Last Post – Frank McNally on St Crispin’s Day, English patriotism, and shoe-making

Laurence Olivier in Henry V

Laurence Olivier in Henry V

 

With the Halloween Brexit deadline apparently receding, the call to arms from Act IV of Shakespeare’s Henry V may get fewer outings today than it would normally. 

Still, it’s a fair bet that even now, somebody somewhere in England is reciting the king’s words to his troops on the eve of Agincourt: “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.”

As Henry hoped, and Shakespeare knew, October 25th, 1415, would bring a famous English victory over France, one that left large parts of the latter under control of the former and seemed to secure an Anglo-French monarchy for good.

It didn’t quite work out that way. Thanks to Joan of Arc and other complications, the cross-channel kingdom was obliterated by 1453, except for Calais.

Stretching the point, slightly, one could say that Henry’s soliloquy involved a load of old cobblers. Or two old cobblers anyway – the men for whom St Crispin’s Day was named.

Shakespeare seems to merge them into a single entity, but Crispin and Crispianus were twin Roman Christians, martyred in circa 286 AD.

Until then they had financed their religious mission by making shoes and selling them at low prices to the poor (a business model made possible, it is said, because the leather was supplied free, by angels). Hence their role ever since as the profession’s patron saints.

It may be amusing to note that one of the better-known shoemaker’s sons of Irish history, Patrick Kavanagh, was born in this week of 1904 (indeed, the Dublin-Monaghan Association marked his birthday as usual with an event on Tuesday night). But how great a risk the author of Stony Grey Soil was ever at of being named Crispin Kavanagh I can’t say. 

Not much, probably – the name is more an English thing, maybe because of its patriotic associations there. Mind you, I also recall a letter on this page from a London-based correspondent a few years ago who had been born on October 25th and wanted to thank his parents publicly for their foresight in not making him a Crispin. 

Chips

The problem would have been his surname, “Golden”, which might have made him sound like an advertisement for oven chips. His parents wisely called him John.

Probably the best-known Crispin in England these days, ironically, is Crispin Odey, the vastly wealthy hedge fund manager. It’s ironic because, although he’s a leading supporter, and financial backer, of Brexit, he is also notorious for making fortunes from his “bearish” bets against the pound, something the Brexit crisis facilitated.

It was longbows that decided the Battle of Agincourt. “Shorting”, by contrast, is among Odey’s winning strategies.

Getting back to cobblers, the question arises how their noble profession ever became a byword for “nonsense”. You might suspect this relates to another expression, used to caution those who overreach their expertise: “A cobbler should stick to his last.”

That dates back long before Crispianity (as it were), to the 4th century BC, when the great Greek painter Apelles used to hide himself outside his shop and eavesdrop on critiques of his work. 

Once he overheard a cobbler finding fault with his portrayal of a shoe, so he later rectified his errors. But after noticing the improvement, the same cobbler now criticised the depiction of the shoe-wearer’s leg, whereupon Apelles emerged from hiding to have the last (in every sense) word.

As for a “load of old cobblers”, however, that’s a much more modern expression, unseen in print until the 1930s. And it has little to do with shoemaking. 

It’s from our old friend Cockney rhyming slang, being shorthand for those other implements of the trade, “cobblers’ awls”, and thereby deputising for the less polite “balls”. I wonder if the saintly Maeve Binchy knew this when she first introduced the term to The Irish Times via her London columns.

In the irreligious French republican calendar, by the way, there was no St Crispin’s Day. 

Instead, reflecting the calendar’s celebration of France’s rural economy, October 25th (aka IV Brumaire) became Beetroot Day.

I mention this because the revolution also ended a curious anachronism that persisted for centuries after Agincourt, whereby, despite having long retreated back across the channel, England still claimed the throne of France. 

The claim ended only when the French monarchy did, on the guillotine in 1793. The official paperwork took longer again. It was only via another notorious territorial expansion, the Act of Union 1800, that the UK quietly dropped its claims to France, whereupon the fleur-de-lis also finally disappeared from the British royal standard.

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