Historical Sources and Shakespeare's Henry V

The great figures of history are often the subject of biographies. Biographical accounts provide insight into the historical context from which great figures arise, and they also show how these figures can both shape and interact with that context. Such biographical subjects are great because of the greatness of their deeds and accomplishments, and a description of their lives can create exemplars for future generations. Books are usually the medium through which biographical information is delivered and the stories of lives are told, but this is not always the case. Shakespeare, for example, describes episodes of Henry V's life in a different format. In the play Henry V, Shakespeare provides a biographical account of one of the greatest kings of English history, basing his drama upon the historical sources that he had available and also revealing historical contextual information about Shakespeare's own time.

Before delving into Shakespeare's biographical treatment of Henry V in his play, it is important to first learn some of the details about the king and his life. Henry V was born on 16 September 1387 and died on 31 August 1422. Although he did not quite live to the age of 35, Henry accomplished much during his reign. Some of his accomplishments include his marriage to the French princess, his success in conquering approximately one third of France, and his acknowledgement as heir and regent of France. Most of Henry's accomplishments arose from his abilities in battle. Henry V was a very warlike king, and details from his early life can do much to explain his affinity for war. He campaigned with his father in Scotland and Wales at the age of 13, was wounded in battle against Hotspur at the age of 15, and would follow up the campaigns he shared with his father with his own (again in Scotland and Wales) before his accession. Due to this background in war, it should not be surprising that almost from the moment he was crowned king Henry was preparing for war with France. He did this skillfully as he prepared for war militarily and financially, while at the same time making sure to carry out careful diplomacy.1 Henry would continue to skillfully handle the war in France, asserting his claims over those lands. Henry V had a claim to the throne of France through Isabella, the daughter of Phillip IV, because she had married Edward II and Henry was a descendent of this line. The war, however, would in many ways be profitable and was not just carried out because of this claim to the throne. According to Desmond Seward, Henry's "conquest of France was as much about loot as about dynastic succession...French plunder was on sale all over England."2 Henry's men could loot and pillage as they carved their way into France, and Henry could gain more power and a greater ability to assert his claims over France. Perhaps this can explain why Henry made three expeditions to France over the course of his reign, as well as why his conquest of France was so important to him.

Because of his success as both a soldier and a king, Henry V would leave behind quite a legacy after his death. Even French writers of the period such as Waurin, Jean Chartier, and Chastellain "concede that though Henry had been their enemy he had been very great indeed."3 Thus, the greatness of Henry V as a king and as a soldier not only left their impressions upon the English but also the French. The fame of Henry V would be felt by many future generations, even to this day. Some would even argue that most people in the English-speaking world are admirers of Henry.4

Perhaps it is partially because of Henry V's legacy that Shakespeare decided to write a play about this particular king. But yet, as a drama, how factual is Shakespeare's play, and how true to Henry V's life is it? It is difficult to ascertain the answer to this question, but it is clear that it was very important to Shakespeare to be as accurate as possible in his portrayal of Henry V; Shakespeare heavily relied upon and closely adhered to the accepted historical sources of his time. Thus, despite any shortcomings there might be in Shakespeare's sources, he still based his works upon historical sources and records.

Holinshed's Chronicle is one of Shakespeare's most important sources for Henry V. It is most likely that Shakespeare used the second edition of the Chronicle, which was published in 1586.5 There are many direct episodic similarities between the two. For example, in Act II, Scene II Henry learns of a conspiracy against him comprised of Lord Scroop, the earl of Cambridge, and Sir Thomas Grey, and, after having them apprehended, Henry meets with them to discuss their fate. Holinshed writes in reference to the three men that "being confederat togethir, had conspired his death: wherefore he caused them to be apprehended", which directly points to the scene that transpires in Shakespeare's play.6 This provides evidence that Shakespeare was using the Chronicle as a reference source for the play. Furthermore, later in this scene Henry tells Scroop that he "didst bear the key of all [Henry's] counsels / that [Scroop] knewest the very bottom of [Henry's] soul."7 Similarly to this, Holinshed writes that Lord Scroop was a person "in whose fidelitie the king reposed such trust, that...this lord had grauitie of [Henry's] countenance...[and] that whatsoeuer he said was thought for the most part necessarie to be doone and followed."8 Although different language is used, there is a great deal of similarity between these two excerpts. Both make it very clear that Henry placed a great deal of trust in Scroop and that his counsel and advice to the king carried a very significant amount of weight, making his betrayal that much worse. Shakespeare could have easily used Holinshed's description of Scroop's relationship with the king and used it within the workings of his play.

