The religious sanction — "In liberty of bloody hand"

The war against France cannot be fully justified in terms of self-defence, nor can it be readily legitimated as a religious war, although it is given the semblance of the crusade that Henry IV had failed to undertake.

The clergy's efforts to vindicate an offensive war in religious terms had a parallel in the Elizabethan time, when Lancelot Andrewes assured the queen in a sermon that the campaign Essex had just started against Ireland was "a war sanctified".[24] The Church could rely on a long tradition of backing up "patriotic wars". Stephen Gosson declared to a war-weary late Elizabethan London that : "This hath beene the practice of the Church of England by the testimonie of our owne Chronicles, when the honour of our nation, the chivalrie of England, hath beene in the fielde."[25]

Alan Sinfield has brilliantly argued that Canterbury undertakes a "secular appropriation of theological categories", and uses the activist Protestant dogma as a basis for his legitimation of warfare. In the Archbishop's famous Honeybee speech the Protestant appeal to nature and to the doctrine of callings is grafted upon the famous bee hive image in Virgil's The Georgics :

Therefore doth heaven divide

The state of man in diverse functions,

Setting endeavour in continual motion,

To which is fixed as an aim or butt

Obedience. For so work the honey bees,

Creatures that by a rule in nature teach

The act of order to a peopled kingdom.

They have a king, and officers of sorts,

Where some like magistrates correct at home,

Others like merchants venture trade abroad,

Others like soldiers, armed in their stings,

Make boot upon the summer's velvet buds,

Which pillage they with merry march bring home

To the tent royal of their emperor… (1.2.184-195)

The appeal to nature, which retains a metaphysical resonance, since it was God who decreed the order of nature, makes war part of the ideal order of things. Fighting, looting and injuring are shown to be as much in tune with the laws of nature as the bees' activities of collecting pollen are.

The doctrine of callings legitimises the variety of pursuits and activities at the same time as it stabilises the exiting social order. It requires that "…whatsoever any man enterpriseth or doth, either in word or deed, he must do it by virtue of his calling, and he must keep himself within the compass, limits or precints thereof". The Protestant activist thrust to this doctrine, however, opens up the possibility for expansion and self-assertion and emphasizes the need for man's active engagement in the world so as to continuously enhance the glory of God: "God bestows his gift upon us… that they might be employed in his service and to his glory, and that in his life."[26] The Archbishop of Canterbury skilfully interlaces the doctrine of callings and its activist Protestant meanings in order to naturalize the soldiers' dubious "calling" and to authorize activities such as looting and pillaging: the soldiers " armed in their stings/ Make boot upon the summer's velvet buds,/ Which pillage they with merry march bring home/ To the tent royal of their emperor" (my emphasis).

The Archbishop's use of the beehive myth involves a misreading of classical the text. The armed bees, the sentries, appear in Virgil's description only for the purpose of watching for the approach of rain and for driving away from the hive those who shirk their duties. They do not engage in military adventures. The Archbishop also flouts the established humanist tradition of reading the text. Thomas Elyot's use of the beehive image provides a good example of the development of this tradition in England. Under the influence of Erasmus' pacifistic gloss on Vergil's text, Elyot has the beehive, a model of "just government", be ruled by a king that does not use the sword ( i.e. the violence that can be legitimately wielded against the subjects to make them obey the laws.) This king enforces his rule by means of superior knowledge and wisdom: the bees have among them "one principal Bee for thyr gouernour, who excelleth all other in greatness, yet hath no pricke or stinge, but in hym more knowledge than in the residue". (Elyot, Book I,, Chapter ii, p.9).

Not unlike Canterbury, Henry also indirectly authorizes theft, rape, indiscriminate slaughter and wholesale destruction in the threats he delivers to the citizens of Harfleur. Acts of violence figure as inherent features in the definition of a soldier's "calling", a definition that he fully identifies with:

For as I am a soldier,

A name that in my thoughts becomes me best,

I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur

Till in her ashes she lie buried.

