Henry V: The Conscience of a King 
by Malcolm Vale.
Yale, 308 pp., £20, August 2016, 978 0 300 14873 2
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At​ the Battle of Shrewsbury, in 1403, the 16-year-old Prince of Wales was hit in the face by an arrow. It was not a glancing blow. The bolt pierced his cheek to a depth of six inches, miraculously missing the brain and major blood vessels, but sticking fast in the back of the skull, whence it had to be removed with specially made pincers by a London surgeon. Honey was applied as an antiseptic and alcohol to clean the wound, and after twenty days’ bed rest, the prince recovered. He would go on, of course, having ascended to the throne as Henry V, to win the Battle of Agincourt, to conquer Normandy and to win the crown of France. It was a providential escape for a king K.B. McFarlane called ‘the greatest man that ever ruled England’, but as Malcolm Vale points out in the preface to his new book, it may have been formative in other ways: for all his military success, Henry would fight only one more battle, and there was much more to this king than prowess in arms.

The book, which Vale says is ‘not a biography’, has three broad aims. The first is to move away from Agincourt, and indeed Shrewsbury, to consider the other facets of Henry V’s kingship: in particular, his investment in high culture, in architecture, music, literature, religion and the stuff of courtly magnificence; but also the more everyday aspects of his rule, such as administration and public governance, and especially the promotion of the English language and the creation of more personal ways of transmitting royal authority. Vale’s second aim is to rescue this famous king from the monochrome and often anachronistic judgments of posterity. Instead of joining those who praise Henry for his military and political genius, or the smaller number who condemn him as a bullying warmonger, Vale wishes to understand him both in the context of his time and as a man – to catch the ‘conscience of a king’ as the subtitle of the book puts it. His third aim is to move away from narrative accounts, with their distorting artfulness, in order to depict the king from more ‘neutral’ sources, such as the records of the royal administration. In this way, Vale hopes to ‘hear the king himself speaking’, to get at his ‘thoughts, beliefs and actions’, and to restore a sense of the importance of the individual in the course of history.

This is not the first look at Henry V away from the battlefield. Several scholars in the 1980s took a similar approach, notably the contributors to the superb collection of essays on ‘the practice of kingship’ edited by the late Gerald Harriss in 1985, and Ted Powell, in his important book on the king’s administration of justice, published in 1989. Vale makes no reference to the latter, but he is open about his dependence on the former, especially on Jeremy Catto’s essays ‘The King’s Servants’ and ‘Religious Change’. These pieces, together with McFarlane’s insightful work from the 1940s, David Morgan’s from the 1990s and a later Catto piece on ‘The Burden and Conscience of Government in the 15th Century’, are his lodestars. The Henry he gives us is largely familiar: deeply religious, just in temperament, firm and busily active in points of detail, attentive to the interests of his subjects, both collective and individual, loyal to his friends, but motivated by higher principle, by his ‘disciplined conscience’, as Catto put it.

But to suggest that Vale’s view of Henry is off the peg would be quite wrong. We learn many interesting details. Henry could play the harp, and made sure he had one to hand on campaign in France – along with his collection of recorders. He may have composed polyphonic settings for sections of the Mass (it’s likely that he was the ‘Roy Henry’ recorded in his brother Clarence’s choirbook). This ostensibly dour king turns out to have enjoyed mummers’ plays in the park at Windsor, and to have constructed a kind of summerhouse for himself and his friends – a pleasance, reachable only by boat – in the marshy grounds of his favourite castle, Kenilworth. A French astrologer, who gave the king an astrolabe in July 1415, believed he would have been better suited to a career in the Church (possibly on the basis that Henry spoke to him in Latin), but Henry’s uxorious motto – ‘une sanz pluis’ (‘one and no more’), culled from courtly romance – suggests he was destined for the more conventional aristocratic path of marriage and family.

