Archive for the ‘British Isles’ Tag

‘The King’s Grace’ – The Reign of George V: 1916 (part two).   1 comment

Total War and the Temper of the People:

Besides the course of the war itself, in the early part of 1916, the two subjects which, according to John Buchan, most agitated the popular mind were the temper of Labour and the matter of conscription. In addition to the troubles in the first two years of the war on Clydeside and in the south Wales coalfield, the new munitions policy, with its wholesale suspension of trade union rules, increased the tension. In spite of high wages, industrial troubles were always on a hair-trigger until the end of the war. There was, Buchan wrote, a work-weariness as well as a  war-weariness, factory-shock as well as shell-shock. British Labour reflected the mood of the country; it had moments of revolt and discontent as well as its steady hours of resolution. In 1915 Lord Derby had made to organise recruitment on a more scientific basis, but in the figures published in January 1916 showed that ‘voluntaryism’ had failed and that conscription would soon follow.

There was little opposition to conscription in the country, and although an official Labour congress instructed the Party in Parliament to oppose the measure, and although this was upheld at the annual conference three weeks later by a majority of more than a million card-votes, it was also decided by a small majority not to agitate for repeal should the bill become law. Furthermore, it was agreed that the three Labour members whom Asquith had invited to join the war cabinet should keep their positions, despite Ramsay MacDonald’s pacifist stance. Buchan commented:

“The result was a typical product of our national temperament, and only the thoughtless would label it inconsistent. The Labour delegates were honest men in a quandary. They were loath to give up a cherished creed even under the stress of a dire necessity. But they were practical men and Englishmen, and they recognised compelling facts. If they could not formally repudiate their dogmas, they could neglect them.

A week after the Battle of Jutland, about which I have written elsewhere, the cruiser carrying Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, was sunk by a mine west of the Orkneys, while on course for Russia. The news of the sinking and Kitchener’s death filled the United Kingdom and its allies with profound sorrow. Labour leaders and trade union delegates, according to Buchan, were as sincere in their mourning as his professional colleagues and the army which he had created. At the time he was beyond doubt the most dominant personality in the Empire, and the foremost of Britain’s public servants… In twenty-two months he had expanded six divisions into seventy and made a great army.

As the late summer and autumn of the Somme campaign wore on, the temper, not just of the British Labour movement, but that of Britain as a whole, was beyond the mood of exasperation of 1915. Britons were beginning to learn the meaning of the task they had undertaken. The civilian hatred of the enemy had gone and the mood of the people was more like that of the men at the Western Front, one of resignation to fate. As Buchan pointed out;

The War was no more a reported tale; enemy aircraft had stricken down men and women in English streets, the life of the trenches could be envisaged by the dullest, and death, which had left few families unbereaved, was becoming once more the supreme uniter.

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This new mood of poise nevertheless emboldened people to be more critical of the War Government which, according to Buchan, was trying to cure an earthquake with small political pills. Far from being a mobilisation of the best minds and talents of the nation, the Coalition cabinet had turned out to be a mere compromise between party interests. Neither were its traditional processes fitted for the swift dispatch of business. During the autumn men of all classes were beginning to ask themselves, and each other, whether such a government was fit for the vital purpose of winning the War. The great majority of the British people had become convinced by the late summer that a change was necessary, but the Government was slow to discern this shift in public opinion. Thus, when the attack came, there was a tendency to attribute this to a combination of conspiracy and calumny by the press.  However, it was evident that no government could have been driven from office purely by these means. The press owed most of its power to its ability to echo popular opinion which felt entitled to criticise results which were not adequate to the sacrifice and spirit of the nation. David Lloyd George was, as ever, the one leader capable of interpreting the subconscious popular mind. Buchan had this to write about him:

Alone of his Liberal colleagues, he realised that the political ‘expertise’, of which they had been such masters, was as much in the shadow as the champion faro-player in a Far Western township which has been visited by a religious revival. His powerful intelligence was turned into other channels, and he brought to the conduct of this war between nations the same passion which in other days he showed in the strife between classes. When he succeeded Lord Kitchener at the War Office he found himself with little authority; he was convinced that things were being mismanaged at the front, and he was determined to infuse into their conduct a fiercer purpose, and to win back policy and major strategy to the control of the Cabinet. To do this he must either be Prime Minister himself, or head a small War Directory which had full executive responsibility. At the close of November he put the latter proposal before Mr. Asquith.”

The matter soon found its way into the newspapers. The Conservatives in the Cabinet had little love for Lloyd George, but were anxious that Asquith should resign in order to reconstruct his Cabinet. At first, Asquith seemed inclined to accept Lloyd George’s proposal for a War Directory, but due to the press campaign and on the advice of his Liberal colleagues, he withdrew his offer. Lloyd George resigned, and so too did Asquith, believing himself to be indispensable to the King. However, George V sent for Bonar Law instead, who declared that he was unable to form an administration, so the King turned to Lloyd George, who became Prime Minister on 7 December. Balfour accepted the role of Foreign Secretary and his fellow Conservatives followed. Lloyd George was therefore able to create his War Cabinet of five to include Bonar Law, Lord Curzon, Lord Milner, Arthur Henderson (Labour leader) and himself as president. Asquith and Sir Edward Grey, both of whom had served in Liberal-led governments for more than a decade, retired to the back benches. Buchan believed;

beyond question the change was necessary, and it had behind it the assent of a people not careless of the decencies. That new leaders should be demanded in a strife which affects national existence is as natural as the changes of the seasons. Few men are so elastic of mind that, having given all their strength to one set of problems, they can turn with unabated vigour to new needs and new conditions. The nation, again, must be able to view its masters with hopefulness, and in all novelty there is hope. There was that, too, in the temperament and talents of the Prime Minister himself upon which men had begun to look coldly. He left on the ordinary mind that he thought more of argument than of action. It seemed to his critics impossible to expect the unresting activity and the bold origination which the situation required from one whose habits of thought and deed were cast in the more leisurely mould of an older school of statesmen… When a people judges there is usually reason in its verdict, and it is idle to argue that Mr. Asquith was a perfect, or even the best available, leader in war-time.

 Below: Lloyd George with Balfour at the Versailles Peace Conference, 1919

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The Aftermath and Legacy of the Easter 1916 Rising   Leave a comment

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The 1916 Rising took place over a bloody Easter week in Dublin, when the city centre became a battlefield. During that week, it had little support, but as John Dillon argued, the executions which followed in May infuriated the Irish population. Speaking in the House of Commons, the veteran Nationalist MP and last leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, pointed out that…

What is happening is that thousands of people in Dublin, who ten days ago were bitterly opposed to the whole of life of the Sinn Fein movement and to the rebellion are now becoming infuriated against the Government on account of these executions and, as I am informed by letters received this morning, that feeling is spreading throughout the country in a most dangerous degree…

 We who speak for the vast majority of the Irish people, we who have risked a great deal to win the people to your side in this great crisis of your Empire’s history, we who have endeavoured, and successfully endeavoured to secure that the Irish in America shall not go into alliance with the Germans in that country – we, I think, were entitled to be consulted before this bloody course of executions was entered upon in Ireland. 

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These arguments led to Asquith accepting that some political solution was necessary. The Prime Minister himself, in the aftermath of the Rising, and under pressure from America over the executions in Kilmainham Jail, stopped General Maxwell, the military commander in Dublin, from shooting his prisoners, and announced in the House of Commons on 11 May:

The government has come to the conclusion that the system under which Ireland has been governed has completely broken down. The only satisfactory alternative, in their judgement, is the creation, at the earliest possible moment, of an Irish Government responsible to the Irish people.

