Visions of Albion: Looking at British history

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The Independent Online

Looking at British history, can we detect some quality, some characteristic, across the centuries, that we can call Englishness? I'm not sure we can. I've never believed that at some magic moment, the full indisputable clarity of what it means to be English can stand revealed, like Britannia rising from the waves. In fact, the point is precisely the opposite. England is a creature that's constantly morphing into something else. It's entirely in the nature of nations, including this one, to swell, to become confused and muddied at times with other identities - the Welsh, the Scots, the Norman French - and at other times to retreat into an idealistic fantasy about a purer version of themselves.

Looking at British history, can we detect some quality, some characteristic, across the centuries, that we can call Englishness? I'm not sure we can. I've never believed that at some magic moment, the full indisputable clarity of what it means to be English can stand revealed, like Britannia rising from the waves. In fact, the point is precisely the opposite. England is a creature that's constantly morphing into something else. It's entirely in the nature of nations, including this one, to swell, to become confused and muddied at times with other identities - the Welsh, the Scots, the Norman French - and at other times to retreat into an idealistic fantasy about a purer version of themselves.

I like the United Kingdom. Maybe because I live in America, I like nations to be impure. I hate the idea that the historian should take a story of enormous complexity and march through it determined to find some fixed identity, one that could be destroyed or compromised by accepting or rejecting, say, directives from Brussels. Some Victorian historians liked to think nothing very much happened to the English character after the Anglo-Saxons, that our fundamental personality was complete at the time of Alfred the Great. But of course it wasn't really like that. English history is full of shifts of identity - as the three-handed struggle between monarchy, parliament and people has gradually evolved.

If there's one four-letter word that runs through my television history, oddly it is "Rome". Over time, I came to realise that Rome doesn't just come and go in England's history; instead, we have had an extended love-hate relationship with Rome, whether as empire or church. When, in the 8th century, the Venerable Bede writes the history of the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, it's in order to assert Englishness as inseparable from Rome.

William the Conqueror knew his army had a much better chance of winning in 1066 when he carried the papal banner and ring - and his forces knew they were going to win Christian brownie points by signing up for what was represented to them as a Crusade. And for centuries afterwards, there was an extraordinary tug-of-war between insular state power, in the form of the Angevin monarchs, and a sense of how unimportant they were compared to our membership of the larger community of the Christian faithful.

This relationship with Rome worked the other way, too, defining Englishness in negative terms. In the 16th century, people like Thomas Cromwell could say, in effect: "Do you want to know who you are? You are not Rome. The Bishop of Rome is a foreigner. The people who work for the Bishop of Rome are foreigners. They are spies. They are aliens." You cannot be loyal to the monarch, the Protestants could later argue, and obey this man, the Pope, who after all, in the 1570s, laid down a "fatwah" that anyone killing the queen would be received as a martyr in Heaven...

Cromwell's master Henry VIII was the first real embodiment of an "English king" (although the concept had appeared before, in the invention of Camelot as an identikit image of what a fair and powerful kingdom should be). It is striking how little Henry himself personified English beefiness and insularity. He had a Spanish Catholic wife. All his relatives had married into French dynasties or into Scotland; there was nothing insular about any of it. But under the Tudors, out of the Plantagenet, medieval past, a fake version of history was constructed, in which England has a destiny, a rendezvous with God, to be, if not a Protestant nation, then certainly one that's not under the thumb of the Pope.

And a protestant hack called John Bale rewrote the whole Thomas Becket saga to suggest that everyone had been deceived by Catholic propaganda, and Becket was represented as a traitor intent on destroying the common law... History was suddenly recast to make Henry VIII understand that he was now supposed to be an "English King", with a capital "E" and a capital "K".

Centuries earlier, the medieval codifying of common law itself led to a crucial shift in the relationship between the monarch and the people. Common law was built on a series of case histories, in which crimes could be judged and disputes settled according to a series of precedents, and handed down from generation to generation. Before, the people were judged by those who held military power, by local feudal barons or the church. By contrast, common law was ostensibly fair because it was impersonal. It was the law of the King - but it was a law which could be turned against the monarchy itself. Because the people could assert that common law has its own life, independent of the king.

After Magna Carta, in 1215, the king was no longer able to waive the rules. He couldn't say, I want that castle, I want to take over your estate, I want you to pay me a huge sum of money before your daughter can marry. Magna Carta said the people may be under your patronage but you're accountable to the law. It was immensely important for the development of our national institutions. It's where our shared political personality comes from.

