‘Cry God for Queen Bess, England and St Cuthbert….!’   1 comment

Lindisfarne

Lindisfarne (Photo credit: Noodlefish)

Follow your spirit; and upon this charge

Cry God for Harry, England and St George!

WILLIAM SHAKESPEAREHenry V, Part One.

 

England hasn’t really got a national anthem….The Irish, the Scots and the Welsh all have anthems, the Americans have the cheek to sing ‘My Country ’tis of thee’ to the tune of ‘God Save the Queen‘, but what do the English have? ‘There’ll always be an England’…well that’s not saying much….there’ll always be a North Pole, if some dangerous clown doesn’t go and melt it!…no, I ask you, what have we got to stir the sinews of our local patriotism with? ‘Jerusalem’!! 

Michael Flanders and Donald Swann’s introduction to their ‘Song of Patriotic Prejudice’ aka ‘The English, the English, the English are Best!’ 

The last verse of which is:

The English are honest, the English are good,

And clever, and modest and misunderstood!

English: Stained glass window in Oban. This is...

English: Stained glass window in Oban. This is the Christian saint Columba in stained glass form. He was born in Ireland and helped spread Christianity in Great Britain, especially in the Kingdom of the Picts. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

The Labours of the Saints and Bards

Not only do the English not have a national anthem, but they don’t really have a patron saint to call their own. Not only is St George not English (Patrick was British, not Irish!), but he doesn’t even belong to these islands, and we share him with the Georgians and the Portuguese, with whom we have very little in common. It’s also the reason why the Scots are lukewarm about St Andrew’s Day, although as a fisherman, he at least had something in common with many Scots, and his bones are said to be buried in the city bearing his name. The Scots still prefer to celebrate Burns’ Night as their national ‘fling’, second only to Hogmanay, or New Year, and the English could do well to take a leaf out of the book of their northern neighbours,  by celebrating 23rd April as the birthday of their national bard, that ‘sweet swan of Avon’. After all, there is a tradition of ‘radical patriotism’ in England which places English national identity unashamedly within the island story of ‘Britannia’ as a whole and links to the radical literary and artistic traditions going back through Morris and Ruskin, to Shelley and Blake, to Bunyan and Milton.

These, in turn, are strongly linked to both Saxon and Celtic forms of social and religious organisation, including the pre-Augustinian Church and its saints such as Alban, David and Patrick, Columba and Aidan, Cedd and Ceadda (Chad). The conversion of pagan England to Christianity was accomplished not only by the mission which landed in Kent in 597, led by St Augustine, but also by that which brought Celtic Christianity to Northumbria in 636. This second mission had Aidan as its leader, a member of a monastery established at Iona some twenty years earlier. St Columba (‘Colum Cille‘) had arrived on the small island off the west coast of modern-day Scotland as early as 563, having crossed the Irish Sea, intending to establish a monastery. His initial buildings were made of wood, wattle and turf, and it wasn’t until the eighth century that stone was imported from Mull to make the Celtic crosses and begin the building of a permanent Abbey in 1200.

This is an image of the 802 of the historic Ki...

This is an image of the 802 of the historic Kingdom of Northumbria which is on the island of Great Britain. I created this image. Created under this guidance of this of historical source of a 802 map of Britain, which itself was developed by cartographer and historian William R. Shepherd. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Aidan’s mission from Lindisfarne was successful in re-introducing the Faith in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria, which produced a flowering of literature,manuscript illumination and sculpture, in which Iona also participated. The missions also extended to Mercia, where Wufhere became the first Christian King following the defeat of the pagan Penda by the Northumbrians. While Ceadda was the main missionary here, his brother Cedd led successful missions to the Middle and East Angles, as well at to the East Saxons, whom Augustine had failed to convert from his base in Canterbury. At the Synod of Whitby in 664, it was Cedd’s fluency in Early Welsh, Irish Gaelic, Northumbrian Saxon, Early English and Latin, which enabled the Roman and Celtic traditions to find compromise over their many differences. Bede records that Cedd’s linguistic abilities were taken as a sign of his being blessed by the Holy Spirit, as the first Apostles were at Pentecost, helping the participants to overcome the tendency to become a second tower of Babel. By the early part of the eighth century,  the monastic communities and churches were observing the same calendar, rites and rituals.

