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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #47: Henry V

Hair? Hat? You decide.

English history can be maddening to read. For such a small island, they cram a lot of narrative into every hamlet and bend in the road - it's like Tolkien, but even more self-reverential and glorifying of the smallest details. "That well pump is where Edmund Spenser once washed his hands! We think!" Even more infuriating is the custom of changing names when people accrue titles. "Remember Tim? Yeah, he's the Earl of Worcestershire now. So we'll call him Worcestershire." Twenty pages later they start talking about Edinborough, like I'm supposed to know our old friend Tim, lately Earl of Worcestershire, became Duke of Edinborough. I can kind of understand it because everybody is named Henry or Richard. There are more Dicks in English history than a boxed set of Bewitched (and yeah, I know there are better jokes out there but this is a family show).

I've powered through my share of these histories, from Cromwell to Churchill to Elizabeth to my mini-obsession with the Age of Sail. One of my favorites, though, has always been Henry V. I'll cheerfully admit that this stems from the Kenneth Branagh film version of the Shakespeare play, the brilliant soundtrack of which remains on heavy rotation when I write. We all know the popular story, especially the Battle of Agincourt, when a handful of English knights and a whole bunch of longbowmen defeated a much larger force of mounted French nobles. It was the original fourth-quarter comeback, and the stirring Crispin's Day speech the Bard put into Harry the King's mouth echoes even now (especially when the good man teaches his son the story).

We romanticize Henry V because of that whole band of brothers routine, because of his supposed rabblerousing as a youth, and also because he died too soon. He had the makings of a first-rate monarch, one who could have brought stability to 15th-century Europe. If not for his tragic death he would have been King of both England and France, but hey, what if. He stands out in English history as a model warrior-king, partially because he didn't reign long enough to make big mistakes. All we see in hindsight is the potential. He's JFK, Len Bias, Kurt Cobain.

We few, we happy few. Be you never no vile, reading this profile will gentle your condition.

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