Thomas Cromwell, as painted by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/1498–1543)
An uncomfortable reality of the Brexit referendum was that the English comprise over 80% of the UK electorate. England’s choice, therefore, was almost certain to be that of the whole country – regardless of the popular vote in the other three constituent nations. Except for Greater London, every English region voted Leave, a result that commentators have generally sought to explain by pointing to perceptions of local advantage or distress, and to regional disparities of income, wealth, education, and social class. All of these factors may have had some relevance, but none of the explanations account for the fact that both the most and the least prosperous regions of England voted Leave, as did those with the most and least numbers of immigrants – supposedly a key factor. Even regions like Cornwall that benefit from substantial EU funding, and those heavily dependent on exports to Europe like the North East opted for ‘Out’ – apparently against their own interests.
What we have perhaps failed to grasp in attempting to elucidate Brexit, is that England, in particular, has passed this way before, centuries earlier and with arguments that are strikingly similar to the ones employed during the campaign. We have become accustomed to thinking of our relationship with Europe largely in transactional and political terms. In so doing, we tend to overlook the baggage we carry from the past, the ideas of who we are and where we belong – which are not artificial constructs but patterns of emotive thinking inherited with each nation’s language and culture. Failure to recognise the historical roots of Euroscepticism in England is a failure to understand one of the fundamental reasons why so many English voters put their cross in the Brexit box.
Some of the critical arguments for leaving the EU used by Brexiteers were first articulated not by the denizens of UKIP, still less by the eruption onto the public stage of 21st century populists like Nigel Farage, but by Henry II in the twelfth century whose Constitutions of Clarendon were aimed at restricting papal jurisdiction in England. At the time, the Pope exercised control not only over the clergy in Christendom but also over the secular power. Kings, princes and parliaments were all subservient to God and therefore to God’s representative on earth. Thomas Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury, resisted Clarendon and was murdered for his pains.
In reality, the Clarendon Constitutions made little practical difference to the power of the Catholic church in England. Only with the Reformation – launched by Martin Luther in Wittenberg in 1517 – was there any serious challenge to Vatican authority. In England, the Reformation began in earnest in the 1530s under Henry VIII and his Machiavellian chief minister Thomas Cromwell. Resentment of Vatican control provided the framework within which the drive for political and religious independence began. Part of the king’s motivation was famously his desire for a divorce from Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn; but the break involved much more than a simple question of dynastic matrimony.
There were over eight hundred monasteries and religious houses operating in 16th century England with tens of thousands of monks, nuns, lay acolytes and servants – many engaged almost exclusively in raising money. Churches were also heavily involved in money-making through the weekly collection plate and the sale of indulgences. Everyone knew and was expected to approve the fact that a significant proportion of these funds went to the Vatican. That is until people heard of Luther’s complaints about corruption and licentiousness in the Catholic Church, and about the poor of Europe being expected to pay for building St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Then they began not to approve. Shouldn’t English donations be used for English works was a question voiced well beyond the Tudor court. Substitute the EU for the Vatican and we are confronted with a similar complaint now. Why should ‘we’ be paying for an unaccountable EU bureaucracy that rewards us with laws and codes of conduct that are not of our making?
Henry VIII struggled with the religious implications of a complete break with Rome, but he was clear about where secular power should lie which was in England and specifically in his own person. He forced the clergy to submit to his authority, reduced and then annulled annates or payments to the Vatican, and at length became head of the Church of England and Defender of the Faith – a position the monarch continues to hold.
From then on until the UK’s accession to the European Community and thence to the EU, UK laws were made at home, despite unsuccessful attempts under Mary 1st (Bloody Mary) and arguably under James II (James VII of Scotland) to restore Roman Catholic hegemony. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 was thought of as a defence of protestant England against the possibility that an openly Catholic King James, in league with Catholic France, might spearhead a restoration of Catholicism and renewed submission to the Pope. In the year that James II/VII succeeded to the throne, Louis XIV of France revoked the Edict of Nantes thereby setting in motion a period of savage anti-Huguenot (Protestant) persecution and sending a flood of refugees to England. The threat seemed clear. Unsurprisingly, James II was sent packing to France, where the English felt he belonged.
Most visible of the outcomes of the English Reformation was the assault on the vast estates of the Catholic Church. At least 25% of the land in England belonged to the monasteries which were also stacked with jewels, works of art and precious objects of veneration. Between 1536 and 1540, the monasteries were dissolved, their valuables carted off to the Treasury, their lands sequestered and sold off, their libraries seized or simply destroyed, their buildings ransacked and vandalised. Parish churches also suffered from despoliation, not with the aim of dismantling them, but in order to strip them of decoration, of symbols of Catholic ritual and veneration – roods, pyxes, wall paintings – and of any suggestion that material objects might offer a route to heaven. In time, with the irrevocable submission of the clergy to the crown under Elizabeth I, the violence subsided and England became “protestant”. Scotland was soon to follow suit, though in her own way, under the fiery tutelage of John Knox.