St Cedd

However, this period of Christian concord came to an end abruptly with the Viking raids of the late eighth century and early 800’s, though many treasures survived these raids, including the recently purchased ancient gospel of St Cuthbert, from Lindisfarne, and the Book of Kells, so-called because the Iona community relocated to the Irish settlement and took the gospels with them. These were masterpieces of Hiberno-Saxon art, and this cross-fertilisation of Hibernian and Northumbrian Christian cultures emphasises the continuity between Celtic and Saxon Britain. This was also true of the relationships between the Christian territories of Cambria, Mercia and Wessex, who together stood against pagan Saxon incursions as well as the Danish invasions and, by so doing, ultimately brought about the peaceful settlement of the kingdoms.

Celtic cross at dawn in Knock, Ireland (at the...

Celtic cross at dawn in Knock, Ireland (at the bus stop to Westport) 28/07/2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The early British Christians never used the Latin cross. Their cross combined the Druidic circle with the cross, embracing Christ’s suffering with the symbol of eternal life, the symbol of resurrection, of victory over the grave. It also symbolised the peaceful merging of the Druidic religion with Christianity. The Druids seemed to recognise that the old order was fulfilled according to their own astronomical prophecies in the coming of Christ, his death and resurrection, and that the arrival of Christianity from the East on their shores marked the beginning of a new dispensation which they embraced with little or no resistance. Unlike under the Romans, there was none of the Diocletian persecution and martyrdom (e.g. that of Alban of Caerleon), and neither was there any need to slay dragons to win converts.

Soldiers of the Cross

English: St. George before Diocletianus. A mur...

English: St. George before Diocletianus. A mural from the Ubisi Monastery, Georgia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, with Cuthbert seen as the patron saint of the of early Saxon kingdoms, how and why did the English come to pick as their patron saint an Armenian who gives his name and his flag to Georgia, and is also the patron saint of Portugal? The little that we know about him comes from a Byzantine named Metaphrates who tells us that George was born in Cappadocia, sometime in the third century, of noble parents who gave him a strict training in the Christian faith, that he rose to high military rank in the Roman Army in the reign of the Emperor Diocletian. He organised a Christian community at Urmi in Persian Armenia and one report suggests that he visited Britain on an imperial expedition. The Emperor turned against the Christians, instituting a persecution of them. George sought an audience with him on their behalf, but was arrested, tortured and executed on 23rd April in A.D. 303. This was also a difficult period in the history of Christianity in Roman Britain.

George was canonised by the Church and became St George, but was not known in England until at least the time of the Crusades when his story became more widely known. In 1098, when English and Norman soldiers were under the walls of Antioch, there was a story that George appeared to lead them to victory in the siege. When Richard I was leading his troops into battle with the Saracens, George is said to have appeared to lead them to victory. These stories were brought back to England, but George was not adopted as England’s patron saint until 1222 when it was declared a public holiday. It was about this time that the upright red cross on the white background, which had  first became the flag of the Italian city-state of Genoa, became the flag of England. It also became the flag of Georgia (see below).

