October 25 is St. Crispin’s Day, originally celebrated for a cobbler who was martyred by the Romans in AD 286 but in modern times known for the startling English victory over the vastly larger French army at Azincourt on October 24, 1415. For the English, the victory at Azincourt has been among the greatest of victories, the proof that a few men with bows, led by a charismatic Henry V, could defeat thousands of French knights in armor on horseback who, unfortunately for them, were too weighed down and jammed together to fight. The victory was celebrated then but not for long; the French under Joan of Arc went on to rally in the next decades and win the Hundred Years War. Not until Shakespeare took on the task of making the Tudors appear to be legitimate through their illegitimate Beaufort ancestors did Azincourt enjoy a resurrection with his lines, spoken (in the play) by a boyish King Henry to his troops who had wished for more soldiers. Henry supposedly said that they were lucky it was just them:
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
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.
It would be almost impossible to create a more vivid image of the battle than Shakespeare has done (“… once more into the breach….”), words that have inspired English teachers and rear-area commanders for four hundred years. The French, of course, don’t celebrate the battle with as much zest as the British, but the battle site itself is not much of an image. It is a wheat field alongside which little plywood archers in painted Robin Hood costumes aim for the sky. The nearby town of Azincourt today is a French farming hamlet, little visited except by British schoolboys. As for Saint Crispin himself, even his feast day has been abandoned, removed by the Second Vatican Council in 1965.