He went to Ireland, returned, and told parliament that the government had asked Lloyd George to negotiate for agreement as to the way in which the Government of Ireland is for the future to be carried out, so that the Home Rule Bill, shelved when the war broke out, could be put into immediate effect, without waiting for the end of the war. Yet the position of the Protestants of Ulster – 27% of the total population – and their determination to resist any settlement in which they would be left as a small minority meant that any solution was likely to be accompanied by violence. On the eve of the Great War it was apparent that Ulster’s Protestant population would resist Home Rule if need be by force of arms and the Curragh Mutiny indicated that the army might not repress rebellion in the North. The question of partition from the Ulster Unionist point of view was reported in a letter from Hugh De F. Montgomery, of the Ulster Unionist Council, to his son, dated 22 June 1916. Sir Edward Carson, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and a member of Asquith’s Cabinet as Solicitor-General for Ireland, spoke to a private meeting of the Council for an hour and a half to explain the situation over Home Rule. The main point was…

The Cabinet having unanimously decided that under pressure of difficulties with America, the Colonies and Parliament (but chiefly with America), they must offer Redmond (the then leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party) Home Rule at once; and (not being prepared to coerce Ulster) having authorised Lloyd George to arrange a settlement, Carson, after what had happened at the Buckingham Palace Conference in 1914, could not well refuse to submit to his followers the exclusion of six counties as a basis of negotiation. Carson had satisfied himself, apparently, that he had lost all the ground gained in their anti-Home Rule campaign before the war, and that the majority of the Unionist members and voters took the same view as the majority of Unionist papers as to the necessity of a settlement… If we did not agree to a settlement we should have the Home Rule Act coming into operation without the exclusion of any part of Ulster, or subject only to some worthless Amending Act which Asquith might bring in in fulfilment of his pledge, and we should either have to submit to this or fight…

I was in Dublin for two or three days last week, and the Southerners I met are all convinced that there will be another rebellion whether the Lloyd George terms are accepted or not. The fact that these terms were accepted has enormously strengthened the Sinn Feiners in the country. The acceptance of these suggestions by the Ulster Unionists has not had much effect on this part of the question. The Unionists’ acceptance under protest has increased Redmond’s difficulties, and, as we are given to believe, placed us in the position in the eyes of British public opinion of being reasonable people. If Redmond actually forms a government and tries to rule this country, the rebellion will be directed against him; if he does not, it will be directed against the existing government; in any case, the country will have to be more or less conquered outside the six counties, and that may possibly be the best way out of all our troubles, which have all their root in a British Prime Minister having brought in a Home Rule Bill.

To try to find a solution of a moderate nature, a Convention was called for 1917. Its meetings were boycotted by both organised labour and Sinn Fein, and any attempt at a solution was blocked by in the conference chamber by the total refusal of the Ulster Unionists to consider the possibility of Home Rule for the whole of Ireland. This meant that partition was now the only possible solution, leading to all the problems which were still apparent in the the 1990s, before the Good Friday Agreement of 10 April 1998.

The legacy of the Easter Rebellion lived on. According to Liam de Paor and Conor Cruise O’Brien, 1966 was a watershed in the relationship between the two communities in Northern Ireland: the fiftieth anniversary of the Rising gave an impetus for the Nationalist population to resurrect their ideal of a united Ireland. The celebrations which accompanied the anniversary led to a backlash from the Ulster Protestants who remembered 1916 for the way in which the Ulster Divisions were cut to pieces on the Somme from 1 July to 18 November that year. From an Irish Nationalist perspective, Liam de Paor wrote in 1971, of the contemporary significance of the battle compared with that of the Rising:

Pearse and his IRB comrades, who broke with Redmond, did not feel that they owed any loyalty to England or that they should fight her wars. On the contrary they hoped that the great European war might provide an opportunity to strike against the colonial connection, and they planned accordingly. Connolly, with his tiny Citizen Army, was even more opposed to Irishmen fighting, not only England’s, but in any capitalist war, and he was bitterly disappointed to see Europe’s socialist parties forgetting their principles when the drums beat and the banners waved, and hastening to wear the uniforms of Europe’s various oppressors on both sides. He too was a nationalist of a kind, although he had made it clear that he was not interested in a mere change of flags but in attacking capitalism through colonialism… 

On the 1 July the battle of the Somme opened, and the 36th (Ulster) Division was ordered out of their section of the British lines at Thiepval Wood on the River Ancre to attack the German lines. They attacked with tremendous courage… and in two days of battle… ended more or less where they had begun, in terms of ground gained. But their dead were heaped in thousands on the German wire and littered the ground that had been bitterly gained and bitterly lost: half of Ulster was in mourning. 

These two bloody events drove Irishmen further apart than ever, for although the Catholic and nationalist Irish also, 200,000 of them, fought, and many died, at the Somme, at Gallipoli, at Passchendaele, and other places with names of terror in that appalling war,  their sacrifice seemed, by the turn Irish history now took, irrelevant – barely a footnote in the developing myth by which the political tradition is animated…

… In Ulster, on the other hand, the Somme is more central in the Protestant political tradition, for, futile as the battle was, the Orangemen who fought in it displayed in the most convincing way that, however eccentric their ‘loyalty’ might seem at times, it was to them quite real, and they showed that in this they were, as Pearse had perceived, not ridiculous at all…

World War One British Soldiers.

Above: Soldiers at the Western Front, waiting to ‘go over the top’.

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Above: Soldiers at the front in Gallipoli, 1915.

The well-known folk song, The Foggy Dew, which commemorates the 1916 Uprising, does at least contain a verse recognising the suffering of Irish soldiers in the Great War, even if it places it firmly in the nationalist narrative:

It was England bade our wild geese go

That small nations might be free;

Their lonely graves are by Suvla’s wave

Or the fringe of the Great North Sea;

But had they died by Pearse’s side

Or fallen by Cathal Brugha

Their graves we’d keep where the Fenians sleep

With a shroud of the foggy dew.

Source: Richard Brown and Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents and Debates: Twentieth Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education.

From Victor to Sponsor & Champion of a New Europe   1 comment

Churchill’s Vision of an Integrated Continent:

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We do not covet anything from any nation except their respect.

Broadcast to the French People, Oct. 1940

The empires of the future are the empires of the mind.

Harvard speech, Sept 1943

1946_Churchill's-'Iron-Curtain'-speech

Beware, for the time may be short. A shadow has fallen across the scenes so lately lighted by Allied victory. Nobody knows what Soviet Russia and its Communist international organisation intend to do in the immediate future. 

From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an Iron Curtain has descended across the Continent.

 Speech given at Fulton, Missouri (pictured above), 1946

Below: Visiting Battersea in south London during ‘the Blitz’ – a little touch of ‘Harry in the night’, emulating Shakespeare’s Henry V, visiting his weary troops before the Battle of Agincourt. 

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churchill zurich 19-sep-1946September 19, 1946. University of Zurich:

I wish to speak about the tragedy of Europe, this noble continent, the home of all the great parent races of the Western world, the foundation of Christian faith and ethics, the origin of most of the culture, arts, philosophy and science both of ancient and modern times. If Europe were once united in the sharing of its common inheritance there would be no limit to the happiness, prosperity and glory which its 300 million or 400 million people would enjoy. Yet it is from Europe that has sprung that series of frightful nationalistic quarrels, originated by the Teutonic nations in their rise to power, which we have seen in this 20th century and in our own lifetime wreck the peace and mar the prospects of all mankind.

What is this plight to which Europe has been reduced? Some of the smaller states have indeed made a good recovery, but over wide areas are a vast, quivering mass of tormented, hungry, careworn and bewildered human beings, who wait in the ruins of their cities and homes and scan the dark horizons for the approach of some new form of tyranny or terror. Among the victors there is a Babel of voices, among the vanquished the sullen silence of despair. That is all that Europeans, grouped in so many ancient states and nations, and that is all that the Germanic races have got by tearing each other to pieces and spreading havoc far and wide. Indeed, but for the fact that the great republic across the Atlantic realised that the ruin or enslavement of Europe would involve her own fate as well, and stretched out hands of succour and guidance, the Dark Ages would have returned in all their cruelty and squalor. They may still return.

Yet all the while there is a remedy which, if it were generally and spontaneously adopted by the great majority of people in many lands, would as by a miracle transform the whole scene and would in a few years make all Europe, or the greater part of it, as free and happy as Switzerland is today. What is this sovereign remedy? It is to recreate the European fabric, or as much of it as we can, and to provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, safety and freedom. We must build a kind of united states of Europe. In this way only will hundreds of millions of toilers be able to regain the simple joys and hopes which make life worth living. The process is simple. All that is needed is the resolve of hundreds of millions of men and women to do right instead of wrong and to gain as their reward blessing instead of cursing.

Much work has been done upon this task by the exertions of the Pan-European Union, which owes so much to the famous French patriot and statesman Aristide Briand. There is also that immense body which was brought into being amidst high hopes after the First World War — the League of Nations. The League did not fail because of its principles or conceptions. It failed because those principles were deserted by those states which brought it into being, because the governments of those states feared to face the facts and act while time remained. This disaster must not be repeated. There is, therefore, much knowledge and material with which to build and also bitter, dearly bought experience to spur.

There is no reason why a regional organisation of Europe should in any way conflict with the world organisation of the United Nations. On the contrary, I believe that the larger synthesis can only survive if it is founded upon broad natural groupings. There is already a natural grouping in the Western Hemisphere. We British have our own Commonwealth of Nations. These do not weaken, on the contrary they strengthen, the world organisation. They are in fact its main support. And why should there not be a European group which could give a sense of enlarged patriotism and common citizenship to the distracted peoples of this mighty continent? And why should it not take its rightful place with other great groupings and help to shape the honourable destiny of man? In order that this may be accomplished there must be an act of faith in which the millions of families speaking many languages must consciously take part.

