Shakespeare's Restless World - Programme 6
Europe: Triumphs of the Past: Battle Gear of Henry V
King Henry: Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,
Or close the wall up with our English dead!
(Henry V, 3.1.1-2)
A generation ago this was the Henry V that everyone knew. Laurence Olivier, making his film version during the Second World War, was a handsome and valiant Englishman taking his people onward into battle.
King Henry: In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favoured rage;
(Henry V, 3.1.3-8)
For a country at war Shakespeare's dashing young Henry is an inspiring figure. He is a king who mingles with commoners, walks among his soldiers on the eve of battle showing 'a little touch of Harry in the night'. The whole nation is united in arms and becomes one great family, a band of brothers.
King Henry: And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding - which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
(Henry V, 3.1.25-30)
The young hero leads his men to victory against the French, and against the odds, first at Harfleur and then at Agincourt.
King Henry: I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot!
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'
(Henry V, 3.1.31-4)
I've come to the museum at Westminster Abbey and I'm looking at what Henry V needed, and might indeed have worn, in 1415 as he led those greyhounds out of the slips and into the battle at Agincourt. Here is a battered shield and sword, a sturdy helmet and a saddle for a war horse.
The shield is made of lime-wood. It is in the shape of a garden spade, but is much much larger, more than 2 feet high and it is curved to fit round and to protect the body that held it. The wooden saddle still has some of its original hessian padding and leather attached to it. The dark metal helmet is battered but edged with decorated brass. Astonishingly I am being allowed to hold the sword, the sword that may possibly have been Henry's own. It is about 3 feet long and it's surprisingly light, this is a weapon you really could use in battle, beautifully balanced and bearing the marks of use.
The reason these instruments of battle are here in the Abbey is that for centuries they were put on public display, hung over Henry V's tomb. They're known as funeral achievements and they are, in their way, sort of theatrical props in the great theatre of national history that Westminster Abbey had become - emblems of royal display, of military power and of patriotism. They arrived at Westminster Abbey on 7 November 1422 at Henry V's funeral.
Bedford: King Henry the Fifth, too famous to live long!
England ne'er lost a king of so much worth.
(Henry VI part I, 1.1.6-7)
I've now moved into the main body of the Abbey and I'm standing behind the shrine of Edward the Confessor, beside the tomb of Henry V. In the 1590s when Shakespeare and his audiences might well have come here, Henry V's military memorials would have hung here and they were still colourful and bright. The painted arms of the King, the blue and gold velvet on the sumptuously covered saddle, the blue figured Chinese silks that lined his shield had not yet faded and a painted leopard crest was still in place on his dented helmet.
Today I am surrounded by tourists as well as by tombs. I can see visitors admiring behind me the altar of the Lady Chapel, the great monument to Henry VII, first of the Tudor monarchs, and this tomb tourism is nothing new. It's been going on here for 400 years and was already happening in Shakespeare's day. A German visitor to London paid to see these very Westminster monuments where I am standing now and he dutifully recorded it in his diary. He recalled especially royal tombs such as this one of Henry V and, as he couldn't then snap a quick photo on his phone, he carefully transcribed the epitaph 'Henry, the scourge of France, lies in this tomb. Virtue subdues all things. A.D. 1422'. Such sight-seeing visits were so commonplace that Jacobean satirists were already sneering at London's well established tourist trail:
'Why do the rude vulgar so hastily post in a madness
To gaze at trifles, And think them happy when maybe showed for a penny
Westminster monuments . . .'
'It is quite a surprise to discover that Westminster Abbey was a real tourist attraction in London round about 1600.'
Shakespeare biographer, Jonathan Bate:
'Indeed by the year 1612, Westminster Abbey had become such a popular tourist attraction that there were actually guides employed there who would give you the guided tour. You would pay a penny, which is exactly what you would pay to get into the theatre, and the guide would take you around the tombs and give you a little history lesson. You would go from tomb to tomb and on each tomb there would be an effigy of the monarch. There would be a description in Latin of who they were, what their relations were, what their achievements were, and one imagines the guide would have translated these for you. The tombs and effigies of the English kings were the main attractions. So there is an extraordinary parallel between the process of going to the theatre to see the history plays and going to the Abbey to see the `living monuments', as they called them, the lively statues of the kings and queens in question.'
So in Shakespeare's time there are two easy ways of learning about national history: you can come to Westminster Abbey, pay a penny and be instructed about the 'living monuments' of dead kings or you can go to the theatre, pay a penny and see the great Kings stride out in front of you - and in each case, the monarch with the most is going to be Henry V.
