Henry V: The Conscience of a King by Malcolm Vale

Peaceful pursuits of the warrior-king…

😀 😀 😀 😀

henry VIn his introduction, Malcolm Vale suggests that Henry V’s reputation as a warrior-king shows only one aspect of his character, and not necessarily the most important one in letting us understand the man. To make his case, Vale looks at Henry’s other activities – how he carried out the daily business of government, how he dealt with matters of the Church, his involvement in encouragement of the arts, etc. Since, unusually for the time, Henry often wrote letters in his own hand, Vale suggests that for the first time we get to hear the actual ‘voice’ of a monarch.

This book is neither a history of the period nor a full biography of Henry. It is an extremely detailed look at various aspects of Henry’s reign, but makes no attempt to tell his whole ‘story’. Because of its focus on Henry’s peaceful activities, it only touches on his wars in passing. It’s academic in tone and assumes some familiarity on the part of the reader with the events and main players of the time. It’s therefore not a book for beginners. Since I most definitely am a beginner to this period of history, I would have struggled badly had it not been for the fortunate circumstance that I very recently read a biography of Henry IV, which gave me some background to the political situation in England and Europe. However, this is not in any way a criticism of the book. Vale sets out his agenda clearly in his introduction and fully meets it.

Henry V - artist unknown. Vale speculates that the portrait is in profile because the right side of his face would be disfigured after the wound he received at the battle of Shrewsbury...
Henry V – artist unknown.
Vale speculates that the portrait is in profile because the right side of his face would be disfigured after the wound he received at the battle of Shrewsbury…

Each chapter covers one aspect of Henry’s reign. Vale starts with a look at how the daily business of government was carried out, showing the high level of personal involvement of Henry in decisions large and small. He shows how a bureaucracy grew up to streamline this and take some of the pressure off the King, and also to provide a consistent approach during Henry’s long absences in France. Vale goes into great detail over the uses of the various seals and signets and under what circumstances each was used. Henry is shown as having taken his duty as a monarch seriously, trying to provide justice and working closely with his council. Vale shows that, more than previous Kings, Henry’s own manual signature often appears on documents, suggesting that this was done as an extra indication of his personal will in certain matters.

Vale also discusses Henry’s involvement in Church matters, both at home and abroad. Henry is shown as genuinely religious, with a desire to support and protect religious establishments while expecting them to live up to their part of the bargain by curbing absenteeism, reforming some of the areas of abuse and tending to the cure of souls. Partly because of the weakness of papal authority due to the Schism, Henry had considerable power over appointments, and Vale suggests that he was effectively head of the church within his own territories, two centuries before Henry VIII’s break with Rome.

...but clearly that can't be right as we can tell from this later portrait. (Doesn't he look just like Kenneth Branagh? Yummy...)
…but clearly that can’t be right as we can tell from this later portrait. (Doesn’t he look just like Kenneth Branagh? Yummy…)

Henry’s interest in the peaceful arts comes under scrutiny too, showing his direct involvement in encouraging and even participating in them. It appears he may have composed music himself, as well as playing the harp. He read fairly widely, both religious and imaginative works, and commissioned translations. He also commissioned artistic work that formed part of the trappings of power – tapestries and textiles, ornamental and military metalwork, etc.

The chapter I found most interesting discusses Henry’s increasing use and promotion of the English language as his reign progressed. At the beginning of the reign, Norman French and Latin were still the languages of government, but from about the middle of his reign on, English begins to appear more often and Henry himself begins to write letters in that language. Vale suggests that this is a result of Henry’s desire to show that, should he succeed in gaining the crown of France, the two countries would remain separate, distinct entities with their own laws and identities. At that time, English was seen as an unsophisticated language without the vocabulary or nuance required of a language of government. Vale shows how much of the formal language was adopted wholesale from Norman French, either anglicised or literally translated. He also shows that even now, six centuries later, some of the phrases put into use in Henry’s time are still used in formal Parliamentary documents. This was the time of Chaucer and other early writers in English, and Vale discusses the literary development of the language, suggesting that the King’s influence in promoting English was crucial in its growth.