We all know that the two World Wars through which we have passed arose out of the vain passion of Germany to play a dominating part in the world. In this last struggle crimes and massacres have been committed for which there is no parallel since the Mongol invasion of the 13th century, no equal at any time in human history. The guilty must be punished. Germany must be deprived of the power to rearm and make another aggressive war. But when all this has been done, as it will be done, as it is being done, there must be an end to retribution. There must be what Mr Gladstone many years ago called a “blessed act of oblivion”. We must all turn our backs upon the horrors of the past and look to the future. We cannot afford to drag forward across the years to come hatreds and revenges which have sprung from the injuries of the past. If Europe is to be saved from infinite misery, and indeed from final doom, there must be this act of faith in the European family, this act of oblivion against all crimes and follies of the past. Can the peoples of Europe rise to the heights of the soul and of the instinct and spirit of man? If they could, the wrongs and injuries which have been inflicted would have been washed away on all sides by the miseries which have been endured. Is there any need for further floods of agony? Is the only lesson of history to be that mankind is unteachable? Let there be justice, mercy and freedom. The peoples have only to will it and all will achieve their heart’s desire.

I am now going to say something that will astonish you. The first step in the re-creation of the European family must be a partnership between France and Germany. In this way only can France recover the moral and cultural leadership of Europe. There can be no revival of Europe without a spiritually great France and a spiritually great Germany. The structure of the United States of Europe will be such as to make the material strength of a single State less important. Small nations will count as much as large ones and gain their honour by a contribution to the common cause. The ancient States and principalities of Germany, freely joined for mutual convenience in a federal system, might take their individual places among the united states of Europe.

But I must give you warning, time may be short. At present there is a breathing space. The cannons have ceased firing. The fighting has stopped. But the dangers have not stopped. If we are to form a united states of Europe, or whatever name it may take, we must begin now. In these present days we dwell strangely and precariously under the shield, and I even say protection, of the atomic bomb. The atomic bomb is still only in the hands of a nation which, we know, will never use it except in the cause of right and freedom, but it may well be that in a few years this awful agency of destruction will be widespread and that the catastrophe following from its use by several warring nations will not only bring to an end all that we call civilisation but may possibly disintegrate the globe itself.

I now sum up the propositions which are before you. Our constant aim must be to build and fortify the United Nations Organisation. Under and within that world concept we must re-create the European family in a regional structure called, it may be, the United States of Europe, and the first practical step will be to form a Council of Europe. If at first all the States of Europe are not willing or able to join a union we must nevertheless proceed to assemble and combine those who will and who can. The salvation of the common people of every race and every land from war and servitude must be established on solid foundations, and must be created by the readiness of all men and women to die rather than to submit to tyranny. In this urgent work France and Germany must take the lead together. Great Britain, the British Commonwealth of Nations, mighty America — and, I trust, Soviet Russia, for then indeed all would be well — must be the friends and sponsors of the new Europe and must champion its right to live.

Therefore I say to you “Let Europe arise!”

Tags: Europe

Council of Europe:

With this plea for a united states of Europe, Churchill was one of the first to advocate European integration to prevent the atrocities of two world wars from ever happening again, calling for the creation of a Council of Europe as a first step. In 1948, in The Hague, 800 delegates from all European countries met, with Churchill as honorary president, at a grand Congress of Europe. This led to the creation of the Council of Europe on 5 May 1949, the first meeting of which was attended by Churchill himself. His call to action can be seen as propelling further integration as later agreed upon during the Messina Conference in 1955, which led to the Treaty of Rome two years later. It was also Churchill who would first moot the idea of a ‘European army’ designed to protect the continent and provide European diplomacy with some muscle. Furthermore, the European Court of Human Rights was created in 1959 — a decade after Churchill first championed the idea.

Providing the inspiration to the people of Europe as the binding factor in the allied fight against Nazism and fascism, Winston Churchill consequently became a driving force behind European integration and an active fighter for its cause.

ImageAre we not good or brave enough to lead the EU

Sources:

The European Commission (recent pamphlet), The Founding Fathers of the EU.

The Churchill Centre web-site.

 

This Week in the First World War: The Battle of Jutland, 31 May-1 June 1916   Leave a comment

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The Battle of Jutland happened exactly a hundred years ago, and was the only major naval engagement of the First World War. Both sides claimed victory, with the Imperial German Navy attempting to break through the Royal Navy’s lines in the North Sea, but despite some successes, this attempt was not decisive. British losses were greater, including the sinking of HMS Indefatigable and HMS Queen Mary by German shells. After being hit, both ships exploded and sank quickly. From Indefatigable, there were only two survivors from a crew of 1,119. Vice-Admiral David Beatty, after hearing this news, remarked:

There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.

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From  A Sketch-map History of the Great War and After, 1914-1935 (London: Harrap, 1938).

In 1914, the German navy was more powerful than the combined French and Russian fleets, but the entry of Great Britain into the war had given the Allies a greater preponderance of sea-power.

Instant Readiness…

…has always been an essential part of the Royal Naval tradition, and at the beginning of August 1914 this meant that the Fleet went straight from its annual exercises to its war stations six days before hostilities began. By a fortunate chance the British navy was assembled at Portland for a practice mobilization in July 1914. When war became imminent it was ordered not to disperse and was therefore prepared to exercise its superiority as soon as hostilities began. The surprise lay in what followed: instead of the expected Trafalgar against the German High Seas Fleet, the Grand Fleet found its enemies locked in their harbours, behind their impregnable coastal defences where (except for occasional sorties) they would remain for nearly two years. This meant that German overseas trade had to be abandoned immediately, but is also resulted in the Grand Fleet itself very much being anchored to its base, Scapa Flow, a bleak, uninviting anchorage almost devoid on amenities on shore. One sailor remarked:

Scapa left its mark on all who served there. To go to Scapa was to join a club whose membership you could never quite disown… There were times when men spat the name out like a four-letter word…

(Brown and Meehan, Scapa Flow, 1968.)

A virtual blockade of the North Sea was instituted and all ships were stopped by search-parties from British warships. Germany had to rely on foreign supplies reaching her circuitously via neutral countries. By contrast, Allied shipping was hardly interrupted. There were a few German warships on the high seas when war broke out, and these attacked the principal trade-routes. The damage they did, however, was relatively slight, and the German raiders were practically all destroyed by 8 December 1914. After that the Allies were free to transport men and munitions to every theatre of war and to draw freely upon foreign food-supplies. Moreover, this freedom of movement was denied to the Central Powers, which was ultimately why, suffering such shortages of vital raw materials and food, they were unable to continue the war in 1918.

The situation on the seas was so favourable to the Allies that Admiral Jellicoe adopted a policy of extreme caution, refusing to risk losing these advantages even for a probable naval victory. Any defeat of the British navy would have reversed the tables, for Britain could be starved out within a few weeks by a blockade. Jellicoe therefore abandoned the Nelsonian tradition of seeking out the enemy and forcing him to give battle.  Admiral Beatty won a small victory in the Heligoland Bight, which confirmed the Germans in their decision to remain on the defensive. Three British cruisers were sunk by the submarine U9 off the Dutch coast, the first indication of the future role that these craft were later to play in the two world wars. Scarborough, Hartlepool and Yarmouth were bombarded by German cruisers, but a repeat attempt at this was thwarted by Beatty in the Battle of Dogger Bank early in 1915 and the Germans abandoned coastal raids thereafter, and with them discarded any thought of landing any troops on British shores.  At the beginning of 1916, Jellicoe was quite firm in his rejection of any attempt to draw the German Imperial Fleet into battle on the open seas:

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Jellicoe knew that Churchill was correct in his assessment that he was the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon. He would have liked to have fought another Trafalgar, but was well aware of the recent advances in mines, torpedoes and submarines, to which even the most modern Dreadnoughts were vulnerable. The German Admiral Scheer, on the other hand, was determined to hazard a fleet-engagement, since the pressure of the sea blockade made it necessary to take some risks. He planned to destroy Beatty’s cruiser-squadron by engaging it with the whole of the German High Seas Fleet. The battle which resulted took place off Jutland, the northern part of Denmark (see maps above and below). The course of the engagement was very confused, although we do have some eye-witness accounts from officers on board surviving British ships.

It was late afternoon on 31 May, at about 3.50 p.m. that the Navigating Officer of the New Zealand reported the action as having begun, almost simultaneously, on both sides. A few minutes later, the Admiral’s Secretary came across to where the Torpedo Officer was stationed in the conning tower and drew his attention to the Indefatigable. He crossed at once to the starboard side and laid his glasses on her:

She had been hit aft, apparently by the mainmast, and a good deal of smoke was coming from her superstructure aft, but there were no flames visible. He thought it was only her boom boats burning. We were altering course to port at the time, and apparently her steering gear was damaged, as she did not follow round in our wake, but held on until she was almost about 500 yards on our starboard quarter, in full view of the conning tower.

