And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
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.
To begin at the end: we know next to nothing about Crispin, or even whether he existed. How Crispin and Crispinian were remembered, or imagined, so as to be invoked in Shakespeare’s famous speech in Henry V, is the interesting story.
S. Crispin’s day was probably remembered well enough in Shakespeare’s time, and even included in the protestant Book of Common Prayer, because of its association with shoemakers and a holiday alluded to in Westmoreland’s lines in Henry V immediately before the famous speech ("O that we now had here/ But one ten thousand of those men in England/ That do no work to-day!"), as well as because of the popularity of the legend.
The day originally belonged to two saints, brothers, Crispin and Crispinian, as Shakespeare reflects in an abbreviated form: “And Crispin-Crispian shall ne’er go by…”. The first clear references to Ss. Crispin and Crispinian, always commemorated together as brothers, come from the sixth-century , but suggest these two saints had lived long before.
The historian and bishop St Gregory of Tours (538-593/4) refers twice in his History of the Franks to a Basilica of Ss. Crispin and Crispinian in the northern French city of Soissons; if the Church was already well-established at that time, the commemoration of the martyrs was older again. Crispin and Crispinian are also mentioned in the Martyrologium Hieronymianum, probably from around the same time as Gregory’s History. The Martyrologium – a list of martyrs commemorated by the Church in the western Roman empire – also confirms the two were being commemorated at Soissons.
From around the same time comes a much more colourful and extensive piece of evidence, the Passion of Ss. Crispin and Crispinian. This is a “ripping yarn” about the saints, but it is of no historical value at all. The Passion tells the story of two noble young men who came from Rome to preach Christian faith in Soissons, and who worked to support themselves as cobblers (a term the unkind might be tempted to apply to the whole story). Their lives of faith and work were interrupted by the persecuting activity of the Emperor Maximian, which places the story between the years 285-305.
The Passion is one of a series of martyr-stories connected with this area in ancient Gaul, all of which feature the same maniacal Roman magistrate, Rictiovarus (also Rictius Varus or Rixius Varus), a kind of late-antique Voldemort. Although Rictiovarus seems to get his come-uppance in the Passion of Crispin and Crispinian, falling in a rage into a vat of boiling oil, he was a resilient character who appears in other stories and was even said to have been converted by S. Lucy (of Santa Lucia fame, and dear to some Scandinavians), and martyred with her.
It seems thus to be a pious fiction, composed to fill the vacuum of curiosity created by the fact of a Church, and of relics of two martyrs commemorated at Soissons, whose real origins had already been forgotten by around 600. This does not mean Crispin and Crispinian were invented altogether (although they may well have been), but given the overlay of mythic and pious imagination, the historical kernel cannot be discerned. This recognition has led to their removal from the Calendar of Saints of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Passion suggests that the brothers went from Rome to Soissons while living, although the Roman Martyrology records a reverse journey in death; that their relics were at some stage taken to the Church of S. Laurence in Panisperna in Rome. The truth might lie somewhere between the two; perhaps the commemoration of Ss. Crispin and Crispinian began with the taking to Soissons of relics of a real or supposed pair of Roman martyr or martyrs, among many taken from the Catacombs, whose legend then grew.
This idea, and perhaps even a kernel of historical truth, might also be supported by one earlier, although uncertain, appearance of devotion to Crispin: a bronze lamp of the 4th century – considerably earlier than any of the documents connecting the brothers with Soissons – with a votive inscription to Crispin (or a Crispin, at least) was discovered near Pettau (Ptuj in Slovenia), suggesting earlier devotion far from Soissons.
A final element of the development of Crispin's and Crispinian's story, relevant to Shakespeare’s reference, is their eventual travel to England. At some point the story of the two faithful shoemakers was transferred to Faversham in Kent, whence Englishmen like Shakespeare's contemporaries could make it their own.
Another feature of this and similar stories of martyr-brothers is the similarity between these and the Dioscuri or Divine Twins, Castor and Pollux. That pagan pair was enthusiastically venerated in the ancient Mediterranean world, and the Church found it hard to displace or suppress them. They are even depicted, on horses with their distinctive caps and an accompanying star, on (otherwise) unquestionably Christian art works of the late ancient world.
The Christian response to the popularity of the Dioscuri was to co-opt them, and present various pairs of twins, brothers or friends, whose heroic faith could be used to take over the artistic traditions and intuitive spiritual appeal of a pair of closely-connected heroes; Shakespeare himself alludes to a similar idea in his famous “band of brothers”, and with “he to-day that sheds his blood with me/ Shall be my brother”.
Whatever their historicity, Crispin and Crispinian evoked powerful ideas, before Shakespeare as well as in Henry V. Like the bard's speech, their cultus had also inherited and reused ideas which people before them had found powerful, about solidarity and courage.
(See further J. R Harris, The Cult of the Heavenly Twins [Cambridge, 1906]; L. Duchesne, Fastes episcopaux de l'ancienne Gaule III [Paris, 1915])