By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The ‘St Crispin’s Day’ speech is one of the most famous speeches from William Shakespeare’s Henry V, a history play written in around 1599 and detailing the English king’s wars with France during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453).
Henry V himself delivers the St Crispin’s Day speech in the play. He delivers the speech on the occasion of the Battle of Agincourt. The real battle did indeed take place on 25 October 1415, and 25 October is indeed the feast day of the Christian saint St Crispin.
However, although Shakespeare’s speech is often referred to as the ‘St Crispin’s Day’ speech, Henry doesn’t actually mention St Crispin until the end; the saint he mentions at the beginning of the speech (‘This day is called the feast of Crispian’) is actually a different saint.
Henry needs to make a rousing speech to his men. They are significantly outnumbered by the enemy forces. The real, historical Battle of Agincourt bears this out: it is thought that Henry’s forces numbered around 5,000 men, while the French army numbered at least around 30,000, although some estimates are as high as 100,000 men.
Henry’s speech captures the sense of comradeship and patriotism which binds the men together on the field of battle. The best way to offer an analysis of this classic speech is to go through it section by section, summarising its meaning and analysing the language Henry uses as we go.
This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
As mentioned above, ‘Crispian’ is not a mere variation on the name of St Crispin, for the purposes of metre: he’s a different saint. And even that one isn’t properly called ‘Crispian’.
The legend tells of two brothers, Crispin and Crispinian (not Crispian), who left Rome and settled in France, where they became shoemakers. They both subsequently became the patron saints of shoemakers. They attained sainthood by converting many people to Christianity, before being beheaded as martyrs.
Henry’s speech refers to ‘the feast of Crispian’: a reference to St Crispin’s brother, St Crispinian. However, because the fortunes of the two brothers were so closely interlinked, they share a feast day, 25 October.
Now we’ve cleared that up … Henry begins his rousing speech to his troops by telling them that all men who fight in the battle that day, and survive, returning safely home afterwards, will ‘stand a-tiptoe’ (i.e. walk tall, or feel proud) whenever the day of St Crispin’s (or Crispinian’s) Day is mentioned, because it will remind them of their heroism on this day.
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 Crispin’s day.’
Henry goes on to tell his men that those who survive the battle and live to see old age will, every year on the ‘vigil’ (i.e. the eve) of the anniversary of the battle, celebrate with his neighbours back home and mark the occasion, showing off his battle scars.
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 remember’d.
Old men tend to be forgetful, and all of the soldiers standing before Henry will become forgetful as they grow old too; but one thing they will never forget is their feats of bravery that they perform in the battle on this day.
The names of those who lead the battle – the King and the noblemen who fight with him – will remain familiar in the mouth of every man who fought alongside them, as familiar as ‘household words’ or common phrases.
The reference to ‘mouth’ here suggests that the veterans of the battle will be telling their war stories to a rapt audience of neighbours in years to come: people who wish to hear of the part the men played in the heroic battle.
Curiously, Shakespeare is inaccurate in listing ‘Warwick’ and ‘Talbot’ as among those fighting at the Battle of Agincourt: Warwick was a later figure, mentioned in 1 Henry VI, and Talbot (John Talbot, First Earl of Shrewsbury) didn’t join the French campaign until 1419, four years after Agincourt.
But then this was probably deliberate anachronism on Shakespeare’s part: he needed to mention the names of figures his audience would recognise from the popular history (and earlier plays, such as his own trilogy of Henry VI plays), otherwise Henry’s claim that these names would be ‘familiar … as household words’ in years to come might sound comically wide of the mark.
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 remember’d;
Every good man will teach his son about the battle, so that not a single year will go by when the battle is not remembered on St Crispin’s Day. This will last forever – until the end of the world.
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:
Here’s the most famous line from Henry’s whole speech: ‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers’.
‘Band of brothers’ gave its name to Steven Spielberg’s TV series about the Second World War, and the phrase is often associated with comradeship and camaraderie among soldiers serving and fighting together: although not related by blood, they are brothers-in-arms, through battle – or brothers in ‘blood’, not in the sense that they are related by blood, but because they have shed blood together. (Henry, or rather Shakespeare, may well be drawing upon the brotherly relationship between Crispin and Crispinian, too.)
And it really is a case of ‘we few’, given how much Henry and the English army are outnumbered by the French enemy!
When Henry says that ‘be he ne’er so vile, / This day shall gentle his condition’, he means that every man, no matter how small (‘vile’ was used to refer to someone of minor social standing, e.g. a member of the ‘great unwashed’, as well as denoting someone mean or evil), will become a ‘gentleman’, or be raised up in the eyes of society, through his heroic conduct in battle.
Henry doesn’t literally mean that the swineherds and peasants fighting with him will become earls or dukes when they get home: he’s speaking figuratively, of course. They will be ennobled in a general way through their noble deeds done in battle, fighting for king and country.
However, as is often the case in Shakespeare, there is a potential secondary meaning: namely, that no matter what ‘vile’ deeds these fighting-men have carried out before, their ‘condition’ in the eyes of God will be improved through their heroism. It’s as if, by fighting with Henry V in this battle, they can attain absolution or forgiveness for past sins or misdemeanours.
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.
Indeed, those current ‘gentlemen’ (Henry’s use of the word follows Henry’s use of ‘gentle’ as a verb in the previous line) who are now safe in their beds back home, and not fighting alongside their king, will think it a bad thing that they were absent from the fighting – it will be so terrible for them that it will carry the force of a curse.
They will consider their masculinity, their sense of courage and heroism, a small and worthless thing whenever they hear others talk of the bravery of the men who did fight in the battle. (Once again, there’s another, slightly rude meaning to Henry’s words: ‘hold their manhoods cheap’ suggests these non-combatants will consider their ‘manhoods’, i.e. their male genitalia as a symbol of their male power, worthless because they did not prove their mettle in the heat of battle.)
The ‘St Crispin’s Day’ speech does at least end with Henry mentioning the correct saint. But the speech was worth closer analysis, not only because of the double meanings to some of the language Shakespeare uses, or because of the fact that he is actually talking about two saints rather than one (albeit two with very similar names).
No: the speech is also noteworthy for the way Henry cleverly switches from speaking of ‘we few, we happy few’ – i.e. those noblemen who immediately surround him in the front line of battle – to including the whole army in his rousing and inspiring speech. All men who shed blood with him will become his ‘brothers’.