The Legendary Life Of King Henry V: One Of England’s Greatest Warrior Kings

Although Henry V only reigned as the King of England from 1413 until 1422, he made a lasting impact that changed England forever. Regarded as one of England’s most notable warrior kings, Henry V saw much military success during the Hundred Years’ War against the French, winning a decisive victory at Agincourt that established England as one of the strongest military powers in all of Europe. While he has been immortalized in Shakespeare’s play Henry V, there’s much more to his life than is often discussed. Discover who Henry V really was, and what made him such an important figure in English history.

The Date Of His Birth Is Uncertain

Picture from the book Short History Of The English People
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Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

While scholars agree that Henry V was born in the tower above the gatehouse of Monmouth Castle in Wales, there is no record of his birth. The year he was born is considered to be uncertain, with some claiming his birthday was August 9, 1387, and others September 16, 1386.

The latter date was derived from a horoscope commissioned by Henry V before he set off on his Agincourt campaign, although the astrologer was later discovered to have been drawn by a French spy, possibly as a means of meeting with the king. Upon this revelation, it is said the king disregarded the horoscope.

He Was A Hostage When His Father Seized The Throne

King Richard II surrendering the crown to Henry IV
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Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

When Henry’s father, Henry IV, was exiled by King Richard II in 1398, Richard II took young Henry as a hostage. However, he treated him kindly, becoming a father figure to the boy. So, in 1399, when Henry’s father seized the English throne, Richard II did not kill, hurt, or even threaten young Henry for his father’s betrayal, although it would have been customary.

According to one source, after Henry’s father secured the palace of Westminster, he sent for his son, but Henry didn’t want to go. Supposedly, it was Richard II who insisted that he return to his father to take up his position as the new heir apparent to the Kingdom of England.

He Became Skilled In Battle In Wales Which Prepared Him For His War Against The French

Young Henry Prince Of Wales
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

At his father’s coronation on November 10, 1399, around the age of 13, Henry was made the Princes of Wales and the Duke of Lancaster. Not long after, the Welsh leader, Owain Glyndwr, led a rebellion for independence against England that was successful ar first. Yet, by the time Henry was a teenager (around 16), he was given command of forces and began trying new tactics to beat the Welsh into submission.

He started taking strategic castles and cutting off trade routes, eventually forcing the Welsh back to two strongholds, which were defeated. It was during this time Henry became battle-hardened and knowledgeable about tactics that he would eventually implement against the French.

Henry Raised Money For His French Campaigns In A Very Kingly Manner

Man balancing money
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Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Wars cost a lot of money, and instead of heavily taxing his citizens to fund his campaigns against France like most kings would, Henry did something different. Instead, in 1415, Henry sent letters to wealthy individuals and whole towns requesting for a loan. Municipalities would decide on how much they were willing to give, and each citizen would pay their share to meet the agreed amount.

In return, Henry gave them royal jewels, regalia, and other royal items as collateral until he returned their payment. Not only did this strategy raise more than enough money for the wars, but it meant that the majority of England had stakes in the outcome.

He Nearly Died In His First Battle

Relief of archers
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PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Before he was king, Henry’s first battle wasn’t against the Welsh or the French, but his own countrymen. On July 21, 1403, a teenage Henry fought alongside his father against Henry Percy, an English lord in open rebellion against the crown. Henry was given command of his own forces, and his leadership helped secure their victory.

Yet, during the fight, Henry was shot with an arrow just below his eye which missed his brain and spinal cord, although it stuck into the back of his skull. Of course, most men would have died from such a wound, but being the heir apparent, Henry was given the best treatment possible and recovered.

Rumors Of A Hedonistic Youth

Henry's father rebuking his son
Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Henry’s image as a party animal and playboy were immortalized by Shakespeare, although these assumptions of his rebellious youth are primarily believed to be exaggerated. In the years that he supposedly spent drinking and acting like a boy with too much power, he was actually deeply involved in war and politics.

