Sunday, 25 October 2015

600 years on, haven't the few, the happy few, done well?

It’s a good time for the centuries-old English sport of Frog-bashing, or being nasty about the French.

In fact, it’s a good year for it, since the second centenary of Battle of Waterloo occurred on 18 June. That ’s the battle where the French were so comprehensively beaten by the Prussians.

Apologies, of course I meant the British. After all, one of the commanders arrayed against Napoleon was the Duke of Wellington, who was English. Well, Irish actually, but you know – Anglo-Irish.

He commanded 25,000 Brits, out of the nearly 200,000 men eventually engaged, which really underlines the extent of the purely British victory. A majority of those 25,000 were probably English, so Waterloo certainly provides some kind of basis for Frog-bashing.

This week was another high point within that year. Wednesday was the 210th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, a much more solidly British triumph. Nelson led a British fleet against a joint French and Spanish force off Cape Trafalgar, providing a name for one of London’s most spectacular squares. I always make a point of taking French visitors there, to remind them of one of those occasions when we came out on top.

John Gilbert's Morning of the Battle of Agincourt
Today, the 25th of October, is an even more significant day. It’s Saint Crispin’s, dedicated to Saints Crispin and Crispianus, or Crispian. That’s as in “this day is called the feast of Crispian: he that outlives this day, and comes safe home, will stand a tip-toe when the day is named, and rouse him at the name of Crispian.”

Yes. 600 years ago today, that fine Englishman, Henry V, led his gallant band into battle against the French on the field of Agincourt. They were hugely outnumbered, of course, some claiming by as much as 10:1, others by just 6:1. This made the English victory not just all the more glorious but also puts it hors concours, as we like to say in English, as the greatest ever case of Frog-bashing recorded.

That huge disparity in numbers also gave rise to another fine moment in the Shakespeare speech, from his play about the King cleverly entitled “Henry V”, which I’ve already quoted above.

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

Great stuff, isn’t it? It also tells us so much. 

For instance, “gentle” clearly didn’t mean sensitive and delicate or anything that soft. It meant being part of that select brood that called itself “gentlemen”, and as the speech makes clear, you didn’t get access to it by being gentle – on the contrary, you did it by shedding your blood with the King on St Crispin’s day.

Presumably, though, Henry would have preferred it if you shed the blood of the dastardly enemy. He was quite a soldier, so I imagine he’d have shared the view expressed some centuries later by US General George Patton: “no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making some other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”

Shakespeare puts into the king’s mouth a smart contrast to “gentle”: the opposite is, it seems, “vile”. Clearly it’s being used here to mean common, base-born, of inferior standing. So if you’re vile, it seems you can raise your standing – gentle your condition – by killing a lot of Frenchmen and showing them (or at least the ones still standing) that, whatever their numbers, they can never be the match for fine upstanding Englishmen.

Funnily enough, it’s worth taking a look at those numbers again. Anne Curry, who did a book about Agincourt ten years ago, argues that the odds were more like 4:3 in favour of the French, and may indeed have been closer still than that to equality. Still, we won’t insist on that point here, since it rather reduces the Frog-bashing quality of the incident, and hence the anniversary.

Instead, let’s focus on the great achievements of the victory. The things we value deeply and which wouldn’t have been possible without that famous English victory. Off-hand, I can’t think what they are, but they have to be there somewhere. Surely.

It is, no doubt, to those gains that we, in the nations that think of themselves as civilised, owe the blessings we enjoy today. Most notable of those blessings is by the rule of gentlemen, made gentle either by birth or by the skilful use of lethal force, caring for the rest of us vile commoners with all the tenderness we’ve come to expect. And never being vile themselves, of course.

In that spirit, lets take up the suggestion from Shakespeare’s Henry to celebrate this day in “flowing cups”. Then we can help ensure that

Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d

Well, OK, they shall be remembered, not we. But, hey, you know what I mean.

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