William Shakespeare’s version of King Henry V’s speech at Agincourt on the eve of St. Crispin’s Day, October 25, 1415, is worth repeating. Though fictional, it has been recognized as one of the most stirring calls to action and resolution in history.
Shakespeare wrote most of his drama during the latter half of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. Henry V was written around 1598. In 1588, King Felipe II of Spain sent his Armada, a huge fleet of 130 ships carrying then state of the art naval artillery and thousands of troops, to invade England and depose Elizabeth. The Queen went in person to her soldiers, assembled at Tilbury near the Thames estuary, to declare her solidarity with them. Part of her address to the troops was: “Let tyrants fear, I have always so behaved myself, that under God I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and goodwill of my subjects; and, therefore, I am come amongst you as you see at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of battle, to live or die amongst you all – to lay down for my God, and for my kingdoms, and for my people, my honour and my blood even in the dust. I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king – and of a King of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which, rather than any dishonour should grow by me, I myself will take up arms – I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.”
Compare with Henry’s speech:
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 call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall see this day, and live 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 rememb’red.
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 rememberèd-
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.
This speech marks a turning point in the play. Henry has completed the transformation from Prince Hal, an adolescent drinking buddy of the dissolute Falstaff, into a true king. “I am not the thing I was” he proclaimed, banishing Falstaff from his presence. That their king is willing to fight and possibly die alongside his men inspires them to wind the battle. The speech and the image of Henry delivering it have become a lasting symbol of leadership and resolve.
The words of this speech have continued to be used to inspire heroism and patriotism. The chorus of the song “Hail Columbia” was written for the inauguration of President George Washington following the American Revolutionary War: Firm, united let us be, / Rallying round our liberty, / As a band of brothers joined, / Peace and safety we shall find. Later, the phrase “band of brothers” was used in a popular Civil War song, “The Bonnie Blue Flag,” and even during the Napoleonic Wars, British hero Admiral Lord Nelson is quoted as saying, “I had the happiness to command a band of brothers.”
Winston Churchill is reputed to have asked British filmmakers to produce a movie version of Henry V to encourage the British public during World War II.
Anyway, let us strive to outlive this day and come safe home.
Damrosh, David, et al. The Longman Anthology of British Literature, Volume 1B: The Early Modern Period. Third ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2006