Sad Stories of the Death of Kings

When Richard, with his eye brimful of tears,
Then cheque’d and rated by Northumberland,
Did speak these words, now proved a prophecy?
“Northumberland, thou ladder by the which
My cousin Bolingbroke ascends my throne–”
Though then, God knows, I had no such intent,
But that necessity so bow’d the state
That I and greatness were compell’d to kiss:
‘The time shall come,’ thus did he follow it,
‘The time will come, that foul sin, gathering head,
Shall break into corruption:’ so went on,
Foretelling this same time’s condition
And the division of our amity.

– Henry IV, Part 2

The Ascension of Lancaster, the Red Rose

Whereas Richard II had Bolingbroke take the crown and become Henry IV, in Henry IV Part 1 he struggles with keeping it while fighting rebellions and unrest in the North, led by Henry “Hotspur” Percy of Northumberland. Hotspur’s father, the Earl of Northumberland had been an ally of Henry’s in deposing Richard II, and in return the Percys were promised lands instead of their rivals. Now, however, the king has failed to do so and the Percys revolt, staging a rebellion.

Meanwhile, there is worry that Henry’s son, Prince Hal, is unsuited to be king as he is, to all appearances, brash and irresponsible and who would rather spend his time with the London commoners, particularly in the company of John Falstaff, than the court, unless summoned by his father. Henry holds little regard for his wayward son, and in an iconic scene compares his behaviour to Richard and finally contrasts him with that of Hotspur, claiming he has more right to the throne than his own son and wished that he were his. This moves Hal and he promises his father that he will redeem himself by vowing to revenge himself on Hotspur. “I will redeem all this on Percy’s head, and, in the closing of some glorious day, be bold to tell you that I am your son.”

In Shakespeare’s play, Hal and Hotspur are portrayed as contemporaries but in actuality, Hal was only a boy of sixteen during these events and Hotspur was in his thirties, closer in age to Henry IV. In the play, it is at the Battle of Shrewsbury that Hal proves himself and gains his honour by killing Hotspur in single combat. While Hal, or Henry, joined his father in the battle, in reality he did not kill Hotspur (although it is hinted at in Holinshed’s Chronicles, Shakespeare’s primary source for his history plays); instead a stray arrow being the most likely candidate for his death, although it was not initially known he was dead. Prince Henry was also wounded, with an arrow to the face and that would leave him with a permanent scar – only recovering due to the treatment of a skilled physician using honey, alcohol, and a specially designed surgical instrument.

Throughout both plays, Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2, the king is, at times, tormented, on a metaphorical level, by the ghost of Richard (I understand this is Shakespeare, so we must clarify – Hamlet’s father’s ghost comes to mind) and reminded of his usurpation by the rebellions launched in Richard’s, or his heir presumptive Edmund Mortimer’s name. According to Holinshed, it was prophesied that Henry would die in Jerusalem and the king took this to mean he would die on a crusade. In reality, he died in the Jerusalem chamber of Westminster Abbey – in the Richard II episode of Uncovering Shakespeare, Sir Derek Jacobi notes that even in his dying moments, Henry did not escape Richard as he would have seen the initial R with a crown on the timbres, as the chamber was built during Richard’s reign.

As Henry fears that his son Hal only wants the crown, when he finds Hal sitting on the throne and wearing the crown, it is his son who reassures him that it is not so. Father and son have a heart to heart talk, including Henry IV’s soliloquy with the memorable line, “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”, and the king is at peace before he dies. Historically, Prince Henry was in charge of England for eighteen months, during his father’s ill health, and he took the advantage to impose his own policies, though most of these were reversed by the king after his recovery and he discharged the prince from council.

The Hundred Years War and Agincourt

When Henry ascended the throne as Henry V in 1413, he had the late Richard II honourably re-interred at Westminster Abbey, partly to atone for his father and partly also to silence the dogged rumours that the deposed king still lived. (It was there that Richard had prepared an elaborate tomb for himself, where his first wife Anne was already entombed; a joint tomb, it once showed them holding hands before it was damaged.) An omission made by Shakespeare in Richard II is that when Richard exiled Henry’s father, Henry was ten years old and was taken into Richard’s care, and accompanied the king to Ireland so there is the strong likelihood that the two would have become close.

Not to-day, O Lord,
O, not to-day, think not upon the fault
My father made in compassing the crown!

