Kenilworth’s role as a royal residence meant that it was often at the centre of events of national and even world importance. A classic example is the story of the insulting gift of a barrel of tennis balls sent to Henry V by the Dauphin, Louis of Viennois during a lull in the Hundred Years War. Henry’s reaction to this insult resulted in the build up to the campaign that culminated in the routing of the French at the Battle of Agincourt.
Shakespeare included the tale in his play Henry V, but did these events really take place just as we are led to believe? Brian Jackson takes up the tale in an article first published in Kenilworth History 2000 / 2001:
Episodes in Kenilworth History No.5 – Anyone for Tennis?
King Henry V was fond of Kenilworth. Indeed, after London, Kenilworth – his ‘castellum dilectum de Kenilleworth’ – was the place where he spent a good deal of his time. His manors of Cheylesmore and Plesantmaris were nearby, and as we have seen in the 1996 – 7 edition of ‘Kenilworth History’, to build what we now know as the Pleasaunce he went to a great deal of trouble preparing the ground and draining a noxious marsh.
It is on record that Henry was in Kenilworth in Lent, 1414. He was much preoccupied with his claim to territories in France and the prospect of marriage with the French princess Katherine. Negotiations were not going well. What followed is a widely told anecdote, most generally known, perhaps, as it appears in Shakespeare’s play, ‘King Henry V’: French Ambassadors arrive and present the King with a mocking gift from the Dauphin, Charles, son of the King of France. The ‘gift’ is blatantly insulting – a barrel full of tennis-balls, together with the message that Henry, well known for his irresponsible youth, might be better employed playing tennis than going to war with grown-ups.
Henry, infuriated, returns the message that the only balls he would send back would be cannon-balls. He declares war forthwith, to begin the famous campaign culminating in the battle of Agincourt in October the following year.
So what was the source of this anecdote, and did it really happen? Shakespeare knew a good dramatic situation when he saw one, but his history is not always entirely reliable. Here he seems to be on well-established ground, taking it straight from the 16th century historical compilation of Raphael Holinshed, who clearly held it as fact, deriving it at several removes from an obscure chronicler known as Otterbourne, who locates it in Kenilworth.
The better known Thomas Elmham, a royal chaplain who was present at the battle of Agincourt, and who died in 1428, tells it as brief plain tale in his chronicle, ‘Liber Metricus’. Elmham firmly puts Henry at Kenilworth on Quadragesima (first Sunday in Lent) 1414, which that year fell on March 12. On the following day negotiations in France came to nothing and Henry’s envoys promptly returned. The tennis balls story follows. Elmham tells us that the Dauphin wrote to Henry extremely mockingly (verba jocosa nimis) and sent him tennis balls from Paris (Parisias pitas misit), which would suit him nicely for the childish games he enjoyed. Henry wrote back promising cannon balls from London that would shatter the roofs of the French and win the match.
But the main authority, John Strecche, a Canon of Kenilworth Priory who became Prior of Brooke, the small Rutland Cell of Kenilworth Priory in 1407 and retired in 1426, tells a much more circumstantial tale. He was something of an anecdotal historian, fond of many a colourful incident, but he was writing about roughly contemporary events, and was on the spot, with an ear cocked for gossip from the Castle.
Elmham and Strecche do not appear to have collaborated. The latter’s tale, indeed, contains subtle differences from Elmham’s, and it is worth quoting more fully. He gives some account of the failure of the negotiations with the French over Henry’s proposed marriage (pro matrimonio inter Henricum regem Angelorum et nobilem dominam Katerinam regis francorum filiam) and how they fell short of what the king could honourably accept. He is much more specific about what followed: “These French, blinded by their own arrogance, and careless of the dreadful consequences, vomited forth words of venom (verbis fellis eructantes) to the English envoys.” Then comes the significant difference. The French told the departing English delegation that because Henry was young they WOULD send him tennis balls to play with, and (a nice addition) some soft pillows (pulvinaria mollia) to sleep on to help him grow to manly strength. Interestingly enough, in an early drama, ‘The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth’, which some critics believe to have been a practice run by Shakespeare, these pillows have become a carpet.
When these insults were reported to the king, says Strecche, he was greatly moved: “With words brief, well-chosen, and graceful in form, this is what he said: If God wills, and if I have life and health, within a few short months, I shall play such games with my cannon balls within their streets that the French will curse their mockery, and pay for their wit with tears and lamentations. And if they thought to lie abed with soft pillows, then I, perhaps, before they might have wished it, shall beat on their doors at dawn and rouse them from their dreams.”
Which has a fine patriotic ring, both in the Latin and in translation. This may well be the heart of the matter. In fact, the French ambassadors in Shakespeare’s play did not arrive in England until July, in a late and conciliatory attempt to restart negotiations, certainly without an insulting barrel of tennis balls, when Henry’s preparations for war were well advanced. It is not unlikely that the whole thing had its origins in a discourteous joke among the French negotiators, was brought back by the English envoys, and grew in the telling, to be seized upon by Strecche and other chroniclers as a piece of ‘true’ anti-French propaganda and an opportunity to display the king’s legendary oratory. Myth? Or fact? Either way the tale is a Kenilworth tale, and a Kenilworth Canon was there when it began.
King Henry V William Shakespeare
The Famous Victories of Henry V Author unknown, poss. early Shakespeare
Chronicles Ralph Holinshed
Liber Metricus Thomas Elmham
Historia Regum Angliae Book V John Strecche
Henry V and the Invasion of France E. P. Jacob, E.U.P. 1947
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