My cousin Westmoreland?"
It's been more than twenty years since I stumbled into the living room while my wife was watching "Henry V" and heard those words for the first time...
"No, my fair cousin:
If we are mark'd to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour."
I didn't really know what I was watching, and there was no context for this incredibly moving call to courage in the face of a forlorn hope; it was not until the narrator came on and identified the battle as Agincourt (which I recognized only as one of the great triumphs of the English longbow) that I knew that the forlorn hope had in fact materialized, and that the English had won.
"God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive."
One morning, several years after that chance introduction, my wife kicked open my door at about 6:00 AM (waking me from a sound sleep) and announced, "It's St. Crispin's day." I blinked, got up, and went downstairs to do some fast research, first of Shakespeare, then of various military histories, to verify that October 25, 1415, was indeed the day in question. And later that night I managed to work my first toast to Henry V into an online role-playing game.
"No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England:
God's peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more, methinks, would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
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."
So now, finding myself on the threshold of my annual St. Crispin's day toast, it seems appropriate to make an effort to explain why I feel such an obligation to commemorate an event that occurred more than 600 years ago.
"This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see 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.'"
I find the passage incredibly beautiful and powerful, of course, and it was a VERY impressive victory. The numbers vary significantly with the source, but this is the way I learned them: 29,000 French troops, including 6,000 heavy cavalry, met Henry's force of 4,000 footmen and 5,000 longbowmen.
"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 remember'd."
Met, or rather faced off, across a soggy, freshly plowed field. The French charged, bogged in the mud, and the English had target practice. By the time the French surrendered, they had lost more than 5,000 men. The English lost fewer than 500.
"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 remember'd;
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 accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day."
Every now and then, you run across something that isn't necessarily true, but should be, and could be. And that is why I do this, I guess; because the prophecy that Shakespeare put into Henry's mouth deserves to be true, in tribute to both of them. And I am doing my small part to make it so.
My friends, I give you Henry V of England; may he rest in peace.
10/25/2001 (with very minor updates since)
(And of course, Master Shakespeare)