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Henry IV, Part 2 /

Historical Background: Sir John Falstaff and Sir John Oldcastle

The Epilogue to Henry IV, Part 2 draws an absolute distinction between the play’s character Sir John Falstaff and the Protestant martyr Oldcastle. The reason for the explicit differentiation is that the character Falstaff was first created under the name Sir John Oldcastle. Evidence that Falstaff was once Oldcastle can be found in early printed texts of Parts 1 and 2 of Henry IV and in letters and documents from the early seventeenth century (see, for example, the entry for 1.2.1 in our Textual Notes, which records that once the speech prefix for “Falstaff” in the 1600 Quarto of Henry IV, Part 2 read “Old.”). It has long been believed—and there seems little reason to doubt it now—that one of Sir John’s descendants, a powerful nobleman in Elizabeth’s court, forced the company to rename Hal’s companion. This evidence of censorship, along with questions about whether or not Shakespeare was deliberately satirizing Sir John’s late-sixteenth-century descendant, has until recently kept scholarly attention focused on the name change rather than on the significance of Shakespeare’s having created a comic character bearing the name of a famous proto-Protestant martyr.

Knowledge about the historical Sir John Oldcastle (known also as Lord Cobham) adds a remarkable complexity to Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2—a complexity certainly present for Shakespeare’s original audience. Oldcastle was a knight who served Henry IV in battles in France and Wales, who was famous for his courage in battle, and who was known to have once been held in high esteem by Prince Hal. At the time Shakespeare was writing his Henry IV, Part 2, Sir John’s reputation was being hotly debated.1 Everyone knew that Oldcastle had been put to death in a particularly gruesome manner early in Hal’s reign as King Henry V; what was at issue was whether Oldcastle died a martyr to Catholic persecution or whether he was a heretic/traitor whose death was richly deserved.

The story of Hal and Sir John—as told in Holinshed’s Chronicles, Shakespeare’s major source for his English history plays—begins in the Chronicles’ account of the first year of Hal’s kingship as Henry V.2 In that year Sir John was accused of heresy against the Roman Catholic church. We know from other records that Oldcastle believed that the Bible should be made available in English for lay people to read, that he did not grant allegiance to the pope, and that he held other religious views that would in later centuries be called “Protestant.” At the time, he was called a “Lollard” and a heretic.

When Oldcastle was accused of heresy, the archbishop of Canterbury, knowing Oldcastle “to be highly in the king’s favor, declared to his highness the whole accusation. The king, first having compassion” on Oldcastle, told the archbishop that Oldcastle could better be returned to the fold of the church through gentleness rather than harshness. The king then sent for Oldcastle “and right earnestly exhorted him, and lovingly admonished him to reconcile himself to God and to his laws.”

The lord Cobham [i.e., Oldcastle] not only thanked him [i.e., the king] for his most favorable clemency, but also declared first to him by mouth and afterwards by writing, the foundation of his faith and the ground of his belief, affirming his Grace to be his supreme head and competent judge, and none other person. . . .

Henry V at this point sent Oldcastle to the Tower of London—as the Chronicles puts it, the king understood and was “persuaded by his council that, by order of the laws of his realm, such accusations touching matters of faith ought to be tried by his spiritual prelates.” Soon after, in “solemn sessions” in St Paul’s Cathedral and “in the hall of the Black friers in London,” Oldcastle “was examined . . . and fully heard.” He was denounced as a heretic by the archbishop of Canterbury and was sent “back again to the Tower of London,” from which he escaped.

A few months later Henry V was warned that a large assembly of armed men was seeking his life under the captaincy of Lord Cobham. Henry

by proclamation promised a thousand marks to [anyone] that could bring [Oldcastle] forth, with great liberties to the cities or towns that would discover [i.e., reveal] where he was. By this it may appear how greatly he [i.e., Oldcastle] was beloved, that there could not one be found that for so great a reward would bring him to light.

Oldcastle was not captured at this time, but many others were; they were convicted of heresy and treason and put to death by hanging, quartering, and burning. According to the Chronicles,

Some say the occasion of their death was only for the conveying of the Lord Cobham out of prison. Others write that it was both for treason and heresy. . . . Certain affirm that it was for feigned causes surmised by the spirituality [i.e., church officials], more upon displeasure than truth, and that they were assembled [not to kill the king, but] to hear their preacher . . . in that place there, out of the way from resort [i.e., gathering] of people, sith [i.e., since] they might not come together openly . . . without danger to be apprehended; as the manner is, and hath been ever of the persecuted flock when they are prohibited publicly the exercise of their religion. But howsoever the matter went with these men, apprehended they were, and divers of them executed. . . .

The Hal/Oldcastle story picks up in the Chronicles three years later (in 1417), when Oldcastle and his men are sought by five thousand armed men protecting the lord of Abergavenny against a supposed attack from Oldcastle. Oldcastle’s hiding place was discovered and some of his most trusted men captured. Found among his possessions were some religious books,

written in English, and some of those books in times past had been trimly gilt, limned, and beautified with images, the heads whereof had been scraped off, and in the Litany they had blotted forth the name of Our Lady [i.e., the Virgin Mary] and of other saints. . . . Divers writings were found there also, in derogation of such honor as then was thought due Our Lady. The Abbot of Saint Albans sent the book so disfigured with scrapings and blottings out, with other such writings as there were found, unto the King,

who sent the book to the archbishop of Canterbury for the archbishop to exhibit “in his sermons at Paul’s Cross in London” so that “the citizens and other people of the realm might understand the purposes of those that then were called Lollards, to bring them further into discredit with the people.”

