St. Crispin's Day October 25
Henry V’s most famous “band of brothers” speech, in Shakespeare’s play, Henry V, centers on the shoemaker’s holiday, the Feast of St. Crispin.
"This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home, / Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named, / And rouse him at the name of Crispian. / He that shall live this day, and see old age, / Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours, / And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:'" (IV iv 40-46)
This iconic speech often causes people-including me—to assume that St. Crispin’s day was a major holiday in the late medieval and early modern calendar.
So, I started what turned out to be the surprisingly difficult task of piecing together Tudor celebrations of St. Crispins’ Day. After all, in Shakespeare’s Henry V where the king assures his soldiers that people will remember that day until the end of the world.
Well, he was not quite right.
In fact, in researching this topic, I struggled to find out more about how the Tudors observed the Feast of St. Crispin. What little I did find did not tell me much about how sixteenth sixteenth-centurycentury English citizens observed the holiday.
So, this month’s blog on St. Crispin’s Day will be about three things:
the history that is available about St. Crispin
the shoemaker’s guild celebrations
the story about the holiday that I was able to extrapolate from popular culture such as Shakespeare’s Henry V and Thomas Dekker’s Shoemaker’s Holiday.
History about St. Crispin
The little history I did find, however, presented a significant issue. St. Crispin was not one person. He was two—two brothers.
The Encyclopedia Britannica tells us that the two brothers, Crispin and Crispinianus, lived in the third century. The brother came from noble Roman family—the kind of family that would be discontented in their sons converting to this new-fangled thing called Christianity.
Things got worse for the brothers than just narrow-eyed looks at the dinner table. They lived during the persecutions of Roman emperor Diocletian. Now, many Roman Emperors looked down upon Christians—but Diocletian really didn’t like Christians.
Crispin and Crispinianus could see the writing on the wall and fled from the imperial persecutions to the Roman province of Gaul, what we know of today as Soissons, France. Once in Gaul, the brothers adopted the trade of shoemaking while carrying on missionary work for the Christian faith.
Shoemaking, for the brothers, was not a random choice. Late Antique shoemakers were known to carouse, and they were quick to disrupt social hierarchies—just as the brothers had done by converting to Christianity.
But to make their narrative arc complete, the brothers had to be martyred.
As this stained-glass window from Soissons shows, the brothers refused to sacrifice to the emperor—by this time the emperor was Maximian—as a god. The window shows clearly that Crispin and Crispinanus disrupting the social hierarchy by turning their backs on the statue of the emperor in the center of the panel.
The Catholic Encyclopedia tells us that Crispin and Crispinanus were apprehended and beheaded by order of Emperor Maximian in the year 285 or 286. After their deaths, the early Christian church named the brothers patron saints of shoemakers and leather workers. For centuries afterwards, shoemakers’ guilds held celebrations in their honor. The reference to the feast of St. Crispin in Shakespeare’s Henry V is to their traditional feast day, October 25.
And, as part of their legacy, Crispin and Crispianus created a link between shoe making and spiritual growth and learning. As Alison Chapman talks about in her Renaissance Quarterly article, “Whose Saint Crispin’s Day Is It?: Shoemaking, Holiday Making, and the Politics of Memory in Early Modern England,” In the language of a popular early modern pun, these "sole menders" often become "soul menders.”
We can see here in The Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile (British Library Add MS 18851) that as late as 1497, the brothers were listed separately in the calendar entry for October.
Yet, about 100 years later, when Shakespeare’s Henry V speaks of them, he speaks as if the brothers a single person. At some point during the Reformation the saints dual sacrifice was reworked into the martyrdom of one.
And as far as Tudor celebrations, the “yearly on the vigil” that Henry V speaks of, there is very little surviving information. No recipes, dances, or sermons that I could find—even after irritating multiple reference librarians at two universities.
So, what’s next?
We can extrapolate from what sources we do have and imagine the types of celebrations on the day.
