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.”
The St. Crispin’s Day speech, which the Immortal Bard places in the mouth of his hero, King Henry V of England, is one of the great battle speeches in history. Though likely Shakespeare‘s invention, it brilliantly portrays a young, inspiring commander attempting to hearten his starving and dispirited army; in desperate straights as it faces battle against a superior force. Whatever (if anything) Henry may have actually said that fateful morning in October is lost to history. But what is not lost is how he, and his tiny force of desperate men, stood firmly on the muddy field of Agincourt and defeated five-times their number of the flower of French chivalry.
Henry V (center), and as portrayed by Lawrence Oliver (L) and Kenneth Branagh
Soon after coming to the throne in 1413, the 26 year old Henry proclaimed his intention to renew the century-old Plantagenet claim to the crown of France, casus belli of the Hundred Years War; now dormant for a generation. This was a particularly audacious move, in that France had defeated the English and largely driven them from France in the previous century; and were widely considered a much stronger kingdom. However, the King of France at this time, Charles VI, suffered from bouts of madness (a trait he would perhaps pass on to his grandson, Henry VI of England). As often when the monarch is weak or infirm, powerful nobles had maneuvered to fill the power vacuum the king’s incapacity created. Factions had come to blows, and France was a nation whose nobility were divided against each other….
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