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Would Henry V have conquered all of France, had he lived?

Henry V | Image: Wikimedia Commons

Riding into Paris

On December 1 1420, King Henry V of England rode into Paris amid a rapturous welcome, with wine literally gushing through the streets. He had done something no English sovereign before or since has done - won the throne of France.

England’s warrior-king, the hero of Shakespeare’s Henriad and considered by some to be English history’s greatest ever monarch, is still famous today for his crushing blow to the French at Agincourt in 1415. However, this was only the beginning of his achievements across the Channel.

Henry’s ride into France’s ancient capital that day six hundred years ago heralded the beginning of what could have been England’s conquest of the whole of France. The French king’s outlawed son still controlled most of France south of the Loire, but Henry’s stunning victories were taking him further south. But it wasn’t to be. Less than two years after his ride into Paris Henry was dead, and a generation later on the fields of Castillon in 1453 the English were finally defeated.

If Henry had lived, could he have realised his dream of conquering the whole of his southern neighbour? Could the ‘double monarchy’ have been a lasting success, changing the course of European history?

The ‘warrior-king’

Henry was born in Wales in 1386, a member of the House of Lancaster, a cadet branch of the House of Plantagenet.

Henry V of England conjures up a certain image, whether it’s of Laurence Olivier in 1944’s Henry V – hatchet face, pudding-basin haircut, lithe, clad in gleaming armour and Technicolour surcoat – or that of the fresh-faced Timothée Chalamet in 2019’s The King.

Whatever the truth of these popular depictions, his legendary status as the ‘warrior-king’ of England is not without merit. Henry was a born fighter. He cut his teeth putting down a rebellion in Wales during his boyhood and fought his first pitched battle aged 16. He was more than just handy with a sword, though. Whip-smart, his sharp-eyed reign as king followed an early shrewdness in state administration, the prince dominating his father’s council for several years in his twenties.

The most striking thing about Henry was his staggering lack of self-doubt. Far from being a reluctant wager of war, the famously pious Henry V even welcomed war, seeing it as an opportunity for his divine right to be proven through trial by battle. In fact, a contemporary chronicler even described Henry as looking more like a cleric than a soldier.

Agincourt and the road to Troyes

Just over two years after being crowned king in 1413 Henry invaded France, a resumption of the Hundred Years’ War that had the backing of the church, parliament, and, at that stage with a few grumbles at least from taxpayers.

Henry landed near Le Havre in August 1415 at a time of civil war in France, with the Armagnacs and royals on the one hand and the Burgundians on the other. In October 1415 came the celebrated victory of Henry’s English forces at Agincourtover the Armagnac-led army. Whatever the ratio of French incompetence to English luck, the result was a decimation of French chivalry in the thousands against a far smaller body of Englishmen. This incredible triumph can be put down to a combination of factors including Henry’s military genius and inventive battlefield tactics, pitting mobile foot soldiers against an enemy host consisting of heavy cavalry, and of course the famously deadly English archers.

After Agincourt, Henry then conquered Normandy and, crucially, in 1418 the influential French Queen Isabeau switched her allegiance to Burgundy. The following year Duke John of Burgundy was planning to put to the Dauphin Charles an alliance against Henry. This meeting ended in disaster when John was murdered by the Dauphin’s men.

Henry’s military invincibility together with his new ally, John’s son, Philip, resulted in the Treaty of Troyes, ratified in May 1420. In the treaty, Henry demanded to be made regent and heir to the throne and to marry the French king’s daughter, Catherine. Duke Philip for his part of the treaty requested that Henry avenge his father's murder by continuing to wage war against the Dauphin, who by the treaty was formally disinherited by the king.

Did Henry want to conquer France?

Despite the well-meaning talk in Troyes of respecting French laws and customs, Henry almost certainly desired in the future to establish a permanent English hold in France. Even in Normandy, while ostensibly continuing with local Norman governance, he had placed English nobles in key positions with crucial oversight.

Because Henry saw himself as the rightful king of France, he wanted to present himself to the French people not as an invader but as a just and protective ruler. The Treaty was in part a continuation of this overture to the French people.

However, this was probably not the reality on the ground. The chronicler known as ‘a Bourgeois of Paris’ said that Henry’s troops went about ‘pillaging, killing, robbing’, and described the English as ‘always wanting to make war’.

Given the continuing source of authority of the Dauphin and the fragility of French factional alliances on England’s side, it seems there is a strong case to be made for saying that had Henry lived, he would have wanted to entirely crush the Dauphin and bring the whole Kingdom of France under his yoke, in totality, not just nominally.

Moreover, many historians have argued that Henry had always been obsessed with conquering the whole of France. While in the Treaty his ambitions seem to be limited to a personal union of two monarchies, Henry himself told well-wishers on his whistle-stop tour of England in 1421 that he still needed to work towards ‘the complete conquest of that kingdom [France]’.

Also, claims of Henry early in his reign being willing to settle for territory or money are probably not true in essence. He was likely making big demands of the Armagnacs because he knew they'd reject them. He had already decided to go to war, but for appearances needed to explore ostensibly diplomatic avenues first.

Even historians that favour a less bellicose Henry would find it hard to deny that as he entered France on 1st December 1420 as heir apparent to the French throne his ambitions had grown, always keeping pace with his successes.

