An icon of chivalry, a conquering hero, an exemplar of kingship and a supreme self-publicist whose image has always owed a debt to the one he encouraged, Henry V is among the hallowed triumvirate of inordinately famous English monarchs. Unlike his two famous triumvirs - Henry VIII and Elizabeth I - Henry V forged his legend in a little over nine years, but the long-term effects of his victories were few and many historians see something unpleasant in the arrogantly determined, albeit charismatic, young king. Even without Shakespeare's attention, Henry V would still be fascinating modern readers; even his childhood was highly eventful.
Birth of Henry V
The future Henry V was born at Monmouth Castle into one of England's most powerful noble families. His grandfather was John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, third son of Edward III, a staunch supporter of Richard II - the ruling king - and the most powerful English noble of the age. His parents were Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby, a man who had once acted to curb his cousin Richard II but now acted loyally, and Mary Bohun, heir to a rich chain of estates. At this point Henry 'of Monmouth' was not considered an heir to the throne and his birth was thus not recorded formally enough for a definitive date to have survived. Consequently, historians can't agree whether Henry was born on August 9th or September 16th, in 1386 or 1387. The current leading biography, by Allmand, uses 1386; the new introductory work by Dockray uses 1387.
Henry was the oldest of six children and he received the best upbringing an English noble could have, mainly training in martial skills, riding and forms of hunting. He also received an education in subjects beloved by his parents including music and playing the harp, literature and three languages – Latin, French and English – making him unusually highly educated and a reader of legal and theological works. Some sources claim that the young Henry was sickly and 'puny'; even if true, these complaints didn’t follow him past puberty.
From Noble Son to Royal Heir
In 1397 Henry Bolingbroke reported treasonous comments made by the Duke of Norfolk; a court was convened but, as it was one Duke's word against another, trial by battle was arranged. It never took place. Instead, Richard II intervened in 1398 by exiling Bolingbroke for ten years and Norfolk for life and Henry of Monmouth found himself a 'guest' at the royal court. The word hostage was never used, but the underlying tension behind Monmouth's presence at court – and the threat to Bolingbroke should he react violently - should have been clear. However, the childless Richard also had a genuine fondness for the, evidently already impressive, young Henry, and he was knighted by the king.
The situation changed again in 1399 when John of Gaunt died. Bolingbroke should have inherited his father's Lancastrian estates but Richard II revoked them, kept them for himself and extended Bolingbroke's exile to life. Richard was already unpopular, seen as an ineffective and increasingly autocratic ruler but his treatment of Bolingbroke cost him the throne. If the most powerful English family could lose their land so arbitrarily and illegally, if the most loyal of all men is rewarded in death by his heir's disinheritance, what rights did other landowners have against this king? Popular support swung to Bolingbroke who returned to England, where he was met by many key nobles and urged to seize the throne from Richard, a task completed with little opposition the same year. On October 13th 1399 Henry Bolingbroke became Henry IV of England, and two days later Henry of Monmouth was accepted by Parliament as heir to the throne, Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall and Earl of Chester. Two months later he was given the further titles Duke of Lancaster and Duke of Aquitaine.
Relationship of Henry V and Richard II
Henry's rise to heir had been sudden and due to factors beyond his control, but the relationship between Richard II and Henry of Monmouth, especially during 1399, is unclear. Henry had been taken by Richard on an expedition to crush rebels in Ireland and, upon hearing of Bolingbroke's invasion, the king confronted Henry with the fact of his father's treason. The following exchange, allegedly recorded by one chronicler, ends with Richard agreeing that Henry was innocent of his father's acts and, although he still imprisoned him in Ireland when returning to fight Bolingbroke, Richard made no threats against the younger Henry. Furthermore, sources suggest that when Henry was released, he travelled to see Richard rather than return directly to his father. Is it possible, historians have asked, that Henry felt more loyalty to Richard, as a king or a father figure, than to Bolingbroke? Prince Henry agreed to Richard's imprisonment but does this, and Henry IV's decision to have Richard murdered, cast any light on Monmouth's later impatience to usurp his father or to rebury Richard with full regal honours in Westminster Abbey? We don't know for certain.