            

                                                                                               The flag of Genoa

The National Flag of Georgia

However, the ‘Lamb and flag’ (right) is also a very old Christian symbol, appearing as it does in Medieval stained glass and on many old public houses and inns throughout Britain. This suggests an even earlier origin, which I refer to below. So, the upright red cross on a white background, became ‘the cross of St George‘ and was adopted as the national flag of England, later to be integrated with the crosses of St Andrew and St Patrick into the flag of the United Kingdom. The chivalric stories of George inspired the founding of the Order of the Garter by Edward III  in 1348 and St George’s Chapel at Windsor. This is the noblest of the knightly orders in Europe. The members, limited in number, are chosen by the Queen without any reference to her ministers, or to Parliament. Thereafter, George became more popular during the Hundred Years’ Wars, inspiring English and Welsh troops at the Battle of Harfleur and Agincourt, as Shakespeare’s Henry V suggests. The red rose became the flower emblem of England sometime later, after the coming to power of the Tudor Dynasty, signalling victory in the ‘Wars of the Roses’ for the Lancastrian line over the Yorkists, whose symbol was the white rose. In fact, the Tudor emblem included both red and white, following the conciliatory marriage of Henry VII to Margaret of York.  Seen by many, initially, as Welsh ‘usurpers’ on the English throne, the Tudors needed an English symbol to balance out their fearsome Red Dragon, which provided a link to Arthurian mythology, and Henry VII even named his son Arthur, perhaps to emphasise the importance of Celtic Christianity in England’s past, as well as that of his native land.

St. George and the dragon Русский: Чудо Георги...

St. George and the dragon Русский: Чудо Георгия о змие Tempera on wood, 58.4×41.8×3.5, State Russian Museum, Sankt Petersburg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many legends have grown up around  the mythical figure of George, often involving conflicts with dragons. They probably also came to England in the 12th century, with the return of the crusader knights and the revival of Arthurian chivalry, but later became popular because of the rich dragon lore of the British Isles. The first Anglo-Saxons to land in Britain in the middle of the fifth century marched under a White Dragon banner. In the epic tales of the Welsh, The Mabinogion, written around this time, a story is told of a battle between the Red Dragon, Y Ddraig Goch, and an invading White Dragon for control of Britain. This got so out-of-hand that the dragons had to be imprisoned in the mountains of Snowdonia, while sleeping off the effects of the strong local mead left for them in a specially dug pit there! The story was continued by the ninth-century monk, Nennius, in his Historia  Britonium, in which he records the earliest-known legends of Merlin and Arthur. The dragons had continued their fight underground, until released, when they rose up into the air, where the red dragon was seen to triumph. In his History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 1100-1155) claims the victory as a prophecy that Arthur ‘Pendragon’ would return in victory to Britain. This was the prophecy which the Tudors made good use of in their propaganda. While the Welsh kings continued to use the Red Dragon after the time of Arthur, Alfred the Great flew the White Dragon when his army defeated the invading Danes at the Battle of Edington in 878. It was subsequently flown by Athelstan at Brananburgh in 937 and Harold II at Stamford Bridge in 1066. Together with the personal flag of the king, the Dragon standard provided a rallying-point for his troops. In 1191, we know that Richard the Lionheart carried a dragon standard into the Third Crusade, rather than the ‘cross of St George’.

 

According to one story documented in The Golden Legend (1483) by Jacobus de Voragine, George found himself at Silene in Libya. The townspeople were in deep distress because the not-so-friendly neighbourhood dragon from the nearby lake was forcing them to donate two sheep a day for his lunch and supper. Running out of sheep, the dragon demanded two citizens instead. Not any tough old citizens, mind you; only the purest and tenderest virgins would do! These were chosen by drawing lots.

 

When George arrived, they had just about run out of ordinary maidens. The King, who had failed to bribe the citizens with half his kingdom and all his wealth if they would let him keep his own daughter, was just about to serve up his daughter, dressed as a bride. As George galloped to the rescue, the princess was approaching the dragon’s lake wearing a white wedding dress. Just as the dragon was about to carry the girl off, George charged the dragon and drove his lance down the dragon’s throat. He then persuaded her to throw him her white garter, which he placed around its neck. Thus tamed, the Dragon followed the princess like a leashed pet dog to the town square. The still-terrified townspeople offered George any reward he wanted if he would finish the job for them. He  promised to kill the dragon, but only if the King and his subjects would become Christians. Apparently, 15,000 ‘converts’ were added for the faith on that day and four farm-carts were needed to carry the dragon’s body away. On the spot where the Dragon met its end, the King built a church and dedicated it to the Virgin Mary and St George. From that church flowed a spring that cured all diseases.

