English and Catholic myths

More holiday reading, though of a rather more academic kind: Edwin Jones, The English Nation: the Great Myth (Sutton Publishing, 1998). This is an interesting but ultimately rather wrong-headed discussion of English history/historiography since the Reformation by a pro-European Welsh Catholic. Jones’ argument is that the Reformation was a great breach in the tradition of England as a European nation, which was then disguised by Tudor and later propagandists/historians as a return to an ‘original’ Anglo-Saxon nation/church. This then fed into the Whig view of history about England’s glorious isolation and inevitable progress, and still has potency today.

Jones is very keen to point out biases in other historians, but one irritating thing about him is his very Catholic take on the Middle Ages and Reformation. His great hero is Thomas More, which is dubious in itself. More may have made a heroic death (and was very lucky in having Robert Bolt’s play to give him a good twentieth century press), but he was just as dubious a propagandist as Thomas Cromwell (he wrote one of the first hatchet jobs on Richard III) and so far from being an icon of tolerance, he was quite happy to persecute heretics. Jones also ignores the fact that there never was a Universal Church (Orthodoxy only gets a passing mention, despite its medieval significance, and Celtic Christianity is assumed just to be an offshoot of Catholicism) and he seems to presume that papal authority sprang into being in England ready-formed in 597 with Augustine of Canterbury. Whatever the papal claims, actual papal control of churches beyond Rome took a lot time to develop.

Despite these irritations, there is some interesting stuff in the book. I haven’t got the background to know how sound it is on early modern English historiography, (see http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/paper/2glenn.html for a review), but he makes a plausible argument to a non-specialist. The problem is the political conclusions he draws from it. Jones implies that if Britons just realise their long past history as being part of Christian Europe then they’ll come to love the EU. But he doesn’t make it clear why people should pick that medieval phase of their past to identify with, rather than the isolated period (1533-1973) he sees as being created by Tudor propagandists. In the same way that earlier English historians wanted to erase the Middle Ages as an unenlightened blot in English history, so Jones seemingly wants to cut out 400 years of English/British history as irrelevant. This ignores the fact that even if English isolation started as myth, that myth then actually influenced policy/society and changed it.

I’m also dubious about the significance of the EU as ‘Christian Europe’. Other than the exclusion in principle of Turkey, what does it mean? In the Middle Ages the most universal thing it stood for was persecution of the Jews. In the late twentieth century ‘Christian’ was often defined largely as being against communism (in the Christian Democrats etc). Jones wants to draw on Catholic ideas of social justice and human dignity, but he ignores the fact that historically the Catholic Church (and most other churches) were hostile to the concept of human rights. (It’s not yet 150 years since Pius No-No (Pius IX) declared the church hostile to modernity as whole). There’s also the fact that Britain (and probably several other countries) are no longer Christian nations in any meaningful sense. The EU as based on the ideals of liberal democracy might have resonance for a lot of people: Christian Europe isn’t a positive or distinctive enough concept.


One thought on “English and Catholic myths

  1. I see the reviewer says –

    …the idea of an English nation, was invented in the 1530s by Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell…the English suddenly became insular, and viewed themselves as the elect nation, apart from all others. They became increasingly xenophobic and reluctant to accept that their history, culture or institutions owed anything to anyone else.

    Seems this idea is still around today, certainly in tabloid culture. What is was like before – whether the English, ‘saw themselves as part of a wider Christian culture, and happily acknowledged that they were a part of the international papal church,’ is, I would have thought, hard to decide.

    My impression is that most peoples’ feelings abut the EU are based on economic considerations – the perceived effect of farming susidies or cod fishing quotas in the North Sea – rather than an awareness of our place in history.


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