First let’s begin with what we know about craft guilds.
The Shoemaker’s Craft Guild
Shoemakers were a craft guild—and a powerful one. Craft guilds had a homogenized format for celebrating their patron saint days. Guild masters knew that to solidify corporate spirt and culture, the workers needed festival and plays—entertainment that defined exclusivity to the craft.
On the feast day of St. Crispin, we can imagine, the celebration would have begun in the church. There would have been a procession of the statue through the town—blending for the only time of the year, the secular and sacred spaces.
Next would come a large public feast sponsored by the shoemaker’s guild. At the celebration, the guild would have highlighted their charitable works, and their commitment to the parish church. Members and festival goers alike would have been encouraged to donate. Money likely would have been spent on corporate guild needs for members as well as planning for the afterlife with chantry niches, prayers for the dead, and statuary. These statues would occupy a place of pride in the parish church and function as the portal through which the guild members could petition St. Crispin for favors.
And, of course, a day off for all the guild members!
We can imagine that on the feast day, festival goers would remember the folk traditions about shoes that would have been animated during the feast. Henry Ellis and John Brand, in their book Observations on Popular Antiquities Chiefly Illustrating the Origin of Our Vulgar Customs, Ceremonies, and Superstitions, discuss how putting on the right sock and shoe first each day, before the left, was considered good luck. Breaking a shoelace was considered a very bad omen and a person was encouraged to remain at home on such a day. One of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Ben Jonson, remarks that after a man is promoted you were to throw an old shoe over his head to congratulate him.
Plays That Mention St. Crispin and Shoemakers
While we can do our best to recreate the general celebration of St. Crispin’s Day, we can also look at literary sources to see what the day may have meant to the average leather worker or cobbler. For that, we will turn to William Shakespeare and Thomas Dekker.
Continuing with Shakespeare’s Henry V, the pivotal battle against the French takes place on Crispin’s Day. In the play the Earl of Westmoreland, knowing the English army is outnumbered by the French before the Battle of Agincourt, cries out in despair:
"O that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!" (IV iv 17-19)
What might these lines tell us about the celebrations on 25 October?
It likely means that not only did shoemakers and repairers have the day off—they were a
sizeable portion of the workforce in fifteenth-century England.
The king then strides on stage and assures anyone who listens that a veteran of the battle will “rouse him at the name of Crispian.” We may extrapolate from this that the Feast of St. Crispin was a yearly holiday people spoke of regularly. Perhaps not just the holiday, but whenever they had shoes made or repaired or perhaps even in their local parish churches that had Shoemaker’s Guild chapels. A Sunday trip to mass could catch anyone with a thriving local guild passing a statue like this one.
While Shakespeare indicates there may have been great civic and professional pride to be a member of the shoemaker’s guild, the record outside of the speech is sparse on how the guildmembers and their families would have celebrated the festival of their patron saint.
Shakespeare was not alone in memorializing shoemakers and their celebrations.The same year Shakespeare was staging Henry V, one of his contemporaries, Thomas Dekker, wrote an entire play about it—The Shoemaker’s Holiday.
Given its title, we should expect this play to be rich in details about shoemakers and their celebrations at the end of the sixteenth century.
Surprisingly, Dekker’s play does not mention St. Crispin once.
He mentions St. Faith, St. Paul and since a major character is the Earl of Lincoln, St. Hugh.
What can hear in this loud silence?
First, is perhaps that working-class shoemaker’s guild members were not possessed of sufficient literacy to commemorate their patron saint’s feast customs.
Next, with a calendar full of saint’s days, these minor saints went underappreciated in the festival year.
And finally, it is likely with the Reformation and all the religious reform that followed, the
celebration of St. Crispin, despite Henry V’s prediction, did not continue until the ending of the world.
I came across this information—and lack of information—while doing background research for my upcoming Kindle Vella series The Queen’s Melody: An Anne of Cleves Mystery.
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