.There was a saying, not heard today so
often as formerly . .
do they know of England who only England know?"
It is a saying which dates. It
has a period aroma, like Kipling's "Recessional" or the state rooms
at Osborne. That phase is ended, so plainly ended, that even the
generation born at its zenith, for whom the realisation is the
hardest, no longer deceive themselves as to the fact. That power and
that glory have vanished, as surely, if not as tracelessly, as the
imperial fleet from the waters of Spithead.
And yet England is not as
Nineveh and Tyre, nor as Rome, nor as Spain. Herodotus relates how
the Athenians, returning to their city after it had been sacked and
burnt by Xerxes and the Persian army, were astonished to find, alive
and flourishing in the blackened ruins, the sacred olive tree, the
native symbol of their country.
So we today, at the heart of a
vanished empire, amid the fragments of demolished glory, seem to
find, like one of her own oak trees, standing and growing, the sap
still rising from her ancient roots to meet the spring, England
after all, we know most of England "who
only England know".
So the continuity of her
existence was unbroken when the looser connections which had linked
her with distant continents and strange races fell
away. Thus our generation is one which comes
home again from years of distant wandering. We discover affinities
with earlier generations of English who felt no country but this to
be their own. We discover affinities with earlier generations of
English who felt there was this deep this providential difference
between our empire and those others, that the nationhood of the
mother country remained unaltered through it all, almost unconscious
of the strange fantastic structure built around her - in modern
Backward travels our gaze,
beyond the grenadiers and the philosophers of the 18th century,
beyond the pikemen and the preachers of the 17th, back through the
brash adventurous days of the first Elizabeth and the hard
materialism of the Tudors and there at last we find them, or seem to
find them, in many a village church, beneath the tall tracery of a
perpendicular East window and the coffered ceiling of the chantry
From brass and stone, from line
and effigy, their eyes look out at us, and we gaze into them, as if
we would win some answer from their silence."Tell us what it is that
binds us together; show us the clue that leads through a thousand
years; whisper to us the secret of this charmed life of England, that
we in our time may know how to hold it fast.
"What would they say"?
They would speak to us in our
own English tongue, the tongue made for telling truth in, tuned
already to songs that haunt the hearer like the sadness of
spring. They would tell us of that marvellous
land, so sweetly mixed of opposites in climate that all the seasons
of the year appear there in their greatest perfection; of the fields
amid which they built their halls, their cottages, their churches,
and where the same blackthorn showered its petals upon them as upon
us; they would tell us, surely of the rivers the hills and of the
island coasts of England.
One thing above all they
assuredly would not forget; Lancastrian or Yorkist, squire or lord,
priest or layman; they would point to the kingship of England, and
its emblems everywhere visible.
They would tell us too of a
palace near the great city which the Romans built at a ford of the
River Thames, to which men resorted out of all England to speak on
behalf of their fellows, a thing called 'Parliament'; and from
that hall went out their fellows with fur trimmed gowns and strange
caps on their heads, to judge the same judgments, and dispense the
same justice, to all the people of England.
Symbol, yet source of power;
person of flesh and blood, yet incarnation of an idea; the kingship
would have seemed to them, as it seems to us, to express the
qualities that are peculiarly England's: the unity of England,
effortless and unconstrained, which accepts the unlimited supremacy
of Crown in Parliament
so naturally as not to be
aware of it; the homogeneity of England, so profound and embracing
that the counties and the regions make it a hobby to discover their
differences and assert their peculiarities; the continuity of
England, which has brought this unity and this homogeneity about by
the slow alchemy of centuries.
For the unbroken life of the
English nation over a thousand years and more is a phenomenon unique
in history, the product of a specific set of circumstances like those
which in biology are supposed to start by chance a new line of
evolution. Institutions which elsewhere are recent and artificial
creations appear in England almost as works of nature, spontaneous
From this continuous life of a
united people in its island home spring, as from the soil of England,
all that is peculiar in the gifts and the achievements of the English
nation. All its impact on the outer world in earlier colonies, in the
later Pax Britannica, in government and lawgiving, in commerce and in
thought has flowed from impulses generated here. And this continuing
life of England is symbolised and expressed, as by nothing else, by
the English kingship. English it is, for all the leeks and thistles
grafted upon it here and elsewhere. The stock that received all these
grafts is English, the sap that rises through it to the extremities
rises from roots in English earth, the earth of England's history.