25 October 2011

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers

Today being St Crispin's Day, and me being a war historian, it might be worth talking today about one of the most famous speeches never given. Every Englishman worth his salt is familiar with the St Crispin's Day Speech from Shakespeare's Henry V, given, supposedly, just before the battle of Agincourt 596 years ago today.

It's an absolutely stunning piece of writing and if thrilling to read is the sort of thing to raise goosebumps when you watch it performed -- I saw a superb rendition of it in Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre a few years back, and have since watched Laurence Olivier, listened to Richard Burton, and stared at Kenneth Branagh's standard-setting rendition.

It's an unforgettable scene, and the sort of thing to rouse all but the most lifeless of souls; it won't surprise anyone to read that it didn't happen like that, but it's worth winnowing through what we know about the matter.

To Begin With...
The most important historical sources for the battle are: Henrici Quinti Angliae Regis Gesta, written within two years later from an English perspective; the Liber Metricus de Henrico Quinto by Thomas Elmham, a contemporary English monk who composed an account of the Agincourt campaign in Latin verse a few years after the battle; the Chronique de Religieux des Saint-Denys and Chronique de Enguerrand de Monstrele, both written from French perspectives; and the hugely similar the Chronique de Jean le Fevre de St Remy by a Burgundian who fought for the English, and Recueil des croniques et anchiennes istories de la Grant Bretaigneby, by Jehan de Wavrin, who observed the battle from the French lines.

If we go through these systematically, the first thing we'll notice that only Thomas Elmham and Le Fevre and Jehan de Wavrin, both of whom wrote decades later, report that Henry gave a speech at all. The sources generally recognised as being the most reliable say nothing of the sort. 

The earliest source, and the one generally recognised as the most reliable, the English Henrici Quinti Angliae Regis Gesta, says nothing about any speeches delivered by Henry on the day of the Battle; what's more, it reveals nothing of what Henry said to his men the previous day, when he ordered them to deploy for battle. Curiously, though, it does include a detail that Shakespeare seems to have worked into his speech, this being a discussion between Henry and one of his retainers about whether it would have been better if Henry had another 10,000 archers.

Thomas Elmham
Thomas Elmham, writing a couple of years after the Gesta, gives a remarkable account of what Henry supposedly said before the battle, which, though rich in the detail of medieval life, nonetheless can hardly be taken as accurate:
'It was the twenty-fifth day of the month of October ever afterwards giving the English passionate memories of that day. On the sixth day, Crispin and Crispinian willingly bore weapons in the name of Christ...
The king said to those remaining, "My fellow men, prepare arms! English rights are referred to God. Memories noted many battles given for the right of King Edward and Prince Edward. Many a victory occurred with only a few English troops. This could never have been by their strength alone. England must never lament me as a prisoner or as to be ransomed. I am ready to die for my right in the conflict. St George, George, saint and knight be with us! Holy Mary, bestow your favour on the English in their right. At this very hour many righteous English people pray for us with their hearts. France, hasten to give up your fraud!"

The king, bearing his own arms, put his own crown in his head. He signed himself with the cross, thus giving courage to his men. Now the priests cried out from behind, sighing, "Now have mercy on us, God. Now have mercy, God. Spare the crown of the English. Support the royal right! In your mercy, Virgin Mary, bestow your favour. As your right dowry, George, knight, and Edward, pious king, give your aid. May all the saints give constancy to our king. May God accept our holy prayers."'
Elmham never claims to have been present on the campaign, and admits to depending in large part on things he'd heard from others; it seems certain that he based his account in no small degree on the Henrici Quinti Angliae Regis Gesta, but that he embroidered this significantly, or at least recorded the embroidery of others, even claiming that St George was witnessed in the air, fighting for the English. As Anne Curry says in The Battle of Agincourt: Sources and Interpretations, 'already a version of Agincourt was developing which was a mixture of experience and legend'.

This is pretty normal when dealing with patriotic triumphalism, for what it's worth. We need but look at ancient accounts of Marathon or how gladly the English during the Great War leapt on the story of the Angels of Mons in order to see how enthusiastically supernatural tales are embraced in wartime.

As for the two main French sources, the Chronique de Religieux des Saint-Denys claims that Henry exhorted his entire army on the day before the battle, while leading his men towards where they would fight the French, reminding them of their victories at Crecy and Poitiers; the Chronique de Enguerrand de Monstrele, on the other hand, makes no mention of Henry having made any speeches at all; de Monstrele says that there was a speech given before the battle, but that that battle exhortation was given by Thomas Erpingham.

