‘Creating Awe and Fear in other Men’: King Henry V and the Gendered Legacies of Late Medieval Monarchs

King Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt on 25th October 1415 in the Hundred Years War: picture by Harry Payne
‘King Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt on 25th October 1415 in the Hundred Years War’ Painting by Harry Paine (P.C. World History Encyclopaedia)

This article examines Henry V’s reputation of exceptional masculinity, and how this has influenced his historical evaluation as a ruler. He is often portrayed as the archetypical medieval king, embodying the ideals of both the warrior and saintly monarch. These narratives often portray him as a successful king, through highlighting his military achievements and popularity. Henry V, therefore, is a figure who demonstrates the critical importance of gender to the perception of a monarch’s success. 

The authority of medieval English kings was inherently masculine. The power and respect such rulers could command depended upon how well they performed their masculinities, and how such masculinites were more widely represented. As the person of the late medieval king was an inherently political entity, the quality of the political regime was itself determined by masculine ideals. In terms of these ideals themselves, men were expected to demonstrate twelve masculine virtues, with particular emphasis placed on the Aristotelian cardinal virtues of fortitude, prudence, justice, and temperance. Contemporaries regarded Kings who displayed these virtues as more successful, tying their legacy to the performance of gender. 

Integral to Henry V’s masculine reputation, and consequently to the legacy of his reign, is the notion of Henry V as a warrior king. Medieval kings are often conceptualised as soldiers and commanders, and military success was central to the performance of royal masculinity. Henry’s active participation in the Hundred Years War was no exception. He fashioned himself as a king willing to defend and fight for his kingdom, highlighting his virtuous character and prowess as a warrior. He proved his devotion to his kingdom and subjects, which consolidated his authority. This strategy was effective and led to Henry’s status as a warrior king being mythologised in literature, particularly through Shakespeare’s eponymous play. Though some portrayals of him in this work are dramatised, its narratives are grounded in the reality of Henry’s military successes, and the reputation that this gained him have endured through to the Elizabethan age, and far beyond. The Bbattle of Agincourt, for instance, is often highlighted in these interpretations. Henry’s masculine reputation was therefore informed both by the militaristic expectations of late medieval monarchies, and by Henry’s ultimate success on the battlefield. 

Henry V’s masculine reputation is also tied to his representation as a highly religious figure. Narratives that highlight his piety also imply another form of virtuous masculinity, and therefore present him as a good, Christian king. One common portrayal of with Henry V is of a wild, rebellious young prince reformed into a pious and loyal king, a highly Christian concept. This transformative process has often been over-exaggerated; Prince Henry’s arguably reluctant submission to his father’s will was self-interested, and enabled him to create a reputation of filial devotion. Rumours of his rebellious nature were likely intended to discredit him as a potential ruler, and by subverting these, Henry affirmed the quality of his masculinity. While kings such as Richard III have been criticised for their personal excesses and ambitions, Henry has been cast as a selflessly devoted king and prince. His self-control and restraint have been highlighted in both contemporary sources and in later accounts. His personal reputation was crafted by deft political decisions during his reign, decisions which successfuly culminated in a strong and enduring legacy. 

As King, Henry’s personality embodied the state of the country. His example of masculinity implied to contemporaries that England under his rule was similarly virtuous. As such, his authority was reinforced. His character also provided an example for his subjects and notables to follow, which was beneficial in maintaining order in the kingdom. His virtuous masculinity, although less discussed than his military prowess, promoted his reputation as the right kind of man to be King.

The long-standing view of Henry’s exemplary masculinity meant that there were attempts to recreate his success. The most famous example of this was Henry VIII’s attempt to emulate Henry V by invading France, aiming to and conquerterritory and present himself as a warrior king. Like Henry V, he also made a claim to the French throne through Edward III, cementing his legitimacy as Edward’s successor after the turmoil of Wars Of The Roses. Although this attempt by Henry VIII was unsuccessful and ill advised, culminating in the loss of Calais it demonstrated the potency of masculine reputations as a political force. Henry VIII sought to liken himself to Henry V by emulating his successes. Henry V’s successful masculinity formed a significant part of his political legacy as it continued to have influence years after his death. 

Henry V therefore demonstrates the critical importance of masculine performances for English kings of the 15th and 16th centuries. Being perceived as masculine was essential, because it allowed for greater authority, and helped to ensure the perception of a successful reign. Henry V is an example of a king able to perform masculinity incredibly effectively, and as such he provides an example of what his successors were attempting to achieve by performing both militaristic and pious forms of masculinity. 

Amy Raven, Summer Writer

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