Death of Henry V

Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!
Comets, importing change of times and states,
Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky,
And with them scourge the bad revolting stars
That have consented unto Henry’s death!
King Henry the Fifth, too famous to live long!
England ne’er lost a king of so much worth.

John Lancaster, Duke of Bedford, Henry VI, Act 1, Scene 1

Henry was too famous to live long?  In any event, he did not.  At the age of 35, during his siege of Meaux, he contracted dysentery, always the greatest killer of soldiers before the last century.  He lingered for three weeks before dying in the small hours before dawn of September 1, 1422.  By the standards of his devout age he was judged quite pious in his observation of the Faith.  He was liberal in his alms to the poor and ever gave an attentive ear to the cries for justice of the weak.

He had suppressed Lollardy, his age doubtless viewing the concept of freedom of religion as strange as we would someone asserting today a freedom to sell tainted milk or moldy bread.  The overwhelming majority of people in Western Europe were Catholic, which they were certain was the True Faith.  Anyone trying to promulgate another version of Christianity was regarded by those same people as a dangerous purveyor of false and dangerous beliefs that would lead people to Hell.

On his deathbed he expressed only one regret, that he had not achieved his life’s goal of leading a Crusade to redeem Jerusalem. (more…)

Published in: on September 15, 2021 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Death of Henry V  
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Ides of March: The Soothsayer

Soothsayer. Caesar!

Caesar. Ha! who calls?

Casca. Bid every noise be still: peace yet again!

Caesar. Who is it in the press that calls on me? 100
I hear a tongue, shriller than all the music,
Cry ‘Caesar!’ Speak; Caesar is turn’d to hear.

Soothsayer. Beware the ides of March.

Caesar. What man is that?

Brutus. A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March. 105

Caesar. Set him before me; let me see his face.

Cassius. Fellow, come from the throng; look upon Caesar.

Caesar. What say’st thou to me now? speak once again.

Soothsayer. Beware the ides of March.

Caesar. He is a dreamer; let us leave him: pass.

Julius Caesar:  Act I, Scene 2


I think it would have amused the Romans of Caesar’s generation if they could have learned that the assassination of Julius Caesar would eventually receive immortality through a play written more than 16 centuries after the event by a barbarian playwright in the Tin Islands that Caesar had briefly invaded. It would have tickled their well developed concept of the ludicrous, judging from Roman comedy.

This Ides of March we are focused on the unnamed Soothsayer in the play who warns Caesar to beware of the Ides of March.  From ancient sources we know the name of the Soothsayer, Spurinna.  Suetonius, that National Enquirer style ancient historian, mentions him in a passage, go here to read it, noting numerous signs that Caesar was the subject of a plot against his life:

Again, when he was offering sacrifice, the soothsayer Spurinna warned him to beware of danger, which would come not later than the ides of March.

Certainly it required no soothsayer to predict assassination attempts against Caesar.  The civil wars which had brought Caesar to power were in the recent past, and Caesar being made Dictator for life, displeased probably a majority of the Senate, now reduced to being a mere cheering section for Caesar.  However, the Romans lived by signs and portents and bringing in the supernatural gave a certain inevitable quality about it.

Long before he rose to rule Rome, Caesar had been elected Pontifex Maximus, the chief priest of the Roman state religion.  Caesar’s private life was a public scandal, but private morality and the state religion were two separate things.  For the good of the State the religious rites of the State had to be properly performed.  That the aristocrats performing the rites were often privately skeptical was of no matter, paganism tending to be intensely transactional in the Roman cults.

Skepticism also tended to march side by side with superstition.  Virtually anything could be taken as a sign from the gods of a future event.  The ancient histories are filled with them.  That they may have been concocted after the fact is no matter.  They accurately reflect the world view of the Romans where forces beyond their ken moved humanity around like pieces on a game board.

Spurinna was a haruspex, a religious official who divined the future by looking at the entrails of a slaughtered animal, and Spurinna perhaps read doom in the entrails of the animal that Caesar had just sacrificed.  (Our ancient sources of course recall the predictions that came true and consign to oblivion the ones that were erroneous.)

Plutarch provided the famous scene for Shakespeare regarding the last meeting of Caesar and Spurinna:

The following story, too, is told by many. A certain seer warned Caesar to be on his guard against a great peril on the day of the month of March which the Romans call the Ides; 6 and when the day had come and Caesar was on his way to the senate-house, he greeted the seer with a jest and said: “Well, the Ides of March are come,” and the seer said to him softly: “Ay, they are come, but they are not gone.”

