Archive for the ‘Celtic’ Tag

‘Celebrity’ Britain: The Arrival of ‘New Labour’ & Diana’s Demise, 1994-99.   Leave a comment

The Advent of Brown & Blair:

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Tony Blair was far more of an establishment figure than his mentor John Smith, or his great political ‘friend’ and future rival, Gordon Brown. He was the son of a Tory lawyer and went to preparatory school in Durham and then to a fee-paying boarding school in Edinburgh. He then went ‘up’ to Oxford, becoming a barrister and joining the Labour Party before he fell in love with a young Liverpudlian socialist called Cherie Booth, who sharpened his left-wing credentials before he became an MP at the 1983 General Election, winning a safe Labour seat in the north-east of England. Once in the Commons, he quickly fell in with Gordon Brown, another new MP, who was much that Blair was not. He was a tribal Labour Party man from a family which was strongly political and had rarely glimpsed the English Establishment, even its middle ranks from which Blair sprung. Brown had been Scotland’s best-known student politician and player in Scottish Labour politics from the age of twenty-three, followed by a stint in television. Yet the two men had their Christian beliefs in common, Anglo-Catholic in Blair’s case and Presbyterian in Brown’s. Most importantly, they were both deeply impatient with the state of the Labour Party. For seven or eight years they had seemed inseparable, sharing a small office together. Brown tutored Blair in some of the darker arts of politics while Blair explained the thinking of the English metropolitan and suburban middle classes to Brown. Together they made friends with Westminster journalists, both maturing as performers in the Commons, and together they worked their way up the ranks of the shadow cabinet.

After the 1992 defeat, Blair made a bleak public judgement about why Labour had lost so badly. The reason was simple: Labour has not been trusted to fulfil the aspirations of the majority of people in a modern world. As shadow home secretary he began to put that right, promising to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. He was determined to return his party to the common-sense values of Christian Socialism, also influenced by the mixture of socially conservative and economically liberal messages used by Bill Clinton and his ‘New Democrats’. So too was Gordon Brown but as shadow chancellor, his job was to demolish the cherished spending plans of his colleagues. Also, his support for the ERM made him ineffective when Major and Lamont suffered their great defeat. By 1994, the Brown-Blair relationship was less strong than it had been, but they visited the States together to learn the new political style of the Democrats which, to the advantage of Blair, relied heavily on charismatic leadership. Back home, Blair pushed Smith to reform the party rulebook, falling out badly with him in the process. Media commentators began to tip Blair as the next leader, and slowly but surely, the Brown-Blair relationship was turning into a Blair-Brown one.

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In the days following the sudden death of the Labour leader, John Smith (pictured right), Tony Blair decided almost immediately to run as his replacement, while Gordon Brown hesitated, perhaps more grief-stricken. But he had assumed he would eventually inherit the leadership, and was aghast when he heard of Blair’s early declaration. There were at least ten face-to-face confrontations between the two men, in London and Edinburgh. In the opinion polls, Blair was shown to be more popular, and he had the backing of more MPs as well as that of the press. Crucial to Blair’s case was his use of received pronunciation which, after Neil Kinnock and John Smith’s heavily accented English, would reassure those more prejudiced parts of the Kingdom which were the main battlegrounds for Labour, and in which Celtic tones were not perhaps as appreciated as they might be nowadays. They were alright when heard from actors and BBC presenters, but they made politicians seem more ‘peripheral’. Brown had a deeper knowledge of the Labour movement and broader support among the trade unions, however, and had also thought through his policy agenda for change in greater detail. Given the vagaries of Labour’s electoral college system, it is impossible to judge, even now, what might have happened had the ‘young English hart’ locked horns with the ‘tough Scottish stag’, but they agreed at the time that it would be disastrous for them to fight each other as two ‘modernisers’ since Brown would have to attack Blair from the left and the unions would then demand their tribute from him if he won.

So the two men came to a deal, culminating in a dinner at a ‘chic’ Islington restaurant. The outcome is still a matter of some dispute, but we know that Blair acknowledged that Brown, as Chancellor in a Labour government, would have complete authority over a wide range of policy which he would direct through the Treasury, including the ‘social justice’ agenda. But it is unlikely that he would have been so arrogant as to agree, as some have suggested, that he would hand over the premiership to Brown after seven years. After all, at that time Labour was already still three years away from winning its first term and not even the sharpest crystal ball could have projected the second term at that juncture. The most significant result of their dinner-table deal was that, following all the battles between Tory premiers and chancellors of the then recent and current Conservative governments, Brown’s Treasury would become a bastion for British home affairs, while Blair was left to concentrate on foreign policy largely unimpeded, with all the tragic consequences with which we are now familiar, with the benefit of the hindsight of the last twenty years.

Team Tony & ‘Blair’s Babes’:

When it arrived, the 1997 General Election demonstrated just what a stunningly efficient and effective election-winning team Tony Blair led, comprising those deadly masters of spin, Alistair Campbell and Peter Mandelson. ‘New Labour’ as it was now officially known, won 419 seats, the largest number ever for the party and comparable only with the seats won by the National Government of 1935. Its Commons majority was also a modern record, 179 seats, and thirty-three more than Attlee’s landslide majority of 1945. The swing of ten per cent from the Conservatives was another post-war record, roughly double that which the 1979 Thatcher victory had produced in the opposite direction. But the turn-out was very low, at seventy-one per cent the lowest since 1935. Labour had won a famous victory but nothing like as many actual votes as John Major had won five years earlier. But Blair’s party also won heavily across the south and in London, in parts of Britain where it had previously been unable to reach or represent in recent times.

