Upon Saint Crispin’s Day
Fought was this noble fray
Which fame did not relay
To England to carry.
O when shall English men
With such acts fill a pen?
Or England breed again
Such a King Harry?
Sometimes my passions for history and literature feed one another and ultimately leads to obsession. This is the predicament I find myself in now. It all started with the PBS airing of The Hollow Crown, the three Shakespearian history plays of Richard II; Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2; and Henry V. These BBC produced productions have all that one has come to expect from British history/costume drama: spectacular scenery, lavish costumes, and superb acting. This production has the latter in spades with a cast that includes Jeremy Irons, Ben Whishaw, Simon Russell Beale, Julie Walters, Patrick Stewart, and Tom Hiddleston to name a few. But Tom Hiddleston who plays Prince Hal/Henry V is the one responsible for my current fascination with the Lancasters and their usurpation of the Plantagenet throne, the re-launching of the Hundreds Years’ War with France, and the eventual overthrow of this dynasty by the House of York which would lead to the War of the Roses, a tumultuous period that would only come to an end with the accession of the Tudors in 1485.
But let’s get back to Tom Hiddleston for a moment. This man who has acting talent to match his wonderful aristocratic good looks was able to move me to laughter and then to tears in this version of the plays. He lifted my spirit and made me feel I would do my all for King and country. He truly encapsulated the character of Prince Hal/Henry V. His portrayal of the rapscallion Prince of Wales who hangs out with miscreants and purposefully antagonizes his father is nonetheless charming and fun and sexy but upon the death of his father, Henry IV, leaves his wayward conduct behind him to become one of English history’s greatest warrior kings and the one who, had he not died at the age of 32, would have returned most of France to English dominion. His Henry V is a man with the common touch and an excellent commander and tactician who can rally his men, high and low, to his cause. But, of course, the history plays are not true history and Shakespeare takes artistic license where it suits him in his need to honor the Tudor monarchs who were his patrons.
So even as I sat fantasizing about Tom/Henry going once more unto the breach at Harfleur and rousing his men with the “band of brothers/St. Crispin’s Day” speech at the Battle of Agincourt I began to consider the real history. And so, I began to read about this fascinating man and king. I work in a place that has a terrific library at my disposal so I began with Rosemary Hawley Jarman’s short and straightforward Crispin’s Day: The Glory of Agincourt. I finished it in two days and it left me thirsty for more. I had read years ago The Hollow Crown: A History of Britain in the Late Middle Ages by Miri Rubin which chronicles the undeniably extraordinary and brutal period in British history. Set amongst the backdrop of the Black Death, The Peasants Revolt, the Battle of Agincourt, and the Wars of the Roses were the reigns of exceptional kings, from Edward I to Richard III. It was a time of great turmoil, brutality, as well as great artistic achievements. During this latest obsession I found myself going back to this book again and again.
I knew that Henry V believed his conquest of France was virtuous by divine right but also discovered that he was also opportunistic. He exploited the divisions of the French and used diplomacy to make sure France’s usual allies stayed away. The French believed they would win. They can be excused for such presumptuous feelings for on the morning of October 25, 1415 they outnumbered the English by 4 to 1 (although some historians say 6 to 1), they were healthy, well-fed, and positioned upon their own turf were a majority of France’s great military commanders and royal nobility. In extreme contrast the English army were far from home, exhausted, malnourished, and sick, many still feeling the effects of the dysentery that had killed more men than any actual battle had. Some of the men were barely clothed. A mere four hours later after the battle’s start the field was strewn with the dead, the majority being French with almost all of their nobility wiped out.
It is fascinating stuff and I have several other titles in my reading queue because once the preoccupation grabs me it has to be sustained to the end. So I have borrowed from my public library, Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle that Made England by Juliet Barker (she of the tome-licious The Brontes), History of the Battle of Agincourt, and the expedition of Henry the Fifth into France, to which is added the roll of men at arms, in the English army published in 1832 by Sir Nicholas Harris and An historical account of the reign of Henry the Fifth, intended as a companion to the great historical picture of the memorable battle of Agincourt painted by Robert Ker Porter, Esq. now exhibiting at the Lyceum, Strand published in 1805.
And because I like to share my passions I have suggested to my book club the historical novel, Good King Harry by Denise Giardina. It is a story told as an autobiography with the great man himself describing his tumultuous youth, difficult relationship with his father, his victory at Agincourt, hopes for his own son, and eventual death from dysentery on the battle fields of France in 1422. Hopefully it is a good read but we’ll see. I suspect that I will have to follow-up with Bernard Cornwell’s treatment of this particular episode in history. That guy does his research!!
Tom Hiddleston as Henry V
On this Saint Crispin’s Day, I would personally like to thank Tom Hiddleston for his brilliant performance which inspired me to read up on the real history and learn about the real man who was Henry V.