Henry V, Shakespeare and Just War



(Off topic.  I originally posted this on The American Catholic back in 2011, and I thought our Almost Chosen People readers would enjoy it on the 603rd anniversary of Agincourt.)

In the comments to  my post last week, Henry V Times Four, which may be viewed here, and which had four versions of the immortal “band of brothers” speech, commenter Centinel posed a very interesting question to me:

Mr. McClarey,

I’ve come to respect your knowledge of history and your insights. I just wanted to get your honest opinion on oneissue. As I understand it, Catholic doctrine would say that wars of aggression are not justified (most of the time). Though I enjoy Shakespeare’s plays, it bothers me that Henry V was fighting a war of aggression – hence, an unjust war.

From Henry V’s point of view, the war was about his (legitimate?) claim to the French throne. But from the point of view of the French peasantry, whichever dynasty sat on the French thronedid not really make any difference in their lives. They were merely caught in the middle; the longer the war lasted, the greater the collateral damage to French civilians. Besides, Henry V already had the Kingdom of England. Hence, it was just pure greed driving Henry V to claim the French throne.

I would appreciate your opinion on this.

My response:

Centinel thank you for very kind words and for inspiring a forthcoming post! The more I thought about your question the more complicated my answer became and only a post length reply, which I will attempt to do in the next week, will do it justice. The short answer is that Henry V, by the just war analysis of his day, had a defensible claim to be fighting a just war, while under the just war analysis of our day his war would be unjust. However, there is much more to say than that, and I will attempt to do this intriguing question justice in my forthcoming post.

In answering the question we must first examine how the formulation of the Just War doctrine has changed from the time of Henry V to our time.

Over the centuries the precise content of the just war doctrine has varied.  The classic definition of it by Saint Thomas Aquinas is set forth in Part II, Question 40 of his Summa Theologica:

“I answer that, In order for a war to be just, three things are necessary. First, the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged. For it is not the business of a private individual to declare war, because he can seek for redress of his rights from the tribunal of his superior. Moreover it is not the business of a private individual to summon together the people, which has to be done in wartime. And as the care of the common weal is committed to those who are in authority, it is their business to watch over the common weal of the city, kingdom or province subject to them. And just as it is lawful for them to have recourse to the sword in defending that common weal against internal disturbances, when they punish evil-doers, according to the words of the Apostle (Rm. 13:4): “He beareth not the sword in vain: for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil”; so too, it is their business to have recourse to the sword of war in defending the common weal against external enemies. Hence it is said to those who are in authority (Ps. 81:4): “Rescue the poor: and deliver the needy out of the hand of the sinner”; and for this reason Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii, 75): “The natural order conducive to peace among mortals demands that the power to declare and counsel war should be in the hands of those who hold the supreme authority.”

Thirdly, it is necessary that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil. Hence Augustine says (De Verb. Dom. [*The words quoted are to be found not in St. Augustine’s works, but Can. Apud. Caus. xxiii, qu. 1]): “True religion looks upon as peaceful those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandizement, or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good.” For it may happen that the war is declared by the legitimate authority, and for a just cause, and yet be rendered unlawful through a wicked intention. Hence Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii, 74): “The passion for inflicting harm, the cruel thirst for vengeance, an unpacific and relentless spirit, the fever of revolt, the lust of power, and such like things, all these are rightly condemned in war.”

The most recent formulation of the Just War doctrine for the Church is set forth in the Catechism at 2309:

” The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

– the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;

– all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

– there must be serious prospects of success;

– the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.”

These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the “just war” doctrine.

The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.”

As can be easily seen, there are differences between the formulation of the Just War doctrine by the Angelic Doctor and the Catechism.  Saint Thomas was concerned that a lawful authority declare the war.  Petty barons declaring endless petty local wars was a curse of the Middle Ages, and the Church was constantly trying to bring to a halt this type of endless local feuding, and hence the concern of Saint Thomas that war be an instrument solely of a sovereign.  Second, a war has to involve some sort of fault by the other side to make the war just.  Third, a rightful intent to use the war as a means to accomplish a just end.