Many of these details come from Vale’s engaging chapter ‘The King and the Peaceful Arts’, but it isn’t just in the assembly of such titbits that he realises his aim of saying something new about Henry V. There are three more substantial claims in his book, offered with varying degrees of diffidence, but thought-provoking nonetheless. The first, and most dramatic, is a suggestion that Henry saw the fulfilment of his claims in France as merely a step towards the restoration of the unity of Christendom, and the turning of its energies towards a new crusade to Jerusalem. Henry’s reign coincided with the final stages of the long papal schism and the eruption of Hussite heresy in Bohemia. It is clear that he and his counsellors were moved by these events to support the re-establishment of a single pope, to back reform and support the scourge of the heretics, Sigismund, the ruler of Germany. After forging an alliance with Sigismund in 1416 Henry played a central role in the election of Pope Martin V the following year.

Vale also brings to light fascinating evidence of a diplomatic mission to central and eastern Europe in May 1421. Confident of victory in France now that his hereditary right to the throne had been recognised by the French king in the 1420 Treaty of Troyes, Henry joined forces with his new allies, Charles VI of France and Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, to send envoys to the crusader king of Poland, the Byzantine emperor and the Ottoman sultan. The exact purpose of the mission is unclear: the emperor was told of the kings’ hope that Rome and Constantinople could be reunited, while the sultan would have received the gift of a golden clock had he not died in the meantime. The envoy, Ghillebert de Lannoy, went on to travel through Syria and Egypt, reporting on these regions on his return in 1423. By then Henry V was dead, but there is the tantalising possibility that he had truly meant to conquer the Holy Land. The Europe of the early 15th century was, after all, the scene of a number of dramatic démarches – the gathering of universal councils of the Church, the unions of crowns in Scandinavia, Spain and Poland-Lithuania, the rapid conquests of Italy and France by upstarts from minor countries. It is possible that one of these upstarts believed he could do something transcendent, and reunite Christ’s church on Earth.

Vale cannot quite decide what to do with this possibility, which he both raises and snatches away with reminders that every ruler of the day promised to go on crusade (including Henry’s own father, who, preoccupied by rebellions at home and his own poor health, was palpably in no position to do so). He rightly emphasises that we must take the post-1420 ‘dual monarchy’ of England and France seriously; as he has shown in another book, The Ancient Enemy (2007), Plantagenet rule in France was by no means bound to fail, and a king who could make use of the reach of the French crown, as well as the crusading reputation of the dukes of Burgundy and his own inherited networks of allegiance in Iberia, the Baltic and the German lands, may well have harboured grand ambitions. More than that, such a king could have been in a position to push them forward; but Vale’s proposition evaporates in a cloud of second thoughts, mutterings about ‘counterfactual speculation’, and admissions that it is ‘hardly cause for surprise’ that Henry V could have pressed for the peace of Christendom. His caution is eminently justified, but it raises questions to which I shall return.

Another of the new claims made by Vale concerns the king’s role in developing new forms of authorisation for acts of government – Henry’s use of his signet ring to authenticate letters and decisions, and his practice of signing certain items for particular emphasis. These initiatives departed from accepted administrative routine and so seem to reflect the king’s particular attention to state business and his determination that his orders should be acted on. But Vale notes that both developments were, in some sense, evolutionary: ‘signs manual’, as they were known, were on the increase across European chanceries in the decades around 1400, and the use of the royal signet had been growing for some time. It is also likely that the challenge of conveying royal wishes from France to the writing offices in Westminster prompted the king to insist on the personal will behind some of his orders. Even so, the claim that these developments tell us something about Henry is not implausible.

Similar points could be made about Henry’s part in the promotion of written English as a language of government, often traced to the sudden switch to English in royal signet letters from August 1417 onwards. The emergence of so-called ‘Chancery English’ is a hot topic for historians and literary scholars alike, and a famous, albeit much criticised, article from 1992 by J.H. Fisher argued that the Lancastrian kings had a ‘language policy’. Vale argues that although the king had no ‘policy’ as such, he was certainly conscious of the meanings attached to different languages, and the use of English was a ‘deliberate action’ in the specific context of his claims in France. The Treaty of Troyes established that England and France would be two separate kingdoms under a single ruler, and Henry – mindful of the sensitivities of his English subjects – chose to use English for communications with his English kingdom. Again, Vale establishes the larger context: clerks had begun to learn Latin through the medium of English, not French, after 1350; by the end of the 14th century gentlemen were already ceasing to learn French; proclamations and popular sermons were beginning to be recorded in English by the early 15th century; professional scribes had started to find ways of writing letters and petitions in English as early as the 1380s. One might think that a move towards the administrative use of English was more or less inevitable, whatever Henry’s intentions. In fact, the king’s initiative was abandoned after his death in 1422: signet letters returned to French, and it was only in the 1430s and 1440s that large numbers of royal letters started to be produced in English. This indicates that Henry was doing something distinctive, but it also demonstrates that the really significant development was driven by a wider set of social and pragmatic changes; the individual and his conscience weren’t so important after all.

