Post-classical history


IT IS NEARLY TWENTY YEARS AGO THAT I MADE THE ARRANGEMENTS which resulted in this book. At the outbreak of the war about half a million words were duly delivered. Of course, there was still much to be done in proof-reading when I went to the Admiralty on September 3, 1939. All this was set aside. During six years of war, and an even longer period in which I was occupied with my war memoirs, the book slumbered peacefully. It is only now when things have quietened down that I present to the public A HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH-SPEAKING PEOPLES.

If there was need for it before, that has certainly not passed away. For the second time in the present century the British Empire and the United States have stood together facing the perils of war on the largest scale known among men, and since the cannons ceased to fire and the bombs to burst we have become more conscious of our common duty to the human race. Language, law, and the processes by which we have come into being already afforded a unique foundation for drawing together and portraying a concerted task. I thought when I began that such a unity might well notably influence the destiny of the world. Certainly I do not feel that the need for this has diminished in any way in the twenty years that have passed.

On the contrary, the theme of the work has grown in strength and reality and human thought is broadened. Vast numbers of people on both sides of the Atlantic and throughout the British Commonwealth of Nations have felt a sense of brotherhood. A new generation is at hand. Many practical steps have been taken which carry us far. Thinking primarily of the English-speaking peoples in no way implies any sense of restriction. It does not mean canalising the development of world affairs, nor does it prevent the erection of structures like United Europe or other similar groupings which may all find their place in the world organisation we have set on foot. It rather helps to invest them with life and truth. There is a growing feeling that the English-speaking peoples might point a finger showing the way if things went right, and could of course defend themselves, so far as any of us have the power, if things went wrong.

This book does not seek to rival the works of professional historians. It aims rather to present a personal view on the processes whereby English-speaking peoples throughout the world have achieved their distinctive position and character. I write about the things in our past that appear significant to me and I do so as one not without some experience of historical and violent events in our own time. I use the term “English-speaking peoples” because there is no other that applies both to the inhabitants of the British Isles and to those independent nations who derive their beginnings, their speech, and many of their institutions from England, and who now preserve, nourish, and develop them in their own ways.

This first volume traces the story of the English-speaking peoples from the earliest times to the eve of the European discovery of the New World. It concludes upon the field of Bosworth, the last battle of the tumultuous English Middle Ages. The year is 1485, and a new dynasty has just mounted the English throne. Seven years later Columbus landed in the Americas, and from this date, 1492, a new era in the history of mankind takes its beginnings.


Our story centres in an island, not widely sundered from the Continent, and so tilted that its mountains lie all to the west and north, while south and east is a gently undulating landscape of wooded valleys, open downs, and slow rivers. It is very accessible to the invader, whether he comes in peace or war, as pirate or merchant, conqueror or missionary. Those who dwelt there are not insensitive to any shift of power, any change of faith, or even fashion, on the mainland, but they give to every practice, every doctrine that comes to it from abroad, its own peculiar turn and imprint. A province of the Roman Empire, cut off and left to sink or swim in the great convulsion of the Dark Ages; reunited to Christendom, and almost torn away from it once more by the heathen Dane; victorious, united, but exhausted, yielding, almost without resistance, to the Norman Conqueror; submerged, it might seem, within the august framework of Catholic feudalism, was yet capable of reappearing with an individuality of its own. Neither its civilisation nor speech is quite Latin nor quite Germanic. It possesses a body of custom which, whatever its ultimate sources may be—folkright brought from beyond the seas by Danes, and by Saxons before them, maxims of civil jurisprudence culled from Roman codes—is being welded into one Common Law. This is England in the thirteenth century, the century of Magna Carta, and of the first Parliament.

