At the end of the Battle of Agincourt, in Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth, the king is handed a piece of paper giving the number of French soldiers who have died in the battle.
That in the field lie slain: he says
Sir Richard Ketly, Davy Gam, esquire:
None else of name; and of all other men
But five and twenty. O God, thy arm was here;
And not to us, but to thy arm alone,
Ascribe we all!
God fought for us, says the King . . .
Let there be sung ‘Non nobis’ and ‘Te Deum;’
At this point in Kenneth Branagh’s film, Henry picks up the body of a teenage soldier, and carries him from the field of battle, through the mud, the stench and the corpses. As the camera lingers on the horror of the scene, we hear the singing of Patrick Doyle’s Non nobis domine rising to a great crescendo. It’s a moving scene and won an Ivor Novello award for the composer.
Almost two hundred years later in January 1606, these same words appear in a prayer from an Act of Thanksgiving, which later found its way into the Book of Common Prayer.
ALMIGHTY God, who hast in all ages shewed thy power and mercy . . . . in the protection of righteous and religious Kings . . . We yield thee our unfeigned thanks and praise for the wonderful and mighty deliverance of our gracious Sovereign King James, the Queen, the Prince, and all . . . assembled in Parliament, by Popish treachery appointed as sheep to the slaughter, in a most barbarous, and savage manner . . . From this unnatural conspiracy, not our merit, but thy mercy; not our foresight, but thy providence, delivered us: And therefore, not unto us, O Lord, not unto us; but unto thy Name be ascribed all honour and glory . . .
The Popish treachery to which this prayer refers was the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. No doubt further thanksgivings were given as eight of the surviving conspirators, including Guy Fawkes were hung, drawn and quartered.
The same words were used by Rudyard Kipling in a poem also written for a parliamentary thanksgiving – A Pageant of Democracy – held at the Albert Hall in 1934. It was a celebration of the birth and establishment of democracy in Britain and throughout the British Empire.
Non Nobis, Domine!
Not unto us, O Lord,
The praise and glory be
Of any deed or word.
For in Thy judgement lies
To crown or bring to nought
All knowledge and device
That man has reached or wrought.
Perhaps the soldier of Christ in all of us should rejoice at the triumph of good over evil, and in such a battle proclaim “God with us” and sing a Non nobis domine, Not unto us O Lord but unto thy name be the praise.
It is almost impossible both to rejoice in the victory of righteousness and at the same time lament the sacrifice of war. Yet if our wars are to be just wars fought for the right reasons, if we are to seek peace through negotiation, if we are to truly honour and support members of our armed forces and care for those who are injured in war, then we must both bear the burden and suffering of war and at the same time be able to sing Non nobis – not unto us but unto thy name be the praise.
To fail to count the cost of war and be carried away with a rising crescendo of the Non nobis, is to become like the Crusaders or the builders of empire who wiped out civilizations callously and remorselessly in the name of God.