As the sun came up on a jubilant, celebrating Labour Party returning to power after an eighteen-year absence, there was a great deal of Bohemian rhapsodizing about a new dawn for Britain. Alistair Campbell had assembled crowds of party workers and supporters to stand along Downing Street waving union flags as the Blairs strode up to claim their victory spoils. Briefly, at least, it appeared that the whole country had turned out to cheer the champions. In deepest, Lib-Con ‘marginal’ Somerset, many of us had been up all night, secretly sipping our Cava in front of the incredible scenes unfolding before our disbelieving eyes, and when the results came in from Basildon and Birmingham Edgbaston (my first constituency at the age of eighteen when it had already been a safe seat for Tory matron Jill Knight for at least a decade), we were sure that this would indeed be a landslide victory, even if we had had to vote for the Liberal Democrats in the West Country just to make sure that there was no way back for the Tories. The victory was due to a small group of self-styled modernisers who had seized the Labour Party and made it a party of the ‘left and centre-left’, at least for the time being, though by the end of the following thirteen years, and after two more elections, they had taken it further to the right than anyone expected on that balmy early summer morning; there was no room for cynicism amid all the euphoria. Labour was rejuvenated, and that was all that mattered.

A record number of women were elected to Parliament, 119, of whom 101 were Labour MPs, the so-called ‘Blair’s babes’. Despite becoming one of the first countries in the world to have a female prime minister, in 1987 there were just 6.3% of women MPs in government in the UK, compared with 10% in Germany and about a third in Norway and Sweden. Only France came below the UK with 5.7%.

Official portrait of Dame Margaret Hodge crop 2.jpgBefore the large group of women MPs joined her in 1997, Margaret Hodge (pictured below, c.1992, and right, in c. 2015) had already become MP for Barking in a 1994 by-election, following the death of Labour MP Jo Richardson. While still a new MP, Hodge endorsed the candidature of Tony Blair, a former Islington neighbour, for the Labour Party leadership, and was appointed Junior Minister for Disabled People in 1998. Before entering the Commons, she had been Leader of Islington Council and had not been short of invitations from constituencies to stand in the 1992 General Election. Given that she is now referred to as a ‘veteran MP’ it is therefore interesting to note that she had turned these offers down, citing her family commitments:

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“It’s been a hard decision; the next logical step is from local to national politics and I would love to be part of a Labour government influencing change. But it’s simply inconsistent with family life, and I have four children who mean a lot to me. 

“It does make me angry that the only way up the political ladder is to work at it twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. That’s not just inappropriate for a woman who has to look after children or relatives, it’s inappropriate for any normal person.

“The way Parliament functions doesn’t attract me very much. MPs can seem terribly self-obsessed, more interested in their latest media appearance than in creating change.” 

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Patricia Hewitt (pictured above, in 1992, and more recently, right) had first begun looking for a seat in the 1970s when she was general secretary of the National Council of Civil Liberties (NCCL). She later commented that… looking for a seat takes an enormous amount of time, and money, too if you’re travelling a lot. Eventually, she was chosen to fight Leicester East in 1983, a contest which she lost by only nine hundred votes to the Conservative in what was then a relatively safe Tory seat. She later recalled driving up to Leicester on two evenings every week:

“I was planning to have a child after the elections – looking back I don’t know I imagined I was going to cope if Labour had won the seat… Even without children, I was leading such a pressured life – and my partner was doing the same as a Labour councillor – that it did put a strain on our relationship.”

She then became Neil Kinnock’s press and broadcasting secretary. In this role, she was a key player in the first stages of the ‘modernisation’ of the Labour Party, and along with Clive Hollick, helped set up the Institute for Public Policy Research and was its deputy director 1989–1994. By the time of the 1992 General Election she had two small children, so she decided not to look for a seat. Following Labour’s defeat in 1992, Hewitt was asked by the new Labour Leader, John Smith, to help establish the Commission on Social Justice, of which she became deputy chair. She then became head of research with Andersen Consulting, remaining in the post during the period 1994–1997. Hewitt was finally elected to Parliament to the House of Commons as the first female MP for Leicester West at the 1997 General Election, following the retirement of Greville Janner. She was elected with a majority of 12,864 and remained the constituency MP until stepping down in 2010.

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Mary Kaldor (pictured right in the 1980s, and below in 2000), by contrast, never became an MP, one of the ‘loves’ Labour lost. A British academic, currently Professor of Global Governance at the London School of Economics, where she is also the Director of the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit, she was the daughter of the economist Nicholas Kaldor, an exiled Hungarian economist who became an adviser to Harold Wilson in the 1960s. In the nineties, she was a senior research fellow at the Science Policy Research Unit of Sussex, and former foreign policy adviser to the Labour Party. She was shortlisted for Hackney and Dulwich in 1981, attending masses of meetings, many of which were boring at which she was endlessly having to be nice to people. Her youngest child was two years old at the time and was therefore ambivalent about the idea of becoming an MP:

“I was very well-equipped with baby minders and a nice understanding husband, but what on earth is the point of having children if you’re not going to see them?

“Building links with eastern Europe through the peace movement was more exciting than anything I could ever have done as an MP … (which seemed) entirely about competitiveness and being in the limelight, giving you no time to think honestly about your political views.”

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In 1999, Kaldor supported international military intervention over Kosovo on humanitarian grounds, calling for NATO ground forces to follow aerial bombardment in an article for The Guardian. I have written about the war in Kosovo in a separate article in this series. Significantly, however, by the end of the next decade Kaldor lost faith in the principle and practice of humanitarian intervention, telling the same paper:

The international community makes a terrible mess wherever it goes…

It is hard to find a single example of humanitarian intervention during the 1990s that can be unequivocally declared a success. Especially after Kosovo, the debate about whether human rights can be enforced through military means is ever more intense.

Moreover, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have been justified in humanitarian terms, have further called into question the case for intervention.

