Alternate history: what if Henry V hadn't died in 1422?
Professor Anne Curry and Nige Tassell consider the future shape of English and French history had the victor of Agincourt lived longer
Since his unexpected victory at the battle of Agincourt in 1415, Henry V’s fortunes had been transformed. From being a monarch in fear of being deposed by those closest to him, within a handful of years he was heir to the French throne. His succession was set out in the treaty of Troyes in 1420, an agreement that also outlined his marriage to Catherine of Valois, daughter of the French king, Charles VI.
With support from Burgundy, Henry continued in his campaign to win further support for Charles in Armagnac territory, which was resolute in its backing of the French king’s son, the Dauphin Charles, who had lost his inheritance rights when the treaty was signed. His power had also diminished by being implicated in the murder of John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy.
But before he could consolidate the remainder of the country, Henry died in August 1422 after contracting dysentery. His son, Henry, became king of England, and when Charles VI passed away a few weeks later, the young infant inherited the French crown too. He wasn’t yet a year old.
In context: the death of Henry V
The premature death of Henry V in 1422, aged just 35, was a significant loss for England. By then, Henry was heir to the French throne, thanks to the terms of the Treaty of Troyes and his marriage to Catherine of Valois, the daughter of French king Charles VI.
He was a strong and capable leader, who could have brought the kingdoms of England and France together under a single monarch, but his death meant that the alliance was doomed in the following decades as his young son, Henry VI, took over.
France would ultimately claim victory in the Hundred Years' War with many subsequent conflicts breaking out between the two countries across the centuries.
Henry V’s premature death throws up a number of talking points. Had Henry outlived Charles VI and become dual king, what would the relationship between England and France have resembled – and what would have been the consequences for the rest of Europe – under such a strong leader? Anne Curry, emeritus professor of medieval history at the University of Southampton and the author of several books on Henry V and Agincourt, is in no doubt that Henry’s campaign to rid France of the Dauphin would have been entirely necessary for France’s internal security.
“I am sure Henry would have continued with military activity to ensure other areas accepted the treaty of Troyes. His focus had to be on defeating the Dauphin. The treaty emphasised the hope of Anglo-French reconciliation and Henry was seen by many French people as the only man strong enough to restore peace and stability. In his conquest of Normandy, Henry had won over hearts and minds with his fair but firm rule. He had the skills and the insights, as well as the personal determination, to make a union of the English and French crowns work. Had the Dauphin been killed, the double monarchy would have been considerably strengthened.”
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The dual monarchy would have been a delicate balance of power for Henry, though, as Professor Curry explains. “In December 1420, the English parliament had already expressed its concerns about his long absence to date – he had been in France continuously from August 1417 – and his likely long absences in the future. He could not be in two places at once.
“But I often ponder what might have happened if the double monarchy had survived, given that the countries were so often at war in later centuries. Can we imagine a world without a Louis XIV or a Napoleon, or without a Nelson or a Wellington?”
When he came of age, Henry VI proved to be a much weaker leader in comparison to his resolute, swashbuckling father. He was no chip off the block. Had Henry V lived longer, would he have been able to mould his son into being a more competent monarch, endowing him with the required skills and acumen?
Can we imagine a world without Louis XIV or Napoleon, without Nelson or the Duke of Wellington?
“He never knew his father,” says Professor Curry. “Had he had a longer apprenticeship and hands-on guidance, perhaps he would have displayed more interest in the French wars. Even though he was taken there in 1430 for his coronation, he didn’t demonstrate his father’s level of commitment to France. However, remember that Henry V had a bad relationship with his own father, so we cannot assume that, had he survived, he would have been able to make the future Henry VI into a warrior prince.”
Had Henry V lived another 20 or 30 years, then Catherine would almost certainly not have remarried, as she did in 1428. The identity of her second husband would be significant for the future of England.
“There was a reluctance to allow her to remarry,” explains Professor Curry. “A parliamentary statute was even needed to control it. There were rumours that Edmund Beaufort had made her pregnant, but, to cover this, she married Owen Tudor, an insignificant Welsh esquire.”
Having two sons with her new husband meant the Tudors were brought into the bloodline of monarchical succession and English history was diverted towards a different destiny. Without this, there may have been no split with Rome, keeping England a Catholic country for longer. Also, James VI and I may not have occupied the thrones of both England and Scotland, thus delaying the future unification of the kingdoms. Alternatively, under Henry V, it may have occurred much earlier.
“With the kingdoms of France and England united,” concludes Professor Curry, “Scotland would have lost its ‘auld alliance’ with France. As a result, I reckon there would have been renewed interest in bringing Scotland into the fold. Perhaps the creation of a triple crown?”
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This article was first published in the April 2023 issue of BBC History Revealed