Thoughts on Henry V

Shakespeare’s The Life of Henry the Fifth (1599) portrays a medieval campaign undertaken by a chivalrous Christian king in a just cause leading the defeat of the many French by the few English.
– Barry Cooper, “The Element of Play in Western War”

According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, The Western Schism “in the history of the Roman Catholic church, was the period from 1378 to 1417, when there were two, and later three, rival popes [Urban VI, Clement VII, and Alexander V], each with his own following, his own Sacred College of Cardinals, and his own administrative offices. […] The spectacle of rival popes denouncing each other produced great confusion and resulted in a tremendous loss of prestige for the papacy.”

Historian Peter Reid, in A Brief History of Medieval Warfare: The Rise and Fall of English Supremacy at Arms, 1314-1485“, says: “When Henry V came to the throne
[age 27] on the death of his father in March 1413 the political scene was, for the Middle Ages, relatively settled. The king’s council and parliament worked well together, and relative powers and areas of influence over these two bodies of power were well defined. Trade was booming and the country prospered.” Reid explains that, though conditions in England were stable, “there remained a small number of disaffected but influential barons from his father’s reign, who might be encouraged to take advantage of of his absence abroad. These peers or their families had their land taken from them or been dishonoured in other ways by Henry’s father when he usurped the throne from Richard II.”

This Wikipedia article on the Salic law says, “Shakespeare claims that [the French King] Charles VI rejected Henry V’s claim to the French throne on the basis of Salic law’s inheritance rules, leading to the Battle of Agincourt. In fact, the conflict between Salic law and English law was a justification for many overlapping claims between the French  and English monarchs over the French Throne. […] Salic law regulates succession according to sex. Agnatic succession means succession to the throne or fief going to an agnate of the predecessor; for example, a brother, a son, or nearest male relative through the male line, including collateral agnate branches, for example very distant cousins.”

And so, with this historical context, we have a glimpse of the centrality of the question of legitimacy among both the ecclesiastical and political authorities in this medieval period.

In Shakespeare’s play, Henry V asks, “May I with right and conscience make this claim?” In Act 1, he seeks the approval of the Archbishop of Canterbury and of the Bishop of Ely. Though a king, Henry was required to subordinate his ambition to the scrutiny of the ecclesial authorities in order to effectively pursue the French throne.

It is exciting to consider the parallels between papal authority and kingly authority. The Great Schism meant that people were, so to speak, of different minds on the issue of legitimacy, risking the shattering of confidence in the papacy more broadly. The French King Charles VI, who was nearly twice Henry’s age, suffered a mental illness called glass delusion whereby he feared that he was made of glass “and therefore likely to shatter into pieces”.

At this point, I am not sure about the origin and development of the idea of the Divine Right of Kings. For this reason, I will focus on the scriptural case for submission to earthly authority found in Romans 13:1-7 where St. Paul writes:

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.  Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

How could it possibly be that “there is no authority except that which God has established”? Augustine said “an unjust law is not law at all.” Perhaps an illegitimate authority is no authority at all. Dear libertarian and anarchist friends, I am going to move on to a very quick glance at the just war tradition. (We can debate the above scripture verse on Facebook.)

Here are the three conditions for just war according to Thomas Aquinas:

1. The authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged.
2. A just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault.
3. It is necessary that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil.

In this article, “Henry V, Shakespeare and Just War” Donald McClarey discusses how Henry V’s war was arguably just according to the standards set out by Aquinas, but likely not according to the standards of the contemporary Catechism. McClarey writes:
“As can be easily seen, there are differences between the formulation of the Just War doctrine by the Angelic Doctor and the Catechism. […] The most recent interpretation of the Doctrine in the Catechism seeks to set the bar higher, much higher, for a just war, than Saint Thomas did. […] Morally, I believe that Henry V should properly be judged according to the Just War Doctrine enunciated by Saint Thomas, as it is obviously unfair to hold anyone accountable for a different formulation of the doctrine that arose more than five centuries after his death.”

I found it interesting that McClarey says, “Rulers would often seek the opinions of universities to help bolster their claims, and opinions would often vary.” I say this because the aforementioned Great Schism article says, “Various proposals for ending the schism were made, especially by the University of Paris, which suggested either mutual resignation or a decision by an independent tribunal or a general council.” Another interesting parallel.

Contemporary Social Teaching of the Church and the more recent papal encyclicals do seem to deviate from the just war tradition. In this National Review post “The Just-War Tradition”, George Weigel says:

So the notion that just-war analysis begins with a “presumption against war” (or, as some put it, with a “pacifist premise”) is simply wrong. The just-war way of thinking begins somewhere else: with  legitimate public authority’s moral obligation to defend the common good by defending the peace composed of justice, security, and freedom. The just-war tradition is not a set of hurdles that moral philosophers, theologians, and clergy set before statesmen. It is a framework for collaborative deliberation about the basic aims of legitimate government  as it engages hostile regimes and networks in the world.

Did it even matter if a war was just? What about pure military necessity? All of this piety and Christian chivalry, all of this rule-following and decorum seems like quite an obstacle, no? In The Prince, Machiavelli advises:

Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.

Were Henry V’s pious acts manifestations of true religion or Machiavellian pretenses?
I have come across several articles discussing Henry V as a Machiavellian ruler. For the historical Henry at least, this is a clear anachronism. The Battle at Agincourt was in 1415 and The Prince was published more than one hundred years later in 1532.  However, Shakespeare’s play is thought to date from 1599 and there are convincing cases for Machiavellian characters in Shakespearean plays. This makes the historical context and the chronology of publications and political events especially significant.

The other hugely significant event that occurred during this period was the English Reformation. King Henry VIII was prohibited by the pope to divorce and was excommunicated from the Roman Church. There is a lot more interesting history here and I intend to learn it eventually. In 1534, the Acts of Supremacy made Henry the “supreme head in earth of the Church of England”.

Shakespeare was writing for a Church of England audience. He had incentives to satisfy audiences and did not want to be censored, but celebrated. The historical context gives us insight into why Shakespeare downplays the Great Schism and papal authority. Still, there are many ways that the political drama imitates the ecclesiastical drama and of course, there was great interplay between the two because of how entrenched the Church was in the politics of Medieval Europe.

It is often said that the victor writes history. Despite controversy over Shakespeare’s religion and religious sympathies: He who was immersed in the English Reformation wrote history plays!

Book I want to read:
The Just War Tradition: An Introduction by David D. Corey and J. Daryl Charles


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