Reformation brought destruction and what must have seemed a major upheaval in both the spiritual and material lives of the people. On the other hand, a democratic impulse entered religious ritual with the translation of the bible into English. Cromwell ordered copies to be placed in every church so that people could consult the scriptures for themselves or listen to readings in their own language. At the same time, Archbishop Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer – a masterpiece of sober English prose – became the sourcebook for Sunday worship. The “new” church thereby appealed to the understanding of congregations rather than demanding their submission to the incomprehensible mysteries of the Latin mass. Severance from Rome afforded the people both a political and a spiritual sense of national identity which the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 only served to enhance. Taking root in all these events was a strong sense of defensiveness about the intentions of European powers towards England that subsequent conflicts, among them the War of the Spanish Succession, the Napoleonic Wars, and the 20th century’s two “World Wars” continued to nourish.
John of Gaunt’s famous ‘Sceptred Isle speech in Richard II expresses a very English sense of autonomy and triumphant isolationism:
“This precious stone set in a silver sea
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house
Against the envy of less happier lands”
Shakespeare completed Richard II in 1595, a mere seven years after the Spanish Armada had threatened the very independence that John of Gaunt was praising. At the moment when the country stood in fear of that threat, Elizabeth I joined her troops at Tilbury with the following words:
“I have placed my chiefest strength and safe guard in the loyal hearts and good will of my subjects, and therefore I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of battle, to live or die amongst you all.”
Churchill expressed similar do-or-die sentiments in one of his most celebrated wartime speeches delivered in the House of Commons on June 4th, 1940 as the country once again faced the prospect of invasion by a European power:
“We will defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets; we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
All three speeches have a defensive or defiant ring, and it would be a mistake to imagine that their appeal is no longer resonant in 21st century UK. Theresa May’s speech at Lancaster House on January 17th this year offered an updated version in terms that mutatis mutandis would not have seemed amiss at the Tudor court:
“The public expect to be able to hold their governments to account very directly, and as a result supranational institutions as strong as those created by the European Union sit very uneasily in relation to our political history.”
When Elizabeth I came to the throne, England was relatively poor compared with her close European neighbours. Once the fires of the English Reformation had cooled, however, the country began to grow. Tenant farmers increased in both number and prosperity as former monastery holdings were leased out by their new aristocratic owners; and food production soared in consequence. Manufacturing expanded rapidly thanks above all to the know-how and energy of immigrants from Europe, especially from France and the Netherlands. The arts flourished as perhaps never before or since in the nation’s history. A new kind of painting appeared – symbolic and therefore quite unlike the realistic or hellenistic renaissance art of mainland Europe, though some European artists including Holbein found success at the English court and offer proof that the English were perfectly aware of continental artistic virtuosity. Great poets and playwrights emerged, among them Sir Philip Sydney, Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, John Donne, and of course William Shakespeare. Secular architecture also blossomed in both private houses and public buildings. Post-Reformation England was thus transformed into a more self-confident, creative, prosperous community and one that would – in the person of the monarch and later in the form of parliamentary and cabinet government, make its own laws and follow its own political trajectory.
Judging by some of their public statements, Brexiteers – including rhetorical converts like Theresa May – are harbouring romantic notions of a similar efflorescence of creative and industrial energy as the UK undergoes a renewed separation from Europe. Our prime minister may even imagine herself as the inheritor not of Margaret Thatcher – as some pundits are wont to exclaim – but of Elizabeth I, herald of a “Theresian” age in which, having seen off the European threat, she will lead the country to a new era of prosperity for everyone.
Among the important differences between Theresa May and the first Queen Elizabeth, however, is in their choice of key advisors. Elizabeth picked out the cleverest and wisest politician in England as her chief minister – William Cecil. May, by contrast, has assembled a team of second-rate courtiers and placed in charge of Brexit and its aftermath a trio of Shakespearean mechanicals: a pedestrian puffball, a fantastical optimist, and a stage buffoon. In so doing she has made hostages to fortune of both herself and the country. Worth bearing in mind also is that while many benefited from the increase in prosperity during the Elizabethan age, a significant number fell by the wayside. Enclosures – or privatisation – of common land reduced thousands to destitution and resulted in a vast increase in the number of vagabonds and thieves roaming the countryside and the streets of large cities. In 21st century London, people are again being turfed out of house and home for private profit under the stoney auspices of government. Not all the parallels between the 16th and 21st centuries are edifying.
Perhaps the destructive – or isolationist – spirit currently in play will surface in due course as a platform for renewed creative dynamism as happened in the 16th century. But we should not fool ourselves into believing that Brexit is anything other than a crapshoot. We like to think of our choices at the ballot box as guided by reason, but the slogan of “taking back control” from Europe, so powerful during the campaign, carried an emotional appeal to the English founded on their cultural heritage – just as a similar emotion surely appealed to those Scots who, in voting for independence from the UK in 2014, bore in their veins the widely-resented 1707 Act of Union with England. Brexit may not be logical or wise; and its complexity may be beyond what most of us can claim fully to grasp. But it is what many in England feel they want – a return not only of control but of part of their identity. As Pascal noted: “Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point.” (The heart has its reasons, that reason knows nothing of).