In the early autumn of 1386, Henry Bolingbroke had cause for celebration. His beloved wife Mary had just given birth to his first son at Monmouth Castle in Wales. For this reason, the boy would be known as Henry of Monmouth. However, history would remember him as Henry V, one of England’s most famous kings and regarded by many as one of its greatest.
This is the story of Henry’s early years. During his youth Henry established a reputation as a formidable soldier and, during his father’s final years, he came to wield significant political power. On acceding to the throne, he rapidly consolidated his position. By 1415, he had supressed any hint of dissent at home and successfully galvanised his nobility in an incredibly ambitious bid to win the French throne.
This, then, is the story of Henry’s journey. A journey that starts as the son of an out of favour nobleman with a questionable future. But which, by 1415, sees Henry emerge as an ambitious and impressive young king intent on founding an empire.
The young Henry of Monmouth absorbed many of his father’s values and interests. His father was a serious, pious, man whose religious beliefs were highly sympathetic to orthodoxy. Henry would grow up to have a similar outlook.
Henry IV ensured his son received an extensive education. Young Henry became fluent in English, French and Latin and, like his father and grandfather before him, built up an extensive personal library.
His father had a passionate love of music, which he shared with his sons. In his youth Henry learnt to play the harp. An accomplished player, he was passionate enough to ensure that a harp accompanied him on campaign in later life.
Henry Bolingbroke firmly established an impressive reputation as a martial man long before he became king. He had an impressive jousting record, won honour on crusade, and was widely respected for exemplifying the chivalric values of his time. He made sure to instil these values in his sons from an early age. Young Henry received an education in the arts of war and, almost as soon as he was old enough, his father entrusted him with military command.
Out of favour
Despite his privileged upbringing and the undoubted wealth of his family, the fact was that Henry’s father was out of favour throughout the late 1380s and 90s.
Bolingbroke was among the Lords Appellant who’d acted against Richard II in 1387/88. Although Bolingbroke had not been one of the ringleaders, it was an act of betrayal for which Richard never forgave him. The consequence was that, whilst Richard remained king, Bolingbroke was denied any significant role in government.
By the late 1390s, Bolingbroke fell even further out of favour. His dispute with Thomas de Mowbray, coupled with Richard’s increasingly erratic behaviour led to his banishment. With his father in exile and his grandfather’s health failing fast, young Henry’s future looked uncertain. Much now depended on the whims of his increasingly paranoid cousin, Richard II.
Henry and Richard II
Henry’s grandfather, John of Gaunt, died early in 1399. His father, already in exile, was quickly disinherited by Richard II. Under the circumstances Henry had good cause to be fearful for his own future. However, as it turned out, Richard had other plans.
In May 1399, Richard embarked for Ireland with a royal army intent on bringing the rebellious Irish to heel. Henry accompanied him as part of the royal party.
When Richard arrived in Ireland in early June, he knighted several young noblemen. Henry was one of these. It seems that Richard had grown fond of young Henry and treated him well during the few months they spent together. When it came to it, and Richard faced certain defeat from Bolingbroke’s rebellion, he chose not to harm his enemy’s son.
Richard II became Bolingbroke’s captive, and his royal household was disbanded. However, the Brut Chronicle tells us that, by this time, a bond of affection had formed between Richard and young Henry. We are told that Henry left Richard’s company with “a sorrowful heart” for “he loved him entirely.” As for Richard, he is quoted as telling Henry:
“I know well there is one Henry shall do me much harm; and I suppose it is not thou.”Richard II to Henry of Monmouth as recorded in the Brut Chronicle
From being the son of an exiled noble, Henry suddenly found himself Prince of Wales and heir to the throne. It was quite a dramatic change in fortune.
Unlike his father, who came to the throne with no experience of government, Henry would benefit from a practical education in the affairs of state. Henry IV was aware of his own lack of experience and was determined to ensure that his sons would not suffer from the same deficiency. Prince Henry therefore found himself thrust into positions of responsibility from an early age.
Henry also had the opportunity to learn from his father’s mistakes. Henry IV made several sweeping promises when he came to power. In many respects he tried to be all things to all men. Promising fiscal restraint on the one hand and glory in war (and all the expense that went with it) on the other. Promising a merciful regime, when it was likely that dealing with Richard II and his supporters would make it very hard to be merciful in the future.
Young Henry of Monmouth watched and learnt.
Henry IV was keen to give his son experience of military command. As a result, young Henry did not have long to wait to experience war first-hand.
