Skip main navigation

The source: Holinshed’s Chronicles

Putting the play Henry V into context
Shakespeare had made his name as a dramatist in writing about kings and battles and soldiers. His series of plays on the civil war in England, the Wars of the Roses, Henry VI, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 And then, of course, Richard III. These had been the plays that really made his name. And he’d developed a settled pattern of work. The first thing he would do as he decided to write about the reign of another king would be to go to his copy of Holinshed’s Chronicles. This was a great folio volume which gathered together all the earlier accounts of the reigns of the kings of England in medieval times into a single volume, printed in double column in black letter.
It was Shakespeare’s prime source for all his historical plays. So when he decided to write about King Henry V, what did he find? Well, here at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, I’ve got a copy of Holinshed, open at the beginning of King Henry V. And it’s striking that as well as the text, there are a number of illustrations. And I like to imagine Shakespeare in planning the action of his play perhaps being led by the illustrations. Because in a way, an illustration is like a snapshot from the stage scene. And the very first one we see is on the opening page. And it shows Henry V being crowned as king.
Now, Shakespeare had actually, in a sense, already written this scene before he began the play, whereas the old famous victories of Henry V, which had been in the repertoire of the Queen’s Men when Shakespeare began his career, whereas that old play told the whole of the story of King Henry from his youth as Prince Harry, a rather disreputable young prince, through to his victory at Agincourt. Shakespeare told the story of Prince Harry’s youth in his previous play - or, rather, two plays, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2. And it’s at the end of Henry IV Part 2 that he’s crowned King Henry. And an epilogue then tells the theatre audience, come back for the sequel.
We’re going to have the next play of Harry’s wars in France. So in a way, the coronation has already taken place. So Shakespeare would turn the page. And the illustration on the next page shows some traitors being executed. They’re on the gallows. The idea that King Henry has to deal with traitors at home before he can successfully fight the war abroad is very important to the play. Before the military action begins, Henry identifies Cambridge, Scroop - these potential traitors in his midst - and deals with them with ruthless dispatch. Unifying the nation, rooting out internal dissent, is the first step before fighting a successful war. And there may well there be something of a message for Elizabeth and her courtiers.
Shakespeare is writing at a time when there are rumblings of discontent, both about Elizabeth and about the Protestant settlement in England.
The next illustration shows some French ambassadors. And this, too, is something that Shakespeare dramatises in the early part of the play. The wonderful scene in which a negotiation takes place and King Henry uses the image of the tennis balls for dispatching the ambassadors, making it clear that he’s not going to compromise. So the opening of the play is very much focused on court politics. There’s the debate about whether King Henry has a just claim to France. There’s the dealing with internal dissension and the dealing with the French emissaries. And then the battle begins. Those ships set sail for Harfleur. And a couple of pages on, there’s a wonderful wood cut in Holinshed of the siege of Harfleur.
We can see the guns being lined up, and we can see the soldiers climbing their ladders, getting up onto the city walls. That, of course, is a sequence that Shakespeare dramatises in the marvellous sequence that begins with King Harry’s lines, “Once more unto the breach.” The breach in question is a breach in the walls that’s been made by the cannon balls, that’s opened the possibility of taking the town of Harfleur. There’s then a long account of the march of the army, the hardships they face. And then we reach the Battle of Agincourt.
And the illustration for the battle in Holinshed shows, on the one hand, archers with their longbow and, on the other hand, infantrymen with their pikes and staffs and spears. To me, one of the fascinating things about the play is the way in which it uses different kinds of weaponry. And we’re going to talk more about that later.
The victory at Agincourt is seen by the English as a divine intervention. God has enabled them to win against the odds to defeat a much larger army, with very, very few English losses. That’s a heroic and a patriotic tale. But the way that Shakespeare tells it complicates the story in Holinshed, just as it produces a much more complicated drama than that of the old play of the famous victories. And there’s two principal reasons for that. One is that Shakespeare includes the voice of the common soldier. Whereas Holinshed gives you history from above - the story of the kings and the nobles, the leaders, the political decisions, Shakespeare includes that history, but also gives you history from below.
He looks at war from the point of view of the common soldier. And secondly, he asks questions about the motivation, the behaviour, the morality of the leaders - even of King Henry himself. One of the woodcuts a little further into Holinshed’s Henry V shows the execution of someone called Sir John Oldcastle. Oldcastle was a Lollard– that’s to say, in King Henry V’s time, there were religious dissenters. And the Lollards were in many ways perceived in Queen Elizabeth’s time as being like Protestants before their time– Protestants in what was still a Catholic age. And this figure of Sir John Oldcastle was perceived as a martyr to the Protestant cause. Now, here’s where things get really complicated.
In writing about King Harry’s youth in his earlier plays - King Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2, Shakespeare had given the prince a companion and called him Sir John Oldcastle. He was the fat, riotous knight who leads the prince into mischief. Unfortunately for Shakespeare, a descendant of the real, historical Sir John Oldcastle happened to be in the position of censoring the plays at the time. He was, for a time, the Lord Chamberlain - the patron of Shakespeare’s acting company. He was not happy about the idea of his revered ancestor being represented as a fat, drunken, thieving, debauched knight. So Shakespeare changed the name from Sir John Oldcastle to Sir John Falstaff.
And Sir John Falstaff, in the Henry IV plays, becomes the figure who links Prince Harry to the ordinary people, to the commoners who eventually will become the common soldiers. There’s an extraordinary scene in Henry IV, Part 2, when Sir John Falstaff is down in Gloucestershire, in Shakespeare country, recruiting his troops.
There was no standing army in Queen Elizabeth’s England. Soldiers had to be recruited, press ganged for particular campaigns. And in the great scene in Henry IV, Part 2, you see Falstaff with the local justices of the peace recruiting the men. And what happens is that the healthy men, who ought to be the ones to be recruited, give bribes and manage to avoid being recruited. And Falstaff ends up with the ragamuffins, the dregs of society, who won’t really be very good soldiers. What I’ve got here at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford is a fantastic document. It’s a muster roll. It comes from a little later than Shakespeare’s time - just a few years later.
But it beautifully brings to life this process of the recruiting of ordinary soldiers. So on this page here, there’s a list of how many soldiers have been recruited from each of the parishes around Stratford. Stratford Borough, four pikes and six muskets. Aston Cantlow - it’s a village just up the road - two pikes, four muskets. And then it goes on. Binton. Abbot’s Salford. Temple Grafton - the place where Shakespeare may have got married - Old Stratford. And for each parish, you have the number of foot soldiers recruited and the number who are going to carry pikes and the number who are going to carry muskets. The ordinary soldiers, the poor, bloody infantry.
Featured SBT item: The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland by Raphael Holinshed
  • Reference no: 83055010
Find more online: Holinsheds chronicles part 1 and Holinshed’s Chronicles part 2
Featured SBT item: Muster roll of seventeenth-century soldiers from Warwickshire
  • Reference no: ER 10/8/1
This article is from the free online

Shakespeare and his World

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education