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Henry V: Cold-hearted ruler or virtuous king?


On 9 April 1413, Henry V was crowned king of England. But how should we remember him: as a conquering hero who helped put the great into Great Britain; or a warmonger who led his country into a futile war of foreign conquest?

It snowed heavily in London on the day that Henry was crowned over 600 years ago. Writing a few years later, but before the king died in 1422, Thomas Walsingham, the resident chronicler at St Albans Abbey, recalled two interpretations of this unseasonable weather. Some thought it portended that the king would be cold hearted and rule his subjects harshly; others took it as an omen that vice would be frozen and new virtues would flourish in the coming spring. Both were correct. Walsingham may even have introduced the rival interpretations of the omen to make a veiled criticism of the king. Yes, he had brought a new beginning, a restoration of law and order and a revival of military success. But as the reign had progressed, he had become increasingly arbitrary in his actions and rapacious in his demands. How would it all end?

And in a similar way over the centuries historians have continued to disagree about Henry. On one side he has been characterised as the greatest man who ever ruled England; a national hero; the exemplification of the chivalric ideal; the man who came closer than any other to embodying the contemporary ideal of the just king; a ruler who possessed all the characteristics expected of a medieval monarch and more – a charismatic leader, a brilliant soldier, and a gifted administrator. On the other hand, he has been described as a fanatic, cruel, sadistic, sanctimonious, priggish, a hypocrite and a warmonger.

2015 saw the six hundredth anniversary of his famous victory at Agincourt and brought forth the question, should we celebrate him as one of our greatest kings, or should we remember him as a ruler who led his kingdom astray in the vain pursuit of power and glory? Six hundred years ago England was a little country on the edge of the continent that punched above its weight in European affairs. Does Henry V’s brief and spectacular reign hold any lessons for Britain's role in Europe today? 

By A.J. Pollard

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