The Hundred Years’ War
The conflict between England and France known as The Hundred Years’ War took place between 1337–1453. It consisted of a series of events, battles, and treaties brought about by disputes over land that both countries claimed as their sovereign territory. Henry V became involved in 1399. The French king, Charles VI, was considered insane, and rivalry between two powerful French dynasties, the Bourbons and the Orleans, opened the way for English intervention. In 1415 Henry V invaded France and captured Harfleur and defeated the French at the Battle of Agincourt in 1416. There, he took the Dukes of Orleans and Bourbon prisoner.
The importance for Shakespeare of the legacy of The Hundred Years’ War was the proud patriotism and euphoria of victories such as Crécy (where England gained the maritime port of Calais), and Agincourt (where the English won against impossible odds). Shakespeare’s audience would have been familiar with
these beloved stories, and Shakespeare knew that awareness of the destructive conflicts that preceded and followed Henry V’s reign reinforced admiration for the king. This patriotic sense of English identity was supported by the Church, which offered prayers for armies at war and thanksgiving for victories. In the sixteenth century, England’s power and reach were extending, and Henry’s forays into France reflected an aggressive foreign policy that many wished their nation to support.
How Much History in this History Play?
Shakespeare’s History plays exaggerate (or even fictionalize) the true history of the events of that play. Richard III did not have a hunchback nor did he kill his way to the crown; Henry VIII was not happy to have a baby daughter by Anne Bullen; Prince Hal was not as rowdy a youth as he was portrayed in Henry IV, part I. However, Henry V’s almost unbelievable victory in France was not a playwright’s use of dramatic license.
In Shakespeare’s play and from historical accounts, the English troops, vastly outnumbered by the French, take the field of Agincourt in a day and defeat the French army with minimal casualties. Shakespeare didn’t have to do anything here but embellish the language—building upon actual words Henry V spoke to his soldiers—since this incredible victory actually happened. Outnumbered four to one, the English managed to defeat the French army, killing 7,000–10,000 French soldiers and losing only 200 English soldiers. This included a French assault on Henry’s luggage (all of the soldiers’ and nobles’ belongings that wouldn’t accompany them on the field), and the English army killing their French prisoners to prevent them from regrouping and attacking from the rear (a standard battle practice in medieval warfare).
Certainly parts of the whole story were edited for the stage, but the odds, actions, and numbers needed no exaggeration. Shakespeare’s play captures a great moment in English history.
"What ish my Nation?"
Henry V is concerned with nobility and the invasion of France, but it also features discussions among characters about what it means to follow such a leader and to fight for a nation whose identity is still changing. One of the characters, Captain MacMorris, is Irish (a relative rarity in Elizabethan plays). In one scene he discusses with various captains his own nationality and role as a soldier in the English king’s army ("what ish my nation?" 3.2). Henry V returns repeatedly to the question of how nobility should act, how people define themselves by nationality, and what gives a king the right to rule and conquer one nation versus another, themes that resonanted with Shakespeare’s audience.
At the opening of Act V, the Chorus announces that Henry is returning from France. In London, Shakespeare’s audiences are anticipating that their leader (Essex) will soon be coming home from Ireland with rebellion "broached on his sword"(in triumph). The entire premise of Henry V can be read as a loose allegory of the invasion of Ireland in 1599. Many of the Irish nobility actually claimed descent from the French.
These themes are explored in our exhibit, Nobility and Newcomers in Renaissance Ireland currently on display in the Great Hall and online.
The Essex Rebellion
Although the factual timeframe for Henry V is the fifteenth century, it is clear that it is as much about current events as the historical past (as with many of Shakespeare’s history plays).The play was written in 1599, the year in which Robert, Earl of Essex, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and a favorite of the Queen, was sent to quell a rebellion by the Earl of Tyrone. Essex’s campaign was unsuccessful and his arrogance in concluding a truce that was unauthorized by the Queen resulted in his being stripped of his office and arrested. Politically and financially ruined, Essex tried to raise a rebellion against the Queen’s government. The rebellion failed and Essex was executed for treason.
In Henry V, Shakespeare presents Henry as a king who wants to unify his kingdom. His army consists of a "band of brothers" from different parts of Britain. (In 3.2, four regional accents are heard). In addition, Henry is shown as a king who will not abide attempts to undermine his authority. In 2.2, when committing the traitors Scroop, Cambridge, and Gray to death, Henry makes it clear that their betrayal is a crime not only against him but against the country as a whole: "You have conspired against our royal person" (2.2.162).