"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers."
Many people have heard this quote, and have no context for where it comes from. Shakespeare wrote Henry V nearly two hundred years after the battle of Agincourt. The battle took place on October 25, 1415 outside the small French town of Agincourt. Henry was leading a demoralized English army, suffering from dysentery and hunger, to the costal town of Calais.
The French army had a vastly superior force, both in size and health (modern estimates give the French at a 5 to 1 advantage). The French felt that their superior numbers would overcome the devastating effect of the English and Welsh archers. The French nobility were so confident in their victory, they insisted on being part of the vanguard, and guaranteed glory.
Henry was able to turn the terrain to his advantage. The archers were deployed on the sides of a narrow field, protected from cavalry by pointed wooden stakes. The men-at-arms were arrayed 4 deep across the field. The field had recently been plowed, and was bordered on both sides by dense wood, protecting the English from being flanked.
Recent heavy rains turned the plowed field into deep mud, forcing the French onto foot. Their plate armour made the walk through the mud exhausting. As they approached, hundreds were killed by archers, littering the ground with bodies. The second and third waves of French continued pushing forward, causing a traffic jam, and eventually preventing their own men from effectively using their weapons due to the density of living and dead men. The English archers eventually ran out of arrows, and joined the combat with whatever weapons they could find. The decimation of the French nobility shocked the rear guard, who still heavily outnumbered the English, and routed them.
The final number of dead is unclear. Period estimates put the French deaths up to 11,000. The English only lose 150-450 men. Henry was able to successfully lead his army home.
While Henry's speech in the play is pure fiction, it illustrates the charisma medieval Kings would have relied upon to lead armies into battle, and is one of the finest examples of English literature.
Click through for the full speech.
St. Crispen's Day Speech
William Shakespeare, 1599
Enter the KING
WESTMORELAND. O that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!
KING. What's he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;
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.
God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God's peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
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 Crispian'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 Saint Crispin's day.