Some readers may know that my BA Dissertation of ages past (as it almost seems) focused on the first two years of the reign of King Henry V of England. I could hardly ignore the so-called ‘Southampton Plot’ (which was actually revealed to the King at the nearly town of Portchester, rather than the city of Southampton), in fact, I confess to having been somewhat fascinated by the event, and the figures involved. Those familiar with Shakespeare’s Henry V may recall The Bard’s brief mention of the Plot in one scene of the play- which was inaccurately blamed primarily on bribery by the French.
So when local media mentioned that a play about the plot was to be performed at various locations in Hampshire related to the plot, I was naturally enthralled. This play was the cleverly titled Across the Dark Water, ostensibly a reference to River Itchen, which cuts a path through Southampton and nearby Winchester.
Attending on the last day of performance, in the ancient St Julien’s Chapel (dating back to the twelfth century), the audience were treated to a magnificent piece of theatre. Transforming the plot into something of a psychological drama focused on one of the leading figures, Henry Lord Scrope of Masham, grizzled veteran and loyal servant of the King, who leans of a complex plot conceived by the aggrieved, marginalized and resentful nobleman, Richard Earl of Cambridge’s plot to put his cousin, Edmund Mortimer on the throne.
As a long-time friend of both, Scrope entreats them to abandon the plans, but is gradually drawn into sympathy, and finally complicity with the plotters, through manipulation, and his own doubts about the justice of the war with France and the treatment of his friends.
As a work of dramatic art, tha play and quality of acting could hardly be faulted. The sympathetic and complicated treatment of Scrope- a very minor character in Shakespeare’s play, and his interest in the works of the popular fourteenth century hermit and mystic Richard Rolle added fascinating and personal edge to the story.
However, as another reviewer has mentioned, there seemed to be some fundamental weaknesses in the script, as well as a few historical inaccuracies such as the fine the King made Edmund Mortmer, Earl of March pay for his unauthorised marriage was the ‘biggest in history’. It was not, as there were several larger during the reign of King John and his predecessors.
In my opinion, one fundamental weakness in the script was the failure to give attention to the familial connections of the characters, and the possible significance of this. It was rightly mentioned that Mortimer and Cambridge were both cousins of the King- but not that they were also brothers-in-law by virtue of the Earl’s marriage to an Anne, the older sister of Mortimer some years before. A union given all the more prominence by her bearing him at least two children. Nor indeed that Scrope had been married to the Earl’s own Stepmother, and that Cambridge himself was the brother to the Duke of York.
The writer seems to have opted instead to portray the leading plotter as a political and social outsider, making a living by raiding in the Scottish borders, and nursing a long-term grudge for his lack of financial security and acceptance by the wider royal family, and as proto- revolutionary, railing against ‘the system’. The former has been examined as a possible motivation for the plot by some historians, but seems to be only one of several threads. In some ways, these motivations and a depth of character seemed lacking.
Also, it appeared that Henry V was portrayed as vindictive, fickle, and at the end, rather unnecessarily spiteful in his view and treatment of the plotters, laughing at Cambridge and making almost throwaway remark about his head being impaled on the battlements of the Castle, and ultimately telling Scrope he never had any love for him. Not only is the former claim inaccurate (Cambridge’s head was buried with his body in St Julien’s chapel itself at the behest of the King) but my own reading and research on the life and reign of Henry V have never revealed such traits. Certainly he possessed a very strong, almost excessive sense of justice, and hated disloyalty, leading to actions against those who betrayed him that some modern commentators have judged ‘cruel’ and ‘severe’.
The King’s reaction to Scrope’s involvement makes sense in light of this, and even the severity of his punishment fits into the context of the Lord’s relationship to the King, and his status as a Knight of the Garter. To betray the trust of one’s Lord, and the ties of kinship and honour that were supposed to bind the knights to their monarch would have been seen as a terrible crime in itself. Yet for all this, I got the impression that the King was meant to be seen as the ultimate villain, with even his definition of mercy raising a laugh from some members of the audience.
Added to this, there seemed to be a discernible influence of the popular historian Ian Mortimer’s perspective on events. This could be noticed in the passages wherein the characters sarcastically remark upon King regarding the French as ‘infidels’ and the implication that the Agincourt campaign was a Holy War. Mortimer’s failure to take account of contemporary ideas about just war, and the influence of religious notions upon this concept is a weakness of his book, and it seems to have ‘rubbed off’ on the play.
As a person who remains wholly unconvinced by the claim that Henry V was a ‘religious fanatic’ and ‘mass-murderer’ which is not supported by contemporary evidence, it saddens me to think that the scriptwriter seemed to have too closely followed a doubtful modern interpretation of events, and the key figures and events.
Across the Dark Water is worthwhile as an exploration of the character and possible beliefs of some of the plotters, and a useful introduction to the Southampton Plot itself – but it would be ill-advised for the audience to base their knowledge entirely upon it. Those wishing to learn more would benefit from reading books and articles related to the main figures, and the Southampton plot itself that are to be found in various books and online.