“The Pool of England”: How Henry V Inspired Churchill’s Words

“The Pool of England”: How Henry V Inspired Churchill’s Words

Excerpt­ed from “Churchill, Shake­speare and Hen­ry V.” Lec­ture at “Churchill and the Movies,” a sem­i­nar spon­sored by the Cen­ter for Con­struc­tive Alter­na­tives, Hills­dale Col­lege, 25 March 2019. For the com­plete video, click here.

Shakespeare’s Henry: Parallels and Inspirations

Above all and first, the impor­tance of Hen­ry V is what it teach­es about lead­er­ship. “True lead­er­ship,” writes Andrew Roberts, “stirs us in a way that is deeply embed­ded in our genes and psyche.…If the under­ly­ing fac­tors of lead­er­ship have remained the same for cen­turies, can­not these lessons be learned and applied in sit­u­a­tions far removed from ancient times?”

Churchill’s war speech­es are—what shall we say—inspired by, remind­ful of, anal­o­gous to Shakespeare’s works in ancient times. First exam­ple: the enemy’s over­con­fi­dence. At Agin­court, before any fight­ing takes place, as the French pre­pare to rout the Eng­lish, the Duke of Orleans opines:

Fool­ish curs, that run wink­ing into the mouth of a Russ­ian bear
and have their heads crushed like rot­ten apples.
You may as well say that’s a valiant flea
that dare eat his break­fast on the lip of a lion….
It is now two o’clock: but, let me see, by ten
We shall have each, a hun­dred Englishmen.

Ani­mal analo­gies are things Churchill deployed, but that is not the con­nec­tion here. That pas­sage smacks of his 1941 speech to the Cana­di­an Par­lia­ment about the French gen­er­als in 1940. Remem­ber how he quot­ed them? “In three weeks Eng­land will have her neck wrung like a chick­en.” And his response: “Some chick­en!. . .Some neck!”


At the siege of Harfleur, before Agin­court, Churchill writes in his His­to­ry that the British were bad­ly out­num­bered, yet “fore­most in prowess.” And Shake­speare quotes King Henry:

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our Eng­lish dead …
I see you stand like grey­hounds in the slips …
Fol­low your spir­it, and upon this charge 
Cry “God for Har­ry, Eng­land, and Saint George!”

“Once more into the breach, dear friends” … “Once again. So be it.”

This is echoed in Churchill’s war mem­oirs, where he writes: “Once again we must fight for life and hon­our against all the might and fury of the valiant, dis­ci­plined, and ruth­less Ger­man race. Once again. So be it.”


And in his per­ora­tion to his out­er cab­i­net on 28 May 1940—the speech that ensured Britain would not seek an armistice with Hitler: “We shall fight on, and if this long island sto­ry of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each of us lies chok­ing in his own blood upon the ground.”

Hugh Dal­ton remem­bered: Churchill’s min­is­ters stood shout­ing, slap­ping him on the back, while tears poured down his cheeks, and theirs. A.P. Her­bert wrote:

Mr. Cham­ber­lain, after all, was tough enough, and since the war began, had been heart and soul with Mr. Churchill. But when he said the fine true thing it was like a faint air played on a pipe and lost on the wind at once. When Mr. Churchill said it, it was like an organ fill­ing the church, and we all went out refreshed and res­olute to do or die.

“A Little Touch of Harry in the Night”

On the night before Agin­court, King Hen­ry tours the Eng­lish camp incog­ni­to, to gauge morale. The scene recalls Churchill’s 1899 account of the night before the Bat­tle of Omdur­man. Or Churchill’s vis­its with the troops in North Africa, before D-Day, and in France. But the clos­est anal­o­gy, I think, is in 1941. That was when Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt sent his con­fi­dant, Har­ry Hop­kins, to Britain, to tell him if the UK was still worth backing.

Hop­kins trav­eled up and down the land, dev­as­tat­ed by the bomb dam­age he saw. Every­where he went, he observed grit and deter­mi­na­tion, and faith in final vic­to­ry. Hop­kins had no doubts. In Glas­gow, intro­duced by Churchill, he famous­ly quot­ed the Book of Ruth: “Whith­er thou goest, I will go,” and he added, “even to the end.” Churchill wept.

We few…

Har­ry Hop­kins with reporters.

Back in Lon­don, Lord Beaver­brook host­ed Hop­kins and the press at Claridge’s. “We won­dered,” a Beaver­brook reporter said, “as our cars advanced cau­tious­ly through the black­out toward Claridge’s, what Hop­kins would have to say. [He went round] the table, pulling up a chair along­side the edi­tors and managers…and talk­ing to them indi­vid­u­al­ly. He aston­ished us all, Right, Left and Cen­tre, by his grasp of our own sep­a­rate poli­cies and prob­lems. We went away con­tent. And we were hap­py men all.”