For the Romans the assassination of Julius Caesar was a turning point in their history, and thus it was important that this event be surrounded in a supernatural wrapper.

Published in: on March 15, 2021 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Ides of March: The Soothsayer  
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Ides of March: Caesar and Welles




Stoop, then, and wash. How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!


How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport,
That now on Pompey’s basis lies along
No worthier than the dust!


So oft as that shall be,
So often shall the knot of us be call’d
The men that gave their country liberty.

William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 1




I think it would have amused the Romans of Caesar’s generation if they could have learned that the assassination of Julius Caesar would eventually receive immortality through a play written more than 16 centuries after the event by a barbarian playwright in the Tin Islands that Caesar had briefly invaded. It would have tickled their well developed concept of the ludicrous, judging from Roman comedy.

One of the more celebrated performances of Julius Caesar was that of Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre players on November 11, 1937.  Welles was all of 22 and playing the angry young genius in a hurry role to the hilt.  Welles was already a radio star earning the fantastic, for that time, salary of $1500 a week.  The average annual salary in Depression era America in 1937 was $890 a year.  However, Welles was determined to make his mark in the theater, and he plowed back almost every cent into his Mercury Theatre company, after he broke with the Federal Theater Project.  Julius Caesar was the first play of the company.  The play was performed in modern dress, partially because Welles could not afford costumes, and partially because he saw the play as a mechanism to warn about the rise of fascism in Europe.  The uniforms used could just have easily caused the play to be set in Stalin’s Soviet Union.


The play received laudatory reviews and caused a sensation in the theater world.  Orson Welles portrayed Brutus, the hero of the play, with such bravura that in one performance he accidentally stabbed the actor portraying Caesar.  The poor fellow was off for a few months recovering.

The play established the reputation of Welles as a genius, a reputation that would prove a considerable burden to Welles over his three score and ten in this Vale of Tears.  It also predicted much of Welles’ subsequent career:  the critics loved it but it failed to turn a profit.  Me and Orson Welles (2008) gives a fictional portrayal of the production.  Christian McKay gave a mesmerizing performance as Welles.

Published in: on March 15, 2020 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Ides of March: Caesar and Welles  
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O’ For a Muse of Fire


Something for a weekend.  Soundtrack to Henry V (1989).  Hard to believe that it has been three decades since the release of Kenneth Branagh’s masterful take on Shakespeare’s celebration of England’s greatest warrior king.  Bonus:  Henry pondering whether asserting his claim to the throne of France is moral:


Published in: on October 26, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on O’ For a Muse of Fire  
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Ides of March: Octavian

Why do you cross me in this exigent?

I do not cross you; but I will do so.

Julius Caesar: Act V, Scene 1




I think it would have amused the Romans of Caesar’s generation if they could have learned that the assassination of Julius Caesar would eventually receive immortality through a play written more than 16 centuries after the event by a barbarian playwright in the Tin Islands that Caesar had briefly invaded. It would have tickled their well developed concept of the ludicrous, judging from Roman comedy.

Octavian is almost a bit player in Julius Caesar with very few lines.  Eighteen at the time of his uncle’s assassination, the future Augustus masterfully played a rather weak hand in the chaos that reigned after Caesar was dead.  Almost completely devoid of the military skill of Julius Caesar, his political genius far outshone that of his uncle.  Fortunately for him Antony, not a bad general, was, contrary to his image in the play, not extremely skilled in political intrigue and it was not that hard for Octavian to outmaneuver him in the political game of chess.  Octavian quickly became stronger than Antony both in political support and number of troops, but Octavian shrewdly used Antony’s military acumen, by forming with him the Second Triumvirate and smashing the forces of Brutus and Cassius at Philippi.    Octavian then embarked on the twelve years of political intrigue and military conflicts that would leave him the sole ruler of Rome.  As Dictator for Life, in effect, he forged the creation of a new state, the Empire, all the while protesting that he was merely a humble servant of the Republic.   Shakespeare in Antony and Cleopatra would give Octavian his due:


Let our best heads
Know, that to-morrow the last of many battles
We mean to fight: within our files there are,
Of those that served Mark Antony but late,
Enough to fetch him in. See it done:
And feast the army; we have store to do’t,
And they have earn’d the waste. Poor Antony!