There is also a great deal of other material within the Chronicle that Shakespeare seems to have used for most (if not all) of the episodes found within Henry V, even when this linkage is not quite so direct. Some of this material includes elements ranging from the discussion of the mines in the play to the results of the battle of Agincourt (including prisoners and those killed), as well as to the description of the king's return to England. Essentially, it would seem that almost every occurrence within Henry V has some sort of basis that can be found within the Chronicle. Along with using Holinshed as a basic reference point for the episodes found within Henry V, Shakespeare also almost directly quotes from the Chronicle. An example of this appears in the play when Henry is speaking to Montjoy, a French herald, and he tells him that "[he] shall [their] tawny ground with [their] red blood / discolor."9 This is almost a direct quote from the Chronicle, where, similarly speaking to a French herald, the king tells the herald about the time when he will "die [the French's] tawnie ground with [their] red bloud."10 The use of the terms "tawny ground" and "red blood" in the same context of Henry speaking to a French herald definitely suggests that Shakespeare closely read Holinshed and used the Chronicle as a source for Henry V.

Although a very important source, Holinshed's Chronicle is not the only one Shakespeare used for Henry V. Another source that Shakespeare is likely to have used is Halle's The Union of the Two Families of Lancaster and York. Unlike Shakespeare's heavy reliance on Holinshed, it would seem that he just turned to the Union for certain details found in the play. One example of this has to do with a bill that is described in the Union and is referred to in the play. Halle describes it as "a bill exhibited in the parliamente...in the.XI.yere of Kyng Henry the fourth."11 When Shakespeare refers to this bill, the Archbishop of Canterbury states "that self bill is urg'd / which in th' eleventh year of the last king's reign / was like."12 Although this bill is not extremely significant within the play, it does once again show Shakespeare's attention to detail in referring to his sources. Along with this reference to the parliamentary bill, Shakespeare also makes reference to the Salique law that is described within the Union. It is because of this that Henry's the French "bar [Henry] in [his] claim."13 This information is a little more crucial to the play than the parliamentary bill reference since it establishes a reason why Henry must invade France to press his claims there. Along with the reference to the bill, this provides the audience with some background before getting into the focus of the life.

Although they are important to the play, Shakespeare went beyond just using the historical sources that were available to him in Henry V. Since the work would be played before audiences, it needed to have dramatic elements. One of the devices through which Shakespeare was able to create drama is character-building. In this Shakespeare could take the events and situations that his sources provided him with and expound upon them. Using a previous example, according to the sources, Henry learned of Scroop, Cambridge, and Grey's betrayal and had them apprehended. To create drama within this scene, Shakespeare had each of these men interact with each other, as characters (each with their own personalities and goals), within a scene of the play.

Shakespeare focuses in on different qualities of Henry's character as the play progresses, and each of these qualities seems to serve specific purposes for Shakespeare. For example, throughout the play, Henry is portrayed as someone who seems to want to act in a merciful manner but is sometimes unable to do so. When Henry is betrayed by Scroop, Cambridge, and Grey, he sentences them to death, showing them no mercy. Similarly, when the French cut down the boys and baggage-carriers behind the English lines, he decides to show no mercy to any French prisoners, stating that "not a man of [the French] that [they] shall take / shall taste [their] mercy."14 There are certain deeds, such as treason and extreme acts of violence for which Henry thinks there can be no mercy. Therefore, Henry can be both merciful and merciless, depending on that for which the situation calls.

A good example of this sort of dynamism of mercy can be found at another point during the play. At the siege of Harflew, Henry does much to convince the governor to surrender via threats and descriptions of unmerciful acts of violence and destruction within the city. When the governor does surrender, however, Henry tells his uncle to "use mercy to them."15 Shakespeare seems to be pointing to the way in which the consequences of Henry's decisions and actions are greatly magnified; his decisions can affect hundreds of people at a time (and sometimes even more). This is likely to sometimes weigh heavily upon Henry as a man, and it would seem that Shakespeare considers this, because he focuses on seeming internal struggles within Henry at several points.