The gates of mercy shall be shut up

And the fleshed soldier, rough and hard of heart,

In liberty of bloody hand shall range

With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass

Your fresh fair virgins and your flowering infants… (3.4.5-14)

Henry vindicates immoral actions undertaken with a "conscience wide as hell". The soldiers are licensed to transgress laws and taboos and to act "in liberty of hand". According to Andrew Gurr's note, "liberty" also meant sexual freedom; it anticipates later lines when Henry envisages outrageous acts of rape: "The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand/Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters" (34-35). The norm the king sets up is to give free rein to licentious behaviour and to wink at "hot and forcing violation": What`s it to me, when you yourself are cause,

If your pure maiden fall into the hand

Of hot and forcing violation

What rein can hold licentious wickedness

When down the hill he holds his fierce career? (19-23)

The New Shakespeare Cambridge edition's gloss on "forcing violation" explains that "forcing" may mean either physically violent action or the stuffing of geese or capons in cooking. The earlier abject images of destructive incorporation take on sexual notes and signify rape or other degrading forms of sexual activity.

These terms are part of an underlying network in the play of obscene images of breaching, images used in the tradition of Roman Priapic humour or Priapic insult.[27] They recur both in the locus and on the platea. An early instant of the use of such images is Chorus's inflated Prologue that describes the act of "cramming" the representation in the "wooden O" of the theatre. The series continues in the locus with the Archbishop's image of the heroic ancestors' "foraging" (forced feeding) on the French, with Henry's reference to the war's "vasty jaws" or to his soldier's "forced violation" of French virgins. On the platea Pistol thrusts the "solus" in Nym's teeth and throat and down his digestive system and later on Fluellen forces a leek down Pistol's throat.

The outrageous violations of fundamental laws envisaged in Henry's threat to Harfleur do not stop at rape or at the slaughter of the venerable old fathers, but include infanticide. Henry feels free to openly adopt the posture of Herod and does not shrink from comparing the crimes of his soldiers to those of the Biblical character.

Your fathers taken by the silver beards

And their most reverent heads dashed to the walls,

Your naked infants spitted upon pikes

Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused

Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry

At Herod's bloody-hunting slaughtermen. ((38-40)

Had these acts of horror been performed rather than merely envisaged, they would irrevocably have discredited Henry to the audience. But in Henry V no act of violence or of injuring is visually represented and no mutilated body is ostensibly shown on stage. The terrible violations of basic laws exist merely as discursive objects and events. One would not go too far by calling them a kind of evidentiae (a trope widely used in the Renaissance drama, by means of which persons and events were introduced in the fictional world not by showing them in flesh and blood but by simply having a character talk about them). The description of the acts of horror is impressive enough to determine the decision of the magistrates of Harfleur.[28]

The threats uttered against the citizens of Harfleur blatantly clash with Henry's previous reassuring self-definition that "We are no tyrant but a Christian king" (1.2.242). [29]Shakespeare's attitude to this event and to Henry's attitudes is difficult to pin down: the threats are Shakespeare's own invention, suggesting that he intended the generation of the negative significances detailed above; at the same time, he does not have the English soldiers sack the town as was mentioned in Holinshed so as to protect Henry (and the English army, for that matter). Henry's new orders concerning the fate of the citizens of Harfleur are in sharp contrast to his previous threats: "Use mercy to them all" (3.4.54). Later on he will insist on the soldiers' strict observance of all laws:

"we give express charge that in our marches through the country there be nothing compelled from the villages, nothing be taken but paid for, none of the French upbraided or abused in disdainful language. " (3.7. 90-95)

Bardolph will pay dearly for breaking these laws, even if his crime is the theft of a mere pax.[30] The Bardolph incident indicates the difficulty to restrict the violation of social norms and taboos to the battlefield and the unavoidable danger that, once fully legitimised, this violation may spill over in time of peace and thus jeopardize the system of laws and values that is basic to the functioning of any society.

Henry's own explanation of the strict moral discipline he imposes on his soldiers emphasizes strategic needs rather than moral reasons: "For when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner" (95-96). It looks as if he is merciful and just from sheer expediency rather than from principle.