Mummers’ Plays are still performed in some parts of England on St George’s Day, since many revolve around the saint, other more English heroes such as Robin Hood and Little John, and various enemies, such as ‘Turkish’ or ‘Moorish’ knights. They are also performed at Christmas, Easter, Whitsun and All Souls. They also include a host of comic characters such as the Doctor, a soldier bold, Jack Finney and Tom the Tinker. The plot involves fights between St George and the Turk and St George and the Prussian, the other traditional ‘enemy’ of the English. Wounds are healed miraculously and dead characters are brought back to life. Of course, these days the plays are taken by all as just good fun, but in medieval times the fighting could get out-of-hand, which is why they were frowned upon by the Church. Elsewhere, and especially in the areas controlled by the Byzantine Churches, now Greek and Russian Orthodox, George became a much-venerated figure, as can be seen from this ikon from the Greek church in Kecskemét, Hungary (picture left). He still is, of course.

However, the cultural association of St George with the ‘Christian’ crusaders fighting the ‘Muslim’ Ottomans for control of ‘the old Jerusalem’ has not endeared him to many modern English people, for whom pride in the multi-faith and multi-cultural Britain separates them from these ‘Crusader’, Islamophobic traditions, though they still feel a strong association with the ‘Saxon’ freedom-fighters of Robin Hood’s merry men. This is somewhat ironic, as George is venerated in Aleppo by both Christians and Muslims and, of course, the stories of ‘Robin of Locksley’ have Richard Coeur de Lion as the royal hero, returning from the crusades, and Prince John as ‘villain’. A more careful reading of the historical record might result in a more balanced view, especially given the time and resources, not to mention ransom money required by the absentee ‘Lionheart’ from his long-suffering people, whether Saxon or Norman.

Sweet Swan of Avon

However, a good reason for continuing to celebrate the 23rd April as England’s national day is that it was also the day on which William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, and the day on which he is said to have died. The festival held in the Midland town attracts visitors from all over the world and the flags of the nations fly from flagpoles set up in the street. Many countries have also dedicated lamp-posts in the bard’s honour. There is one for Hungary close to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Theatre. It’s therefore appropriate that one of England’s greatest should be celebrated on St George’s Day, his birthday, and shared in such an international manner. But this is simply a happy coincidence. If we look into the heritage of Shakespeare’s ‘sceptered isle’ more carefully, surely we can find more ancient causes for celebration of English national identity, just like the Welsh and the Irish. To do so we need to go back to the pre-Roman Celtic times in which two of Shakespeare’s plays, Cymbeline and King Lear are set. Both were Silurian Kings before the successful Claudian invasion of 43 A.D., and the line of British monarchs is traced back to the former.

Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’

William Blake’s mystical poem, Jerusalem holds the key to the relevance of this period in British history and mythology. When sung to Hubert Parry’s wonderful tune it is more of an anthem than a hymn, almost a national anthem, most famously sung on the last night of the ‘Proms’ (‘Promenade’ Concerts held annually at the Royal Albert Hall).  Blake (1757-1827) was born in London, the son of a hosier.  Leaving school at the age of ten, he was apprenticed to an engraver. From an early age he ‘saw visions and dreamed dreams’. Most of his literary works, like Songs of Innocence and Experience,  illustrated by his own engravings, had a highly mystical style. A constant theme is the exaltation of love and imagination against the restrictive codes of conventional morality. In his later works, he emphasises the revelation of redemption through Christ. As a young artist and poet he developed an unconventional and rebellious quality, acutely conscious of pretentiousness and pomposity, so that in 1784 he wrote a burlesque novel, An Island in the Moon, in which he ridiculed contemporary manners and conventions, not sparing himself. The manuscript part of this has survived and contains the several poems which afterwards became the Songs of Innocence.

