“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 coun­try 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.

* * *

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.”

* * *

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. 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).

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