Monday, 21 March 2011

God for Harry?

Today, 21 March, is the anniversary of the accession of Henry V in 1413.

Henry is best known for leading the English armies to victory at Harfleur and Agincourt, largely thanks to Shakespeare, who put some stirring speeches into his mouth:

And you, good yeomen,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

The reality is less dramatic. Henry V was the son of a usurper. In the early part of his reign he had to contend with religious difficulties and rebellion in England.
Shakespeare compressed the events of several years into his play. The victory at Agincourt was followed by protracted negotiations; it was not until 1420 that the treaty of Troyes secured for Henry Catherine de Valois as his wife and the promise of the French crown after the death of the then king, Charles VI.

Henry’s military success proved ephemeral; he had to spend the remainder of his reign fighting to hold onto his conquests. He died of dysentery in 1422 while on campaign in France.

Henry’s death when his son was an infant of nine months led to a long period of unstable government and ultimately to the Wars of the Roses. Henry might have served his country better if he had stayed at home, where he might have lived until his son reached his majority.

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