To read Henry's statements or even the Archbishop's speeches as mere evidence of Machiavellian policy is to disregard the fact that not all of the religious authorization of war in the play is to be taken as hollow rhetoric, designed for a public show. Shakespeare takes pains to present Henry's victory as a gift from God. The play mobilizes religious discourses that present the English as the elect people, discourses that contributed significantly to the construction of the idea of the English nation. [31]

The large differences in numbers between the French and the English armies and between the casualties each army suffered at the end of the battle suggest that Shakespeare deliberately wanted to substantiate Henry's claim that God has fought for the English. Of the figures on the casualties in this battle available to him, Shakespeare deliberately chose those — ten thousand French versus only 25 English soldiers plus five noble men - that would project the victory as a miracle.[32] Topping the list of the French casualties are the Constable of France and the Grandpre, chief mockers of the English soldiers, who thus get the due retribution for their derision. In order to enhance the aura of the miraculous, the play almost completely ignores Henry's skill as a warrior, his military inventions, such as the use of stakes. [33]

Alan Sinfield has stressed the priestly function Henry adopts after the battle of Agincourt and the "sacramental imagery" he employs:

… O God, Thy arm was here!

And not to us, but to Thy arm alone

Ascribe we all. When, without stratagem,

But in plain shock and even play of battle,

Was ever known so great and little loss

On one part and on th'other? Take it, God,

For it is none but Thine. (4.8.99-104)

Henry appears to be acting as an instrument of God and his soldiers ostensibly have God's blessing.[34] Under these circumstances the war becomes legitimate, even if motivated by personal interest. John Norden specified in The Mirror of Honour that:

They that covet to vanquish, and not bee vanquished, must relie wholly on him that disposeth of victorie, and to use soldiers, munition and police as his meanes, for if they are blessed by him, they are holie, otherwise they may bee as well instruments of their owne, and of the confusion of such as trust in them as of their safetie.[35]

Vickie Sullivan contests Henry's claim to act as God's instrument. She compares Henry with Richmond in Richard II, who in addressing God immediately acknowledges that he understands himself to be acting as an agent of providence. Richmond prays to God:

O Thou, whose captain I account myself,

Look on my forces with a gracious eye;…

Make us thy ministers of chastisement,

That we may praise thee in the victory

(Richard III, 5.3. 109-110, 114-115) .

Unlike Richmond, Henry does not describe himself in his prayers as God's minister, nor does he manifest Richmond's confidence in God's support. The "cause" he pursues is not mentioned, the reason for this omission, thinks Sullivan, being the fact that he doubts that it is a righteous one and that his purposes warrant God's direction. (Sullivan. 144)

Not even in his inspiring speech before the battle does Henry assure his soldiers of "his hallowed cause" or of God's assistance.Shakespeare once again baffles his critics with omissions from the source text. In Holinshed Henry's oration insists on his "just quarrel" and on God's assistance. The "historical" Henry is reported to explain to his soldiers:

… we are indeed in comparison to the enemies but a few, but if God of his clemencie doo favour vs, and our just cause, (as I trust he will,) we shall speed well inough. But let no man ascribe victorie to our own strength and might, but only to Gods assistance; to whom I haue no doubt we shall worthily haue cause to giue thanks. (Holinshed, 80)

Shakespeare's Henry ascribes the victory to God only after the event. Before the battle Henry insists on his identity as a knight who "covets honour".[36] The king boosts the soldiers' morale by mobilizing their ambition and projects vivid images of worldly gains, such as renown and glory. The memoralizing action their scars perform will continuously renew and enhance their glory in the eyes of future generations. The king further holds out to his soldiers the exhilarating possibility of bettering their social status and of becoming his equal in a community of elect people.

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers-

But he today that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile

This day shall gentle his condition- (4.3.60-62)

Claire McEachern has demonstrated that this promise runs against the deeply entrenched views of the Elizabethans about hierarchy and would have been dismissed as dangerously leading to anarchy. Small wonder that after the battle the king completely forgets his promise and insists on rank and degree. (McEachern, 3001)


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