Jehan de Wavrin
That leaves us with de Wavrin's and Jean le Fevre's similar and rather problematic accounts. Jehan de Wavrin  describes Henry as having given a series of speeches along the English lines.
'These things being arranged, the king went along the ranks to see if nothing was wanting to the work of the army, and in passing he made fine speeches everywhere, exhorting and begging them to do well; saying that he had come into France to recover his rightful heritage, and that he had good and just cause for so doing; saying further that they could fight safely and with free heart in this quarrel, and that they should remember that they were born of the realm of England where they had been brought up and where their fathers, mothers, wives, and children were living; wherefore it became them to exert themselves, that they might return thither with great joy and approval. And he showed them besides how his predecessrors, kings of England, had gained many splendid victories over the French, and caused them marvellous discomfiture; and he bagged that this day each one would assist in protecting his person and the crown of England, with the honour of the kingdom. And further he told them and explained how the French were boasting that they would cut off three fingers of the right hand of all the archers that should be taken prisoners to the end that neither man nor horse should ever again be killed with their arrows. Such exhortations and many others, which cannot all be written, the King of England addressed to his men.'
Of course, given that he would have been stationed with the French and could hardly have been privy to such speeches, de Wavrin must have been dependent on someone else for his account, and given how his account matches the apparently slightly earlier narrative of Jean le Fevre, it seems le Fevre must be the source for this element in later accounts of the battle, as followed in turn by modern writers such as Christopher Hibbert and Juliet Barker.

Jean le Fevre
Although a nineteen-year-old participant in the battle, le Fevre wrote his account of the battle several decades afterwards and relied to a very large extent upon the slightly earlier account of the battle by Enguerrand de Monstrele. Le Fevre describes two English exhortations, the first by Henry before the advance and the second by Thomas Erpingham immediately before the battle. Lest we be inclined to accept too quickly le Fevre at his word, it's worth noting that his account of Erpingham's speech is no more than a paraphrase of this account of it by Enguerrand de Monstrele, who most certainly had not been present at the time:
'Sir Thomas, in the name of the king, exhorted them all most earnestly to defend their lives, and thus saying he rode along their ranks attended by two persons. When all was done to his satisfaction, he flung into the air a truncheon which he held in his hand, crying out "Nestrocque!" and then dismounted, as the king and the others had done. When the English saw Sir Thomas throw up his truncheon, they set up a loud shout, to the very great astonishment of the French. The English seeing the enemy not inclined to advance, marched toward them in handsome array, and with repeated huzzahs, occasionally stopping to recover their breath. The archers, who were hidden in the field, re-echoed these shoutings, at the same time discharging their bows, while the English army kept advancing upon the French...'
Bearing in mind, then, that le Fevre depended in no small part on Monstrele, and that de Monstrele, like the author of the Gesta, made no mention of any speeches given by the king, what are we to make of this? Should we believe him?

Look at the options:
  • The Gesta never mentions any speeches at all, but says Henry had a discussion with Walter Hungerford about how desirable another 10,000 archers would be.
  • Elmham's verse account, which has obviously been embellished by patriotic fiction, describes the king on the day of battle exhorting the troops by calling on God and the saints for help.
  • The Chronique de Religieux des Saint-Denys says that Henry exhorted the troops the day before the battle by reminding them of earlier victories.
  • De Monstrele never mentions the king making any speeches at all, but says that Sir Thomas Erpingham rode along the line immediately before battle exhorting the troops on behalf of the king.
  • Le Fevre and le Wavrin say the king gave a series of speeches while riding along the lines, before the English advance, and that Sir Thomas Erpingham addressed the army immediately before the battle.
Is it possible to reconcile these disparate accounts? Yes, I think so, though I also think the end result looks a tad on the contrived side. We'd have to assume that the day before the battle the king had a conversation with Hugerford about how handy extra archers would be and that he addressed some of the troops, doing so again the next day while riding along the lines before the advance. He would have said different things at different points -- with some men talking of previous victories, and with others talking of God being on their side. After the troops had deployed, then, Erpingham would have ridden along the line again, trying to rouse the spirits of the men with a series of short exhortations. And then he would have thrown his baton in the air, and the English would have advanced against the French...

The fact is that as far as I can see none of the statements in any of the writers are actually contradictory, such that they can be assembled into one consistent narrative; to do so, however, would be rather crude and pretty ahistorical. It would simply take the statements of the medieval authors at face value, without considering what sources the authors drew on, whether they'd have been in a position to check their sources, who were the intended audiences of each document,  and so forth.

Given all that, you might be better off sticking with Shakespeare.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I had guessed you were an historian from your many historical references and the method by which you analysed issues. Lynda