Behaving badly: Henry V's misspent youth

He’s widely feted as one of England’s greatest medieval kings but, for much of his early life, Henry looked more like a dithering also-ran than a statesman in the making. Anne Curry explores the growing pains of the hero of Agincourt.
 
This article was first published in the March 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

On Friday 25 October 1415, in a muddy field in Picardy, the reputation of Henry V as a great warrior king was sealed. His victory over the French at Agincourt had a major effect on his position both at home and abroad. Even before he returned to England, a grateful parliament had granted him all revenue from customs duties – a sizeable income – for life. As for the French, they never again dared to face him in battle.

So Henry was able to conquer the whole of Normandy and advance on Paris, exploiting the divisions in France – between the Burgundian and Armagnac factions – that the defeat at Agincourt had exacerbated. The treaty of Troyes, signed in May 1420, sealed Henry’s acceptance as regent to Charles VI (‘The Mad’) and – through marriage to Charles’s daughter Katherine – heir to the throne of France. It seemed only a matter of time before he would rule over both England and France.

At the parliament held at Westminster in December 1420, the chancellor explained why the English had “special cause to honour and thank God” for the deeds and victories of the king. He had recovered the ancient rights of the English crown in France. He had destroyed heresy in the realm – a reference to his actions against Sir John Oldcastle and the Lollards (critics of the established church) in 1414. And, in his youth, he had put down rebellion in Wales.

In short, though Henry’s untimely death in 1422 curtailed the fulfilment of his plans, his career was, on the face of it, a complete success. As Thomas Walsingham, author of The St Albans Chronicle, expressed in a panegyric for the dead king: “He was a warrior, famous and blessed with good fortune who, in every war he undertook, always came away with victory.”

But had Henry always been so successful? Let us reflect on Henry’s life before he became king.

 
This 15th-century illustration depicts Henry, then Prince of Wales, paying homage to the French king Charles VI. The Treaty of Troyes, signed in 1420, saw Henry named Charles’s regent; by marrying the latter’s daughter, Katherine, Henry secured his position as heir to the French throne. (Credit: Bridgeman Images)
 

There are ample reasons to believe that Henry the prince was a far cry from Henry the king. In Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, Shakespeare portrays him as a medieval ‘hooray Henry’. In those plays, the prince chooses bad company; though wealthy, he prefers the low life and petty criminality; and it is only at his father’s deathbed and his own subsequent coronation that he reforms himself – becoming as excessively ‘correct’ as he was once so ‘incorrect’ for his social and political position. But was this fact as well as Shakespearean fiction?

The first ‘published’ comments on Henry’s bad behaviour so far unearthed appear in the Latin lives written about him in the late 1430s. In the anonymous Vita et Gesta Henrici Quinti (often called the Pseudo-Elmham), Henry is described as being in his youth “an assiduous cultivator of lasciviousness…passing the bounds of modesty he was the fervent soldier of Venus as well as Mars; youthlike he was fired by her torches and in the midst of worthy works of war found leisure for excesses common to ungoverned age”. The work devotes much space to his last-minute repentance to his father for his bad behaviour.

We could dismiss all of this as simply a good story – except that it was dealt with at great length, and in a work known to have drawn information from one of Henry’s courtiers: Walter, Lord Hungerford.

In another work, the Vita Henrici Quinti by Tito Livio Frulovisi (now believed to have been derived from the Vita et Gesta), stories of a misspent youth and late change of heart are shorter, but remain. Given this work’s links with Henry’s last surviving brother, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, and the status of both works as eulogies for Henry V, we have to assume that the accounts of his youth are basically true – as are those of the well-publicised change of character at his accession.

There are many intriguing facets to Prince Henry. For one thing, he had not been born to be king. Until just after his 13th birthday, in September 1399, he was merely the eldest son of the eldest son of a collateral line of King Richard II . He stood to inherit, in time, the duchy of Lancaster created for his grandfather John of Gaunt (d1399), the third son of Edward III. He was also to be bequeathed the earldom of Derby held by his father, Henry Bolingbroke (d1413), and the titles brought to the family by his co-heiress mother, Mary (d1394), daughter of Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Northampton, Essex and Hereford (d1373).

So the career that lay ahead for the “young lord Henry” or “Lord Henry, son of the Earl of Derby”, as he is described in the financial records of his father and grandfather, was that of a peer – but at the time it seemed that he might have to wait many years for his inheritance.

 

Tom Mison plays Prince Hal, with David Yelland as the old king, in a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I. The play portrays Hal as a medieval ‘hooray Henry’. (Credit: Rex)
 

As it was, his life was completely transformed – first, in October 1398, by the exile of his father by Richard II; and then, the following September, by Bolingbroke’s return to England and usurpation of the throne as Henry IV.

On 15 October 1399, two days after his father’s coronation, Henry was created Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall and Earl of Chester, and was acknowledged as heir to the throne. Later in October, the title Duke of Aquitaine was added and, on 10 November, that of Duke of Lancaster.

Given the fragile political position of the new dynasty, Prince Henry was a vital cog in its establishment and, as such, shared in its problems – indeed, he experienced them even before the usurpation. In May 1399 the young Henry was taken to Ireland by Richard II , seemingly in an attempt to ensure his father’s good behaviour. It failed: in the king’s absence, Bolingbroke invaded England.

 

Education in arms

Henry was then 12 years old, an age at which it was customary for noble boys to begin gaining experience of military service, though they were not expected to actually participate in the fighting. So in the summer of 1400 he was assigned a company of troops within the huge army – over 13,000 strong – that his father took to Scotland.

