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The Filthy and Contagious Clouds of Heady Murder, Spoil, and Villainy

[ 62 ] March 6, 2013 |

A few days ago Ben Wittes posted on the role of Law of Armed Conflict  (LOAC) in Henry V.  I was a bit mystified by the failure to mention the siege of Harfleur, since I think it’s critical to interpretation of Henry’s (and Shakespeare’s) position on the laws of war. To revisit:

How yet resolves the governor of the town?
This is the latest parle we will admit;
Therefore to our best mercy give yourselves;
Or like to men proud of destruction
Defy us to our worst: for, as I am a soldier,
A name that in my thoughts becomes me best,
If I begin the battery once again,
I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur
Till in her ashes she lie buried.
The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,
And the flesh’d soldier, rough and hard of heart,
In liberty of bloody hand shall range
With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass
Your fresh-fair virgins and your flowering infants.
What is it then to me, if impious war,
Array’d in flames like to the prince of fiends,
Do, with his smirch’d complexion, all fell feats
Enlink’d to waste and desolation?
What is’t to me, when you yourselves are cause,
If your pure maidens fall into the hand
Of hot and forcing violation?
What rein can hold licentious wickedness
When down the hill he holds his fierce career?
We may as bootless spend our vain command
Upon the enraged soldiers in their spoil
As send precepts to the leviathan
To come ashore. Therefore, you men of Harfleur,
Take pity of your town and of your people,
Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command;
Whiles yet the cool and temperate wind of grace
O’erblows the filthy and contagious clouds
Of heady murder, spoil and villany.
If not, why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dash’d to the walls,
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry
At Herod’s bloody-hunting slaughtermen.
What say you? will you yield, and this avoid,
Or, guilty in defence, be thus destroy’d?

Here’s your Branagh (can’t find an acceptable excerpt from the Olivier):

I think it’s fair to say that there’s a lotta Yamashita Doctrine stuff going on here.

Hal is using the threat of brutal depredation to in order to coerce the surrender of the city, which continues to have the capacity to resist. However, Henry’s speech is ambivalent with regard to his own responsibility for this destruction; on the one hand he declares that the next attack will result in the destruction of the city and its people. On the other, the claim “whiles yet my soldiers are in my command; whiles yet the cool and temperate wind of grace o’erblows the filthy and contagious clous of heady murder, spoil, and villainy” suggests that the destruction will be the inevitable result of a final assault, regardless of command intent. The complications of evaluating command responsibility for war crimes (and it seems quite clear here that Henry is comfortable in declaring war crimes will be committed as the result of the next assault) were not lost on late medieval/early modern jurists; according to my extensive research (I read the Wikipedia page), one of the first cases to prefigure the “Yamashita Doctrine” took place in 1474. In general terms, there are distinctions between the responsibility of commanders who order war crimes, those who allow war crimes to take place, and those who don’t take sufficient proactive steps to prevent the commission of war crimes (Yamashita himself is a complicated case, falling at best into the third category). I think it’s fair to say that Henry is implicating himself on at least the second and third grounds, and probably on the first.  If you watch carefully, you can almost see Henry’s JAG advisor having an aneurysm during the speech.

Anyway, Henry’s threat to destroy Harfleur provides context for the decision to hang Bardolph, whose crime takes place (in the play) in the immediate aftermath of the conquest of the city. Here’s Henry on Bardolph:

We would have all such offenders so cut off: and we
give express charge, that in our marches through the
country, there be nothing compelled from the
villages, nothing taken but paid for, none of the
French upbraided or abused in disdainful language;
for when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the
gentler gamester is the soonest winner.

To me, this seems more of a political than a legal decision (to the extent we can disaggregate). Henry doesn’t want the France brutalized because he wants France pacified, and in any case I doubt that extant LOAC (or modern LOAC) have much to contribute on abuse through disdainful language. We can gather that Harfleur’s surrender insulates the city from the depredation to which it would have been subjected following an assault. However, it doesn’t seem to me that Henry believes that the extant LOAC provide any broad civilian immunity beyond what is contracted in that specific surrender negotiation; it is unlikely that Bardolph or anyone else would have hanged in the wake of the threatened, destructive final assault against Harfleur. It’s also worth noting that Bardolph is hanged for stealing from a church, which is perhaps too specific an offense to bear the general LOAC weight we want to put on it.

