"The sin upon my head dread sovereign" — the legitimacy of the war against France


In an earlier play, The Famous Victories of Henry V, with which Shakespeare was familiar, revenge against the French Dauphin is a strong motive. Shakespeare's play departs from this pattern: he makes sure that the decision to start the war has been reached before the French ambassador arrives with the gift from the Dauphin. Had Henry's decision been motivated by revenge against the French prince, the justice of his cause would have been at risk. According to the views Gosson expounded in The Trumpet of War, revenge is not to be admitted, "because the selfe and same person is both Judge and actor in his own cause, it may peradventure be thought as unfitted for a Prince to be a Judge and an actor in his own cause".[8] Furthermore the king's claim to the throne of France is submitted to the examination of impartial judges, whilst he will only assume the role of an actor.

Henry's decision to start a war against France is shown to be a lucid and a carefully weighed one. The king does not rush into it; he is not spurred by base passions that would discredit his enterprise and cast doubts on his "cause". The sufferings that the war may cause to both England and France are given ample consideration:

For God doth know how many now in health

Shall drop their blood…(1.2. 19-20)

... For many a thousand widows

Shall this his [the Dauphin's] mock mock out of their dear husbands,

Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down,


Later on, when Exeter takes the king's message to the French court, the terrifying aspects and consequences of war are once again dwelled upon. France will be held responsible

… for the poor souls for whom this hungry war

Opens his vasty jaws, and your head

Turning the widow's tears, the orphan's cries,

The dead men's blood, the privied maiden's groans

For husbands, fathers, and bethrothed lovers

That shall be swallowed in this controversy. (2.4.105-110)

Careful consideration is also given to the danger coming from the "pilfring Scots":

Never went his forces into France

But that the Scot on his unfurnished kingdom

Came pouring like the tide into a breach

With ample and brim fullness of force,

Galling the gleaned land with hot assays,

Girding with grievous siege castles and town,

That England, being empty of defence,

Hath shook and trembled at th'ill neighbourhood. (1.2.147153)

What is striking about these descriptions of the sufferings and the damage that war produces is that they anticipate the very destruction that the English themselves will inflict in the war against France.

The English besieging Harfleur will be involved in the same act of "breaching" that the Scots are accused of in the lines quoted above. The king himself will exhort his men "once more onto the breach, dear friends, once more." (3.1.1.). Henry admits when threatening the city that the soldiers are likely to engage in uncontrolled acts of looting, raping etc.

Much of the imagery Henry uses as part of his rhetoric against war recurs later on in the play describing the situations he is or he may be responsible for. Worth mentioning is the image of destructive incorporation associated with "hungry" war, whose "vasty jaws" are opened wide to swallow down the numberless victims. [9]This can function as a graphic description of the action of conquest that England sets out to undertake. The recurrence of images seems to indicate at a subliminal level that the English reiterate the very crimes they charge their enemies with.

For all the emphasis placed upon the rationalization of the decision to start war, the play does not dispel all suspicion that Henry may be spurned by lust for power. According to the views on war expressed in Shakespeare's time, such motif would altogether discredit his enterprise. Alberico Gentili, an Italian Protestant teaching law at Oxford, author of a highly influential book on war—De Iure Belli, Libri Tres, published in 1589, considered that "To make war upon one's neighbours and thence proceed to other war, and merely from a lust of power to trample under foot nations which have done one no harm, what else should this be called than brigandage on grand scale?" (my emphasis).[10] The possibility that Henry's campaign in France might be nothing but "brigandage on a grand scale" is upheld all through the play, with covert suggestions made in the platea, as we shall discuss later on.

But Henry forcefully calls his action to be undertaken in "a well-hallowed cause" (293), i.e. in a righteous legal cause upheld by God. The issue whether the "cause" is a good one or not is a vital one since it is this that justifies and authorizes his war. If the cause is just, then the war is just too. As John Nordon explained in his Mirror of Honor:

War is a pernicious evill, as of it selfe, but by circumstances it is both lawfull and expedient, not that it openth the way to heaven by slaughter and blood, as Scipio of Affricke boasted, but that it is the way to redeem most wished peace. When the cause is just no man may question whether the warre bee lawfull. It is then just when it seeketh to defend and preserve the public quiet and Christian religion, and it is then lawfull, when it is done by the authority of the Prince…[11]

There was a heated debate at the time about the circumstances in which war could be justified and be considered legitimate. Pacifists like Erasmus denied any "cause" that would vindicate wars, whereas others (Luther included) accepted religious wars, thus developing Augustine's view on the justness of wars aimed at converting the heathen. Gentili went beyond the theology of war and simply considered that war was necessary. He thought that, unlike individuals, sovereigns cannot be ruled by the laws of others and the sword was the only way to enforce justice. Therefore, as Gosson put it, taking up Gentilli, "war steps in the place of just vindicative judgement. God has left no other means unto Princes to flie onto".[12] In Shakespeare's play Henry embraces this view when he argues that "war is His [God's] beadle (i.e. his policeman, his officer who inflicts punishment) war is His vengeance" (4.1.165).[13] However, Gentili pointed out, wars undertaken for other motives than of honour and defence were not considered to be acceptable.