As we gaze back into the mists of time we can very faintly discern the men of the Old Stone Age, and the New Stone Age; the builders of the great megalithic monuments; the newcomers from the Rhineland, with their beakers and tools of bronze. Standing on a grassy down where Dover now is, and pointing to the valley at his feet, one of them might have said to his grandson, “The sea comes farther up that creek than it did when I was a boy,” and the grandson might have lived to watch a flood-tide, a roaring swirl of white water, sweeping the valley from end to end, carving its grassy sides into steep chalk edges, and linking the North Sea with the Channel. No wanderings, henceforth, of little clans, in search of game or food-yielding plants, from the plains of France or Belgium, to the wooded valleys and downs of Southern England; no small ventures in dugout canoes across narrow inlets at slack water. Those who come now must come in ships, and bold and wary they must be to face and master the Channel fogs and the Channel tides, and all that may lie beyond them.

Suddenly the mist clears. For a moment the Island stands in the full light of historic day. In itself the invasion of Britain by Julius Cæsar was an episode that had no sequel; but it showed that the power of Rome and the civilisation of the Mediterranean world were not necessarily bounded by the Atlantic coast. Cæsar’s landing at Deal bridged the chasm which nature had cloven. For a century, while the Roman world was tearing itself to pieces in civil war, or slowly recovering under a new Imperial form, Britain remained uneasily poised between isolation and union with the Continent, but absorbing, by way of trade and peaceful intercourse, something of the common culture of the West. In the end Rome gave the word and the legions sailed. For nearly four hundred years Britain became a Roman province. This considerable period was characterised for a great part of the time by that profound tranquillity which leaves little for history to record. It stands forth sedate, luminous, and calm. And what remained? Noble roads, sometimes overgrown with woodland; the stupendous work of the Roman Wall, breached and crumbling; fortresses, market towns, country houses, whose very ruins the next comers contemplated with awe. But of Roman speech, Roman law, Roman institutions, hardly a vestige. Yet we should be mistaken if we therefore supposed that the Roman occupation could be dismissed as an incident without consequence. It had given time for the Christian faith to plant itself. Far in the West, though severed from the world by the broad flood of barbarism, there remained, sorely beset, but defended by its mountains, a tiny Christian realm. British Christianity converted Ireland. From Ireland the faith recrossed the seas to Scotland. Thus the newcomers were enveloped in the old civilisation; while at Rome men remembered that Britain had been Christian once, and might be Christian again.

This island world was not wholly cut off from the mainland. The south-east at all events kept up a certain intercourse with its Frankish cousins across the straits, and hence came the Roman missionaries. They brought with them a new set of beliefs, which, with some brief, if obstinate, resistance here and there, were accepted with surprising readiness. They brought a new political order, a Church which was to have its own rulers, its own officers, its own assemblies, and make its own laws, all of which had somehow or other to be fitted into the ancient customs of the English people. They planted the seed of a great problem, the problem of Church and State, which will grow until a thousand years later it almost rives the foundations of both asunder. But all this lies in the future. What mattered at the moment was that with her conversion England became once more part of the Western World. Very soon English missionaries would be at work on the Continent; English pilgrims would be making their way across the Alps to see the wonders of Rome, among them English princes, who, their work in this world being done, desired that their bones should rest near the tomb of the Apostles.

Nor was this all, because the English people now have an institution which overrode all local distinctions of speech, or custom, or even sovereignty. Whatever dynastic quarrels might go on between the kingdoms, the Church was one and indivisible: its rites are everywhere the same, its ministers are sacred. The Kingdom of Kent may lose its ancient primacy, Northumbria make way for Mercia; but Canterbury and York remain. The contrast is startling between the secular annals of these generations, with their meagre and tedious records of forays and slaughter, and the brilliant achievements of the English Church. The greatest scholar in Christendom was a Northumbrian monk. The most popular stylist was a West Saxon abbot. The Apostle of Germany was Boniface from Devon. The revival of learning in the Empire of Charlemagne was directed by Alcuin of York.

