By Geoff Hilton
Kenilworth Castle, a Lancastrian fortress, became a palace when John of Gaunt built his magnificent Hall and State Apartments, with a fine kitchen.
King Henry V was especially fond of Kenilworth Castle and his visits are recorded in a chronicle by John Strecche, a canon of nearby Kenilworth Priory. Book Five of his History of England was in effect the first biography of the King and starts with a description of his character and talents.
Strecche was probably writing for his students in the Priory and only one copy of his manuscript exists, or is ever likely to have existed, and is not well known. However, he was uniquely positioned to write about Henry: he would have administered the Sacrament to him in the huge ornate Priory church and he heard interesting stories from the knights returning from the battlefields of Normandy and France, many of these not to be found in other chronicles. The following passages in italic are quotations from the transcription and translation of Strecche’s Latin manuscript.
Their first encounter was when Henry, a boy of sixteen, was severely wounded in the face at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403. An arrowhead was removed by the skill of John Bradmore then, alone of other chroniclers, Strecche says After the Battle he was brought to the Castle of Kenilworth with his injury and there cured by the art of medicine.
Strecche was scathing about the Lollards plotting the death of Henry: Coming across these traitors before they were able to gather, the King took some at dawn, slew them and scattered others…and punished them by binding in chains. On the eve of departure for Normandy: through that anger and consuming spite that destroys so many, certain Lords secretly conspired to kill King Henry. The King quickly discovered the plot in favour of the Earl of March and swiftly condemned the conspirators to be hanged. Strecche records two other narrow shaves: Now great good fortune befell King Henry during the siege of Louviers. He went to the tent of the Earl of Salisbury to converse privately. While he was standing talking by the main tent post, he bent his head and at that moment gunners from within the town shot out a stone which shivered the post where he was standing into splinters. Thanks be to God, the King survived. After the capture, the King hanged eight of the gunners. Following the capitulation of Rouen King Henry purposed to make his devotional offering of a candle at the monastery of Notre Dame. But some citizens, gathering together in deceitful treachery, armed themselves and plotted to kill him. By the Grace of God their plot did not remain hidden and he forestalled their evil design and fell upon them with an armed band.
Early in his reign, Henry sent Ambassadors to the Dauphin of France suggesting marriage between him and Katherine, the daughter of the King of France. Strecche wrote: The French, blinded by their own arrogance and not foreseeing the dreadful consequences, vomited forth words of venom to the Ambassadors. They foolishly said that they would send to Henry King of England, because he was yet young, little balls to play with and soft pillows to sleep on to help him grow to manly strength. When he heard these words, the King was furious and angry beyond measure, yet in brief, well-chosen and becoming words he said to those around him ‘If God wills it, and if I have life and health, within a few months I shall play such games with my cannon balls in the Frenchman’s streets that it shall happen that they curse their mockery and pay for their wit with tears and lamentations. And if they thought to lie abed with soft pillows, then I perchance before they wish shall arouse them from their slumbers by hammering on their doors at dawn.’ (Translation courtesy of Brian Jackson). This incident was taken up other writers and the balls became tennis balls, as in Shakespeare’s play. Curiously Strecche does not say where it took place but his contemporary Thomas Elmham implies it was at Kenilworth when he wrote a poetic description of the Pleasaunce – a wooden castle Henry built at the end of the Great Lake of Kenilworth: ‘In the Castle of Kenilworth the King stays for Lent. There was a fox’s den with brambles and blackthorn: he banished these, cleansed it and evicted the wild animals. He recollects the foxy tricks of the French and how he will make them atone for them. Later, Holinshed says ‘Whilest in the Lente season the Kynge laye at Killingworth Castle…there came to him Ambassadors from Charles… ’
His account of the Battle of Agincourt does not go into strategy and he makes rather wild guesses at the numbers of combatants: his approach is that of a cleric: Against all these, and by the favour of Heaven, the intervention of St George, and Henry’s shrewd choice of battlelines, he overcame the whole French field.
He describes the Royal Progress of the King round England with his new Queen and how he visited Kenilworth and he stayed at his delectable castle of Kenilworth and the manor of the Pleasaunce, which the King himself created out of marshland.
As a good biographer, he was not totally uncritical of his subject. At the siege of Harfleur many thousands of soldiers of the King were plagued by violent sickness and flux, from which many perished: through bad management they had devoured unripe grapes and sundry other fruits. On his return to England a Parliament at Leicester voted taxes of a tenth and a half at his request for his expeditions. From a truly reluctant and frightened people, they further voted a fifteenth and a half.
Strecche finishes his chronicle with a moving elegy, ending If death had come to Henry V armed, in the manner of a soldier, I believe Henry would have been the victor. For this King was never overcome in war but a favoured Victor wherever he stood.
Kenilworth Castle after Henry V
Kenilworth was granted to the Dudley family in the sixteenth century and was extensively remodelled, before reverting to royal control in the early seventeenth century. Kenilworth later became a popular romantic ruin in the eighteenth century and was the setting of Sir Walter Scott’s historical novel Kenilworth, published in 1821. The site is now owned and managed by English Heritage.
This information came from G.M. Hilton., The Deeds of King Henry V Told by John Strecche (Kenilworth: Kenilworth Books, CV8 1JB, 2014); F. Taylor., ‘The Chronicle of John Strecche for the reign of Henry V’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 16 (1932), pp. 137-87; Richard K. Morris., Kenilworth Castle (London: English Heritage, 2012)
Photograph of Kenilworth Castle was taken by Dan Spencer