the guardian Fri 01 October 2010
Shakespeare made Henry V a lot more charismatic and cheerful than he actually was, Ian Mortimer argues in this revisionist biographical history. The medieval warrior king was, in fact, a dour "militant Catholic fundamentalist . . . a deeply flawed individual . . . capable of great cruelty". Henry also avoided (perhaps feared) women, plunged the crown into debt and was a poor military strategist. Mortimer's ambitious "experiment in historical form" covers a whole year in Henry's life, day by day. It's an exhaustive and, at times, exhausting approach that immerses the reader in the heady drama and the dull routine of a 15th-century king's life. Mortimer is critical of the massacre at Agincourt, when, panicked by the prospect of an imminent second French attack, Henry ordered his men to cut the throats of all prisoners not of royal blood. Unconvinced of any danger, the English reluctantly obeyed orders, yet Henry had other options, Mortimer says, and his decision was not only unjustified but "ungodly" and against the law of chivalry.