The first few years of Henry IV’s reign were somewhat tumultuous. The reality of Richard II’s downfall was beginning to sink in. It was becoming increasingly clear that Henry was struggling to live up to his grand promises and dissent was growing. In Wales Henry faced open rebellion and, to make matters worse, Sir Edmund Mortimer was openly challenging Henry’s legitimacy. Mortimer contended that his nephew, Edmund of March, should be king. This would not necessarily have presented a great threat but for the backing of the Percys.
Henry Percy and his family sided with Mortimer largely out of self-interest. But, whatever their motives, the fact was that they were able to raise a significant army. One that was potentially large enough to topple the young Lancastrian regime.
Baptism of steel
Battle was joined at Shrewsbury in the summer of 1403. It was a hard fight but, ultimately, Henry IV triumphed. The rebellion was quashed.
For the young Henry of Monmouth, it was a significant day. He commanded a section of the Lancastrian army and was heavily involved in the thick of the fighting. He was only 16 years old but played a major role in the Lancastrian victory, launching a fierce assault at a critical moment.
During the attack Henry was seriously wounded in the face by an arrow. The arrowhead lodged in his cheek and had to be removed after the battle. Fortunately, Henry was treated by a skilled surgeon, by the name of John Bradmore. Bradmore used honey and alcohol to sterilise the wound and even invented a special instrument to safely extract the arrowhead. The operation was a success, but it left the young Prince with a permanent facial disfiguration.
Henry’s first battle had been a baptism of steel, but it helped establish his reputation as a formidable military commander at an early age.
A Prince of War
As Prince of Wales, Henry increasingly assumed command of the campaign against the Welsh rebel Owain Glyndŵr. His father had attempted to crush Glyndŵr in the early part of his reign in a series of large-scale invasions. These campaigns were impressively grand but failed to have any significant effect. Henry’s poor financial position simply did not allow for him to keep a large army in the field for long.
From 1406 onwards, Henry of Monmouth increasingly took command of dealing with the rebellion. He adopted a different approach from his father. Rather than trying to grab a quick, decisive victory or launch a spectacular punitive raid, he opted to play the long game.
As 1406 wore on, the prince systematically focused on re-taking Welsh strongholds and making use of the network of castles to impose an economic squeeze on the rebels. It was a methodical war of attrition that Henry pursued with a steady but relentless determination.
By 1407 his approach was clearly working and he retook Aberystwyth before the year was out.
Henry the warrior
It was during this campaign that Henry’s qualities as a military leader began to really show themselves. He was a meticulous planner, determined, logical and, when he needed to be, utterly ruthless. In his dealings with his men Henry was direct to the point and results focused. He was a man of few words who avoided grand speeches and frivolous niceties. But he never left anyone in any doubt as to what he wanted and what he would do to achieve it.
When writing to his father concerning a Welsh rebel leader who’d offered unacceptable terms, the prince simply reported: “We couldn’t accept it, so we killed him.” Factual, to the point, utterly ruthless. Prince Henry quickly established a reputation as a young man who was not to be trifled with.
The campaign reached its climax in 1409 when Henry’s forces captured the rebel stronghold of Harlech Castle. Sir Edmund Mortimer died in the fighting and Owain Glyndŵr’s wife and daughters were taken captive. Glyndŵr himself may have evaded capture but, from this point on, Glyndŵr was a spent force.
The Hundred Years’ War
England and France had been engaged in an on-and-off power struggle on the continent since Edward III had started the Hundred Years’ War in 1337. Richard II had attempted to broker a permanent peace with France, but these plans collapsed in 1399 when Henry IV seized the throne.
Relations with France during the early part of Henry IV’s reign were factious to say the least. However, an open outbreak of war on the continent was avoided. There were two main reasons for this. As far as England was concerned, Henry IV had significant problems of his own. He had to contend with Scots aggression, a Welsh rebellion and ongoing dissent and rebellion from the likes of the Mortimers and Percys. The last thing he needed was the resumption of a large-scale conflict with France.
Fortunately for England, such a conflict was also highly undesirable for the French. In the early 1400s France had to cope with a king, in the form of Charles VI, who was incapacitated by insanity for significant periods of time. This created a power vacuum that was filled by two opposing factions. The first was headed by the Duke of Orleans, the second by the Duke of Burgundy. The two men vied with each other for control of the French court.
French Civil War
In the power struggle between Orleans and Burgundy, Louis of Orleans gradually gained the upper hand. During the early 1400s he gradually forced the Duke of Burgundy’s supporters out of key court positions and replaced them with his own men.
Things got very personal when rumours began to circulate that Louis (who had a notorious reputation as a womaniser) planned to seduce or perhaps even take by ‘esforcier’ (i.e. rape) the Duke of Burgundy’s wife.
