Cry God for Harry, England, and St. George?

Dr Roger Spalding

Image of St George killing the dragon
St George’s Hall Liverpool, window detail

Until relatively recently St George’s day, 23rd April passed by relatively unnoticed except for hardcore ‘patriots’ and Morris dancers. Yet recently there have been attempts to elevate this holiday to that of St Patrick’s day on 17th March.

Historically St George rather withered as the English did not need an emblematic saintly representative. For many their superiority was self-evident, sustained by a belief in their military prowess and the growth of Empire. This sense of imperial glory lived on well after the demise of the actual empire.

The nineteenth century historian, William Stubbs argued that Britain’s constitutional government derived from our Anglo-Saxon (that is English) ancestors. This racialised view of history also incorporated the United States, Americans being seen as essentially English but with strange accents. Clearly Freeman hoped for an America that would be a transatlantic (Anglo-Saxon) England.

The title of Winston Churchill’s four volume history of Britain, published in the 1950s, The History of the English Speaking Peoples exhibited many of these tropes: marginalising the Celtic British and incorporating the Anglo-Saxon settler populations from around the world in a Greater England. The English did not need strong national emblems because they believed they were as Sellars and Yeatman put it in their 1930 satirical work, 1066 and All That: a ‘Top Nation’.

With the demise of the last generation brought up under the Empire (my parents’ generation); the growth of nationalism in the Celtic nations; and a series of crises from Suez (1956) to Brexit, this triumphalist view of English/British identity has been eroded. The English it would seem do need a new sense of national identity, should St George be a part of that? Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party, would seem to think so for he has issued a video wishing people a happy St George’s day.

What most people know about St George is that he was responsible for rescuing a maiden from the clutches of a dragon. The story has nothing to do with the real George, thought to have been a Roman soldier born in what is Turkey today. George’s tussle with the Dragon is really a product of medieval chivalry, the code of conduct which supposedly governed the lives of knights; this involved defending the weak (a category that included all women) and acting with honour.

The gulf between the ideal and the reality is well illustrated by the Morte d’Arthur a collection of stories about King Arthur, another paragon of chivalry. This was alleged written by Sir Thomas Mallory, a convicted criminal, during the 15th century War of the Rose; a conflict in which inconvenient individuals were disposed of in a less than chivalrous fashion: witness the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower. If the English do need a new sense of national identity, does it need to incorporate a mythical figure created by a brutal medieval nobility?

Roger Spalding is Programme Leader for History at Edge Hill University.

‘A Whiff of Munich’?

Roger Spalding

Neville Chamberlain holds the paper signed by both Hitler and himself on his return from Munich.

I often read in applicants’ personal statements that they wish to study History to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. This is sadly, something that rarely occurs; humanity appears to have an infinite capacity to repeat its mistakes.

Yet politicians and journalists frequently draw historical parallels with the past. The current Defence Secretary said, in relation to developments in Ukraine, ‘that there was a whiff of Munich in the air’. He was referring to the efforts of the British Prime Minister to avoid war in 1938 by ‘appeasing’ Hitler.

Neville Chamberlain’s efforts culminated in the Munich Conference at which the Czechs, were forced to cede the Sudetenland to Germany. The parallel with Ukraine breaks down because, as yet the West is not asking Ukraine to cede land to Russia; though they did fail to act when Putin annexed Crimea in 2014.

In 1938 the British were terrified of war. This was partly because of the memory of the of the First World War, and partly because of the development of the bomber.

Stanley Baldwin had told the Commons that ‘the Bomber will always get through’. Its targets would include women and children, and the only defence would be to kill even more of the enemy’s women and children. Shortly after, Beverley Nicholls published his anti-war tract, Cry Havoc. In one chilling passage he argued that it would be possible for an enemy, in a single raid, to drop enough poison gas to kill most of the population of Greater London.

