Henry V is written into the English soul as its greatest hero – the victor of Agincourt, the conqueror of France, immortalised by Shakespeare and popularised by the actors Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh in two blockbuster films.
Recently, however, Henry’s reputation has been challenged, and he has been accused of being a war criminal.
The slaughter of the POWs
The main case against Henry has been that, after the battle of Agincourt in 1415, he ordered the murder of the French prisoners of war.
Shakespeare tried to blur the atrocity by linking it to a French attack on the English baggage train, in which they killed the disabled and the boys who had been left out of the battle; Henry’s order to kill the prisoners is therefore presented as an act of righteous anger.
English historians, also, have pointed out that there were so many French prisoners that there were not enough English soldiers to guard them – and that, when Henry gave the order, it seemed that the defeated French were trying to mount a late counter-attack.
In 2008, however, a conference of French historians at the Medieval History Museum in Agincourt openly accused the English of ‘acting like war criminals’. Museum Director Christophe Gilliot said Henry V had allowed notably horrific acts including placing prisoners in a barn and setting it on fire, and killing the Duke of Alencon when he was trying to surrender. ‘There were numerous heroic acts by the French on the field of battle, but they were met with barbarism by the English’, he commented.
Then, in 2010, a Mock Trial, held in Washington before two real judges of the American Supreme Court, rejected Henry’s pretend-defence – although an audience vote previously had been tied.
To be fair, it was common practice in those days to kill ordinary prisoners after a battle – especially if they were wounded. What shocked medieval writers about Henry’s action was that he ordered his men also to kill the French noblemen (who would normally have been treated well and ransomed).
The starving of the Hungry Mouths
The second main accusation against Henry concerns his treatment of the ‘hungry mouths’ at Rouen in 1418.
During a siege, it was normal for the defending soldiers to put out the 'hungry mouths' – all the women, children and old men who could not fight in the defence. Normally, they made their way to friends in neighbouring villages and waited until the siege was over. But when the defenders of Rouen put out their hungry mouths, Henry refused to let them pass through the English lines to safety. Instead they were trapped in a ditch between the two armies, where they slowly starved to death.
Today, Henry would be convicted of ‘crimes against humanity’.
Even the English soldiers at the time were moved. John Page, an English soldier who wrote a poem about the siege, commented that ‘hyt was pytte hem to see’, and described how ‘oure men gaffe them of oure brede, and harme unto them dyd they non’ … although, interestingly, he laid the blame entirely at the door of the French (since, when the hugry mouths tried to go back into the city: ‘The cytte wolde not lete them yn, thereof I wote they dyd grete syn’).
So – what do you reckon? Was Henry V no better than a war criminal and a barbarian? Or was he – as many English historians have argued – merely an 'unrelenting warrior' trapped by circumstances? Or – as a number of bloggers openly stated – is it just a case of French ‘sour grapes’ after the event?
Before you come to a conclusion, I suggest there are a few things we need to sort out first:
* Firstly, are we going to judge Henry by the standards of our times, or the standards of the Middle Ages?
* Secondly, are we going to judge Henry by the theories of war and what ought to happen, or are we going to compare him to the realities of actual war and what does happen?
* And, thirdly, can we trust ANY of the facts given by the medieval chroniclers?