Hmm... yeah. Could be English. French or Latin, but my money's on Chinese...
Hmm… yeah. Could be English, French or Latin, but my money’s on Chinese…

In conclusion, I feel Vale makes his case that there was much more to Henry V than simply being the warrior of Agincourt fame. The research that has gone into the book is clearly immense and it is well written and presented. Obviously I am not qualified to judge the accuracy of the facts or conclusions, but I found it a convincing read. Personally I found parts of it a little dry and repetitive and perhaps too detailed, but I put that down to a mismatch between reader and book. In tone, I would suggest it is aimed more at the academic reader, or at least a knowledgeable and enthusiastic amateur, than at the casual reader. Nonetheless I learned a good deal, not just about Henry, but about governance of the time, the growth of the English language, and the relationships between monarchy, religious institutions and the Papacy. 4 stars for me, but I’m confident this would be a 5-star read for someone with greater pre-knowledge of the period.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.

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59 thoughts on “Henry V: The Conscience of a King by Malcolm Vale

  1. This sounds very interesting to me! Although I must admit that I would struggle with this period of history a bit. But I do like to learn about historical characters and Henry sounds like quite a dude. Ken looks super in that crown, doesn’t he?! 😉

  2. This sounds really fascinating, FictionFan! And, inasmuch as this biography shows, it sounds as though Henry V was a rather forward-thinking person in his way. I really ought to learn more about him and his reign, and this sounds like a good choice for someone who wants a richer background. Glad you thought it was well written.

    • Yes, he actually came over as one of our better kings. Pity he died so young – seems like he was one of the few rulers of that time who actually was willing to work for peace. Maybe we could resurrect him…

      This was interesting, even though it wasn’t exactly what I expected. But I must try to get hold of a straight bio sometime to fill in the gaps…

    • Yes, all these historians are a bit sniffy about Shakespeare’s accuracy. But I don’t expect he cares… 😉 I really thought this was going to be a straight bio – my fault for not reading the blurb carefully enough… but it was interesting anyway.

  3. I remember seeing Henry V after taking two Shakespeare classes at college. And yes it was Kenneth Branagh’s movie. (Yummy is right. :-D)
    I think I’d like a book that’s a little less dry. Great review though.

    • I love that Branagh movie – one of the best filmed Shakespeares I’ve ever seen. In fact, this book made me want to watch it again – must dig it out of the heap! He really ought to be in my hunks gallery…

      Yeah, I really thought this was going to be a straight bio – it was a bit specialised and academic for my taste, though interesting. But I’d have found it even more interesting if I’d known the history better…

  4. Though this book is not for me, I love that tidbit about the growing usage of the English language during his reign. There, I learned something new and now I won’t feel bad about not reading this particular book. 🙂

    • Haha! Yes, I must say that chapter was mainly what made the book worth reading for me – the other stuff was vaguely interesting, but that was pretty fascinating. To think we kinda owe Henry V for Shakespeare – and most of us kinda owe Shakespeare for what little we know about Henry V…

    • I’m too shy – you should write to him for me! I’m telling you Louis XVI makes this one seem like a little light entertainment… I wish it was possible to tell a bit more from the blurb! I’ve just received a nice little science one that I thought might be fun… I’m now enrolling for a degree in pure mathematics to help me understand it…and a course in weight-lifting to enable me to lift it!

      • You know, though, you are wonderful, boldly going where intellectual lightweights fear to tread. Perhaps I should get YOU to pick up on the Freud 190 Interpretation of Dreams that I am stuck on. How is your French, German an Latin. Translations not included and he clearly expects his readers not to need translations

        • Haha! Did I tell you that I have a little Penguin 60 version of Freud? Don’t know if you remember them – they were issued for Penguin’s 60th birthday, cost 60p and each had 60 small pages. 60 pages of Freud was plenty, I found…

      • PS – there’s always that Sheffield mathematician, you could probably ask for an on-line course to be set up for you.

        I’m not quite sure what to suggest for the weight lifting training – perhaps enrolling as a porter in a chocolate factory would at least be a pleasant thing to carry boxes an boxes. You could always eat a few if the carton quantities were too heavy to carry

        • I couldn’t even ask since I don’t know how to type the mathematical symbols… but I’m sure it’ll be fine… 😉

          That’s an excellent idea! I shall contact the publisher and inform them that they must send me vast quantities of chocolate or I won’t be able to review…

  5. PS Horowitz, being such good fun, doesn’t win you any chocolate demanding rights from publishers at all.

    Carry on with Moby, and that might turn out to be a tub of ice-cream reward book, if you are lucky/unlucky

