SS Crispin and Crispinian were, allegedly, executed on October 25th, 285 or 286 during the persecution of Diocletian, and so today is their day. The two were probably brothers and were in Gaul as Christian missionaries while earning their living as shoemakers when they fell foul of the Roman authorities. According to the story, the pair were stretched on the rack, thongs were cut from their flesh and awls driven under their finger-nails. A millstone was then fastened about the neck of each, and they were thrown into the river Aisne, but were delivered and were able to swim to the opposite bank of the river. And then, somewhat puzzlingly, they were beheaded (and were not delivered). They are the patron saints of shoemakers, saddlers and tanners.
St Crispin’s Day is of course best known as the date of the Battle of Agincourt, whose six-hundredth anniversary is today. In Shakespeare’s version in Henry V the king attempts to quell the fears of those of his knights who have pointed out that they are heavily outnumbered by their French enemy, asking 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.
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
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.”
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 rememb’red.
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 remembered-
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 St Crispin’s Day.
James Shapiro, in a chapter called “Band of Brothers” in his book 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, brings out the Irish background which he sees as “haunting” Henry V, namely the campaign of the Earl of Essex. Ireland was apparently so much on Shakespeare’s mind as he was writing the play (and on the minds of fellow Englishmen, since the campaign was not going well) that it intruded into the text in what we might now call a Freudian manner. The Queen of France, who has never met Henry V, who is to be her son-in-law, greets him with the words: “So happy be the issue, brother Ireland, / Of this good day and of this gracious meeting.” The slip is not the queen’s but Shakespeare’s (“brother England” was obviously meant); modern editors correct the words silently.
“Shakespeare was aware,” Shapiro writes, “that on some deep level, as their brothers, husbands and sons were being shipped off to fight in Ireland, Elizabethans craved a play that reassuringly reminded them of their heroic, martial past. What better subject than the famous victories of Henry V? The siege at Harfleur would be a triumph (compensating for the humiliating defeat of besieged Blackwater. But Shakespeare also knew that this same audience – already weary of military call-ups and fresh demands to arm and victual troop, and unnerved by frightful reports from settlers and soldiers returning from Ireland – were, by the eve of Essex’s departure, of two minds about the campaign.”
This phase of England’s campaign in Ireland was, we know, to be finally successful at Kinsale in 1601, rebellion in Ireland and a possible renewed Spanish invasion now having been seen off for the foreseeable future. At a time of renewed danger for Britain more than three centuries later., during World War II, Laurence Olivier delivered the St Crispin’s Day speech during a radio programme to boost British morale; his reading impressed Winston Churchill, who asked him to produce Henry V as a film and this duly appeared in 1944. It is a piquant irony that while the film was produced in England, the Agincourt battle scenes were filmed in neutral Ireland in 1943, using scores of extras, the descendants no doubt of those woodkerns who had caused the English such trouble in the 1590s.