Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Dead King Watch: Henry V


Apparently when the current Queen saw that Henry V didn't look anything like Kenneth Branagh she was not amused.

Yep, another Dead King ('Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more'). King Henry V died on August 31st 1422, which makes today the 584th anniversary of his death.

He was born at Monmouth, Wales, in either 1386 or 1387, the son of Henry of Bolingbroke, who in 1399 became Henry IV, and Mary de Bohun. Henry IV's reign was troubled, and the young Henry grew up fighting various rebels against his father. Indeed, in 1403, the sixteen-year-old prince was almost killed by an arrow which became lodged in his face. After his father Henry IV died on March 20, 1413, Henry V succeeded him to the throne.

Henry was lucky in that he came to power at a time of rare social peace at home - and so took the opportunity to do what all powerful rulers tend to do at such times - wage war abroad. In 1415, he invaded France but his campaign was a complete disaster - and his army was saved only from total annhilation when the French lost the tactical battle at Agincourt (October 25), probably one of the most famous battles in English history. Today, that battle is held up by right wing historians to show how glorious history can be. David Starkey would doubtless see this battle as one episode of which English people should all be proud. Writing in July 8th's Daily Telegraph, Starkey writes that 'Liberty is something more than an aspiration, it is something which if you are British or English is built into your ancestors. They fought for liberty, they died for it, they struggled for it and we should be doing the same'.

The lines given to Henry V on the eve of Agincourt by Shakespeare certainly make this King sound cool.

'We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day 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.'


But 'liberty' had nothing do with any of this. In 1417, Henry returned to France and this time he strategically outwitted the French and in two years had reached Paris. The French collapsed, and Henry ruled as King of both England and France until his death. If he is to be remembered, it should be as a tyrannical leader who liked to wage bloody wars of aggression abroad. Thank goodness, over five hundred years after Henry V's death, modern rulers are so different today.

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