Today is Crispin’s Day. So what really happened?

Today’s cocktail is the cherry cobbler. I’ll get to what it is and why, but first, Shakespeare’s King Henry V before the Battle of Agincourt:

Kenneth Brannagh as Henry V

“Today is called the feast of Crispian.

He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,

Will stand a tip-toe when this day is named,

And rouse him at the name of Crispian.

He that shall see this day, and live old age,

Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,

And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’

The will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,

And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s Day.’

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.”

Saints Crispin and Crispinian, who was also called Crispian, were brothers and missionaries from Rome to Gaul. They were martyred for their faith around the year 286. They preached by day, and they made shoes by night to pay their bills. They are the patron saints of shoemakers, or cobblers. That’s why the drink of the day is the cherry cobbler: .5 oz cherry heering, .5 oz lemon juice, 1.5 oz gin, .5 tsp sugar, one cherry, one lemon wedge.

As we few, we happy few, we band of brothers, raise our glasses with the cherry cobblers in toast to Crispin and the King, let’s look at the rest of the story. It’s not a tale of chivalry, lads. It’s a tale of butchery, and brutality, and the hell of war. William Tecumseh Sherman would be right to state it again, more than 400 years later. War is indeed hell. Come to think of it, maybe we shouldn’t toast at all, or just toast to Crispin and Crispinian.

So what really happened at Agincourt? Whence that storied victory? A combination of luck and superior military technology for the English, and vanity combined with stupidity on the part of the French.

England’s invading army was in tatters. Henry V landed his ships on the Normandy coastline in the summer of 1415, thinking he would claim the crown of France.  The French Dauphin blew off Henry’s challenge to meet in single combat and raised a big army that besieged and nearly starved the English at Harfleur.

Disease swept through the English camp. Henry was to lose more of his men to rampant dysentery than he did in battle. More than a thousand were reduced to agonies, with blood and filth constantly oozing out of them. The stench was indescribable: by the time the siege was lifted, and the survivors had staggered south in pouring rain and crossed the Somme river, the French were boasting that their enemy were as good as dead.

The English and Welsh troops were outnumbered four-to-one. But they had as their best weapon the longbow. It fired arrows with such power that they could pierce even the heavy armor of knights on horseback, and kill at 200 yards or more. Most of the 5,000 archers were Welsh, mere commoners, who wielded 7ft bows made from thick yew staves, tipped with cow horn.

Henry knew his theatrics. He rode a small grey horse and his legs hung down with no stirrups. His armor was mirror bright and his helmet was crowned with a richly jeweled golden battle crown. He was making himself a target, to show his troops how unafraid he was.

The French lined up at least 1,000 glory-seeking knights, lords and minor aristocrats, all itching to make their reputations as warriors, on the front line. They wanted to capture English knights and hold them to ransom — and they were so certain of swift victory that they feared all the rich pickings would be gone unless they were first into battle. Their own archers and crossbowmen were sent to the rear.

The Welsh longbowmen at Agincourt

The sticky clay ground had been churned to a quagmire the previous night as the grooms walked the noblemen’s horses around, and a headlong gallop was impossible. The English began to advance, until they were within bowshot range. Then the archers opened fire. After hesitating, above the screams of wounded men and horses, the French cavalry tried to charge.

The ranks of knights broke up into ragged lines, and the English archers began to pick them off like snipers. It was impossible for the Frenchmen to mount a cavalry charge. The horses stumbled, floundered, and fell.

French knights who survived the blizzard of arrows blundered onto the archers’ next line of defense — sharpened stakes rammed into the mud that impaled the horses. As the animals thrashed, the aristocrats were thrown off, and the archers clubbed them to death with mallets. Horses that saw the threat in time swerved back and crashed into those still advancing. The French went tumbling, with more ranks tripping over the bodies as they advanced.

The archers were able to fire into this lurching mass without respite, while the primitive French artillery far behind the lines lobbed cannonballs that caused just one English casualty and mostly landed among their own troops.

Realizing that the cavalry assault had failed, the French commanders signaled a mass infantry attack. As the fallen men struggled to haul themselves out of the sludge, they were knocked flat by the new arrivals who, in turn, tripped and fell. A great number of men drowned in the mud beneath heaps of other bodies, though no English weapon had touched them.

Finally the French trumpets sounded the retreat, and more than 2,000 Frenchmen surrendered rather than have their throats slit. They removed their helmets and were herded back towards the English baggage train, to be ransomed later.

But rumors swept the exhausted English army that a second French attack was being mounted from the south. Afraid of being trapped on two sides, with the added peril of 2,000 armored Frenchmen in the heart of his own army, Henry reacted ruthlessly. He ordered the immediate execution of all but the most noble and valuable of the prisoners. Two hundred archers did the killing, with daggers.

In a desperate bid to escape, some of the Frenchmen barricaded themselves into a barn. The English burned the barn down.

Around 8,000 Frenchmen died at Agincourt. English and Welsh casualties numbered just a few hundred. After the battle, Henry’s men ransacked the French camp, before marching in triumph to Calais.

The king sailed for home, and landed in a snowstorm at Dover, before elaborate festivities in London hailed him as “Henry the Fifth, King of England and France.”

Glorious and chivalrous? I don’t think so.  Brilliant strategy? Nah. More dumb luck than anything else. And is there any doubt now as to why the British and the French really don’t like each other?

And that’s the real story of what happened on the Feast of Crispian.

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