Henry V and English Proto-Nationalism

Updated on April 8, 2018

The 1989 film Henry V incorporates many nationalist themes, but principal among them is the conscious change of social organization from the feudal and hierarchical society of feudalism to the egalitarian and national based cultural organization of the nationalist nation-state. The film presents a stark contrast between the English, who are egalitarian, united as one nation, and joined as one people under one banner, against the French, who enjoy only the support of a clique of divided nobles in a deeply hierarchical and unequal army and society. Through a depiction that goes on to contrast the English society and army against their French counterparts, the arising traits of English nationalism are portrayed and strengthened in contrast to French feudalism, highlighting emerging characteristics of English nationalism and the imagined English community and their glaring absence in the French cast. Throughout all of this, the key word is "portrayed" - Shakespeare's interpretation of Henry V and Agincourt says more about his own time than about the year 1415.

The Egalitarian Community

Perhaps it is premature to speak of the industrial changes brought about by nationalism in 1415, but certainly the leveling of social affairs characteristic to later social change is present in Henry V. As remarked upon by Ernest Gellner in Nations and Nationalism, agrarian societies tended to be deeply vertically stratified, intensifying a societal hierarchy. “The most important point however, is this: both for the ruling stratum as a whole, and for the various sub-strata within it, there is great stress on cultural differentiation rather than on homogeneity. The more
differentiated in style of all kinds the various strata are, the less friction and ambiguity there will be between them.” 1 It is in the interest of the agricultural society to maintain a clear distinction between the elite - - the men of the pen, the sword, and the book - - and the vast community of autonomous peasant communities below them. The State has no real interest - - or ability - - in enforcing a cultural uniformity as would later come to be the case, having only the functions of collecting taxes and maintaining the peace. 2 A clear gap exists between the ruling elites and the peasants therefore, often emphasized further by blood, language, and culture.

The rise of industrialization and the nation-state changed this structure. Industrialization replaced the horizontally segregated layers of the agro-literate society with a formally egalitarian and culturally universal grouping (rarely as egalitarian as is supposed, but certainly promising much more socially mobility than the moribund stratification of agro-literate societies). 3 The vast differences in ritual status between the ruling elite and the peasantry are eliminated, universal literacy is made to spread by the state and its institutions to create a uniform citizen body sharing a common high and egalitarian culture, markedly different from the autonomous peasant communities of their forefathers. Instead, society separated into distinct and competing national units, instead of vertically stratified groups within a unambiguous vertical and rigid hierarchy.

And this is where our story leads us to England in the early 15th century, as the proto-nationalist leveling of English society to the egalitarian plain of nationalism is already in play, as portrayed by Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s role is vital for expressing the influence of the imagined aspect of nationalism. Nationalism is not merely the harnessing of a vast population of newly literate peasants-turned- clerics to the support of the infrastructure of the proto-industrial or emerging industrial economy, but also, necessarily, an imagined and carefully cultivated brotherhood.
Curiously, this might be seen as extending to those who watch as well; throughout the film a narrator, anointed in modern garb, appears to offer a steady movement and direction. His initial entrance is in a studio of film, bedecked with both the models of ships of antiquity and candles, but also with lights and modern equipment. A relevant connection from this is established: that the past of Henry V is inextricably linked to our own imperfect pre-nationalist past, that Henry V’s story, actions, triumphs lead to the present, and that we are “cut from the same cloth.”

While Henry V’s climax may be at the Battle of Agincourt, much of the initial part of the movie is portrayed in England - - and even when the English campaign in France, their social structures do not fade but rather their nascent democratic features are strengthened. In England, the British have a friendly and egalitarian cottage life between different peoples, operating on similar terms and status without hierarchy. This carries on to France. When Britain goes to war, they are fiercely united for the battle - - “All the youth of England are on fire” - - circa 14:45 - -
and although initially feuding, they realize their petty squabbles are likely to fade before the great struggle they will engage in across the Channel. Their own disputes and squabbles are rendered more manageable by the needs of the nation and of nationalism, as their society is reshaped from a moribund feudalism to a more organic and equal nationalist sentiment.

Henry V - the English Monarch - is made to form and personify all of these qualities. He is decisively associated with England and is an English monarch, not merely a king of the geographical realm known as England. While doubtless “the man in charge”, simultaneously he is a “people’s king”, who understands his subjects, shares their triumphs and their losses, and lives within the same shared constraints of their world and not merely relying on some airily removed and distant realm.

