Because I’ve been rather engrossed in the Hundred Years War this past few weeks as I prepped for my summer graduate course on late medieval and Renaissance Europe, I’ve been thinking more about the Battle of Agincourt than, say, D-Day. And so for this Memorial Day weekend, a moment of remembrance and reflection, I thought I’d look at Shakespeare’s famous “band of brothers”/St. Crispin’s Day speech, with which King Harry rallies the troops just before battle in Henry V. “Band of brothers” is a familiar phrase to us now, because of Olivier and Branagh and Spielberg, but did it always have resonance? What did it mean when an actor first uttered these lines in 1599 or 1600, and after? 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; 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 accursed they were not here, And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks That fought with us upon Saint Crispin day.
Title page of first printed version of Henry V, Folger Shakespeare Library; Agincourt illumination, Lambeth Palace Library.
Of course Henry did not really utter these lines; Shakespeare wrote them for his late Elizabethan audience, tapping into their burgeoning nationalism in the decade after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, while Spain was still a very real threat. So when England was threatened again, do these words reappear? The Napoleonic Wars immediately come to mind, when an even more glorious national hero than King Henry V–Admiral Nelson–used the “band of brothers” analogy on several occasions, most notably in reference to the great victory against the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile in 1798. While Nelson was referring to the ship captains under his command, the phrase took on a more egalitarian and nationalistic meaning in the celebratory aftermath.
Contemporary prints of the “Glorious Battle of the Nile” and Admiral Nelson and his band of brothers, British Museum.
At about the same time the Battle of the Nile was waging on the other side of the world, Philadelphia statesman Joseph Hopkinson was penning a poem that later became the lyrics to the so-called first American national anthem, Hail, Columbia. Hopkinson’s’ chorus proclaimed: Firm, united, let us be, Rallying around our liberty, As a Band of Brothers joined, Peace and safety we shall find. My brief search through the sheet music collection of the Library of Congress gave me the impression that this song was far more popular in the nineteenth century than the Star Spangled Banner, which eventually became the national anthem in 1931. Before, during, and particularly after the Civil War, the phrase “band of brothers” was used in speeches and published materials in both the North and the South, cementing its American usage.
The Favorite New Federal Song, Adapted to the Presidents March, Library of Congress Music Division; 1909 Memorial Day souvenir card.
Back in Britain, the phrase was still Shakespearean, and most definitely one inspiration for Winston Churchill’s famous “the few” speech given in 1940 in the midst of the Battle of Britain, when Britain was most definitely standing alone: Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. I would expect (but didn’t really have enough time to confirm) that the band of brothers theme was used to emphasize the bond between British troops and their allies, both in the Commonwealth and outside, as the “we’re in this together” message is artfully employed in wartime propaganda.
Two examples of British wartime propaganda from the great exhibit at the UK National Archives, The Art of War: “Together” by William Little, 1940 & “Back against the Wall” by Illingworth, 1941.
It’s no accident that Sir Laurence Olivier chose to produce a stylized film version of Henry V during the war, indeed, the project was partially funded by the British government and originally dedicated to the “Commandos and Airborne Troops of Great Britain the spirit of whose ancestors it has been humbly attempted to recapture”. And there is the direct connection between Shakespeare’s romanticized war and an all too real one. I do recall the inclusion of Shakespeare’s words in Spielberg’s and Hanks’ Band of Brothers (as well as Stephen Ambrose book on which it is based), but it doesn’t matter; by this point in time, the title says it all.
A fifteenth-century manuscript brought to life/film: the recently-restored Henry V (1944).