We few, we hap­py few…

To many who heard or read his words—FDR, Beaver­brook, Robert Sher­wood, even J. Edgar Hoover, who had FBI agents present—Hopkins remind­ed them of Hen­ry V, tour­ing the camp before Agincourt:

With cheer­ful sem­blance and sweet majesty,
That every wretch, pin­ing and pale before,
Behold­ing him, plucks com­fort from his looks…
Thaw­ing cold fear, that mean and gen­tle all
Behold, as may unwor­thi­ness define,
A lit­tle touch of Har­ry in the night.

1415 and 1940

William F. Buck­ley Jr. said, “It was not the sig­nif­i­cance of vic­to­ry, mighty and glo­ri­ous though it was, that caus­es the name of Churchill to make the blood run a lit­tle faster. It is the roar that we hear when we pro­nounce his name…. The Bat­tle Agin­court was long for­got­ten as a geopo­lit­i­cal event, but the words of Hen­ry V, with Shake­speare to recall them, are imper­ish­able in the mind, even as which side won the Bat­tle of Get­tys­burg will dim from the mem­o­ry of men and women who will nev­er for­get the words spo­ken about that bat­tle by Abra­ham Lincoln.”

I think that might be true. It is the words, not the bat­tles, that make the blood run faster in times to come. On the eve of Over­lord in June 1944, Gen­er­al Ismay was remind­ed of Henry’s words at Agincourt:

He which hath no stom­ach to this fight,
Let him depart; his pass­port shall be made, 
And crowns for con­voy put into his purse.

Ismay heard one para­chute com­man­der say as he entered his aircraft:

And gen­tle­men in Eng­land now a-bed,
Shall think them­selves accurs’d they were not here.

Of course that was a time, as I’ve said, when almost every Briton knew Shake­speare. And it was also a time, as Churchill added, “when it was equal­ly good to live or die.”

Old Men Forget

In the same act, Hen­ry tells his soldiers:

Old men for­get: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remem­ber with advantages,
What feats he did that day….

Address­ing sol­diers of the Eighth Army, Cairo, 1943.

In ear­ly 1943, writes Lewis Lehrman, “Churchill para­phrased those words to sol­diers of the Eighth Army, who had defeat­ed Rom­mel: ‘After the war, when a man is asked what he did, it will be quite suf­fi­cient for him to say, ‘I marched and fought with the Desert Army.’”

Churchill wrote in his His­to­ry of the Eng­lish-Speak­ing Peo­ples: When one of Henry’s offi­cers “deplored the fact that they had ‘but one ten thou­sand of those men in Eng­land that do no work to-day,’ the King rebuked him and revived his spir­its in a speech to which Shake­speare has giv­en an immor­tal form:

If we are marked to die, we are enough
To do our coun­try loss; and if to live,
The few­er men, the greater share of honour.

Com­pare that to May 28th again, or to Churchill’s great­est speech, 18 June 1940: “if the British Empire and its Com­mon­wealth last for a thou­sand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”

“Collective Consciousness”

It was no coin­ci­dence, Jon Meacham writes, that

he tied the tri­als of the present to the col­lec­tive con­scious­ness of the world to come. Men will still say was a call to arms rem­i­nis­cent of Hen­ry V with the image of how the tale would be told from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion. This sto­ry shall the good man teach his son [became] “Be brave now, and the future will cher­ish your mem­o­ry and praise your name”—an impres­sive, if risky, means of lead­er­ship, for under stress not all of us are like Bed­ford and Exeter.

Churchill’s his­to­ry records the King’s actu­al quot­ed words: “‘Wot you not,’ he said, ‘that the Lord with these few can over­throw the pride of the French?’ He and the few lay for the night.” On 20 August 1940, Churchill spoke of anoth­er small, out­num­bered band, the RAF fight­er pilots: “Nev­er in the field of human con­flict has so much been owed, by so many, to so few.”

Crispin’s Day

Remark­ably, Churchill in his speech­es or His­to­ry nev­er quot­ed from Hen­ry V’s grand cli­mac­teric, the Crispin’s Day speech. In fact, writes Geof­frey Best, “he made far few­er his­tor­i­cal and lit­er­ary ref­er­ences than a more com­mon­place per­former might have done. But the effect was to repro­duce the con­grat­u­la­tions addressed by Shakespeare’s hero to the Eng­lish­men lucky enough to be with him at Agincourt.”

In his His­to­ry, Churchill offers lines that are not Shakespeare’s: “The King him­self, dismounted…and short­ly after eleven o’clock on St. Crispin’s Day, Octo­ber 25, he gave the order, ‘In the name of Almighty God and Avaunt Ban­ner in the best time of the year, and Saint George this day be thine help.’ The archers kissed the soil in rec­on­cil­i­a­tion to God, and, cry­ing loud­ly, ‘Hur­rah! Hur­rah! Saint George and Mer­rie England!’”

Since he’d writ­ten those words already, who can say that Churchill didn’t remem­ber them in his 19 May 1940 speech, “Be Ye Men of Val­our?” There he said: “Our task is not only to win the bat­tle but to win the War…for all that Britain is, and all that Britain means.” More mod­ern language—but the sen­ti­ments are the same.

