King Henry called a break in the business of his court and addressed the assembled courtiers.
‘My lords, leave us now. The Prince of Wales and I have to talk in private. Stay nearby, though, because we’ll need you in a while.’
Prince Hal stood before his father’s throne, his head bowed. The King sighed deeply and shook his head.
‘I don’t know whether God is punishing me because I’ve done something so displeasing to him that he would breed his revenge out of my own blood, but your way of living makes me think that your only purpose in life is to be the scourge and instrument of heaven to punish me for my transgressions. If not, how could such inappropriate and low tastes – such base, such shallow, such lewd, such unworthy pursuits, such empty pleasures, such uncouth companions as you associate with and are so close to – be appropriate to the greatness of your breeding and your royal position?’
‘With respect to your majesty, I wish I could dispose of all offences as easily as I am sure I can of many of those I’m accused of,’ Hal said. ‘But let me beg this dispensation: that in disproving many of the false stories that often reach the ear of a great man through hypocritical sycophants and grubby gossip-mongers, I may be forgiven for some of the things I have actually done as a result of my wayward youth if I own up to them honestly.’
‘God pardon you!’ the King exclaimed, relieved at receiving such a reply. ‘But allow me to be astonished, Harry, at your tastes, which are a complete departure from those of your ancestors. You’ve forfeited your place on the Council and been replaced by your younger brother. And you’ve alienated yourself from both the court and our family. The hope and expectations that people had of you have been destroyed and everyone is sincerely convinced that you’re going to have a fall. If I had put myself about so lavishly, made myself such a common sight, so familiar and accessible to vulgar company, public opinion, that helped me to the crown, would have remained loyal to the incumbent king and I would have remained in obscure exile, a person of no distinction or prospects. By being rarely seen I couldn’t go anywhere without being like a comet – the object of everyone’s curiosity – so that men would tell their children, ‘That’s him!’ Others would say, ‘Where? Which one is Bolingbroke?’ So I became a godlike presence and, with the humility I affected, I stole the hearts of men, and was met with loud cheering and greetings, even in the presence of the legitimate King. By doing that I kept myself fresh and new. My appearance was like a papal robe – always a matter of awe. So my presence, rare but lavish, was presented like a banquet – special because of its rarity.
‘The frivolous King, mincing up and down with empty jesters and the kind of intellects that flare up fast and are extinguished just as quickly, undermined his position: he mingled his royalty with prancing idiots, allowing his royal title to be demeaned by their scornfulness, and tolerating, in the most unroyal way, the most disrespectful jibes from anyone and everyone. He even allowed insolence from youngsters who couldn’t yet grow beards. He became habituated to frequenting the public streets and enslaved himself to popularity-seeking so that, seeing him every day, people reacted as though gorging themselves on honey and eventually hating the very taste of anything sweet, too much of something nice being unpalatable. So that when he appeared on important occasions he was like a cuckoo in June, heard but not taken notice of. He was seen but with eyes so dulled with familiarity that they failed to light up as they should when gazing on sun-like majesty that shines in admiring eyes only on a few occasions. Instead, they were drowsy, with hooded eyelids, slept, indeed, in his presence, looking like reluctant soldiers facing their enemy, being so stuffed, gorged and filled by his presence. And, Harry, that’s your situation because you’ve lost your royal authority by associating with low company. Everyone is sick of the sight of you except I, who have wanted to see more of you. My eyes, in spite of my not wanting them to be, are blinded by foolish tears.’
The Prince went down on his knees in front of his weeping father. ‘From now on, my most gracious lord, I will behave more in keeping with my position,’ he said.
‘You are exactly like Richard was when I landed at Ravenspurgh from France,’ the King continued. ‘And Harry Percy is now just like I was at that time. On my sceptre and my soul, he has more claim to the throne by merit than you have by the flimsy prospect of succession. Because without any legitimate right, or anything close to a right, he’s leading armies into the field, challenging those with the power of lions. The same age as you, he leads elderly lords and reverend bishops into bloody battles and violent engagements. What eternal honour he earned against the renowned Douglas! Douglas, whose great actions and famous war reputation top that of any other soldier throughout all the kingdoms that practice Christianity Three times this Hotspur – a Mars in baby clothes this infant warrior has disconcerted the mighty Douglas. He captured him once then released him and befriended him, recruiting him to add to the voice of defiance that’s trying to shake our throne. So what have you got to say about that? Percy, Northumberland, His Grace the Archbishop of York, Douglas and Mortimer are united against us and they’re mobilised. But why am I telling you this? Why, Harry, am I telling you about my enemies when you are my nearest and dearest enemy? You, who are as likely as not through cowardly fear, instinct and spite, to fight against me in Percy’s pay, following dog-like at his heels and cowering when he frowns, demonstrating how far you’ve fallen!’
Hal sprang up. ‘Don’t ever think that!’ he exclaimed. ‘You won’t find that! And God forgive those who have influenced Your Majesty against me! I intend to put this right at Percy’s expense and at the end of some glorious day of battle I’ll be so bold as to proclaim myself your son, with bloody battle dress and my face a bloody mask. And when I wash the blood off all my shame will be washed away with it. And it will be the day, whenever it comes, when this very child of honour and renown, as you’ve described Hotspur, this universally praised knight and your under-rated Harry happen to meet. I wish that that all the honours sitting on his head were exaggerated and my shames redoubled because the time will come when I will make this northern youth exchange his glorious deeds for my indignities. Percy is working for me, my lord, accumulating glorious deeds on my behalf, but I’m going to call him to such strict account that he will have to declare every one of them – yes, even the smallest he has ever won, or I’ll tear his heart out. I promise that, here, in God’s name, and if it’s His will that I should do it I beg your Majesty to forgive the long-standing wounds of my excesses. If not, death will cancel all debts and I would die a thousand times before I’d break the smallest part of this vow.’
‘By saying that you’ve just condemned a hundred thousand rebels to death,’ the King said. ‘You’ll be given full responsibility and complete trust in this.’
Sir Walter Blunt burst into the council chamber.
‘Well, dear Blunt,’ the King said. ‘You look as though you have urgent business.’
‘I have,’ said Blunt. ‘Lord Mortimer of Scotland has sent word that Douglas and the English rebels met at Shrewsbury on the eleventh of this month. If every committed force turns up they’re as mighty and awesome a power as ever threatened to overthrow a state.’
The King sighed. ‘The Earl of Westmoreland set out today, and with him my son, Lord John of Lancaster: this news is five days old. Harry, next Wednesday you’ll set out and on Thursday we’ll ourself march We’ll meet at Bridgnorth, and you, Harry, will march through Gloucestershire. By my reckoning that will bring us to where we’ll all meet at Bridgnorth in twelve days. There’s a lot to do. Let’s go. Delaying only gives the other side an advantage.’