Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Shakespeare's Henry V's Prayers for Richard II

In Shakespeare's historical play Henry V, the king leaves his headquarters to mingle with his soldiers on the eve of the battle of Agincourt. After some discussion of the relationship between the justice of the king's cause and his subject's responsibility for doing the right thing, Henry V reflects upon his father Henry IV's role in the death of the deposed Richard II.

Richard II died in Pontefract Castle--probably of starvation--on February 14, 1400 (the usually accepted date). He had surrendered to Henry IV at Flint Castle on August 19, 1399, on promises that his life would be spared. He was held in the Tower of London and abdicated on September 30 that year. Parliament formally deposed him on October 1 and Henry IV was crowned on October 13. Richard was moved to Pontefract Castle. After the discovery of the Epiphany Plot, in which several noblemen planned to kidnap Henry IV at Windsor on Epiphany (January 6, 1400), kill him, and restore Richard II to the throne. Richard was not allowed to remain alive, a target for conspiracy--Mary, Queen of Scots' situation during Elizabeth I's reign comes to mind--even though he might have known nothing of the plot, which also called the Revolt of the Three Earls.

In terms that defied the Church of England's rejection of the doctrine of Purgatory and the practice of prayer for the dead, Henry V describes how he has tried to demonstrate his repentance for the death of Richard at the hands of his father. He has founded chantries, those chapels set aside for praying the dead, which had be suppressed by Edward VI; he has paid poor men and women, as Henry VIII had done in his will, to pray. He prays and promises to do more:

O God of battles! steel my soldiers' hearts;
Possess them not with fear; take from them now
The sense of reckoning, if the opposed numbers
Pluck their hearts from them. Not to-day, O Lord,
O, not to-day, think not upon the fault
My father made in compassing the crown!
I Richard's body have interred anew;
And on it have bestow'd more contrite tears
Than from it issued forced drops of blood:
Five hundred poor I have in yearly pay,
Who twice a-day their wither'd hands hold up
Toward heaven, to pardon blood; and I have built
Two chantries, where the sad and solemn priests
Sing still for Richard's soul. More will I do;
Though all that I can do is nothing worth,
Since that my penitence comes after all,
Imploring pardon.

I've always wondered how post-Reformation audiences responded to these words? Henry offers these prayers not for his father's sins, but for Richard II's soul. Henry V's repentance for his father's sins recalls Catholic teaching and piety and would have reminded them that at one time--not so long ago--English kings and queens were Catholics, as the gloriously gorgeous Wilton Diptych attests.

The word chantry might have reminded some in the audience of the celebration of the Catholic Mass, which of course had been declared illegal. It might have reminded them of ordained Catholic priests, who were now traitors, hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn. Recusant Catholics or Church Papists in the audience would have definitely known what Shakespeare was describing.

Happy St. Valentine's Day! Best wishes for a holy and spiritually beneficial Ash Wednesday and Lent! I'll be on the Son Rise Morning Show Friday morning to continue my discussion with Anna Mitchell on Hilaire Belloc's Characters of the Reformation--preview to come tomorrow!

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