Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Henry V

London, England Visited November 1997

I’ve made two visits to Westminster Abbey but have never put one of the notables buried in the cathedral into this blog because they never let me take pictures in the cathedral. My typical policy: no picture, no post. But I’ve lifted the ban because there are some great stories to be told.  And I've got a cheesy picture of me in front of the church verifying my visit. 

I’ve decided to begin with King Henry V, mostly because of an unexpected 24-hour Henry-fest that my brother and I took in cold, rainy Londtontown back in 1997. But first some bio.

Laurence Olivier as
Henry V
The man who became Henry V was born in Wales as Henry of Monmouth in 1386. His father was King Henry IV of the House of Lancaster. In the convoluted world of the British monarchy young Henry’s cousin Richard II was king during his youth. Henry IV was exiled and Henry V was actually a ward of Richard II when his father Henry IV led an uprising against Richard II leading to an overthrow of the monarchy. This established Henry IV on the throne and made Henry V Prince of Wales. You might need to read that again to follow the plot.

Contrary to Shakespeare's take, Henry V had already distinguished himself as a soldier in his teenage years – a trait that would define the entirety of his life. At the age of 16 during the Battle of Shrewsbury he was shot in the face with an arrow. It stuck and the extraction left him with a significant scar. Henry ascended to the throne upon his father’s death in 1413. History seems to portray Henry as a strong but politically balanced sovereign, who demonstrated an ability to decisively put down potential rebellions while building a stable and prosperous regime.

Ian McKellan as Henry V

Henry V praying at Agincourt

But it is Henry’s foreign policy that he is most known for – specifically his nearly obsessive intentions to conquer France. Henry felt he had a sovereign right to rule France and set about campaigning (militarily) to that end. His military career is ultimately defined by his victory over the French at the Battle of Agincourt. Agincourt is a remarkable victory by any standards. At the time of the battle the English army was decimated by sickness and malnutrition. While troop estimates vary widely most reliable numbers indicate that going into battle the French forces outnumbered the British 4 or 5 to 1. It should have been a slaughter. But almost miraculously the English crushed the superior French forces on the field. In fact the victory was so decisive that scholars generally estimate that the French casualties outnumbered the English by a ratio of 9 to 1!

Christopher Plummer as
Henry V

Richard Burton as
Henry V

Kenneth Branagh as
Henry V

Eventually Henry was able to use Agincourt and other victories to establish his claim as regent of France. His legitimacy was cemented with his marriage to Katherine of Valois, the French King’s daughter. However, even with titular rule over France, Henry never stopped trying to extend his actual power on the continent. On a campaign in 1422 Henry became ill and died at the age of 35. He was brought back to London and buried in Westminster Abbey. The next in line for the throne was his infant son Henry VI. But the regency in place during Henry VI 's youthful reign largely squandered Henry V’s conquests and the monarchy stayed in decline until the reign of Henry VIII.

Michael Sheen as Henry V from the playbill
for the Fall 1997 RSC production

Your blogger at the
Globe Theatre
The 24 Hour Henry-a-Thon. My brother John and I were in London for a few days in November 1997. We decided to take an afternoon tour of the Globe Theatre on the south side of the Thames, which had been rebuilt on the original site. Taking a tour gave us a jones for Shakespeare, so we found a pay phone and called up the Royal Shakespeare Company and found out they were doing a performance of “Henry V” that night.

We bought two back row tickets by phone, then realized that we needed to get to the other side of the Thames, which meant crossing the Tower Bridge. Leaving the theatre we were confronted by a mob of people – it was the night that the Royal Yacht Britannia was decommissioned and sailed for the last time out of the city. After fighting through the crowds we crossed the Bridge and made it to the Barbican Theatre where the performance was to take place.

We went up to get our tickets and were told that there were two second row seats we could have instead of our last row seats. Snagging them, we sat down in our seats and proceeded to be blown away by an a amazing performance featuring Michael Sheen (who later played Tony Blair in ‘The Queen’ and David Frost in “Frost/Nixon”) in the title role. 

Ticket from the play

It was the first time I'd seen the play and it has been my favorite Shakespeare ever since. Kenneth Branagh's 1989 film version is a must see.  His St Crispin's Day (Band of Brothers) speech is one of the most stirring rallying cries you'll ever see on film. 

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

A little-known extra benefit is watching Branagh carry a fifteen year old Christian Bale over his shoulder at the end of the movie.   

Your blogger at Westminster

Being in London, it only made sense to make a pilgrimage to Henry's final resting place. So, the next afternoon we headed to Westminster Abbey. It so happens that Henry’s crypt was in the midst of a restoration so it was hard to see it, but I was there. And that’s what makes Henry V a great subject for this blog.

Henry V tomb in Westminster Abbey

The tomb of Henry V is prominently located
behind the royal Coronation Chair

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