But this youthful, flourishing, immature civilisation lacked any solid military defence. The North was stirring again: from Denmark up the Baltic, up the Norwegian fiords, the pirate galleys were once more pushing forth in search of plunder, and of new homes for a crowded people. An island without a fleet, without a sovereign to command its scattered strength, rich in gold pieces, in cunning metal-work, and rare embroideries, stored in defenceless churches and monasteries, was a prize which the heathen men might think reserved for them whenever they chose to lay hands on it. Those broad, slow rivers of the English plain invited their galleys into the very heart of the country, and once on land how were rustics hurriedly summoned from the plough to resist the swift and disciplined march of armed bands, mounted or on foot? When the storm broke the North, the Midlands, the East, went down under its fury. If Wessex had succumbed all would have been lost. Gradually however it became manifest that the invaders had come not only to ravage but to settle.

At last the hurricane abated and men could take count of their losses. A broad strip of land along the middle of the eastern coast and stretching inland as far as Derby was in Danish hands; seafarers turned farmers were still holding together as an army. But London, already one of the great ports of Northern Europe, had been saved, and all the South, and here was the seat and strength of the royal house. The tie with the mainland had not been severed. Year by year, sometimes by treaty, sometimes by hard fighting, King Alfred’s dynasty laboured to establish its ascendancy and reunite the land; so successfully that the temporary substitution of a Danish for an English king made little mark on history. He too was a Christian; he too made the pilgrimage to Rome. After this brief interlude the old line returned to the throne, and might have remained there from one generation to another. Yet in three short winter months, between October and Christmas Day in 1066, the astounding event had happened. The ruler of one French province—and that not the largest or most powerful—had crossed the Channel and made himself King of England.


The structure into which the Norman enters with the strong hand was a kingdom, acknowledged by all who spoke the King’s English, and claiming some vague sovereignty over the Welsh and the Scots as well. It was governed, we may say, by the King in Council, and the Council consisted of his wise men, laymen and clerics; in other words, bishops and abbots, great landowners, officers of the Household. In all this it departed in no way from the common pattern of all kingdoms which had been built out of fragments of the Roman Empire. It had also been showing, since the last of the strong kings died, a dangerous tendency to split up into provinces, or earldoms, at the expense of the Crown and the unity of the nation; a tendency only, because the notion still persisted that the kingdom was one and indivisible, and that the King’s Peace was over all men alike. Within this peace man was bound to man by a most intricate network of rights and duties, which might vary almost indefinitely from shire to shire, and even from village to village. But on the whole the English doctrine was that a free man might choose his lord, following him in war, working for him in peace, and in return the lord must protect him against encroaching neighbours and back him in the courts of law. What is more, the man might go from one lord to another, and hold his land from his new lord. And these lords, taken together, were the ruling class. The greatest of them, as we have seen, sat in the King’s Council. The lesser of them are the local magnates, who took the lead in shire or hundred, and when the free men met in the shire or hundred court to decide the rights and wrongs of a matter it was their voice which carried weight. We cannot yet speak of a nobility and gentry, because the Saxons distinguished sharply between nobles and peasants and there was no room for any middle rank. But there were the makings of a gentry, to be realised hereafter.

Such was the state of England when the new Norman order was imposed on it. The Conqueror succeeded to all the rights of the old kings, but his Council now is mainly French-born, and French-speaking. The tendency to provincialisation is arrested; the King’s Peace is everywhere. But the shifting pattern of relationships is drastically simplified to suit the more advanced, or more logical, Norman doctrine, that the tie of man to lord is not only moral and legal, but material, so that the status of every man can be fixed by the land he owns, and the services he does for it, if he is a tenant, or can demand, if he is a lord. In Norman days far more definitely than in Saxon the governing class is a landowning class.

