Since the primary focus of Henry V is his campaigns in France, I thought it would be helpful to review exactly why he wants to bother with conquering France in the first place (besides, you know, glory). Henry V decides to restart the war started by his grandfather, Edward III, known as the Hundred Years War, which lasted 116 years. The core of his argument is that he holds the rights to many French territories and a claim to the French crown. Unfortunately for Henry there are silly French laws that get in the way, but we’ll get to that in a minute. There were also some very practical reasons to start a war with France. The specific territories in question were extremely valuable to English commerce and it was a good strategy for distracting all those feuding nobles. By understanding the reasoning behind the French wars, we can better understand the play and the impact Henry’s story had on the English people.
Inheriting Territories and Upholding Treaties
Ever since William the Conqueror decided that he was going to upgrade from Duke of Normandy to King of England, his descendants were able to lay claim to certain territories in France. They still claimed dominion over Normandy, even though King John lost that one pretty quick. Empress Matilda married Geoffrey Plantagenet, who brought his own series of territories. Then, their son, Henry II married Eleanor of Antiquaine who brought…you guessed it…Antiquaine. This amalgamation of territories meant that, for a time, the King of England held more French territory than the King of France. As you might have guessed, the French were not super thrilled with this.
Then, you have Edward III trying to claim the French throne from his mother’s line (more details in the next section). The French were not about to have an English King, so the fighting commenced. Unfortunately for the French, Edward III and his son, Edward the Black Prince, were pretty awesome fighters. In an attempt to end the fighting, the two sides signed the Treaty of Bretigny. This treaty gave Edward III dominion over Calais and the surrounding areas on the channel along with Bordeaux and Gascony. Edward managed to hold on to Calais, but struggled to keep the territories in the south. The turmoil in England after him all but guaranteed that those territories would be lost. Henry V wanted to enforce this treaty.
Going for the French Crown
Go big or go home I suppose. Henry V decided that those little territories weren’t enough and he would reignite the fight for the French crown based on Edward III’s claim. Let’s break down Edward’s claim. Philip IV, King of France, had three sons sons. Typically, this would ensure that his line would continue, but that was not to be. All three sons took turns ruling before the male line finally died. He did have a daughter though, Isabella. She was married to Edward II of England. This is how Edward III tried to claim the crown and how his grandson, Henry V, would after him. There was just the pesky problem of French law.
You see, the French upheld an ancient law known as the Salic Law which decreed that no women nor their male heirs could inherit the French throne. This was decided long before France was really a thing, but the French upheld this law long after every other kingdom in Europe had been ruled by a woman. Isabella was passed over in the first place because of Salic Law. However, this was not the law in England, so who cares what their silly French laws are. Plus, according to English Law Henry was the King of France, so the English laws should apply, right? Wrong. The French were not about to have an English King.
It’s not all War and Games
Of course, Henry couldn’t just declare war because he felt like it. There were some practical reasons to pursue those territories in France. Not only were those territories profitable in terms of production, but, specifically, the territories along the channel were critical for English trade. These territories could make Henry extremely wealthy. Plus it would take a little money away from the French, which would just be a positive all the way around. Even if Henry failed to gain the French Crown, he could acquire these critical territories and still come home successful.
There were more personal reasons to pursue a war in France. It would distract the feuding nobles from trying to take away Henry’s crown. Henry was still on the throne due to his father’s treasonous usurpation of Richard II and that put him in a precarious position. Additionally, he spent his youth surrounded by unsavory people and overall living a rowdy life. It didn’t build much trust. He had to win himself some glory and get the other powerful nobles behind the glory quest. It would prevent them from focusing on his shortcomings. Anyone looks better next to the French!