That​ brings us to the central problem with this book – a problem of which Vale is well aware, but cannot easily solve. The king of England was an institution and an idea as well as a person. His fundamental role was to make decisions on behalf of his subjects and to authorise public action; more generally, he was responsible for upholding the common interest of his people and the rights, and the decorum, of his kingdom. Everyone who was not a rebel – officers and ministers, lords and clerks, humble commons – joined with the ruler to uphold the view that these essential tasks were being fulfilled; they helped promote the notion that their king was just and pious, brave and prudent, concerned to defend his crown and his people, because these postures assisted the smooth running of the polity and all the myriad transactions within it. Of course, subjects could challenge the ruler, but they typically did so through means the king would find acceptable – counselling, petitioning, acting for his benefit – and their aim was usually to persuade him to be ‘like himself’, as 16th-century political discourse had it: to be as he should be, as his office demanded.

This has a number of implications for Vale’s project. First, it means that administrative evidence is often very far from ‘neutral’: it was designed to show that the king had approved what was being done in his name, and often to conceal the other influences that lay behind royal decisions. One of the great benefits of monarchy for the rest of the political elite was that the king ‘must bear all’, as Shakespeare put it – he authorised everything, regardless of who really made it happen. Certainly, few kings were inert – their actions did stem partly from their own wills – but they spent much of their time responding to demands, acting on counsel and doing what was expected of them. The administrative evidence from Henry V’s reign depicts an energetic king, defending the rights of his crown and kingdom, running his government as tightly and economically as possible, supporting the bishops, projecting the aristocratic piety of his times, displaying due magnificence and experimenting with the fast developing English language. This certainly tells us something about Henry as a man. He wasn’t like his strangely feeble son or (after 1406) his sickly father; he was healthy and determined, or determined enough, and he clearly had the confidence of his ministers and leading subjects. Beyond this, however, it isn’t clear how far we can go. Was Henry really a man of ‘deeply held religious convictions’? Well yes, in that he couldn’t afford not to be; and yes, in that any aristocrat of this time was likely to hold such views; and yes, in that his particular brand of spirituality was different from, say, his father’s, because he lived at a different time. Henry V founded a pair of trendily ascetic religious houses – the Brigittine at Syon, the Carthusians at Sheen – but were his actions so different from those of Edward III, founder of colleges at Windsor and Westminster and a Carthusian house adjoining the Tower of London? Or Henry VI, founder of colleges at Eton and Cambridge? Or Edward IV, founder of a house of Observant Franciscans at Greenwich, and sponsor of colleges at Oxford, Cambridge and Windsor? Henry V ran a tight ship, but he had learned this in the councils and parliaments of his father’s reign, and he had to be prudent if he wanted to raise the amount he needed to fight the war that he (and others) believed he was required to fight. He took a more prominent role in the leadership of the church, both locally and internationally, than was typical, but in an age of schisms and councils that was unavoidable; no other king did precisely what Henry did, but no other king ruled in precisely the same place and time, so no one else was subject to precisely the same range of pressures, coalitions and opportunities.

