There was a saying, not heard today so often as formerly . .
“What do they know of England who only England know?”
It is a saying which dates. It has a period aroma, like Kipling’s Recessional or the state rooms at Osborne. That phase is ended, so plainly ended, that even the generation born at its zenith, for whom the realisation is the hardest, no longer deceive themselves as to the fact. That power and that glory have vanished, as surely, if not as tracelessly, as the imperial fleet from the waters of Spithead.
And yet England is not as Nineveh and Tyre, nor as Rome, nor as Spain. Herodotus relates how the Athenians, returning to their city after it had been sacked and burnt by Xerxes and the Persian army, were astonished to find, alive and flourishing in the blackened ruins, the sacred olive tree, the native symbol of their country.
So we today, at the heart of a vanished empire, amid the fragments of demolished glory, seem to find, like one of her own oak trees, standing and growing, the sap still rising from her ancient roots to meet the spring, England herself.
Perhaps, after all, we know most of England “who only England know”.
So the continuity of her existence was unbroken when the looser connections which had linked her with distant continents and strange races fell away. Thus our generation is one which comes home again from years of distant wandering. We discover affinities with earlier generations of English who felt no country but this to be their own. We discover affinities with earlier generations of English who felt there was this deep this providential difference between our empire and those others, that the nationhood of the mother country remained unaltered through it all, almost unconscious of the strange fantastic structure built around her – in modern parlance “uninvolved”.
Backward travels our gaze, beyond the grenadiers and the philosophers of the 18th century, beyond the pikemen and the preachers of the 17th, back through the brash adventurous days of the first Elizabeth and the hard materialism of the Tudors and there at last we find them, or seem to find them, in many a village church, beneath the tall tracery of a perpendicular East window and the coffered ceiling of the chantry chapel.
From brass and stone, from line and effigy, their eyes look out at us, and we gaze into them, as if we would win some answer from their silence.”Tell us what it is that binds us together; show us the clue that leads through a thousand years; whisper to us the secret of this charmed life of England, that we in our time may know how to hold it fast”.
“What would they say”?
They would speak to us in our own English tongue, the tongue made for telling truth in, tuned already to songs that haunt the hearer like the sadness of spring. They would tell us of that marvellous land, so sweetly mixed of opposites in climate that all the seasons of the year appear there in their greatest perfection; of the fields amid which they built their halls, their cottages, their churches, and where the same blackthorn showered its petals upon them as upon us; they would tell us, surely of the rivers the hills and of the island coasts of England.
One thing above all they assuredly would not forget; Lancastrian or Yorkist, squire or lord, priest or layman; they would point to the kingship of England, and its emblems everywhere visible.
They would tell us too of a palace near the great city which the Romans built at a ford of the River Thames, to which men resorted out of all England to speak on behalf of their fellows, a thing called ‘Parliament’; and from that hall went out their fellows with fur trimmed gowns and strange caps on their heads, to judge the same judgments, and dispense the same justice, to all the people of England.
Symbol, yet source of power; person of flesh and blood, yet incarnation of an idea; the kingship would have seemed to them, as it seems to us, to express the qualities that are peculiarly England’s: the unity of England, effortless and unconstrained, which accepts the unlimited supremacy of Crown in Parliament so naturally as not to be aware of it; the homogeneity of England, so profound and embracing that the counties and the regions make it a hobby to discover their differences and assert their peculiarities; the continuity of England, which has brought this unity and this homogeneity about by the slow alchemy of centuries.
For the unbroken life of the English nation over a thousand years and more is a phenomenon unique in history, the product of a specific set of circumstances like those which in biology are supposed to start by chance a new line of evolution. Institutions which elsewhere are recent and artificial creations appear in England almost as works of nature, spontaneous and unquestioned.
From this continuous life of a united people in its island home spring, as from the soil of England, all that is peculiar in the gifts and the achievements of the English nation. All its impact on the outer world in earlier colonies, in the later Pax Britannica, in government and lawgiving, in commerce and in thought has flowed from impulses generated here. And this continuing life of England is symbolised and expressed, as by nothing else, by the English kingship. English it is, for all the leeks and thistles grafted upon it here and elsewhere. The stock that received all these grafts is English, the sap that rises through it to the extremities rises from roots in English earth, the earth of England’s history. We in our day ought well to guard, as highly to honour, the parent stem of England, and its royal talisman; for we know not what branches yet that wonderful tree will have the power to put forth.
The danger is not always violence and force; them we have withstood before and can again.
The peril can also be indifference and humbug, which might squander the accumulated wealth of tradition and devalue our sacred symbolism to achieve some cheap compromise or some evanescent purpose.
Delivered to the Royal Society of Saint George, April the 23rd, 1961.