Happy St. Crispin’s Day!
On this day in 286, two twins Crispin and Crispinian, were martyred for their faith and later declared saints. While no longer an official feast day on the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, Shakespeare’s play, Henry V, immortalized their feast day by making famous the Battle of Agincourt.
We have Shakespeare to thank for this powerful source of patriotism for the English, with pieces of Shakespeare’s play, and the St. Cripin’s Day speech in particular, having been used throughout the ages as a wartime battle cry and encouragement. Here are 10 Things You May Not Know About Shakespeare’s Henry V
- Henry V did not live to claim the throne he fought so hard to win.
Henry died after contracting dysentery on the battlefield. It was a sudden death, and the result was he was unable to claim the throne of King Charles VII, and resulted in a large loss of the hard won french territories.
- Shakespeare immortalized Henry V, and his leadership.
Henry V is a great source of example for what it means to be a good leader, and particularly a young leader. However, as the Battle of Agincourt while triumphant, was ultimately an ineffective battle during the Hundred Year’s War, history would have likely forgotten the entire battle had Shakespeare not written the story down in play.
- The English were severely outnumbered.
Having lost almost a third of their numbers to dysentery, the English were tired, sick, and hungry. It is a testament to their strength as people, as a nation, and the leadership of their King, that such a truly meager army was able to rally and defeat a formidable French army.
- Dysentery helped them gain the advantage.
The battlefield at Agincourt was muddy and hard to traverse. The French, who wore their full armor and gear, found themselves encumbered by the muck. The English, suffering from dysentery, had found it neccessary in many cases to actually cut their own clothes from their bodies in order to let nature take it’s course from the affliction. Nasty as that prospect sounds, what it meant for them in battle was that the English weren’t heavily burdened in the mud. Being more nimble, they were able to seize the advantage.
- The battle was fought using longbows.
Many of the soldiers in this battle were archers. In fact, at one point in the battle so many arrows were launched legend holds it darkened the sun. This brilliant piece of strategy meant that the weary English could fight their enemy without having to rely solely on hand to hand combat.
- A French prisoner informed Henry V’s battle plans
Some days before Agincourt, a prisoner was overheard by Henry V telling of how the French planned to invade (on horseback and rushing the field). As a result, Henry employed a strategy from Marshal Boucicaut, a french commander, who had written down his strategy used against the Turks at the battle of Nicopolis. It is believed that either Henry or his advisors were well studied in battlefield tactics, including how to halt a cavalry charge with mass of sharpened stakes. On the battlefield, Henry instructed his archers to place sharpened stakes in front of them while they fired their arrows to stop any charging horses.
- Henry V was the first English monarch to use English as his primary language.
All previous monarchs preferred French.
- Henry V was friends with Richard II
Mentioned only once in the play, Richard II, when Harry Percy complains of Bolingbroke’s son’s wild behavior, the son of then exiled Henry Bolingbroke was taken under Richard II’s care. This boy for whom Richard II was like a father figure is the same Prince Hal from Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and the title character of Henry V.
- Henry V violated the rules of war.
In the battle, the English took so many prisoners that Henry V worried they would overpower the guards. Violating the order of war, he had them all immediately executed. In subsequent decades, this behavior would come to be labeled a war crime even though at the time, no such designation existed.
- A royal marriage secured peace.
After the defeat at Agincourt, Henry went on to besiege France, capturing city after city until King Charles VI sued for peace. In Act V, Scene II of Shakespeare’s Henry V, King Henry declares his desire to marry Catherine in what is, to me, the most romantic scene in all of Shakespeare’s plays. This scene also plays out the terms of the treaty being negotiated. The Treaty of Troyes was a real treaty, and included the marriage of Catherine, daughter of King Charles, to Henry V, and they were to rule England and France until Charles VI death. Henry V and Catherine had a son, Henry VI, who would become King as an very young child, after his father’s sudden death.
You can watch Tom Hiddleston perform the St. Crispin’s Day speech here in this video. (Read the full text of Shakespeare’s St. Crispin’s Day speech shared here in this blog post on leadership).
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