For Shakespeare’s St. Crispin’s Day Speech

For Shakespeare’s St. Crispin’s Day Speech October 25, 2011

It’s St. Crispin’s Day! Which means it’s time for my favorite speech penned by William Shakespeare. See, the Battle of Agincourt occurred on the Feast of Sts. Crispin and Crispinian, which back before I was Catholic I would only have known this day as October 25th. But I knew about the Battle of Agincourt because it is renowned as an almost miraculous victory of a small English army, a long way from home, over a vastly superior French one (on it’s home turf) on this day in the Year of Our Lord, 1415.

Shakespeare wrote Henry V in 1599, 184 years after the Battle of Agincourt. Think of him writing with the history of the battle being as far removed from him as the battles of the War of 1812 are to us. In John Keegan’s book, The Face of Battle, I read the account of this fight a long time ago. I admit that I glossed over some parts of it, in my quest to get to the facts. King Henry came to get back disputed lands. He crossed the channel on over a thousand ships, landed 10,000 men, lost a third of them to sieges and disease before the battle on this day. A good synopsis of the battle can be found here.

King Henry and his men were tired, hungry, and far from home and supplies. They were exhausted too, as they had marched over 250 miles in 15 continuous days. So when they were cut off by the superior French forces, they needed more than a pep talk. They needed a miracle.

Here is the bard’s St. Crispin Day’s Speech (Act IV, Scene III) as brought to life by Kenneth Branagh,

There is one word for a speech like that: motivating! Keegan writes,

For the English, the presence of the King would also have provided what present-day soldiers call a ‘moral factor’ of great importance. The personal bond between leader and follower lies at the root of all explanation of what does and what does not happen in battle: and that bond is always strongest in martial societies, of which fifteenth century England is one type…though the late medieval soldiers loyalty lay towards his captain, the presence of his own and his captain’s anointed king, visible to all and ostentatiously risking his life in the heart of the melee, must have greatly strengthened his resolve.

Truer words were never written. And isn’t that the example of Our King and Savior as well? The importance of the ‘moral factor’ in the faith of Christians is how often denied by modern detractors of the Faith? But think back to the Apostles, and their resolve in the face of persecution. It was unwavering. Why? Because they were crazy? No, because they had seen God. They had seen Him lead by example all the way to the Cross and on through to the Resurrection.

But back to Agincourt, I read Keegen’s book a long ago, before I was a Catholic. I looked at it again yesterday and this is what leapt out at me:

…however dimly or marginally religious doctrine impinged on the consciousness of the simple soldier or more unthinking knight, the religious preparations which all in the English army underwent before Agincourt must be counted among the most important factors affecting its mood. Henry himself heard Mass three times in succession before the battle, and took Communion, as presumably did most of his followers; there was a small army of priests in the expedition. The soldiers ritually entreated blessing before entering the ranks, going down on their knees, making the sign of the cross, and taking earth into their mouths as a symbolic gesture of the death and burial they were thereby accepting.

I can assure you that when I first read Keegan’s book (written in 1976) way back in 1994, I completely missed that paragraph. I also missed the part where King Henry ordered the killing of prisoners after the battle. Thankfully that unlawful order was not obeyed universally.

Turning back to Henry V, I am left with the hunch that Shakespeare knew how to capture the feeling of England when she was Catholic. Here is the scene after the end of the battle, where the numbers of the dead are accounted for, followed by the singing of the Non nobis Domine,

Shakespeare got his numbers right. About 29 English soldiers died, and a few hundred were wounded. Somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 French soldiers fell. Certainly to the English army, the result was nothing short of a miracle. And the intercessionary prayers of the brother saints Crispin and Crispian are powerful. Indeed, these soldiers could believe it when good king Harry said “God fought for us.”

Interestingly, aside from Agincourt, this Feast Day marks several other famous battles in world history as well: the Battle of Balaklava, during the Crimean War, and the Battle of Leyte Gulf during World War II. Balaklava is famous because of “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” immortalized by the poem of Alfred Lord Tennyson; Leyte Gulf is remembered as the largest naval battle of World War II, if not in world history.

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