How God created the English

How God created the English

A photograph of Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch

Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch image courtesy of Chris Gibbons

The Rev. Diarmaid MacCulloch, Kt
So what next?, the BBC said to me once the bunting had been taken down and the ballroom hoovered after the launch-party for my TV series ‘A History of Christianity’. There followed a year of cheerful discussions. I wanted to talk about Englishness, past, present and future. What has it meant to be English in history, what does it mean now, and what lessons can we draw from the past for the future? We did this in three episodes, broadcast last March on BBC2:

‘HOW GOD MADE THE ENGLISH’.

‘The English didn’t exist until a brilliant Northumbrian monk, the Venerable Bede, thought up the idea in the draughty library of the monastery at Jarrow in the early eighth century.’

A painting of monk known as the Venerable Bede

The jokey title came to me in the bath, like all good ideas. It wasn’t just meant to annoy the Scots, Welsh and Irish; as my unpronounceable name indicates, my father’s family is Scots, so I would never wish to do that. It was meant to remind us all that English identity has been inextricably bound up in religion throughout English history. The English didn’t exist until a brilliant Northumbrian monk, the Venerable Bede, thought up the idea in the draughty library of the monastery at Jarrow in the early eighth century. He constructed Englishness out of the most important book in his life, the Bible, and he turned the image of the Kingdom of Israel which he found there into a blueprint for a united kingdom in an island full of squabbling warlords, Saxons, Angles, Jutes. There was then no united kingdom of England, nor for another century and more: only the united Church which had sprung out of the Catholic mission sent by Pope Gregory the Great. So God, or his monk Bede, really did make the English; and he manufactured them out of the Bible’s vision of the ancient Israelites.

Later, Henry VIII quarrelled with the Pope for refusing to admit that the royal marriage to Catherine of Aragon was null and void. Catherine and most of the women of England also refused to admit it, but Henry was convinced that God was on his An image of the woodcut of the Coronation of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragonside, and in his egotistical fury, he broke with the Pope. This had a remarkable result. The English had previously been known as the Pope’s most loyal children in all Europe. Now King Henry and two out of his three   children took the kingdom through a 180-degree turn: the English were now destined to be the people who hated the Pope the most in all Europe. In 1707, this Protestant England did a deal with another Protestant kingdom, Scotland, to create yet another new identity, Britain and Britishness. This fuelled an Empire which lasted until living memory. Now the Empire has gone, and perhaps Britishness with it. What do we do next? What is Englishness now, as it emerges from under the shadow of Britishness? And what part will religion play in the changes this time?

‘We need to do some serious thinking about national identity and what it means to us.’

The question really matters. An anecdote to illustrate that: we thought of shooting the opening titles from a helicopter, hovering above a village green on which the village gathered to lay out a huge St George’s Flag. Then the villagers had a meeting, and decided that they didn’t want to do it. They thought that St George and his flag were now too associated with racist politics in the public mind, and they didn’t want people to think of them like that. That is sad, and it shows that we need to do some serious thinking about national identity and what it means to us.

The Rev. Diarmaid MacCulloch, Kt, is Professor of the History of the Church in Oxford University.

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