Monday, 19 October 2015

Another famous French thrashing

Did you know that six-hundred years ago this weekend, the French received another historic thrashing—but this one feted in Shakespearian lines elevating a sordid struggle between kings for boasting rights into a eulogy for a band of brothers.

Six hundred years ago this weekend, a wet and battered English army was fleeing France. King Henry V of England had invaded, hoping to press a claim to the French throne..

Having invaded in order to change his hat, he quickly lost around a third of his band and began beating a hasty retreat before being forced to confront a French force of around four times the size. He failed in eluding them, but not before delivering a speech transformed by Shakespeare that, in legend at least, was enough to turn the ensuing battle—and become the standard by which stirring speeches are rightly judged.

As the weary English prepare for battle, Shakespeare shows Henry’s nobles fearing inevitable defeat. Henry overhears the earl of Westmoreland wish the English had 10,000 soldiers more: Then maybe it would be a fair fight. Henry accosts him [in Shakespeare’s words]

    What’s he that wishes so, my cousin Westmoreland? . . .
    If we are marked to die, we are enough 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. . .  .
    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 called the feast of Crispian:
     He that outlives this day, and comes safe home, 
    Will stand a tip-toe when this day is named . . .
    Strip his sleeve and show his scars 
    And say, ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day!’
    Old men forge: yet all shall be forgot, 
    But he’ll remember with advantages 
    What feats he did that day . . .
    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 today 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!”

Read more at: ‘We Band of Brothers

1 comment:

  1. Good spotting. That Shakespeare guy writes pretty good. The 'how to' of facing fearful odds.

    Have been reading Macaulay, who makes the observation that in the period prior to this, England almost became just an island run by France, & then during this period bounced back to almost make France a province of England. His point was that it was good for England that, following Henry V, the English kings never succeeded, for it lead to the independent development of England and all that entailed, whereas had they also ruled France, their affairs would have been forever tied up in the affairs of the continent -- mainly trying to keep France, rather than the simpler problem of keeping England.


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