Then, as the army returned to England, the Welsh revolt began. The historian Adam Chapman has observed that it was no coincidence that Owain Glyndŵr declared himself Prince of Wales on 16 September 1400 – the 14th birthday of the formal holder of the title, Prince Henry. Only six months later, the latter found himself involved in his first siege, at Conwy.

It is not surprising that the teenage prince learned under the tutelage of advisors appointed by his father. The young Henry held a number of nominal commands but was always guided by others, including Henry Hotspur, son of the Earl of Northumberland, and Hotspur’s uncle, Thomas Percy, Earl of Worcester, who was appointed Prince Henry’s governor at the end of 1401.

Yet these were the very men who, in 1403, rebelled against Henry IV and his son. So the battle of Shrewsbury on 21 July, when he faced his erstwhile mentors, must have been a chastening experience for the prince – not least because he was wounded by an arrow that pierced his left cheek. The surgeon John Bradmore removed the arrowhead, but the wound put the prince out of action for a year or so.

Even as Henry entered his late teens, his father was reluctant to give him complete authority in the Welsh wars. The young prince was neither wholly committed nor effective, and constantly complained of being kept short of funds. Alongside praise for the prince’s good heart and courage, the speaker of the parliament of March 1406 also urged that he should maintaincontinual residence in Wales for the sake of the wars – an indication that he had not been attentive to his duties.

All did not go well with the prince’s campaigns. In 1407, at the siege of Aberystwyth, Henry theatrically negotiated its peaceful surrender, withdrawing his troops; Glyndwˆ r, though, simply occupied the castle. Aberystwyth remained in rebel hands until September 1408 and was recovered, as was Harlech in 1409, not by the prince in person but by those to whom he delegated.

 
This late 15th century illustration shows prisoners being taken at Agincourt. Some of Henry’s earlier military endeavours had not met with such success. (Credit: Alamy)
 

Sickly and sexed up

As the late Welsh historian Rees Davies observed, the prince’s personal role in Wales was limited. Chroniclers of the wars scarcely mention him at all. He seems to have preferred to stay in the relative safety of the English border towns and, increasingly, to spend his time in and around London.

In 1409 he was appointed constable of Dover Castle and warden of the Cinque Ports but so far no evidence has been found to show that he went to Dover or Calais, the captaincy of which he gained in March 1410. Yet in 1412, the prince was investigated for misappropriating the garrison’s wages.

The overall impression formed from the sources is that King Henry IV was slow to let his son have his head, but that, as the prince grew up, his father could not hold him back. It is notable how, once he turned 21, Prince Henry began to build up his own support. Fifty-one new grants of annuities were made in the year following Michaelmas 1407, a big increase on the average for the previous six years of less than ten.

Many of Henry’s circle were nonentities, which fans the notion that he associated with unsuitable people. It also seems that he promoted favourites such as Thomas, Earl of Arundel, and Richard Courtenay, whom Henry had appointed as bishop of Norwich after his accession. Comments made by Courtenay in 1415 tell us that Henry suffered from being overweight and in bad health, and that he was of the opinion that there were no decent doctors in England.

There’s more evidence for a sickly Prince Henry in his household accounts listing purchases of medicines. These records also suggest that he may have lived beyond his means, partly because of the large payments he made to retainers. Thomas Walsingham speaks of his retinue in 1412 being “larger than any seen before these days”. Intriguingly, too, in 1415 Courtenay observed that Henry had not had sexual relations with any woman since he came to the throne – the implication being that, as the Vita et Gesta suggests, he had been notably promiscuous before his accession.

As prince and heir, we would expect Henry to have had a place on the royal council. This was the case from at least the end of 1406, when he was 20. As the medievalist Christopher Allmand observes, Prince Henry attended a good proportion of meetings but was increasingly advancing the interests of key friends and relations – including his father’s half-brother, Henry Beaufort – and challenging the power of the chancellor, Thomas Arundel, archbishop of Canterbury. Indeed, Henry’s growing influence may have contributed to Arundel’s decision to resign from the chancellorship in December 1409.

 
Henry married Katherine of Valois, daughter of Charles VI of France, on 2 June 1420. This painting of 1487 is from the Chroniques de France ou de Saint Denis. (Credit: AKG images)
 

Yet, in November 1411, it seems that the prince’s influence over the council abruptly ended. There is no doubt that Henry’s relations with his father, and with his brother, Thomas, were bad: there were major differences of opinion on foreign policy, and a study of diplomatic relations with Burgundy suggests that the prince was making offers he was simply not entitled to issue. He was  also outraged not to be chosen to lead an expedition to Aquitaine in the summer of 1412.

The seriousness of the situation is reflected in a letter sent by Prince Henry from Coventry on 17 June 1412, a missive that was clearly intended to reach a wide audience. It addressed rumours accusing him of plotting to rebel against his father and seize the throne.

Father and son became reconciled but, according to the chronicler Thomas Walsingham, Henry IV refused to punish immediately those who had spread the rumours; instead, he ordered that sanctions should wait until the next parliament, when they could be tried by their peers. This could only mean that the prince’s detractors were noblemen. Interestingly, the Latin lives made much of Henry’s last-minute reform and confession to his father – does this suggest that, despite his protestations, he might have had a guilty conscience?

Henry the prince emerges as a complex character: not always living up to expectations, making enemies and choosing unsuitable friends. He was brave but flawed, and always prioritised his own desires. Six centuries after he assumed the throne, it’s worth remembering that the road to his achievement as all-conquering hero of Agincourt was often a rocky one.

Professor Anne Curry is the dean of the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Southampton.

We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here