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Blair needed the support and encouragement of admirers and friends who would coax and goad him. There was Mandelson, the brilliant but temperamental former media boss, who had now become an MP. Although adored by Blair, he was so mistrusted by other members of the team that Blair’s inner circle gave him the codename ‘Bobby’ (as in Bobby Kennedy). Alistair Campbell, Blair’s press officer and attack-dog is pictured above, in a characteristic ‘pose’. A former journalist and natural propagandist, he had helped orchestrate the campaign of mockery against Major. Then there was Anji Hunter, the contralto charmer who had known Blair as a young rock-singer and was his best hotline to middle England. Derry Irvine was a brilliant Highlands lawyer who had first found a place in his chambers for Blair and Booth. He advised on constitutional change and became Lord Chancellor in due course. These people, with the Brown team working in parallel, formed the inner core. The young David Miliband, son of a well-known Marxist philosopher, provided research support. Among the MPs who were initially close were Marjorie ‘Mo’ Mowlem and Jack Straw, but the most striking aspect about ‘Tony’s team’ was how few elected politicians it included.

The small group of people who put together the New Labour ‘project’ wanted to find a way of governing which helped the worse off, particularly by giving them better chances in education and to find jobs, while not alienating the mass of middle-class voters. They were extraordinarily worried by the press and media, bruised by what had happened to Kinnock, whom they had all worked with, and ruthlessly focused on winning over anyone who could be won. But they were ignorant of what governing would be like. They were able to take power at a golden moment when it would have been possible to fulfil all the pledges they had made. Blair had the wind at his back as the Conservatives would pose no serious threat to him for many years to come. Far from inheriting a weak or crisis-ridden economy, he was actually taking over at the best possible time when the country was recovering strongly but had not yet quite noticed that this was the case. Blair had won by being ruthless, and never forgot it, but he also seemed not to realise quite what an opportunity ‘providence’ had handed him.

Cool Britannia and the Celebrity Princess:

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Above: a page from a recent school text.

Tony Blair arrived in power in a country with a revived fashion for celebrity, offering a few politicians new opportunities but at a high cost. It was not until 1988 that the full shape of modern celebrity culture had become apparent. That year had seen the publication of the truly modern glossy glamour magazines when Hello! was launched. Its successful formula was soon copied by OK! from 1993 and many other magazines soon followed suit, to the point where the yards of coloured ‘glossies’ filled the newsagents’ shelves in every town and village in the country. Celebrities were paid handsomely for being interviewed and photographed in return for coverage which was always fawningly respectful and never hostile. The rich and famous, no matter how flawed in real life, were able to shun the mean-minded sniping of the ‘gutter press’, the tabloid newspapers. In the real world, the sunny, airbrushed world of Hello! was inevitably followed by divorces, drunken rows, accidents and ordinary scandals. But people were happy to read good news about these beautiful people even if they knew that there was more to their personalities and relationships than met the eye. In the same year that Hello! went into publication, ITV also launched its the most successful of the daytime television shows, This Morning, hosted from Liverpool by Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan, providing television’s celebrity breakthrough moment.

This celebrity fantasy world, which continued to open up in all directions throughout the nineties, served to re-emphasise to alert politicians, broadcasting executives and advertisers the considerable power of optimism. The mainstream media in the nineties was giving the British an unending stream of bleakness and disaster, so millions tuned in and turned over to celebrity. That they did so in huge numbers did not mean that they thought that celebrities had universally happy lives. And in the eighties and nineties, no celebrity gleamed more brightly than the beautiful yet troubled Princess Diana. For fifteen years she was an ever-present presence: as an aristocratic girl, whose childhood had been blighted by her parents’ divorce, her fairytale marriage in 1981 found her pledging her life to a much older man who shared few of her interests and did not even seem to be truly in love with her. Just as the monarchy had gained from its marriages, especially the filmed-for-television romance, engagement and wedding of Charles and Diana, the latter attracting a worldwide audience of at least eight hundred million, so it lost commensurately from the failure of those unions.

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Above: Hello! looks back on the 1981 Royal Wedding from that of 2011.

Diana quickly learned how to work the crowds and to seduce the cameras like Marilyn Monroe. By the end of the eighties, she had become a living fashion icon. Her eating disorder, bulimia, was one suffered by a growing number of young women and teenage girls from less privileged homes. When AIDS was in the news, she hugged its victims to show that it was safe, and she went on to campaign for a ban on the use of land-mines. The slow disintegration of this marriage transfixed Britain, as Diana moved from a china-doll debutante to painfully thin young mother, to an increasingly charismatic and confident public figure, surprising her husband who had always assumed she would be in his shadow. After the birth of their second son Harry in 1987, Charles and Diana’s marriage was visibly failing.

When rumours spread of her affairs, they no longer had the moral impact that they might have had in previous decades. By the nineties, Britain was now a divorce-prone country, in which ‘what’s best for the kids’ and ‘I deserve to be happy’ were phrases which were regularly heard in suburban kitchen-diners. Diana was not simply a pretty woman married to a king-in-waiting but someone people felt, largely erroneously, would understand them. There was an obsessive aspect to the admiration of her, something that the Royal Family had not seen before, and its leading members found it very uncomfortable and even, at times, alarming. They were being challenged as living symbols of Britain’s ‘family values’ and found wanting, just as John Major’s government would also be hoisted by its own petard as its ‘Back to Basics’ campaign was overwhelmed by an avalanche of sexual and financial scandals.

By the mid-1990s, the monarchy was looking shaky, perhaps even mortal. The strain of being at once a ceremonial and a familial institution was proving a bit much. The year 1992, referred to as the Queen as her ‘annus horribilis’ in her Christmas speech, first saw the separation of the other royal couple, Andrew and Sarah, followed by a major fire at Windsor Castle in November. The journalist Andrew Morton claimed to tell Diana’s True Story in a book which described suicide attempts, blazing rows, her bulimia and her growing certainty that Prince Charles had resumed an affair with his old love Camilla Parker-Bowles, something he later confirmed in a television interview with Jonathan Dimbleby. In December, John Major announced the separation of Charles and Diana to the House of Commons. There was a further blow to the Royal Family’s prestige in 1994 when the royal yacht Britannia, the floating emblem of the monarch’s global presence, was decommissioned.