Whilst he was still looking at her through his glasses she was hit by two shells, one on the fo’c’sle and on the fore turret. Both shells appeared to explode on impact. Then there was an interval of about thirty seconds, during which time there was absolutely no sign of fire or flame or smoke, except the little actually formed  by the burst of the two shells. At the end of the thirty seconds the ship completely blew up, commencing apparently from for’ard. The main explosion started with sheets of flame, followed immediately afterwards by a dense, dark smoke, which obscured the ship from view. All sorts of stuff was blown high into the air, a fifty-foot steam picket boat, for example, being blown up about two hundred feet, apparently intact though upside down. 

The second report comes from the Commanding Officer of HMS Ardent, one of the destroyers lost during the action:

A terrible scene of destruction and desolation was revealed to me as I walked aft (with some difficulty). All boats were in pieces. The funnels looked more like nutmeg graters. The rafts were blown to bits, and in the ship’s side and deck were holes innumerable. In the very still atmosphere, the steam and smoke poured out from holes in the deck perfectly straight up into the air. Several of my best men came up and tried to console me and all were delighted that we had  at length been in action and done our share. But many were already killed and lay around their guns and places of duty. Most of the engine-room and stokehold brigade must have been killed outright.

The Ardent gave a big lurch, and I bethought myself of my ‘Grieve’ waistcoat. Another lurch, and the ship keeled right over, and threw me to the ship’s side. I could feel she was going, so I flopped over into the sea, grabbing a lifebuoy that was providentially  at hand. The ‘Ardent’s’ stern kept up a few moments, then she slowly sank from view. As the smoke and steam cleared off I could see many heads in the water – about forty or fifty I should think. There was no support beyond life-belts, lifebuoys and floating waistcoats, so I was afraid that few of us could possibly survive, especially  as I realised that all the destroyers had gone on, and that no big ship would dare to stop, even if they saw us in the water.

I spoke to my men, and saw most of them die one by one. Not a man of them showed any fear of death, and there was not a murmur, complaint, or cry for help from a single soul. Their joy was, and they talked about it to the end, that they and the ‘Ardent’ had ‘done their bit’, as they put it.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Source:  H W Fawcett & G W W Hooper, The Fighting at Jutland (1921)                                         

The significance of the battle:

  • The British fleet was prepared; the Grand Fleet was ordered to sea, and the German attempt to isolate and destroy part of it was frustrated.

  • British caution and the fear of submarine ambush permitted the German fleet to make good its escape when it might have been cut off and destroyed.

  • German tactics, ship-construction and gunnery proved in many ways superior to those of the British, who suffered more serious losses.

  • The German fleet was once more driven off the seas.

  • Most important of all, the battle gave the Germans no alternative but to renew and intensify their submarine campaign. This had momentous results in 1917.

Altogether 250 ships were involved in the battle, 25 of which were destroyed, fourteen British and eleven German. The RN suffered 6,094 fatalities, with 510 wounded. The Imperial Fleet suffered 2,551 fatalities, with 507 wounded. In addition to the ships already mentioned, a third battlecruiser, Invincible was also lost to the British, as well as three armoured cruisers (Black Prince, Defence and Warrior), and eight destroyers. The Germans lost one battlecruiser, Lützow, a battleship, Pommern, four light cruisers and five heavy torpedo boats.

RIP.

Despite their losses,  the Royal Navy was able to continue its operations, and the German High Seas Fleet mostly remained in port for the rest of the war. Admiral Jellicoe was, somewhat unfairly, heavily criticised if not scapegoated for the British losses, but the overall result was that the German Fleet was kept ‘at bay’ for the rest of the war, as this captioned map shows:

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Above: Map from The Penguin Atlas of British and Irish History, Harmondsworth: 2001

 

Nineteenth and Twentieth Century English: Change and Continuity in the Language.   2 comments

Grammarians and Reformers:

William Cobbett (1763-35), the self-educated farmer’s son from Farnham in Surrey, who had served in the army in Canada from 1785 to 1791, then returned to England to become a journalist. He began a weekly newspaper, The Political Register, in 1802 as a Tory, but soon became converted to the radical cause of social and Parliamentary reform. After the passing of the Great Reform Act in 1832, he became an MP, continuing to write for and edit The Political Register until his death. In 1817, following the suspension of habeas corpus (freedom from imprisonment without trial), Cobbett was back in North America, from where he continued to write his newspaper. He wrote about how the use of the concept of vulgarity in language was used to deny the value and meaning of petitions to Parliament:

The present project… is to communicate to all uneducated Reformers, ‘a knowledge of Grammar’. The people, you know, were accused of presenting petitions ‘not grammatically correct’. And those petitions were ‘rejected’, the petitioners being ‘ignorant’: though some of them were afterwards put into prison for being ‘better informed’…

No doubt remains in my mind that there was more talent discovered, and more political knowledge, by the leaders among the Reformers, than have ever been shown, at any period of time, by the Members of the two houses of parliament.

There was only one thing in which any of you were deficient, and that was in the mere art of so arranging the words in your Resolutions and Petitions as to make these compositions what is called ‘grammatically correct’. Hence, men of a hundredth part of the ‘mind’ of some of the authors of the Petitions were enabled to cavil at them on this account, and to infer from this incorrectness, that the Petitioners were a set of ‘poor ignorant creatures’, who knew nothing of what they were talking; a set of the ‘Lower Classes’ who ought never to raise their reading above that of children’s books, Christmas Carols, and the like.

For my part, I have always held a mere knowledge of the rules of grammar very cheap. It is a study, which demands hardly any powers of mind. To possess a knowledge of those rules is a pitiful qualification…

Grammar is to literary composition what a linch-pin is to a waggon. It is a poor pitiful thing in itself; it bears no part of the weight; adds not in the least to the celerity; but, still the waggon cannot very well and safely go on without it…

Therefore, trifling, and even contemptible, as this branch of knowledge is ‘in itself’, it is of vast importance as to the means of giving to the great powers of the mind their proper effect… The grammarian from whom a man of genius learns his rules has little more claim to a share of such a man’s renown than has the goose, who yields the pens with which he writes: but, still the pens are ‘necessary’, and so is the grammar.

Cobbett therefore wrote A Grammar of the English Language in the same year, in order to satisfy that desire which every man, and especially every young man, should entertain to be able to assert with effect the rights and liberties of his country. At the same time, he cautioned his educated young readers against calling the Hampshire plough-boy… ignorant for his colloquialisms such as Poll Cherrycheek have giv’d I thick handkercher. It would be wrong to laugh at him, because he has no pretensions to a knowledge of grammar, but yet may be very skilful as a plough-boy. As Olivia Smith remarked, in her 1984 book, The Politics of Language 1791-1819 (OUP), Cobbett considered grammar, in short, as an integral part of the class structure of England, and the act of learning grammar by one of his readers as an act of class warfare.

It is clear that no significant differences in the grammar of Cobbett’s writing separate today’s language from the English of the early nineteenth century. What we now call Standard English has been established for over two hundred years, since the end of the Napoleonic Wars, at least. It is the only form of the language, together with its North American variant, which obtains universal acceptance. This seems to contradict the linguistic statement that all living languages are in a constant state of change. However, the grammatical innovations since Cobbett’s day are developments of established features, rather than of fundamental changes. Once a standard form of writing becomes the norm, then the rate of change in the grammar is slowed down considerably. At the same time, however, there have been significant lexical shifts and changes, plus modifications in pronunciation, especially in recent decades.

Vocabulary:

As there has been a constant change in the vocabulary of the language over the past two hundred years, it almost goes without saying that there have been many losses of gains of words since the eighteenth century. English is a language that has taken in and assimilated words from many foreign languages to add to the core vocabulary of Germanic, French and Latin words. I have more to write about this later, in connection with the late twentieth century.

Spelling:

The standard orthography was fixed in the eighteenth century by the agreed practice of printers. Dr Johnson set down accepted spellings in his Dictionary of 1755, and also recorded some of the arbitrary choices of ‘custom’:

… thus I write, in compliance with a numberless majority, ‘convey’ and ‘inveigh’, ‘deceit’ and ‘receipt’, fancy and phantom.

A few words found in the original versions of eighteenth century texts have changed in spelling, such as cloathing, terrour, phantasy and publick, but there are not many. More recently, it has become acceptable to change the ‘ae’ spelling in words like archaeology to ‘e’ – archeology. Some American spellings have also become acceptable in Britain, such as program, mainly as a result of its use in computer programming. With few exceptions, however, it is true to say that our spelling system was fixed over two centuries ago, and that every attempt to reform it, e.g. with a more phonetic system, has failed.

Grammar:

While the underlying rules of grammar have remained unchanged, their use in speech and writing has continued to develop into forms that distinguish the varieties of language use since the eighteenth century. This can be described in terms of ‘style’ and ‘register’. In present-day English we can observe, in some varieties of language use, a greater complexity in both the noun phrase and the verb phrase.

