Many holidays have been proclaimed for various reasons. Some are important, some are trivial. Martin Luther King Day took a long fight to become a holiday, Columbus Day has largely passed on without a fight. But October 25th is one holiday that could be added to our calendar, a holiday that celebrates something I am rather fond of. It is St Crispian’s Day, and it celebrates the English Language.
We would not be aware of this minor saint’s day had it not been for William Shakespeare, and his desperation to find a hook that tied to the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. It happened to have occurred on October 25th, the feast of Saint Crispin.
The setting is the day before battle, where they are outnumbered five to one. It’s not looking like it will be a good day, but Henry is not deterred one bit. It’s his job to whip up the troops – played well by the crowd at the Globe Theater.
This day is called the Feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a-tiptoe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall see this day and live t’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.”
What’s that got to do with the English language? Quite a lot. Henry V, like all English monarchs, spoke French at the court he inherited from his father. They were, after all, Normans; a Viking people civilized as Frenchmen who had taken England in 1066. England was ruled by French, and that’s the way it was.
When Henry Hotspur (so named for his love of charging into battle) decided to enlarge his properties in France, he did something else first. He changed the court language over to English, that guttural tongue of Saxons and lower classes. His plan was that, from now on, the world would know that England ruled the French. And Hotspur had the troops, from the humble Pikemen to the Welsh Longbowmen, on his side.
Perhaps this is why he received such good treatment under the quill of Shakespeare. It was Shakespeare that 200 years on made Henry the great mythological figure we know him as today:
If we are marked to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will, I pray thee, wish not one man more.
But as we all know, they lived that day at Agincourt, and the Welsh Longbow cut the French knights to ribbons. English became the order of the world from that day forward. Actually, it took another 400-600 years, but the English saw the way it was going. Shakespeare knew that the forward progress of English from a language of peasants to the ruling language of Europe needed a hero. Henry Hotspur was his man. The stage and the props and the drama were only present to set the moment. The true art was in the language that stirred the hearts of men centuries hence. It was English, nothing more nor less than the noble language that rose up from humble stock. Henry was the mythological figure that delivered it to them, a gift for St Cripin’s Day.
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today 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 abed
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.