The most recent interpretation of the Doctrine in the Catechism seeks to set the bar higher, much higher, for a just war, than Saint Thomas did.   The damage, which I assume is not restricted to physical damage, by the aggressor, must be “lasting, grave and certain”,  an element not contained in the formulation of Saint Thomas.  All means short of war must have been attempted and have shown to be “impractical or ineffective”,  a requirement also absent from the three requirements of a just war of Saint Thomas.  There must be serious prospect of success, something which literally only God would really know at the beginning of most conflicts, and which is not mentioned by the Angelic Doctor.  The final element speaks about a war not producing “evils and disorders” graver than the evil to be eliminated, once again a requirement not to be found in the three components of a just war set forth by Saint Thomas.  This one seems to be the product of the devastation wreaked in World War II, and a fear of the use of wmds in a future conflict.

Morally, I believe that Henry V should properly be judged according to the Just War Doctrine enunciated by Saint Thomas, as it is obviously unfair to hold anyone accountable for a different formulation of the doctrine that arose more than five centuries after his death.  However, we will also assess the justness of his war to gain the French crown by the modern standard in order to contrast the differing approachs of the two formulations of the doctrine.  First, we will weigh Henry’s war by the Just War Doctrine of his day.

First, the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged.

The first leg of the Just War doctrine as formulated by the Angelic doctor is easily satisfied.  Henry V was a sovereign king.  He was the supreme secular authority in his realm and he clearly had the authority to wage war.

Secondly, a just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault. Wherefore Augustine says (Questions. in Hept., qu. x, super Jos.): “A just war is wont to be described as one that avenges wrongs, when a nation or state has to be punished, for refusing to make amends for the wrongs inflicted by its subjects, or to restore what it has seized unjustly.”

To Henry this aspect of the test would have been satisfied by him having what he believed to be a strong claim to the throne of France.  Basically, his claim derived from Queen Isabella, a great grandmother in his paternal line, the wife of Edward II, (no, contrary to Braveheart she was not impregnated by William Wallace) who was the sister of the French King Charles IV.  When he died in 1328, the line of Capetian kings who had rule France since 987 died out.  Edward III made a claim for the French throne at the time, but his claim was rejected, running as it did through a female, and the throne was given to a first cousin of Charles, Phillip VI.  Thus the stage was set for the Hundred Years War.

Shakespeare understood that the morality of Henry’s war depended upon the validity of his claim to the crown of France.

God and his angels guard your sacred throne
And make you long become it!

Sure, we thank you.
My learned lord, we pray you to proceed
And justly and religiously unfold
Why the law Salique that they have in France
Or should, or should not, bar us in our claim:
And God forbid, my dear and faithful lord,
That you should fashion, wrest, or bow your reading,
Or nicely charge your understanding soul
With opening titles miscreate, whose right
Suits not in native colours with the truth;
For God doth know how many now in health
Shall drop their blood in approbation
Of what your reverence shall incite us to.
Therefore take heed how you impawn our person,
How you awake our sleeping sword of war:
We charge you, in the name of God, take heed;
For never two such kingdoms did contend
Without much fall of blood; whose guiltless drops
Are every one a woe, a sore complaint
‘Gainst him whose wrong gives edge unto the swords
That make such waste in brief mortality.
Under this conjuration, speak, my lord;
For we will hear, note and believe in heart
That what you speak is in your conscience wash’d
As pure as sin with baptism.

In what is usually presented as a comic scene, the Archbishop, to distract Henry from taxing the Church according to Shakespeare,  gives a very long winded  (dare I say lawyer-like) presentation justifying the claim of Henry to France:

Then hear me, gracious sovereign, and you peers,
That owe yourselves, your lives and services
To this imperial throne. There is no bar
To make against your highness’ claim to France
But this, which they produce from Pharamond,
‘In terram Salicam mulieres ne succedant:’
‘No woman shall succeed in Salique land:’
Which Salique land the French unjustly gloze
To be the realm of France, and Pharamond
The founder of this law and female bar.
Yet their own authors faithfully affirm
That the land Salique is in Germany,
Between the floods of Sala and of Elbe;
Where Charles the Great, having subdued the Saxons,
There left behind and settled certain French;
Who, holding in disdain the German women
For some dishonest manners of their life,
Establish’d then this law; to wit, no female
Should be inheritrix in Salique land:
Which Salique, as I said, ‘twixt Elbe and Sala,
Is at this day in Germany call’d Meisen.
Then doth it well appear that Salique law
Was not devised for the realm of France:
Nor did the French possess the Salique land
Until four hundred one and twenty years
After defunction of King Pharamond,
Idly supposed the founder of this law;
Who died within the year of our redemption
Four hundred twenty-six; and Charles the Great
Subdued the Saxons, and did seat the French
Beyond the river Sala, in the year
Eight hundred five. Besides, their writers say,
King Pepin, which deposed Childeric,
Did, as heir general, being descended
Of Blithild, which was daughter to King Clothair,
Make claim and title to the crown of France.
Hugh Capet also, who usurped the crown
Of Charles the duke of Lorraine, sole heir male
Of the true line and stock of Charles the Great,
To find his title with some shows of truth,
‘Through, in pure truth, it was corrupt and naught,
Convey’d himself as heir to the Lady Lingare,
Daughter to Charlemain, who was the son
To Lewis the emperor, and Lewis the son
Of Charles the Great. Also King Lewis the Tenth,
Who was sole heir to the usurper Capet,
Could not keep quiet in his conscience,
Wearing the crown of France, till satisfied
That fair Queen Isabel, his grandmother,
Was lineal of the Lady Ermengare,
Daughter to Charles the foresaidduke of Lorraine:
By the which marriage the line of Charles the Great
Was re-united to the crown of France.
So that, as clear as is the summer’s sun.
King Pepin’s title and Hugh Capet’s claim,
King Lewis his satisfaction, all appear
To hold in right and title of the female:
So do the kings of France unto this day;
Howbeit they would hold up this Salique law
To bar your highness claiming from the female,
And rather choose to hide them in a net
Than amply to imbar their crooked titles
Usurp’d from you and your progenitors.

King Henry cuts to the chase:

May I with right and conscience make this claim?

The sin upon my head, dread sovereign!
For in the book of Numbers is it writ,
When the man dies, let the inheritance
Descend unto the daughter. Gracious lord,
Stand for your own; unwind your bloody flag;
Look back into your mighty ancestors:
Go, my dread lord, to your great-grandsire’s tomb,
From whom you claim; invoke his warlike spirit,
And your great-uncle’s, Edward the Black Prince,
Who on the French ground play’d a tragedy,
Making defeat on the full power of France,
Whiles his most mighty father on a hill
Stood smiling to behold his lion’s whelp
Forage in blood of French nobility.
O noble English. that could entertain
With half their forces the full Pride of France
And let another half stand laughing by,
All out of work and cold for action!



In the Middle Ages, legitimacy of title was the most important factor in determining the justness of a war between Christian rulers.  Usurpers were held in horror, as were, usually, rebellious subjects.  It was often difficult to determine who the legitimate ruler of a particular realm was, as the laws and traditions relating to the descent of crowns were often ambiguous, contradictory and convoluted.  Rulers would often seek the opinions of universities to help bolster their claims, and opinions would often vary.  Henry had an arguable claim to the throne of France, and hence an arguable claim to be seeking the return of what was seized unjustly.

Thirdly, it is necessary that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil.

The final leg of the test is tied to the second.  If Henry was attempting to restore France to its legitimate ruler, in the eyes of his contemporaries he would have been seeking to advance the good.  If not, he was seeking to take what was not his, and was committing evil.  Clearly Henry thought he had a legitimate claim to the French throne.  The second prong of this test is whether Henry was guided by a wicked intention:

For it may happen that the war is declared by the legitimate authority, and for a just cause, and yet be rendered unlawful through a wicked intention. Hence Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii, 74): “The passion for inflicting harm, the cruel thirst for vengeance, an unpacific and relentless spirit, the fever of revolt, the lust of power, and such like things, all these are rightly condemned in war.”

I don’t think the historical record will support a condemnation of Henry on these grounds.  Once a city or a region surrendered he was merciful and gave his new subjects good government by the standards of his time.  Additionally, by the standards of his time, Henry conducted his war in a just manner.  Soldiers of his who plundered civilians were hanged, and crimes of rape and murder met with similar penalties.  The major blot on his record is the slaying of the prisoners at Agincourt when he thought he was being overrun by the French, but that can be partially excused, if not condoned, by the fact that it occurred while the battle was raging and after the French had attacked the baggage of the English and slain non-combatants.

My conclusion is that Henry V had an arguable case of fighting a just war by the standards of his time.  Ironically, Shakespeare gives hints in his play to lead one to believe that Henry was not clear in his conscience regarding the war he was waging:


I dare say you love him not so ill, to wish him here
alone, howsoever you speak this to feel other men’s
minds: methinks I could not die any where so
contented as in the king’s company; his cause being
just and his quarrel honourable.


