FIRST FOLIO! Shakespeare and a Battle Remembered

Click here to view The Holinshed's Chronicles in the SPL catalog
The title page of the 1577 first edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles. Source: Wikipedia.

The power of the pen can be as mighty as a host of lances in the hands of a great poet. One speech in one historical battle has lived on for six centuries, wrapped in myth and inspiration, mainly due to William Shakespeare.

A legendary event during the Middle Ages was the Battle of Agincourt, when the badly outnumbered English army faced the aristocratic armored knights and foot soldiers of the French Army. The English King, Henry V, led his motley group to a fabled victory, destroying the French. The victory was of great significance to British history and to literature.

How has this battle been remembered by posterity?

Henry made an inspiring speech to his troops before the battle. What did he say to arouse his army, notably his archers, to victory? Shakespeare, in one of his most famous passages, in Henry V, has the King giving this speech:

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.

How did Shakespeare come to know about the details of that day, and in particular, King Henry’s speech?

Holinshed’s Chronicles, a history of Great Britain produced by a group of writers under the name of Raphael Holinshed, told the story of Agincourt in a 1587 edition of the book. Over the years there has been unresolved speculation over which specific copy of the work Shakespeare may have owned or had access to*.

In the chronicles, Holinshed sets the same scene, but in this version, here is what Henry says:

I would not wish a man more here than I have; we are indeed, in comparison to the enemies, but a few, but if God of his clemency do favor us and our just cause (as I trust he will) we shall speed well enough. God and our quarrel shall defend us, and deliver these our proud adversaries will all the multitude of them which you see (or at least most of them) into our hands.

No mention of St. Crispin, no “English gentlemen now a-bed,” no “band of brothers” here, but instead just a warrior’s plain-spoken words. But in the hands of Shakespeare, the moment was immortalized and has been evoked many times since, notably by Lord Nelson referring to his ship captains during the Napoleonic Wars as “A Band of Brothers” (see the biography Nelson: The Sword of Albion) and by Sir Laurence Olivier’s ultra-patriotic film Henry V, which served as a propaganda piece during the Second World War, as well as being used as the title of Stephen Ambrose’s classic narrative from the same war.

Holinshed’s Chronicles was Shakespeare’s source for his many history plays, as well as Macbeth and King Lear. From comparing Holinshed to The Bard, it becomes clear that a great power of history is in the retelling, and with Shakespeare, these moments are retold for all time.

~posted by Carl

*incidentally, here is a modern history of Agincourt.

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