Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Shakespeare as historian and a few modern prejudices

I caught up today with an article in last Friday's Daily Telegraph by Allan Massie, inspired by the apparent discovery of the mortal remains of King Richard III making the fair point that for most people their image of fifteenth century English kings is one derived from Shakespeare's plays. His article can be read here.

However I think it can be argued that  Richard III is more than just a play about the events of a century earlier. Like Macbeth it is a play about tyranny as a medieval or sixteenth century audience would have understood it. Today we might, probably rightly, regard King Henry VIII as tyrannical, but he always proceeded under the form of law in his actions - which meant that it took rather along time - too long atime in fact - for the penny to drop with men like St John Fisher and St Thomas More. By contract King Richard III had acted outside law in usurping and then, at least in the eyes of many, killing his nephews. Like Macbeth, and never mind historical understanding, Shakespeare's King Richard is a tyrant because he acts outside the law.

Unfortunately when he gets on to the subject of King Henry V Mr Massie goes rather too politically correct, and correspondingly unhistorical in his understanding. We really must not judge the actions of those in the past by modern political, as opposed to moral, attitudes. Here is what he says:

The real Henry V was a harsh bigot – Shakespeare made him a national hero, recycled in wartime by Laurence Olivier, pictured

" The real Henry V was a harsh bigot – Shakespeare made him a national hero, recycled in wartime by Laurence Olivier, pictured "

Image: RANK FILM DISTRIBUTORS/ Daily Telegraph

" Then there is Henry V. The real Henry was a harsh bigot and persecutor of the Lollard heresy, who resumed the dynastic Hundred Years’ War in his selfish ambition to seize the French throne. Shakespeare makes him a national hero whose scruples about the French War were satisfied by a dodgy dossier produced by the bishops. Then he gives him the common touch with his wandering through the camp on the eve of Agincourt, and his marvellous speech before the battle about “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers” , which becomes an expression of English patriotism that would be recycled by Churchill in 1940, with the Battle of Britain pilots the heirs of Agincourt. Laurence Olivier’s wartime film, Henry V, is a celebration also of Churchill’s “finest hour”."

To this I would respond as follows:

As Mr Clegg's speech writer found out the other day branding someone a bigot  because you do not like their opinions is merely to reveal one's own bigotry.

Persecuting the Lollards was what a pious King concerned for the spiritual and practical welfare of his subjects was what a ruler like King Henry V was expected to do in the early fifteenth century, and the Lollard uprising of 1414 showed that they were a potential menace.

Of course the Hundred Years was dynastic, and I imagine the King saw it as his duty and reponsibility to assert his claim - he was not being selfish. The English case was more than a dodgy dossier and his abilities as a ruler go far beyond having the common touch, though I suspect he may well have done.

Shakespeare's Henry V is not a fly-on-the-wall documentary and simplifies its narrative to suit the needs of the stage - a point made by the Herald as he guides the audience through the play - but it does depict an established image of the King. Nor, unlike Olivier's film, does it omit the Southampton Plot of 1415 and the fact of dissention at home.

To be blunt, Mr Massie ought to read something by contemporary historians of the period rather than indulging in anachronistic statements. The historical King Henry V was politically correct in his own day - his ideas were simply different from Allan Massie's ideas, but not wrong.

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