That’s more than we know.


Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we know
enough, if we know we are the kings subjects: if
his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes
the crime of it out of us.


But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath
a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and
arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join
together at the latter day and cry all ‘We died at
such a place;’ some swearing, some crying for a
surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind
them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their
children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die
well that die in a battle; for how can they
charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their
argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it
will be a black matter for the king that led them to
it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of


So, if a son that is by his father sent about
merchandise do sinfully miscarry upon the sea, the
imputation of his wickedness by your rule, should be
imposed upon his father that sent him: or if a
servant, under his master’s command transporting a
sum of money, be assailed by robbers and die in
many irreconciled iniquities, you may call the
business of the master the author of the servant’s
damnation: but this is not so: the king is not
bound to answer the particular endings of his
soldiers, the father of his son, nor the master of
his servant; for they purpose not their death, when
they purpose their services. Besides, there is no
king, be his cause never so spotless, if it come to
the arbitrement of swords, can try it out with all
unspotted soldiers: some peradventure have on them
the guilt of premeditated and contrived murder;
some, of beguiling virgins with the broken seals of
perjury; some, making the wars their bulwark, that
have before gored the gentle bosom of peace with
pillage and robbery. Now, if these men have
defeated the law and outrun native punishment,
though they can outstrip men, they have no wings to
fly from God: war is his beadle, war is vengeance;
so that here men are punished for before-breach of
the king’s laws in now the king’s quarrel: where
they feared the death, they have borne life away;
and where they would be safe, they perish: then if
they die unprovided, no more is the king guilty of
their damnation than he was before guilty of those
impieties for the which they are now visited. Every
subject’s duty is the king’s; but every subject’s
soul is his own. Therefore should every soldier in
the wars do as every sick man in his bed, wash every
mote out of his conscience: and dying so, death
is to him advantage; or not dying, the time was
blessedly lost wherein such preparation was gained:
and in him that escapes, it were not sin to think
that, making God so free an offer, He let him
outlive that day to see His greatness and to teach
others how they should prepare.


‘Tis certain, every man that dies ill, the ill upon
his own head, the king is not to answer it.


But I do not desire he should answer for me; and
yet I determine to fight lustily for him.

There is no  historical evidence that Henry had such doubts.  He was a devout Catholic and to all outward appearances his conscience was completely untroubled as to the war he was waging.  After winning his war for the throne of France, his apparent plan was to lead the combined forces of France and England on crusade, but an early death at 34 ended that ambition.

How does Henry fare under our modern formulation of the Just War Doctrine?  Not well.

The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain.

Henry fails on this point.  The fact that he could not rule France does not come close to meeting this test.  An argument could be made I suppose that the principle of legitimacy was at stake, but frankly that principle has been so trampled upon for the last several centuries that it is hard to take that argument seriously.

All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective.

Henry’s war doesn’t pass this test due to the denial of Henry’s claim to France failing  to be an evil of a great enough magnitude to justify war under the first test.  All the negotiation with the French in the world was not going to make Henry king of France without war, but this fact is not important due to his claim simply not clearing the bar of the first test.

There must be serious prospects of success.

Henry passes this test due to the English long bow and the seeming inability of the French to consistently remember that charging into range of  massed long bows was a recipe for defeat.  Additionally, his opponents, Charles the Mad, and the useless Dauphin, were singularly inept opponents.

The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

No a-bombs in the fifteenth century, but a sacked city, a ransacked peasant hut, and the diseases that always seemed to follow medieval armies were quite bad enough.  By modern standards these evils cannot be justified by Henry being crowned king of France, even if he is the rightful king.

Fortunately for Henry, and his particular judgment I suspect, he lived in his day and not in ours.  I will leave to future historians the task of judging our actions by their standards.  For those hungry for more about Henry V, go here to see an excellent presentation by the Federalist Society of Boston on Henry V, Shakespeare, the Law and War.


Published in: on October 25, 2018 at 5:30 am  Comments (1)  
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One Comment

  1. Whether or not it was just by the standard of the Middle Ages it was assuredly unmerciful. Henry V could have gotten along perfectly well just ruling England and France was no threat to him. He was causing the suffering of poor folk for the sake of his own selfish ambition and once one accepts that, any claim of justness on his part is mere legalism.

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