In 1788 he began to assemble these into a small volume, for which he laboriously made twenty-seven copper-plates, dating the title-page 1789. This became the first of his famous ‘Illuminated Books’, reflecting his own state of mind in which the life of his imagination was more real to him than the material world. The books therefore identify ideas with symbols which then become translated into visual images, with word and symbol each reinforcing the other. His words, his poetry, became increasingly affected by his growing awareness of the social injustices of his time, from which his Songs of Experience developed. His feelings of indignation and pity for the sufferings he saw in the streets of London led to the publication of this second set of lyrical, antithetical poems in 1794. He then combined the two collections into one book which was made into a standardised illuminated edition in 1815.

The four verses of the poem which make up the hymn, Jerusalem, first appeared in one of Blake’s last poems, Milton, written in 1804. Underneath them he wrote, ‘would to God that all the Lord’s people were prophets’, quoting from Numbers 11. 29. In the poem the seventeenth-century poet is depicted as returning from eternity and entering into Blake to preach the message of Christ crucified and the doctrines of self-sacrifice and forgiveness:

And did those feet in ancient time

Walk upon England’s mountains green?

And was the holy Lamb of God

On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

And did the countenance divine

Shine forth upon our clouded hills?

And was Jerusalem builded here

Among those dark satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!

Bring me my arrows of desire!

Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!

Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,

Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand

Till we have built Jerusalem

In England’s green and pleasant land.

The imagery of these verses is complex. Some of it is borrowed from the Bible, for instance, the chariots of fire, taken from 2 Kings 2.11, but much is of Blake’s own invention. In suggesting that Jesus may have set foot in England, Blake is resurrecting the old legend which told of Christ’s wanderings as a young man with Joseph of Arimathea, a tin merchant owning mines in Cornwall and the west of Britain, who later removed Jesus’ body from the cross and provided a freshly cut tomb for it, his own tomb.  A verse from his long poem, Jerusalem, also echoes this myth:

She walks upon our meadows green;

The Lamb of God walks by her side:

And every English child is seen,

Children of Jesus and his Bride.

 

From Bethany to Avalon?: The Glastonbury Legends

Tradition and some written testimony suggest that Jesus of Nazareth did live in Britain for some time during the ‘silent’ period of the gospels before he began his ministry at the age of roughly thirty, creating a Temple for his mother on the isle of Avalon, later to become Glastonbury in Saxon times.  St Augustine, during his mission to Britain, beginning in 597, wrote a letter to Pope Gregory in which he referred to ‘a certain royal island’ in which there was to be found ‘a church..divinely constructed, or by the hands of Christ himself, for the salvation of His people. The Almighty has made it manifest…that he continues to watch over it as sacred to Himself and to Mary, the Mother of God.’  Fanciful though the legend may be that the feet of Jesus of Nazareth, together with Joseph of Arimathea, may have actually touched British soil, the symbolism of the myth is resonant in British culture, just as the Arthurian mythology crafted by Geoffrey of Monmouth and Malory, and the legends of Robin Hood, have also proved to be. Henry Tudor saw useful propaganda possibilities in the former, gathering support en route from Milford Haven to Bosworth Field, and naming his first son Arthur in order to mythologise his dynastic claim, and radical republicans in the English Civil War drew on the latter to liken the rule of the Stuart Kings to the ‘Norman Yolk’ imposed on free-born Englishmen by the feudal Norman Kings and Lords.

In his 1961 book, The Drama of the Lost Disciples, George F Jowett produced a compelling, if at times far-fetched narrative of the legends surrounding Joseph of Arimathea and ‘the Bethany Group’, drawing on sources in the Vatican Library, as well as the medieval chronicles of bishops and monks. Of course, chronicles are not histories, and neither is Jowett’s work to be regarded as mature historical narrative, but it does point to the enduring significance of these legends, just as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Histories of the Kings of Britain deserves to be treated as romantic, imaginative literature, part of the Celtic tradition of Britain. After all, even historians need to use their powers of imagination to interpret the silences, as well as the vague traces left to them by the past.