Later in that same year Oldcastle himself was badly wounded and captured; he was charged with heresy and high treason. At that time an assembly was under way in London “for the levying of money to furnish the king’s great charges . . . [for] the maintenance of his wars in France.”

It was therefore determined that the said Sir John Oldcastle should be brought and put to his trial [before] the assembly brake up. [He was] brought to London in a litter, wounded as he was. Herewith, being first laid fast in the Tower, shortly after he was brought before the duke of Bedford, regent of the realm, and the other estates, where in the end he was condemned; and finally was drawn from the Tower unto saint Giles field, and there hanged in a chain by the middle, and after consumed with fire, the gallows and all.

Some editors have argued that Shakespeare chose the name of Oldcastle without thought, taking it from an earlier play about Prince Hal called The Famous Victories of Henry V. (In that play Oldcastle, Hal’s companion, serves some of the functions of Falstaff in Henry IV, Part 2, though he has a much less important role.) But given current awareness of the prominence in Shakespeare’s day of the debate about Oldcastle’s martyrdom/treachery, it seems unlikely to editors today that Oldcastle was introduced by Shakespeare into the Henry IV plays casually or that the name was chosen carelessly.

While it is impossible to know why Shakespeare, in his Henry IV plays, chose to portray Oldcastle as a comic figure,3 it is clear that the plays have a deeper resonance when one knows Oldcastle’s history. This is most true, perhaps, of the conclusion of Henry IV, Part 2, a scene which is often called “the banishment of Falstaff.” The newly crowned King Henry V certainly banishes Falstaff (and all his former tavern friends) from the royal presence, and does so in harsh language: “I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers” (5.5.47). While in the conclusion to this speech the new king shows some compassion, offering Falstaff subsistence and suggesting that the old knight’s “reform” may in the future win him some “advancement” or promotion, the events that conclude the play seem seriously to threaten Falstaff, especially when one is aware of his historical prototype’s fate. Shallow can be understood to allude to Oldcastle’s grisly death when he predicts for Falstaff “A color [with wordplay on “collar” or hangman’s noose] that I fear you will die in” (line 88). Officers then arrive to take Falstaff off to prison. If these moments were present in the Oldcastle version of the play, those in Shakespeare’s audience convinced that Oldcastle was a traitor to Christianity and to the king would have found in these moments a special kind of pleasure; for those in the audience who agreed with John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs that Oldcastle died a courageous if terrible death at his former friend’s hand, the moments would have carried instead a somber undertone. Audiences today tend to divide in their responses to Henry V and to Falstaff: some see Falstaff as a threat to the kingdom and approve Henry V’s harsh treatment of the drunken knight in Henry IV, Part 2 and in Henry V (see, e.g., Kenneth Branagh’s film of Henry V); others find Falstaff human and sympathetic and see Henry V as cold and self-serving (see, e.g., the film My Own Private Idaho). Awareness of the historical reality of the Henry V/Oldcastle relationship can no doubt be used to support either view.

In addition, awareness of the religious beliefs for which Oldcastle died makes us listen to the language of Henry IV, Part 2 with new ears. The character we now know as Falstaff is given language heavily dependent on the Bible. For example, his first substantial speech in the play alludes to the Book of Genesis (2.7 and 3.19) in characterizing “man” as “foolish-compounded clay” (1.2.7). He then attacks the satin merchant Master Dommelton by calling him “Achitophel” (1.2.36), the name of the traitor who conspires against King David in 2 Samuel 15–17. (For further biblical allusions in Falstaff ’s dialogue, in his letter [read by Prince Hal], and in references to him, see 2.1.150–51; 2.2.129, 149.) Again, while it is impossible to know how Shakespeare expected his audience to respond if such language issued from the mouth of a character named Sir John Oldcastle, it seems unlikely that the character would have been given so much biblical language by mere coincidence. At the very least, the language reminds us that swirling around the seemingly timeless comic figure of Falstaff are Reformation controversies still powerfully present in Shakespeare’s day.

  1. See Peter Corbin and Douglas Sedge, eds., The Oldcastle Controversy (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991), pp. 1–33.
  2. The quotations from the Chronicles are taken from Raphael Holinshed, The Third Volume of Chronicles (1586), pp. 544, 560, 561. (These passages are also reprinted in The Oldcastle Controversy, pp. 216–22.)
  3. Whatever the changes that may have accompanied the alteration of the name Oldcastle to Falstaff, it seems clear that the Oldcastle character was, in fact, designed to be comic, “a buffoon.” In a letter written by Richard James in 1625 and attached to his manuscript edition of The Legend and defence of ye noble Knight and Martyr Sir Jhon Oldcastle, we read “in Shakespeare’s first show of Harry the fifth [i.e., Henry IV, Part 1], the person with which he undertook to play a buffoon was not Falstaff, but Sir John Oldcastle . . .” (printed in The Oldcastle Controversy, p. 10; we have modernized the spelling).