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 Above: Prince William with his mother, c. 1994.

Then came the revelatory 1995 interview on BBC TV’s Panorama programme between Diana and Martin Bashir. Breaking every taboo left in Royal circles, she freely discussed the breakup of her marriage, claiming that there were ‘three of us’ in it, attacked the Windsors for their cruelty and promised to be ‘a queen of people’s hearts’. Finally divorced in 1996, she continued her charity work around the world and began a relationship with Dodi al-Fayed, the son of the owner of Harrods, Mohammed al-Fayed. To many in the establishment, she was a selfish, unhinged woman who was endangering the monarchy. To many millions more, however, she was more valuable than the formal monarchy, her readiness to share her pain in public making her even more fashionable. She was followed all around the world, her face and name selling many papers and magazines. By the late summer of 1997, Britain had two super-celebrities, Tony Blair and Princess Diana.

It was therefore grimly fitting that Tony Blair’s most resonant words as Prime Minister which brought him to the height of his popularity came on the morning when Diana was killed in a car-crash, together with Dodi, in a Paris underpass. Blair was woken from a deep sleep at his constituency home, first to be told about the accident, and then to be told that Diana had died. Deeply shocked and worried about what his proper role should be, Blair spoke first to Campbell and then to the Queen, who told him that neither she nor any other senior member of the Royal Family would be making a statement. He decided, therefore, that he had to say something. Later that Sunday morning, standing in front of his local parish church, he spoke words which were transmitted live around the world:

“I feel, like everyone else in this country today, utterly devastated. Our thoughts and prayers are with Princess Diana’s family, in particular her two sons, her two boys – our hearts go out to them. We are today a nation in a state of shock…

“Her own life was often sadly touched the lives of so many others in Britain and throughout the world with joy and with comfort. How many times shall we remember her in how many different ways, with the sick, the dying, with children, with the needy? With just a look or a gesture that spoke so much more than words, she would reveal to all of us the depth of her compassion and her humanity.

“People everywhere, not just here in Britain, kept faith with Princess Diana. They liked her, they loved her, they regarded her as one of the people. She was – the People’s Princess and that is how she will stay, how she will remain in our hearts and our memories for ever.”

Although these words seem, more than twenty years on, to be reminiscent of past tributes paid to religious leaders, at the time they were much welcomed and assented to. They were the sentiments of one natural charismatic public figure to another. Blair regarded himself as the people’s Prime Minister, leading the people’s party, beyond left and right, beyond faction or ideology, with a direct line to the people’s instincts. After his impromptu eulogy, his approval rating rose to over ninety per cent, a figure not normally witnessed in democracies. Blair and Campbell then paid their greatest service to the ancient institution of the monarchy itself. The Queen, still angry and upset about Diana’s conduct and concerned for the welfare of her grandchildren, wanted a quiet funeral and to remain at Balmoral, away from the scenes of public mourning in London. However, this was potentially disastrous for her public image. There was a strange mood in the country deriving from Diana’s charisma, which Blair had referenced in his words at Trimdon. If those words had seemed to suggest that Diana was a saint, a sub-religious hysteria responded to the thought. People queued to sign a book of condolence at St James’ Palace, rather than signing it online on the website of the Prince of Wales. Those queuing even reported supernatural appearances of the dead Princess’ image. By contrast, the lack of any act of public mourning by the Windsors and the suggestion of a quiet funeral seemed to confirm Diana’s television criticisms of the Royal Family as being cold if not cruel towards her.

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In particular, the Queen was criticised for following protocol, which prohibited the flying of flags at Buckingham Palace when she was not in residence, rather than fulfilling the deep need of a grief-stricken public to see the Union flag flying there at half-mast. According to another protocol, flags were only flown at half-mast on the deaths of the monarch or their immediate blood relatives. But the crown lives or dies by such symbolic moments, and the Queen relented. Also, with Prince Charles’ full agreement, Blair and his aides put pressure on the Palace first into accepting that there would have to be a huge public funeral so that the public could express their grief, and second into accepting that the Queen should return to London. She did, just in time to quieten the genuine and growing anger about her perceived attitude towards Diana. This was a generational problem as well as a class one. The Queen had been brought up in a land of buttoned lips, stoicism and private grieving. She now reigned over a country which expected and almost required exhibitionism. For some years, the deaths of children, or the scenes of fatal accidents had been marked by little shrines of cellophane-wrapped flowers, soft toys and cards. In the run-up to Diana’s funeral parts of central London seemed almost Mediterranean in their public grieving. There were vast mounds of flowers, people sleeping out, holding up placards and weeping in the streets, strangers hugging each other.

The immense outpouring of public emotion in the weeks that followed seemed both to overwhelm and distinguish itself from the more traditional devotion to the Queen herself and to her immediate family. The crisis was rescued by a live, televised speech she made from the Palace which was striking in its informality and obviously sincere expression of personal sorrow. As Simon Schama has put it,

The tidal wave of feeling that swept over the country testified to the sustained need of the public to come together in a recognizable community of sentiment, and to do so as the people of a democratic monarchy.

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The funeral itself was like no other before, bringing the capital to a standstill. In Westminster Abbey, campaigners stood alongside aristocrats, entertainers with politicians and rock musicians with charity workers. Elton John performed a hastily rewritten version of ‘Candle in the Wind’, originally his lament for Marilyn Monroe, now dedicated to ‘England’s Rose’, and Princess Diana’s brother Earl Spencer made a half-coded attack from the pulpit on the Windsors’ treatment of his sister. This was applauded when it was relayed outside and clapping was heard in the Abbey itself. Diana’s body was driven to her last resting place at the Spencers’ ancestral home of Althorp in Northamptonshire. Nearly a decade later, and following many wild theories circulated through cyberspace which reappeared regularly in the press, an inquiry headed by a former Metropolitan Police commissioner concluded that she had died because the driver of her car was drunk and was speeding in order to throw off pursuing ‘paparazzi’ photographers. The Queen recovered her standing after her live broadcast about her wayward former daughter-in-law. She would later rise again in public esteem to be seen to be one of the most successful monarchs for centuries and the longest-serving ever. A popular film about her, including a sympathetic portrayal of these events, sealed this verdict.