What is certain is that, as Monmouth pointed out in his early chapters, Britain ‘aboundeth in metals of every kind’, and that, even before the Romans sought to exploit this mineral wealth, there was a great deal of trade by sea  between Gaul and ‘the three noble rivers’, the Thames, the Severn and the Humber, with their great estuaries even wider than today. The Glastonbury Legend claims that ‘the Bethany group of missionaries’ navigated their way from Gaul up the Severn estuary to the Brue and the Parrot tributaries, until they came to Glastonbury Tor, or the Isle of Avalon, which gets its name from the Brythonic word ‘afal’, meaning an apple. Somerset (as we know it today) was, even then, full of apple orchards, and the fruit was the emblem of fertility to the Celtic Druids. The legend states that, following their disembarkation, the travellers made their way up the Tor, where Joseph stopped to rest, thrusting his staff into the ground. It then became part of the earth, taking root, and in time blossomed, out of season, becoming the ‘Holy Thorn’.

In Saxon times the land around Glastonbury was drained by the monks, making wetlands, now part of the Somerset ‘levels’. It is still believed by many that the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey house the remains of the church that was erected over the spot where Joseph of Arimathea and the group of disciples from Bethany built their altar of wattle, thatched with ‘withy’ reeds, the custom of the time. The ancient Britons used wattle in the construction of their homes. This wattle church survived, according to a former Bishop of Bristol, until after the Norman invasion when it was accidentally burnt down. Just over a mile from the town a large number of wattle structures were discovered, preserved in the peat, in the nineteenth century. They were set on mounds built in the wetlands, connected by causeways also built with wattles. In the last century, postholes and preserved timbers were also uncovered, and these can sill be seen today, along with stretches of the wattle, the remains of an early British settlement which was burnt down. The wattle church was sixty feet in length and twenty-six feet wide, following the pattern of the Tabernacle, built between 38 and 39 A.D. It was then encased in lead, a plentiful local material, and over that St. Paulinus erected the chapel of St. Mary in 630 A.D. Various documents suggest that St. Mary’s Chapel, erected by St. David in 546 A.D., was built over the remains of Jesus’ mother. It remained intact until destroyed by fire in 1184, when the great fire gutted the whole of the Abbey. It is said to be the oldest Christian Church in the British Isles, possibly the first above ground in Europe, built in the shape of the cross, the pattern followed in Britain into medieval and modern times.   When the first books came off the printing press, Wynkyn De Worde printed a life story of St Joseph, and a further account of the Arimathean story was printed, copying from earlier documents,  in which the following intriguing lines appeared:

Now here how Joseph came into Englande;

But at that tyme it was called Brytayne.

Then XV yere with our lady, as I understande.

Joseph wayted styll to serve hyr he was fayne.

The flag of the Christ’s cross, which became the flag of St George, is said to have  flown above British churches from earliest times. Glastonbury Tor itself was said to be a ‘Gorsedd’ or ‘High Place of Worship’ for the Druids, a hand-built mound with a circle of stones on top, from which they observed the stars.

