Medieval Armory - Henry V helm, saddle, shield

The Arms and Armour of Death

Anne Curry on three iconic objects from the tomb of Henry V at Westminster Abbey

I feel I have lived with Henry V for most of my life. Well, ever since my history degree at Manchester at least. But my interest has been in the living Henry, victor at the battle of Agincourt in 1415 and conqueror of Normandy 1417-19, and the English king who was officially accepted by the French as rightful heir to their throne. What about the dead Henry?

As part of the 600th anniversary of Agincourt in 2015 Westminster Abbey began a new study of some remarkable objects in its collection – a helm, a saddle and a shield collectively known as Henry’s ‘funeral achievements’. For many years the original objects had hung above his tomb in the Abbey before being replaced with replicas and the originals being moved into the abbey museum. You can see them now in the splendid Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries in the Triforium. Many stories developed around them – might the helm be the one actually worn by the king at Agincourt? – and a sword being added in as potentially belonging to the king. What better to commemorate this famous king than to apply modern scientific techniques to the investigation of these iconic objects?

For me the special moment has to be seeing the images produced when the objects were placed into a CT scanner. For the first time we were able to look inside the saddle and see how it had been constructed, and see the makers marks on the sword in high resolution. But coming in a close second for me were the results of chemical tests of the medieval paint on the shield. It was almost as though I could smell the original paint.

This book is a clear manifestation of the value of team work in pushing forward the frontiers of knowledge. Scientific experts worked alongside documentary and architectural historians and object specialists, coordinated by Susan Jenkins, Curator at the Abbey, and myself. We were able to date the objects with greater certainty. The sword turned out to be later than 1422 and more likely linked to another Henry, VII of that name.

We could also see the immense skill involved in the construction of the objects, and also in the building of the amazing chantry chapel around Henry’s tomb. That’s where my own interest came into the equation. A close study of the will made as he departed on campaign in 1415 reveals that he already had a distinctive design in mind for his chantry chapel. What we see in the Abbey today is what he had requested. Henry was a substantial donor to the rebuilding of the nave which had been begun by Richard II. I’ve become increasingly convinced that what Henry envisaged for the Abbey was inspired by his desire to honour Richard. Atoning for the usurpation of 1399 went beyond simply having Richard brought from King’s Langley to be buried in the tomb he had commissioned in Westminster Abbey.

We found strong evidence that Henry’s ‘funeral achievements’ were linked to his funeral in the Abbey on 7 November 1422. But that is not to say they were the king’s personal possessions which meant something special to him. To understand why they are in the Abbey we needed to reconstruct the funeral itself. Rituals in royal and noble funerals required many symbolic objects, their military nature reflecting the perceived place in society of the deceased. Objects were not just needed for the ceremony but also as mortuary payments to the church.

We know that there were originally more items which, alas, have not survived. But even with those which still have, we can now appreciate them all the more because of the in-depth study we were able to do for this book. The beautiful images, many specially taken for the book, help tell the remarkable story of the objects as well as of their setting. I also feel that by looking at Henry in death and commemoration, I have a better understanding of Henry alive.

ANNE CURRY is Emeritus Professor of Medieval History at the University of Southampton, and author of many works on the Hundred Years War, particularly on the battle of Agincourt. She also edited the 1422-53 section of the Parliament Rolls of Medieval England.

The Funeral Achievements of Henry V at Westminster Abbey: The Arms and Armour of Death, edited by Anne Curry and Susan Jenkins is out now.

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