HENRY V: The Scourge of God by Desmond Seward

HENRY V: The Scourge of God

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The bloom is off the Lancastrian rose in this overly simple historical study from the author of The Hundred Years War, 1978; Richard III, 1984; and Napoleon's Family, 1986. Doggedly framing his account around the chronology of Henry V's life, Seward attempts a reconsideration of one of England's most overrated (in the author's eyes) heroes. Son of the usurper Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV), Henry V spent much of his 35-year-life trying to expiate his father's crime and legitimize the Lancastrian dynasty by conquering the lands that the English once held in France. Immortalized by Shakespeare, lauded as a truly great Englishman by Winston Churchill, Henry V emerges in Seward's telling as a shadowy and austere medieval Machiavelli. The reader gets a brief look at the brilliant leader and strategist who, heavily outnumbered, held the field of Agincourt against a superior French force. But that view is quickly obscured by a foggy portrait of a schemer who, having conquered by bloody force a substantial piece of France and played off the quarreling French factions--Burgundians, Armagnacs, dauphinists--against one another, bamboozled the mad King Charles VI into adopting him as his heir, ousting Charles' own son. Seward plays up what he calls ""the sheer callous cruelty of the king,"" delighting in accounts of atrocities perpetrated on the French people by English soldiers during Henry's occupation of France--atrocities for which he blames Henry's rampant ambition. Seward's ultimate if ill-proved judgment: that Henry V is to blame for ""that antipathy and distrust which, sadly, all too many Frenchmen feel for those who speak English as their first language."" Based mostly on other people's research and spiced with quotations both contemporary and scholarly (which provide a welcome relief from Seward's bland prose), the book's revisionist flavor soon begins to stale. Historical regurgitation, then, distinguished only by its well-chosen quotes.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1988
Publisher: Viking