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Posted on Sep 12, 2007 in Front Page Features, War College

Commander Dossier: Henry V

By Gerald D. Swick

Near the town of Agincourt on October 25, Henry faced a French force reportedly outnumbering his own anywhere from 3-to-1 to 8-to-1. He deployed 900 men-at-arms in three groups (battles), with 5,000 longbow-armed archers in V formations to the front and flanks. During the ensuing fight, a hurricane of English arrows decimated the mounted French enemy. Henry, who fought “like a maimed lion,” lost only 500 men while the French lost up to 10,000.

With winter approaching, Henry withdrew to England. When Genoese ships in French employ threatened the supply line to his small garrison at Harfleur, he commissioned 30 large warships that cleared the English Channel of opposition. This was the beginning of the vaunted Royal Navy.

Elusive French Crown

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Returning to France in 1417, Henry won every siege through his iron-willed determination and skill with artillery. He also instilled in his men a level of combat discipline unusual for the era. Away from the battlefield, however, his troops’ depredations were brutal even by medieval standards. They pillaged so thoroughly that the people of Normandy could pay only a fraction of the fines and ransoms Henry needed to finance his war.

After negotiating a settlement that brought French Burgundians to his side, Henry occupied Paris and arranged his marriage to Charles VI’s daughter, Katherine. The agreement left Charles on the throne for life but named Henry as his heir.

As it turned out, Henry never wore the crown of France. He died on August 31, 1422, at the age of 34 (probably from dysentery) while on campaign against French forces still opposing him. “Mad Charles” outlived him by less than six weeks.

Henry conquered a third of France but left England ‘s government deeply in debt. Within 30 years, all his conquests were lost. The devastation inflicted by “the scourge of God” intensified existing animosities between France and England, and the bitterness persisted until the 20th century’s World Wars.

Yet Henry V remains an English hero-king and is the subject of one of Shakespeare’s most famous historical plays. His legacy was a more unified England that possessed a successful army and a powerful navy.

Quick Assessment:

• Tactically innovative
• Personally courageous but impetuous
• Inspiring, “lead from the front” commander

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See:

Henry V by William Shakespeare. Folger Shakespeare Library, 2004.

Henry V by Christopher Allmand. The University of California Press, 1992.

Henry V: The Scourge of God by Desmond Seward. Viking Press, 1988.

Henry V, starring and directed by Sir Laurence Olivier. Two Cities Films Ltd, 1944.

Henry V, starring and directed by Kenneth Branagh. BBC and Renaissance Films, 1989.

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Band of Brothers

Henry V, William Shakespeare’s version of what Henry might have said to inspire his soldiers on the eve of Agincourt, has done as much as any of the king’s actual exploits to immortalize the monarch. From Star Trek to Lord of the Rings, and from the Wild West’s Tombstone to HBO’s Band of Brothers, the following famous lines have been quoted, parodied and paraphrased ad infinitum:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he today that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition:

And gentlemen in England now a-bed

Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

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3 Comments

  1. wow thats 4 the info 🙂

  2. ahh i ment thanks 4 info 🙂 q p
    W

  3. While Henry V had his strengths in the field, the victory at Agincourt was sheer luck. It rained hard the night before, so French heavy cavalry was useless. The English heavy cavalry (knights) had not linked up with the auxiliaries under Henry’s command, which turned out to be fortuitous since it would have been useless. The French horses got stuck in the mud, and the English archers devastated them.