Modifiers of nouns normally precede the head of the noun phrase (NP) when they are words (normally adjectives or nouns) or short phrases, as in a/the red brick wall and follow it when they are phrases or clauses. The rule of pre-modification has developed so that much longer strings of words and phrases can now precede the head word, as in a never to be forgotten experience. This style is a particular feature of newspaper headlines and other media, where a noun phrase is used to shorten longer statements containing a number of post-modifying prepositional phrases. For example, the statement There has been a report on the treatment of suspects in police stations in Northern Ireland is turned into the headline Northern Ireland police station suspect treatment report…

The process of converting clauses with verbs into noun clauses is called nominalisation. The word is itself an example of that process. It has become a marked feature of some contemporary styles, including formal and academic writing. However, this does not signify a change in grammar, but rather reveals the way in which the flexibility of English grammar readily permits nominalisation. In Standard English, verb phrases can also be constructed in increasingly complex forms, such as she has been being treated, using auxiliary verbs to combine the grammatical features of tense (past or present), aspect (perfect or progressive), voice (active or passive) and mood (positive/ negative statement or interrogative). Question forms such as hasn’t she been being treated? and won’t she have been being treated? may not be common, but they are conceivable, and have developed since the eighteenth century. They are examples of how English has become a more analytic language in recent centuries, in that its structures now depend far more on strings of separate words, rather than on inflections of words.

Another development in the resources of verb phrases is the increased use of phrasal and prepositional verbs like to run across for to meet, put up with for tolerate and give in/ give up for surrender. They are a feature of spoken and informal usage, and although the structure can be found in earlier forms of English, they have increased considerably in modern Standard English, with new combinations being continually introduced, often as slang, as in get with it, afterwards being gradually accepted and assimilated.

The Queen’s English

We still tend to judge our fellow latter-day Britons by their speech as much as by other aspects of their behaviour, though some have been much more positive in their reactions than others. The relationship between social class and the language used in the eighteenth century was maintained through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Here, for example, is the dean of Canterbury Cathedral, Dr. Henry Alford, writing in a book called The Queen’s English: Stray Notes on Speaking and Spelling, in 1864:

And first and foremost, let me notice that worst of all faults, the leaving out of the aspirate where it ought to be, and putting it where it ought not to be. This is a vulgarism not confined to this or that province of England, nor especially prevalent in one county or another, but common throughout England to persons of low breeding and inferior education, principally to those among the inhabitants of towns. Nothing so surely stamps a man as below the mark of intelligence, self-respect, and energy, as this unfortunate habit…

As I write these lines, which I do while waiting in a refreshment-room at Reading, between a Great-Western and a South-Eastern train, I hear one of two commercial gentlemen, from a neighbouring table, telling his friend that “his ‘ed’ used to ‘hake’ ready to burst.”

Alford’s attitude here is no different from that of some eighteenth century grammarians in their references to ‘the depraved language of the Common People’. One common usage that is still taught as an error is what is called ‘the split infinitive’, as in the ‘infamous’ introit to the 1970s US television series, ‘Star Trek’, ‘…to boldly go…’, which has become almost as legendary in sociolinguistics as the series itself has become in popular culture. Here is Dean Alford on the subject:

A correspondent states as his own usage, and defends, the insertion of an adverb between the sign of the infinitive mood and the verb. He gives as an instance, ‘to scientifically illustrate.’ But surely this is a practice entirely unknown to English speakers and writers. It seems to me, that we ever regard the ‘to’ of the infinitive as inseparable from its verb.

The Dean was wrong in his assertion that the practice was ‘entirely unknown’. The idea that it is ungrammatical to put an adverb between to and the verb was an invention of prescriptive grammarians, but it has been handed down as a ’solecism’ (violation of the rules of grammar) from one generation of pedagogical pedants to another. It has become an easy marker of ’good English’.

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Above: Details from The Village Choir by Thomas Webster (1800-1886), Victoria & Albert Museum.

Henry Alford was born in Bloomsbury, London, in 1810. His father, also Henry, was rector of Aston Sandford in Buckinghamshire. Henry junior was educated at Ilminster Grammar School and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he subsequently became a Fellow. Ordained in 1833, he became curate of Ampton in Suffolk, and incumbent of Quebec Chapel, London, before becoming Dean of Canterbury Cathedral in 1857, where he remained until his death in 1871. He became a distinguished scholar and wrote numerous books, including a critical commentary on the Greek New Testament. A strong evangelical, he wrote a number of hymns, some of which remain well-known and are still used regularly today. Among these is the harvest hymn, Come ye thankful people, come, which he wrote in 1844 for use in services in his rural Suffolk parish. It uses the parable from Mark’s gospel (chapter 4. 26-29), about the seed springing up without the sower knowing about it, including the line: For the earth bringeth forth of herself; first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear. As they sang this verse, the local farmers and labourers from Suffolk’s ‘grain belt’ would have had a very clear image to match the meaning of the parable. The hymn was first published in his own collection of Psalms and Hymns in 1844. He then revised it for his Poetical Works (1865) and his Year of Praise (1867). The writers of Hymns Ancient and Modern included it with their anthology first in 1861, but changed Alford’s simple, rustic words of the second verse, from:

… First the blade and then the ear,

Then the full corn shall appear:

Lord of harvest, grant that we

Wholesome grain and pure may be;

 To:

… Ripening with a wondrous power

Till the final harvest hour

Grant, O Lord of life, that we

Holy grain and pure may be.

Although these changes were firmly repudiated by the author, they have persisted to this day, reappearing in the New Standard version of the Anglican hymn book. This shows that, although Alford may have been a stickler for correct grammar, he was also in favour of the movement to bring the folk language and culture of the countryside into church worship, connecting it with the simplicity of the gospel texts.

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His other famous hymn was, however, very different in both content and style. Ten thousand times ten thousand, a stirring hymn about the Church Triumphant, it is full of imagery drawn from the Book of Revelation, and the opening lines are suggested by the reference in chapter 5, verse 11 to St John the Divine’s vision of a mighty throng of angels around the throne of God, and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand. The rush of hallelujahs and the ringing of a thousand harps are also taken from the book (19. 1-6 and 14.2):

Ten thousand times ten thousand,

In sparkling labour bright,

The armies of the ransomed saints

Throng up the steeps of light;

’Tis finished, all is finished,

Their fight with death and sin;

Fling open wide the golden gates,

And let the victors in.

 

What rush of hallelujahs

Fills all the earth and sky!

What ringing of a thousand harps

Bespeaks the triumph nigh!

O day for which creation

And all its tribes were made!

O joy, for all its former woes

A thousandfold repaid.          

The first three verses of which first appeared in his Year of Praise in 1867. The fourth was added in 1870 in The Lord’s Prayer. The complete hymn was sung at Alford’s funeral in January of the following year. Hymns, unlike other forms of writing, were written to be sung by all classes of society together, in church, so that Alford was well aware of the need to keep their language simple and direct if they were to become popular with the masses in Victorian society who were the object of his evangelical ministry. At the time he was writing his hymns, the Chartists were also launching their equally ’evangelical’ campaign among the working classes, and they too wrote hymns to popularise their cause of Political Reform. A copy of The National Chartist Hymn Book of 1845 has recently been discovered in Todmorden Public Library, in fact what is believed to be the only surviving copy. Michael Sanders of Manchester University believes that it was almost certainly complied by the South Lancashire Delegate Meeting. It is interesting to see how the desire for social justice is expressed in biblical language, and in the form of a hymn like God of the Poor!:

God of the poor! Shall labour eat

Or drones alone find labour sweet?

Lo, they who call thy earth their own,

Take all we have – and give a stone.

God of the poor! Shall labour eat

Or drones alone find labour sweet?

 

Yet not in vain thy children call

On thee, if thou art Lord of all;

And by thy work, and by thy word,

Hark! Millions cry for justice, Lord.

Yet not in vain thy children call

On thee, if thou art Lord of all.

 

The last verses of Great God are equally rousing in their call to martyrdom in the cause of freedom and justice:

Tho’ freedom mourns her murdered son,

And weeping friends surround his bier,

Tho’ tears like mountain torrents run,

Our cause is watered by each tear.

 

O May his fate cement the bond,

That binds us to our glorious cause!

Raise! Raise the cry! Let all respond;

’Justice, and pure and equal laws.’

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The hymn form was further popularised by the Methodist preachers who formed the early agricultural workers’ unions in the 1860s and ’70s. They came together in their thousands in pouring rain and muddy fields to sing folk anthems such as When Arch Beneath the Wellesbourne Tree, defying both squire and parson in its words. This poor man’s choral tradition passed into the Clarion Movement (see pictures below) which ‘evangelised’ for socialism in town and countryside in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods.

