by Paul Johnson
,IKE a good many other people, it seems, I have been disappointed and irritated by the B.B.C. television series on the British Empire. I do not accuse those responsible of left or right wing bias — though it's possible to detect traces of both — so much as ignorance. Of course many experts have been roped in to help, and much detailed research has been carried out. What is lacking is a general historical sense of how the Empire began to grow in the first place, and what were the motives of the men who set the process in motion.
The truth of the matter is that the British Empire was originally a religious concept, based upon a historical myth. During the Hundred Years' War with France, when the English first became thoroughly conscious of themselves as a nation, and English finally ousted French as the language of government, many historical chronicles were compiled and circulated which traced back the origins of the English nation.
They were an extraordinary mixture of fact and fantasy. Many of them were based upon the imaginative history written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century, which itself relied on Dark Age writers like Nennius and Gildas.
By the end of the 15th century, it was very generally accepted that the English race, and the English state had been created by the special providence of God to fulfil His divine purposes. Some argued that "Brutus the Trojan" had founded England. Most agreed that Christianity had been implanted here direct from the Holy Land. Some said St. Paul had paid a special visit to preach the Faith — a view still reflected in Blake's famous poem "Jerusalem." But the most widely-held version was that Britain had been converted by Joseph of Arimathca.
On top of this it was believed that, in remote, earlyChristian times. Britain had been a self-governing empire, with its own emperor, and wide overseas dominions. Britain had been the first country to establish Christianity as the state religion. and to propagate it elsewhere (it was perfectly true, of course, that Germany had been converted by Englishmen, led by St. Boniface).
Now these myths had an important influence on political events in the 16th century. Henry VIII used them to provide a historical basis for his breach with Rome. The Reformation Statutes drafted for him by Thomas Cromwell lay particular stress on the phrase "This realm is an empire," meaning that it owed allegiance to no other earthly authority, whether pope or emperor. and that the Crown was responsible directly to God. Moreover. as Christianity had been received in Britain straight from the Apostles, before the See of Rome was founded, the papacy could not claim any primacy in English ecclesiastical-affairs.
The myths were believed not merely by Henry VIII and the English Protestants but by English Catholics, too. Thus, when Reginald Pole returned to England to take up his post as Archbishop of Canterbury, the first court sermon he preached to Queen Mary and King Philip stressed the special role God had allotted to the English. Philip cannot have liked what he heard, but to Mary it was merely a statement of the obvious.
The myth. however, was chiefly exploited by the Protestants, because it gave the English the special task of reforming the Church and re-establishing what they termed true religion. It was developed most effectively by Foxe in his "Acts and Monuments," better known as "Foxe's Book of Martyrs." These huge volumes, which even in those days cost between £6 and £10, sold over 10,000 copies by the end of the century. They were more widely read than any other book except the Bible itself.
Drake took them with him on his world voyage. coloured the illustrations with his own hand, and read extracts aloud, both to his crew and his bewildered Spanish prisoners.
Though the early English ocean explorers and colonisers were inspired by military and commercial motives too, the dynamic which drove them was essentially religious.
Theory of empire
The first man to coin the phrase "the British Empire" was the mathematician Dr. John Dee. The manuscript in which he elaborated the theory of empire was never published and has since been lost. but it is known he prepared elaborate schemes — he advised Drake and others on their expeditions — and maps justifying England's historical claims, which he presented to Queen Elizabeth.
Of course, as Francis Bacon remarked, gold and silver soon coloured the idealism of the first imperialists. Nevertheless, until well into the 17th century, religion played a bigger part than any other factor in English expansion overseas. This was how Milton, in a brilliant pamphlet, justified the Commonwealth's war against Spain, which led to the seizure of Jamaica.
Moreover, when the religious idealism faded in the more rationalist and commercially-minded 18th century. it was very quickly replaced by the secular idealism of Britain's "civilising mission," and the concept of the "white man's burden." Indeed. I think it's fair to say that, throughout its existence, the British Empire has to a great extent kept going by a sense of self-righteousness, which may have been misguided but was always sincerely held. From first to last, the Empire was — in part at least — an exercise in do-gooding.