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Clio's Temple

A thoroughly unlikeable man

"O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention." Shakespeare's lyrical introduction to Henry V gives no hint of the heights of invention (or depths of misunderstanding) that can baffle anyone who seeks to learn about the Hundred Years' War from reading The Bard's ginned-up tribute to a king who was a thoroughly unlikeable man. Today is the six hundredth anniversary of Henry of Monmouth's coronation. While England had won great victories over France at Crecy and Poitiers, none would be greater, none more unproductive than Henry's triumph amidst the mud of Agincourt.

A brief review of the facts: The Hundred Years' War resulted from a dispute over whether, after the failure of direct succession in the Capetian line of French Kings, the crown should go to Philip IV's nephew, Philip VI of Valois, or his grandson, Edward III of England. In the war that resulted, the English could win battle after battle, but could never assert effective control over the French heartland, even with the support of renegades like John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy. The practical effects of repeated English efforts to gain control of France led to a long period of misery for the hapless French who got in the way of this collision of giants.

The most notorious instance of Will Shakespeare's glossing-over of the brutal facts of war comes in Act IV, Scene VII, when Fluellen laments the killing of the English boys left to watch the baggage-train during the battle. In response, Henry says, "I was not angry since I came to France until this instant." He may have said that. If so, he demonstrates a lack of self-knowledge that is stupefying, even for a king. The hapless citizens of Harfleur, as well as thousand of French peasants whose fields were trampled down by the English, might have disagreed.

As I tell my students every semester, history is full of ironies. While the English had not since the twelfth century had anything like a queen regnant (the so-called Empress Matilda), they were perfectly ready to make war on France to secure the right of succession that descended through a maternal line. England escaped the miseries that it inflicted on France from 1337 to 1453, although not entirely. In the War of the Roses, Henry VI, briefly heir to the thrones of both France and England, would prove unequal to the task of securing his own throne. Happy coronation day, Henry of Monmouth. 'Tis a pity you didn't live to see what a mess your victory was to make of your own family.

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