Henry V (of England)

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© Bob Denton 2014

Henry V, King of England and Regent of France, 1413 to 1422

Henry IV’s internal problems had meant that he had done little to follow through on his professed desire to claim the French throne or to liberate Jerusalem. Henry V soon set about remedying the first matter.

In the past the English kings had waived any claim on the French throne provided the French king acknowledged the English ownership of Aquitaine and other French territories.  But Henry now made formal claim to the throne of France.

When his negotiations were fruitless he sought his Great Council’s approval for a war with Franc. They suggested he try further negotiations and perhaps should modulate his claims a little.

First he had to face an internal rebellion when in 1415 there was a conspiracy to put Edmund Mortimer, the Earl of March, on the throne.  Mortimer had lineage back to Henry III via his mother and to Edward III through his grandparents. When Richard II died without heir the throne should have passed to Mortimer’s father and after his death on to Edmund.

The Mortimer family intermarried with the rebellious Welsh Glyndŵrs during Henry IV’s reign and had their properties seized. But Henry V released Edmund, decorated him and reinstated his lands. It was Edmund’s brother-in-law who planned to proclaim Mortimer as king, but Edmund alerted the king, effectively condemning his brother-in-law to death; Edmund was cleared of any guilt in the matter.

Henry V’s further negotiations with the French were simple, he required the French to pay the outstanding and very large ransom for its King John II following his capture at the battle of Poitiers. However he still insisted that they agree that England retained ownership of Anjou, Aquitaine, Brittany, Flanders and parts of Normandy. He also proposed marriage to Charles VI’s daughter Catherine with a substantial dowry due.

The French counter-offer proposed the marriage for half the required dowry, an extended Aquitaine but no ransom payment. Henry recalled his Great Council and this time they agreed to war.

Battle of Agincourt

Henry’s 12,000 strong army set sail and set siege on the port of Harfleur in August 1415, its taking was not easy and consumed longer than expected, more than five weeks. The English were wracked with disease during the siege and the sensible approach would have been to return to England for the winter.

The French tried to raise an army to defence the siege but were too late to help. Henry had challenged the Dauphin to combat at Harfleur but his offer was not accepted.

Henry wanted to provoke the French and graphically to display his ownership of French territory by marching 9,000 of his men across northern France to his other controlled port, Calais. The French formed up along the River Somme to halt their progress towards Calais and the English were forced south to look for a ford across the river.

They found their way across the river at Béthencourt and Voyennes, and then marched north. The French chose not to confront them now there was no river to assist and they looked instead to rally more troops. The English had now marched for more than 250 miles and many were assailed by dysentery, they needed to find a defensive location to seek a similar approach to that adopted at Crécy, where the English longbows had proven so significant.

They found what they wanted between two forests – Tramecourt and Agincourt. They planned to fight a defensive battle, after all it had succeeded at Crécy.

The English force was some 1,500 men-at-arms and 7,000 longbowmen. They once again drew up in three divisions, the king controlling the middle of these. The archers used pointed wooden stakes placed in the ground at an angle to prove as a barrier against a cavalry attack, this had been successfully used by the Ottoman Empire forces at the Battle of Nicopolis nineteen years earlier.

Longbowman salute – since Crécy the threat of the English and Welsh longbowmen was recognised. If the French captured an archer they would chop off his index and middle finger so that his value to the enemy was eliminated.

The salute was created by forming the letter ‘V’ with these two fingers and waving the arm from the elbow and wrist with palm facing the enemy. In this way archers would display that their fingers were intact, their threat still potent. A 1990s add-on to the legend was the notion that they would suggest that they could still ‘pluck yew’, perhaps a far too modern rhyming slang.

But the whole suggestion that bowmen used the V-sign at Agincourt to insult the French is considered unlikely, there were seven contemporaneous accounts of the battle, three of these eye witness accounts and none of them mention it. Captured minions were usually simple put to death.

The French also drew up in to three lines there are various accounts of their numbers but a total of 10,000 and more men-at-arms engaged in the battle, most fought on foot with just a tenth of these mounted. There were 4,000 archers and 1,500m crossbowmen.

In total there were perhaps 50,000 men being assembled but many were still on the road when the battle was enjoined. But the French were buoyed by the fact that they were blocking the English route towards Calais. They were feeling confident and eager to capture English noblemen that they could ransom.

But there was no approach where the French could outflank the English in the location that they had adopted. The French vanguard was three times the size of the English force but they could not bring their greater numbers in to play.

Because of the compressed nature of the battlefield terrain the original French plan had to be modified and their archers and crossbowmen were arrayed behind the men-at-arms and so played little role in the fighting, just an early volley at the outset.

The weight of armour and mail, walking across a ploughed field where there had been heavy rain was heavy going. As the battle ensued the casualties in the front tier became a hazard for those trying to advance, their weight of numbers pressing forward to trip and fall over on to their dead compatriots. With the weight of their armour it proved impossible for some to get back up, some were said to have drowned in their helmets. Those that survived became so compressed that few of them could draw or use their weapons.

