The Scar of Henry V

On 21st July 1403, a rebel army led by Sir Henry Percy, known as Harry Hotspur, son of the 1st Earl of Northumberland, gave battle to the forces of King Henry IV. The somewhat beleaguered monarch was supported by his oldest son and heir, Henry of Monmouth, Prince of Wales, who was only 16 years of age. This young man was later to become the legendary king of Agincourt fame, “Hammer of the Gauls” as his tomb inscription lauds him. That sunny day was darkened by clouds of arrows and rang with the screams of the many dying. It may also have defined the future Henry V as we remember him.

The background to the Percy rebellion was a mounting list of grievances that they felt was going unaddressed. They had been loyal to the new regime initially, but went unpaid for their ongoing defence of the troublesome and perilous Scottish border. Harry Hotspur, a famed soldier in his early forties, was dissatisfied that his wife’s brother, Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March was being left to languish as a prisoner of the Welsh rebel leader Owain Glyndwr, his ransom unpaid. Harry and his uncle, Thomas Percy, Earl of Worcester marched south to offer battle to the king on the Welsh border. The two armies met on 21st July at Shrewsbury in fierce fighting that Holinshed recounts lasted three hours.

The Battle of Shrewsbury, 21st July 1503
The Battle of Shrewsbury, 21st July 1403
During one of the many volleys of missiles, Prince Henry was hit in the face by an arrow which embedded itself six inches into his right cheek, probably at a downward angle as the arrow fell. Raphael Holinshed, the Tudor chronicler, recounted that;

“The prince that daie holpe his father like a lustie yoong gentleman: for although he was hurt in the face with an arrow, so that diverse noble men that were about him, would haue conveied him foorth of the field, yet he would not sufler them so to doo, least his departure from amongst his men might happilie have striken some feare into their harts: and so without regard of his hurt, he continued with his men, never ceassed, either to fight where the battell was most hot, or to incourage his men where it seemed most need.”

When the battle was finally over, the Percy force fleeing after Harry Hotspur fell, Prince Henry was rushed to receive treatment. The arrow shaft was removed, but the barbed head was lodged, unreachable and immovable. Eventually, the London surgeon John Bradmore was called to see what he could do. Bradmore’s answer was as revolutionary as it was risky. He later wrote a book entitled Philomena, in which he retold the treatment that he devised;

First, I made small probes from the pith of an elder, well dried and well stitched in purified linen [made to] the length of the wound. These probes were infused with rose honey. And after that, I made larger and longer probes, and so I continued to always enlarge these probes until I had the width and depth of the wound as I wished it. And after the wound was as enlarged and deep enough so that, by my reckoning, the probes reached the bottom of the wound, I prepared anew some little tongs, small and hollow, and with the width of an arrow. A screw ran through the middle of the tongs, whose ends were well rounded both on the inside and outside, and even the end of the screw, which was entered into the middle, was well rounded overall in the way of a screw, so that it should grip better and more strongly.

Bradmore worked away at widening the wound to give himself room to reach the arrow head. Once he could access it, he screwed the thread of his newly invented implement into the arrow head. Next, he tells how “Then by moving it to and fro (with the help of God) I extracted the arrowhead”. The next concern was how to treat the gaping wound in the Prince of Wales’ cheek and prevent a deadly infection from taking hold.

The ingenious surgeon tells how he washed the wound with white wine and wiped the inside of it out with a probe covered with honey, an early antiseptic, barley, flour and flax. Bradmore cleaned the wound in this way for the next twenty days, each day making the probe a little smaller to allow the wound to heal over as it was cleansed. To prevent seizures, a possibility that obviously concerned Bradmore, he applied medicines to the prince’s neck to loosen the muscles.

Bradmore describes this wound as being on Henry’s cheek, “next to his nose on the left side”, though it is generally believed that it was the prince’s right cheek that was hit; Bradmore perhaps referring to his own left. The surgeon’s star was in the ascendant. He was paid 40s for medicines provided to the king’s household in 1403 and granted an annuity of ten marks for his successful treatment of the prince. Later, he was made Searcher of the Port of London in 1408. He was also called upon to treat one William Wyncelowe, the king’s pavilioner, whose suicide attempt left him with a wound to his stomach. Bradmore treated him for eighty days and the man survived. He wrote his book, Philomena, before his death in 1412.

The wound left a physical scar on Henry that he carried for the rest of his life. The only remaining contemporary portrait shows him in profile, his left side facing the viewer. It is likely that this was to avoid displaying his damaged right cheek. For all of his fame as the victor of Agincourt and for forcing himself to be recognised as the rightful heir to the throne of France, this early episode and the physical mark that it left upon the prince is often overlooked. Henry’s apparent desire to hide it may suggest that it was not a mark of battle that he wore with pride. Perhaps he did not want his enemies to be made aware of his mortality and the fact that a stray arrow almost killed him at 16. He needed to appear invincible if he was to inspire fear in the French.

