He Who Must Bear All
- Henry V: The Conscience of a King by Malcolm Vale
Yale, 308 pp, £20.00, August 2016, ISBN 978 0 300 14873 2
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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
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?