– Henry V

In the play Henry V, we see his transformation as a strong, powerful king with ruthless military command and mainly involves his campaign to reclaim the French territories he claims as England’s through his great-grandfather Edward III (the father of Edward the Black Prince and grandfather of Richard II), whose claim to the French throne was based on his grandfather, King Philip IV of France, although the source of conflict dates back even further to William the Conquerer (Henry II’s great-grandfather) as he became King of England while still retaining the duchy of Normandy.

Edward III was a duke of Aquitaine and refused to pay homage to Philip VI of France; consequently Aquitaine was confiscated from him and this provoked war, with Edward declaring himself King of France. His grandson, Richard II, had wished to end it and was relatively successful; making peace with Charles VI, which included the marriage of his seven-year-old daughter Isabella of Valois to Richard. (She was Richard’s second wife and was the older sister of Catherine of Valois, who would marry Henry V.) After the deposition and death of Richard, however, it wasn’t long until the war was resumed by the Lancastrians, being brought to a head by Henry V.

The young Edmund Mortimer was taken into the king’s favour and was set at liberty, even allowing him to reside on the king’s estate. When Mortimer learned he was the focal point of a conspiracy that would be known as the Southampton Plot, to have himself replace Henry V, led by his brother-in-law Richard, Third Earl of Cambridge, Henry Scrope, and Sir Thomas Grey, he revealed it to Henry. Those involved in the plot were found guilty and beheaded. The plot is dramatized by Shakespeare, to illustrate Henry’s change and prove his leadership and resolve to his men shortly before they set sail for France. The Earl of Cambridge’s older brother Edward, Second Duke of York joined the army led by Henry into France, during which he died. After his death, his title would pass on to the Earl of Cambridge’s son Richard, Third Duke of York (the father of Edward IV and Richard III).

The centrepiece of Shakespeare’s play is the Battle of Agincourt, which the English won despite fewer numbers than the French. The English victory was partially due to the longbow and partially due to the weather conditions; recent heavy rain had resulted in thick mud, which the French had to walk through. However, the battle is not actually depicted in the original play, although it would introduce one of the most famous of speeches, the St. Crispin’s Day speech. In both the play and history, Henry, fearing the possibility of the French prisoners, who outnumbered their captors, regrouping and attacking the English, orders them to be killed; all except the most high-ranking prisoners.

The final seal of Henry’s dual kingship of England and France is his marriage to Catherine of Valois. In probably one of the best known scenes of the play, after having won at Agincourt, Henry proceeds to woo Catherine (spelled as Katharine in the play), Charles VI’s daughter. As neither speak each other’s language, this proves difficult but the humour of the situation eventually helps Henry win her over. Historically, Henry and Catherine would have known each other’s languages as French was the language of the court, although Henry also promoted using English in government and he was also the first English king since the Norman conquest to write his personal correspondence in English.

Historically, Henry married Catherine five years, in 1420, after the English victory at Agincourt. After six months of negotiation, the Treaty of Troyes had recognized Henry as heir and regent of France upon the death of Charles VI. This recognition would also extend to Henry’s heirs. It has been viewed that Charles, who was known to suffer through periods of insanity and thusly was often unable to rule, was taken advantage of. Indeed, the Treaty was signed for him. The signing of this treaty came with the unfortunate, and devastating, consequence that Charles’s own son Charles VII, the Dauphine, was disinherited from succession and revived rumours that he was in fact illegitimate, the result of an alleged affair that Isabeau of Barvaria, Charles VI’s queen, had with the Duke of Orléans.

Despite Henry’s triumph, within a year he dies suddenly, leaving behind a widow and his only heir, Henry VI, who would lose his father’s hard-won French territories. Catherine eventually began a relationship with Owen Tudor, who had entered her service as keeper of the Queen’s wardrobe, although a record of their marriage – if they did marry – doesn’t survive. A dowager queen couldn’t marry without the king’s permission, so their marriage would not have been legally valid; however, Tudor historians insisted that they were married, as their marriage provides a link for the legitimacy of the Tudor dynasty. One of Catherine and Owen’s sons, Edmund Tudor would marry Margaret Beaufort, a union which would result in Henry Tudor, who would defeat Richard III and succeed him as Henry VII.

3 thoughts on “Sad Stories of the Death of Kings

  1. Pingback: Muse of Fire | trend & chic

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