Man of War: Henry V
An article by Chad Arnow

Click to enlarge
A portrait of Henry V

Click to enlarge
Henry shown receiving
a book from its author

Click to enlarge
The battle of Agincourt

"England expects her monarchy to produce at least one great king each century," wrote Antonia Fraser in The Middle Ages (A Royal History of England). The 15th century seems to have gotten its great king early that century, with Henry V's ascension to the throne in 1413.

Henry of Monmouth's early life is not well-recorded, probably since he was not in the direct royal line of succession. Sources list his birthdate most commonly as either August 9 or September 16, 1387. Descended from Edward III's third son, John of Gaunt, his earliest years were filled with the struggles between his family and the descendants of Edward III's eldest son, the Black Prince. Henry's father, known first as Henry Bollingbroke and later Henry IV, was John of Gaunt's heir; he deposed the Black Prince's heir, Richard II, setting the stage for the future Henry V's reign. This conflict of succession laid the groundwork for England's Wars of the Roses from 1455-1485.

Henry's involvement in court politics and warfare in his teen years speaks against his portrayal as a raucous youth, a notion made especially popular by William Shakespeare: Henry was awarded the title of Duke of Lancaster at the age of twelve; he commanded royalist forces against an army led by his family's former ally Sir Henry Percy, known as Harry Hotspur, at the age of sixteen. By 1410 and with his father in ill health, he was largely in control of the English government. The transformation from prince to king seems to have been handled with grace, with Henry making efforts to please the various factions created in the succession conflict.

Henry V's reign was marked by a resumption of the Hundred Years War, that long, draining conflict dating back to Edward III's land-holdings and claim to the throne of France. The crowning achievement, militarily, of that period of the war was yet another decisive victory over the French, this time at Agincourt in 1415. His continued successes in military action and his ability to play the French and their allies against each other led to a treaty that could have changed the face of Europe forever. In 1420, Henry did what his forebears had not: he secured the coveted throne of France for himself and his heirs upon the death of the current French king, Charles VI. He further strengthened his position with his marriage to Charles's daughter.

The Treaty of Troyes would never reach its full realization, though. Henry V died of dysentery on August 31, 1422, having fallen ill in July. Had Henry lived a mere two months longer, he would have been able to succeed Charles VI as king of France. His nine month old son was proclaimed king of England and France, but the war turned sour for the English in the years after Henry's death, ending ultimately in defeat.

Henry V was enshrined in Westminster Abbey after his death. A wooden effigy sits atop his tomb, a testament to a man who seems to have had less use for lavish ornamentations than his forebears. The carved head on the effigy is modern, based on period portraiture.

Equipment of Henry V
As with many warriors and noblemen of England, Henry V's chivalry was commemorated with the placing of equipment of war near his tomb. These funerary achievements, which include a short sword of Oakeshott Type XVIII, a great helm, a shield, and a saddle, were moved from a wooden beam above the tomb and placed in Westminster Abbey's museum in 1972.
Click to enlarge
The sword closely associated with Henry V, dated to before 1422

Click to enlarge
Westminster Abbey tomb

Click to enlarge
The great helm

The sword was, for many years, lost. It was found in a chest, beneath worn-out priestly robes. It is the sort of understated no-nonsense sword one would expect from a monarch like Henry V. The short blade would be adept at cutting and thrusting, and would have served well in the close-packed melee that the English dismounted tactics of the Hundred Years War created. The blade is severely hollow-ground and shows the pattern of patination so often seen on arms and armour preserved in churches: "small, even rust-pits under a dark brown covering of old grease and dust," according to Ewart Oakeshott, who examined and cleaned the sword.

The pommel and cross are well-formed and crisp, with simple decorations. Both are gilded, though this may have been applied for Henry's funeral. The cross curves gently downward, with the ends curled under; its ecusson is cusped and bears simple straight lines as decoration. The pommel seems rather large for a sword this size. Closer inspection, though, has revealed that it is made in three pieces that are brazed together. The central disc is solid, while the outer pieces (which form the raised rims) are hollow. A red cross has been painted into the recesses of those rims. The sword's grip appears to be a replacement.

This sword has been replicated by many companies, including Museum Replicas Limited, Arms & Armor, and Raven Armoury (please see our hands-on review of the version by Arms & Armor). The multi-piece construction of its pommel has not been replicated accurately in the production marketplace, unfortunately, but the sword's classic lines have been alluring to makers and customers alike.

At least one other sword has been attributed to Henry V (or possibly Henry IV). In the Tower of London resides an enormous bearing sword, 91 inches long. Its 65.5 inch blade is German and dates from the early 15th century, while its hilt is English.
Click to enlarge
The massive bearing sword from the Tower of London is 91" long and has a 65.5" long blade. Shown to scale
below it is the single-handed Westminster Abbey sword, having a 27" long blade.

Click to enlarge
The saddle,
circa 1422

The helm is of a form most often associated with the tilt (now often called the joust), though the great helm did continue in use on the battlefield into the 15th century. This association with the tilt has much to do with the reinforcement of the left front, designed to make the helm better able to handle lance strikes. The helm has a hook at its back, assumed to have been added for Henry's funeral. Its base is bordered by a latten band with starburst decorations. This helm is similar in form to others seen on effigies of men who died fifteen years or more before Henry did and is almost certainly not the crowned one the Duke of Alençon struck at and damaged during the Battle of Agincourt.

The shield is of limewood and is in poor condition. The front is worn so badly that it is impossible to tell what decoration it may have held. The back of the shield retains a pad of red velvet to cushion the hand.

The saddle is fairly typical of the era. The horn and cantle areas feature raised protective plates. Parts of it were originally covered with blue velvet.

Henry V was a stern monarch who harshly punished disloyalty. Known for his callousness, which may have bordered on cruelty, he was also a pious man. Though he is most remembered as a warrior, he had a great deal of success as a statesman, most notably in helping the Catholic Church end its great papal schism. This somewhat enigmatic figure was nonetheless a great king and warrior, a no-nonsense figure whose fine but not lavishly ornate arms and armour offer us insight into his character and reign.

About the Author
Chad Arnow is a classical musician from the greater Cincinnati area and has had an interest in military history for many years. Though his collecting tends to focus on European weapons and armour of the High Middle Ages, he enjoys swords, knives and armour from many eras.

Arms & Armor of the Medieval Knight, by David Edge, John Miles Paddock
European Armour, circa 1066 to circa 1700, by Claude Blair
Middle Ages, The (A Royal History of England), by Antonia Fraser (Editor)
Records of the Medieval Sword, by R. Ewart Oakeshott
Treasures from the Tower of London: Arms and Armour, by A. Vesey B. Norman, G. M. Wilson

Photographic copyright notices are included on each photo, when available, and especially include Westminster Abbey.


All contents © Copyright 2003-2024 — All rights reserved

Open a printer-friendly version of this page

You must be logged in to access all the features of
Your name: I forgot my password
Register for an account
Password:  Log me on automatically each visit
Why register? See our Membership Plans for details.