In spite of its violent reannexation to the Continent, and its merger in the common feudalism of the West, England retained a positive individuality, expressed in institutions gradually shaped in the five or six hundred years that had passed since its severance, and predestined to a most remarkable development. The old English nobility of office made way for the Norman nobility of faith and landed wealth. The lesser folk throve in a peaceful but busy obscurity, in which English and Norman soon blended, and from them will issue in due course the Grand Jurors, the Justices of the Peace, the knights of the shire; ultimately overshadowing, in power if not in dignity, the nobility, and even the Crown itself. These days are far off. In the meantime we may picture the Government of England in the reign of Henry II, let us say, somehow thus. A strong monarchy, reaching by means of its judges and sheriffs into every corner of the land; a powerful Church that has come to a settlement with the Crown, in which the rights of both sides are acknowledged; a rich and serf-willed nobility, which the Crown is bound by custom to consult in all matters of State; a larger body of gentry by whom the local administration is carried on; and the king’s Household, his personal staff, of men experienced in the law and in finance. To these we must add the boroughs, which are growing in wealth and consequence now that the peace is well kept, the roads and seaways safe, and trade is flourishing.


Standing at this point, and peering forward into the future, we see how much depends on the personality of the sovereign. In the period after the Conquest we have had three powerful rulers: in William a ruthless and determined soldier-prince who stamped the Norman pattern on the land; in his son Henry I a far-sighted, patient administrator; in Henry’s grandson, the second Henry, a great statesman who had seen that national unity and the power of the Crown hung together, and that both could only be served by offering, for a price, even justice to all men, and enforcing it by the royal authority. Certain strains are developing in that compact fabric of Plantagenet England. The Crown is pressing rather hard on the nobility; the king’s Household is beginning to oust the ancient counsellors of the kingdom. We need a strong king who will maintain the law, but a just king who will maintain it for the good of all, and not only for his private emolument or aggrandisement. With King John we enter on a century of political experiment.

Anyone who has heard from childhood of Magna Carta, who has read with what interest and reverence one copy of it was lately received in New York, and takes it up for the first time, will be strangely disappointed, and may find himself agreeing with the historian who proposed to translate its title not as the Great Charter of Liberties, but the Long List of Privileges—privileges of the nobility at the expense of the State. The reason is that our notion of law is wholly different from that of our ancestors. We think of it as something constantly changing to meet new circumstances; we reproach a Government if it is slow to pass new legislation. In the Middle Ages circumstances changed very gradually; the pattern of society was settled by custom or Divine decree, and men thought of the law rather as a fixed standard by which rights and duties could in case of wrongdoing or dispute be enforced or determined.

The Great Charter therefore is not in our sense of the word a legislative or constitutional instrument. It is an agreed statement of what the law is, as between the king and his barons; and many of the provisions which seem to us to be trifling and technical indicate the points at which the king had encroached on their ancient rights. Perhaps, in their turn, the victorious barons encroached unduly on the rights of the Crown. No one at the time regarded the Charter as a final settlement of all outstanding issues, and its importance lay not in details but in the broad affirmation of the principle that there is a law to which the Crown itself is subject. Rex non debet esse sub homine, sed sub Deo et lege—the king should not be below man, but below God and the law. This at least is clear. He has his sphere of action, within which he is free from human control. If he steps outside it he must be brought back. And he will step outside it if, ignoring the ancient Council of the kingdom, and refusing to take the advice of his wise men, he tries to govern through his Household, his favourites, or his clerks.