What if the cause was not right and the war was not acceptable? One of the negative political as well as religious consequences of the lack of legitimacy of Henry's war involves the soldiers fighting in such wars. As Williams makes it clear to the king, the soldiers may not be absolved of the sins of violence they would have to commit.

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 a 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 that die well that die in a battle, for how can they charitably dispose of anything 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, who to disobey were against all proportion of subjection (4.1.125-133)

In obeying their prince in an unlawful war, they would be disobeying God by violating his laws. From the perspective developed by Protestant resistance theory and later on by the Catholic one, soldiers could have the right to resist the king under such circumstances.

The question whether loyalty to the sovereign came before religious obedience was the subject of one of the most difficult and urgent debates of the time. A major development of the Protestant political theory was the articulation of the right to resist the prince when the act of obeying him entailed breaking God's law. The Hughenots rethought it as a duty to resist, legitimating their opposition to the Catholic king. In Du droit des magistrates, Beza claimed that God must be obeyed above all human authorities. This means that there are times when princes must be disobeyed, even if those who disobey must endure punishment. He insists, however, that only magistrates, and never individuals (like Williams' soldiers) could go beyond passive disobedience. The Catholics also developed their own resistance theory, appropriating the protestant views and relying on the work of Jesuit thinkers like Suares and Marina.

In the Elizabethan England the idea of disobedience on religious grounds was readily associated with Popish and Jesuit plots of sedition against the queen. In the 1580s radical Catholic recusants like Cardinal Allen issued an open invitation to revolt against a heretic queen who had violated "the universal moral law of Christendom", whereas the Jesuit Parson defended resistance on secular grounds.[14]

The concerns Williams voices when he discusses the cause of the war in terms of the predicament of soldiers who "do not die well" should be understood against the background of this debate. Williams insists that his intentions and opinions should not be taken as seditious; they do not raise questions about his loyalty to the king, "who to disobey were against all proportion of subjection" (4.1.133). However, the issue of responsibility for the soldiers' potential violation of God's laws by obeying the king in a wrong "cause" and hence the responsibility for their proper or improper death is insisted upon: "...now if these men do not die well it will be a black matter for the king that led them onto it". (132)

Given the importance allotted to the propriety of the cause, Shakespeare shows Henry make special efforts to ensure the legitimacy of the cause. Henry turns to the Archbishop of Canterbury who as an impartial and honest judge can give his blessing to the military enterprise. The king admonishes the Archbishop not bend his reading of the legal laws that can verify his claim to the throne of France:

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. (1.2.13-17)…

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, (21-23)

The words convey the momentous importance the "cause" has in legitimating the impending war. At the same time these lines beg for a double, ironical reading and can be suspected of being but hollow rhetoric in a public show. What arouses the audience's suspicion of the public act of legitimising Henry's intended war, is the juxtaposition of scenes. In the scene immediately preceding the public discussion, Bishop Ely and the Archbishop voice their fears that the Commons, as a result of pressure from the Lollards, might pass a bill that would sequestrate a large part of the properties of the church. ("If it pass against us/We lose the better half of our possessions. " 1.1.7-8) Canterbury reveals that he has been trying to gain the king's favour against the bill and has promised to contribute to the prospective campaign in France with a larger sum than the clergy has ever offered for such purposes. The conversation indicates that the Archbishop is going to provide the King with all the arguments he needs in exchange for the latter's support.

Henry is therefore perfectly aware of the Archbishop's intentions to back him up and is therefore not taking much of a risk when he is admonishing him not to bend his interpretation. In fact the whole show seems to have been orchestrated. Vickie Sullivan considers that "far from the Churchmen inducing the king to press his claims, he induces the clergy to support his plans".[15]

Canterbury is also indirectly encouraged to take over much of the responsibility that Henry himself has to bear, the "heavy reckoning" he has to give for starting the war. ("The sin upon my head, dread sovereign," 1.2.96) The play almost obsessively insists on the need that everyone bear the consequences for his actions: Bardolph is hanged for thieving, Pistol has to account for his treatment of Fluellen, and Williams is only too ready to face his challenger. The one who consistently shifts the responsibility for the violent actions he initiates against other people is the king himself. Does the play clear him of all charges ?

© Universitatea din Bucuresti, 2002. All rights reserved.
No part of this text may be reproduced without written permission of the University of Bucharest, except for short quotations with the indication of the website address and the web page.
Comments to: Mãdãlina NICOLAESCU
Last update: August 2002
Text editor: Raluca OVAC
Web design: Monica CIUCIU