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HM Queen Elizabeth II in 2001.

Tony Blair never again quite captured the mood of the country as he did in those sad late summer days. It may be that his advice and assistance to the Queen in 1997 was as vital to her as it was, in the view of Palace officials, thoroughly impertinent. His instinct for popular culture when he arrived in power was certainly uncanny. The New Age spiritualism which came out into the open when Diana died was echoed among Blair’s Downing Street circle. What other politicians failed to grasp and what he did grasp, was the power of optimism expressed in the glossy world of celebrity, and the willingness of people to forgive their favourites not just once, but again and again. One of the negative longer-term consequences of all this was that charismatic celebrities discovered that, if they apologised and bared a little of their souls in public, they could get away with most things short of murder. For politicians, even charismatic ones like Blair, life would prove a little tougher, and the electorate would be less forgiving of oft-repeated mistakes.

(to be continued).

Posted October 22, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Agriculture, BBC, Belfast Agreement, Belgium, Birmingham, Britain, Brussels, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Conquest, Conservative Party, devolution, Europe, European Economic Community, European Union, France, History, Integration, Ireland, Irish history & folklore, Journalism, Labour Party, Margaret Thatcher, Migration, Millenarianism, Monarchy, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, New Labour, Population, Respectability, Scotland, Uncategorized, West Midlands

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How the English Language came to Britain   Leave a comment

English in the early twenty-first century is an international language, spoken as a mother tongue by over 400 million people in the nations of the British Isles, Canada, the United States, the Caribbean islands, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. It is also a second language in some of those nations and states, as it is in many others, including those of the Indian subcontinent, and some other African states, where it is also used as an official language of government and education. There are a great many varieties of spoken English in and between these countries, but there is one main variety, ‘Standard English’ which is used both in writing and in educated speech.

It is codified in dictionaries, grammars and guides to usage, and is taught in the school system at all levels and is almost exclusively the language of printed and online materials in English, implicitly sanctioned by all forms of modern media. Yet a little over four hundred years ago, English was spoken exclusively in England, and by minorities (mostly bilinguals) in Wales, Ireland and Scotland. A young Hungarian visitor to London and Canterbury had some difficulty communicating because he had little English and could find few people, other than clergy, who had any command of Latin. Only in Dover did he find a multilingual official with Dutch and German. This had probably been the case since at least the Reformation, if not from the time that Caxton set up his English printing press in the century before. Before that, English had been the common tongue of most of lowland Britain for a thousand years, since it had first become established at the beginning of the seventh century, having arrived in the form of the related Germanic dialects of the Anglo-Saxons over the course of the previous two centuries following the withdrawal of the Roman legions from Britannia.

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The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records how and why these languages arrived in Britain in the fifth century, forming into one common speech, recognisable in its written form as Engelische. It has survived in several manuscripts, the most frequently quoted of which are the Peterborough Chronicle and the Parker Chronicle, which provide interesting examples of language change. The former was copied in the twelfth century from an earlier copy first written in the ninth century. The entry for 443 reads:

…Her sendon brytwalas ofer sae to rome… heom fultomes baedon wid peohtas. ac hi paer nefdon naenne. forpan pe hi feordodan wid aetlan huna cininge… pa sendon hi to anglum… angel cynnes aedelingas des ilcan baedon.

 

In word-for-word translation:

…Here sent Britons over sea to rome… them troops asked against picts, but there they had not one, because they fought against Attila huns king… then sent they to angles… angle peoples princes the same asked.

 

In modern translation:

…In this year the Britons sent overseas to Rome and asked the Romans for forces against the Picts, but they had none there because they were at war with Attila, king of the Huns. Then the Britons sent to the Angles and made the same request to princes of the Angles.

 

By this time, in the middle of the fifth century, Britain had been part of the Roman Empire for just over four hundred years, and was governed from Rome. The official language of government was Latin, not only spoken by the Roman civil officials, military officers and Roman settler families, but also by those Britons who served the Romans or traded with them in their settlements, like at Caerleon in modern-day Monmouthshire. The term Romano-British is used to describe these Britons, though the degree to which they became ‘Romanised’ is debatable. Their native language was Brythonic or ‘British’, a family of Celtic languages which mutated into Welsh, Cornish and Breton, the language of those who migrated across the Channel in the sixth century to escape the Anglo-Saxon incursions. Irish and Scottish Gaelic are also related, but have no Latin influence, since their peoples were never conquered by the Romans. None of these languages resemble any of the West Germanic antecedents of English.

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The Angles and Saxons had been raiding along the east coast of Britannia since the early third century, and a military commander had been appointed to organise its defence. He was called, in Latin, Comes litoris Saxonici, the ‘Count of the Saxon Shore’, but as Roman power declined throughout the fourth century, larger scale Saxon raids were taking place by the end of that century. By 443, the Roman legions had been withdrawn from Britain to defend Rome itself, so when Hengest and Horsa were invited by Vortigern, ruler of the Canti, to help defend their coast from Pictish pirates, they found Britain undefended, ready for incursion and settlement. Though this may have begun by agreements between British and Anglo-Saxon leaders, with grants of land, it soon turned into full-scale invasion, at least according to Bede, in his eighth-century Latin text, History of the English Church and People:

 

It was not long before such hordes of these alien peoples crowded into the island that the natives who had invited them began to live in terror… They began by demanding a greater supply of provisions: then, seeking to provoke a quarrel, threatened that unless larger supplies were forthcoming, they would terminate the treaty and ravage the whole island…

These heathen conquerors devastated the surrounding cities and countryside, extended the conflagration from the eastern to the western shores without opposition, and established a stranglehold over nearly all the doomed island. A few wretched survivors captured in the hills were butchered wholesale, and others, desperate with hunger, came out and surrendered to the enemy for food, although they were doomed to lifelong slavery even if they escaped instant massacre. Some fled overseas in their misery; others, clinging to their homeland, eked out a wretched and fearful existence among the mountains, forests and crags, ever on the alert for danger.

