the spirit of englandPosted by Stephen Fri, February 13, 2015 15:08:12
“The ages made her
that made us from the dust:
She is all we know
and live by, and we trust
She is good and must
endure, loving her so:
And as we love
ourselves we hate her foe.”
Edward Thomas (1915)
Like Edward Thomas, who was writing from the Great War
battlefield, I think the history of England begins from the present. What’s
needed, to give a sense of order to the present situation, is a story, in terms
of past events and people, centred on England. A justification for loyalty to
living here and preferring not to seek asylum overseas. An explanation of the
way things seem to us now that is consistent with an imagined ‘then’ in which
we were not present: a context for ourselves.
Whether an absolute History exists, one that would look the
same to everybody from anybody’s vantage point, I can’t decide and rather doubt.
But I’m sure that none of us can know for certain this side of the grave.
Instead the best that we can do is
bricolage: confect a working structure from what we have to hand. And then
subject this to continuous revision by using such evidence as our experience
The story is told that an admirer of Michaelangelo’s statue
of David, marvelling, asked the artist “How did you manage to see this
wonderful image when presented with just a block of marble?”. To which
Michaelangelo replied: “I didn’t, I just kept chipping away everything that was
This is the scientific approach: evidence is used to remove
errors in an existing model; a process of continuous improvement.
This is the heuristic process. In principle it doesn’t
matter what story, what model, what block of marble you start with: what
matters is that you keep on improving it by removing errors, eliminating
faults; the result is always something better than you started with, closer to
perfection even if not perfect.
Accordingly it doesn’t really matter so much what version of
history you first get offered (in school, for example): what matters is the way
you go about modifying it using the evidence generated in the course of your
That being the case, there should be no harm in putting
forward a synoptic history of England that emerges from personal reflections
rather than from an academic compilation.
And as Edward Thomas put it: “Little I know or care if,
being dull, I shall miss something that historians can rake out of the ashes...
But with the best and meanest Englishmen I am one in crying, God save
England...” It is the concept that matters.
the spirit of englandPosted by Stephen Thu, February 05, 2015 10:27:00
Saint Cedd was an Englishman, living in the middle of the
seventh century. He was the eldest of four brothers, who were sent by their
family to be students at a Christian community based on Holy Island
(Lindisfarne) in Northumbria.
Cedd’s family seems to have been well established:
successfully rearing four sons to learning age suggests this. They came from
the Anglo-Saxon tradition: Anglo-Saxon being a term generally used to encompass
troupes of Angles, Saxons, Jutes and other associated continental emigrants who
had come and occupied most parts of the country in the aftermath of Roman
military withdrawal, from about AD 400 onwards. This invasion represented a
major cultural challenge for the resident local population of Romanised Celtic
Britons, and there is evidence of violent resistance as well as neighbourly
Despite the departure of the Romans, who had officially
sponsored it, Christianity began to establish itself across the country; but
according to two different traditions. In southern England, based at Canterbury
in Kent, was the mission led by Saint Augustine, sent by Pope Gregory the Great
from Rome at the end of the sixth century. Meanwhile Ireland and Scotland,
having avoided Roman administration, had accepted Christianity without the
Roman Church. This Celtic form of Christianity was the tradition practised by
the community at Lindisfarne.
This community was led by Saint Aidan, who worked according
to the practice of similar groups established in the predominantly Celtic areas
of Britain: in places such as Iona, an island where Saint Columba was based, or
on the Scottish mainland at Whithorn, led by Saint Ninian, or across Ireland
(inspired by Saint Patrick) and in Wales (under Saints such as Illtud and
David). In chosen localities Christian monasteries were established, from which
ambassadors went out with their message, and to which local people might come
for more information.
The Anglo-Saxons were un-Romanised: unconquered continental
barbarians with their own religious tradition. So the decision to send children
for education to a Christian monastery is highly symbolic: it signals
recognition of the technological wizardry represented by reading and writing
and the use of Latin. The adoption of these generic skills and their eventual
application to improvement of native conceptions is the origin of the English
genius: perhaps more often mocked as muddling through than celebrated as
After qualifying as a priest, Cedd embarked on a career as a
missionary. Initially posted to the midlands Kingdom of Mercia, he later worked
in Essex and Yorkshire as well as London. Thus he became a very experienced
operator. As such he played a crucial part in proceedings at the Synod of Whitby
The synod was convened to resolve difficulties caused by
differences in practice that had emerged between the two Christian traditions:
Roman and Celtic. For example, different ways of setting the date for Easter
meant not just celebrations of the day itself being out of sync but also
uncoordinated periods of abstinence associated with Lent (food, drink, sex?).
These inconveniences could become especially irksome in the context of a mixed
Celtic-Roman marriage where the principals might be considerable figures (such
as royalty), with entourages who might end up being expected to observe both
separate periods of self-denial - thus creating a powerful lobby for religious
The synod had plenty of potential to degenerate from a quest
for unity into a power struggle. Responsibility for managing the process of
negotiation devolved upon Cedd because of his ability to see both sides and
because both sides could tell he was talking their language. In the final
analysis the King of Northumbria, who was chairing the event, summed up in
favour of harmonisation on the basis of Roman practice. This was a pragmatic
decision that reduced the scope for conflict within Britain and facilitated
diplomatic engagement with continental European governments. Refusenik Celtic
traditionalists sought refuge in Ireland.
Despite his own education being a product of Celtic
Christianity, Cedd led the promotional campaign on behalf of British religious
harmonisation according to the settlement established by the Synod of Whitby.
Sadly, not long afterwards, he succumbed to plague and died at Lastingham, the
last of his foundations.
Capable of commitment on the basis of compromise and
consensus, Saint Cedd embodies English public spirit.