Was Henry V really ‘the greatest man who ever ruled England’?

Henry V, the medieval English king best known for his extraordinary victory over the French at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, has oft been considered a heroic figure, and is even to some ‘the greatest man who ever ruled England’. His deeds were notably immortalised in Shakespeare’s play Henry V, a work which has to a great extent shaped popular understanding of his character, and even given rise to recent film adaptations such as David Michôd’s The King (2019), which have further established his long-running reputation as a royal military hero.


However, despite his position as one of England’s most significant monarchs, Henry V was not without fault; his cruel and reckless military tactics and the collapse of his unsustainable achievements shortly after his untimely death have led many to question the elevated reputation he has held throughout history. He is clearly a divisive figure, even to this day: comedian David Mitchell recently described him as a ‘nasty, warmongering’ king when he appeared at Cheltenham Literary Festival to promote his new book Unruly: A History of England’s Kings and Queens, and modern productions of Shakespeare’s play now take a more sceptical view of its eponymous protagonist. However, these negative appraisals of the king have equally been opposed by those who still believe in his greatness, such as historian Dominic Sandbrook, who suggests it’s ‘high time somebody stood up for Henry V’. Such variety of opinion is a testament to the complex nature of Henry’s reign and speaks to the difficulty of passing judgment on whether he can truly be considered one of England’s greatest monarchs.


A National Military Hero
It is important to acknowledge that there is certainly a reasonable basis to support the high estimation of Henry V throughout history. After the tumultuous reigns of Richard II and Henry IV, which were marred by political unrest and even deposition, his campaign to conquer France was a uniting force, mustering national enthusiasm (as evidenced by the generous parliamentary taxation that funded his efforts) and ultimately establishing England as a dominant power in Europe. The famous Battle of Agincourt in 1415, where the English army of c.6,000 decisively defeated a much larger French army of c.20,000-30,000, was an extraordinary military achievement that ‘paved the way’ to further conquests and the Treaty of Troyes in 1420, while also securing Henry’s position as a national hero; his return to England saw an ‘outpouring of nationalistic sentiment’ and lavish celebrations as he arrived in London. By the time of his early death at the age of 35 in 1422, the king’s military achievements abroad had fostered a sense of national unity unseen in the reigns of his recent predecessors, and bolstered England’s position, taking control of significant swathes of French territory and even being named heir to the French crown (as per the Treaty of Troyes). Thus, Shakespeare’s portrayal of Henry V as a figure of heroic kingship and his traditionally positive reputation are not wholly unjustified; such striking achievements can certainly be considered a mark of greatness.


The Cruel Costs of Greatness
However, this momentary greatness came at a severe cost. While some would argue that comments such as those made by David Mitchell are anachronistic, there is more than enough evidence that reveals the terrible cruelty with which Henry achieved his great victories. For instance, at Agincourt, he ordered 200 English archers to execute many of the French prisoners they had taken, an act clearly violating the rule of war. His later campaigns were similarly characterised by inexcusable brutality: according to a Venetian chronicler, 1800 men and boys were murdered after he took the Norman town of Caen in 1417, ordering that any male over the age of 12 should be killed. Similar atrocities occurred during the rest of his campaign, including at Pontoise (1419), Melun (1420), Rougemont (1421) and Meaux (1422). Henry’s ruthlessness even extended to his own soldiers – despite sustaining heavy losses at the siege of Harfleur in 1415, he decided to march to battle against the French, a plan considered reckless by his own commanders, and the chronicler Jean de Waurin remarks upon his tendency to execute men for the slightest hint of dissent.


Even if you thought it possible to justify this conduct with the great achievements it supposedly enabled, the ends didn’t last long enough to even begin to justify the means. Henry’s early death and obsessive pursuit of foreign conquest left a challenging legacy – his son, Henry VI, was just 9 months old when he inherited the throne, leaving England without the figurehead it needed to sustain dominance in France. By the time Henry VI reached adulthood, England’s position abroad had severely deteriorated, and this combined with his ineffectual rule meant that rebellion and instability once again overwhelmed England with the start of the Wars of the Roses in 1455. For all that he achieved during his lifetime, the cruelty that enabled it, and the long-term collapse of stability in England that it would bring about severely taint any conception of Henry V as a military hero or a good king.


The Tragedy of his Reign
Ultimately, while Henry V may have achieved glory and success in his reign, he fails to live up to the reputation that has been established for him over time. He was clearly a ruler of rare military and political ability, but chose to pursue a ‘dubious’ foreign war with exceptional cruelty instead of using his talents to focus on domestic stability; C.D. Ross identifies this as the ‘tragedy of his reign’, a tragedy whose consequences rapidly undid the vast majority of his achievements. Thus, while he may be considered a figure of great historical significance, Henry V was a severely flawed ruler and not the icon of heroism and kingship that many have, and still do perceive him as, to this day.


Featured Image: Zach Angelo on Unsplash

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