King Henry V died on 31 August 1422, 600 years ago. His legacy is a complex one. To many, he is the epitome of the medieval warrior king, Shakespeare’s glowing hero of Agincourt. To others, he is the butcher of Rouen, the man who ordered the murders of prisoners of war. He died aged 35 of dysentery, the enemy of campaigning soldiers that turned stomachs to water.
Henry was succeeded by his nine-month-old son, King Henry VI. When King Charles VI of France died on 21 October 1422, just weeks after Henry V, the infant King of England also became, legally, or maybe just theoretically, at least, King of France, too. Henry VI would become the only person in history to be crowned king of England and France in both countries. Quite an achievement for a man disinterested in conquest whose legacy was to be the Wars of the Roses and the end of the House of Lancaster. His dual crown was the result of the Treaty of Troyes.
The Conquest of France
Henry V became King of England in 1413 on the death of his father Henry IV, the first Lancastrian king. He almost immediately set about mobilising the kingdom to reignite what would become known as the Hundred Years’ War with France, begun in 1337 by Henry’s great-grandfather, King Edward III.
Victory seemed to come easily to Henry in France. He first laid siege to Harfleur in 1415 and took the coastal town. During his march to Calais, a move calculated to taunt the French as he wandered through their lands, he and his small, rag-tag band of sickly men would win the Battle of Agincourt. Rouen, the capital of the Duchy of Normandy, soon fell after a brutal winter siege that ended in January 1419.
King Charles VI
Henry’s enemy was Charles VI, King of France. Charles had been king since 1380, when he was 12 years old, and was 46 by the time of the Battle of Agincourt. Part of the reason Henry won his victories was that the French forces were leaderless and squabbled over who should take command. Henry wore a crown atop his helm at Agincourt, in part to draw attention to the fact that the English had a king in the field and the French didn’t.
The reason for France’s lack of leadership lay in Charles VI’s mental health. The first episode of illness came in 1392, when Charles was on military campaign. He was fevered and anxious and when a loud noise startled him while riding one day, he drew his sword and attacked those around him, fearing he had been betrayed. He killed several of his household before falling into a coma.
In 1393, Charles couldn’t remember his name and didn’t know he was king. At various times he didn’t recognise his wife and children, or ran through the corridors of his palace so that the exits had to be bricked up to stop him getting out. In 1405, he refused to bathe or change his clothes for five months. It was also later claimed that Charles believed he was made of glass and might shatter if anyone touched him.
Charles VI’s heir was his son, also called Charles. He held the position of Dauphin, the equivalent in France of the Prince of Wales in England, it identified him as the heir to the throne. On 10 September 1419, the Dauphin met with John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy. France was fractured into the Armagnacs, who followed the Dauphin, and the Burgundians, who followed John. If they could be reconciled, they might have a hope against the English. At least, that seems to have been the aim of the meeting.
The two, along with their entourages, came together on a bridge at Montreau. During the conference, John was killed by the Dauphin’s men. The new Duke of Burgundy, John’s son, known as Philip the Good, immediately threw his weight behind the English cause. The alliance between Henry V and Burgundy looked set to overwhelm France.
The Treaty of Troyes
King Charles was furious with his son, and disgusted by the Dauphin’s treachery. Such was his despair that he cast his son out and offered to negotiate peace with King Henry of England. From these talks emerged the Treaty of Troyes, sealed in the town of Troyes on 21 May 1420.
The treaty arranged the marriage of Henry to Charles’s daughter, Catherine de Valois. Furthermore, the Dauphin was dislodged as the heir to France and replaced with Henry. On the death of Charles VI, Henry would become King of France as well as King of England. This would be the realisation of the project begun by Edward III in 1337.
The Treaty of Troyes also made Henry regent of France for his father-in-law until his death, handing him control of the kingdom immediately. Later in 1420, Henry entered Paris to witness the Estates-General (the French equivalent of Parliament) ratify the treaty.
The Dauphin would not go quietly, though. It was to solidify his theoretical control over France and counter the Dauphin Charles that Henry returned to France on the campaign that led to his death just weeks before he would have attained the unique position his son was to shun.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of Henry V was dying at the very height of his powers. He had no time to fail, if he would have failed, though he also had no time to enjoy the success he had.