Across the channel, France instead shows no hint of any such leveled social structure, built upon a nationally organized nation rather than the stratified, vertically structured society of Feudalism. Indeed, in Henry V it must be noted that in France the presence of any structure beyond a small upper nobility is entirely lacking. No French peasant, or even French soldier outside of combat, is shown throughout the film, nothing beyond the coterie of nobles. These nobles certainly lack anything akin to the egalitarian camaraderie between the English king (even when incognito) and his soldiers, and simultaneously lack his unmatched authority. In fact, their political identity is distinguished by its exclusivity. The French King is a weak figure, and certainly not the powerful and admired Henry V. He still presides over a hierarchical and powerful position, but unlike the nationalist English monarch he makes little use of it, presenting a contrast in the capabilities of the two states. Finally, at the conclusion, the princess of the French joins at last with Henry V - unlike the nationalist England, for France, the individual can be seduced with love away from the nation, not through the forces of treachery but instead through the triumph of the English tongue. French customs bow to Henry, overtaken by their self-evident position of superiority. Naturally, of course, this peace will hold so long as it is so wished by the monarchs present at the union of Henry V and the French princess, and the countries will never again go to war and live in peace for the next half a millennia, giving way to a more perfect nationalism.

The Speech of St. Crispin's Day

Perhaps the best example that the film portrays is the difference of the armies pre-battle preparations between a nascent English nationalism and a backwards French feudalism. The French lords - - and certainly there is no singular figure of command upon the French side to parallel the dynamic English Henry - - bay for glory and honor, boasting of their armor and their expected prowess in battle. By contrast, among the English, despite a far more central figure in the form of the English king than on the French side, the structure displayed matches that of the horizontal union of nationalism. Differences between Henry and his soldiers are erased in his
meetings with his soldiers during the night, while in the speech before battle a shared sense of time and unity is present. The imagined community is present in full splendor, as Henry V talks of the uniform reception that will be greeted by the soldiers upon their return to England on future St. Crispin days, the heroic adulation they are certain to receive, and for all of them - regardless of region or of class - the same memory of the battle and of the same glory upon them.

The defining feature of the English army is its ideological and relentless fight for the
nation, not for personal gain but for a united, common goal. Before the Battle of Agincourt, the English king makes his speech, calling upon his soldiers for honorable battle. They preserve order and do not rob, plunder, pillage, abiding by the nationalist myth of chivalrous battle. By contrast, the French forces kill the English pages and servants against the laws of chivalry. A people’s army of equals is juxtaposed against a murderous French army of mercenary and strictly agenda-driven nobles. Of course, the English execution of French prisoners at the height of the Battle of Agincourt, one of the most stark defiances of the law of chivalry and of warfare in the era, is not mentioned in this narrative.

Even upon the French shields, the lack of a common unity is present. While the English go to war uniformly emblazoned with the lions of England quartered with the fleur-de- lis of their claimed France, the French are equipped with the banners of their different, individual dutchies and lordships. While the English army is organized along a national line, the French army organizes itself by its component regions and a strict hierarchy between the soldiers and their military elite leaders.

The Battle of Agincourt
The Battle of Agincourt

When, during the pause of battle, the French routinely choose to ransom their prisoners, they do not express the converse for the common soldiers. The nobles must be sorted from the common men, separated from the mercenary blood. One cannot imagine such disdain for the average soldier to be expressed by King Henry. The French Army of Lords is many things, but it is decidedly not an army of “brothers”, as in the case of the English.

I would readily concede that not all of the elements that will one day characterize the modern nation-state are present in Henry V of course. The entirely literate population, the universal clerisy, has yet to emerge, as have the economic structures of the industrial society not visibly in the offing. At this time, there still exist foreigners in English service - - although perhaps the Scots, Welsh, and Irish can be viewed as those plainly drawn into the orbit of an emerging English dominance over the islands, rather than against the nationalist ideal itself. Although portrayed as a nationalist struggle by the English, the war itself was still fought over the old dynastic struggles of old. But to worry upon these points would be to quibble to excess. In Henry V the vital components of English nationalism as portrayed by Shakespeare are present.


1 Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism (New York:Cornell University Press, 1983), 10.

2 Gellner, Nations and Nationalism, 10.
3 ibid. 63

Works Used

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. New York: Verso, 2006.

Gellner, Ernest, Nations and Nationalism. New York: Cornell University Press, 1983.

Henry V. Dir. Kenneth Branagh. Perfo. Kenneth Branagh, Paul Scofield, Derek Jacobi, Ian Holm, Emma Thompson, Alec McCowen, Judi Dench, Christian Bale 1989, DVD.

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