Saturday, October 25, 2008

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers

Battle of Agincourt

On 25 October 1415, St. Crispen's Day, Henry V of England won an overwhelming victory against the French at the battle of Agincourt. Henry V was attempting to pursue his claim - by force of arms - to the title of the Duchy of Normandy and the throne of France by virtue of his descent from William of Normandy, the conqueror of England in 1066.

Henry's army of 6,000, consisting mostly of archers armed with longbows, faced an French army of between 20,000 - 30,000 men. Among the ranks of the French army were many aristocrats and knights - the so-called "flower of France".

Due to the constraints of a small battlefield and the muddy soil, the French were unable to make proper use of their heavy cavalry to overcome the enemy ranks. The deadly fire from the highly trained English archers led to a further break down in the ranks of the French army.

Sustaining heavy casualties and unable to mount a proper attack the French surrendered. Henry's desperate "band of brothers" had won the day. Fearing the possibility of another attack and having captured more of the enemy than he had men of his own, Henry V ordered the slaughter of French prisoners. How many were actually killed is unknown, but it is estimated that more died in the aftermath of the battle than in the actual battle. As was the custom of the day, those prisoners who survived and belonged to the aristocracy were held until a ransom was paid for their release.

Almost two hundred years later William Shakespeare wrote his play Henry V. In these memorable words from the Bard, here is Henry V speaking to his men on the eve of St. Crispens Day:

"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.
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.'
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.
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;

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 accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day"

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