The Unbroken Line of Church and Monarchy 

In 871, Alfred the Great, himself no stranger to Glastonbury and the wet-lands around it where he is reported to have burnt his oat-cakes while hiding out from the Danish invaders, commissioned monastic scholars to translate into the Saxon tongue the ancient British history from documentary evidence. His ‘Wessex’ therefore provides the link in southern Britain that connects the Celtic Christian kingdoms of the Silures with Saxon England. He was then given great credit for creating laws, institutions and reforms which restored and enforced the ancient British practices of law and order, as well as religion, rather than replacing them with Saxon ones. Perhaps for this contribution alone, Alfred deserves to be remembered as England’s true patron saint, let alone for his exploits as a military leader and founder of an identifiable Christian English nation. In this, he is similar to the Hungarian King István, or Stephen, who was canonised by the Pope as the founder of the Hungarian nation around the year 1,000, and also used the banner of the long red cross as his original symbol. The ‘Lamb and Flag’ is also in the coat of arms of the Hungarian Reformed Church, hanging on the walls of its school classrooms to this day. Recent evidence has shown that there was much continuity in the population of the Celtic and Romano-British territories of western Britain and the Saxon kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia. Whilst the dynastic leaders and their retinue may have been pushed into modern-day Wales, Devon and Cornwall, many of the ordinary farming folk would have remained, mixed and married. The ‘genes’ as well as the ‘blood’ and languages of the Celts all inter-mingled with those of the Saxon settlers. The ‘English’ may be more Celtic than they think, and not so different from the Welsh in genetic make-up!

So, while school history textbooks still wrongly assert that the coming of Christianity to England occurred with the Augustinian Mission, sent by Pope Gregory, in 596 A.D., that date actually marks the introduction of the Roman Catholic Church, and Papal authority, into the English lands, not yet united under one king. The Papacy itself, and its historians, have never denied the story of St Joseph being the first Apostle to Britain, though they claim that the first official envoy of the Roman Church was St. Paul himself, some twenty years later. It was the Catholic countries who attempted to depose Elizabeth I with the Pope’s blessing, who tried to claim that the Church of England drew its authority from the Augustinian Mission, followed up by the successful conquest by the Normans under the Papal banner and blessing in 1066. Elizabeth herself, the last native-speaking Welsh monarch, and lineal descendant of the Silurian King Cymbeline (the subject of one of Shakespeare’s plays) was careful to point to the pre-existing Celtic orders as the source of her authority as Supreme Governor and ‘Defender of the Faith’, a Latin title which had been bestowed on her father by the Pope prior to the Reformation, but which she now (in 1570) claimed was hers by ancient right anyway. Elizabeth II, at her coronation in 1953,  took the oath as ‘Defender of the Faith’ and Supreme Governor of the Church of England, despite opposition from the Papacy, which petitioned to have it withdrawn from the ceremony.  It was politely refused on the grounds that the sovereign of the United Kingdom was the Defender of the British Christian ’cause’, with Christ as its Head.  Bishop Ussher wrote categorically in his Brittannicarum Ecclesiarum Anquititates: ‘The British National Church was founded in A.D. 36, 160 years before heathen Rome confessed Christianity. ‘

Christianity spread rapidly throughout the British Isles at this time. It was recorded that in A.D. 48, Conor Macnessa, the King of Ulster, sent his priests to Avalon to commit the Christian law and its teachings into writing. However, it was not until A.D. 156 that Britain, by the edict of King Lucius, officially proclaimed the Christian Church as the ‘national’ religion of Britain, at Winchester, the then royal capital, where its kings were crowned until the Norman Conquest. Tertullian of Carthage, writing in 208, tells us that in his time the Christian Church extended to all the boundaries of Gaul, and parts of Britain the Romans could not reach, but which were ‘subject to Christ’. These were the woodlands, wetlands and islands  on either side of the Severn sea. Thereafter, scholars from the third to the sixth century testify that Christianity, or ‘The Way’ as it was first known, was firmly established, certainly in the west of the island, from as early as 37 A.D. to the middle of the sixth century. An ancient English chronicler, in his account of the conversion of the Celtic King Arviragus, makes an interesting comment about the ‘cult of St George’:

Joseph converted this King Arviragus

By his prechying to know ye laws divine

And baptized him as write hath Nennius

The chronicler in Brytain tongue full fyne

And to Christian laws made hym inclyne

And gave him then a shield of silver white

A crosse and long, and overthwart full perfete

These armes were used throughout all Brytain

For common syne, each man to know his nacion

And thus his armes by Joseph Creacion

Full longafore Saint George was generate

Were worshipt here of mykell elder date.