On 23rd November 1407, things finally came to a head. Duke Louis was travelling through the streets of Paris when his party was ambushed by fifteen armed men, led by Raoulet d’Anquetonville. Louis was hacked to death, his hand severed, and his skull split open with an axe.
John the Fearless, the Duke of Burgundy, far from denying his involvement, happily boasted that he had masterminded the assassination. Taking a leaf out of Henry IV’s book, he claimed to have been acting to prevent a tyranny.
Civil war followed. On the one side was the Burgundian faction. On the other side was Louis’ son Charles and, following his marriage to Bonne d’Armagnac in 1410, the powerful Armagnac family. It would be known as the Armagnac–Burgundian Civil War.
Initially, since Henry IV had problems of his own, the English stayed out of it. But this was about to change.
The Rise of Prince Henry
Henry IV’s health deteriorated after 1406 and, as the years went by, he was increasingly unable to rule. He became more and more reliant on his old ally, Archbishop Arundel, to rule in his stead in his capacity as chancellor.
However, by 1409, Arundel was becoming increasingly side-lined by a new political faction. This faction was led by Prince Henry, aided by his uncle, Bishop Henry Beaufort. In January 1410, Arundel was finally ousted from office. In his place, Prince Henry had Thomas Beaufort (the bishop’s brother) installed as Chancellor. The king’s council was now dominated by Prince Henry and his Beaufort uncles.
Shakespeare presents the young Henry V as leading a largely dissolute youth; a view he gets partly from C15th sources like Tito Livio Frulovisi, who describes the young prince as “a fervent soldier of Venus as well as Mars”. However, the idea that Henry led a dissolute youth is a misleading myth. Prince Henry certainly partied hard but, critically, he also worked hard. His focus on war and the affairs of state were laser sharp. And, by 1410, he was effectively ruling England in all but name.
The French question
1410 saw the Armagnac–Burgundian conflict enter a new phase. Duke Charles’ new father-in-law, Bernard VII, Count of Armagnac, set about busily recruiting allies to oppose the Burgundian faction. He enlisted the support of the Dukes of Berry, Bourbon and Brittany, and the Counts of Clermont and Alençon. Full scale civil war loomed. Both sides were hunting around for support.
Inevitably, as 1410 wore on, both sides approached England for support. However, with Henry IV largely incapacitated, it would be his son, Prince Henry, to whom diplomatic approaches were made. Both sides had something to offer, and Henry was not about to pass up the opportunity to take advantage of it.
In 1411, he made his decision. Induced by the promise of four Flemish ports and the Duke of Burgundy’s daughter’s hand in marriage, Henry sided with Burgundy. In October of that year, an English force under the command of Thomas, earl of Arundel, was sent to the continent to aid the Burgundian faction.
With English help, John the Fearless lifted the Armagnac blockade of Paris and won the Battle of Saint Cloud. Prince Henry’s intervention was reaping its rewards, at least for Burgundy.
Last acts of a dying king
By late 1411, rumours were circulating in court circles that, perhaps, the old king might abdicate in favour of his son. After all Prince Henry was, to all intents and purposes, acting in the capacity of king already. Some suspected the prince’s political ally, Bishop Beaufort, was actively lobbying for a transfer of power from behind the scenes.
However, Henry IV was not ready to relinquish power so easily. In the winter of 1411/1412, he made a surprise appearance at parliament. He dismissed the council and re-instated his old ally Archbishop Arundel as chancellor. He also reversed his son’s policy of supporting the Burgundians. It would henceforth be the Armagnacs, not the Burgundians, who’d benefit from English support.
The prince and his political allies were out of favour.
The king, mindful of Prince Henry’s sympathies, chose his second son, Thomas Duke of Clarence, to lead the expedition to France to bolster the Armagnac cause. Clarence left in the summer of 1412. However, events in France had taken another unexpected turn. The Armagnacs and Burgundians had temporarily come to terms, so Clarence’s English army was surplus to requirements.
The English interventions of 1411 and 1412 had ultimately achieved little. Neither Henry IV, nor the prince had benefited from it. What it had shown, however, was just how vulnerable a divided France was.
Death of a king
Then, in March 1413, the old king finally died. Prince Henry was now King Henry V of England.
England in 1413 was more stable and secure than it had been for a while. The turmoil of Welsh uprising, Scots incursions and the Percy rebellion were things of the past. Furthermore, Henry V came to the throne not as a usurper but as the son of the previous king. He also came to the throne with more experience of government than either his father or Richard II before him.
