“This day is called the feast of Crispian …”

“He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
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 Crispin’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 remember’d.
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 remember’d;
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 accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”

Shakespeare, Henry V (Act IV, Scene III),

It was on October 25th in 1415 that Henry V of England led his troops to a resounding victory over France at Agincourt, although the English were greatly outnumbered (perhaps 4-1; estimates vary), and fighting on French territory. Making victory even less likely was the fact that his troops were basically on foot, forced to confront armed and mounted knights.

Henry had one important thing on his side – longbows. He had some 5,000 archers and they had plenty of arrows. He also had the ideal setting for his archers to confront the French cavalry. The battlefield was a narrow, muddy opening between two dense forests, basically the worst possible conditions for the French attacks. The mud impeded the French advances, while the dense woodlands made it impossible for the French to create flanking or rear attacks. The terrain basically funneled them into direct charges, straight into hail after hail of English arrows. The horsemen who successfully approached the English lines found that the archers were protected from cavalry charges by sharpened, outward-facing stakes. In the narrow opening afforded them, with piles of bodies to their rear, dense forests on either side, and thousands of well-sheltered English longbowmen in front of them, the French could neither charge nor retreat effectively. It was less a battle than a slaughter. The English were merciless. Historians estimate that the archers fired at least a hundred thousand arrows that day, perhaps as many as a half-million. The piles of French bodies were so high that it was difficult to identify exactly who did die that day. Some of their wives had to find out over time, simply from the fact that their husbands never returned. The bloodshed didn’t even end with the eventual French retreat. The English killed the vast majority of their prisoners, sparing only those of the very highest ranks. Henry even ordered the killing of some men worth ransoming.

Here is a concise description of the action:

Per Wikipedia:

“The French had suffered a catastrophic defeat. In all, around 6,000 of their fighting men lay dead on the ground. The list of casualties, one historian has noted, “read like a roll call of the military and political leaders of the past generation”. Among them were 90–120 great lords and bannerets killed, including three dukes, nine counts and one viscount, also an archbishop. Of the great royal office holders, France lost its constable, an admiral, the Master of Crossbowmen, Master of the Royal Household and prévôt of the marshals. 3,069 knights and squires were killed, while at least 2,600 more corpses were found without coats of arms to identify them. Entire noble families were wiped out in the male line, and in some regions an entire generation of landed nobility was annihilated. The bailiffs of nine major northern towns were killed, often along with their sons, relatives and supporters. In the words of Juliet Barker, the battle “cut a great swath through the natural leaders of French society. Estimates of the number of prisoners vary between 700 and 2,200, amongst them the dukes of Orléans and Bourbon, the counts of Eu, Vendôme, Richemont (brother of the Duke of Brittany and stepbrother of Henry V) and Harcourt, and marshal Jean Le Maingre.”

In contrast, Shakespeare contended that the English casualties amounted to 29 men, of which 25 were commoners.

(Cough. Cough.)

OK, that was a bit of bullshit, let’s call it chauvinistic exaggeration by the Bard of Avon. He was not a historian, but a literary man sucking up to the English monarchy. The English probably lost about 300-400 men, but only a small number of those were magnates. Exaggeration aside, it was one of the greatest military successes in human history, since it not only destroyed a numerically superior force and most of its key officers, but it humbled and weakened France so completely that within five years the French royals had declared that the English Henry was the heir to the French throne!

(He would die about two years after that agreement without ever having sat on that throne.)

More important than any of that to us today is that the victory inspired one of Shakespeare’s best monologues, as cited above and shown below. Ol’ Shakey often used his monologues to deliver melancholy, philosophical ruminations about the fragility of life, but this was different. It was a stirring call to action for country and brotherhood.

25 thoughts on ““This day is called the feast of Crispian …”

  1. For those who follow UK Politics, a cabinet minister resigned from his post yesterday (shortly before he was sacked).
    Jacob Rees-Mogg, sometimes known as the Minister for the 17th Century, dated his resignation letter “‘St Crispin’s Day 2023”.
    It has been pointed out to him that St Crispin and Crispinian are patron saints of cobblers. Cobblers is British slang for talking rubbish.

      1. Bernard Cornwell. Written a lot of historical fiction, including Sharpes, five about the period here, and one or two about some guy called Uhtred, son of Uhtred. Back to Sharpe nowadays.

        1. Yes, The Last Kingdom was quite amusing. As a historian, his ideas are interesting, too. Particularly the point that many people unrecorded by history lived & profoundly affected life, events & all of the past things that continue to underlie how things are for us now. E.g., Alfred cutting Uhtred’s feats out of his chronicle, erasing him from our memory as an historical figure. That’s why he’s fictional!

  2. That monologue was the greatest pre-game speech of all time. Clearly many coaches — Vince Lombardi, Woody Hayes, among many — used echoes of Harry’s exortation. Patton, as much a military historian as he was, must have patterned some of his speeches after that.

    Kenneth Branagh delivering that speech is my favorite moment of all Shakespeare put to film.

  3. My last. It has been reported, that, while campaigning, Charles de Gaulle would not go within 20 kilometers of the place (now called Azincourt).

  4. From somewhere, this Punic guy, along with little brothers Hasdrubal and Mago, is screaming “Cannae”. The original two-pronged concept of that Schlieffen thingy was supposed to be a larger-scale version of it.

    1. Schlieffen meant his plan to be only one-pronged. He warned against trying to make it two-pronged. But Moltke the Younger, in command of the German army in 1914, was weak-willed and gave in to the demands of the commanders of the German armies in Alsace-Lorraine. It was one of a number of things that went wrong.