Another thought; the purpose of the hanging of Bardolph isn’t to make an interesting observation about LOAC, or even to clarify Hal’s position with regard to depredations against French civilians in the war zone. Rather, it’s to demonstrate that Hal has fully grown into King Henry V, so much so that he allows the execution of one of his former friends to go forward. We can read Henry’s lack of mercy in a couple of ways. On the one hand, we see that Bardolph earns no reprieve by virtue of his former association with the prince. On the other, it’s not altogether unreasonable to wonder if Henry would have granted mercy if Bardolph had not been Bardolph. Hal’s break with Falstaff was not in any sense pleasant, and we could read King Henry’s decision to proceed with the execution as representative of his break with Prince Hal rather than in any commitment to LOAC. As Ben notes, modern productions tend to handle this scene as filled with pain and regret on Henry’s part, but I tend to think that’s wrong; Bardolph is considerably less likely to receive Henry’s mercy than an anonymous soldier.  I’ve never thought Henry embarrassed by Bardolph, or particularly inclined to shut Bardolph up; rather, the execution of Bardolph demonstrates the full maturity of the King and the fullness of his break with his old life. If you don’t read this scene as “Henry is so serious about protecting his French subjects that he’s willing to execute an old friend,” but rather “Henry takes the opportunity that Bardolph provides to demonstrate to all his seriousness as a monarch,” then the implications for observation of LOAC are somewhat less significant.

See also Laurie Blank. And this, which is awesome.


Comments (62)

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  1. rea says:

    The law of armed conflict is a tad different than it was during Henry V’s day. It’s only much later that there was any expectation that a commander would be able to control his troops to prevent a sack after a successful assault on a fortified city. Compare, for example, Wellington’s troops sacking Bajadoz in 1812. And bear in mind that from Henry V’s point of view, the inhabitants of Harfleur were in rebellion against their lawful feudal lord. Compare Sherman at Atlanta.

    • Barry says:

      “Compare Sherman at Atlanta.”

      The people of which, IIRC, were allowed to evacuate;
      the town itself was destroyed because it was a critical road junction.

      From my casual reading, US forces were very restrained in destruction in that campaign, and looting was only done as necessary.
      (note – there seemed to be a trend towards burning down any plantation manors, but that would have been reasonable).

      • rea says:

        The point, though, was that even centuries later, Sherman felt justified in burning a city in rebellion to the ground.

        • cpinva says:

          if i recall correctly, most of the fires were started in storage facilities, at the orders of the commander of the retreating confederate forces, to deny those supplies to sherman and his troops.

          “The point, though, was that even centuries later, Sherman felt justified in burning a city in rebellion to the ground.”

          not surprisingly, those fires raged out of control, and proceeded to take the rest of the city out as well. of course, this wouldn’t accord with the “brutal sherman” myth, put forth by southern “historians” pretty much ever since. a similar, but not as totally destructive event, occured in richmond, as grant’s army fought its way in.

  2. Ethan says:

    It’s also worth noting that pragmatically these are two sides of the same coin. For the demand for surrender backed up by threat of pillage to be effective, it’s neccessary for the town’s defenders to believe that should they surrender, the pillaging will not take place anyways, and in order to create that belief, Henry has to show that he not only won’t order the pillaging, but will prevent it. That tends to undermine any suggestion that he’s not responsible for the pillaging, because for his offer to be valid, he implicitly has to acknowledge that he’s fully capable of preventing it.

    • John says:

      The implication of the speech is that Henry can control his men if they are entering the town as part of an orderly surrender, but cannot do so if they capture it by storm.

    • rea says:

      They’re not two sides of the same coin, though. The Henry of the play is quite clear, and a few thousand historical examples confirm, that if the commander subjects his troops to the stress of an assault on a fortified city, he will lose control. If the enemy surrenders before the assault, the commander is in a much better position to control the troops.

  3. Lego My Eggo says:

    The final link made slogging through the rest of the post almost worth it. ;)

    In any case, there’s also the argument that Shakespeare wasn’t engaging in philosophizing about the laws and nature of war so much as finding an excuse to work in at least two rape references and several rather graphic descriptions of violence. Audiences loved that shit then just as they do now.