The invention of sound recording, and especially of the portable recorders, has made it possible for us to study the spoken language in a way that students of English were unable to fifty years ago. Through such recordings, we are able to produce transcripts of modern Standard English, enabling us to compare it with surviving dialects. However, the only way of comparing contemporary Standard English with that which was in use 150 years ago or more, is to return to the texts of the King James Bible and compare the Revised Version made by teams from Oxford and Cambridge Universities between 1870 and 1880, with the New English Bible of 1961:

St Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 26 verses 69-75:

Revised Version:

Now Peter was sitting without in the Court: and a maid came unto him, saying, Thou also wast with Jesus the Galilean. But he denied before them all, saying, I know not what thou sayest. And when he was gone out into the porch, another maid saw him, and saith unto them that were there, This man also was with Jesus the Nazarene. And again he denied with an oath, I know not the man. And after a little while they that stood by came and said to Peter, Of a truth thou also art one of them; for thy speech betrayeth thee. Then began he to curse and to swear, I know not the man. And straightway the cock crew. And Peter remembered the word which Jesus had said, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And he went out, and wept bitterly.

New English Bible:

Meanwhile Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard when a serving-maid accosted him and said, ‘You were there too with Jesus the Galilean.’ Peter denied it in the face of them all. ‘I do not know what you mean’, he said. He then went out to the gateway, where another girl, seeing him, said to the people there, ‘This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.’ Once again he denied it, saying with an oath, ‘I do not know the man.’ Shortly afterwards the bystanders came up and said to Peter, ‘Surely, you are another of them; your accent gives you away!’ At this he broke into curses and declared with an oath… ‘I do not know the man.’ At that moment a cock crew; and Peter remembered how Jesus had said, ‘Before the cock crows you will disown me three times.’ He went outside, and wept bitterly.

 Although the revisers of the King James Version were given a brief of making a more intelligible version than the 1611 original, they also kept as close to its wording as they could. In this way the Revised Version represents both the transitional elements of Early Modern English and the forms of dialogue in use in mid-Victorian England, just as the New English version reflects the contemporary speech of the early 1960s, whilst at the same time trying to remain true to the original meaning.

The Deterioration of English?

By the last quarter of the twentieth century, fears for the future of the language had once again become the staples of newspaper columns, and were also joined in discussion of these by the new media of television news items and chat shows. They were even, in the Britain of 1978, the subject of a special debate in the House of Lords. The record of the debate, The English Language: Deterioration in Usage, makes very interesting reading. All but one of the speakers accepted the proposition that the language was deteriorating, and together they made a series of complaints about, for example, the misapplication of words such as parameter and hopefully. The language was cluttered with monstrosities like ongoing, relevant and viable. In addition, ‘good’ old words were acquiring ‘bad’ new meanings, as far as their Lordships were concerned. It was, remarked one of them, virtually impossible… for a modern poet to write ‘the choir of gay companions’. The use of the word for propaganda purposes… had destroyed its useful meaning…

Pronunciation, another familiar bugbear, was also considered to be slipping in words like controversy and formidable. In this context, as in many, the BBC came in for a substantial amount of criticism for failing in its clear duty to uphold the standards of English. There were laments also about the latest revisions of the Bible translations and the Book of Common Prayer. In addition, there were the usual condemnations of the way in which American usages, such as location for place which were creeping into our language. Lord Somers expressed the view that if there is a more hideous language on the face of the earth than the American form of English, I should like to know what it is!

Besides the BBC, the Anglican hierarchy and the Americans, the peers also blamed schools, the universities and the mass media for the state of the language. Children and students, it was claimed, were no longer educated in grammar and classics. Newspapers, radio and television were familiarising the public with a language that depends on generalisations which are usually imprecise and often deliberately ambiguous… a language that makes unblushing use of jargon whenever that can assist evasion… A major cause of deterioration, noted one peer, exhibiting more than a touch of xenophobia, was very simply the enormous increase in the number of people using it. Perhaps the most revealing comment came from Lord Davies of Leek:

Am I right in assuming that in an age of uncertainty with respect to religion, God, family, self, money and prosperity, there is a worldwide collapse of not only the values of the past but of our language which, more and more, tends to be vague, indecisive, careless and often callous?

In one sense, Lord Davies was probably right. The relativism of the twentieth century probably did encourage a more permissive approach to language. In a deeper sense though, it was the decline of respect for God, the family and property that really concerned Lord Davies and his fellow peers, and he used Language-change or deterioration as the means for complaining about society. When all is said and done, language is only the medium of discourse, not the matter itself; the messenger, rather than the message. Language is, as it always has been, the mirror to society, not to be confused with society itself. In Britain, where English developed, it has become standardised and centralised in the South, apparently cautious of change. In the British Commonwealth, the independent traditions of Australia, New Zealand and Canada have breathed new life into the English that was exported from Britain more than two hundred years ago. In the Caribbean, it is the focus of an emergent nationalism. In Africa, it is the continent-wide means of communication and in South Africa it is the medium of Black consciousness. In India and South-East Asia, it is associated with aspiration, development and growing self-confidence, taking on distinctive forms. Therefore it is not neutral: it is a vehicle of both change and continuity, rather than a victim of social degradation.

Sources:

Dennis Freeborn (1992), From Old English to Standard English. Basingstoke: MacMillan.

Ian Bradley (2005), The Daily Telegraph Book of Hymns. London: Continuum Books.

Robert McCrum, William Cran, Robert MacNeil (1987), The Story of English. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

The Dialects of Middle English: Part two; From Mercian to West and East Midland.   Leave a comment

The Anglo-Saxons who invaded and settled the Midlands and Northern England spoke two distinct dialects of OE, Northumbrian (North of the Humber) and Mercian. During the ME period, Mercian or the Midland dialect developed distinctive features in the Danelaw, where it came under the influence of Danish Old Norse speakers. As a result, OE Mercian developed into two ME dialects, East Midland and West Midland. The West Midland dialect can again be divided into two, one to the north of the Trent and the other to its south, but there are sufficient similarities for them to be treated as one dialect.

The north-West Midland Dialect

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a romance in alliterative verse which tells a story of the legendary court of King Arthur. The story begins with the New Year celebrations at the court, when a green knight rides in, carrying a battle-axe, and challenges any knight to strike him a blow with the axe, provided that he can give a return blow a year and a day later. Gawain takes up the challenge.

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The only surviving manuscript (transcribed and in print above) was probably written towards the end of the fourteenth century, and the scholars are agreed that the dialect is the north-West Midland of present-day south Lancashire and Cheshire. The manuscript shows how, long before spelling became standardised, a single letter could be related to several different sounds in English. The poem is written in 101 stanzas which have a varying number of unrhymed alliterative lines followed by five short rhymed lines. Like all OE and ME verse, it was written to be read out loud to an audience. Although it was contemporary with Chaucer’s writing, it is more difficult to read for MnE users, partly because some of the vocabulary is from a stock of words reserved for use in poetry, and partly because many words of the West Midland dialect came down into MnE spoken dialects, but not into written Standard English. It contains a large number of ON, Old French and dialect words that have not survived into MnE.

The south-West Midland Dialect 

Piers Plowman is one of the most famous poems in ME. It must have been a very popular work in its own day, because over fifty manuscripts have survived. The poem is an allegory of the Christian life, and of the corruption of the contemporary Church and society, written in the form of a series of dreams or ‘visions’:

Ac on a May mornyng on Maluerne hulles (= hills)

Me biful for to slepe

And merueylousliche me mette (= dreamed),

as y may telle.

(Prologue, lines 6-7, 9)

Piers is a humble poor labourer who stands for the ideal of honest work and obedience to the Church. The poem’s author, William Langland, is unknown other than for this one work, in which he characterised himself as ‘Will’ or ‘Long Will’, living in London, at Cornhill, with Kit his wife and a daughter named Calote. Apart from what he tells us, there is no evidence about him. There are three versions of the poem extant today (A, B and C texts), which show that Langland continually revised and extended the poem from the 1360s to the 1380s, when the C-text was probably completed. It is a fine example of alliterative verse in English. The dialect is south-West Midland, but rather mixed, and there are many variant spellings in the fifty manuscripts. The later, printed text of Langland’s poem is ‘edited’, based on one of the C-text manuscripts, but using other manuscripts or making changes where these do not make good sense. Abbreviations are also filled out and modern punctuation added. In addition, the manuscripts used by the editor are copies, not the original. Consequently, any observations made about either Langland’s ‘idiolect’, or the south-West Midland dialect in general would need to be verified from other sources.

