I read the first 320 odd pages of this book for a University assignment; I suspected I would not like it, knowing that the author takes an incredibly critical view of Henry. In this sense I was not disappointed. Ian Mortimer might claim to have been taking a more ‘objective view’ of the evidence, but I was not convinced. There really seemed to be a distinctly antagonistic I might even say hateful tone to this book, and the author appeared to be consciously interpreting the evidence in such a way as to cast Henry in as negative a light as he possibly could, and to intentionally vilifying him at every given opportunity.
Almost from the outset, Mortimer appeared to be trying to interpret events and actions on the part of King Henry in such a way as to highlight some supposed character flaw. Yet some of his assertions seem to be entirely unconvincing, and really just absurd. How exactly does the supposed fact that the King did not sleep around and have mistresses from the time of his succession until his marriage reflect badly on him? Some might see this as morally commendable behavior, but Mortimer seems to interpret it is a fault of some kind, even suggesting that Henry was not ‘close’ to women.
He then states that Henry did not marry for love unlike his Grandfather John of Gaunt. Yet he seemingly neglects to mention that Gaunt was married three times, and that his second marriage was almost certainly one of convenience to bring him material gain. This is not the only time in which Mortimer forgets to mention, or perhaps ignores information which has some bearing on the claims he makes, in such a way as could be misleading. Besides of which, very few Medieval Royal marriages were for love, so how was Henry so very different from other royals of the time in this respect?
Then there is the way that Mortimer seems to be determined to prove one of the central tenets of the work- that Henry was some kind of religious fanatic who waged war on France in the name of God. These leads to some rather curious and perhaps questionable interpretations of what appears to be, initially, rather sparse ‘evidence’, notably one Bible verse, and a motto on one of Henry’s ships. These are supposed to ‘prove’ wanted Henry to “exercise absolute authority over his subjects, both religious and secular”, and believed his actions were the work of God. Yet both “sources” could possibly be open to different interpretations, which Mortimer does not seen to even consider. Surely also, Henry was not the only medieval ruler to believe the victory in battle demonstrated divine favour for his cause?
Later on, he declares that Henry’s will is evidence of his “extreme” and “excessive” religiously. Whilst it may be said that the payment of hundreds of priests to say thousands of masses could be seen as rather overdoing it, actions such as leaving generous bequests to the church, wanting masses to or prayers be said for the soul after death, or dividing property amongst friends and relatives do not seem to be anything out of the ordinary in themselves for nobles of the period. Also one may ask, so what if Henry wanted to be buried in Westminster Abbey near the relics, or only mentioned two women in his will? How is this ‘proof’ of anything bad?
Yet, for all his condemnation of Henry’s alleged ‘fanaticism’ Mortimer appears to respect and even commend expressions of religious devotion and sentiment on the part of other nobles, apparently seeing their religiosity as a good thing, proof of their piety and devotion. Thus it would appear that Mortimer is applying double standards- by interpreting the religious expressions of some people in in a positive light, yet arguing it suggests some kind of fanaticism on the part of Henry.
He also seems to adopt a rather condescending and it could be said rather arrogant approach to the viewpoints and interpretations of other historians, at one point describing those who see Henry as having been great as ‘intoxicated’ by this view of him. He does not even seem willing to entertain their viewpoints or arguments. Perhaps this is way he interprets Henry’s reference to the law of Deuteronomy in a letter to King Charles is evidence that Henry sought to ‘justify his actions in the sight of God ‘ and claims that he was ‘only offering peace…. Because he believed that was what a warrior of God should do prior to attacking”. In her book, Juliet Barker suggested that Henry was “following the code of conduct that governed the Medieval laws of war” in the “proscribed form” and even quotes the Medieval writer Christine De Pizan’s as having stated that “wars… wages for a just cause are but a proper execution of justice”.1 By Mortimer’s standard would that make Christine a ‘fanatic’ too? One could also ask why he does not take account of this other historian’s work. Can it just be rejected because it is not ‘objective; enough for him?
Throughout the book, the author makes statements about what Henry and other figures were thinking, or how they felt about certain situations. I see no problem with historians speculating about what historical figures might have been thinking and feeling, but when Mortimer suggests that person ‘knew’ this, or ‘thought’ that it seems to imply a level of certainty or absolutism. On one or two occasions, Mortimer even attributes views or opinions to historical persons which seem to reflect his own.
Thus he suggests that at least two nobles objected to the war in France in moral or political grounds. One of these was Richard Earl of Cambridge, whom Mortimer claims did not support the war, or want to fight in it because he knew (allegedly) that it was only being waged to demonstrate the legitimacy of Henry’s claim to the throne, whilst neglecting to mention that the Earl actually raised a large contingent of troops for the expedition to France. He then asserts that not only did Edmund Mortimer, the brother in law of Cambridge have a claim to the throne, but Cambridge himself had ‘probably’ been named as third in the line of succession by Richard II. There appears to be one fundamental flaw in this line of argument however- which is that if Cambridge was indeed illegitimate (as Mortimer suggests) he would not almost certainly not have been permitted to succeed to the throne at all. Another of Mortimer’s little omissions it would seem.
To make matters worse Mortimer appears to present contradictory information. In one passage he writes that “he (Richard Earl of Cambridge) seems to have given very little thought to the fact that he would have to kill all three of Henry’s brothers (as well as Henry himself) before he could eliminate their claim to the throne”.
Yet he later asserts that the charge of plotting to kill the King made against The Earl of Cambridge, Sir Thomas Grey, and Henry Lord Scrope was ‘false’ ‘trumped up’ and an ‘inference based on the character of the plot’ (though other historians have written similar things) stating that for Mortimer to be crowned “Henry and all his brothers would have to be removed from the order of succession”. The wording of the latter sounds rather less murderous than Mortimer’s previous claim that the aforesaid Earl would “have to” kill four people.
Interestingly, Mortimer also claims that Lord Scrope was morally opposed to the French war, citing a passage in Scrope’s later confession, made after his arrest for treason as ‘proof’. Yet this passage in the document which survives in badly damaged condition appears to make no direct or explicit reference to any opposition to the invasion of France on Scrope’s part. It does state that Scrope suggested that he thought it might be a good idea to try to sabotage to the expedition to the other conspirators- whose plans Mortimer clearly claims Scrope did not support or approve of. Mortimer also doesn’t mention the contingent of archers and men at arms which Scrope raised either. Also Mortimer’s protestation of Scrope’s innocence seem to be largely based on his and Cambridge’s confessions, which in the words of one historian were written “to save the conspirator’s skins”, so are they entirely reliable?2
I apologise for the length of this review, but think it is necessary to highlight the shortcomings of this work. Presenting speculation and personal opinion as fact, missing out things which do not fit into one’s interpretation, and seeking to interpret the evidence in such a way as to make a person look bad does not constitute an ‘objective’ approach to history in my opinion. Mortimer seems to do all of the above, so can his work really be regarded as objective? I hardly think so. Admittedly I have not finished it, but if what I have read of this book is anything to go by, I would say that, at best it presents an incredibly biased version of the events which took place in 1415 written by a person who makes no attempt to disguise his apparent disdain not only for Henry, but his apparent contempt for other historians. If readers are seeking a more objective and complete view of Henry, I would urge them to read other works and not just this book, Christopher Allmand’s, Anne Curry’s and Juliet Barker’s books are ones I would recommend.
1. Juliet Barker, Agincourt (London, 2005), p148.
2. Kieth Dockray, Henry V (Stroud, 2004), p114.