For these reasons, the search for the real person who wore the crown is problematic. Vale gives us a portrait of Henry V’s kingship, and, not surprisingly, it is a good one. He gives Henry personal credit for developments which, from one perspective, were institutional, or from another perspective conventional – but contemporaries did that too: they wanted to believe in Henry V, just as we do. He also depicts a man of his times, and with unusual richness – it is good to be reminded that the warrior aristocrats of the early 15th century played musical instruments, spoke foreign languages and indulged in fashionable cults – though it is hard to connect Henry’s tastes (harps, Kenilworth, signing accounts) to any distinctive line of policy or public action. The tale of the arrow-wound that Vale places at the start of his book is arresting, but most kings experienced something similarly providential at the beginning of their adult lives. Henry VII found his crown in a thorn bush; Edward IV saw an image of the Holy Trinity on the battlefield at Mortimer’s Cross. These two turned out very differently from Henry V, but was that because of the importance of the individual in history, or because the circumstances in which these men ruled were different? Conscience is a slippery word: con-scientia – collective knowledge or opinion. This book gives us the ‘conscience of a king’ in that sense: the professional performance of the royal office and the acceptable tastes of the princely class in the 1410s; I am not sure how much it tells us, or can tell us, about Henry of Monmouth as an individual.

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Vol. 39 No. 7 · 30 March 2017

John Watts describes Malcolm Vale’s attempt in Henry V: The Conscience of a King to ‘hear the king himself speaking’, to understand his ‘thoughts, beliefs and actions’, and, in Watts’s words, to ‘restore a sense of the importance of the individual in the course of history’ (LRB, 2 March). All this points to a desire to know Henry, less as a king than as an individual. The infatuation with the medieval king as an individual can be traced back to Shakespeare’s Henry V (1599). On the eve of the Agincourt battle, the disguised king converses with his men and argues his cause with a mixture of conviction and unease. Henry is not trying to be a man; he is pretending to be one, and he is the more appealing because of it.

But medieval kings were not supposed to be accessible to their people except in performing their kingly duties. People did not generally perceive the king as a man, much less consider his conscience – in the modern sense of the word – as a measure of his kingship. A king was either a bad king (like Richard II) or a good king (like Henry V), or in other cases a weak king (like Henry VI). It is the modern writer and modern readers who want to know the king as a man. As Watts rightly observes, Henry’s distinctive administrative practices, his personal interests (in the arts, for example) and his unique attitude to kingship tell us more about the period than they do about Henry himself.

Jane Wong Yeang Chui
Nanyang Technological University

Vol. 39 No. 8 · 20 April 2017

Jane Wong Yeang Chui comments interestingly on John Watts’s review of my book Henry V: The Conscience of a King (Letters, 30 March). But I must take issue with her assumption that my purpose was ‘to know Henry, less as a king than as an individual’. On the contrary, I tried to explain and understand a specific individual’s behaviour as a later medieval ruler. But her argument that Henry V’s personal and unique characteristics ‘tell us more about the period than … about Henry himself’ raises important methodological questions. This kind of thinking can sometimes reduce individuals to the role of mouthpieces, or reflectors, of their ‘period’. Or they can be seen to be at the mercy of ill-defined impersonal forces, depriving them of the capacity for independent action. This latter-day determinism may also deny significance to the eccentric and unconventional (Edward II of England, Louis XI of France) and risks imposing a drab uniformity on a class of whom certain common qualities and characteristics were undoubtedly expected, but who, like Henry V, could choose – within the constraints imposed by law, custom, power relationships and convention – to interpret and apply those qualities in different ways.

We are also told that ‘people’ in the later Middle Ages saw their kings as bad, good or weak. They had no interest in them as individuals, even less in their consciences. But some 15th-century ‘people’ – confessors, intellectuals, political and moral theorists, advisers, counsellors and others among their influential, literate subjects – were certainly exercised about the workings of the ruler’s conscience. A ruler’s first duty, it was thought, besides his responsibility for the welfare of his subjects, was to himself – that is, to listen to the dictates of his own conscience. And the simplistic categories of ‘good’, ‘bad’ and ‘weak’ kings won’t wash any more. Abstract judgments on rulers can be very blunt instruments, informed, as they often are, by criteria of success, failure, capability or incapacity, themselves essentially time-bound.

We will never come to ‘know’ Henry V as a human being, but the fact remains that we can ‘hear the king himself speaking’, and begin to understand some of ‘his thoughts, beliefs and actions’ as expressed in his own dictated letters and other sources. And why should that not be a legitimate – and in this case arguably feasible – object of historical inquiry?

Malcolm Vale

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