In 1938 Mass Observation conducted a survey this revealed that a significant number of people were preparing to kill themselves should war break out. War, it was believed, would bring Armageddon from the skies, a view vividly portrayed in the 1936 film, Things to Come.

In 1940 Michael Foot wrote that post-1918 Germany was treated harshly when she was weak and democratic; but the reverse was true when she became strong under the Nazis, this was partly because Hitler was seen as a bulwark against Communism. This proved a short-term benefit leading to long-term pain.

Historians are not supposed to speculate, but here are a number of ‘ifs’ to consider: If Western politicians and banks had been less ready to accept and handle resources plundered from Russia; if the West had taken a stronger line when the Russian state murdered journalists; if the reaction to the poisoning of British residents had been more severe; if we had not allowed Britain to become a safe haven for Russian oligarchs; a message might have been sent that the West adheres to certain norms that it would not abandon.

Clear opposition to lesser transgressions might have helped to avoid this much larger and more serious transgression…. if we had learnt the lessons of History?

Roger Spalding is Programme Leader for History at Edge Hill University.

Pandemics, Prohibition and the Past: COVID-19 in Historical Perspective

The Coronavirus epidemic may be without precedent in living memory, but global pandemics are nothing new. In the sixth century AD the ‘Plague of Justinian’, an outbreak of bubonic plague, killed around 25 million people in Europe and Asia. The best known pandemic, the ‘Black Death’ of 1348-9, is thought to have killed up to 50 million people in Europe, or 60 per cent of the population. In 1918-19 the ‘Spanish Flu’ claimed the lives of 50-100 million worldwide, more than were killed in the First World War. By comparison circa 250,000 global deaths (at the time of writing) seems small in comparison.

Fear created by the alarming death rates of past pandemics was compounded by the fact that medical science was unable to identify the cause of contagion. In 1918 doctors attributed the source of the flu to a bacteria rather than a virus. In earlier pandemics things were even worse. Bubonic plague was seen as a form of divine punishment, or a disease spread by a poisonous miasma rather than flea infested rats.

The measures introduced by public authorities to contain infection were varied. Some restrictions sound familiar. In A Journal of the Plague Year in London, 1665-6, Daniel Defoe recalled that ‘all plays, bear-baiting, games, singing of ballads, public feasting’ and ‘tippling houses’ were prohibited. Churches remained open, but with appropriate social distancing, people going in ‘single at all times’ and ‘locking themselves into separate pews’. Public spaces became ‘so desolate’ that ‘grass grew upon the streets’.      

Self-isolation was enforced. Those infected with plague were confined to their homes with other members of the household and a red cross painted on the door. Nobody was allowed to leave until all within had either recovered or died, with a cart going around the streets after dark to collect the dead.

Albeit harsh in the extreme, such restrictions may have helped contain the spread of disease. In contrast the draconian proclamation that all dogs and cats be killed, as a potential source of infection, was, at best, misguided. The resulting destruction of some forty thousand dogs and two hundred thousand cats had one predictable outcome, ‘a prodigious multitude’ of ‘mice and rats’.

Then, as now, there was much discussion about the need for a test to determine who was infected. One suggestion was that physicians inhale the breath of suspected plague bearing persons as it had a distinctive smell. A proposition that, even if true, had at least one obvious drawback.     

If the current lockdown seems depressing there is, perhaps, some consolation in the thought that pandemics of the past were much worse. Similarly, if the thought of being unable to go to a pub or a wine bar for the foreseeable future is hard to bear, then spare a thought for American drinkers a hundred years ago. No sooner had they emerged from the horrors of the First World War and the ‘Spanish Flu’, than the introduction of Prohibition, in January 1920, banned the sale, manufacture and transportation of alcohol for more than a decade. At least Prohibition is unlikely to be repeated!

Kevern Verney is Professor of History and Associate Dean Research for the Faculty of Arts and Science at Edge Hill University.


Main image: “Bring Out Your Dead” A street during the Great Plague in London, 1665, with a death cart and mourners. Image: Wellcome in Creative Commons