It might also be worth considering the psychological impact of this near-death experience on the young Prince of Wales. It is well known that Henry was something of a tearaway in his youth. Honlinshed reports that when he became king, Henry had a sudden, severe change of attitude; “For whereas aforetime he had made himselfe a companion unto misrulie mates of dissolute order and life, he now banished them all from his presence (but not unrewarded, or else unpreferred) inhibiting them upon a great paine, not once to approch, lodge, or sorourne within ten miles of his court or presence”. It is possible that his experience at Shrewsbury caused him to go off the rails for a while, the brush with death causing him to embrace a life of fun and excess whilst his position afforded him that luxury. By 1407, he was key to his father’s efforts in Wales, so must have curtailed his wild living. Once king, it had to end.

The early trauma may have also informed his more sober role as king. Henry was a renowned soldier, but piety and honour forged a strong moral compass (the execution of prisoners at Agincourt is often cited against this, but it can be understood in its context, if not excused because the threatened French resurgence did not materialise). Henry offered the King of France a single combat duel between himself and the French king’s son, The Dauphin (the king being too infirm for such a trial). It is most likely that Henry did so knowing not only that the Dauphin lacked military experience and courage and so would be forced to decline, dishonouring himself, but also that in the unlikely event of acceptance, Henry would win. However, he told the French king Charles VI that he wished to settle the matter in this manner to avoid “the effusion of blood”. Agincourt was to be the only pitched battle of Henry’s French campaign and he perhaps genuinely wished to avoid them where possible, preferring not to spill the blood of thousands of men.

Henry was also famous during his campaign for his treatment of his men, from whatever social level. He would apparently walk the camp frequently, not only keeping his men on their toes, but conversing with them, offering praise where it was due, criticism when it was warranted and encouragement where it was needed. This approach may have been nurtured by his experience at Shrewsbury. He had learned at a young age that any man present might be the one that would save his life. He should therefore be grateful that each one is there and instil in every man the desire to save their good and gracious king. Shrewsbury may, after some reflection, have created and reinforced his believe that God was on his side.

All of this may be to overstate the impact of the injury Henry sustained at Shrewsbury, but it is compelling to see the horrific injury as sending him off the rails as he realised how narrowly he had escaped death, and to see it at work in his later treatment of his men and his behaviour on campaign.

If nothing else, it explains why we see him only in profile on his left hand side.

King Henry V
King Henry V
Here is a video discussing the removal of the arrow head from Prince Henry’s cheek:

I shall leave you with Holinshed’s Chronicle’s assessment of Henry at the end of its detailing of his reign:

“This Henrie was a king, of life without spot, a prince whome all men loved, and of none disdained, a capteine against whome fortune never frowned, nor mis-chance once spurned, whose people him so severe aiusticer both loved and obeied (and so humane withall) that he left no offense unpunished, nor freendship unrewarded; a terrour to rebels, and suppressour of sedition, his vertues notable, his qualities most praise-worthie.”

“In strength and nimblenesse of bodie from his youth few to him comparable, for in wrestling, leaping, and running, no man wellable to compare. In casting of great iron barres and heavie stones he excelled commonlie all men, never shrinking at cold, nor slothfull for heat; and when he most laboured, his head commonlie uncovered; no more wearie of harnesse than a light cloake, verie valiantlie abiding at needs both hunger and thirst; so manfull of mind as never seene to quinch at a wound, or to smart at the paine; nor to turne his nose from evill savour, nor close his eies from smoke or dust; no man more moderate in eating and drinking, with diet not delicate, but rather more meet for men of warre, than for princes, or tender stomachs. Everie honest person was permitted to come to him, sitting at meale, where either secretlie or openlie to declare his mind. High and weightie causes as well betweene men of warre and other he would gladlie heare, and either determined them himselfe, or else for end committed them to others. He slept verie little, but that verie soundlie, in so much that when his soldiers soong at nights, or minstrels plaied, he then slept fastest; of courage invincible, of purpose unmutable, so wisehardie alwaies, as feare was banisht from him; at everie alarum he first in armor and formost in ordering. In time of warre such was his providence, bountie and hap, as he had true intelligence not onelie what his enimies did, but what they said and intended; of his devises and purposes few, before the thing was at the point to be done, should be made privie.”

“Knowen be it therefore, of person and forme was this prince, rightlie representing his heroicall affects, of stature and proportion tall and manlie, rather leane than grose, somewhat long necked and blacke haired, of countenance amiable, eloquent and grave was his speech, and of great grace and power to persuade: for conclusion, a maiestie was he that both lived died a paterne in princehood, alode-starre in honour, and mirrour of magnificence; the more highlie exalted in his life, the more deepelie lamented at his death, and famous to the world alwaie.”

Matthew Lewis is the author of a brief biography of Richard III, A Glimpse of King Richard III along with a brief overview of the Wars of the Roses, A Glimpse of the Wars of the Roses.


Matt’s has two novels available too; Loyalty, the story of King Richard III’s life, and Honour, which follows Francis, Lord Lovell in the aftermath of Bosworth.


The Richard III Podcast and the Wars of the Roses Podcast can be subscribed to via iTunes or on YouTube


Matt can also be found on Twitter @mattlewisauthor.