Henry V leads the original “Band of Brothers” to a bloody triumph against all odds on Saint Crispin’s Day, 1415
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he to-day that sheds his blood with meShall 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 likelyShakespeare‘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.
Henry, whose own claim to the English throne was questionable (his father had usurped the crown from his weak cousin, King Richard II), understood that nothing unites a nation like a foreign enemy. The glorious victories of Edward III and the Black Prince in the previous century were not forgotten; and many an Englishman of all classes in society had benefitted from the pillage brought off from frequent campaigns across the Channel. What Henry needed to cement the loyalty of his subjects was a successful campaign against the hated French; and to gain a reputation as a warrior king.
Map depicting area of Henry’s 1415 campaign; from the estimable Bernard Cornwell’s “Agincourt”
On 11 August, 1415 Henry crossed to Normandy to begin a grand raid across northern France, following the same strategy Edward III and others had used before. However, a short and successful raid was not in the cards. Henry’s first target, the port town of Harfleur, at the mouth of the River Seine….