Famous Men of the Middle Ages/Henry V
Of all the kings that England ever had Henry V was perhaps the greatest favorite among the people. They liked him because he was handsome and brave and, above all, because he conquered France.
In his youth, Prince Hal, as the people called him, had a number of merry companions who sometimes got themselves into trouble by their pranks. Once one of them was arrested and brought before the chief justice of the kingdom.
Prince Hal was not pleased because sentence was given against his companion and he drew his sword, threatening the judge. Upon this the judge bravely ordered the prince to be arrested and put into prison.
Prince Hal submitted to his punishment with good grace and his father is reported to have said, “Happy is the monarch who has so just a judge, and a son so willing to obey the law.”
One of Prince Hal’s companions was a fat old knight named Sir John Falstaff. Once Falstaff was boasting that he and three men had beaten and almost killed two men in buckram suits who had attacked and tried to rob them. The prince led him on and gave him a chance to brag as much as he wanted to, until finally Falstaff swore that there were at least a hundred robbers and that he himself fought with fifty. Then Prince Hal told their companions that only two men had attacked Falstaff and his friends, and that he and another man who was present were those two. And he said that Falstaff, instead of fighting, had run as fast as his legs could carry him.
There was real goodness as well as merriment in Prince Hal. And so the people found; for when he became king on the death of his father he told his wild companions that the days of his wildness were over; and he advised them to lead better lives in future.
As Henry V, Prince Hal made himself famous in English history by his war with France.
Normandy, you remember, had belonged to Henry’s ancestor, William the Conqueror. It had been taken from King John of England by the French king, Philip Augustus, in 1203.
Soon after his coronation Henry sent a demand to the French king that Normandy should be restored, and he made the claim which his great-grandfather, Edward III, had made that he was by right the king of France.
Of course, the king of France would not acknowledge this. Henry therefore raised an army of thirty thousand men and invaded France.
Before he began to attack the French he gave strict orders to his men that they were to harm no one who was not a soldier and to take nothing from the houses or farms of any persons who were not fighting.
Sickness broke out among Henry’s troops after they landed, so that their number was reduced to about fifteen thousand. Fifty or sixty thousand Frenchmen were encamped on the field of Agincourt (äzh-an-koor’) to oppose this little army.
The odds were greatly against Henry. The night before the battle one of his officers said he wished that the many thousand brave soldiers who were quietly sleeping in their beds in England were with the king.
“I would not have a single man more,” said Henry. “If god give us victory, it will be plain we owe it to His grace. If not, the fewer we are the less loss for England.”
The men drew courage from their king. The English archers poured arrows into the ranks of their opponents; and although the French fought bravely, they were completely routed. Eleven thousand Frenchmen fell. Among the slain were more than a hundred of the nobles of the land.
Agincourt was not the last of Henry’s victories. He brought a second army of forty thousand men over to France. Town after town was captured, and at last Henry and his victorious troops laid siege to Rouen, which was then the largest and richest city in France.
The fortifications were so strong that Henry could not storm them, so he determined to take the place by starving the garrison. He said, “War has three handmaidens—fire, blood, and famine. I have chosen the meekest of the three.”
He had trenches dug round the town and placed soldiers in them to prevent citizens from going out of the city for supplies, and to prevent the country people from taking provisions in.
A great number of the country people had left their homes when they heard that the English army was marching towards Rouen, and had taken refuge within the city walls. After the siege had gone on for six months there was so little food left in the place that the commander of the garrison ordered these poor people to go back to their homes.
Twelve thousand were put outside the gates, but Henry would not allow them to pass through his lines; so they starved to death between the walls of the French and the trenches of the English.
As winter came on the suffering of the citizens was terrible. At last they determined to set fire to the city, open their gates, and make a last desperate attack on the English.
Henry wished to preserve the city and offered such generous terms of surrender that the people accepted them. Not only Rouen but the whole of Normandy, which the French had held for two hundred years, was now forced to submit to Henry.
The war continued for about two years more, and the English gained possession of such a large part of France that at Christmas Henry entered Paris itself in triumph.
But, strange to say, the king against whom he had been fighting and over whom he was triumphing sat by his side as he rode through the streets. What did this mean? It meant that the French were so terrified by the many victories of Henry that all—king and people—were willing to give him whatever he asked. A treaty was made that as the king was feeble Henry should be regent of the kingdom and that when the king died Henry should succeed him as king of France.
In the treaty the French king also agreed to give to Henry his daughter, the Princess Katherine, in marriage. She became the mother of the English King, Henry VI.
The arrangement that an English sovereign should be king of France was never put into effect; for in less than two years after the treaty was signed the reign of the great conqueror came to an end. Henry died.
In the reign of his son all his work in gaining French territory was undone. By the time that Henry VI was twenty years old England, as you will read in the story of Joan of Arc, had nothing left of all that had been won by so many years of war except the single town of Calais.