It’s been little over a week since the 600th Anniversary of King Henry V’s victory over the French at Agincourt. It was that battle at Agincourt that inspired Shakespeare to write one of the most famous patriotic speeches of all time — a speech that still holds truth for us today.
In Kenneth Branagh’s superb 1989 film version of the play, the speech comes at the most despairing point of the story. Henry’s invading army has trudged through mud and rain, and one of their number has just been hanged for robbing a church. The French outnumber his army five to one. Morale is at low ebb, and the men grumble amongst themselves, grimly bidding each other farewell and pining for reinforcements from England.
Overhearing, the young king protests: “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.” His tone grows intimate as he foresees a future when an honored veteran of this day – St. Crispin’s Day – will “strip his sleeve and show his scars. … 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.” As he continues, the men begin to feel their hearts stirred – this king is no god, but brother to all, “be he ne’er so vile,” for the bond of blood is deeper than mere ceremony. Their lot is not an unfortunate one, but rather that of a select, chosen brotherhood.
Watch Kenneth Branagh’s moving delivery of the speech below:
The battle is so divorced from context — a mostly opaque event, a name and date rather than a vivid picture with emotional and personal stakes — that Henry’s speech has become a patriotic touchstone that transcends nationality and time. Phrases from the speech appear in a song written for George Washington’s inaugural address and a Confederate marching song. Laurence Olivier used it to rally Britain in the face of the Nazi threat. American soldiers heading to Iraq were provided with copies of the play by the Defense Department.
What the speech evokes is universal. It is a vision of a king humbling himself (Phil. 2:6-8), making himself one of his men, and thereby exalting them (2 Cor. 8:9), so that they are not slaves, but sons (John 15:15). G.K. Chesterton observes that “there is a great man who makes every man feel small. But the real great man is the man who makes every man feel great.” Like Christ, Henry’s stirring appeal to these men is to surrender themselves to something greater.
Their seemingly hopeless endeavor is part of a great crusade; they themselves are part of a magnificent historical moment that will span the ages of the world. It is not for naught that the Bible employs the language of battle to describe the Christian’s struggle against “the cosmic powers over this present darkness” (Eph. 6:10-18). Finally, Henry’s prophetic vision provides the most important element: hope. His men look forward to a future reward beyond the squalor of war, when they achieve immortality through remembrance.
Henry V — both historical and fictional — was a flawed man (something the play does recognize and grapple with). But despite his fallen nature, he has come to embody a self-sacrificial valor which we should not dismiss. Through his humility, he found a form of grace, and was not unaware of this fact, as he commands his men to sing, when the battle is won:
Non nobis, Domine, non nobis,
sed nomini tuo da gloriam.
Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us,
but to thy name give the glory.
May it be so indeed.