003 (2) 

When reading Bede, we need to be aware that, although he never referred to himself as British, this is indeed British propaganda, but that it was also written at a time when the then Anglo-Saxon Christian rulers of the ’Heptarchy’ were facing further raids and incursions from other ’heathens’, Danes and Norwegians, for which they seemed similarly unprepared. Bede was concerned to send them a clear message which would resonate with the oral traditions from their own pre-Christian days. The same is true of Gildas, an earlier British monk writing of The Ruin of Britain, at a time when the Anglo-Saxons had not yet converted, in the mid-sixth century. Nennius, a Welsh monk writing in the early ninth century, wrote in a similar vein to Bede, more like an Old Testament prophet, calling the Anglo-British to defend the newly established Christian order from the ravaging Norsemen.

The complete ’conquest’ of lowland Britain by the Germanic tribes took two centuries, but it was as much a conquest made by trade as by fire and blood. The recent archeological evidence from the grave burials in East Anglia, especially at Sutton Hoo, suggest that the Britons were highly regarded for their artwork, and even the illuminated texts and carvings of the Hiberno-Northumbrian monks indicate a fusion of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon forms. Certainly, the Anglo-Saxon dialects became the practical language of exchange between peoples, but the survival of large numbers of Celtic words and place-names in connection with rivers, woods, hills and valleys throughout the lowlands, suggests that the British farmers did not simply abandon their homesteads, and that they may well have continued to farm quite large estates alongside the Saxon settlers as equals rather than serfs.

009

Certainly, their dynastic leaders and warriors may well have been driven into the upland western corners of the island. Both Gildas and Nennius referenced tales of a Romano-British chieftain called Arthur who led successful resistance from the 470’s to 515, winning twelve battles, recorded in Welsh heroic legends. He was probably a Romano-British noble, possibly a cavalry commander who had fought in the Roman Army. Nennius dates the last of these battles, at Mount Badon, to 515. However, there is no reference to Arthur’s in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, although it details a number of battles from the period, including one in 519 in which ’Cerdic and Cynric’ established the West Saxon dynasty after beating the Britons at Cerdic’s Ford. Nevertheless, we know that, in terms of dynastic control, much of western Britain remained under Romano-British rule for much of the following period into the seventh century, until the rise of the Northumbrian and then Mercian Saxon kingdoms. By the eighth century, they had been driven as a fighting force from what was becoming known as Engaland and continued to be known as Wealas or Walas and Cornwalas, meaning ’foreigners’. They called themselves Cymry, meaning ‘compatriots’, giving us the modern-day ‘Cumbria’. The Peterborough Chronicle for 614 refers to a battle in which Cynegils, King of Wessex for 31 years, slew two thousand and sixty-five Welsh. The Parker Chronicle for 755 tells of Cynewulf, King of Wessex, who often fought great battles against the Welsh. It also mentions in passing how a Welsh hostage was the only survivor, badly wounded, of a battle against Cyneheard, Prince of Wessex. These entries are clear evidence of continued British resistance.

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

‘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.

St Patrick’s Breastplate; Celtic Christianity   4 comments

Slemish, mountain in County Antrim where St Pa...

Slemish, mountain in County Antrim where St Patrick is reputed to have shepherded as a slave (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Saint Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland.  He lived in ‘the dark ages’ of the fourth century, so there are conflicting accounts of his life and a great number of legends about him. It is claimed that he wrote two documents, The Confession and The Letter to Coroticus. The first gives an account of his life, and the other tells us something of his style, personality and methods in urging Christian subjects to stand up against pagan leaders. In today’s increasingly secular society, the latter takes on fresh meaning.

He was born about 389 A.D., the son of a small landowner from Banwen in post-Roman Glamorgan (Morgannwg in Welsh), who brought him up as a Christian. When he was sixteen he was captured by ‘pirates’, who took him to Ireland as a slave. He was a shepherd on the estate of a chieftain in County Antrim, in the north of Ireland. During the six years of his captivity he resolved to give his life to the service of the gospel. He escaped to Wicklow, to the south of Dublin, and boarded a ship engaged in the trade of wolf-dogs. He was put off on the coast of Gaul and became a monk in the monastery at Lerins. In those days, the western sea routes around Britain and France were the chief means of transport around the various Celtic territiories, since the overland routes were slow, difficult and treacherous, even where the Romans had left roads.

After returning to his home in Britain, he conceived the idea of a Christian mission to Ireland, describing how, in a dream he saw a man named ‘Victorious’ holding letters from Ireland, one of which he gave to Patrick to read. The words in the letter began with ‘The Voice of the Irish’ which called upon him ‘to come again and walk among us as before’. He first returned to Gaul, where he was ordained by Bishop Amator, and for fourteen years he prepared for his vocation as a missionary.

 

wicklow mountains
wicklow mountains (Photo credit: lalui)

He returned to Ireland in 432 and probably landed again in Wicklow and began his mission in the kingdom of Ulidea in East Ulster. He needed the protection of the tribal kings and clan chieftains and succeeded in converting one of them, Dichu, who gave him a site on which to establish a place of worship, a wooden barn, or ‘saball’ in Irish, which became known as ‘Saul’. The most powerful chief, the High King of Tara, had ruled that every fire in Ireland must be put out at Easter and relighted from a fire in his castle, those disobeying being put to death. When Patrick was brought before the King for deliberately lighting his own fire on a hill opposite the castle, he said that he had done so as a sign that Christ, who had risen from the dead, was the Light of the World. He was set free, which reveals not just the strength of his faith, but also the growing strength of the faithful Christians. He then travelled throughout the country, founding communities, including the church and monastery at Armagh. He died in A.D. 461, supposedly on March 17th,  and was probably buried at Saul.

