24 October: St Crispin's Eve

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.' 

Henry V (Act IV Scene iii)  by William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

This is part of the famous speech made by Henry V on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt. It's so familiar to us, that sometimes it's hard to remember that Shakespeare made it up. A bit like people who believe soap operas are real life, it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the young King really did visit his soldiers' camp the night before the battle and then rallied them with this wonderfully rousing speech.

I went to Agincourt once. It's called Azincourt now and it's a lot of ploughed fields - sugar beet I seem to remember. However there are helpful notices which enable you to see the positions of the various troops and we spent a muddy but enjoyable morning working out how the battle unfolded. Then we drove to Waterloo and did the same again. It's not that far away - about 125 miles. They are both in that sad part of the Low Countries; fought over for hundreds of years and soaked in the blood of generations.

It's 598 years since the Battle of Agincourt. And yes it was a famous victory. The English Archer with his long bow triumphed over the French Cavalier still fighting according to principles of a former time. The archers moved lightly over the muddy ground that sucked in the French cavalry and made them sitting targets. The enemy were attempting to cut off the English retreat to the coast and the English soldiers were tired, worn out by dysentery and far fewer in number, but they were skilled. Boy were they skilled.

Over 150 years earlier, the 'Assize of Arms' of 1252 required that all citizens, burgesses, free tenants, villeins and others from 15 to 60 years of age should be armed. Even serfs were expected to have a halberd and a knife, and freemen a bow, if they owned land worth more than £2. Then in 1363, Edward III declared, "Whereas the people of our realm, rich and poor alike, were accustomed formerly in their games to practise archery – whence by God's help, it is well known that high honour and profit came to our realm, and no small advantage to ourselves in our warlike enterprises... that every man in the same country, if he be able-bodied, shall, upon holidays, make use, in his games, of bows and arrows... and so learn and practise archery."

You can drive round England now and see innumerable country roads called 'Butt Lane' or 'The Butts'. I had a quick look on StreetMap and stopped counting at 100. Every village had its archery practice ground - and the old road names tell us where they were. Every man could use a bow and arrow and we're not talking about the flimsy things archers use these days. These were longbows made of yew wood. To master one required considerable strength and skill, but a trained archer held in his brawny arms a weapon with the power to pierce the leg armour of an opponent or to de-horse him.

Once upon a time we were a nation of archers, and the evidence is all around us . In fact it is us; every Archer, Arrowsmith, Fletcher, Bowman, Boyer, Stringer and Stringfellow. Archery is in our names, our geography and our blood.

One final note. In 1415 at the Battle of Agincourt just one soldier carried in his hand a strange metal tube which at the pull of a lever, fired a small metal ball over a considerable distance. Warfare would never be the same again. In fact on exactly the same day, 25th October in 1854, the Charge of the Light Brigade took place at the Battle of Balaclava...nothing compares.

I scanned through Henry V for food references and there are several: strawberries, beef, barley broth and because of the prominence Shakespeare gives Fluellen, there lots of references to leeks! At one point Pistol refers to his sword a something on which to toast cheese, just the sort of thing the soldiers were doing as the young King went on his rounds. Anyway it me think of Welsh Rarebit and leeks.

I used to be a bit of a purist about Welsh Rarebit and thought putting egg yolks in it was heinous. But actually it works well and stops the mixture going stringy.

Cornish rarebit leek gratin.

2 slimmish leeks (dark green parts discarded) then washed and chopped into rings as thick as a pound coin
60g butter

175g Cornish Yarg, de-rinded and grated
1 tsp English mustard powder
30g butter
3 tablespoons - 45ml of good beer or stout.
2 egg yolks

Cook the leeks in the 60g butter until meltingly soft but not brown. Set aside.

In the same pan, mix the mustard powder with the beer, add the 30g of butter cubed and heat gently until the butter has melted. Tip in the cheese, reserving a tablespoonful or two for the top.

Very gently, keeping the heat low, stir the mixture until the cheese has melted. Cool a little and taste, then season with black pepper and a little salt. You can add Worcester Sauce - and I would if this were just going on toast.

Add the egg yolks and stir through, then add the leeks. Pour into individual gratin dishes, grate a little cheese on top and grill until bubbling.

Serve with crusty bread and a sharp salad.

    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.


PS. Such is my innocence that when I googled 'The Butts' to find an image for you, the results were quite unexpected. The correct English term of course begins with an 'a'.

1 comment:

Toffeeapple said...

Another very interesting post, thank you. I ordered Welsh Rarebit in a restaurant recently - what a disappointment, it didn't even look like or taste of cheese. My Ma would have been shocked to have it put in front of her.