Success did indeed continue for Henry after his return from his 1421 tour of England, and a few months after the arduous Siege of Meaux he died, on 31 August 1422, making a king of his nine-month-old baby, Henry.

Henry VI and the end of the war

The doomed, one-off, dual monarchy of England and France under Henry’s son began with Charles VI’s death, a little while after Henry’s, on 21 October 1422. It ended on 19 October 1453.

Bedford, the regent of France, had Henry crowned in France on 2nd December 1431. Titled Henry VI of England and II of France, he only really had any meaningful recognition in France up to 1435, and even this was mostly north of the Loire. During Henry’s minority things looked promising, though. From 1425 to 1429 English occupation in France was actually at a high.

Henry VI was very naïve, however. He lacked his father’s political skills, to say the least, and was vulnerable to intrigue from the likes of William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk, a noble who was eventually blamed for English failures in France who was murdered while attempting to flee England.

Though the Dauphin had never gone away during this time, everything changed with the Siege of Orléans. After her famous victory here in May 1429, Joan of Arc led the Dauphin to Rheims and stood beside him as he was crowned Charles VII of France. She took him from being the cagey ‘King of Bourges’ to a legitimate ruler of a newly invigorated France fighting not against a rightful sovereign but a foreign army of occupation under a false boy-king.

In 1435 the gifted Bedford died and Henry, on hearing of Duke Philip’s jumping into Charles VII’s proverbial ship, was said to have burst into tears. With this Charles-Burgundy alliance, the war became a truly England v. France conflict. Eighteen years later, the French won the war, and after Calais’s loss in 1558 the Channel Islands became the sole remnant of English aspirations in France.

What if Henry V had lived?

Henry’s personal abilities were substantial. He would tour his encampments at night to speak to his men and in the morning would lead them from the front in battle. A great organiser, war plans were meticulous and he would order provisions months in advance.

He was also formidable. A contemporary source says Henry was ‘so feared and held in dread by his princes and captains’ that nobody dared question him. Nevertheless, from his days as a prince and right up until his death he surrounded himself with talented people who were sufficiently inspired by his personal qualities as to provide what was unusually loyal service for a medieval sovereign.

Despite Henry enjoying victories over them up until his death, however, the French were no pushovers. The citizens of Melun and Meaux, for instance, put up a very spirited defence before capitulating. It is telling, however, that the first significant loss of the English since 1415, at Baugé, occurred when Henry was in England.

Additionally, even before Henry’s death, his stellar army of 1415 was not what it had been. The defeat of his naval forces off La Rochelle in 1420 was a clear indication that even a great warrior-king cannot be everywhere at once in a large realm. Furthermore, though the Dauphin was said to have been feckless and delicate, the powerful counts and Dukes that supported him were not.

Resistance to Troyes, too, was already evident among the populace. Even with Henry’s deft handling of feuding nobles, the factions might still have united against Henry in the future had he lived. Nothing was ever that sacred in these times, and even blood feuds could be ended with a cartload of gold crowns.

Appearances were important, too. With Henry by late 1420 living in the splendour of the Louvre, Charles VI was living in a comparatively modest palace and was said to be ‘poorly and meanly attended’ by servants. This stuck in the craw of many French people.

Support at home was far less wavering, Henry’s entry into Paris in December 1420 marking more than five years of an exclusive English focus on Henry’s French mission. Agincourt further united English people behind Henry, in spite of the ‘smothered curses’ of English taxpayers heard by chronicler Adam of Usk.

Crucially, the long-term success of the Treaty of Troyes very much depended on Henry V himself. It required one virtuoso ruler doing all the required plate-spinning personally. As highly competent as some of his right-hand men were, only Henry could have made it all work. He was a young man when he died – ambitious, lucky, and with a magnetism that forged powerful alliances, such as that with the Holy Roman Emperor in 1416. He certainly had a lot more left in the tank.

Henry, despite his warlike nature, was prepared to unite France, and if anyone could have done it successfully, it was Henry. Even Duke Philip didn’t feel up to the job, refusing (though perhaps tactically), the offer of the regency after Henry V’s death.

Many people up and down France did not shed many tears for the dead ‘foreign prince’, however.

If growing resentment at English brutality was something of an arrow in Joan of Arc’s quiver, Henry might arguably have fared worse in this regard than his son. From his execution of prisoners at Agincourt to his merciless siege strategies at Meaux and Rouen, his reputation as the ‘Scourge of God’ (despite accounts to the contrary) among the French people would have made him a personal focal point for anti-Englishness.

Could Henry, had he lived, have counteracted the Maid of Orléans? Given that it was a good seven years after Henry’s death that Joan of Arc emerged, this seems unhelpfully speculative. Henry had certainly proven himself against the Dauphin, but then so too did many of Henry VI’s regency rulers.

An optimistic outlook could take the arguments above and conclude that had Henry V lived to a riper age than 35, he would likely have eventually prevailed against the Dauphin and united France in a way never seen before.

Pessimistically, and perhaps more realistically, the above evidence could point to a less favourable outcome for Henry V, suggesting that a protracted war away from home would have eventually seen his luck run out. It would also have seen his alliances reveal themselves only as tactical moves by self-serving rulers of mercantile duchies. Perhaps, too, it would have seen the showing in one way or another of Henry’s true imperialistic hand, inciting successful French resistance.