Friday, October 25, 2013
OCTOBER 25 = Henry V and St. Crispian's Day
"Agincourt is one of the most instantly and vividly visualized of all epic passages in English history, and one of the most satisfactory to contemplate. It is a victory of the weak over the strong, of the common soldier over the mounted knight, of resolution over bombast, of the desperate, cornered and far from home over the proprietorial and cocksure.....It is a school outing to the Old Vic, Shakespeare is fun..... Laurence Olivier in armour battle; it is an episode to quicken the interest of any schoolboy ever bored by a history lesson, a set-piece demonstration of English moral superiority and a cherished ingredient of a fading national myth. It is also a story of slaughter-yard behavior, and of outright atrocity."
- John Keegan.
With this flowery, but ultimately realistic language, historian John Keegan begins his chapter on Henry V (pictured above) and the Battle of Agincourt in his book "the Face of Battle". Keegan's words are well chosen. For while this battle, which took place on this date in the year 1415 has taken its place in the pantheon of English literature, it was in reality a very brutal and bloody affair. The battle was reported by chroniclers: eye-witnesses to, or reporters of events as gathered in the first hand accounts of participants. And in this case, not only did the victors write the history, but they had the very great fortune of having it immortalized into verse by the greatest dramatist ever to write in their (or any) language. And it was then turned into a couple of movies.... immortality, here we come!!
Why Was Henry V in France?
This battle (Pictured, below in a 15'th Century French miniature), named "Agincourt" after the nearest castle to the battlefield, took place at the end of a long and difficult march for the English army
Henry's Bedraggled Army Faces France's Magnificent Knights
Facing them across a field of some one thousand yards between two wooded areas was a French Army which was likely five or six times their number, about thirty thousand men. And these were made up mostly of "men at arms"- French cavalry, resplendently
The Battlefield of Agincourt
Beginning at day break, the armies surveyed each other for some four hours. Henry likely was hoping that the French would attack first. But when they didn't, Henry sent his army forward, to about
The French Knights Charge!!
Just as Henry hoped, this goaded the French into sending their first line forward in a ferocious cavalry charge straight for the English noblemen, disregarding the low-life archers amongst them. The English archers each carried a sheaf or two which had about twenty four arrows, of which they were able to launch one every ten seconds. The French knights in their armor were well
The English Make Short Work of the French
Upon seeing this slaughter taking place in front of them, subsequent waves of cavalrymen turned to retreat which sent them straight into waves of foot soldiers trudging forward across the muddy fields to follow up the cavalry. Confusion and panic set in. The Frenchmen and horses at the rear could not see what was happening at the front as they flailed about in the mud. Keegan paints a picture of a three pronged, trident-like formation of attack in which those at the fore of the assault had little room to maneuver on the narrow front, but were being pushed forward into the English foot soldiers by the press of all the confusion
Shakespeare Makes the Battle Into a Legend
These facts of smashing a large French force by a much smaller English army would seem to guarantee immortality for the struggle. And indeed it was well remembered by a nation who would continue to see and fight the French as their natural enemies for nearly five centuries after. But Henry V himself would die of a sudden illness merely seven years later at the young age of 35. His successors, who possessed none of his strength either of character or conviction, would lose his hard-won gains in France. Nevertheless in the hands of William Shakespeare, writing over 180 years later, the battle achieved mythic status. And this has been imprinted into the memories of countless theater goers, as well as cinema fans in film versions of Shakespeare's play by Sir Laurence Olivier in 1944, and by Kenneth Brannagh in 1989.
one of the most stirring speeches ever written:
(Click on the highlighted words to see a video of the speech)
"This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.*
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian.'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispian's day.'
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day."
- "Henry V", Act 4, Scene 3.
* = Saints Crispin and Crispinian are the Christian patron saints of cobblers, tanners, and leather workers. Born to a noble Roman family in the 3rd century AD, Saints Crispin and Crispinian, twin brothers, were executed by Rictus Varus, the governor of Belgic Gaul, in 286. The feast day of Saints Crispin and Crispinian is celebrated on October 25. In Shakespeare, Crispinian's name is spelled Crispian, which likely conformed to Elizabethan pronunciation, and also fit Shakespeares'
Iambic pentameter form.
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- John Keegan
Barnes & Noble Inc. / Viking Penguin Inc., 1993, pp. 79 - 115.
Edited by Mark C. Carnes
Henry Holt & Co., Inc., New York, 1995, pp. 48 - 53.