How God Made the English, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews
How God Made the English, BBC Two
How God Made the English, BBC Two
Why do the English think they're better than everyone else? Perhaps God has the answer
This programme wants to challenge certain stereotypes around English identity. It wants to challenge the notion that to be English is to be “tolerant, white and Anglo-Saxon”. But before it does any of that, it wants to address just one question, and that is this: just why are the English so damned full of themselves? That’s right. Just where does their sense of superiority and entitlement come from? And what makes them think they can strut around the world with missionary zeal interfering in other people’s affairs all the time? OK, that’s several questions, but you see the theme. This episode, of three, was entirely devoted to answering it.
Diarmaid MacCulloch has a thesis. In fact, he thinks he’s got it pretty much wrapped. It’s because of God, he argues. God makes the English feel special, and therefore superior. MacCulloch is a historian of the Church of England, so it’s pretty evident that he knows a lot about the history of England in relation to the church. He begins with Bede, the eighth-century Northumbrian monk. Bede wrote the first history of the English people before there was such a thing as “the English”. He wrote it when the English were, in fact, a divided land mass ruled by different war lords. For Bede, however, to be English was to be one people under one Christian God.
Underpinning all this is the idea that England was reinforcing a link with the Israelites
To show how God made England, MacCulloch takes us on a heady historical romp that jumps vast spans of time. From Bede we arrive at Alfred the Great, the Anglo-Saxon king of Wessex who translated the venerable monk from Latin to the native tongue and under whom we had the first law code. From there, we briefly pause in the company of Æthelstan, the first ruler to be crowned with the title of King of England. And before we can blink, we’ve arrived at Henry VIII, whose dissolution of the monasteries might have seen off papal rule, but under whom the idea that England was a nation chosen by God was newly revived. The horrific loss of life at the battle of the Somme shows how faith in the 20th century was shaken by its roots. But before we can take another breath we're once again toasting royalty at the Queen’s televised coronation in 1953 – where, MacCulloch tells us, London melts into the Jerusalem of 3,000 years before.
And underpinning all this is the idea that, with each successive ruler, England was reinforcing a link with the Israelites. A biblical narrative that is specifically Jewish is being woven into English Identity. And so we’re taken to our most esteemed institutions and palaces and shown paintings, tapestries and inscriptions which each convey the same idea – that, like the Jews, the English have a special relationship with God, and one that can even be described as a tacit convenant.
How God Made the English is certainly full of fascinating detail, but I feel as if I’m missing something. In fact, rather a lot. Is a superiority complex really unique to the English? I think it certainly shows an arrogance – a blinkered self-obsession, too - to think that it is. Just think, after all, of the self-effacing French, the kow-towing Germans, the humble Americans, the clearly peace-loving Japanese. Yes, as odd as it might seem, economically successful countries just don’t do self-effacing. And there were empires before England. But perhaps it's only the English who spend so much time apologising for it.
What’s fundamentally wrong with MacCulloch’s thesis seems to me to be quite straightforward. The sense of having right on one's side, that sense of being morally superior, doesn’t originate from one historical source, that source being a belief in one's status as God’s chosen people - though certainly, it could be bolstered by it - but by simply being a very successful nation, economically, politically, militarily, intellectually, and having that success reinforced over time. England’s prosperity, England’s stability have given her not only the confidence but the means to bestride the world stage. If she had had neither, I frankly doubt if God alone would have been much help.
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