Study Guide

Henry V Salic Law

By William Shakespeare

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Salic Law

At the beginning of the play, there's a whole lot of talk about Salic Law. It seems like it's always "Salic Law this" and "Salic Law that." We have to admit that all this Salic Law talk can be pretty confusing. The first time it comes up, Canterbury says that the French have been using it as an excuse to prevent English kings from inheriting the French crown (1.2). Okay. Fine.

What exactly is the Salic Law and what the heck does it have to do with whether or not Henry has a right to rule France? Well, Salic Law is just the name of a French rule that prevented men from inheriting the crown through a female line. In other words, if a king had a daughter, she couldn't inherit the throne and her sons and grandsons couldn't inherit it either. Sounds simple enough, right?

Why does Canterbury take this very basic concept and twist it into a messy, complicated explanation (over 60 lines long!) about why Henry should get to rule France in Act 1, Scene 2? Don't worry, Shmoopsters, we've taken a look at Canterbury's lengthy speech and broken it down.

According to Canterbury, the Salic Law doesn't actually hold any water because a boatload of French kings have inherited the crown through their mothers. Plus, says Canterbury, the original authors of the Salic Law said that it should only apply to Germany, not France. Therefore, Canterbury argues, King Henry V has a legal right to rule France because his great-great-grandmother (Isabel) was the daughter of the French King Phillip IV. (Isabel married Edward II of England and had a son, Edward III, who also tried to lay claim to the French crown.)

If you're baffled by this lengthy justification, then you're not alone. Canterbury's tedious explanation isn't necessarily a good enough reason for Henry to claim the French throne, which is probably why he makes the argument sound more complicated than it is. Shakespeare's point? Henry's motives for invading a foreign country are pretty suspect.

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