  6. All I know of Henry V, I learned from Shakespeare (with help from Olivier and Branagh of course!). It’s one of my favourite history plays so this interests me, although I may struggle with my lack of background knowledge. Maybe I’ll just watch Kenny’s version again instead 😀

    • Ha, yes, my only knowledge of all these old kings is from Shakespeare too – and the first thing the books always say is, forget everything you learned from Shakespeare!! But I do love the Branagh film – must dig it out for a re-watch…

        • Did you? That must have been brilliant fun! I find lots of Shakespeare almost unreadable but I love to watch them – the Judi Dench/Ian McKellen Macbeth is my top fave, but Branagh’s Henry V is a close second. Actually that’s the one I usually recommend to people new to Shakespeare – he makes it so wonderfully clear…

          • My thesis was on Henry V (Larry’s and Kenny’s), Mel Gibson’s Hamlet and My Own Private Idaho. Much fun! I watched Fassbender’s Macbeth last week but didn’t like it at all.

            • Is Mel’s Hamlet good? I haven’t seen it – I don’t think I ever really got over Braveheart… 😉 I tried hard to love Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth, but though he was his usual brilliant self, the production didn’t work for me somehow. Must try the Fassbender sometime…

  7. I do admire how you tackle these academic books – like many other bloggers my knowledge of this king is fairly scant and is mainly (totally) based on Shakespeare’s portrayal but some of the parts you’ve picked out are fascinating like the use of language to set up the impression that France and England would be separate entities even if he succeeded in capturing the crown of France – it almost seems like he had his own spin-doctor advising him!

    • He did seem to – and he’s one of the few I’ve read about that I felt I might actually like! Yes, it was really too academic for me too, but it can be quite hard to judge from the blurb in advance. Still, I usually find them interesting even when they are a bit over my head…

  8. Hi Fiction Fan
    I wanted to ask where and how you got a review copy of this book. I have been able to get a few Yale books from Netgalley in the past, but they have not put anything new up since February, so I had to purchase this one. Not that I regret doing so!

    Do reply soon. Thanks, Lady of Winchester.

    • Hi, Lady of Winchester!

      Sorry, your comment had gone into spam for some obscure WordPress reason. I’m glad you popped in – after our conversation on Amazon I was wondering what your blog’s name was. Just popping across to take a snoop around… 🙂

      • That’s fine. I will take your advice when I browse the publisher’s site. They have just put the new book on Ethelred II on Netgalley, so of course that’s been requested, though I still haven’t started that weighty bio of Henry IV I got way back at the beginning of the year.

        • I was tempted by the Ethelred but just can’t see how I could fit it in, so reluctantly passed. I really enjoyed the Henry IV book though, assuming it’s the Given-Wilson. Again, like this one, it required a bit more pre-knowledge than I have, but I still found it interesting, and frankly relied on it for background to this Henry V one.

          • Yes, that’s the one. Well done to you for reading all of them. I struggle sometimes and I’m a bloomin’ historian!
            Must be said though that Yale books are better, and much more accurate that some of the popular history that rubs off on so many people.

            • I’ve always felt that about Yale books, so it’s good to have it confirmed by a historian! I did study history a little at Uni, but only modern and Scottish, and it was all so long ago (me being at uni, I mean, not the history!) I’ve forgotten what little I knew. So it’s been great over the last few years getting back into reading “proper” history.

            • Yes, their English Monarchs series (of which the Henry IV book was one), is pretty much THE top notch series of royal biographies, and widely respected- even if some people have attacked the late Charles Ross for his bio of Richard III.
              Get over it, he was only telling the truth I say, and he was a damn good historian.

            • Unfortunately I only got into them recently so missed the earlier ones, but one day I might backtrack and read them all. There’s only so much you can learn from Shakespeare… 😉

            • Possibly, but the series was originally published by a British based company before being taken over by Yale.

            • I’m glad Yale took them over because I probably wouldn’t have fallen across them otherwise, and I’ve been enjoying reading about different historical periods to my norm for a change.

            • Its always a good thing. I’m a Medievalist, but occasionally reading or listening to docus about the Victorian, Tudor or Classical era do me no harm.

            • ‘Ethelred the Unready’ by Levi Roach, and ‘Blance of Castille: Queen of France’ by Lindy Grant.

  9. This is such a scholarly review. I can see you making the rhetorical moves I teach in my classes. Can you tell it’s midterms and all I’ve been doing lately is grading rhetorical analyses?? HAHAHAHA.

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