The Salic Law


The Archbishop of Canterbury authorizes the invasion of a neighbouring country on legal, moral and religious grounds.

With respect to the legal aspects, the major obstacle to Henry's accession— the Salic Law — is shown to have been misunderstood. The Salic Law prohibits any accession to the throne of France through the female. Like his ancestor, Edward III, Henry bases his claim to the French crown on descent through the female. The Archbishop proves that the law barring Henry's access to the throne does not apply, as it initially did not refer to France but to a county in Germany called Meissen. The line of arguments is tiresome to follow and is taken over almost verbatim from Holinshed.

The Salic Law was, indeed, an invention of the early 14th century designed to block the accession of the English to the throne, though in the 16th century French jurists considered it to be coeval with the French monarchy. That it was but a mere medieval concoction was set forth in Robber Dallington's The View of France, a work written before Shakespeare's play yet published later in 1604 . At the time the play was performed, Shakespeare's audience might have been quite familiar with the objections to the law but they were just as aware of the difficulties around the succession through the female.

Canterbury is quoting the Bible to authorize his position on the right of the daughter to accede to the throne:

For in the Book of Numbers is it writ,

When the man dies, let the inheritance

Descend unto the daughter (1.2.98-100)

Shakespeare's audience, however, knew that this position had been highly controversial. Henry VIII had called the law of primogeniture in question by supplementing it with a will, in which he disqualified his daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, and had laid down that his son should succeed him and then his sister's children, the line of Mary Queen of Scots. His was changed by Parliament, thereby questioning and weakening the validity of the law of succession once again.

The Salic Law became an issue of public concern in the 1570s when Elizabeth dallied with the thought of marrying the Duke of d'Alencon. D'Alencon's position was similar to Henry V's: his future French relatives would be perfectly entitled to claim the throne of England, if succession through the female line was accepted. At the same time Elizabeth's children, if she bore any, would not be allowed to inherit the throne of France because of the Salic Law. In August 1579 John Stubbs , a puritan divine, had his right hand chopped off for publishing objections to the queen's marriage. First and foremost, Gosson objected to Elizabeth's marrying a Catholic and secondly, he pointed to the great danger that England should be ruled by France. Mixed marriages were therefore not desirable, nor did they provide a stable groundwork for the succession to the throne.

All in all, the English considered the Salic Law to be an act of great injustice but thought the refutation of the law alone would not suffice to ensure the English rule in France. This is the position adopted in Shakespeare's play as well: the use of force and a concluding treaty are necessary.

In the end of his vindication of Henry's claim to the French throne via the female, the Archbishop of Canterbury concludes by charging the French kings with having "usurped" the English king. They assumed a title that did not rightfully belong to them: "their crooked titles/Usurped from you and your progenitors"(1.2.94). This is a very strong statement, which authorizes the use of force against the "usurping" French. Viewed from this perspective, the war Henry intends to start is not one of aggression designed to increase his greatness, but one of defence: France is already his by right and the invasion and conquest is nothing but an act of regaining of lost property. (Pye, 16)

If the law of succession to the throne through the female is applied in England, then Henry himself could be taken for a usurper. The Cambridge plot challenges his legitimacy not as a king of France, but as the king of England.

Cambridge's political claims were amply expounded in Holinshed's account and in a play, Sir John Oldcastle, commissioned in 1599 by Philip Henslowe.[16] These texts show Cambridge to be as much entitled to the crown of England as Henry was to the crown of France. By his wife, Cambridge was the lawful heir to Roger Mortimer, whom king Richard II had rightfully called successor to the throne. The claim of Mortimer's son, Edmund, to the throne was later defended in the rebellion against Henry IV that Northumberland started. Cambridge's plot against Henry V is but a continuation of previous actions. His son will carry it on during Henry's VI rule. He will be the Duke of York, and will claim the crown on the same grounds as his father did.[17] Shakespeare shows these events in the three parts of Henry VI .[18]

Shakespeare omitted the reasons behind Cambridge's plot and obscured information that could relate Henry V to his earlier plays. We are not told that Cambridge is the younger brother to the Duke of York who dies at Agincourt, nor do we know that the latter is Aumerle, who in Richard II turned against the recently crowned Henry IV.

Cambridge's plot is dealt with solely in moral terms, its political aspects being suppressed. The act of rebellion is "monstrous", "another fall of man" (2.2.142). The rebels are supposed to have been corrupted by some demonic force and they cannot give any cogent reason to justify their action nor to contest Henry's position in England. The play seems to insist on Henry's legitimacy as a king of England in order to focus on the much more tenuous claim he has on the throne of France.

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