The early 15th century. A battlefield. A wounded soldier squirming towards safety is casually dispatched by a gore-smeared knight; the latest in a series of casual brutalities by the regime of Henry IV in The King. It presents a vision of the late medieval world that is wholly familiar to us from previous drama adaptations: a dreary era of plague, random violence, grisly death and relentless greyness, alleviated only by the occasional splatter of blood red.
New Netflix Original film The King relates the rise of Henry V in the first two decades of the 15th century. We open on ‘Hal’ (played by Timothée Chalamet), the son of current king Henry IV, as a disaffected and dissolute prince c1400, and follow his reluctant accession to the throne; his French campaigns, his surprise victory at the battle of Agincourt in 1415 and eventual peace with France, cemented by his marriage to French princess Catherine Valois in 1420.
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Not coincidentally, this is the same period William Shakespeare explored in his Henriad: a group of four of his plays – Richard II; Henry IV Parts I and II; and Henry V. We find the wayward Hal puking in the streets outside Mistress Quickly’s inn and self-indulgently griping about the king to his closest friend and mentor, salt-of-the-earth northerner John Falstaff (played here by Joel Edgerton). In other words, this is not history. It’s Shakespeare Redux.
Who is John Falstaff?
The bloated, jocular Falstaff is one of Shakespeare’s best-loved characters, but he is entirely fictional. His name echoes Henry V’s real contemporary Sir John Fastolf, a successful soldier of the Hundred Years’ War who fled Joan of Arc’s forces at Patay in 1429 and thus gained an unearned reputation for cowardice.
Here, Falstaff serves as Henry’s youthful mentor and (rather surprisingly) military tactician, one of the last trusted allies the king has. A theme of The King is how monarchs have no friends, “only followers and foes”. Sure enough, Henry’s advisers vie for control by manipulating him.
Did Henry really take advice from his wife, Catherine Valois, and his sister?
The only disinterested advice Hal receives comes from the women in his life: his sister Philippa and wife, Catherine Valois, both making all-too-brief cameos. This reflects a wider truth in contemporary politics: noblewomen were political operators too, and their counsel was valued by their families.
Indeed, during the Hundred Years’ War queens had vital roles as intercessors and occasionally regents, negotiating between their warring relatives – and for their own material advantage. That Hal listens to these women is, unfortunately, misleading. The historical Henry V accorded his wife little political role, even denying her an official position during the infancy of their son (the future Henry VI) when he wrote his will. Henry was the sort of king who locked up his own stepmother on charges of witchcraft to get his hands on her estates, not one who invited honest counsel from his female relatives.
A pacifist Prince Hal?
The greatest departure from history, however, is Hal’s pacifism – Timothée Chalamet’s gamine prince condemns his father’s warmongering and only invades France after enduring threats and assassination attempts.
It is hard to square this with Henry V, who was on campaign in Ireland at the age of 12 and first fought in battle at 16. It accords better with Henry’s son, the renowned pacifist Henry VI, who never raised a sword in anger. Henry V, by contrast, was a soldier before all else, and a pitiless one. He did not baulk at starving innocent citizens to death during the siege of Rouen, nor massacring prisoners of war at Agincourt.
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The 15th century was undoubtedly brutal and miserable, but The King pointedly sidesteps the splendour and beauty of a royal court, or the barded pomp of an army attempting to overawe its enemy. This dour, monochrome world verges occasionally on dull, bursting only into unexpected technicolour when Robert Pattinson lurches onto screen as the Dauphin of France, gleefully pronouncing deranged threats in his execrable French accent. His lewd arch-villainy is worth the price of admission, although it feels like he wandered onto set from a completely different film; one rather less po-faced and perhaps more engaging.
After all, this is the story of the destruction of chivalry and maturing of “one of England’s great kings” (as Henry’s advisor puts it). Shakespeare knew that it’s a story worth telling in bold colours.
Lauren Johnson is a historian specialising in the 15th and early 16th centuries – the age of the Hundred Years’ War, the Wars of the Roses and the dawn of the Tudors. Her latest book, Shadow King: The Life and Death of Henry VI (Head of Zeus, 2019) is out now.
The King is available to watch worldwide on Netflix now.