However, these claims are believed to be based on the time Henry ruled in his father’s stead who was severely ill from 1410 to 1411. While in power, Henry used the opportunity to implement his own policies. When his father recovered, not only did he reverse Henry’s policies, but he also removed him from his council.

A Good Or Bad Omen?

Henry V on the throne
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Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

After years of battling various illnesses, and possibly leprosy, King Henry IV died on March 20, 1413. Henry V was soon after crowned king on April 9, 1413, at Westminster Abby. It is recalled that Henry’s coronation occurred amid a violent snowstorm, which the common people couldn’t decide was a good or bad omen.

At the time of his crowning, King Henry V was 27 years old, standing 6 ft 3 in “with dark hair cropped in a ring above his ears, and clean-shaven,” a look he would keep for the majority of his reign.

He Executed One Of His Best Friends

Engraving of oldcastle
Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Sir John Oldcastle was a close friend of Henry V in Henry’s younger years. However, he was also a leader of the Lollards, a religious movement that opposed many of the practices of the Roman Catholic Church, therefore going against the King of England.

Nevertheless, being a friend to King Henry V, Oldcastle managed to escape persecution for heresy for many years. However, when it appeared the Lollards were conspiring to rebel, Henry V had the religious group harshly persecuted, and his old friend burned at the stake in 1417.

He Played A Variety Of Instruments

Medieval men playing instruments
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

King Henry V was far more than just a king and a warrior, he was well-read, educated, and a lover of the arts, music in particular. At a young age, he learned to play the harp, even having one sent to him during his campaign in France in 1421.

Over the course of his life, he also learned to play the flute as well as the recorder. He composed his own music that was originally attributed to his father but now believed to be the work of Henry V.

Some Say Henry’s Claim For The French Crown Was Prophesized By The Knights Templar

Jacques de Molay before execution
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1307, King Philippe IV of France made an attempt to exterminate the powerful Order of Knights Templar, torturing and putting to death the vast majority of its members. Supposedly, when the last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, was burned at the stake, he proclaimed that Philippe and his successors would die within a year.

Eight months later, Philippe died in a hunting accident, and within the next 12 years, the line of Philippe had perished. Due to a familial dispute, Edward III of England was passed over for kingship, and the crown was given to Philip VI instead. However, Edward III challenged his claim, inciting the Hundred Years’ War, leading Henry V to revive his claim to the French throne in the years following.

He Spoke The Language Of The People

Henry V meeting the clergy
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

In 1066, England was conquered by Norman invaders under the command of William the Conqueror. After William’s successful conquest, it was established that the kings and nobility of England would use French as their primary language when speaking among themselves or giving royal decrees.

This was commonplace for more than 350 years, even while the French and British warred during the Hundred Years’ War. However, Henry V made some changes to old traditions and was the first king since before William the Conqueror to use English as his primary language. This also helped him win the affection of the common folk.

A Conspiracy In His Court

Knight seizing a lord
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Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Because Henry’s father usurped the throne, some proclaimed that Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, had a claim to the throne as heir to Richard II. Yet, instead of disposing of Mortimer, Henry V kept him in his court. In return, Mortimer remained a loyal subject, recognizing him as the rightful King of England.

While Mortimer stood beside Henry, others weren’t as compliant. In 1415, a group of nobles led by the Earl of Cambridge and Sir Thomas Grey set a plot to overthrow Henry V. However, the conspirator’s plot was foiled by no other than Mortimer himself, who informed the king. Henry then had everyone involved executed and pardoned Mortimer.

He Won One Of The Most Decisive Battles In English History

henry V in battle
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On October 24, 1415, Henry’s army met the French on the field of battle near Azincourt in northern France in what is now known as the Battle of Agincourt. Although the English were vastly outnumbered, with many of their soldiers ill from dysentery, they prevailed due to Henry’s tactical genius. With around eighty percent of Henry’s army consisting of English and Welsh archers, Henry used the superior range of the English longbow to bring the French army to their knees.

