He Who Must Bear All

John Watts

  • 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.

You are not logged in