It might seem strange that a king whose reign was so short and whose conquests were so ephemeral should be given star status in the 1590s. Historian Susan Doran explains why Henry V was elevated to this position of national icon and how far Shakespeare's version of him corresponded to the real historical Henry:
'Most historians today I would say would think that the gap between the myth and reality in the presentation of Henry V is not as wide as it would be, for example, with Macbeth or Richard III. Henry V is presented as the exemplary figure for chivalry. He is seen as magnanimous, he has martial courage, he is someone who is able to rally his troops to join him in a band of brothers. I think his value in Elizabethan times, particularly in the 1580s and 90s, is that he was a figure that rallied the English against their ancient enemy and in the Elizabethan, late Elizabethan, period of course England was at war, not against France, but against Spain and also in Ireland. It was that aspect of his character and the myth about him that was considered important, that he could unite Englishmen successfully in war.'
This monument of Henry V was immensely popular and many in Shakespeare's audience watching the play of Henry V would have seen it, with his arms from the battle of Agincourt hanging high above. They would have understood that here were memorials of unsurpassed military triumph but also of admirable, and unusual, royal humility - because for many people these would have been the very sword and helmet that Shakespeare's King Henry refuses to parade vaingloriously through the streets of London after his triumphs in France.
Chorus: You may imagine him upon Blackheath,
Where that his lords desire him to have borne
His bruisèd helmet and bended sword
Before him through the city. He forbids it,
Being free from vainness and self-glorious pride,
Giving full trophy, signal and ostent
Quite from himself to God.'
(Henry V, 5.prologue.16-22)
The two popular ways of learning national history were closely connected. The playhouses and Westminster's tourist attractions both drew large and diverse audiences. Thanks to Shakespeare and to Christopher Marlowe, the history play as a genre takes off in the 1590s and indeed it comes to define Elizabethan theatre. Jonathan Bate again:
'The public theatre was a new thing in Shakespeare's lifetime and one of the big innovations that it brought to the cultural life of the nation was plays about English history. You can roughly trace this from the time of the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. This was really the first opportunity that ordinary people had to discover about the history of their own nation. For the ordinary people to get a sense of the history of the nation, the theatre was the place that you went.'
The history on offer was exhilaratingly jingoistic. Henry V contrives to be not just anti-French, but consistently anti-Scots. Its tabloid nationalism was predictably popular and the history plays made Shakespeare's reputation and eventually they would make his fortune. They were helped by the assertion that they were useful as they were based in fact and because they made the people watching them better citizens. And this gave those running the theatres ammunition to defend the stage against its puritanical critics. It was a line of reasoning that the playwright Thomas Heywood ingeniously set out in 1612:
'Plays have . . . taught the unlearned the knowledge of many famous victories, instructed such as cannot read in the discovery of all our English chronicles . . . Plays are writ with this aim . . . : to teach the subjects' obedience to their king; to show the people the untimely ends of such as have moved tumults, commotions and insurrections; and to present them with flourishing estate of all such as live in obedience, exhorting them to allegiance, dehorting them from all traitorous and felonious stratagems.'
Shrewdly, and unsurprisingly, Shakespeare does not neglect Elizabeth's ancestor when he dramatises the story for his audience. Catherine of Valois is one of Shakespeare's most captivating young women. We see her struggling to lisp out a little English before she is wooed, kissed and married by the strapping Henry. On stage they are the celebrity couple of everybody's dreams, destined surely to grace the cover of Hello magazine and, like royal couples today, their first kiss in Act V is greeted with the cheers of the adoring public.
King Henry: You have witchcraft in your lips, Kate: there is more eloquence in a sugar touch of them than in the tongues of the French Council, and they should sooner persuade Harry of England than a general petition of monarchs.'
(Henry V 5.2.272-6)
It wasn't to be Catherine's last kiss. If Harry and Kate were winners on stage, they continued to be a joint attraction in death. Not far from Henry's, is the tomb of his sugar-lipped wife which was also a much visited tourist sight in the 1590s and for good reason: Catherine's embalmed corpse lay fully exposed to view. It was perfectly possible to touch her indeed, the diarist Samuel Pepys did exactly that seventy years later. Copying Shakespeare's Henry, Pepys leaned over in Westminster Abbey and kissed Catherine on the lips. We don't know whether he found witchcraft in them but he was certainly very moved:
'here we did see, by particular favour, the body of Queen Katherine of Valois, and had her upper part of her body in my hands. And I did kiss her mouth, reflecting upon it that I did kiss a Queen, and that this was my birthday, 36 years old, that I did first kiss a Queen.'
It must have made quite a difference watching Henry kiss Catherine on stage if you had seen, and perhaps even kissed, her dead lips yourself.
In tomorrow's programme we move from the heroic past to a very un-heroic present, from triumphs in France to the continuing turmoil in Ireland.
Shakespeare quotations are taken from:
Henry V (London: Penguin, 2010). ISBN: 978-0-141-01379-4
Henry VI part I (London: Penguin, 2005). ISBN-13: 978-0-141-01749-5
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