For a generation, as far as the barons were concerned, common law was something that happened to little people. But under the Angevins, they themselves became victims of arbitrary royal power, extortion and torture, and were given tutorial in the universal excellence of the common law. So the legal institutions which the monarchy developed as a way of extending its own power came back to bite it. In this way, the Angevins had been the schoolmasters of their own correction.

There was another crucial moment in 1629, in the run-up to the English civil war, when the Petition of Right was presented in Parliament and, in order for it to be discussed in the House of Commons, the Speaker had to be physically forced back in his chair. The King had wanted to adjourn Parliament, to stop this Petition being discussed - it was basically a catalogue of the iniquities of the monarchy, especially the attempt to raise taxes without parliamentary consent. This was the moment when members of the horsey classes - the county community of magistrates and justices of the peace - saw that the preservation of the communities they had inherited was now dependent on their becoming rebels, on putting their foot down. They could see that something incredibly serious and ominous was happening.

Right through British history we see this constant pull between piety and pragmatism, between deference to the monarch as a godlike figure, and a requirement that he runs the business of Albion with practical efficiency. Look back to the reign of Henry II (1154-1189), and the story of his two sons, Richard and John. When the first proper excavations were taking place outside Glastonbury, they unearth the sword that Richard thinks is the real Excalibur - but it doesn't stop him flogging it off to get himself out of prison. His chivalry, you might say, was exceeded only by his self-interest. But their story illustrates a typically bifurcated vision: one son who saw the destiny of England as bound up in the wider world, in the Crusade; the other son who believed in the fist-on-the-desk assertion of the rights of the English state, and was prepared to go into battle for it.

Move forward to Oliver Cromwell and you encounter an extraordinarily complex man driven by absolutely warring impulses - you could say with some truth that there was a civil war going on inside him. Here was someone to whom people were prepared to deliver power, but who obviously hated the idea of accepting office. He clearly never felt he was worthy of God's appointment. On the other hand, he was so good at doing what he did, at being a general. One half of him is a country gentleman, a political pragmatist who understands the machinery of state in a clear, Peter Mandelson-like way. But he's also - if not quite Ian Paisley - someone who at least listens to voices in his head.

The beady-eyed, hard-headed men of state business wanted him to be a king they could trust. They needed a Chief Executive Officer to run Britannia Inc, the most ferocious, most heavily capitalised enterprise the world had ever seen. Then suddenly Cromwell saw the people who wanted him to do this, and saw that they were godless. When he dissolved the Rump Parliament he looked at one of its members and called him a whoremaster and drunken libertine. He was appalled that the people who were supposed to embody the sovereignty of parliament were these low-lifes, appalled to think political intelligence could be tied up with moral wretchedness. He thought he was accountable to God for having a clean England as well. But you can't have a clean England and be the CEO. It was just never going to happen.

Different visions of Albion, incarnations of perfect kingship, have collided, through British history, with pragmatism and hard-headed self-preservation. But sometimes a third element can be detected in relations between monarch and people. Written into the official script of rebellion - adopted by the barons to protect themselves and readopted by the gentry in the 17th century - is the notion of fundamental equity: the conviction that the king will somehow provide for you, however lowly you are. On the threshold of indignation, when things seem to be going monstrously wrong in the country, when the people seem to be victims of a plot or of poverty or of unfair taxes, there's always been a sense that, if you could only get the ear of the king, and strip away the corrupt counsel of those surrounding him, everything would be fine. If you could only make Richard II, Charles I, George III listen...

The tendency for the English is to do whatever it takes - to stick the petrol tanker in the street in order to get someone's attention, to take a recent example - but built into that is a level of desperately self-defeating deference. So someone only has to say, "My dear fellow, we do have your best interests at heart, go home and we promise to do something about it" - and then the police arrive the next day and round them up. The only time when that didn't happen was when the only thing stronger than deference was religious self-righteousness - during the civil war, when the soldiers of the New Model Army didn't care what they did because the most important thing was God, not the king.

Elizabeth I got it absolutely right in her famous speech at Tilbury, when she said, in effect, I may be a goddess but I'm also flesh and blood, "resolved in the midst and heat of the battle to live and die amongst you all". She told them she was there to take up arms, "I myself will be your General Judge and Rewarder of virtues in the field". It was fantastic, so moving, so dazzling, so proto-Churchillian. There wasn't a dry eye anywhere. It was a masterpiece of propaganda and she meant it all. She was there as goddess, monarch and chief executive of Britannia Inc - the perfect synthesis of all three at last.

'A History of Britain' begins on Saturday, on BBC2, 8.05pm; a book to accompany the series will be published on 5 October by the BBC, price £25

Simon Schama was talking to John Walsh

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