplomacy was, in large part, the work of Henry V.

Before Henry’s reign, England’s rulers corresponded with their subjects in Latin and Norman French. Middle English had gained ground as a literary medium in the so-called ‘Age of Chaucer’ (1350–1400). But it was not until Henry V composed his first letters, instructions and memoranda in English that it began to be used in diplomatic and political circles.

Henry’s subjects soon followed his example. The London Brewers’ Guild, in July 1422, resolved to keep their records no longer in French but in English. They were in turn followed by the London Goldsmiths, while other civic bodies – at Bristol (1416) and York (1419) – had already begun to do so.

In 1417 Henry began to write from France to his English subjects in their vernacular tongue

It’s been claimed that the ‘triumph of English’ was a form of ‘redemption’ of the language from its subservience to foreign tongues. But there may be another explanation. In May 1420, Henry V’s Treaty of Troyes with France upheld the separate existences of the two kingdoms in a future Anglo-French dual monarchy. Both countries were to keep their own laws, customs, governments and, it seems, languages.

In 1417 Henry began to write from France to his English subjects in their vernacular tongue. But his Norman and other French subjects were always addressed in their own vernacular language. The creation of the Anglo-French union enhanced, rather than suppressed, the separate political and linguistic identities of the two peoples.

The English language had little impact outside the British Isles for hundreds of years – it had to wait until the 18th century to be ‘discovered’ in continental Europe. But Henry V had started an unstoppable movement. To this day, Royal Letters of Assent to Acts of Parliament begin with the words ‘Trusty and well-beloved…’

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Henry V gave peace a chance

For 600 years, Henry V’s legacy has been dominated by his feats on the battlefield. Historian Keith Dockray captured this reputation perfectly when he wrote that Henry was “a warlord… who clearly enjoyed campaigning and felt most at ease in the company of his comrades in arms”.

So it may come as a surprise to learn that Henry was a peace-maker, who actively sought to reconcile the two warring kingdoms of England and France. Towards the end of his reign, he wrote in Anglo-German diplomatic instructions: “What good and profit might arise if there were peace and rest among Christian princes.” He was, he said, “now [in December 1421] at the final point and conclusion of his labours and, through God’s grace and the help of his allies and friends, shall soon bring this war to an end”.

In the event, Henry didn’t realise this ambition – his premature death in August 1422 put paid to that. But there’s evidence that, during his last two years, he was seeking a resolution of the conflict that had set England and France at odds for a century. Intermediaries, both papal and secular, were acting on his behalf to explore avenues leading towards a peace settlement. We do not know what form that might have taken, and whether a long-term partition of the kingdom between the English and French kings might have resulted from it – or whether a longer-lasting dual monarchy of England and France, as set out in Henry’s peace treaty with France at Troyes in May 1420, might have been a viable option.

With hindsight, it’s easy for us to dismiss such possibilities, supporting the inevitable collapse of any Anglo-French union – but the picture was by no means so clear in 1422. At the time there were those, even in France, who saw Henry as a potential saviour, rather than destroyer, of the French kingdom. And he stood head and shoulders above contemporaries.

Unlike the insane Charles VI of France, his disinherited, inexperienced and untried son the Dauphin Charles, or the bankrupt and embattled German emperor Sigismund, Henry V was a true king.

Malcolm Vale is emeritus research fellow in modern history at St John’s College, Oxford. He specialises in Anglo-French history during the late Middle Ages.

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This article was first published in the September 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine