Shakespeare’s Sources – Henry IV – part one

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Henry claims the throne - 1399

Like most of Shakespeare’s plays, Henry IV has a number of different sources including  Holinshed’s Chronicles, Samuel Daniels’ The civil war between the houses of York and Lancaster and Machiavelli’s The Prince. But in this blog I am going to take a quick look at the idea of crusade and penance.

At the very beginning of Henry IV, the king is bought news of unrest in wales and Scotland and he says with what seems like minimal disappointment:

It seems then that the tidings of this broil
Brake off our business for the Holy Land.

If you have not just finished Richard II you might be puzzled by the King’s business in the Holy Land, but a glance back at the ending of Richard II provides the answer. Where Henry, feeling (not very) guilty for being the indirect cause of Richard’s death says:

I’ll make a voyage to the Holy Land,
To wash this blood off from my guilty hand.

Interestingly in Holinshed Henry did not make that pilgrimage until the end of his reign and then his reasons were rather more political (as usual I have modernised the spelling in this extract from Holinshed.

In this fourteenth and last year of king Henries reign, the king was to have made journey against the Infidels. a council was held in the white friars in London, at the which, among other things, order was taken for ships and gallies to be built and made ready, and all other things necessary to be provided for a voyage which he meant to make into the holy land, there to recover the city of Jerusalem from the Infidels. For it grieved  him to consider the great malice of Christian princes, that were bent vpon a mischievous purpose to destroy one another, to the peril of their own souls, rather than to make war against the enemies of the Christian faith, as in conscience (it seemed to him) they were bound.

So interestingly Henry’s idea of a trip to the Holy land in penance for his guilt or (lack of it) was something of Shakespeare’s invention. An interesting little detail that helps to shape the character of King Henry IV whether we choose to see the guilt or cynically to see through it.

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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT

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