16 comments on “St Crispin’s Day

  1. I noticed this when it was posted. As I didn’t want to appear stupid (or more so than usual) I didn’t ask why.

    I know I’m probably going to regret this, but curiosity has got the better of me.

    Andy, why?

  2. Vanya,

    Because St Crispin’s Day is 25th October.

    Because it’s a fine example, in its form, of a political speech.

    Because if you want to understand the times in which we live read Shakespeare.

  3. #2 But how is this political speech relevant?

    I’m fully aware of how impressive Shakespeare is in terms of historical significance.

    I particularly like the bit in Julius Caesar, “Infamy, infamy (they’ve all got it in for me!)”

  4. Andy Newman on said:

    Vanya: But how is this political speech relevant?

    The impact of the battle of Agincourt, more in its folkloric representation than in its historical reality, is at the heart of the creation of the modern English nation.

    The yeoman archer, whose bow of yew could match the armoured chivalry of France. This is a central theme of the national myth, think Robin Hood, Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe”, or Conan Doyle’s “Sir Nigel” and “White Company”. Or the explicitly socialist childrens book “Bows Against the Barons” by Geoffrey Trease

    The King who puts behind him his youthful friendships (and rebellious political associations, with Lollardism) to take forward the responsibility of state. The evolution of Prince Hal into Henry V is an unsurpassed and complex literary achievement, and from the vantage point of the Shakespearean era resonates with the growing power and self confidence of England.

    The end of feudal conventions as the yeomen slaughter the captured French noblesse, rather than ransom them back for money to the French.

    Hence of course Henry V being translated into film in 1944, as above. When Shakespeare’s poetry perfectly captured the national mood.

    O, let us pay the time but needful woe,
    Since it hath been beforehand with our griefs.
    This England never did, nor never shall,
    Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror,
    But when it first did help to wound itself.
    Now these her princes are come home again,
    Come the three corners of the world in arms,
    And we shall shock them. Nought shall make us rue,
    If England to itself do rest but true.

    (Ok, that is from King John, not Henry V, but you get the point)

    Or you could argue, that the poetry of Henry’s speech is an exhortation to courage and solidarity that can be an inspiration to any righteous cause

  5. #4 According to something I read the other day the prisoners were massacred because there weren’t enough available troops to guard them and prevent them jejoining the battle and that the killings stopped when this was no longer the case. Nobody raised an objection (other than some English soldiers who wanted to hold some aristocrats to ransome) including the French, and in fact some high ranking French knights were released unharmed.

    This may be rubbish of course, it’s not an area of special knowledge for me.

  6. Andy Newman on said:

    Vanya: According to something I read the other day the prisoners were massacred because there weren’t enough available troops to guard them and prevent them jejoining the battle and that the killings stopped when this was no longer the case

    Well what actually happened I don’t know, but in Shakespeare, the prisoners were killed in retaliation for a massacre by the French of the boys of the baggage train:

    To kill the boys with the luggage! It’s expressly against the rules of combat. It’s as complete a work of villainy as any that could be thought up. Tell me, don’t you think so?

    There’s certainly not a boy left alive, and it was done by the cowardly rascals who were running from the battle. On top of this, they’ve either burned or carried away everything that was in the king’s tent. So the king has quite rightly ordered that every prisoner’s throat be cut. Oh, he’s a gallant king!

    I was not angry since I came to France until this instant. Take a trumpet, herald. Ride out to the horsemen on that hill. If they seek battle with us, have them come down or else clear the field. The sight of them is offensive. If they’ll do neither, we’ll come to them and make them fly like stones shot from powerful slings. We’ll also cut the throats of any prisoners we have. Not a man of them that we shall take shall know our mercy. Go and tell them this.

    Whatever actually happened, this is a folkloric shift in terms of the national myths of England, of the King renouncing the heraldic feudal convention in spirit of solidarity with the commoners of the baggage train.

  7. Andy Newman on said:

    Explicitly, this is a call to nation, not to feudal obligation:

    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.

  8. john Grimshaw on said:

    I understand Andy’s point in posting this. But I think it’s worth saying that the feudal system had already begun to break down sometime before Agincourt. Some advocate the Black Death for enabling peasants to start using their scarcity to move from Lords estate to other estates asking for salaries. I think the growth of the wool systems in England and Belgium might have as much to do with it as well as the Northern Italian bankers. The difference between the English and French armies in the fourteenth centuries illustrates these changes. French armies were mustered in the traditional way whereas English armies were recruited by indenture with the exception of the high aristocracy. Edward III had to use this system as he didn’t initially have the men to wage the campaigns he needed. So he recruited yeoman and middle ranking people with the promise of loot from any battle or campaign they were involved in. Andy refers to Conan Doyles “The White Company” by the same token I would refer you to the recent biography of sir John Hawksmoor. born in Northern Essex from a middling background went to the wars as an archer and then when a temporary truce was called was like a lot of soldiers left stranded in France by the king and the aristocracy who went back to England. Rather than try to return these ordinary mercenary soldiers went on the rampage in France holding towns and cities to ransom. At one stage they came close to capturing the Pope in Avignon. eventually Hawksmoor ended up going to Italy and becoming the commander of the Florentine Army amongst other things. You can still see a painting of him in the Duomo in the City. Original Essex boy I think.

  9. john Grimshaw on said:

    Andrew Grace,

    The reference to a “seven year apprenticeship” is interesting. It was the usual length of the indenture in the late Middle Ages I think.

  10. Andrew Grace on said:

    What was the chance of getting a ransom-worthy prisoner? The aristocratic captive had a much better chance of survival as he carried a ransom price. This went too for naval battles including Trafalgar in more recent history – officers as well as the very valuable hulks were ‘prizes’ – hence the use of carronade artillery to wipe out crews and stationed infantry but in the hope of capturing the vessel/high ranking officers.

  11. Andrew Grace on said:

    John, I looked up ‘The Staple’ on Wiki. There is an interesting online book on the external link there. ‘The origin, the organisation and the location of the Staple of England.’

    The designated Staple Port was often on the Continent;- Dordrecht (1338). Bruges (1343). Calais (1363 – for wool and leather).

    Monarchs were always running out of money to pay for armies. In Calais the ‘Merchants of the Staple’ began lending to the king for military wages and supplies – then to the soldiers directly…


  12. john Grimshaw on said:

    Andrew Grace,

    Thanks Andrew. I read some of this link. Obviously Shakespeare is putting words into Henry’s mouth, however the appeal to English nationalism that he has Henry make, I think only became possible with the decline of feudalism which began in the fourteenth century. The aristocracy of course began speaking English in the same period and certainly by the Wars of the Roses period speaking French was viewed with disdain.