 

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Probably the most famous legend about him is his use of the shamrock to illustrate the doctrine of the Trinity, the mystery of the three-in-one. The shamrock thus became one of the national emblems of the Irish, the other being the harp (see the picture above). Perhaps the most significant legend, however, is that connecting Patrick with Joseph of Arimathea, which tells of Joseph visiting western Britain following the death of Jesus, bringing with him the Sangreal, or dish used at the Last Supper. This gave rise to the Arthurian legends of the Holy Grail. Joseph was said to have built a little chapel at Glastonbury, which was replaced by the Abbey, the ruins of which are a place of pilgrimage to this day. Patrick is said to have founded the monastic community there, at a time when the Tor would still have been part of the island of Afalon, easily reachable by ship from the western coasts of Britain and the eastern coasts of Ireland.

There is also a story from Glyn Rhosyn in Pembrokeshire that Patrick settled there, but was told by an angel, in a dream, to move on, since the place was being reserved for St David, who became the patron saint of ‘Y Cymru ‘, the Welsh. Another legend places him in the Celtic Kingdom of Strathclyde, at Dumbarton.

 

St Patrick Northern Ireland Flag
St Patrick Northern Ireland Flag (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The flag of St Patrick, a diagonal red cross on a white background, became part of the Union Flag when Ireland became part of the United Kingdom in 1801, joining the cross of St Andrew, for Scotland, and St George, for England. It remains on the flag to this day, although only Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom. St Patrick’s Day is celebrated North and South of the border, and is a public holiday in both the Republic and ‘the Province’, which is appropriate, since there was no border in Patrick’s day and much of his ministry was conducted in the north of the island. The flag of St David is not (yet) part of the UK flag, nor, of course, is the Red Dragon (Y Ddraig Goch), the national emblem of ‘the Principality’. Patrick also has a hymn named after him:

Saint Patrick’s Breastplate

I bind unto myself today

The Power of God to hold and lead,

His eye to watch, His might to stay,

His ear to hearken to my need,

The wisdom of my God to teach,

His hand to guide, His shield to ward,

The word of God to give me speech,

His heavenly host to be my guard.

 

Statue of St. Patrick in Aughagower, County Mayo
Statue of St. Patrick in Aughagower, County Mayo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The hymn is traditionally attributed to Patrick himself, and it certainly shows very clearly the blending of pagan mythology with Christian teaching in the early Celtic Church. It combines the functions of incantation, war-song and redal statement. The whole poem is given a tremendous force and unity by the notion of binding, so characteristic in Celtic art with its intricate knots and never-ending interlacing patterns, such as in the Book of Kells (see the picture above). The original Gaelic poem is known as ‘St Patrick’s Lorica’ . A ‘lorica’ was a spiritual coat or breastplate which not only charmed away disease or danger, but also secured a place in heaven for those who wore it day and night. The word became applied to spiritual poems which characteristically had three distinct parts: the invocation of the Trinity and the angels; the enumeration of various parts of the body to be protected; and a list of dangers from which immunity was being sought. The second of these elements is there in verse 8, where Christ’s presence in every part of the body is carefully invoked.

Legend has it that Patrick composed his lorica shortly after landing in Ireland on his mission, in 432, and to have used it in his defence before the pagan high king at Tara. Whether or not Patrick himself wrote the lorica, it is a supreme expression of the holiness and wholeness that marks Celtic Christianity, and which is summed up in another statement attributed to him:

Our God is the God of Heaven and Earth, of sea and river, sun and moon and stars, of the lofty mountain and lowly valley’

These words, and the words of the hymn itself, take on a new relevance for us, in our return to the ecological consciousness which Patrick himself epitomised in his ministry and teaching. The translation of Patrick’s lorica into the hymn was done by Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-95), the author of All Things Bright and Beautiful, Once in Royal David’s City and many other hymns, many especially written for children. It was written for St Patrick’s Day, 1889, set to the traditional Irish medley, St Patrick, by Stanford (1852-1924), with the eighth verse ‘Christ be with me’ sung to one of three other Irish melodies. It is also considered an appropriate hymn to be sung on Easter Eve, or Holy Saturday, associated in the early church with baptism, so it helps to direct our thoughts on this St Patrick’s Day towards the coming of Holy Week.

Is it Peace? Eisteddfodau and St David’s Day   1 comment

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Wales celebrates its national saint’s day in 2013 in a mood of growing national self-confidence. Hyfrydol! ‘Wonderful!’ as they say in Wales.   Not only is its Rugby team playing well again, having defeated France and Italy on their travels in a bid to retain the Six Nations’ Championship they won so magnificently last year, but last weekend saw Swansea City AFC triumph in the League Cup at Wembley, in their centenary year, and Cardiff City AFC beat my team, the Wolves, to go eight points clear at the top of the Championship (the old division one).  The fact that a third of the rugby team were born in England, with its captain hailing from King’s Lynn, and that Wolverhampton Wanderers AFC have more Welsh international players in their first team than Cardiff or Swansea, plus a Welsh team coach, hardly seems to matter. Neither should it, though it would have done in the past.  There’s a renewed confidence about Wales which doesn’t simply come from returning exiles or ancient into modern Iberian connections. The Welsh Rugby team used to do better when the coal industry was booming, but there’s hardly any industry left to boom in the south Wales valleys, and, whenever the British economy catches a cold, Wales gets influenza. When England gets flu, Wales gets pneumonia, and the current general economic malaise is no exception to this pattern. However, in recent years, Wales has developed a strong government of its own, controlling its Health and Education services, able to follow its own policies in response to the needs of its people, independently from the Westminster Parliament.

