December is a tale of two English kings named Henry marching into Paris. The more familiar one has Henry V entering the city on 1 December 1420 as a foe and conqueror. His road to the French capital is best described by the words Shakespeare put in his mouth: ‘The gates of mercy shall be all shut up, and the fleshed 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.’
Then there was his four-times great-grandfather Henry III, who arrived in Paris as a guest of King Louis IX on this day of 9 December in 1254. The inhabitants of the city flocked to see them and their queens (who were sisters) as they rode through the city together. The friendship that ensued between Henry and Louis was one of the great political achievements of the Middle Ages. No one thought then of any band of brothers mowing down virgins.
Both Henry III and V were very pious men, but the one who believed in mercy and forgiveness died in his bed an old man, the throne secure for his son Edward I. The one who believed in war and conquest had a gut-wrenching, squalid death in a field tent, with only a flowering infant to succeed him.