    I think sometimes we give Shakespeare too much credit for lofty themes and not enough for being a brilliant hack.

  4. bexley says:

    The Filthy and Contagious Clouds of Heady Murder, Spoil, and Villainy

    Enough about Leiter already.

  5. Charrua says:

    We must also realize that Shakespeare is probably explaining some of the pillaging, looting, etc. that English forces had done during the 100 Years War and absolving King Henry V of responsability in it. Crimes become the unavoidable result of the enemy refusal to surrender and the monarch does what it can to prevent it. It’s political propaganda as much as history.

  6. ploeg says:

    Not right to say that Bardolph is getting special treatment: he was picked to be hanged even before Pistol lets it be known that Bardolph is the king’s buddy. In the actual play, if memory serves, Bardolph is hanged before the king knows anything about it.

    It is, however, right to say that Bardolph’s hanging has significance beyond the hanging of a common soldier, both in terms of the play (which was to commemorate the emergence of an English hero) and in terms of what a battlefield commander would want to do to maintain order on campaign. It’s not so wrong to feel some regret for having to hang a soldier, and Shakespeare’s text doesn’t entirely preclude regretfulness, but neither does Shakespeare make a big deal out of it.

    • ploeg says:

      Just to correct some errors on my part: Pistol tries to trade on his friendship with Fluellen to get Bardolph off the hook. Bardolph’s relationship with the king doesn’t enter into it, and probably would not have helped in any case (“For if, look you, he were my brother, I would desire the duke to use his good pleasure, and put him to execution; for discipline ought to be used.”).

      Also, according to the script, the king was informed about Bardolph’s impending execution before it happened, so it might have been possible for the king to step in. But it also seems clear that Bardolph was being executed on the Duke of Exeter’s authority and didn’t need the king to know or approve of it beforehand.

    • actor212 says:

      At least in the Branagh version, I always took the hanging of Bardolph to be a vehicle to force Henry to assess himself and his reasons for invading France more closely. I thought this to be the turning point of when Henry goes from a wreckless general to a king.

    • timb says:

      An English hero who, for the first time, spoke English…..forget Agincourt, Shakespeare should have noted that

  7. Theophylact says:

    And, of course Henry commits an actual war crime at Agincourt:

    But, hark! what new alarum is this same?
    The French have reinforced their scatter’d men:
    Then every soldier kill his prisoners:
    Give the word through.

    • In any event, Henry ordered the slaughter of what were perhaps several thousand French prisoners, sparing only the most high ranked—presumably most likely to fetch a large ransom.[citation needed] Henry’s fear was that the prisoners would rearm themselves with the weapons strewn about the field, and that the exhausted English would be overwhelmed. Though ruthless, it was arguably justifiable given the situation of the battle; even the French chroniclers do not criticise him for it.[50]. In his study of the battle, John Keegan [51] argued that the main aim was not to actually kill the prisoners but rather to terrorise them into submission. He felt that due to the relatively low number of archers involved in the killing (200), together with the refusal of the captors to help (as they would have lost ransoms) and the sheer difficulty of killing such a large number of prisoners in a short space of time, the actual number killed might not have even reached the hundreds.

    • Decrease Mather says:

      The soldiers had no interest in killing the prisoners, as they could be ransomed for money. And that’s one thing Henry couldn’t control. His soldiers were more merciful, if for rather selfish reasons.

    • timb says:

      In response to a war crime. I always understood the reason (not approved of) of the killing of the prisoners, but that must have been a hard order to enforce. Those prisoners were the petit nobility of France and ransoming them back would have made the petit nobility of England VERY happy.

      It’s not like Henry was Subotai

  8. Decrease Mather says:

    Gotta love the look Branagh gives at the end. Thank god I don’t have to follow through with all that. But is this a modern interpretation or one Shakespeare would have welcomed?

    • Anonymous says:

      Well Branagh’s version is completely sanitized.

      And although I can understand the reasons for excising the “hot & forceful violation” bits, the decision to cut the line “A name that in my thoughts becomes me best” cannot be justified.

  9. actor212 says:

    Doc, it’s a little hard to judge motives and intent from what is essentially a Leni Riefenstahl film (the play, not Branagh, who at least takes a stab at regret and ambivalence). The Olivier film is truer to the feel of the play, as Olivier filmed it in direct response to the Nazi bombings of London.

