Essay: Personal Leadership in Medieval and Renaissance Kingship

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Personal Leadership in Medieval and Renaissance Kingship

The powers and the responsibilities of a Renaissance king were awesome and absolute. This sentiment is reflected in the famous soliloquy of Shakespeare's Henry V the night before the fateful battle of Agincourt, when Henry realizes the full implication of his decision to recapture some disputed French lands. His decision will pit his overmatched, reluctant and unprepared English forces against the entire French army. "Upon the king! let us our lives, our souls, / Our debts, our careful wives, / Our children and our sins lay on the king!" (4.1). Henry realizes that his opinion alone has weight in the kingdom: he made the decision to invade, and he must bear the ultimate moral responsibility for the success of failure of the venture. Although Henry will rally his troops with tales of communal glory, in his speech before the battle it is clear that he (and his troops, based upon his overheard conversations) hold Henry ultimately accountable for any deaths that may occur. That is why Henry says that kingship is a lonely state: "What infinite heart's-ease / Must kings neglect, that private men enjoy!" (4.1) He calls kingship a state that is "twin-born with greatness," referring to the need for the king to justify his divine right to rule and to be a great man in his moral capacity as a leader (4.1).

Over the course of the play Henry makes several critical decisions that eventually win the disputed territories in France for England, against all odds. However, Shakespeare is ambiguous in his portrayal of Henry's decisions. Some of Henry's actions like the compassion Henry shows to the people of Harfleur and Henry's rousing speeches while storming the city of Harfleur and before the great battle of Agincourt justify Henry's reputation as a great leader and man of the people. However, the decision to go to war in the first place seems hasty, and Henry also makes decisions during the war, such as the command to "kill all your prisoners," that seem more emotional and rash than morally or tactically justified (4.6). Henry shows great sensitivity to the needs of the common man -- he says all men can be great who fight beside him -- but he uses militarism and violence to unite the English.

The first display of Henry V's assumption of leadership of the throne is his decision to embark upon the war that will take place over the rest of Shakespeare's play. This is his first action of the play, and will define his new royal character. Despite the fact that England has been recently in the grips of a civil war, Henry decides to reclaim the territories in France he believes are rightfully England's, so he will pursue "his true titles to some certain dukedoms/And generally to the crown and seat of France / Derived from Edward, his great-grandfather." (1.2). Henry harkens back to an older era of England's greatness in the first act of his kingship by recalling the nation's ancient past and shows himself to be youthful and eager to demonstrate his power by starting a war.

Shakespeare suggests that Henry is embarking upon a war to establish Henry's new reputation as a mature leader and to unite the country. Henry had a reputation for being dissolute and uninterested in politics before he assumed the throne. He is presented with tennis balls by the Dauphin of France as an insulting message about how France thinks little of his ruler. This further spurs Henry on to fight for the land, despite the risk and the likely casualties (1.2). But while it is true Henry is militaristic he also shows compassion and does not seek bloodshed for bloodshed's sake to prove he is fierce. During the siege of Harfleur, he says: "If not, why, in a moment look to see/The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand/Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;/Your fathers taken by the silver beards,/And their most reverend heads dash'd to the walls,/Your naked infants spitted upon pikes" (3.3). After subdues the city, Henry urges his men to be compassionate, and not seek spoils as was the custom in his era: "fortify it strongly 'gainst the French:/Use mercy to them all" (3.3). The scene in Harfleur implies that Henry uses threats of violence more as a public relations tool than with malice. Henry rallies his troops with inspirational talk of war, but it able to put aside the image of militarism when necessary. In another critical decision, Henry will not kill a drunkard for foolishly speaking against his cause in a tavern, but he does kill traitorous nobles who plot against him. This shows that Henry is mild when necessary and warlike when necessary, he understands his unique position as a king but has a common touch when he says: "you, good yeomen, / Whose limbs were made in England"… "Show us here / The mettle of your pasture; let us swear / That you are worth your breeding" (3.1).

Despite the divine 'body' of the king that he bears, Henry looks and acts more like a common man. This common touch one reason that the elite French dispute his ability as a leader but it is really the source of Henry's strength. Henry knows how to rally the troops with his appeal to brotherhood and perceives essential sameness of all Englishmen. Although England has been torn apart by a civil war, now that they are fighting a foreigner they become unified. Henry's decision to go to war is shown to be the right one because of his equally critical decisions to make speeches that make clear the democratic nature of the English army, versus the elite and effete French.

However, when angered, Henry can make irrational decisions. Just as he went to war for emotional and personal reasons, he governs with his heart as well as his head: "blame you not; / For, hearing this, I must perforce compound / With mistful eyes, or they will issue too" he says, when hearing of the deaths of his men, and despite the compassion he showed towards the people of Harfleur: he says during the Battle of Agincourt "then every soldier kill his prisoners/Give the word through" (4.6).

Henry is capable of making rational tactical decisions -- to show mercy at Harfleur, to only kill those who are dangerous to his regime -- but he also acts impulsively, as in the case of the decision to go to war in the first place and his slaughter of the French prisoners. The lonely nature of kingship and its imperfect qualities are manifest in Henry's dual nature. The English believed in the 'dual' body of the king that was immortal and mortal, but Henry shows the dual nature of a man who can identify with others, regardless of status, on a personal level but who also makes emotional decisions that result in harm to those same, common people and are crudely nationalistic.

The issue of legitimacy

Henry V is the son of Henry IV, a man who was nobly born but not royal. Henry IV's kingship rested on very brittle justification: he usurped the legitimate king, Richard II, had him killed, and assumed the throne. This is why Henry's own status as a rightful king was doubtful, as well as his youth and youthful indiscretions.

Henry V says, in his prayer before the battle of Agincourt:

Not to-day, O Lord,

O, not to-day, think not upon the fault

My father made in compassing the crown!

I Richard's body have interred anew;

And on it have bestow'd more contrite tears

Than from it issued forced drops of blood:

Five hundred poor I have in yearly pay,

Who twice a-day their wither'd hands hold up

Toward heaven, to pardon blood; and I have built

Two chantries, where the sad and solemn priests

Sing still for Richard's soul. More will I do;

Though all that I can do is nothing worth,

Since that my penitence comes after all,

Imploring pardon (4.1)

Henry knows that his father did something wrong, otherwise he would not have reinterred Richard in a new grave. He hopes that he can buy forgiveness: paying priests to pray for the soul of a king without whose death Henry would not have inherited the throne. But even Henry knows the hypocrisy inherent in this action, although he is helpless to undo his father's fault. The issue of legitimacy is a serious one for Henry, given that the hopes of success of any king are linked to the divine nature of the institution. Henry knows that he does not have full heavenly authority to rule.

This insecurity regarding his hold power Henry manages to turn into a source of strength. Unlike previous British rulers, including Henry IV and Richard II, Henry V uses his knowledge of the common people's psychology to motivate them to win a war in which the English have little chance, numerically, of winning. Henry… [END OF PREVIEW]

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