Reviewed: Henry V, The Conscience of a King by Malcolm Vale


Published 2016, 308 Pages, Available as Hardback and Ebook

More than just a single-minded warrior-king, Henry V comes to life in this fresh account as a gifted ruler acutely conscious of spiritual matters and his subjects’ welfare

Shakespeare’s centuries-old portrayal of Henry V established the king’s reputation as a warmongering monarch, a perception that has persisted ever since. But in this exciting, thoroughly researched volume a different view of Henry emerges: a multidimensional ruler of great piety, a hands-on governor who introduced a radically new conception of England’s European role in secular and ecclesiastical affairs, a composer of music, an art patron, and a dutiful king who fully appreciated his obligations toward those he ruled.

Historian Malcolm Vale draws on extensive primary archival evidence that includes many documents annotated or endorsed in Henry’s own hand. Focusing on a series of themes—the interaction between king and church, the rise of the English language as a medium of government and politics, the role of ceremony in Henry’s kingship, and more—Vale revises understandings of Henry V and his conduct of the everyday affairs of England, Normandy, and the kingdom of France.

I regard this as the best book on Henry V in a generation: and I am not inclined to hyperbole or exaggeration in book reviews. Dr. Vale’s masterstroke with this work was to focus on the non-military aspects of Henry’s reign.
Of course, he’s best known as a Warrior King, but as Vale mentions, he only actually fought two pitched battles in his entire life:  Agincourt and Shrewsbury in 1403.

Yet, as this work establishes, there was much more to Henry than that. I knew before I read this book that Henry V was interested in music, and I recall hearing about him having possibly composed a couple of musical scores in a David Starkey documentary years ago. Who knew that alongside that, Henry actually knew how to play three instruments, including the harp? It’s still sort of hard to imagine him playing the harp, but apparently, he did.  He was also very interested in Literature and even architecture, and a friend to many scholars and men of learning.

15th century Kings and royals had come far from the ‘feudal spur-clanking boneheads’ of past centuries. One might consider them the precursors of Renaissance men and women. Henry also did much to promote the use of the vernacular, by insisting on having certain texts and documents written or translated into English, including those relating to the royal administration and government.

Another interesting takeaway from this book was that Henry was neither a religious fanatic, nor a bigot: or at least the evidence does not seem to support this. Much has been made by some recent authors of the fact that seven men were burned for heresy in the first year of Henry’s reign. This event, though, is often taken out of context: it was not just a random pogrom, but in direct response to the so called ‘Lollard Rising’ or Oldcastle Rising of 1414. It bears mentioning that most of those involved do not seem to have been Lollard, followers of the teachings of John Wycliffe, or driven by religious zeal at all. In fact, over 40 people were hanged as ordinary rebels for their role in the rising, not for anything related to religion.

Even as a personal sympathizer with Wycliffe and the Lollard movement, its hard to deny that this event did more harm that good. As has been written, it ‘represented the merging of heresy and sedition that was to doom the Lollard movement to a largely covert existence’: and move it far away from the vision which its founder conceived of.

The author put matters into and put into perspective by demonstrating that the persecution and burnings during his reign were not even comparable to the numbers killed during the Albigensian Crusade and later persecutions of the Cathars, the suppression of the Templars or Protestantism by rulers in the following century. Less than 15 people were burned for heresy in total during his reign: so Henry was ‘no Charles V or Philip II of Spain’ and no Mary Tudor, it might be added. There’s even evidence to suggest he pardoned Lollards, on occasion.

Overall, the book is very readable, but cannot  criticized for not being scholarly enough or lacking references: Yale University Press generally sets the bar high for its History books, and this is no exception. The chapters on Henry’s engagement in the church and religion where a little heavygoing, and some readers might choose to skim them or skip them altogether but the book highly recommended despite these. By the end, the skeptical reader may well come away with a newfound respect for Henry. He emerges as a cultured man of genuine conscience and conviction, who although flawed does seem to have had a genuine care and regard for the good of his kingdom and subjects.

The author’s conclusion stating that is is not the place of historians to sit in anachronistic judgement on figures from the far distant past to declare them goodies or baddies is very convincing.

“The abstract judgements that tend to be produced… do not necessarily illuminate or explain the attitudes and beaviour of those who walked and rode in the relatively remote past… Hence this book has sought out evidence for the direct action and engagement of its human subject wherever it can be found….

…To read what Henry V himself read, handle what he himself handled, and sometimes trace his own hand on a letter, a petition or a memorandum with one’s own may bring us as close as we will ever get to that remarkable individual”

My copy already boasts underlining, dog-earing, and a much scuffed dust cover. Generally considered badges of honour and careful reading on my bookshelves. Go get yourself a copy today: and a paperback edition from the Publisher might be nice.

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