    Shakespeare wrote the play (1599 or so) as England was battling Spain and into Ireland.

    That he includes Pistol et al from Henry IV speaks to Shakespeare’s willingness to remind us that, despite his appearances, Hal is at heart a rambunctious petty brat, albeit one who has matured a little.

    • ajay says:

      Doc, it’s a little hard to judge motives and intent from what is essentially a Leni Riefenstahl film

      That’s one interpretation, but maybe not the best. Think about the opening of the play. You get the wonderful prologue, comparing Henry to the God of War himself, striding across France with sword in hand, and then what’s the first scene? The two bishops conspiring about how to trick Henry into a war so that he’ll forget about trying to tax the Church. From the very start of the play, it’s made clear: this is a war that’s happening for domestic political reasons.

      Think about the greatest speech in the play, too: the Feast of Crispian. The Chorus explains in the previous scene what’s happening: the English are desperately trying to retreat back to friendly soil and have been cut off. So when Henry says “He that hath no stomach for this fight, let him depart; his passport shall be made…” you have to understand that he’s joking. Imagine a WW2 film about a bomber crew, and as they begin their attack run, flak bursting around them, the pilot says “I’d just like to point out that anyone who isn’t happy with the way this mission is going is at liberty to get out now.”

      Think about how it ends, too. Does it end with Henry beating the arrogant French and marrying the princess? No. It ends with this:

      Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crown’d King,
      Of France and England, did this king succeed;
      Whose state so many had the managing,
      That they lost France and made his England bleed:
      Which oft our stage hath shown; and, for their sake,
      In your fair minds let this acceptance take.

      He’s talking here about the Wars of the Roses – the collapse of England’s overseas empire and the advent of a terrible and lengthy civil war, as seen in four! plays already by the same author. This isn’t a play with a happy ending.

  10. Stag Party Palin says:

    I see we have moved from imaginative interpretations of real war to imaginative interpretations of literature. Or, fucking fiction, how does it work? You’ll go blind, Farley.

  11. Matt McKeon says:

    Great post.

    Henry’s threats to Harfleur, where he claims that the town will be “guilty in defense” of the atrocities Henry’s men will unleash and part and parcel with Henry’s previous evasion of responsibility. He blamed the Dauphin’s insulting tennis balls for starting the war, when he had already determined it, he manipulates the traitors into recommending no mercy, before condemning them to death. In disguise, when his men tell him there’s “few who die well, who die in a battle” and “If these men do not ‘die well’ it will be a black matter for the king that lead them to it,” Henry argues angrily that it is not the king’s responsibility.

    A minute later, alone, he finally acknowledges he own responsibility for the first time, realizes his frantic attempts to be forgiven for the murder of Richard II are meaningless, ending the scene with “the day, and all things, wait for me.”

    • actor212 says:

      Does this description remind you of another petulant child-king, descended from an elder national leader?

      • cpinva says:

        only if, at some point, he takes some responsibility for his own actions.

        “Does this description remind you of another petulant child-king, descended from an elder national leader?”

        since that isn’t likely to occur, no, no it doesn’t.

    • ajay says:

      In disguise, when his men tell him there’s “few who die well, who die in a battle” and “If these men do not ‘die well’ it will be a black matter for the king that lead them to it,” Henry argues angrily that it is not the king’s responsibility.

      All the other points are good, but in context Henry has a point here. It’s clear from the text that dying well, to these soldiers, means dying shriven – not dying painlessly, or at an old age, or whatever. Henry’s not responsible for the state of his men’s souls.

  12. Actually, he says that if they die in the service of the King, they won’t be damned if the cause is unjust:

    Every subject’s duty is the king’s,
    but every subject’s soul is his own.
    Therefore should every soldier in the wars do as every sick man in his bed, wash every mote out of his conscience.
    And dying so, death is to him advantage, or not dying, the time was blessedly lost wherein such preparation was gained

  13. rea says:

    his frantic attempts to be forgiven for the murder of Richard II are meaningless

    He didn’t kill Richard II–his father did, when Henry the future V was only 14 or so.