The play Julius Caesar is filled with great characters, exuding charisma and given great lines to recite.  Yet the audience and Shakespeare know that it is the colorless Octavian, given only a few brief lines in the play, who will take all.




Published in: on March 15, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments (3)  
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Ides of March: Julius Caesar

Fate has a way of picking unlikely material,
Greasy-haired second lieutenants of French artillery,
And bald-headed, dubious, Roman rake-politicians.

Stephen Vincent Benet


I think it would have amused the Romans of Caesar’s generation if they could have learned that the assassination of Julius Caesar would eventually receive immortality through a play written more than 16 centuries after the event by a barbarian playwright in the Tin Islands that Caesar had briefly invaded. It would have tickled their well developed concept of the ludicrous, judging from Roman comedy.

The shade of Caesar probably would have objected to his portrayal by Shakespeare.  Caesar comes off as a stuffy dodo, almost reduced to a plot device, his assassination setting the play in motion.  To his contemporaries Caesar was a prodigy of nature.  Coming from a largely impoverished aristocratic family of no special note, Caesar rose to the front rank of the Roman political scene largely due to his political daring and his mastery of the intricate Roman political machinations of his time.  His military genius, which so fascinates us, he was able to exercise because of his political ability and intrigues, his political career in no way resting upon his military career.  His military genius did allow him to seize power and to begin the funeral ceremonies for the Republic which had been manifestly dying since the time of the Gracchi brothers decades before the birth of Caesar.  Caesar was a great destroyer in historical terms, but it would be up to his nephew Octavian, who lacked all of Caesar’s military skill but who was a greater political genius, to erect on the ruins of the Republic the Principate, that would morph in time into the Roman Empire, all while Octavian/Augustus protested that he was a Republican and that he was merely restoring the Republic.

The Ides of March deserve to be carefully marked in our contemporary time, because it demonstrates how swiftly a political system of great antiquity could be swept away, and one man rule installed.  Republics tend to be fragile things, and tend to die unless carefully tended and guarded.



Be patient till the last.
Romans, countrymen, and lovers! hear me for my
cause, and be silent, that you may hear: believe me
for mine honour, and have respect to mine honour, that
you may believe: censure me in your wisdom, and
awake your senses, that you may the better judge.
If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of
Caesar’s, to him I say, that Brutus’ love to Caesar
was no less than his. If then that friend demand
why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer:
–Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved
Rome more. Had you rather Caesar were living and
die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live
all free men? As Caesar loved me, I weep for him;
as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was
valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I
slew him. There is tears for his love; joy for his
fortune; honour for his valour; and death for his
ambition. Who is here so base that would be a
bondman? If any, speak; for him have I offended.
Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman? If
any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so
vile that will not love his country? If any, speak;
for him have I offended. I pause for a reply.


None, Brutus, none.


Then none have I offended. I have done no more to
Caesar than you shall do to Brutus. The question of
his death is enrolled in the Capitol; his glory not
extenuated, wherein he was worthy, nor his offences
enforced, for which he suffered death.

William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 2


Published in: on March 15, 2018 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Ides of March: Julius Caesar  
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Agincourt the Battle


October 25, 1415 was an amazing day for the English.  The English longbow had long proved during the Hundred Years War to be a devastating weapon in the hands of skilled archers, but rarely had the English faced such long odds as they did at Agincourt.  Approximately 6,000 English, exhausted and worn from their march, faced approximately 30,000 French.  About five out of six of the English were archers with the remainder men-at-arms, knights and nobility.  The French had about 10,000 men-at-arms, knights and nobility, and 20,000 archers, crossbowmen and miscellaneous infantry.

The English established their battle line between the woods of Agincourt and Tramecourt, which offered excellent protection to both of their flanks.  The English archers made up the front line with stakes set in the ground before them to impale charging horses.  Archers were also placed in the woods to provide flanking fire against advancing French.  The men at arms and knights and nobility, were divided into three forces behind the archers.  They fought on foot.

The terrain between the woods that the French would have to cross in their attack of the English consisted of newly ploughed, and very muddy, fields.  Having walked through muddy fields on several occasions in rural Illinois, I can attest that simply getting from point A to point B in such terrain can be exhausting, let alone fighting at the end of the tramp through the morass. (more…)

Published in: on October 25, 2016 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Agincourt the Battle  
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Ides of March: Two Antonies




I think it would have amused the Romans of Caesar’s generation if they could have learned that the assassination of Julius Caesar would eventually receive immortality through a play written more than 16 centuries after the event by a barbarian playwright in the Tin Islands that Caesar had briefly invaded.  It would have tickled their well developed concept of the ludicrous, judging from Roman comedy.