Therefore, the ‘long cross’ on a white background became the symbol of Celtic Christian chieftains, traditionally emblazoned on their shields, long before St George was born, and even longer before he became the patron saint of England, in fact long before England came into existence as a unified country. Arviragus carried the cross on his shield into battle with the invading Romans, who did not officially become Christian until about 350, under the Emperor Constantine. Arviragus ruled over the area of south-western England, while Caradoc ruled Cambria, the area covered by Wales and the West Midlands of England today. Arviragus led the Celtic resistance to the Roman invasion of A.D. 43, following the death of his brother, Guiderius, in the second battle, then submitting to Caradoc as Pendragon, or ‘Head chieftain’. It was in these battles that the cross given to Arviragus, which later became the cross of St George, was first unfurled, and a nine-year-long war of resistance began.

The Truth against the World: The Long Fight for Social Justice

The Christian battle-cry, still used in the Druidic ceremonies at the National Eisteddfod of Wales, was ‘Y gwir yn erbyn y Byd’, ‘the truth against the world’. Caradoc was finally defeated at Clun (modern-day Shropshire) in 52 A.D. by the combined forces of five Roman legions led by Aulus Platius, Vespasian, Titus and Claudius himself, who had landed at Richborough (now Kent) to take personal command of the combined Imperial forces, with heavy reinforcements, including a squadron of elephants! Apparently, the offensive smell of the great beasts panicked the Celtic horses pulling the Silurian chariots, causing havoc in their own ranks as they scythed through the defensive lines of Caradoc’s men and women warriors. Caradoc, known to the Romans as Caractacus, was taken prisoner with his family and they were all shipped to Rome, later pardoned by Claudius, freed and eventually allowed to return to Britain, promising not to take up arms against Rome again.

‘And did those feet’ and the longer poem, ‘Milton’ from which it is drawn, are both a plea for ‘ancient’ intuition and imagination in the face of  ‘modern’ scientific  rationalism, for a return to ‘innocence’, and a call for a ‘crusade’ for the values of social justice, or ‘equity’, and liberty, with which Blake envisions a ‘new Jerusalem’ being built in Britain. The ‘dark, satanic mills’ are not simply the factories of the industrial revolution, but the cold, logical philosophies of Locke and Bacon that Blake deplored. However, it was more than a century after it was written that Robert Bridges rescued the poem from obscurity for his patriotic anthology, The Spirit of Man, and asked Sir Hubert Parry to set it to a simple tune so that it could be sung at rallies of a crusading movement set up to build a better Britain for the millions of soldiers who would return to Britain after the First World War, to Lloyd George’s ‘Land fit for heroes to live in’. It also became, at the end of the war, the anthem of the suffragists, the ‘Women Voters’ Hymn’. Shortly after this, it became a great favourite of King George V and on special occasions of national significance he would ask for it to be played and sung.  More recently, Billy Bragg, the ‘protest’ singer-songwriter, has said that it asks the questions that Jesus would if he came to modern Britain and saw how far we  have built the kind of society based on the principles of social justice that he championed. It has long been a favourite within the Labour movement.

In his 1980 book, To Build Jerusalem: A Photographic Remembrance of British Working Class Life 1875-195,  John Gorman concludes the introduction to the collection with the thought that ‘if the dream of a new and golden Jerusalem to be “builded here” faded from the hearts of those elected as master builders, the hope yet remains with the many.’ Perhaps, approaching the sixtieth anniversary of her coronation, we should both adopt and adapt Shakespeare’s words, and ‘Cry God for Bess, England and St Cuthbert!’ Perhaps we should also petition to have 20th March, St. Cuthbert’s Day, made the English national day. However, since the Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria covered much of modern-day lowland Scotland, including Melrose where he was born and brought up, educated by Hibernian monks, and since he is still venerated in Edinburgh as well as Durham, we might need to redefine what it means to be British…and English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish.

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One response to “‘Cry God for Queen Bess, England and St Cuthbert….!’

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  1. Reblogged this on hungarywolf.

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