Wayward princes coming of age: Henry V

A print of two men shaking hands. On the left is the Prince of Wales; he wears fashionable 1780s costume, including a tailcoat, tight breeches, knee-high boots, a prominent cravat and a bicorn hat. He holds a riding crop in one hand, tucked behind his back. On the right is Charles James Fox, dressed as Falstaff. He is bearded and very fat, and wears a slashed doublet, hose, wide boots, a cloak, a ruff, and a high-crowned hat adorned with two feathers. Below, the title ‘Falstaff & His Prince’ is printed in capitals, and dialogue is printed in small italic letters to either side. The Prince says 'There is a Gentlewoman in this Town, her name is [blank],’ (the name is censored). Falstaff replies (quoting from The Merry Wives of Windsor): ‘Master George I will first make bold with your Money next give me your hand & last as I am a Gent[leman], you shall if you will Enjoy [blank’s] Wife.’

Though destined for kingship, the Prince of Wales has no formal role in affairs of state. Some historic princes have devoted themselves to leisure; others have been figureheads for opposition to the reigning monarch. Inevitably, a prince’s behaviour prompts questions about how he will rule.

These ideas are familiar from Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, which depict Prince Hal as the boon companion of the dissolute Sir John Falstaff. Eighteenth-century satirists made the most of the comparison with their own Prince of Wales, George, and his friendship with the Whig politician Charles James Fox (1749-1806).

However, Shakespeare’s Henry V suggests that a rakish Prince of Wales can become a heroic monarch, by showing Hal’s military glory at Agincourt. As a result, many Princes of Wales have actively sought the comparison.

In 1944, a wartime screening of Laurence Olivier’s Henry V proposed a connection between Henry V and George VI and, as recently as 2018, the current Prince of Wales, Charles, observed that ‘you only have to look at […] Henry V [...], to see the change that can take place’.

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