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There are relatively few words of French origin in Langland’s verse (extracts above and below), and even fewer from ON. The South, West and West Midlands of England had not been settled by Danes or Norwegians, so the scarcity of ON words is to be expected. The proportion of French words in one short text cannot be used to come to any significant conclusions, but it does perhaps demonstrate that the solid core of OE vocabulary continued into the ME of these regions of England, becoming the basis of their modern colloquial language.

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East Midland and London Dialects:

Of the ME manuscripts which have come down to us, a large proportion are in the form of sermons or homilies which set out the ideals of the Church and the Christian life. A typical example is in The Parson’s Tale from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in which the primary and most prominent theme is sin and repentance for sin, or penitence:

Seint Ambrose seith that penitence is the plenynge of man for the gilt that he hath doon and namoore to doon any thyng for which hym oghte to pleyne.

The secondary theme is the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’, those sins which were thought to be the most offensive and serious. These were pride, envy, wrath (= anger), sloth, covetousness, gluttony and lust:

Now it is behouely thing to telle whiche ben dedly synnes, that is to seyn chieftaynes of synnes… Now ben they clepid chieftaynes for as much as they ben chief and sprynge of alle othere synnes… This synne of ire, after the descryuyng of seint Augustyn, is wikked wil to be auenged by word or by ded.

One of the reasons for learning about the early development of the English language is to understand the relationships between the dialects and Standard English in the present-day language. In the conglomeration of different dialects that we call ‘Middle English’, there is no single recognised standard form. By studying the political, social, economic and cultural history of England in relation to the language, it is possible to determine that the conditions for a standard language to emerge were beginning to take shape by the second half of the fifteenth century. From the beginning of the sixteenth century, scholars and writers began to discuss the need for a standard in spelling, pronunciation and grammar, which naturally raised the question as to which dialect or variety of the language should be used to create that standard. A standard language, in modern sociological terms, is…

…that speech variety of a language which is legitimised as the obligatory norm for social intercourse on the strength of the interests of dominant forces in that society (Norbert Dittmar, 1976: Sociolinguistics).

By this definition, the choice is made by people imitating those with prestige or power in their society, while those in power tend to prescribe their variety of the language as the ‘correct’ one to use. A standard language is not, of itself, superior as a language for communication over other dialects, but in its adoption and development it is the language of those with social and political influence, and therefore intrinsic superiority is often claimed for it. For example, in 1589, the poet George Puttenham published a book called, The Arte of English Poesie. In it, he gave advice to poets on their choice of language:

It must be that of educated, not common people, neither shall he follow the speech of a craftes man, or other of the inferiour sort, though he be inhabitant or bred in the best towne and ciie in this Realme. But he shall follow generally the better brought up sought,… ciuill and graciously behauoured and bred.

The recommended dialect was therefore Southern, forming the usuall speach of the Court, that of London and the shires lying about London within sixty miles… This defines the literary language already in use in the sixteenth century, and clearly describes it as the prestigious language of the educated classes of London and the South-East. Being the centre of government, trade and commerce, its dialect was that of the ‘dominant forces’ in society, so that it was set to become the dominant form of the language.

The London dialect in the late fourteenth century derived from a mixture of ME dialects, but was strongly influenced by the East Midland dialect, partly because the city was then built wholly on the North side of the Thames, with suburbs running out into Essex and Middlesex, rather than into Kent and Surrey, and partly because there was a significant migration into London from the East Midlands and East Anglia in late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. There were also immigrants from south of the Thames, especially from Kent, which stretched from Dover to Greenwich at that time. However, although there are traces of the Kentish and Southern dialects in the London dialect, present-day Standard English derives its origins from the East Midland dialect of Middle English, which is why the English of Chaucer from the late fourteenth century is not so very different from the late sixteenth century language of Shakespeare. Both, of course, had Midland origins themselves. The extract below is from ‘The Friar’s Tale’ by Chaucer:

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Geoffrey Chaucer was born in the 1340s and died in 1400: He was acknowledged in his own day as the greatest contemporary writer, not only in poetry, but also in the arts of rhetoric and philosophy. He wrote in the London dialect of ME of his time; that is, the literary form of the speech of the educated classes. The dialect of the mass of ordinary people living in London must have been very different, both in form and pronunciation, as it is today. The Canterbury Tales is Chaucer’s best-known work, but some of the tales are much more widely read than others. Most of them are in verse, and it is unlikely that the two tales in prose will ever be popular, since their content and style are less accessible to the modern reader. However, they do provide evidence of the development of the language. However, changes and variations in the pronunciation of a language are much more difficult to study than changes in vocabulary or spelling. One useful source of evidence, however, is in rhyming verse. If two words rhyme, we presume that they contain the same sounds. We can then look up the derivation of the words and compare the spellings and possible pronunciations. The principle changes from OE to ME are in the loss of inflections, but there are many changes from ME to MnE in vowels, and some in consonants. There are also some interesting changes in the stress patterns of some words from ME to MnE, so that identical words no longer rhyme in present-day English.

From the fourteenth century onwards, we begin to find many more examples of everyday language surviving in letters and public documents than we do for earlier English. Literary language draws on the ordinary language of its time, but we cannot be sure that it tells us how people actually spoke. In Chaucer’s day London was, from time to time, the scene of violence and demonstration in the streets. Thomas Usk was involved with what turned out to be the losing side in the political factions of his day, and describes a series of incidents in the 1380s. He was unsuccessful in his appeal for clemency in 1384 (below), and was executed sometime after. His appeal is an example of the London English of a fairly well-educated man, and provide further evidence of its proximity to the East Midland dialect of ME.   

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The Dialects of Middle English: Part One; Southern and Northern   1 comment

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Above: Middle English dialectal areas

What’s in a dialect?

Evidence from the written sources suggests that there were four main dialectical areas: West Saxon (Wessex), Kentish, Mercian and Northumbrian. In Middle English, these remained basically Danes, and the consequent influence of Norse, there was enough variation of Mercian English on both sides of the Danelaw for them to be considered as two distinct dialects. Therefore, the five principal dialects of Middle English were: Southern, Kentish, East Midlands, West Midlands and Northern. In addition, the dialects of Northern English spoken in southern Scotland were known as Inglis until about 1500, when writers began to refer to them as Scottis, now known as Scots.

Dialects are varieties of a single language which are ‘mutually comprehensible’; that is, speakers of different dialects can talk to and understand each other. An unfamiliar dialect may be difficult to comprehend at first because of its peculiar pronunciation and/ or vocabulary, but with familiarity, these difficulties disappear. This is not the case with a foreign language. So, whilst a Breton onion-seller could make himself understood to a Welsh shepherd, he would not be understood by a Northumbrian one. However, the Northumbrian shepherd would understand his ‘Wessex’ counterpart. Dialects have most of their grammar and vocabulary in common; therefore, we are able to make a short-list of the features to look for when describing the main differences between dialects. Today, dialects are usually compared to Standard English, but in the early Middle Ages and even into the fifteenth century, there was no national standard form of English, only regional standards. Within what we call a dialect, there are always other variations, so that the more closely we examine the speech or writing of a dialectal area, the more differences we observe, until we eventually arrive at the concept of an individual person’s own variety of language, an ‘idiolect’.

In the Middle English (ME) period, there was no single dialect or variety of the language whose spelling, vocabulary and grammar were used for writing throughout the country. After the Norman Conquest, Northern French replaced the Wessex variety of English as the spoken language of the Norman court. In the twelfth century, this was replaced by Parisian French, carrying more prestige. This was also the language of instruction in English schools until the late fourteenth century. After 1362 English became widely used in the law courts and Parliament was opened in English. The educated East Midland English of London was beginning to become the standard form of English throughout the country, although the establishment of a Standard English was not completed until the eighteenth century. In ME, there were only dialects, with writers and copyists using the forms of speech of their own region. The end of Chaucer’s poem Troilus and Criseyde, written in about 1385, provides evidence of this:

Go, litel bok, go, litel myn tragedye…

And for there is so gret divesite

In Englissh and in writing of oure tonge,

So prey I God than non miswrite the,

Ne the mysmetre for defaute of tonge.

Southern (Wessex) and Kentish Dialects:

In the same year, John of Trevisa wrote of the many people… and tonges of the British, not just in the form of the Welsh Language and among the Scots, but also among the Germanic and Danish English. This ‘diversity of tongues’ can be found in writings from different parts of the country in the ME period, revealing variations in the spelling of words. There are also inconsistencies within dialectal areas and even within the same manuscript. Conversely, some spellings remained the same, despite alterations in pronunciation. Writing in the 1380s, John of Trevisa described the linguistic situation at the time. His complete work is a translation of a history written in Latin earlier in the century. He was the vicar of Berkeley in Gloucestershire when he translated Polychronicon. The work is a reminder of the origins of the historical origins of English and its dialects. Trevisa’s attitude is not unlike that of some scholars today, in his talk of the ‘deterioration’ of the language, but the reason he gave for its decline in his time was the fashion for speaking French. He wrote in the Southern, ‘Wessex’ dialect of ME, although his use of the dialect is said to be ‘impure’.

