Henry V, in English myth, is the ideal Englishman: plucky and persevering, austere and audacious, cool-headed, stiff-lipped and effortlessly superior: 'simply the greatest manever to rule England'. The reality, stripped out of the myth, is vicious and dispiriting. The ugly prince, kissed by history, becomes a beautiful legend.
Henry's spell of alleged laddishness was ashort episode when he was twenty years old. Supposedly, he spent time and money in taverns and brothels, in drunken brawls and sordid liaisons, with unsuitable playmates. The stories are plausible butuntrue.
Henry vowed chastity, pledged thriftiness, affected the appearance of a priest: French ambassadors said he looked like one. He had his hair cut like a priest's as a sign of revulsion fromworldliness. He used sacred oil from France at his royal anointing. He spent hours in prayer and confession.
According to the legend, the war displayed Henry's military genius. Really, it was a storyof gambler's luck. At first, Henry probably envisaged no more than a chevauchée - a raid where the English would grab what they could. But a superior French army got stuck in the mud at Agincourt andHenry did what every gambler does with unexpected winnings: he increased his stake, bidding to rule France in reality.
He also began, on the field of Agincourt, a career as a war criminal,massacring prisoners in defiance of the conventions.
The policy was never likely to succeed: the war overstretched English resources and left the parts of France which Henry conquered prostrate withdepredations and disease. But the last element of the legend fell into place. Henry married a French princess, Catherine of Valois. It was a marriage of convenience - part of the political deal: a typicalroyal marriage, in fact. Henry neglected his bride and, when he was dying, ignored her. The great love of her life was her bodyguard, whom she married after her husband's death. Yet Shakespeare's...