The late Charlton Heston played Antony twice in films: in 1950 at age 27, the videos at the beginning of this post are from the 1950 film, and in 1970 at age 47:

Mark Antony was 39 at the time of the events depicted.  Plutarch tells us what happened:

And therefore, when Caesar’s body [22] was brought to the place where it should be buried, he made a funeral oration in commendation of Caesar, according to the ancient custom of praising noblemen at their funerals. When he saw that the people were very glad and desirous also to hear Caesar spoken of, and his praises uttered, he mingled his oration with lamentable words, and by amplifying of matters did greatly move their hearts and affections unto pity and compassion. In fine, to conclude his oration, he unfolded before the whole assembly the bloody garments of the dead, thrust through in many places with their swords, and called the malefactors cruel and cursed murderers. With these words he put the people into such a fury, that they presently took Caesar’s body, and burnt it in the market-place with such tables and forms as they could get together. Then, when the fire was kindled, they took firebrands, and ran to the murderers’ houses to set them afire, and to make them come out to fight.

At this time Antony had a well deserved reputation as a wastrel and a well deserved reputation as a military man from his service under Caesar, but he had no reputation as an orator.  However, Antony’s paternal grandfather had been the foremost orator in Rome in his time, so there was a family tradition which Brutus and other conspirators would have done better to take into consideration before granting Antony a forum at Caesar’s funeral. (more…)

Published in: on March 15, 2016 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Ides of March: Two Antonies  
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God for Harry, England and Saint George


The Saint Crispin’s speech gets most of the attention in Henry V, but I have also always admired the “unto the breach” speech.  The performance of it by Jamie Parker, love his interaction with the audience, is the way the speech should be delivered:  a full throated rallying cry:

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead!
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man,
As modest stillness and humility;
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger:
Stiffen the sinews, conjure up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favoured rage:
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let it pry through the portage of the head,
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide;
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English,
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought,
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument.
Dishonour not your mothers: now attest,
That those whom you call’d fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture: let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit; and upon this charge,
Cry ‘God for Harry! England! and Saint George!’

Published in: on October 28, 2015 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on God for Harry, England and Saint George  
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Henry V, Shakespeare and Just War


Five hundred years ago Henry V and his army won an amazing victory over a French army that heavily outnumbered his.  Shakespeare in deathless language has ensured that this victory will be indeed remembered until the ending of the world.  It was a brilliant victory, but was it won in a just cause?

In answering the question we must first examine how the formulation of the Just War doctrine has changed from the time of Henry V to our time.

Over the centuries the precise content of the just war doctrine has varied.  The classic definition of it by Saint Thomas Aquinas is set forth in Part II, Question 40 of his Summa Theologica:

“I answer that, In order for a war to be just, three things are necessary. First, the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged. For it is not the business of a private individual to declare war, because he can seek for redress of his rights from the tribunal of his superior. Moreover it is not the business of a private individual to summon together the people, which has to be done in wartime. And as the care of the common weal is committed to those who are in authority, it is their business to watch over the common weal of the city, kingdom or province subject to them. And just as it is lawful for them to have recourse to the sword in defending that common weal against internal disturbances, when they punish evil-doers, according to the words of the Apostle (Rm. 13:4): “He beareth not the sword in vain: for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil”; so too, it is their business to have recourse to the sword of war in defending the common weal against external enemies. Hence it is said to those who are in authority (Ps. 81:4): “Rescue the poor: and deliver the needy out of the hand of the sinner”; and for this reason Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii, 75): “The natural order conducive to peace among mortals demands that the power to declare and counsel war should be in the hands of those who hold the supreme authority.”

Thirdly, it is necessary that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil. Hence Augustine says (De Verb. Dom. [*The words quoted are to be found not in St. Augustine’s works, but Can. Apud. Caus. xxiii, qu. 1]): “True religion looks upon as peaceful those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandizement, or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good.” For it may happen that the war is declared by the legitimate authority, and for a just cause, and yet be rendered unlawful through a wicked intention. Hence Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii, 74): “The passion for inflicting harm, the cruel thirst for vengeance, an unpacific and relentless spirit, the fever of revolt, the lust of power, and such like things, all these are rightly condemned in war.” (more…)

Published in: on October 26, 2015 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Henry V, Shakespeare and Just War  
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