      There is a lively debate on whether the Schlieffen plan could ever have worked, and there is a guy who has written books insisting that there was no Schlieffen plan. I really don’t understand what he is getting at, but then, I have not read his books.

      1. WRONG. The very first plan, which never got very far in actual planning, involved a southern wing as well. Remember that the Germans were in Alsace and most of Lorraine at this point. So, they went to the one going through the north, eventually finding out their logistics really couldn’t support even that (Germans were perpetually crappy at logistics and war economics). And all these called-up Reservists in their Picklehauben had to march in August through great heaps of horseshit, seeing that the socially superior cavalry always got first dibs on the roads.
        And actually Moltke, who was no chip off the old uncle, actually detached two corps east, which didn’t make Tannenberg; this was largely due to the anguished screaming from the Kaiser’s relatives back Ost.
        In the South after a bit of back and forth The Germans decided their best move was to sit their ground and shoot up all the oncoming French who were pursuing good Fochist doctrine- “attaque a outrance”. Foch seems to have never read up on Fredericksburg or Cold Harbor. That he turned out to be the Great Hero in the West is ironic beyond belief. Btw, his great doctrinal adversary before 1914 was some guy named Petain.
        That no-Plan guy is full of shit: he made “Suvorov” look good.

        1. Under the Schlieffen plan that actually was adopted, the German armies defending Alsace-Lorraine against the major offensive it was correctly assumed the French would mount at the outset of the war were supposed to give ground, falling back to lead the French on and make it hard for them to redeploy against the wing coming through Belgium. Like almost all commanders from 1914 until about 1917, these German commanders were obsessed with holding ground, and with taking the offensive. Which they did. They got as far as Nancy and Toul, I think, in the process subtracting more strength from the north wing.

          There is a strong school of thought that agrees with you about the logistics and the physical impractibility of achieving the single-wing envelopment with the technology of 1914.

          I don’t know what the “No Schlieffen Plan!” guy (Terence Zuber) is on about; it sounds stupid to me. The Germans had some kind of plan in 1914, and whether they called it the Schlieffen Plan or the Allegorical Tone Poem for the Defeat of France seems like an excersize in hairsplitting.

          What do you mean about Suvorov? Aside from being Russian, I know nothing about him.

          1. You may well be right about the initial German plan in the south. But my impression has always been that once they realized how stupid the French were proposing to be, they quickly fell into “Never interrupt your enemy when etc.” mode which worked quite nicely for them.
            I’m have been working on a book for the last few years on basically “WTF happened to Barbarossa” and the more I dig into it I’m inclined to think that maybe it was unwinnable, although Stalin was really doing his inadvertent best to help. ” Yo, Adolf, you want encirclements at Minsk, Smolensk, and points east? Kiev too? I can handle that.” And some of the real bozo moves away from the Front seem to have roots in the fact that at least going back through WWI, the Germans tended to put their least illustrious junior officers into the support areas and kept them there.
            My fave is the explanation for the exact amount of winter gear sent east late in the year. The whole idea was 6 weeks hard fighting west of the Divina & Dnipr, and a road march after that with a much smaller occupation force left by the end of the year.
            The winter gear goals were actually met; it was just that nobody seemed to notice that the force still fighting and not about to be sent home was several times larger than the projected occupation force. Note: This is from the first Bundeswehr volume on their Big One.
            Suvorov is an alias for a Russian defector who, supposedly with insider info, said that Stalin was proposing to attack the Germans first. Complete nonsense. Stalin was in the trad. Old Bolshevik mode: Let the Western countries fight each other to exhaustion, then maybe we move in. Still 1920 to him. The swift German victory in the West came as a horrible shock. The real Suvorov was a great Russian General in the 1700s, #2 to Rokossovsky on my all-time Russian list.
            Heads up, Adam, I might be asking you stuff in the future. No dismal science man I.

  5. There is a comedian in the UK called Count Arthur Strong. He has given the best-ever rendition of Shakespeare’s monologue I have ever heard.

    You can find it here.

  6. As Hubert Horatio Hornblower used to put it, “Confusion to the French”. After Agincourt, they slacked off a bit for a while until Marlborough and Wellington came along. The former impressed les Crapauds so much they wrote a song about him which eventually became “For he’s a jolly good fellow” in Brit-land and something about a bear and a mountain here. The latter had to settle for shagging one of the Short Dead Dude’s former bedmates.

      1. That’s a Kiwi thing? I had to look it up. Marlborough is a big hero of mine. The man’s genes had staying power (WC) and weren’t as prone to exaggeration as the Habsburg mouth/jaw or Nosey’s* nose. Keep up the good work on the Marlborough Pinots; it’ll be a while before you get the warming effects which have been messing over the Aussies’ Shirazes and Rhone blends.
        *Wellington, another of my heroes. My great several times uncle’s swag from Vittoria funded my great great-GF’s decent passage to Boston. One of the Peer’s “beloved” Irish troops.

        1. And Marlborough really set the fashion for smoking cigarettes, too, I guess. Although of course we Yanks spell his name wrong.

          1. LOL. There actually are Marlborough sheds made in New Zealand not to mention that good Marlborough wine. The palace has #2 on my list of cool history experiences: the dispatch the Duke wrote after Blenheim informing the Queen that the battle had gone reasonably well and he was entertaining a French marshal in his coach. The only thing cooler was being able to look out the same window in Prague from which the Protestants tossed the Catholics who landed on a conveniently placed dung heap in 1618. That Defenestration thing.

  7. Crecy firmly showed the power of the longbow.

    Although the French didn’t seem to learn that lesson and repeated some of the same mistakes in Agincourt.

    1. If they thought they were going to kick Plantagenet butt that way, they must have been Crecy.

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