Constables of France

HenryIn the 1944 movie the Con­sta­ble of France (Leo Genn) is not an empa­thet­ic fig­ure. He is arro­gant, imper­turbable, impas­sive and phlegmatic—and supreme­ly con­fi­dent of vic­to­ry. Then with the bat­tle almost lost, he insists on return­ing to the fray and dying in combat.

I think Churchill recalled this char­ac­ter when he wrote about Charles de Gaulle, dur­ing the fall of France in June 1940. Churchill tells us how, among the defeatist French, he came across this “impas­sive, imperturbable…tall, phleg­mat­ic man.” On the last of those meet­ings before France sur­ren­dered, prompt­ed I think by a rec­ol­lec­tion of the strongest French char­ac­ter in Hen­ry V, he said of de Gaulle: “This is the Con­sta­ble of France.” And so he was.

Acts of Union

Toward the end of the play, after woo­ing Kather­ine, Hen­ry promis­es they will sire, out of Saint Denis and Saint George, celes­tial patrons, one of France and the oth­er of England,

a boy, half French, half English,
who will go to Constantinople
and take the Grand Turk by the beard!

Marthe Bibesco, the Ruman­ian princess, in a good lit­tle 1950s book on Churchill, noticed this com­par­i­son: “And here we have,” she wrote, “in defi­ance of chronol­o­gy, already pre­dict­ed, the day after Agin­court, the Dar­d­anelles expe­di­tion, which, in 1915 dur­ing the alliance between France and Eng­land will be so near to Churchill’s heart.”

Kather­ine (Renee Ash­er­son) and Hen­ry (Lau­rence Olivi­er), in the 1944 film ver­sion, shown at Hillsdale’s seminar.

She then cites words of the priest at the altar, Ye shall be two in the one flesh. “All those who know him,” she wrote, “would be pre­pared to swear that Churchill had this whole scene of Shakespeare’s in mind when he under­took that nup­tial flight on 11 June 1940… The man who came that evening to ask for the hand of France in mar­riage offered her peo­ple dual nation­al­i­ty, with two pass­ports, the right to vote in both coun­tries, the pool­ing of the armed forces, in a word a true wedding!”

That’s a bit of a stretch—Churchill did make that offer, the Act of Union. But he lit­tle expect­ed that it would be accept­ed, or have much effect, and it didn’t.

For Them Both, “It was Always England”

As Churchill goes on to write, Hen­ry V’s French union was not to last. Churchill in old age like­wise lament­ed that he had accom­plished much, only to accom­plish noth­ing in the end. And yet, what a self-descrip­tion he offers us, writ­ing of the King in 1938, not pub­lished until 1956. Hen­ry V, he wrote:

was no feu­dal sov­er­eign of the old type with a class inter­est which over­rode social and ter­ri­to­r­i­al bar­ri­ers. He was entire­ly nation­al in his out­look: he was the first king to use the Eng­lish lan­guage in his let­ters and his mes­sages home from the front; his tri­umphs were gained by Eng­lish troops; his pol­i­cy was sus­tained by a Par­lia­ment that could claim to speak for the Eng­lish peo­ple. For it was the union of the coun­try [that gave Britain her] char­ac­ter and a destiny.

Is that not a descrip­tion of Churchill him­self? I think, if only sub­con­scious­ly, he meant it to be.

His old friend Desmond Mor­ton sur­mised that

for Churchill, it was always England…And thus Churchill was its man. He had nev­er moved away from such a world…it had caught up with him from behind, a back slip in time. This was Hen­ry V and all the great music of Shake­speare in the trib­al soul….he saw him­self mir­rored in the pool of Eng­land. And Eng­land in him.

3 thoughts on ““The Pool of England”: How Henry V Inspired Churchill’s Words

  1. I’ve just been watch­ing Branagh and Olivier’s ren­di­tions of Shakespeare’s Hen­ry V speech­es, try­ing to rouse myself for England’s Euro 2021 games! ;) In doing doing so, I was pick­ing out sim­i­lar­i­ties aplen­ty with Churchill’s great­est war speech­es. When brows­ing the web for reports of the same, I should have known it would lead me straight back to you!
    ‘Only he act­ed from hon­esty and for the gen­er­al good. His life was gen­tle, and the ele­ments mixed so well in him that Nature might stand up and say to all the world, “This was a man.”’

    Thanks sin­cere­ly for the very kind words. RML

  2. Sim­ply won­der­ful. I have always loved the Lau­rence Oliv­er ver­sion of Hen­ry V. I grew up hear­ing sto­ries about it and final­ly saw it with my father in the 1970’s at the Lit­tle Carnegie Movie The­ater in NYC. My father first saw the film in Mani­la in 1945 (but not before arrang­ing for a show­ing for Gen­er­al MacArthur).

    Thanks kind­ly. RML

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

RML Books

Richard Langworth’s Most Popular Books & eBooks

Links on this page may earn commissions.