Welcome to a Super Special Essay! Much like when the Babysitters Club or Sweet Valley High had adventures a bit outside of their usual, this is my first essay for this site to focus on a man. DON’T WORRY: as a special bonus, it turns out that this man was married to ONE OF THE COOLEST WOMAN WHO EVER LIVED and I talk about her as well.
So, the thing is that Henry V was only King for a short period of time, and most of the victories he managed were mostly undone basically right after he died. Like, if Shakespeare hadn’t written three plays about him, he’d be far less known and less celebrated. Why did Shakespeare write about him? No idea. But there’s something compelling about his life story, as evidenced by the Netflix film The King, starring Timothée Chalamet. So, to catch us all up on just who this man was and why he matters (and if he matters?), here we go.
Back in the days before people had last names, royals were referred to by their first name + the name of the city where they were born. Hence, our hero is aka Henry of Monmouth, which is the name of the castle in Wales where he was born in 1386. His parents were named Henry of Bolingbroke and Mary du Bohun, and they were all part of the royal family. Right away this gets mega complicated but we can get through this together. So Henry’s grandfather was John of Gaunt, who was the son of the previous King, Edward III. John of Gaunt was also the guardian of the current king, who was a boy named Richard II who was Henry’s first cousin once removed. Got it? OK great, because it gets more complicated.
SO, Henry’s father Henry Sr. was exiled in 1398 for (reasons), at which point Richard II (who was now an adult) took over raising the younger Henry. Richard took Henry up to hang out in Ireland and Henry was still there when, one year later, John of Gaunt died and also, more importantly, Richard II was overthrown by the returning Henry Sr., who took over the throne and became King Henry IV. So now Henry Jr. was heir to the throne, which meant time for him to come back to England from Ireland. On November 10th, 1399, the twelve-year-old Henry of Monmouth was created Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall, Earl of Chester, and Duke of Aquitaine (yes, all at once).
Then in 1402, aged fifteen, Henry was placed in charge of the English forces in a major military mission. This was at the time when it was totally normal and fine for Kings and heirs to the throne to literally lead military missions, which seems very risky but was a big part of being a King/Prince back then. First, Henry led an army into Wales against the very notorious Welsh rebel Owain Glyndŵr (who was very interesting and very determined to free Wales from English rule). Do you know who one of the Welsh people was fighting with Owain? Another guy also named Owain, in this instance Owain ap Maredudd ap Tudur. Wait, Tudur? That looks sort of like Tudor… and yes, it does because his Anglicized name is OWEN TUDOR. That’s right, this Welsh soldier just hanging out and fighting for his homeland is the first entree of a Tudor into the narrative of the English royal family!
Following this campaign, Henry teamed up with his father to fight Henry “Hotspur” Percy, an Englishman who had allied with Owain against the monarchy and who supported the Welsh rebels. Their battle is now known as the Battle of Shrewsbury, and it culminated in Hotspur being killed and 16-year-old Henry getting an arrow to the face. Now, you’d think this would have killed him but it did not due in large part to Henry having access to one of the greatest doctors of this era. His genius physician used all the most cutting-edge Medieval treatments, including using the antiseptic properties of honey, along with a hastily-invented sort of corkscrew/fusilli-shaped tool used to extract the arrow shaft from Henry’s FACE, guess what: he survived with a cool scar, totally fine! And his first order of business was to continue leading his army against his nemesis, Owain “yes he’s still around being amazing and with the best-ever name” Glyndŵr and his trusty soldier, Owen Tudor!
After a few years of battling against Owain (and Owen), Henry had to head back to London to help out because his father Henry IV had fallen ill with, we’re not sure what, but it involved a lot of pustules, was possibly leprosy and sounds pretty fucking horrifying. Like his eyeballs were dehydrated. And it was the fifteenth century so I can’t think of anything worse. So it was that Henry Jr. swung by and took over some of the politics-based King-adjacent work, working alongside his uncles Henry Beaufort (because every man in this story is named Henry) and Thomas Beaufort. (Recognize that surname? You should!). And rather than just keeping things status quo, Henry Jr. ruled with a firm hand and changed things up to introduce his own policies. But when his father was feeling better (or had his pustules drained or whatever), Henry Sr. popped back on the scene and un-did all of the changes Henry Jr. had made. Fathers, am I right?
NOW here’s where things get complicated again. So the thing is, almost definitely, the Beaufort uncles both wanted to kick Henry IV off the throne for being a pretty shitty King (sidenote: they were not incorrect, Henry IV was, in addition to a man with dehydrated raisin eyeballs, not a very good King). But Henry Jr. did not want to do that, and so — possibly — his enemies, like the Beaufort uncles, began spreading rumours that Henry Jr. was a wildly irresponsible party animal. It’s this approach that Shakespeare uses in his plays Henry IV parts 1 and 2 (which, despite the title, are actually mostly about Henry Jr., not about his leprosy-ridden father). What we know for sure is what Henry looked like which was tall (at 6’3″, he was the tallest-ever King of England, still to this day!) and slim, clean-shaven, with a prominent, pointy nose, and he wore his dark hair just like Timothée Chalamet in The King — in a sort of pudding bowl style.
