Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Henry V of Monmouth - insights into The Hollow Crown

Warrior King - son of Monmouth
   Henry V, best known for his victory against the odds at Agincourt, was born in Monmouth Castle on 9th August 1387. He was educated to be capable of all the gentlemanly arts of riding, swimming, archery and hunting and, by the age of 10, was proficient in them all. He is often known as Harry of Monmouth and his birth took place when his father's wars against the Welsh were at their height: Henry IV against Owain Glyndwr who fought and destroyed towns in the area and burned down most of nearby Abergavenny.

Shakespeare's version
   Henry V features in the tetralogy (group of four plays) which form the first part of the BBC's series, The Hollow Crown. In Henry V, the last play of the four, he tells Pistol: "I am a Welshman" but the most interesting presentation of him is in the second play, Henry IV pt i. Here he is Prince Hal, friend of the charming rogue, Falstaff, with whom he is apparently wasting his youth in taverns and taking part in semi-legal escapades. His father is in despair although we, as audience, know early on that he intends to reform and "show more goodly".  By the end of the play he has started to perform his role and meets his enemy, Hotspur, aka Harry Percy, on the battlefield. Hotspur greets him: "If I mistake not, thou art Harry Monmouth." Hal slays his rival even though Falstaff takes the credit.

The dilemma
   It is possibly this massive lie and the piiful, ragged troops that Falstaff collected, that convinces Hal that he cannot continue his wastrel's life and friendship with him for ever, although he relapses during Henry IV pt ii.  At the end of that drama, when he is King, he brutally and publicly refuses to acknowledge the old, fat man, saying that Falstaff was unreal: "But, being awak'd, I do despise my dream." Falstaff, who hoped to cash in on his relationship with a future monarch, is crushed and dies of a broken heart off-stage at the beginning of Henry V: according to the Hostess he became gradually cold "as a stone" all over but "made a finer end, and went away" as if he "had been any christom child."

The result
    Henry went on to reclaim English territory in France in a succession of battles, preceded in Shakespeare by rousing speeches and culminating at Agincourt, on the 25 October, 1415, St. Crispin's Day. His troops were outnumbered but were helped to victory by Monmouthshire archers. In Shakespeare's play he goes round the camp incognito the night before the dreaded conflict and reassures the soldiers who open their hearts to him as an equal. Perhaps it is his early comradeship with the frequenters of the Boar's Head Tavern in Eastcheap that enables him to give that "little touch of Harry in the night" that so boosts his soldiers' morale. Yet the reaction of the modern audience must be ambivalent to this mixture of calculated manipulation, acceptance of duty and military genius.

   His statue stands in a high niche in the Shire Hall in Monmouth and, when you have read this or watched the BBC series, you can sit outside The Punch House in Agincourt Square, gazing at him whilst sipping your coffee and eating your CAKE, and make up your mind about him. You can then go on up the road, pass the church and turn in on your right into the Priory garden where Geoffrey of Monmouth is said to have written about King Arthur. Monmouth Castle where he was born is off the main street a little lower down. The no 69 bus will take you to Tintern Abbey and the no 60 will go to Usk with its charming castle and nearby battlefield as well as being the birthplace of Alfred Russel Wallace. Before that is Raglan with its imposing castle and further on this same route you can stop off at Caerleon with its fascinating Roman baths, remains of the barracks, huge amphitheatre and interesting museum. Links to these can be found on the Roman baths post.

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