Sermon for Shakespeare’s Birthday

Preached at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, on 23 April 2018

Today we celebrate two things: William Shakespeare’s Birthday, and the feast of St George. We don’t know for sure that Shakespeare was born on 23 April, only that he was baptized on the 26th April, 1564, here in this church. But it’s a useful coincidence that juxtaposes, on the same day, the birthday of our national poet with the feast day of our patron saint.

But St George is of course the national saint of a nation that doesn’t exist, and has perhaps never existed: England. Before the English had formed anything like a national state or government, they had already started colonizing other nations – Wales, Scotland, Ireland – so Britain came into being before England. England was an empire before it became a nation, always looking outwards, always expanding, never looking inwards, never reflecting on its own identity. Now England co-exists in the United Kingdom with other nations that have their own government and parliament and national culture, while England has none of these. Our nationality is British; our passports are issued by the United Kingdom. We belong to a church, the Church of England, the national church of a nation that doesn’t exist.

So who was St George, this national saint without a nation? He came from Cappadocia, which is now in Turkey, and was martyred in Palestine in the early 4th century AD.  We don’t even know what he did, except that as a Christian he defied the Roman state during the persecution of Diocletian, and was beheaded. By the 11th century he had become in Eastern Europe the dragon-slayer, and a warrior saint. As such he was adopted by Western crusaders. By the fourteenth century the cross of St George had become a sort of uniform for English soldiers and sailors, and St George’s Chapel in Windsor was a spiritual home for English chivalry. On April 23rd the flag of St George flies proudly from the roofs of our parish churches because, in 1416, the year after the Battle of Agincourt, St George’s Day was made a great feast in the calendar of the Church of England. ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more’, says Shakespeare’s Henry V: ‘Cry “God for Harry, England, and Saint George!”’ Harry, England, St George; king, country, church. Monarchy, patriotism and faith, a little late in the day defining the national identity of the ‘noblest English’.

This year, 2018, we are commemorating the final stages of the First World War. This year the celebration of the Armistice on 11 November will be 100 years since the first Armistice. A celebration of peace, not war; a commemoration of loss, not victory. Remembrance Day was of course founded shortly after the First World War, and the poppies we wear in November invoke the flowers of Flanders Fields.

But let’s go back a bit further, to the same region, but to a different time in history: to 1415, to the Battle of Agincourt, where an English army of just over 2000 men defeated a French army of 50,000 in an astonishing against-all-odds victory.

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
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 Saint Crispin’s day.

That of course is Shakespeare’s dramatized Henry V, addressing his men before the battle. The words of this speech in Shakespeare’s 1599 play have become inseparable not only from our historical memory of Agincourt, but from other wartime emergencies in which this nation has stood and fought alone against insuperable odds. In 1940 Winston Churchill echoed Henry V when he celebrated the airmen who won the Battle of Britain –Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few’. ‘The few’ – another moment in history where the British military defended the nation with extraordinary courage and heroism. Laurence Olivier’s great film of Henry V was released in 1944, and dedicated to the soldiers, sailors and airmen who took part in the D-Day landings.

Now most of that great speech in the play, when you look at it more closely, is not about the present moment, the moment on the battle-field where you’re facing the enemy: but about future commemoration. Shakespeare’s Henry V is virtually inventing Remembrance Day long before its time. Shakespeare looked back across nearly two centuries to Agincourt, and imagined Henry V looking forward to a future in which Agincourt is remembered as a great historical victory, an annual Remembrance Day. Those who fight and survive will remember the day with pride, recall their deeds, show their wounds (just as today we wear the poppies that symbolise a wound). But Agincourt will live not just in the memory of the soldiers who fought there, but as a permanent festival in the national memory:

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d …

And the battle won’t endure in memory just as a military victory. Henry sets out to transform a feast of French Catholic martyrdom – the feast of Saints Crispin and Crispian – into an anniversary of English national triumph. In future this annual ‘vigil’ will memorialise not the wounds of the executed martyrs, but wounds acquired in the course of achieving an English victory. The litany will not enumerate the names of saints, but the names of the heroic English, which also happen to be English place-names: ‘Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,/Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester’ (4.3.53-55) shall all in our ‘flowing cups’ be ‘freshly remembered.’ The link between ‘flowing cups’ of wine and commemoration inevitably suggests Holy Communion. But in this ritual the ‘host’, the consecrated body of Christ, will be replaced by a new sacrament in which the ‘host’ (4.3.34) of heroic English soldiers will be ‘familiar in [the] mouth’ (4.3.52) of each communicant. This narrative will be repeated until the end of the world, like the narrative of the Passion that informs the Eucharist in the Book of Common Prayer – ‘a perpetual memory of his precious death, until his coming again’.  Like the Passion, Agincourt will seal itself into sacramental remembrance by the shedding of blood: ‘For he today that sheds his blood with me/Shall be my brother’ (4.3.61-62).  This image of the royal blood commingling with that of his followers indicates that Henry is not offering himself as a martyr-leader to replace the Catholic saints, but rather insisting that the whole English army can collectively achieve such status by their willingness to shed blood for their country.  Shakespeare’s Henry V is a very Protestant king; but he’s also a very theatrical one: since the play itself is one of the ways in which the ritual of commemoration is kept.

Now people will tell you this is all jingoistic, and xenophobic, and Henry had no business to be in France anyway. But this is not just about war. It’s really about the nation, and the unity of the nation. The band of brothers we see on the battle-field, or the troupe of actors we see on the stage, stand for the nation as a whole.

And it’s also about the Church of England. The language Henry uses about the need for unity on the battlefield is largely drawn from the Book of Common Prayer, where it works to exhort the people to participate in the Eucharist, and in doing so to set aside all social differences and community divisions, and to become one in Christ. So this kind of Remembrance concerns the nation, and the need for the nation to remember together, to share memories, to meet on common ground. It also politically concerns the Church of England, and the way in which the church binds its community together, not by dogma, but by common action; not by doctrine, but by common worship. But Remembrance is also universal: since it concerns that sacrifice made once for all upon the Cross for all humanity.

Agincourt is any moment in history when the nation needs to stand together, speak with one voice, act with one purpose – the crisis of the Spanish Armada; Waterloo; the Battle of Britain. And today we still commemorate those soldiers and sailors and airmen because they did, and do, risk their lives to defend the nation, to defend its culture (including its church, its religion), to defend its freedom.  In November wear our poppies with pride in honour of those who shed their blood, of those who can show their wounds: because such sacrifice lies at the heart of our faith. As Jesus himself said: ‘Greater love hath no man than this: that he lay down his life for a friend’.

As long as Britain was a warlike, imperial power, colonizing other nations, Henry V, victor of Agincourt, was an unproblematical hero, and St George fitted the bill as a patron saint: the mediaeval knight, the crusader, dragon slayer, chivalric rescuer of maidens. St George was Britain, the dragon anyone we didn’t like, the maiden anyone we wanted to rescue or liberate. Today, in a Britain paralyzed by guilt about the Empire, conflicted about military virtues, and convinced that women should be saving themselves, he is more often a source of embarrassment. He’s marginalized in official culture, and tends to be taken up by minority groups of little Englanders opposed to immigration. His flag is often flown as an act of defiance.

But this really should not be so. In New York there is a wonderful statue of St George outside the United Nations building by the East River. St George is transfixing the dragon with his lance, and the dragon’s body is made from the casing of a German V2 rocket left over from the 2nd World War. Here St George is peace conquering war; the strong nations uniting to defend the weak against aggression; the savior binding the dragon of violence, as in the Book of Revelation. This international symbol of St George is one we as a nation should be able to relate to. Strength used to help the helpless; power employed to save. In this emblem of sacrifice, deliverance, redemption, St George the martyr and St George the warrior are re-united. This is not St George the logo of the British Empire, but St George the soldier of Christ, who bears the cross of Christ on his breast, and who bravely stands up to violence and injustice to save the weak and oppressed who need his help. As poet Edmund Spenser put it, describing his version of St George, Redcross:

For on his breast, a bloody cross he bore,

The dear remembrance of his dying lord

For whose sweet sake that glorious badge he wore

And dead, as living, ever him adored.

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