Book Review: HENRY V by Christopher Allmand

Genre: Non-fiction History
Age Range: Adult
Star Rating: 2.5 stars
Series: Yale English Monarchs


Book cover for HENRY V: title above image of king on

Thanks in part to Shakespeare, Henry V is one of England’s best-known monarchs. The image of the king leading his army against the French, and the great victory at Agincourt, are part of English historical tradition. Yet, though indeed a soldier of exceptional skill, Henry V’s reputation needs to be seen against a broader background of achievement.

This sweepingly majestic book is based on the full range of primary sources and sets the reign in its full European context. Christopher Allmand shows that Henry V not only united the country in war but also provided domestic security, solid government, and a much needed sense of national pride.

Synopsis taken from Goodreads. Add to your shelves here.


This book is a hard one to talk about as I read it in two different ways. At first I was reading it for research purposes and taking copious notes, and then I realised I didn’t need to do so, and switched to just reading it without the constant stopping and starting of notetaking. This is not a book for pleasure, and had gone into with the goal of learning rather than entertainment – which makes the star rating system feel a bit… out of place.

What this book does do is give a comprehensive look at the life of Henry V, going well beyond the wars with France for which he’s most famous for. In fact, that only occupies about a third of the book. The first sixth covers his pre-ascension life, and the final half gives a broad view at his kingship.

I really appreciated the scope, as too often everything is obsessed over the war with France. This is a time when England was involved in the religious politics gripping Europe and the economic life of the country was recovering – as well as England moving forwards in the definition of itself (herself?) as a ‘nation’ on the European stage (and this book does go into the difference between the subtle, complicated, and important distinction of ‘nation’ and ‘kingdom’ in medieval Europe).

The major problem this book faces is in the history – which is an obstacle the author can do little about. Alas, while Henry V’s reign has an obvious narrative thread of the wars in France to occupy a sizeable chunk of the book, it’s not a compelling one (for me, at least). It’s just a series of battles and marches – a war story, without a narrative heart. Unlike the previous biography I read (Henry IV), Henry V’s life doesn’t involve a deep personal struggle between figures, which made the war very uncompelling. He’s not even fighting with Thomas, which at least gave the end of his years as Prince a bit of a narrative kick.

I do realise that this is a bit unfair of me to be bored by the lack of a “narrative heart”, when it’s something Christopher Allamand has no control over. This is the history he has to write about. However, I am primarily a reader of fiction, so am used to an emotional core at the heart of a story. even though this is non-fiction, my love and avid consumption of fiction is going to have an enormous impact on my reading.

I actually found that the latter half of the biography was more interesting, when it was looking holistically at aspects of Henry’s reign, such as his relationship to parliament, as it wasn’t following the war. Reading those sections without taking notes made them far more interesting than I had found the similar sections found in the HENRY IV biography, as I could get a good general impression of the policies. It’s actually making me interested in re-reading HENRY IV, now that all the notes have been taken, to see what impression I get without having to stop and start (hahaha, it’s a massive book and my TBR is ridiculous, so this probably shouldn’t be happening any time soon!)

The prose, though, is pretty bog-standard – rather dry and academic at times, which didn’t help make it an engrossing read. In all, it’s a book to read if you are interested in Henry V’s life, but don’t go into it expecting to be entertained and enthralled – that’s not its purpose.


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