He’d seen how both his father and Richard had ruled and he’d learnt from both. He had seen how his father’s approach; trying to be all things to all men and bending over backwards to placate parliament, had often caused him problems. However, he’d also seen how Richard II’s autocratic approach had led to disaster. Henry would aim to tread a path somewhere between the two.
He’d insist on respect but not the kind of semi-religious devotion that seems to have obsessed Richard II. He made few promises but those he did make, he made sure he kept. He’d seek to rule fairly but firmly, even ruthlessly when needs be.
Henry V promised to be a very different king from anything England had seen for a long time.
A new regime
The new King kept a certain amount of continuity in his council, but the ageing Arundel was out. In his place Henry installed his political ally, Bishop Beaufort, as chancellor. The king’s brother, Thomas, who’d seen his political star rise briefly in 1412, was also largely side-lined. It was obvious that Henry IV’s policy of supporting the Armagnacs was dead in the water.
Indeed, the business of recent years convinced Henry that France was vulnerable. Such thoughts were further reinforced when the French civil war erupted again. Once more, both sides reached out to England for help. However, this time Henry planned to take full advantage.
Henry was nothing if not a meticulous planner. He knew that any serious intervention in France would be a major undertaking. He therefore set about ensuring that, should he decide to intervene, he wouldn’t need to worry about other distractions.
This diplomatic groundwork involved neutralising any potential danger from other powers that might aid the French. To this end Henry arranged truces with Castile and Brittany. In the meantime, in his negotiations with the Armagnacs and Burgundians, he kept his options open.
Henry V, like his father before him, was a strong supporter of religious orthodoxy. This made the Lancastrian regime popular with the Church. However, it also brought Henry into conflict with a group of heretics known as the Lollards.
The Lollards were a proto-protestant movement founded by John Wycliffe in the previous century. They were strongly condemned as heretics by the Church. This was a position that the Lancastrian regime had firmly supported since Henry IV seized power in 1399.
As Henry V ascended the throne in 1413, it was obvious the new king would continue his father’s religious policies. Faced with the prospect of a hostile 27-year-old king, with a potentially long reign ahead of him, the Lollards decided to attempt a coup.
The plot was led by Sir John Oldcastle, widely seen as one of the leading proponents of Lollardy in the country at the time. In January 1414 he and his co-conspirators planned to gain access to Eltham Palace, disguised as mummers, and seize the king and his brothers. At the same time bands of Lollards would filter into London and storm the capital.
However, the plotters had not banked on the professionalism of Henry’s spy network. They also grossly overestimated the scale of their support across the country. In the end the Lollard insurrection was staged by no more than a few dozen men, rather than the thousands they’d hoped for. Most were quickly rounded up.
If anything, the uprising damaged the Lollard cause. Most people simply saw the Lollards as traitors and heretics. The main beneficiary of the entire affair was Henry himself. Having acted so decisively to protect orthodoxy, the Church was now in his debt.
‘Just rights and inheritances’
With the Lollard threat neutralised, Henry focused his attentions on France. His aim, throughout, was simply to exploit the civil war to obtain the best possible outcome for himself. However, his ambitions far outstripped those of his predecessors.
When Edward III claimed the French throne and started the Hundred Years’ War, his primary aim had been to secure absolute control of Aquitaine in southwestern France. The claim to the French throne, as far as Edward had been concerned, had been a bargaining chip he’d been prepared to ditch as and when he’d got what he really wanted.
In many ways, the same was true for Henry V. However, Henry’s ambitions went far further than Edward’s. In his demands to the Armagnacs, he re-iterated the claim to Aquitaine. However, in addition to Aquitaine, he wanted control of Normandy, Touraine, Anjou, Maine, Brittany, Flanders, and Provence. He also wanted the hand of Catherine of France in marriage and a significant amount of hard cash. All the while his negotiators cited the old claims of Edward III. Henry V, they argued, only wanted to secure his ‘just rights and inheritances’.
There can be no escaping Henry V’s ambitions to establish a Lancastrian Empire on the continent. Under his plans France would remain independent, but as a greatly reduced power.
Preparations for war
Henry wanted to go to war as early as the spring of 1414. However, in response to the pleas of his council, he was willing to give diplomacy its chance. Negotiations continued throughout that year, but Henry never came close to getting everything he wanted.
Shakespeare famously added colour to our understanding of these negotiations, telling us that the Dauphin of France taunted Henry by sending him tennis balls and rackets. A variant of this tale also appears in a popular ballad of the time. However, it is an apocryphal story. If the Dauphin had insulted Henry in this way, it would certainly have provided him with the excuse he was looking for to cut short negotiations and go to war.
One final embassy, in February 1415, failed to deliver enough to satisfy Henry’s ambitions. Even before these negotiations had concluded, Henry informed some of London’s leading citizens that he was going to war.