Not only does this focus on Henry's internal thoughts and feelings give a better sense of who Henry is, but it also creates a sort of drama as Henry considers himself and his position. For example, in one monologue Henry contemplates his role as king and the meaning (or lack of meaning) of ceremony. During this monologue, Henry considers whether or not he must bear his subjects' souls (and sins) upon himself as king. At one point he states that he, as king, "must bear all" and that this is a "hard condition / twin-born with greatness."16 It is almost as though Henry is saying, "why me?" and is complaining about the hardships he must face because of his position. There is drama as Henry struggles with his thoughts on kingship, but there is also a sort of sense of complaining with which the audience can identify. Thoughts such as these make Henry more realistic, more of a person, not just a great king. Shakespeare expands upon the occurrences in Henry's life that he found in his sources and examined how Henry would deal with these events as a person.

Shakespeare's sense and use of biographical character-building places him within the early Western tradition of biography. Plutarch was a large influence on Shakespeare, especially on his Roman tragedies, such as Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. For Plutarch, the buildup of character was of utmost importance; the telling of an anecdote could be just as important as the description of a major victory for his subject. This influence seems to have rubbed off on Shakespeare, as can be demonstrated in this and other plays. Henry V is also in some ways similar to Tacitus' biography of Agricola. In this work, there are speeches that act as dramatic speeches that provide information about the dynamics of the situation. Thus, these speeches function in much the same ways as does the dialogue within Henry V. Lines of dialogue are assigned to the characters in the play as dramatic devices that can tell a great deal about the dynamics of the different situations of which Henry was a part.

Another device through which Shakespeare created drama within the play has to do with his creation of Henry V as a great man. Due to his success as a monarch and as a soldier, there is already an element of greatness that seems to emanate from Henry. Shakespeare, however, adds to this greatness and fame, mostly through Henry's speeches. During one rousing speech, Henry tells his friends that "when the blast of war blows in our ears...stiffen the sinews, [conjure] up the blood, / disguise fair nature with hard-favor'd rage."17 This shows the way in which Henry is able to stir up the men around him and spur them on toward action. Later in this same speech, he shouts "follow your spirit; and upon this charge / cry, "God for Harry, England, and Saint George!""18 Henry calls upon king, country, and Christianity for support in the coming battles. Henry's speeches are so stirring that they contribute to his greatness and charisma within the play. It is easy to see how men would rise up to action, their morale boosted by their king. Similarly, in his speech before the Battle of Agincourt, Henry's words epitomize honor and glory when he states "the fewer men, the greater share of honor."19 This links Henry and all his men with a greater glory; Henry is trying to convince his men (and based on the results, seems very successful in doing so) that just by participating the battle, all of them will become great. These speeches add a sense of drama to the play, because of the added significance that they provide to the experiences of the English and to the actions of Henry, and they also expound upon the greatness of Henry.

Now that the sources and dramatic devices that Shakespeare used in his writing of Henry V have been examined, what information can be revealed about the historical context out of which the play arose? The audience that would have viewed Shakespeare's play would have been diverse, and most (if not all) would have had at least some knowledge of the life of Henry V. This placed quite a bit of weight on Shakespeare, since any inaccuracies or discrepancies between the audience's knowledge and what appeared in the play would have been blatant. Perhaps this is why Shakespeare conformed so closely to what Holinshed had written and what had appeared in other sources. This is especially true because some members of the audience were likely to have read Holinshed, since he was such an authority on the English king. Prior knowledge of the subject would also place pressure on Shakespeare to provide his audience with something new and interesting, and the dramatic devices he used would have done just that. Henry's actions, characteristics, and greatness could have been viewed in a very innovative way, largely due to the dramatic elements that Shakespeare added.