Henry himself participated in the hand-to-hand combat portion of the battle, adding further renown to his title as a warrior king. The English’s unexpected victory severely crippled the French, gave morale to the British, and turned the tide of the Hundred Years’ War.

He Was Targeted During The Battle By A Band Of French Knights

Henry V protecting his brother
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Before Agincourt, the French were confident in their victory, with a group of an estimated 18 French knights under the banner of Lord Croy vowing to kill Henry during the battle. Yet, their efforts failed with all of the men in the pact perishing in the battle.

Supposedly, one of them managed to strike Henry’s helmet with an axe, chipping his crown. However, that wasn’t Henry’s only close call during the battle. When his younger brother Humphrey was wounded in the groin, Henry guarded him against an onslaught of French attackers.

He Went Against The Code Of Chivalry During The Battle Of Agincourt

Henry V giving a command
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

During the bloody Battle of Agincourt, after what appeared to be a victory for the English, Henry became concerned that the French prisoners they had taken were preparing for an attack. With the English still outnumbered and fatigued from the battle, Henry assumed that the prisoners had intentions to overwhelm the guards and join back in the fight using weapons left on the battlefield.

To prevent this from happening, Henry ordered all of the prisoners to be executed, going against the rules of war and chivalry. Although many of Henry’s knights hesitated to act on his command, the deed was done. It’s estimated that around 2,200 french prisoners were slaughtered, although historians and tacticians today don’t condemn Henry for his decision.

He Starved Thousands Of French To Death

The siege of Rouen
DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

From July 1418 to January 1419, Henry V laid siege to Rouen, the capital of Normandy. Henry completely surrounded the city, setting up fortified camps, and barricading the River Seine with the intention of starving the city into submission. His plan succeeded, and by December of 1418, the inhabitants of Rouen were at the point of eating rats.

It was then that the city forced 12,000 of the poor citizens outside of the city walls to save food. However, Henry would not let them pass the English line, and they were forced to starve to death in a ditch between the castle and the English army. Reports claim that the English soldiers felt guilty watching the thousands die miserably.

Henry’s Son Did Not Uphold His Legacy

Portrait of Henry VI
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Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

After Henry V’s death, his son, Henry VI, was crowned King of England and eventually France at just nine months old. As he became older, it was clear that he was nothing like his father. He is described as being shy, against violence, and at times mentally unstable, supposedly plagued with the same psychiatric condition from his grandfather, Charles VI of France.

Under his reign, he lost control of English lands in France, and England became politically unstable. He was the last Lancaster king to rule England before the War of the Roses, and his inability to rule led to his execution by his cousin Richard of the house York, who went on to be crowned king as Edward IV.

He Attempted To Sue For Peace

Henry V on a horse
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The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

Although he invaded France in 1415, Henry attempted to negotiate for peace. Earlier in the Hundred Years’ War, the English had captured King John II of France, yet had never received the full ransom that the French had agreed to pay for his release.

As king, Henry offered to leave France alone and take back his claim to the French crown as long as he received the remaining 1.6 million crowns owned from John II’s ransom, land in several areas of France, and marriage to Charle’s VI’s daughter. France’s inability to comply resulted in open war.

A French Prisoner Helped Him Win At Agincourt

Horses charging at Agincourt
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Just days before the Battle of Agincourt, a french prisoner informed Henry that the French’s plan for the battle was to use their cavalry to ride down the English army. After learning this, Henry instructed for sharpened stakes to be planted in the ground in front of the archers in order to prevent the horses from getting through.

Although the plan worked, it’s possible that it wasn’t Henry’s own plan. Similar tactics had been used at the Battle of Necropolis between the French and the Turks, which had been documented. So, it’s possible that Henry or one of his commanders had come across it and decided to try it at Agincourt.