Many of the contrasts between older and present-day English are matters of style rather than significant grammatical differences. We can read Trevisa’s text without much difficulty, but it does not transcribe word for word into Modern English (MnE). The phrase a child hys broche (a child’s toy) was a new construction for the possessive which did not derive from OE which survived for some time but has now been replaced by the apostrophe. The use of the infinitive construction ‘for to’ is still present in some dialects, and as a device in folk songs old and new, but is now non-standard. Prepositions were also used at the end of sentences as in told of (spoken of), considered ungrammatical in MnE.

In identifying the alphabetical symbols used and their relationship to contrasting sounds of dialectal accents, we have to be careful not to assume that there is a one-to-one relationship between sound and letter. Some differences of spelling in ME texts are not the result of differences in pronunciation, but rather of the fact that spellings tend to be retained long after changes in pronunciation had transpired. These difficulties in dating shifts in pronunciation and spelling are compounded by the fact that manuscripts were rarely dated. That is one reason why the book translated by a monk of St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury, Michael of Northgate, is so significant. He finished the book, Ayenbite of Inwyt, ‘the remorse of conscience’, a translation from a French original, on 27 October 1340. The other reason is that he spelled consistently throughout the text. It therefore provides us with accurate evidence of the Kent dialect at that time. Here is a passage in word-for-word translation:

Now I wish that you know

How it is went (how it has come about)

That this book is written

With English of Kent.

This book is made for lewd men*

Them for to protect from all manner sin

(*common folk)

This is as near to a ‘pure’ dialect as we can get, remembering that the written form can never really provide an accurate idea of how the spoken dialect sounded. Also, as Michael was translating from French, it is possible that some idioms as from that language, rather than being genuine ME expressions. Nevertheless, we can identify differences in word order and collocation which highlight differences between dialects and between ME and MnE. Even limited observations suggest that Kentish was a ‘conservative’ dialect, retaining more features of the OE system of inflections, even though greatly reduced. Many of these features were similar those found in the ‘Wessex’ texts of John of Trevisa. This is to be expected when one considers the way that the Thames, with few crossings between London and Oxford, acted as a barrier between the South as a whole, especially Kent, and the Midlands.

Below: Extract from Ayenbite of Inwyt,1340

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Northern (Northumbrian) Dialects:

The Northern dialects of ME came from the Northumbrian dialects of OE. The present-day dialects of Scotland and the North of England are still markedly distinct from Standard English and other dialects in grammatical features and vocabulary, and from RP, Midlands and Southern English accents in pronunciation. John of Trevisa’s remarked that the citizens of fourteenth century York spoke in a way which was ‘scharp slyttyng and frotyng and unschape’. The modern equivalents of these descriptions can be heard today among southerners unfamiliar with Geordie, Glaswegian and North Yorkshire accents, and Northerners make equally disparaging remarks about RP speakers from the South. One person’s ‘thick accent’ is another person’s familiar speech, and beauty is in the ear of the listener rather than an objective standard. Besides, television series and films in the 1990s made regional varieties of English more accessible to the country as a whole, and radio announcers now speak with a wider range of regional accents than in the last century.

As we cannot reproduce the actual sound of the dialects of the past, we cannot follow up this aspect of linguistic diversity. The only evidence we have of the phonics which once existed is in their transcription into manuscripts. Since spellings are not always phonetic and are inconsistent even in their reproduction by a single scribe, we can only speculate about pronunciation in the abstract, recognising some of the major shifts, but not properly hearing them. Most of the linguist’s focus must therefore be on grammar and vocabulary.

The Bruce is a verse chronicle of the heroic deeds of Robert (the) Bruce (1274-1329), written by John Barbour in about 1375 as The Actes and Life of the Most Victorious Conqueror, Robert Bruce King of Scotland. Barbour was the Archdeacon of Aberdeen and had studied and taught at Oxford and Paris. The following extract comes from the first book, written in the Northern (Scots) dialect:

A fredome is a noble thing

Fredome mays man to haiff liking

Fredome all solace to man giffis

He levys at es yat frely levys

A noble hart may haf nane es

Na ellys nocht yat may him ples…

In word-for-word transcription, this reads more like Modern English, more so than many Southern dialects of ME, which still retained many of the inflections of OE:

Ah freedom is a noble thing,

Freedom makes man to have liking (= free choice),

Freedom all solace to man gives,

He lives at ease that freely lives,

A noble heart may have no ease,

Nor else nought that may him please.

The pronunciation of the final ‘e’ in a word where followed by a consonant was all that was left of the many OE inflections, but even the use of this was a matter of choice for speakers and, therefore, for writers like Chaucer. Some of his characters use it, others don’t. In Barbour’s verse there is no evidence of its continued use, and Scots writers had adopted the convention of using the ‘i’ as the means of making vowels longer, as in haiff in the second line of Barbour’s poem given above. As it is an infinitive, haiff has no inflection; neither do knaw and pless.

There is evidence of the development of ‘gerund’ forms, a noun drived from a verb, as in liking. The word order of verse is often more abnormal than that of prose, as in Fredome all solace to man’s giffis, which cannot provide good evidence of normal spoken word order. Nevertheless, the third person ‘is’ or ‘ys’ inflections and the past participles with ‘yt’ make the verse seem closer to MnE.

Below: John Barbour on the siege of Berwick, from ‘Bruce’, c.1375

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The York ‘mystery’ plays provide evidence of the development of another Northern dialect, that of York and North Yorkshire. These plays are a cycle of fifty short performances which tell the story of the world according to medieval Christian tradition, from the Fall of the Angels and the Creation to the Last Judgement.   Each craft guild of the city was responsible for the costs and production of a play, which was performed in procession on a pageant-wagon around the streets of York. Some of the plays were assigned to guilds whose occupation was featured in the story. For example, the bakers played the Last Supper, the shipwrights built the Ark, the fishermen and mariners performed the Flood, and the vintners provided the wine for the Marriage at Cana. The cycle was produced each year for the feast of Corpus Christi, from the late fourteenth to the early sixteenth century. Twelve stations were set up in the streets and each pageant-wagon moved in procession from one station to another to perform its play. The procession of wagons began at 4.30 p.m. and was concluded long after midnight. Banners representing the respective guilds marked the position of the stations in the cycle, and proclamations were made, written down on parchment in order to be read out theatrically. One of these survives for the year 1415, but the only copy of all the plays to have done so was written in 1470, originally the property of the corporation of the city. It was probably compiled from the various prompt copies belonging to each of the performing guilds, so the language probably belongs, like the proclamation, to the earlier part of the fifteenth century. The dialect is Northern, but the scribes introduced a number of modifications from the East Midland dialect, the evidence for this being in the variations of spelling. The use of some East Midland forms marks the beginning of a standardised system of spelling. Since the plays are written in a variety of verse stanza patterns, with both rhyme and alliteration, so that they cannot be read as everyday speech, in spite of the vividness of the dialogue.

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On becaming Archbishop of York in 1352, John de Thoresby found many of his parish priests ignorant and neglectful of their duties. As one remedy for this, he wrote a ‘catechism’ in Latin, setting out the main doctrines of the faith. It was translated into English by a monk of St Mary’s Abbey in York in 1357. This version is called The Lay Folk’s Catechism and was extended a little later by John Wycliffe, who was born in the North Riding of Yorkshire, but worked and lived for long periods in Oxford and Leicestershire. His writings were therefore a variety of the Midlands dialect. By comparing the two versions of Thoresby’s Catechism, we can therefore distinguish between the dialects of the North and the Midlands.

Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale features two undergraduates, ‘yonge poure scolers’ from the North. He marks their speech with some of the features that his readers would recognise. He wrote in the educated London accent which differed greatly in its grammar and pronunciation from the Northern dialect. In this extract, Aleyn and Iohn have arrived at a mill and greet Symkyn, the miller. They intend to supervise the grinding of their corn, since millers were notorious for cheating their customers:

Aleyn spak first: All hayl Symkin in faith

How fares thy faire doghter and thy wife?

Aleyn welcome, quod Symkyn, by my lif

And Iohn also. How now what do ye here?

By god, quod Iohn, Symond need has na peere.

Hym bihoues serue himself that has na swayn

Or ellis he is a fool, as clarkes sayn.

Our maunciple, I hope he will be deed,

Swa werkes and wanges in his heed.

And therefore is I come and eek Alayn

To grynde our corn and carie it heem agayn…

The northern words and expressions are highlighted in bold type. MnE equivalents are given in the glossary below:

heem = home

hope = hope/ believe

hym bihoues = (him behoves), he must

swa = so

swayn (ON) = swain, servant

wanges = back teeth

workes = aches

 

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