What about the larger historical context? The Elizabethan period was a time during which there was a great deal of violent political and religious rivalry going on in the world. With all of the changes both politically and religiously, it was difficult to maintain a sense of continuity since affairs changed so often. Continuity and a strong sense of the past are important to the authority of any government, and thus it was of concern to Elizabeth. Thus, Elizabeth tried to fill her reign with portraits, pageantry, and tournaments. She used such devices to create a sort of a cult around herself, in which she was a symbol around which the English could unite. She was able to "surround the actualities of present-day politics with the sanctions of historical myth and legend."20 If ties could be made with the England of Elizabeth's day and non-popish elements of the past, some sense of continuity could be maintained. During times such as these, a play such as Shakespeare's Henry V would have been popular. The greatness of Henry V can be reflected outwardly as a greatness of the English people and the English past. A few years previously England had been tied together not only in politics but also in religion. Now that the religious unity had been lost, it was more important for the kingdom to feel united politically (under its monarch, Elizabeth), and any details from the past that would provide the English with a sense of pride and accomplishment would have been viewed as very helpful to the cause. Henry V was one of the greatest of the English kings, and his story, as Shakespeare told it, is likely to have filled the English with a sense of pride.

Henry V would have also been appreciated at this time because Henry was a medieval king. The reign of Elizabeth was adorned with the "time-honoured imagery and ceremonial of medieval chivalry" through such events as the Accession Day tilts.21 The reason for this goes back to the want to appeal to ancient traditions. The greatness and glory exhibited in Henry V that was previously mentioned would have done much to contribute to the greatness and glory of Elizabethan rule, creating a link to the past that the English could look back upon and was something with which they could even feel a certain sense of connection.

By basing Henry V on historical sources, Shakespeare created a dramatic work and biographical account of one of the great kings of English history while also revealing a great deal of contextual historical information about Shakespeare's time in the process. The sources from which Shakespeare borrowed formed a solid base upon which Shakespeare could build, adding a variety of dramatic elements that helped to flesh out the king. This not only made Henry V very accurate in the eyes of his audience, but it also added a new layer to the story of the king's life, since Henry became somewhat more humanly identifiable through some of the elements Shakespeare used. In the wider and grander scheme of the times, the play fit well into its historical context, supporting many of the goals of Queen Elizabeth, as well as providing the English with a work that could provide the English with a greater sense of connectedness with a glorious piece of their past.



  • 1 Desmond Seward, Henry V The Scourge of God (New York, 1988), pp. 51-2.

  • 2 Seward, p. xviii.

  • 3 Seward, p. 214.

  • 4 Seward, p. 215.

  • 5 Holinshed, Chronicle, ed. Allardyce and Josephine Nicoll (New York, 1927), p. vi.

  • 6 Holinshed, p. 74.

  • 7 Shakespeare, Henry V, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston, 1974), II.ii, lines 96-7.

  • 8 Holinshed, p. 74.

  • 9 Shakespeare, III.vii, lines 161-2.

  • 10 Holinshed, p. 80.

  • 11 Edward Halle, The Union of the Two Noble Families of Lancaster and York. (Menston, England, 1970), fol. iii, a.iii.

  • 12 Shakespeare, I.i, lines 1-3.

  • 13 Shakespeare, I.ii, line 12.

  • 14 Shakespeare, IV.vii, lines 64-5.

  • 15 Shakespeare, III.iii, line 54.

  • 16 Shakespeare, IV.i, lines 233-4.

  • 17 Shakespeare, III.i, lines 5 and 7-8.

  • 18 Shakespeare, III.i, lines 33-4.

  • 19 Shakespeare, IV.iii line 22.

  • 20 Roy Strong, The Cult of Elizabeth, Elizabethan Portraiture and Pageantry (London: 1999), p. 161.

  • 21 Strong, p. 161.


Works Cited

  • Evans, G. Blakemore, ed. The Riverside Shakespeare. Boston: The Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974.

  • Halle, Edward. The Union of the Two Noble Families of Lancaster and York. Menston, England: Scholar Press, 1970.

  • Holinshed, Holinshed's Chronicle, As Used in Shakespeare's Plays., ed. Allardyce and Josephine Nicoll. London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1927.

  • Seward, Desmond. Henry V, The Scourge of God. New York: Penguin Group, 1988.

  • Strong, Roy. The Cult of Elizabeth, Elizabethan Portraiture and Pageantry. London: Pimilco, 1999.