    • Matt McKeon says:

      Henry V has the throne in the first place because his father had Richard II murdered. In the scene he implores God to “forget the fault” of the murder, that is, not punish Henry V with defeat for the sin of sitting on a stolen throne. He describes his attempts to pay for the crime with prayer and so forth, but then admits that his repentance is not meaningful.

      • John says:

        And remember that he has just executed several lords for the crime of conspiring to put Richard II’s true heir on the throne. The usurpation is a continuing event, not a one time thing.

        • ajay says:

          And remember that he has just executed several lords for the crime of conspiring to put Richard II’s true heir on the throne.

          Really? I thought they’d just been hired by France to kill him…

  14. Another Revolting Medievalist says:

    Whatever Shakespeare is doing thematically, this scene as an example of medieval laws/norms of war at work: if a town surrenders and recognizes its rightful ruler when given the chance, the people keep their property and their lives; once the siege starts, however, it can only end with slaughter, pillage (i.e., exercise of the right to spoils), capture and deportation. The strategic benefits of this approach are obvious, but the underlying moral logic is founded on Biblical law itself (Deut. 20:10-20). The expectation that post-siege violence is terrible, but legitimate, is what gave scenes of siege-related mercy their dramatic weight.

    The medieval standard for “war crimes” is fascinating, confusing, and understudied. In general, medieval laws of war concern ius ad bellum and the obligations among soldiers, commanders, and sovereigns at war (cf. the first treatise on the laws of war,c.). Chivalric codes regulate how elites treat each other, but the hint of an idea of a general protection of non-combatants only emerges during the 100 Years War. Before that, the only protected classes are hostages, diplomats, messengers, extremely beautiful noblewomen, clerics and–sorry Bardolph!–church property.

    • stickler says:

      Precisely. Cities (and castles) under siege faced a pretty stark choice: surrender and hope for mercy, or resist and expect none.

      See the debate about Cromwell’s campaign in Ireland for a similar discussion. Did his troops behave in brutal fashion? Obviously. But was his army’s treatment of Lenthall or Drogheda unusual for the 17th century? Much less clear. (Not that the brutality wouldn’t arouse outrage even if it were “legal” in the strict sense: see the reaction to the sack of Magdeburg in 1631.)

      • Lurker says:

        The sack of Magdeburg aroused outrage because it was not conventional. Usually, large cities were not taken by storm, and Germany, especially, had not seen this happen for a century. We might compare this to carpet-bombing: while carpet-bombing might be, at least by some interpretation of laws of war, and anyway by custom, an acceptable way of warfare, (as evidenced in Vietnam only 40 years ago), the Western population is not accustomed to it as a method of war.

        Sacking Magdeburg was an act of escalation that raised the level of violence to a completely new level. In the modern time, carpet-bombing a European or North-American city to destroy its industrial infrastructure would raise similar feelings.

    • Lurker says:

      Actually, the customs (not really laws) of siege were a bit more detailed. Peter Englund, the Swedish historian, gives the following concepts as valid for 17th century:

      1) It was dishonourable to surrender the city or fort before the enemy had started artillery bombardment. Thus, at least one siege gun shot had to be fired.

      2) The opportunity to surrender was given at least after:
      * First gunshots from the artillery
      * After making a breach in the wall
      * After sacking and conquering the city proper but storming the citadel, if any.

      3) The usual conditions for surrender were that the garrison was allowed to march out with flying colours, drums and bugles sounding and musketeers having musketballs in their mouths, all these to demonstrate that the garrison had its honour intact.

      • ajay says:

        Customs that lasted well into WW2; there are accounts of German garrisons refusing to surrender fortifications (Cherbourg, IIRC) until a single token shot was fired against them.

  15. Peter Hovde says:

    An even more explicit disavowal of command responsibility for the threatened carnage:

    “What rein can hold licentious wickedness
    When down the hill he holds his fierce career?
    We may as bootless spend our vain command
    Upon the enraged soldiers in their spoil
    As send precepts to the leviathan
    To come ashore.”

    Shakespearean good cop, bad cop.

  16. […] a welter of political miscues, when the dust settles, history might well remember the episode as “Obama’s Harfleur:” where an announced threat of potentially illegal force catalyzed a better nonviolent result, […]

  17. […] a welter of political miscues, when the dust settles, history might well remember the episode as “Obama’s Harfleur:” where an announced threat of potentially illegal force catalyzed a better nonviolent result, […]

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