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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 94…

Episode 94…

Oh, dear! The TBR has leapt up 4 to 180 this week! How did that happen?? A couple of NetGalley publishers did a clear-out, I think, and I suddenly got approved for two books I “wished” for ages ago, before I became the Mistress of Willpower you all know I now am. Then Amazon reduced the price of a couple that were in my wishlist, so they almost don’t really count, right? So, as you can tell, I am entirely innocent in the matter!

Still, here are a few that will be dropping off the TBR soonish…

Factual

henry VCourtesy of the wonderful Yale University Press, who are doing everything they can to fill the many, many gaps in my knowledge of history. Once more unto the breach, dear friends…

The Blurb says: Shakespeare’s centuries-old portrayal of Henry V established the king’s reputation as a warmongering monarch, a perception that has persisted ever since. But in this exciting, thoroughly researched volume a different view of Henry emerges: a multidimensional ruler of great piety, a hands-on governor who introduced a radically new conception of England’s European role in secular and ecclesiastical affairs, a composer of music, an art patron, and a dutiful king who fully appreciated his obligations toward those he ruled.

Historian Malcolm Vale draws on extensive primary archival evidence that includes many documents annotated or endorsed in Henry’s own hand. Focusing on a series of themes—the interaction between king and church, the rise of the English language as a medium of government and politics, the role of ceremony in Henry’s kingship, and more—Vale revises understandings of Henry V and his conduct of the everyday affairs of England, Normandy, and the kingdom of France.

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Fiction

the schooldays of jesusCourtesy of NetGalley. I was really quite underwhelmed by Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus, describing it as a hollow egg, with a thick shell of heavy symbolism but containing little profundity. But oddly, I couldn’t resist this new one – a follow-up. Perhaps it will fill in some of the blanks left by the last one. Perhaps. We’ll see…

The Blurb says: When you travel across the ocean on a boat, all your memories are washed away and you start a completely new life. That is how it is. There is no before. There is no history. The boat docks at the harbour and we climb down the gangplank and we are plunged into the here and now. Time begins.

Davíd is the small boy who is always asking questions. Simón and Inés take care of him in their new town Estrella. He is learning the language; he has begun to make friends. He has the big dog Bolívar to watch over him. But he’ll be seven soon and he should be at school. And so, Davíd is enrolled in the Academy of Dance. It’s here, in his new golden dancing slippers, that he learns how to call down the numbers from the sky. But it’s here too that he will make troubling discoveries about what grown-ups are capable of.

In this mesmerising allegorical tale, Coetzee deftly grapples with the big questions of growing up, of what it means to be a parent, the constant battle between intellect and emotion, and how we choose to live our lives.

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Crime

the methods of sergeant cluffCourtesy of the British Library via MidasPR. I loved the recent reissue of Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm, so am delighted to have got my hands on this one. A more modern crime classic than many of the BL series, set in Yorkshire in the ’60s, the book is again introduced by the criminally expert Martin Edwards… 

The Blurb says: It is a wet and windy night in the town of Gunnarshaw, on the edge of the Yorkshire moors. The body of young Jane Trundle, assistant in the chemist’s shop, is discovered lying face down on the cobblestones. Sergeant Caleb Cluff is not a man of many words, and neither does he play by the rules. He may exasperate his superiors, but he has the loyal support of his constable and he is the only CID man in the division. The case is his. Life in Gunnarshaw is tough, with its people caught up in a rigid network of social conventions. But as Cluff’s investigation deepens, Gunnarshaw’s veneer of hard-working respectability starts to crumble. Sparse, tense, and moodily evoking the unforgiving landscape, this classic crime novel keeps the reader guessing to the end.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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Other news…

Exciting news about forthcoming books from bloggie friends! How am I ever supposed to get control of my TBR when I’m subjected to constant temptation???

First Lady of the KeysDue out 1st September 2016, from Lucy Brazier, better known as PorterGirl. This is a revised version of her earlier book, Secret Diary of PorterGirl. Lucy says…

“First Lady Of The Keys is a reworking of my debut novel, Secret Diary Of PorterGirl – so if you bought that one, you will probably feel a bit hard done by if you fork out for this one too. There are significant changes, however, and new characters (including a love interest for Deputy Head Porter) as this has been re-written to be the first in a series dedicated to the adventures of Old College. We even find out Deputy Head Porter’s actual name. Apparently characters have to have names. Pah.”

I did fork out for the first one, and thoroughly enjoyed it, but I’m looking forward to seeing how the book has changed anyway. A love interest?!? Cor! Whatever will the Dean say??

The Blurb says: As one of the most ancient and esteemed establishments of the academic elite, Old College is in for something of a shock when it appoints its very first female Deputy Head Porter. She struggles to get to grips with this eccentric world, far removed from everyday life. PorterGirl, the proverbial square peg in the round hole, begins to wonder quite what she is doing here.

PorterGirl – First Lady Of The Keys is a touching, and at times laugh-out-loud funny, glimpse into a world that is usually reserved for the upper echelons of society. Whether she is chasing after naked students, drinking copious amounts of tea or getting embroiled in quaint, polite murders, Deputy Head Porter is never far from adventure.

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past tenseDue out 1st November 2016, from Margot Kinberg, who blogs at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist. This is the third novel in Margot’s Joel Williams series, but excitingly the first to be published on Kindle, making it much easier to get hold of for those of us on this side of the pond. A paper version will be available too, of course, for those who prefer it.

With its academic setting, and I’ve been promised that Joel Williams is neither an alcoholic nor an angst-ridden maverick with swearing issues, I’m very much looking forward to this one!

The Blurb says: A long-buried set of remains…a decades-old mystery

Past and present meet on the quiet campus of Tilton University when construction workers unearth a set of unidentified bones. For former police detective-turned-professor Joel Williams, it’s a typical Final Exams week – until a set of bones is discovered on a construction site. When the remains are linked to a missing person case from 1974, Williams and the Tilton, Pennsylvania police go back to the past. And they uncover some truths that have been kept hidden for a long time…

How much do people really need to know?

It’s 1974, and twenty-year-old Bryan Roades is swept up in the excitement of the decade. He’s a reporter for the Tilton University newspaper, The Real Story, and is determined to have a career as an investigative journalist, just like his idols, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. He plans to start with an exposé article about life on the campus of Tilton University. But does everything need to be exposed? And what are the consequences for people whose lives could be turned upside down if their stories are printed?  As it turns out, Bryan’s ambition carries a very high price. And someone is determined not to let the truth out.

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Now, if you could all please stop writing books for a while, my TBR and I would be most grateful!