He Died Suddenly Of Dysentery

King Henry V's body being removed from a boat
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Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images

During a siege, both sides typically suffered from a disease, especially from dysentery. Henry likely contracted dysentery during his at the siege of Meaux. After the siege, he would die just two months later in 1422 at the age of 36.

His body was brought back to England for burial, and he was laid to rest behind the altar in Westminster Abbey. A chapel was built around him with a life-sized statue placed on top with the head made of solid silver.

Shakespeare Made Him Look Wild

henry v print
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The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

In Shakespeare’s play, Henry V, he made the real-life king out to be a wild and adventurous youth. According to the playwright, it was this wild side of Henry that was the reason behind Sir John Falstaff’s hedonism with Henry.

In reality, Falstaff was an entirely made-up character and not a real person. Of course, Shakespeare was influenced by history. Falstaff is supposed to be based on Sir John Oldcastle but he changed the name after Oldcastle’s descendants complained.

He Made The First English-Language Government

Henry V, King of England. The son of Henry IV,
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The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

Henry V was the first English monarch to use the rudimentary form of the English language as his primary language. Before Henry V, all English monarchs had primarily used the French language. The change was official in August 1417, when he promoted the use of the language and created an English-language record in government.

It may sound strange to hear that not all English monarchs spoke English, but it’s important to remember the language has changed over time.

He Clashed With His Father About Opinions

henry v taking crown from sick father
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The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

Henry never expected to become heir to the throne but once his father claimed the crown, Henry V picked up his own opinions on how to rule. That was emphasized after 1399 when his father became ill and Henry had to stand in his place to help him rule.

That meant Henry was quick to form his own opinions, especially on foreign policy. His father tried to then push him aside but Henry V wasn’t quick to give up power now that he had tasted it.

“Henry V” May Have Been The First Play At The New Globe Theatre

The Globe Theatre, London as pictured by Wenceslas Hollar 1647
Michael Nicholson/Corbis via Getty Images
Michael Nicholson/Corbis via Getty Images

Sources have claimed that Shakespeare’s “Henry V” was the first play performed at the newly built Globe Theatre in 1599. This is believed because in the play’s prologue a “wooden O” is referenced, that historians think could only refer to the iconic circular theatre.

Other sources have argued against that thought. Chamberlain’s Men, which is a play company that performed Shakespeare’s plays, was still at The Curtain theatre in 1599. What can be confirmed is that “Henry V” was performed on January 7, 1605 at Whitehall Palace.

The Play Was So Famous, People Claimed They Saw It When They Didn’t

The Globe Theatre in the days of Shakespeare
Contributor/Getty Images
Contributor/Getty Images

“Henry V” was such a popular work of Shakespeare’s that long after, people would claim they saw it despite it no longer being in production. British Navy admiral Samuel Pepys claimed to have attended a performance of “Henry V” in 1664. In reality, he attended a copycat play written by Roger Boyle.

Shakespeare’s original script and play finally returned to being performed in 1723 but as an adaptation by Aaron Hill, more than 100 years after its first performance.

Some Famous Names Have Portrayed Him

timothee chalamet as the king
Photo Credit: Netflix / MovieStillsDB
Photo Credit: Netflix / MovieStillsDB

Throughout the 20th and 21st century, many famous actors have stepped up to play the role of Henry V. With big shoes to fill, you need an even bigger presence so the actor is all-important. Notable names include Richard Burton in 1955, Timothy Dalton in 1972, Kenneth Branagh in 1985, and Jude Law in 2013.

Most recently, Timothée Chalamet has taken on the role in a Netflix adaptation of the play and even sports the infamous haircut.

There’s A Dance Version Of The Play

dancing henry five photo
@DanceMagazine/Twitter
@DanceMagazine/Twitter

Yes, you read that right, Shakespeare’s tale of the famous king has even been turned into a dance. In 2004, choreographer David Gordon created a theatrical dance version of the famous play titled “Dancing Henry Five.”

