Although Shakespeare penned this work nearly two hundred years after the Battle of Agincourt (1415), it remains the finest dramatic interpretation of what leadership meant to the men in the Middle Ages.
Prior to the Battle, Henry V had led his English footmen across Northwestern France, seizing Calais and other cities in an attempt to win back holds in France that had once been in English possession and to claim the French crown through the obscure but powerful Salig Law.
The French, aware of Henry’s troops weaking condition because of their distance from England and the attacks of Dystentary that had plagued the dwindling band, moved between King Henry and Calais, the port he needed to reach in order to return to England. The troops followed Henry’s band along the rivers, preventing their crossing and daring them to a battle they thought they could not win.
The English knights fought on foot after the manner devised by Edward III. Archers were to be used in support, the English and Welsh longbows having established their credentials both at Crecy (1347) and at Poiters (1356). But here the French seemed to have sufficient numbers to deal with even this threat, and they refused to allow Henry pass, angered by the English seizure of the cities.
Morale in the English line as they looked upon the overwhelming force of heavily armoured, highly skilled French knights must have been extremely low. King Henry, rising to the occasion, spoke words of encouragement that rallied the English troops and carried them to a victory. As a result of the victory the French Princess Catherine was betrothed to Henry V, and France and England were at peace for the remainder of Henry’s short life. He perished of dysentery in 1422, but was survived by his son (Henry VI) and was buried at Westminster Abbey, close to the shrine of Edward the Confessor.
Although the speech below is a work of fiction, it is evocative of the spirit with which Henry–and all strong medieval kings–ruled through the strength of their convictions and by force of their personality.
Enter the KING
WESTMORELAND. O that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!
KING. What’s he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;
If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
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.