At a glitzy premiere at Venice Film Festival, an audience of Hollywood’s finest look on as Netflix’s The King unfolds on screen. Young, dark and brooding, this version of Henry V is the heir to Shakespeare’s tortured hero – a conflicted king attempting to do his duty in a bloody world. But this movie only tells one side of the story, and the real leader was a far more complex man.
Starring Timothée Chalamet as Henry V, The King premiered in September 2019 and appeared in theaters the following month. And that November it made its way to the online streaming service that had bankrolled its production. Over the following months, millions tuned in to watch the historical drama – although some have raised questions over the historical accuracy of the tale.
Many fictionalized versions of Henry’s life have been told over the years, but Netflix’s latest attempt might just be the most controversial yet. Following the English king from a misspent youth to the battlefield of Agincourt, it’s certainly a dramatic retelling of his eventful life. But as is often the case, the truth is even stranger than fiction.
Just like the modern monarch of the United Kingdom – Queen Elizabeth II – Henry V was not raised to be king. Born in Monmouth, Wales, in September 1386, he grew up with his cousin Richard II on the throne. But then everything would change just 13 years later.
In 1399 a rebellion deposed Richard II and placed Henry’s father, Henry Bolingbroke, on the throne. Crowned King of England that year, Henry IV gave his son the title Prince of Wales soon after coming to power. However, historians tell us that the pair did not always see eye-to-eye.
At first, the younger Henry was eager to prove himself, and he got his chance three years later in Wales. The rebel Owain Glyndŵr had been mustering forces against the king, and Henry joined his father on the battlefield. In the end, the crown succeeded in suppressing the uprising – although the prince sustained a near-fatal injury from an arrow in the process.
Back at court, the prince began to take a more active role in politics. However, he often disagreed with his father over matters of foreign affairs. Ultimately, in 1411 Henry IV dismissed his son from government – an arrangement that continued until his death two years later. Consequently, the young man was crowned King Henry V that April.
From the beginning, Henry V’s actions painted him as a somewhat contradictory king. At times, he took steps to be peaceful and reconciliatory. For example, he arranged for Richard II’s body to be respectfully reinterred and reinstated his father’s former enemies to power. But he could also be ruthless with those who he perceived to be a threat to his reign.
In 1414 just such a threat appeared in the form of the Lollard movement – an early group pushing for the reformation of Christianity. And three years later, Henry executed their leader Sir John Oldcastle – despite the fact that the men had once been firm friends. However, the king’s domestic troubles were nothing compared to what was happening abroad.
According to historians, Henry, like many British monarchs, believed that the lands of France were rightly his to rule. And with the French king Charles VI descending into madness, the time must have seemed ripe to make a move. So, in August 1415 the monarch led his men across the channel – capturing the fortress of Harfleur.
Buoyed by his success, Henry went against the wishes of his advisors and led his army overland to Calais. But he was intercepted by Charles’ forces before he could reach the coastal city. What followed was a brutal battle between the two sides, and it was one that it seemed the English king was unlikely to win.
Close to the French village of Agincourt, Henry and his men faced up to an army which vastly outnumbered their own. In fact, some accounts have put the difference at as many as 25,000 fighters. However, other estimates suggest that Charles’ forces were only greater than his opponent’s by some 3,000 or so.
Despite grim odds, however, Henry emerged victorious – although different tales have been told regarding the secret to his success. One belief is that the battlefield was treacherously muddy, and the advancing French soldiers soon became stuck. There, they became prime targets for a bloody slaughter that left some 6,000 of Charles’ men dead.
Henry returned home a hero after the Battle of Agincourt. But it was not long before he turned his attention to the lands across the channel once more. In 1417 he launched an aggressive attack on France – ultimately defeating Charles once and for all. Subsequently, in May 1420 the Treaty of Troyes officially recognized the English king as the heir to the French throne.
Now set to be King of France after Charles’ death, Henry cemented his power with a marriage to the French princess Catherine of Valois. But while his wife was in England giving birth to their son, the monarch remained in her homeland – stamping out the last vestiges of rebellion. Ultimately, however, he would not live to reap the rewards of his tireless campaign.
In August 1422 Henry passed away in a chateau near Paris. And although his cause of death is a matter of some debate, many believe that it was dysentery – contracted during his final campaign. With his father dead, the infant Henry VI became king at just nine months old.
After Henry’s death, Catherine remarried a Sir Owen Tudor and kickstarted a dynasty that would ultimately become one of the most powerful in England. But what about the legacy that her first husband left behind? Well, he is today remembered as one of the heroes of the Hundred Years’ War thanks to his victory at Agincourt. However, there was more to this monarch than meets the eye.
Some 170 years after Henry’s death, the playwright William Shakespeare began working on a group of plays that would become known as the Henriad. Including the three works Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V, this series plots the rise of the young prince from hedonist to troubled king.
Sometimes, the Henriad is also said to contain the play Richard II – as well as Shakespeare’s later works dramatizing the reigns of successive kings. But whichever definition one takes, it is clear that the Elizabethan writer meant to depict Henry as a great hero. And despite the fact that much of these works are fiction, they have come to define how the monarch is seen today.
For example, while the real Henry undoubtedly fought with his father, there is little evidence to suggest that the disagreement went beyond politics. But in Shakespeare’s plays, the rift is painted as a far more poetic showdown. In Henry IV, this reaches a peak when the future king – dubbed Prince Hal – is shown stealing the crown from his sleeping father.