Preparations now moved on apace and Henry began assembling his army at Southampton, in readiness to make the crossing to France in the summer of 1415. But then, just as the campaign was about to be launched, Edmund Mortimer came to the king to warn him of a new dangerous conspiracy.
The Mortimer claim
The plot against Henry was, at least superficially, an attempt to replace him with Mortimer. When Henry IV seized the throne, quite apart from his usurpation, he was not even necessarily regarded as Richard II’s rightful heir.
If you look at inheritance rights from the perspective of medieval common law, succession should pass to the offspring of the king first. If the king has no offspring, then to his siblings. When the king has neither (as was the case with Richard II), then the line of succession passes to the king’s father’s next eldest brother and his successors.
Richard II’s father’s next eldest brother was Lionel of Antwerp and Lionel’s rightful successor in 1415 was Edmund Mortimer. Lionel had been the older brother of John of Gaunt (Henry V’s grandfather) so, in theory at least, Edmund could boast a stronger claim to the throne. Of course, all this could potentially be superseded by the wills of either Edward III or Richard II, which is where it gets complicated. However, that’s not really the point. The point is that, as far as many people were concerned, Edmund Mortimer had a strong claim to the throne.
Nevertheless, as is often the case with these things, there was more to the plot than a virtuous desire to place the rightful heir on the throne of England.
The Southampton plot
The key members of the conspiracy were Richard, Earl of Cambridge, Sir Thomas Grey, and Lord Henry Scrope. It involved a few northern knights and seemed to have relied upon co-ordinating a range of disparate forces that included what remained of the Welsh rebels and assistance from the Scots.
In certain respects, it mirrored the alliance of convenience that had threatened Henry IV’s regime. It would have required a very well-co-ordinated plan, especially as it seems to have been timed for when the king was mustering a large army of his own at Southampton. However, it was not well co-ordinated.
Edmund Mortimer, who’d been central to the plot, wanted no part in it and betrayed the conspiracy to the king. On 22nd July 1415 a Scots army had indeed invaded but had been comprehensively defeated at Yeavering by Sir Robert Umfraville. Umfraville was supposed to have been part of the conspiracy but, like Mortimer, he clearly had second thoughts. In the final analysis it looks very much like the whole thing was a rather delusional enterprise on the part of the Earl of Cambridge. One which was doomed to fail from the start.
Cambridge’s motives for plotting against Henry were undoubtedly personal. Although he was an Earl, it was well known that he was one of the poorest Earls in the land. Since he was Mortimer’s brother-in-law, he had much to gain from a Mortimer regime. Land, titles, and money would certainly have followed. But it was not to be.
Cambridge wrote Henry a grovelling letter of apology, claiming he’d been led astray by his fellow conspirators. Perhaps such contrition (however disingenuous) might have worked with a more merciful monarch. Henry VI, or even Henry IV might have been more lenient, but not this Henry.
Henry singled out Cambridge, Scrope and Grey as ringleaders. Scrope, who’d been closest to Henry prior to the conspiracy, was hung, drawn, and quartered. Cambridge and Grey were beheaded. Having punished the ringleaders, Henry was inclined to be merciful to the rest. The example of the three executions was deemed sufficient to deter to any future shenanigans.
Richard’s wife Anne had died in 1411, so his execution made orphans of children. He left behind a daughter, Isabelle (aged 6), and a son, Richard (just 3). These Henry made wards of the state. Richard would grow up to inherit his uncle’s title. History would remember him as Richard, Duke of York.
With dissent at home firmly dealt with, Henry could finally focus his attentions on France.
On 11th August 1415, Henry’s armada set sail from Southampton bound for France. And an armada it truly was. Henry assembled 1500 ships for the crossing. By contrast, the Spanish armada that set sail from Lisbon in 1588 consisted of only 130 ships.
The Hundred Years’ War was about to re-ignite with a vengeance.
The next article in this series – Henry V: Agincourt – will be published in November 2022.
If you would like to read about the history of Henry’s father, Henry IV, you might be interested in the following articles on this blog:
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References & further reading:
Henry V of England – from a miniature, 1411(from Wiki Commons)
The Death of Hotspur – Illustration by James William Edmund Doyle (from Wiki Commons)
Harlech Castle – photograph by Eirian Evans, from geography.co.uk (from Wiki Commons)
Assassination of Louis, Duke of Orleans – Bibliothèque nationale de France (from Wiki Commons)
John Wycliffe – scriptro majoris britanniae, 1548 (from Wiki Commons)
Houses of Lancaster, York, and March 1413 – by Paul Watts