The dance is mixed with the music written for a previous film adaption and has voice over work down by actor Christopher Plummer. The dance premiered in New York at the Lincoln Center to positive reviews and was most recently performed in 2011.

His Marriage To Catherine Was Essential For Peace

Katharine Speaks In Henry V
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Like most royal marriages at the time, it was done for political stability and to gain allies. After the battle at Agincourt, Henry presented France with the Treaty of Troyes, which included a clause to marry Catherine, who was the daughter of King Charles.

The marriage was meant to bond France and England together and in hindsight, actually worked. Of course, the pair planned to rule longer but after Henry V’s sudden death, his son took over the crown.

He Was Really Tall

henry V tall
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Historical records have shown that humans have grown taller over the centuries. When Henry V was alive, the average height of a male was only 5’4″! That is pretty short compared to the average height of males today, which is 5’9″.

Henry V towered above all those average heights. According to the historical record, he would have been 6’3″. It’s no wonder he was known as an intimidating and skilled fighter, he was basically a head taller than everyone else!

The First Onscreen Adaptation Was Part Of The War Effort

Sir Laurence Olivier (on horseback) as King Henry V in the 1944 movie
Bettman/Contributor/Getty Images
Bettman/Contributor/Getty Images

While “Henry V” has been performed dozens of times as a play, 1944 marked the first onscreen performance of the classic Shakespeare history. The 1944 version saw Laurence Olivier fill the large shoes of Henry V.

It’s interesting to note the timing of the film. It was released in the middle of World War Two, and was apparently even supported by Prime Minster Winston Churchill! Not only did he support the film to boost British patriotism and moral, but he arranged for the film to be released at the same time as the 1944 invasion of Normandy.

The War Of Roses May Have Inspired “Game Of Thrones”

ned stark game of thrones season 1
Photo credit: HBO / MovieStillsDB
Photo credit: HBO / MovieStillsDB

If you were a fan of Game of Thrones then it’s not hard to see the connection between the plot and Henry V’s life and in the War of Roses. The real war spurred after Henry V died and there were problems with his son, Henry VI, holding onto power.

The War of Roses was between two houses, The Lannisters (and in turn the Baratheons) and the Starks. Henry VI would have been parallel to Robert Baratheon.

He’s The Shortest-Reigning Henry

shortest reigning henry v
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The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

Henry V might have towered physically over everyone else but he didn’t reign that long. He only rules for nine and a half short years, from March 20, 1413 to August 31, 1422. He was only 35 years old when he died and ended his rule.

Nine years is still pretty long though, and Henry V out-reigned rulers that came after him such as James II, Edward VI, and Richard III.

His Son Ruled Much Longer Than Him

Henry VI of England, (1421-1471)
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The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

Even though Henry VI was nothing like his father and not the strong ruler that could unite two warring countries, he remained on the throne for quite sometime. Henry VI sat on the throne for nearly 40 years across a 50-year timespan. Henry VI was briefly deposed by Edward IV but returned to the throne.

His long reign may have contributed to the fact that after his death, people tried to turn him into “Saint Henry.”

Richard III Was Recently Unearthed In A Parking Lot

richard iii king of england
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Richard III of England reigned from 1483-1485 and was the last king of the House of York, the house opposed to Henry V’s House of Lancaster. He was king for only two years but gained infamy in September 2012 when his remains were uncovered under a car parking lot in Leicester.

The remains showed heavy tooth decay likely from drinking wine every day as well as heavy teeth grinding. Richard III was eventually reburied at Leicester Cathedral.

Henry VII Was A Selfie Star

henry vii realistic portrait
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The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

Henry VII may not have actually taken any selfies, but he is remembered for being the first English monarch to have their portrait stamped onto coins. What was even more impressive about this is the fact the portrait was realistic, rather than stylized as was the tradition at the time.

If you were at the market in 1507 you may have used a coin with Henry VII’s face embossed onto it. The practice is still held today by British monarchs.