THOSE meeting King Henry V on the streets of Southampton while he waited in the fortified city for his army to gather before leaving to invade France would have found him a formidable if not frightening figure.
The king who won glory at Agincourt 600 years ago this weekend is usually portrayed in dashing, handsome form. In film he has been played by Sir Lawrence Olivier and Sir Kenneth Branagh.

On stage Jude Law was Shakespeare’s hero last year in London’s West End and the current monarch is Alex Hassell who appears in the much acclaimed RSC production at the Barbican until December.
In the flesh however, Henry was far from attractive.

An arrow struck the then Prince Hal in the face while he took part in the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403 against Harry Hotspur.

He was aged just 16 and had he been a common soldier it is certain he would have been left to die. As it was Henry had the benefit of the best possible care.

Over a period of several days, John Bradmore, the royal physician, treated the wound with honey to act as an antiseptic, crafted a tool to screw into the broken arrow shaft and thus extract the arrow without doing further damage, and then flushed the wound with alcohol.

The operation was successful, but it left Henry with permanent scars.
Henry would also have been wary of any attempt against his rule.

His father, Henry IV had taken the throne by force and Henry’s dynasty was far from secure. Although we see him today as a valiant warrior king, certain of his place in history, then his regime would have been considered by many nobles and no doubt some of the people as corrupt and illegitimate as many a modern day tyrant.

For Henry V then think President Assad of Syria, Kim Jong-un of North Korea.
It is not even certain what date he was born as he was considered so far from the throne at the time that it was not recorded.

His grandfather was John of Gaunt, the son of Edward III which gave him his perceived right to rule.

In reality it had been the military might of his father that had won the dynasty.
His reputation for being something of a rebel in his youth, associating with the likes of Sir John Falstaff and other rogues, something that is played on in Shakespeare in his plays Henry IV part 1 and 2, is thought to be a myth.

His support for his father and the fact Henry placed him in charge of the country while he was ill makes it unlikely he was too wayward a youth.
He was certainly a brutal leader. His enemies were quickly dispatched, he ordered the killing of French prisoners taken during Agincourt to free more of his men to fight, and he refused to provide help for starving women and children who died in the ditches around the French city of Rouen which he was besieging.

Yet his actions were on a par with almost all of his European contemporaries and reveal a shockingly unfeeling medieval world alien to our modern way of life.
Henry returned to Southampton again in 1417 to leave for a second military campaign against France.

While in the city he ordered the building of God’s House tower, still standing on the city walls, to keep his armaments and act as a battery.
But it was his victory over the superior French army at Agincourt that brought Henry lasting fame. The victory brought the French to the table and agreement that with his marriage to Catherine of Valoise, the daughter of the French king Charles VI, he would rule both nations on Charles’s death. In the end he died of dysentery aged 35 while campaigning in France in 1422. His son Henry VI of England was also made King of France but lost the French crown later.
Henry V is buried in Westminster Abbey.
* Henry V starring Alex Hassell in the title role opens at the Barbican on the 11th of November 11 (previews from November 7) and runs until December 30th. Tickets for Henry V are available from or by calling the Barbican box office: 020 7638 8891