But Henry Sr.’s return to power was short-lived as he died two years later. Right away, Henry Jr. was crowned as King Henry V. His coronation ceremony was held on April 9, 1413, and there was an unseasonal blizzard-y snowstorm going on which was so unusual that nobody could decide if it was a good omen or a bad omen. In a similar way to how he began acting decisively while filling in for his father, Henry V started his reign with a clear vision and lots of plans to reach his goals. Just as his own father had undone Henry’s changes during his previous brief quasi-reign, Henry himself now undid his father’s undoing of his own things he did… you see what I mean. But the effect of this was that this Henry wanted to make nice with the Welsh and do you know who he invited to come hang out with him at royal court? OWEN TUDOR. Yes, it was Henry V himself who personally invited the TUDORS INTO THE CASTLE. Forget the blizzard at his coronation, this is retroactively a WORLD CHANGING TWIST.
So, another of Henry’s ambitions was to unite all of the various factions who’d been battling against one another for decades. For instance, he had the body of Richard II dug up from its not-very-Kingly grave and re-interred as better suited a King (this also had the benefit of calming down some Richard II Truthers who were convinced that the past King had never actually died). Henry also restored lands and fortunes to noble families who had suffered under his father’s and cousin’s previous reigns, building trust back up among the noble families of England.
He also acted decisively when faced by internal threats, such as when he ordered the execution in 1417 of a man named Sir John Oldcastle who had been involved in a nascent rebellion. Of note: Oldcastle is the inspiration for Shakespeare’s character of Sir John Falstaff in the Henry plays, so just imagine those plays ending with Henry killing the comic relief, because that’s what happened in real life! In fact, Shakespeare had initially called that character Oldcastle but when the surviving Oldcastle family members complained, he changed it to Falstaff. But for this and other reasons, Henry’s reign was marked by far less internal conflict that his predecessors, which was great because he had bigger plans in mind and needed all of England working together. One way that he worked toward building a national English identity was by promoting the use of the English language, making it officially the language of record within government.
With things basically settled at home, Henry set to work on foreign affairs. First up: war with the French! Why? Because it’s there, basically! But also because Henry’s great-grandfather Edward III had a dynastic claim to the throne of France, and Henry wanted to take it over. As it so happens, the French King at this time was Charles VI, known as Charles The Mad due to his mental illness which made him think he was made of glass. Monarchs with mental health issues historically have not fared well in Medieval Europe and Charles was no exception, as his inability to rule effectively led to lots of in-fighting among the nobles. Oh also, remember Henry’s old nemesis the Welsh rebel Owain Glyndŵr? Well, France had provided him support in his ongoing quest for Welsh independence, so that was yet another reason Henry wanted to attack the French. But don’t worry about Owen Tudor, he was now happy siding with the British at this point.
And so it was that on August 12, 1415, Henry sailed over to France with his forces. They captured the fortress at Harfleur on September 22, then marched across the French countryside to Calais for round two. On October 25, French soldiers intercepted them near the village of Agincourt and a very very very famous battle ensued! Despite the English troops being malnourished, exhausted, and outnumbered by the French, Henry was like, “Let’s gooooo!!!” and, in fact, the scrappy English forces 100% destroyed the French. This is still known as one of the greatest military victories in English history. Now, were the English better at fighting? Did Henry’s speech inspire his troops to superhuman skill levels? Or was it just so muddy that the French got bogged down and the English just stabbed them while they were stuck in the mud? Five thousand million military historians have written about this, and I’m sure you can find their takes on it if that interests you.
Henry continued to dominate with his exceptional combined skills at strategy and battle, and again, so many military historians have written about this and I’m not going to get into it all. Here’s a summary. But basically, Henry never took his eyes off of the prize which was taking over France. So, in 1417, he roared back into France where he a) conquered Normandy and then b) sieged Rouen, cutting it off from Paris. The women and children in Rouen all began starving, and so they tried to flee — assuming that Henry would let them go but he did not! And so the women and children all starved to death in ditches outside of Rouen. This is obviously gross and terrible by most standards, but by the standards of 15th-century warfare meant that Henry was doing great vis-a-vis reaching his goals as, in January 1419, Rouen fell and was claimed by the English. By that August, Henry’s forces had reached Paris.
So, the King was still Charles “thinks he’s made of glass” VI, who continued to be unable to rule effectively at all. Things in France were just like 100% infighting 24/7 without a strong leader like England had in Henry. One of the most notable figures there was the King’s heir, the Dauphin (played in The King by Robert Pattinson), who was just like shifty eyes, scheming all over the damn place. When Henry arrived in town, the Dauphin and his friends were like, “Oh hey girl hey!! No hard feelings, right?” and, basically, agreed that Henry was the new heir to the French throne/regent while Charles VI was still incapable of ruling. Like, they just let him take over.