This painfully slow approach by the French offered the English and Welsh longbowmen easy targets. Their weapons could reach three hundred metres, were capable of penetrating the lighter armour used on limbs from 200 metres away and even the plate armour at closer ranges. Those armoured had to have their visor down and their head forward to avoid the risk from arrows, this resulted in difficult breathing and even slower progress.

The French cavalry when it disjointedly did attack the longbowmen they were halted by the forest from any flanking attack and the pointed stakes took their toll. Once again the English archers had greatest success against the horses that were less well armoured than their riders. The cavalry’s advance and retreat churned up the battlefield further, making the going even worse for those on the ground. Horses that were wounded panicked and careened through the advancing infantry causing havoc.

The French men-at-arms did succeed in pushing the English back, the archers were firing at close range, then when they ran out of arrows they attacked with axes and swords, as they were lightly armoured they were much more manoeuvrable in the melée. Many of the exhausted French were merely pushed over and could not rise to defend themselves.

The fighting lasted three hours with the English prevailing. Fears of a French regrouping led Henry to decide unchivalrously to kill most of their prisoners, they outnumbered his troops, leaving just those who would attract high ransoms. It was this action that inspired the French reserves to run, they saw that many of their nobles were dead or captured and saw little hope of victory.

The French dead were estimated to be between 4,000 and 10,000 and the English between 500 and 1,500. Between 700 and 2,200 French had been captured. There was discord among the French factions following the battle which assisted the English cause.

Regent of France

In 1416 the French tried to relieve Harfleur. While an army set siege on the city a Genoese fleet blockaded the port from the sea. Henry’s brother took a fleet from England and after a seven-hour sea battle relieved the blockade, chasing the Genoese from the Channel.

Henry employed diplomacy to gain support for his battle-won status. Significant in this was Sigismund, King of Hungary and later Holy Roman Emperor, who visited England and signed the Treaty of Canterbury to recognise Henry as rightful king of France.

[1417 – the Papacy returned to Rome]

In 1417 Henry was ready to renew his military operations in France. He quickly seized Lower Normandy, then besieged Rouen. His reputation took a second hit, the first being his slaying of prisoners at Agincourt. The second stain was caused when the starving people of Rouen sent their women and children out of the gates expecting him to take care of them. But he refused to let them pass and maintained the siege, they died outside the town walls. In 1419 Rouen fell.

Henry moved on to Paris, the squabbling French factions led to the French court recognising Henry. The Treaty of Troyes was signed in 1420 appointing Henry V as the heir and Regent of France so that he would succeed Charles VI at his death. He married Charles’ daughter Catherine of Valois.

[More on Treaty]

His army continued to besiege and seize further towns and cities in the north of France. But in 1421 Henry returned to England for the first time in forty months, he took Catherine with him and they made a tour of the realm.

However in 1422 Henry died suddenly, reputedly of dysentery at the age of thirty-five. As this happened two months before Charles VI of France died, Henry never became king.

Henry had however appointed his brother as Regent of France to secure the realm for his infant (nine months old) son to succeed as King of France. The son did become Henry VI of England but while the English controlled the north of France, the Dauphin still held the south and claimed the throne for himself.

Henry VI was the youngest person ever to succeed to the English throne, he was just nine-months old. England would be ruled by Regents from his accession in 1422 to 1437.

While his father, Henry V, passed him the throne of England and its French possessions, it was his grandfather and the Treaty of Troyes that gave him his claim to the throne of France.

A Regency Council was formed in 1423 with his uncle John, Duke of Bedford, as its senior member. But John was also in charge of pursuing the military actions in France so was often absent. The Duke of Gloucester was therefore appointed Protector and Defender of the Realm.

The Tudors – Henry VI’s mother remarried in 1429 to a Welshman, Owen Tudor. His family had been supporters of Owain Glyndŵr and his Welsh rebellions. His father had changed his name from Owain ap Maredydd to Owen Tudor when he moved to London to improve his family’s prospects.

His son Owen became a page in Henry IV’s court, then fought at Agincourt to be promoted to squire. He worked his way up to becoming the major-domo for the Queen of England, Catherine of Valois. After Henry V’’s death, her first proposed remarriage was refused by the Regency Council.

Henry VI knighted Owen Tudor and gave Earldoms to his two half-brothers, Edmund and Jasper. Edmund would have a son who was born three months after his death and would, after defeating Richard III, become the first of the Tudor royal family Henry VII.

Henry was formally crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey in late 1429. He was pre-empted by the Dauphin being crowned as Charles VII, King of France at Reims four months earlier. Not to be outdone Henry, citing his rights under the Treaty of Troyes, was crowned as King of France at Notre Dame de Paris at the end of 1431.

The Hundred Years’ War was therefore still ‘alive and well’ and nothing had been resolved by the deaths of the two kings, their sons would continue the argument.

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© Bob Denton 2014