Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Tom Holland: Henry V ‘most overrated’ monarch and Elizabeth II ‘heroically boring’

Henry V is England’s most overrated monarch whose “calamitous” illegal invasion of France spelt ruin for both countries and led to the Wars of the Roses, a historian claims.

Tom Holland was speaking at The Chalke Valley History Festival, near Salibsury, about the best and worst English and British monarchs from William the Conqueror onwards. He chose Elizabeth II as the greatest monarch due to her “absolutely heroic show of being boring” and picked King John, “an absolute s***”, as the worst.

Holland, whose books include Dominion and Millennium, said that Henry V was a “terrible king” whose reputation rested almost entirely on Shakespeare’s depiction. Accepting that the 15th-century ruler won significant military victories in France, he said: “What you have to ask is, was it good for England? It was terrible for England. It was an illegal war. It was wholly unjustified.”

Historian Tom Holland

He said Henry’s claim to the French throne was very weak and that, prior to his reign, it was accepted that the campaign in France begun by Henry’s ancestor Edward III was a bad idea. “It had been bad for France because it had ruined France and it had been bad for England because it had imported the violence and savagery that the English had been visiting on France back to England.”

He said it was amid these convulsions from the Hundred Years’ War that Henry V’s father, the Duke of Lancaster, had usurped the throne from his cousin, Richard II. “So Henry V when he becomes king is the son of a usurper — his crown lies uneasily on his head.”

He added: “In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2 as Henry IV is dying, he advises his son, the soon-to-be Henry V, to ‘busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels’. In other words, to keep people who might otherwise be conspiring against the Lancastrian crown busy by doing what English kings when they’re stuck always do, which is to invade France.

“So invading France is to Henry V what going to Kyiv is to Boris [Johnson]. It’s what you do when things are going wrong . . . You need diversion and so that’s what Henry does.”

He said Henry’s siege of Harfleur, at the start of his campaign in 1415, was “an absolute disaster” because it took too long and many of his men fell ill with dysentery. He said Henry then embarked on “a pointless march to Calais” to try to save face.

“His reign was a calamity for England and of course for France as well”

Tom Holland

“And so off he goes and of course he gets shadowed by an enormous French army who recognise this as a huge opportunity to capture an English king. And if they’d captured Henry, it would have bled England dry.”

He pointed out that the English had previously captured and ransomed John II of France following the Battle of Poitiers in 1356. “The revenge would have been terrible. and Henry was unbelievably irresponsible in risking that for his country. It’s like he didn’t care — his prestige was more important than the fiscal health of his subjects.

“Of course, he wins the Battle of Agincourt, thanks partly to the proficiency of his bowmen, thanks partly to the weather and thanks partly to the incompetence of the French.”

He said that, while Henry secured a treaty from the French king Charles VI that would have made the English monarchs rulers of both countries, it all went wrong when he died aged 35, leaving an infant son. “England gets kicked out of France again. Again the violence that the English had been sowing in France gets reimported back to England, and you get the Wars of the Roses — it’s a catastrophe and it’s his fault.

The Wars of the Roses, a series of civil wars, broke out following English military setbacks in France, when rival factions sought to depose or control Henry’s ineffectual son Henry VI.

“The fact that he [Henry V] wins the Battle of Agincourt and the fact that Shakespeare spins it for him as effectively as he does disguises the fact that his reign was a calamity for England and of course for France as well,” Holland said. “It was a wholly unjustified war and it spelt nothing but disaster and ruin.” 

He added that there was no reason to believe that Henry made the sort of stirring speeches put into his mouth by Shakespeare and delivered by actors including Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh. “Henry V did not actually talk like that. He didn’t say ‘Once more unto the breach’.”

He chose Queen Anne as the most underrated monarch, saying that she had been overshadowed in the popular imagination by her grandfather Charles I and uncle Charles II but was a “formidable” figure whose greatest achievement was presiding over the union of England and Scotland.

He said he chose Elizabeth II over Elizabeth I as greatest monarch because of economic problems later in the Tudor queen’s reign and because Catholics might have cause to dislike her.

He added: “Elizabeth II as a monarch is transcendentally boring. She never says anything interesting. And that’s precisely the point. We know that she is a very witty woman, a very smart woman [and] has had this incredible array of experiences . . . She has preserved an absolutely heroic show of being boring the entire length of her reign and she has presided over probably the most convulsive period of change in British history and we’ve barely even noticed it.”

He said Richard III was a terrible king who undoubtedly had his nephews killed. However, John, who also had a nephew murdered, was an even worse king. It was instructive that, unlike for Richard III, not even revisionist historians had made a serious case for rehabilitating him.

He added that he had completely agreed with historian Professor David Carpenter when he stated in a podcast that John was “a s***”. Hr said that, while the term could well be applied to “a lot of kings”, John really was “extra”.

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