The English generals were ready. Their troops waited on the battlefield, tensed for the order to fight. The sun was climbing in the sky and the moment was at hand.
‘Where is the King?’ said Gloucester.
‘The King has ridden out to see their army in person,’ said Bedford.
‘They have sixty thousand fighting men,’ said Warwick.
‘That’s five to one!’ said Exeter. ‘And besides, they’re all fresh.’
‘May God fight on our side!’ exclaimed Salisbury. ‘These are fearful odds. Goodbye, princes all. I’m going to my troops. If we don’t meet again till we meet in heaven, then joyfully, my noble lord of Bedford, my dear Lord Gloucester, and my good Lord Exeter.’ He shook the hand of each lord then took Warwick’s. ‘My kind kinsman,’ he said. ‘Warriors all, goodbye.’
‘Farewell, good Salisbury, and good luck,’ said Bedford.
‘Farewell, kind lord,’ said Exeter. ‘Fight bravely today. And yet I do you an injustice to remind you of that as you are the epitome of valour.’
‘He is as brave as he is kind, and princely in both,’ said Bedford after he had left.
King Henry came up behind them and, unseen by Westmorland, heard him exclaim: ‘Oh, if only we had just ten thousand of those men who aren’t working today here with us!’ Henry came forward, shaking his head.
‘Who’s wishing that? My cousin Westmorland? No, my dear cousin, if we are marked down to die we are enough for our country to lose, and if marked down to live, the fewer the men the greater the share of honour. For the love of God, don’t wish for one man more. By Jove, I’m not interested in gold, nor do I care who eats at my expense. It doesn’t bother me who wears my clothes. Such outward things don’t come into my ambitions. But if it is a sin to long for honour I am the most offending soul alive. No, indeed, my cousin, don’t wish for another man from England. God’s peace, I wouldn’t lose as much honour as the share one man would take from me. No, don’t wish for one more. Rather proclaim to my army, Westmorland, that anyone who doesn’t have the stomach for this fight should leave now. He will be guaranteed free passage and travel money will be put in his purse. We would not like to die with any man who lacks the comradeship to die with us. This day is called the Feast of Crispian. He who outlives this day and gets home safely to reach old age will yearly on its anniversary celebrate with his neighbours and say, “Tomorrow is Saint Crispian.” Then he will roll up his sleeve and show his scars and say “I got these wounds on Crispin’s day.” Old men are forgetful, but even if he remembers nothing else he’ll remember, with embroideries, what feats he did that day. Then our names, as familiar in his mouth as household words – Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter, Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester – will be remembered in their toasts. This good man will teach his son, and Crispin Crispian will never pass from today until the end of the world without us being remembered: we few: we happy few: we band of brothers! The man who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother: however humble he may be, this day will elevate his status. And gentlemen in England, still lying in their beds, will think themselves accursed because they were not here, and be in awe while anyone speaks who fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.’
Salisbury rejoined them. ‘My sovereign lord, take your position, quickly. The French are rearing to go and they’ll be charging at any moment.’
‘If we’re mentally prepared, then everything’s ready,’ said Henry, looking round at his noblemen.
‘Perish the man who’s not ready,’ said Warwick.
Henry smiled. ‘So you’re not wishing for extra men from England, cousin?’
‘By God, my liege,’ exclaimed Warwick, ‘I wish that only you and I, without the help of anyone else, could fight this royal battle!’
‘Well! You’ve just unwished five thousand men! I prefer that to wishing for one more. You know where your positions are. God be with you all.’
There was a trumpet fanfare: it was Montjoy, the French herald.
‘I come once more to know of you, King Harry, whether you’re prepared to negotiate your ransom before your certain defeat. You are so near the eye of the whirlpool that you can’t avoid being sucked in. In addition, the Constable, in his mercy, asks you to make your followers mindful of repentance so that their souls can make a sweet and peaceful departure from these fields where, poor wretches, their broken bodies must lie and rot.’
‘Who sent you this time?’
‘The Constable of France.’
‘Please take my former answer back,’ said Henry. ‘Tell them to capture me first, then sell my bones. Good God, why do they have to mock poor fellows like this? The man in the fable who sold the lion’s skin while the beast was still alive, was killed while hunting him. Many of our bodies will no doubt find English graves on which, I trust, this day’s work will be commemorated in brass. And those who leave their valiant bones in France,dying like men, although buried in your dunghills, will be revered. For the sun will shine on them there and draw out their honourable souls, raising them to heaven, leaving their bodies to suffocate your air, the smell of which will breed disease in France. Take note of the exceptional valour of our English. Even when they’re dead they’re like a ricochetting bullet: breaking out into a second volley of destruction, killing even after their deaths. Let me say this with pride: tell the Constable we are professional soldiers. Our colourful clothes and our decorations are all muddy from our march through the rain and difficult terrain. There’s not a single decorative feather among our whole army – convincing proof, I hope, that we won’t run away – and time has made us all look slovenly. But, by heaven, our hearts are fit. And my poor soldiers tell me that before nightfall they’ll be in fresher robes because they’ll pull those bright new coats over the French soldiers’ heads, putting them out of work. If they do that – and please God they will – my ransom will then soon be paid. Herald, save yourself some time: don’t come back about ransom, gentle herald. They will get nothing, I swear, but these limbs of mine. And they won’t have much use out of them given the condition I’ll leave them in. Tell the Constable.’
‘I will, King Harry,’ said Montjoy. ‘And so, farewell. You won’t hear from this herald again.’
‘I suspect you’ll come another time about a ransom,’ said Henry.
The Duke of York arrived as the herald was leaving.
‘My lord,’ he said, ‘I beg you most humbly and on my knees, let me have the honour of leading the vanguard.’
‘Take it, brave York.’ The King pulled himself erect. ‘Now, soldiers. March!’ He paised and raised his eyes. ‘God, Thy will be done today!’