All this seemed light years away when I left Wales three decades ago, having studied for two degrees in both North and South, representing its students as the Chair of UCMC (the National Union of Students, Wales) and training as a teacher in the West Wales (notice the capitals). During my eight years as a student there, I learnt Welsh, climbed all its mountains over 3,000 feet and a few more besides, lived in three of its fine cities, visited many of its valleys, watched its sporting successes, socialised in many of its pubs and worshipped in some of its chapels! Oh, and I managed to do a fair bit of discussing, debating, researching and writing. In fact, I’m still writing about the country and its people today, albeit from a safe distance!

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Flag of Saint David

St David, Dewi Sant, was the only one of the four patron saints of the four countries of the British Isles to be born in the country he represents, although it was then part of a much larger post-Roman British territory, stretching from Cornwall to Strathclyde. The rugged and picturesque Pembrokeshire Coast hosts many small chapels dedicated to the Celtic saints whose Christianity predated the arrival of the Papal envoy in Canterbury to covert the pagan Saxons. I once camped by the chapel dedicated to Non, David’s mother, looking out to Ireland and the Atlantic. David was born near here in the time of the legendary Arthur, the early sixth century, a time when the Welsh still controlled much of the west and north of Britain, including modern-day Scotland, the north, midlands and south-western counties of England and, of course, Wales itself.

Saint David's Cathedral

Saint David’s Cathedral (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, by the mid-eighth century, these three ‘British’ heartlands of the ‘Cymru‘ or ‘Compatriots’ had become separated by the Anglo-Saxon settlers, to whom they had become known as the ‘Welleas’, the ‘foreigners’ in their own land. Little is known of David himself, except that he became Primate, or Archbishop of the Church in Wales, then independent from Rome, and that he established a monastery in what is now called St David’s, still no more than a village in population, but now the smallest city in Britain, due to the Cathedral which stands there today, dedicated to the patron saint, and a place of pilgrimage since the Norman Conquest of England and south Wales in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

Stained glass window in Jesus College Chapel, ...

The other surviving stories about David, and there are many of them in the Welsh tradition, are, as they say, the stuff of legend. Wells and mountains were said to spring up at his feet and he miraculously cured the blind, the lame and the sick. According to one of these legends, St David’s spirit was taken up to heaven by a host of angels amid great singing to his glory and honour, on 1st March 589. According to the history of the next 1500 years, his people have never stopped singing since, nor could anyone or anything stop them. A poem in Hungarian, written by János Arany in the mid-nineteenth century, Walesi Bárdok (‘The Bards of Wales) draws inspiration from this determination to maintain independence from the invading Normans, whose Edward I built the castles which surround the country.

Many visitors to the National Eisteddfod never...

Many visitors to the National Eisteddfod never go into the Pavillion (background), being able to view the competitions on the big screen (foreground). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Besides Rugby, which the Welsh did not invent but turned into an art and craft, the other great ‘Cymric’ institution is the ‘Eisteddfod‘ or ‘Settlement’. It is a purely Welsh invention, and not as old as it seems, with its processions of white-robed druids. It dates from the Romantic Revival of the late eighteenth century and the Royal National Eisteddfod is an annual occasion when musicians, poets, artists and craftsmen gather during the first week in August on a site announced a year and a day before. The Archdruid of the Gorsedd of Bards presides over the chairing and crowning of the bard, which can only take place if the assembly answers his question A oes heddwch? ‘Is it Peace?’ in the affirmative by repeating the word ‘Heddwch’. The language of the National Eisteddfod is Welsh, and besides the main competitions there are many ‘side-shows’ from folk concerts to political gatherings, both of which I attended as a student in Wales, also speaking, in my faltering Welsh, to a meeting of Welsh students in 1979.

English: Cofio/remembering Waldo Williams The ...

English: Cofio/remembering Waldo Williams The upright bluestone on Rhos Fach near Mynachlogddu was erected in memory of the great Welsh Nationalist, poet, pacifist, and Quaker who lived and taught in the area. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waldo_Williams (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I arrived in Wales in 1975, an ‘eisteddfod’ was not a new concept to me. In fact, I had already taken part in one in Birmingham, winning singing, recitation and drama competitions. It was also known as a ‘Festival of Arts’ and the competitions were in English, but the nature of the event was based on earlier events held by Welsh exiles in the city for more than a hundred years, mostly connected with the Welsh chapels. In the 1960s the ranks of these exiles had been swelled by Welsh teachers who formed at least half of those who taught me, whether at school or Sunday school. They twice helped my father, a Baptist pastor in the city from 1965 to 1979, to put on a very broad festival of competitions between the Baptist chapels in the west of the city. So, when I was asked to compete as a Welsh learner in the Inter-College Eisteddfod, involving students from all the universities and colleges in Wales, I was happy to do so. I learnt ‘Cofio’ (‘Remembering’) by Waldo Williams, and remember it to this day, though I still don’t know the exact meaning of all the words. Unfortunately, I got flu just before the event was to be staged that year, 1976, in Aberystwyth, and was unable to compete since I had lost my voice. However, I did take part in local ‘Noson Lawen’, ‘Happy Nights’, and ‘Gymanfa Ganu’, Community Singing.

Photograph of Valle Crucis Abbey, Denbighshire...

Photograph of Valle Crucis Abbey, Denbighshire, Wales – detail of tracery (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By the time I left Wales in 1983, I was so in love with these events that I took a group of Lancashire kids from the school where I held my first teaching post, to the Llangollen International Eisteddfod, where we sang ‘I like to go a-wandering’ in Valle Crucis Abbey and watched Hungarian folk-dancing by the picturesque River Dee. We also visited Welsh and Norman castles on either side of Offa’s Dyke, acting out sheep-raids in both directions!

I have yet to find a daffodil blooming here in Hungary on 1st March, but am sure that there are already magnificent displays of them below the castle walls around Wales, as well as beneath the city walls in Canterbury, where I sojourned last in Britain.

Blwyddin Dydd Gwl Dewi! A Joyous St David’s Day, wherever and however you celebrate it!

Heddwch i chwi gyd! Peace be with you all!


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