Today is Saint Crispin’s Day which, if you know your Shakespeare, you might recognise as the anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. This was a battle in which the English army, led by King Henry V, beat the French. The odds were against the English. They had just fought another battle at Harfleur, were ravaged by dysentery, had marched for miles and were outnumbered six to one. The English won mainly because they were pretty great with a longbow. King Edward III had made a law that every man in England must practise his longbow skills every Sunday. There is evidence of where the practice grounds were all over the country in places called things like ‘Butt Road’. A butt was the name for a target. Hence, the people of Shepshed, Leicestershire who live on Butthole Lane are very proud of its name and refuse to change it, despite all the jokes.
But I digress, The Battle of Agincourt is also famous because of the rousing speech Shakespeare gave to the king in his play Henry V. It’s all about how much more glorious their victory will be because there are so few of them and how everyone at home will be sorry they missed it. It ends like this:
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 St. Crispin’s day.’
As for Saint Crispin himself, we don’t know much about him. He shares his feast day with his twin brother Crispinian. They fled from Rome, or from Canterbury, after their father was killed. In some stories they settled in Soissons in France and in others in Faversham, Kent. They preached Christianity in the day and at night, they earned their living making shoes. Perhaps they provided cheap shoes for the poor, perhaps an angel provided them with leather. They seem to have been martyred some time in the third century. The story of their martyrdom includes them having thongs cut from their flesh and being thrown into the sea with millstones around their necks. Also maybe the man who was torturing them became so angry and frustrated that he fell into a vat of boiling oil.
None of these vague stories explain why they were martyred or how they came to be venerated. But they became the patron saints of shoemakers. Anyone who made shoes got a day off to celebrate Saint Crispin’s Day and choose from among their number, a King Crispin. Emperor Charles V once tried to get his shoes fixed on Saint Crispin’s day and found himself invited to a massive party instead. The only other interesting reference I could find to Saint Crispin’s day celebrations was in the town of Tenby in Wales, some time previous to 1858. The people of the town would build an effigy of the saint on the eve of his feast day and hang it from a steeple. The next day they would cut it down and carry it round in a procession to visit every shoemaker in town. There, they would read a document which they said was the last will and testament of Saint Crispin and leave behind an article of the effigy’s clothing in what Robert Chambers tells us was ‘a memento of the noisy visit’. When there was nothing left of Saint Crispin but his padding, they made it into a football and kicked it round the town until they were tired. I don’t think this was meant to be an honour to Saint Crispin or the shoemakers. Possibly the shoemakers didn’t think so either because they used to do exactly the same thing to Saint Clement on his feast day. Saint Clement is the patron saint of blacksmiths. I can only assume that the shoemakers and blacksmiths of Tenby didn’t get on.