As per ever in this sort of situation, the deal was cemented by marrying Henry off to the Dauphin’s sister, Catherine of Valois. Fun fact: Catherine was the younger sister of Isabella of Valois, who had been married to Richard II. Also a fun fact: unlike many many many other dirtbag Kings of England, before and after him, Henry V held himself to a strict moral code and refused to have sex with anyone until he was married. Which is partly why he only fathered one child but #spoiler, we’ll get to that in the next paragraph. Oh and also please note that: Catherine of Valois becomes VERY IMPORTANT TO GLOBAL HISTORY in a bit.
Henry and Catherine were married 1420, and their son, also called Henry (because that’s the only male name in existence apparently) was born the following year. Being married and having a baby didn’t change anything in Henry’s life really, as he continued leading armies into battle and just taking names and winning everything all the time. But the thing is, when his army went on battles without him, they didn’t always go super-well. Case in point, his brother Thomas had led a campaign in France that wound up in a horrible defeat that included Thomas himself getting killed. Henry was like, “Must I do everything myself? OK, clearly yes,” and so he sailed back over to England to fix his brother’s mess. And he did! But then he suddenly and unexpectedly died, possibly of heatstroke (???) from riding in full armour in very hot weather (????) which just feels so tragically preventable. He died on August 31, 1422, aged 35. His reign had lasted just nine years.
Having died in France, Henry’s body was returned to England by his trusted comrade, John Sutton. Henry V was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey, as per his request.
Before he died, Henry had named his brother John as the regent for the new king, his baby son Henry — who became King Henry VI at the age of nine months. Henry was never crowned King of France, as Charles “thinks he was made of glass” VI outlived him by two months, making baby Henry the first (and ultimately, only) crowned King of England and France. Baby Henry VI would grow up to be one of the most useless Kings in English history, as his admirable but contemporaneously inappropriate commitment to pacifism lost most of the land Henry V had gained for Britain. In fact, Henry VI was the final Lancaster King because… well:
After Henry V died, 21-year-old gorgeous Catherine was a single mother of Baby King Henry VI and also, a widow. A few months after Henry V’s death, Catherine’s father Charles “thought he was made of glass” VI died, meaning her baby son was now the dual King of England and France. So she wasn’t in a specifically powerful role herself, but if she chose to marry again, that man would likely become extremely important as the King’s stepfather. And rumour had it that Catherine had set her sights on her dead husband’s cousin, Edmund Beaufort. But her baby King son’s advisors didn’t want her to marry him, so they passed a pretty insulting law that basically said “Dowager Queens can’t get married unless the King approves, but if the King is a little baby, then they can’t marry. Plus, whoever she marries, that man has to forfeit all of his land.” And Catherine, offended at the obvious ridiculousness of this entire situation said, quote, “I shall marry a man so basely, yet gently born, that my lord regents may not object.”
Which is how and why she hooked up with her sexy young Welsh servant, OWEN TUDOR, that’s right, he’s back on the scene! Did he and Catherine get married? Unclear! But being married to the Dowager Queen suddenly increased the prestige of Owen’s whole family, and so their six children (yes, they had six children) were suddenly highly prestigious and notable rich people about town. Which is how and why when their son Edmund Tudor grew up, he was able to marry the highly eligible (and 12-year-old) Margaret Beaufort. It’s Edmund and Margaret’s son, Henry Tudor, who went on to usurp the throne from Richard III to become the first-ever Tudor monarch. As such, Catherine of Valois and her Welsh lover are the great-great-grandparents of both Mary I and Elizabeth I (as well as the great-great-great-grandparents of Mary Queen of Scots). By which I mean: Catherine and Owen’s lust literally changed the entire course of world history because without Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, England may not have emerged as a colonial world power, which means maybe the USA would never have happened, which means WTF would the world even be like right now??
And then because this bit is too interesting not to share with you: legendary Welsh hero Owain Glyndŵr disappears from all historical record in 1412 (which was around the time Henry V was tending to his leprosy-ridden father). Did Owain die? Maybe. Or MAYBE NOT. Did he, instead, adopt the persona of former Franciscan monk and Welsh poet Jack of Kent aka Siôn Cent?? (This book suggests he did). Whatever his fate, Owain continues to be remembered as a Welsh national hero, and a version of his character pops up in Shakespeare’s Henry IV as “Owen Glendower.”
But back to Henry V: his reign may have been brief, but his legend has loomed large primarily due to Shakespeare telling his life story in the plays Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V. In these plays, the King appears initially as the fun-loving “Prince Hal,” and is shown to mature into an effective and serious King by the third play. Henry V itself has been made into several films including a 1944 film starring Laurence Olivier, a 1989 film starring Kenneth Branagh (with Emma Thompson as Catherine!). The full sequence has been filmed as part of the 2012 miniseries The Hollow Crown (with Tom Hiddleston as Henry and Mélanie Thierry as Catherine), as well as inspiring the 2019 Netflix film The King (with Timothée Chalamet as Henry and Lily-Rose Depp as Catherine).