Thursday, October 25, 2007

Happy Saint Crispin’s Day

But what did Henry really say to the troops?

M.H. Hansen argues convincingly:

What King Henry probably did is what many generals have done from classical antiquity right up to, at least, the Napoleonic Wars:[34] from horseback he shouted some encouraging remarks to the men as he rode along the front, and he may even have addressed some of the men individually. It is reasonable to assume that some memorable parts of his exhortation were remembered and worked into the formal battle exhortation, which later was attributed to the King in accordance with the classical historiographic tradition. The speeches reported by Elmham and Jean le Fèvre can easily be broken down into short apophthegms, whereas the complicated argumentation of the speech printed in Pseudo-Elmham cannot in any possible form have been delivered by a general traversing the line. Consequently, some of the remarks attributed to Henry the Fifth in the speeches reported by Elmham and le Fèvre may well be historical. What has to be fiction is the rhetorical form…

The voice of a person who stands some 50 m before the front line can carry no more than ca. 75 m in either direction. And when the speaker turns to one side, those standing on the opposite side can only catch some scattered words of what is shouted. Furthermore these conditions apply in calm weather when the speech is delivered to unarmed men….

The information reported here stems from an experiment I conducted in the meadow behind Copenhagen University. I would like to thank colleagues and students from the Institute of Classics for their cooperation. Let me add that I have a strong voice and that I was really shouting my declamation of a translation into Danish of Thrasymachos' speech in Xen. Hell. 2.1.13-7. At present, I am negotiating with the Queen's Guard and hope in near future to repeat the experiment, this time with one or more batallions as my audience.

But follow the link for the whole article.

Several contemporary accounts do have Henry V responding to one of his officer’s wish for more men with something very similar to Shakespeare’s: “God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more”, but that exchange is generally distinguished from Henry’s pre-battle speeches to his men. For those we should not imagine Henry climbing aboard a convenient wagon and making a single eloquent speech to the small fraction of the army within earshot, but riding a grey horse across the front of an army stretching for hundreds of yards, stopping from time to time to encourage the men with brief phrases:

Make yourselves ready, companions. I would rather die in the field for my rights than be taken, and put the realm of England to ransom for my person.

Let every man keep himself close and in good order and be of good cheer.

Sirs, think this day to acquit yourselves as men and fight for the right of England

I’ve come to France to recover my rightful inheritance. Fight boldly in that good quarrel, sure in the justice of our cause.

You are all born Englishmen. Think of your families at home. Fight hard, so you can return to them with great honor and glory.

Remember the many times that King Edward and Prince Edward fought for the right of England against the French with small armies and won great victories and the better of their enemies by God’s will.

He then dismounted by his banner, and waited for the French to attack. When the French remained passive for some time, he asked what time of day it was, and was told “prime”. He then shouted:

Then now is a good time, for all England is praying for us. Therefore be of good cheer, let us go into battle.

In the name of almighty God and St. George, advance banners! St. George, give us this day your help!

The preceding is a composite, drawn from the accounts of Thomas Elmham, Jean de la Fevre and different versions of the Brut. They can be found in Anne Curry’s The Battle of Agincourt: Sources and Interpretations (The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, Suffolk 2000), an excellent collection of the surviving records of the battle. Hansen is also worth consulting for the original Latin and French of Elmham and le Fevre.

More on Agincourt.

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