Review of Anne Curry's Henry V: Playboy Prince to Warrior King
Allen Lane, 2015
At a little over one hundred pages long, this is a concise history of one of the most enduringly resonant monarchs in English history. Though brief, it is an authoritative and impressively wide-ranging analysis of the nine-year reign (from 1413-1422) of the famed victor of Agincourt (1415), robbed by his untimely early death of establishing a dual monarchy in England and France. Published in the 600th anniversary year of the Battle of Agincourt, this volume is one of the Penguin Monarchs series, each a similarly brief biographical overview from a respected historian of every ruler of England from Athelstan through to Elizabeth II.
As Professor of Mediaeval History at Southampton University, author of Agincourt: A New History, and co-chair of the Agincourt 600 committee, Anne Curry’s mastery of her subject is self-evident, and allows her to offer a deeper and wider level of insight and richness of detail than one would normally expect from such a slim volume. The academic rigour is evident throughout, with interesting insights into the historiography as well as the subject itself: acknowledgment of the issues around the validity and accuracy of some sources and chronicles is woven into the narrative in a way that adds to, rather than undermines, the reader’s understanding of how myth and reality interact to inform our perceptions of historical figures.
Of course, there is no better example of this than Henry V, as the author points out with reference to the Shakespearean perceptions to which we are inevitably subject: not only the Warrior King leading his ‘happy breed’ into battle from Shakespeare’s Henry V, but also the playboy prince character of Prince Hal from the Henry IV plays. The power of literary and dramatic interpretations to influence our understanding and experience of history is exemplified by the vignettes that we are given towards the end of the book, where Curry discusses the ways in which Henry has been seen by later generations. For example, she mentions the carvings in the chantry chapel of Westminster Abbey depicting him on horseback in the midst of battle, and the 1970s restoration of his wooden effigy, with the hands allegedly based on those of the actor most famous for portraying him in film and on stage, Laurence Olivier.
Curry provides intriguing insight into Henry’s metamorphosis from gadfly prince to the serious and dedicated monarch who, on taking the throne at the age of twenty-six, dedicated himself to the role, disavowing some erstwhile “unsuitable friends of his youth” and surrounding himself instead with more serious and trusted advisors. As Prince, Henry had become frustrated by his father Henry IV’s tenacious grip on power through long periods of illness, and was now determined to transform himself, something which Curry ascribes partly to his difficult relationship with his father — guilt and remorse played their part in this change.
The famous battle and victory at Agincourt which established his reputation at home and abroad are depicted in fascinating detail, with information on the military, political and practical contexts, and the various factors that informed the battle as well as ensuing campaigns and developments in England and France. Henry’s untimely death at the age of thirty-five came a few short years later, after he had made good his claim as heir apparent to the French throne (following the death of Charles VI), thereby usurping the Dauphin. It was a remarkable achievement, and as Curry notes, when Henry died there was considerable lamentation in France as well as in England, due to “his wise and firm rule.” Henry had brought order to the chaos caused by the divisions between Burgundians and Armagnacs, and the frequent incapacity of Charles VI.
This is an excellent, academically rigorous and yet easily digestible, pacy overview of the life and reign of Henry V which will inspire many to dig deeper into the bibliography. It also entices the reader with the prospect of reading the remainder of the series. With fourteen books published in 2015, twelve additional titles scheduled for 2016, and more planned for publication in 2017 and into 2018, this promises to result in a wonderful collection, a fascinating range of new histories to look forward to over the next few years.--Steve Cox