Later in the play, however, the prince and his father reconcile. And on his deathbed, Henry IV happily hands the crown of England over to his son. According to Shakespeare, it is the start of a largely successful reign. And while the playwright did not gloss over the perils of war, Henry V ultimately serves as a patriotic love letter to the king.
Nevertheless, the Henry depicted by Shakespeare was certainly not perfect by any means. Throughout Henry IV, for example, a character known as Sir John Falstaff provides the grim story with much-needed comic relief. However, towards the end of the final act the king renounces his old friend – who eventually dies off-stage.
Despite these flaws, however, Shakespeare’s Henry is ultimately depicted as the hero who led England to victory at Agincourt. And over the years, it’s a story that has replayed time and again in countless adaptations. Now, Timothee Chalamet has stepped into the shoes of the titular king – perpetuating this version of events well into the 21st century.
On the surface, The King is another adaptation of the Henriad – dealing with Henry’s journey from childhood to the battlefield. However, director David Michôd has taken quite a few liberties with the source material and has depicted his protagonist as an even more conflicted soul.
In both Shakespeare and Michôd’s versions, for example, Henry is introduced as a hedonistic young man immersed in the wilder pleasures of London. However, The King seeks to add a deeper level to the future monarch’s misspent youth. According to this adaptation, the prince’s actions are done as an act of rebellion against his father’s war-mongering ways.
In fact, the Henry played by Chalamet is something of a pacifist. And while the movie does not shy away from depicting him in the throes of war, it also shows him as reluctant to join the conflict at first. Similarly, Michôd’s monarch also takes a far softer approach when it comes to his old friend Falstaff.
Although The King still shows the deterioration of the relationship between Henry and Falstaff, the two men ultimately reconcile. In fact, while Shakespeare kills off his comic relief before the start of Henry V, Michôd’s Falstaff remains a main character throughout the movie. And when his friend meets a bloody fate, Henry clearly mourns his passing.
However, the Henry depicted in The King is not always a softer and more emotional man. In the scene where his father dies, for example, there is no last-minute reconciliation. Instead, the prince lashes out at the king during his final hours – looking on in silence as he takes his final breaths.
But while the character of Henry varies slightly between adaptations, it seems, most of these iterations are cut from the same cloth. So just how accurate is this tale of a reformed prince who goes on to become one of England’s biggest heroes? According to historians, this is only part of the story, and the truth paints a very different picture of the war-hungry king.
But The King doesn’t just leave out vast chunks of Henry’s life – it also wildly misrepresents a number of historical events. For example, the hedonistic youth depicted by Shakespeare and faithfully reproduced by Michôd is part of the monarch’s legend. However, there is little evidence to suggest that it actually took place.
According to some scholars, the image of Henry as a playboy perpetuated by Shakespeare – and by Michôd in turn – is likely little more than a myth. In fact, it has been pointed out that the young prince actually had a record of being very active in his father’s affairs. But if this is the case, then why does history remember him as a cad?
Apparently, this misrepresentation of Henry could have something to do with the way in which his political enemies depicted him at the time. And interestingly, it is far from the only piece of fiction that has found its way into The King. For example, Sean Harris’ Lord Chief Justice is shown as deceiving the monarch into war. However, these actions appear to have little basis in fact, according to U.K. newspaper The Mirror.
Similarly, the scene in which the Lord Justice’s deceit is revealed – and he is subsequently murdered by the angered monarch – is apparently pure fiction, too. Entire characters, rather than just events, have been altered and invented in order to help the story along. For example, the publication added that the Shakespearean character of Falstaff – who Michôd includes in The King – did not exist in real life.
Historians have confirmed that Henry did have a friend who was involved in the Lollard movement – Sir John Oldcastle, who he’d had executed back in 1417. And in early drafts of Henry V the Falstaff character appears under this name. However, this figure – and Joel Edgerton’s brooding yet loyal friend – eventually bore little resemblance to the man who they were based on.
Another liberty taken by The King, it seems, is its inclusion of the French dauphin Louis on the battlefield at Agincourt. In real life, according to Smithsonianmag.com, the young prince was not present for the conflict that would decide his family’s future. In fact, just a few months later, he succumbed to dysentery – missing out on the humiliation of being ousted from the line of succession.
But while all of this points to several historical inaccuracies in the plot of The King, there is also a darker side to the Netflix adaptation. Christophe Gilliot of the Agincourt museum argued that Henry was nothing short of a war criminal. Moreover, he claimed that the new movie is guilty of perpetuating a damaging, anti-French narrative in turbulent times.
“I’m outraged,” Gilliot told The Telegraph in November 2019. “The image of the French is really sullied. The film has Francophobe tendencies. The British far-right are going to lap this up, it will flatter nationalist egos over there.” Moreover, he argued that Henry was a far more brutal and vicious man than The King would have us believe.
According to Gilliot, Henry presided over a band of soldiers who spent their time “raping and pillaging” across France. However, that somewhat unsavory tendency failed to make it into the final cut. Moreover, he claims that the movie does not focus enough on the king’s brutal execution of prisoners even after the battle was over.
Finally, there is one more dark truth about Henry’s life that did not make it into The King. After Agincourt and his marriage to Catherine, the monarch returned to the battlefield and ultimately spent his final days there. But rather than a hero’s death, he perished of supposed dysentery – a gruesome end for the man who had conquered France.
Critics have responded to The King with mixed reviews since its release in 2019. And while some have lauded the movie as a historical epic, others have panned its slow pacing and relentless gloom. Meanwhile, Gilliot is worried about the legacy that it will leave behind. He told The Telegraph, “The public will always prefer a film to a history book. But here there are people under this earth, people who really died in this battle, that’s what disturbs me the most.”