In other words, personal government, with all its latent possibilities of oppression and caprice, is not to be endured. But it is not easy to prevent. The King is strong, far stronger than any great lord, and stronger than most combinations of great lords. If the Crown is to be kept within its due limits some broader basis of resistance must be found than the ancient privileges of the nobility. About this time, in the middle of the thirteenth century, we begin to have a new word, Parliament. It bears a very vague meaning, and some of those who first used it would have been startled if they could have foreseen what it would some day come to signify. But gradually the idea spreads that if it is not enough for the King to “talk things over” with his own Council; so, on the other hand, it is not enough for the barons to insist solely on their right to be considered the Council of the kingdom. Though they often claim to speak for the community of the realm, in fact they only represent themselves, and the King after all represents the whole people. Then why not call in the lesser gentry and the burgesses? They are always used in local matters. Why not use them in national concerns? Bring them up to Westminster, two gentlemen from every shire, two tradesmen from every borough. What exactly they are to do when they get there no one quite knows. Perhaps to listen while their betters speak; to let them know what the grievances of the country are; to talk things over with one another behind the scenes; to learn what the king’s intentions are in Scotland and France, and to pay the more cheerfully for knowing. It is a very delicate plant, this Parliament. There is nothing inevitable about its growth, and it might have been dropped as an experiment not worth going on with. But it took root. In two or three generations a prudent statesman would no more think of governing England without a Parliament than without a king. What its actual powers are it would be very hard to say. Broadly, its consent is necessary to give legal sanction to any substantial act of authority: an important change of ancient custom can only be effected by Act of Parliament; a new tax can only be levied with the approval of the Commons. What more it can do the unfolding of time will show. But its authority is stabilised by a series of accidents. Edward III needed money for his French wars. Henry IV needed support for his seizure of the crown. And in the Wars of the Roses both the contending parties wanted some sort of public sanction for their actions, which only Parliament could provide.

Thus when in the fifteenth century the baronial structure perished in faction and civil war there remained not only the Crown, but the Crown in Parliament, now clearly shaped into its two divisions, the Lords sitting in their own right, and the Commoners as representatives of the shires and boroughs. So far nothing has changed. But the destruction of the old nobility in battle or on the morrow of battle was to tip the balance of the two Houses, and the Commons, knights and burgesses, stood for those elements in society which suffered most from anarchy and profited most by strong government. There was a natural alliance between the Crown and the Commons. The Commons had little objection to the Crown extending its prerogative at the expense of the nobility, planting Councils of the North and Councils of Wales, or in the Star Chamber exercising a remedial jurisdiction by which the small man could be defended against the great. On the other hand, the Crown was willing enough to leave local administration to the Justices of the Peace, whose interest it was to be loyal, to put down sturdy beggars, and to grow quietly and peacefully rich. As late as 1937 the Coronation service proclaimed the ideal of Tudor government in praying that the sovereign may be blessed with “a loyal nobility, a dutiful gentry, and an honest, peaceable, and obedient commonalty.” Some day perhaps that commonalty might ask whether they had no more to do with Government than to obey it.


Thus by the end of the fifteenth century the main characteristics and institutions of the race had taken shape. The rough German dialects of the Anglo-Saxon invaders had been modified before the Norman conquest by the passage of time and the influence of Church Latin. Vocabularies had been extended by many words of British and Danish root. This broadening and smoothing process was greatly hastened by the introduction into the islands of Norman French, and the assimilation of the two languages went on apace. Writings survive from the early thirteenth century which the ordinary man of today would recognise as a form of English, even if he could not wholly understand them. By the end of the fourteenth century, the century of Geoffrey Chaucer, it is thought that even the great magnates had ceased to use French as their principal language and commonly spoke English. Language moreover was not the only institution which had achieved a distinctively English character. Unlike the remainder of Western Europe, which still retains the imprint and tradition of Roman law and the Roman system of government, the English-speaking peoples had at the close of the period covered by this volume achieved a body of legal and what might almost be called democratic principles which survived the upheavals and onslaughts of the French and Spanish Empires. Parliament, trial by jury, local government run by local citizens, and even the beginnings of a free Press, may be discerned, at any rate in primitive form, by the time Christopher Columbus set sail for the American continent.

Every nation or group of nations has its own tale to tell. Knowledge of the trials and struggles is necessary to all who would comprehend the problems, perils, challenges, and opportunities which confront us today. It is not intended to stir a new spirit of mastery, or create a mood in the study of history which would favour national ambition at the expense of world peace. It may be indeed that an inner selective power may lead to the continuous broadening of our thought. It is in the hope that contemplation of the trials and tribulations of our forefathers may not only fortify the English-speaking peoples of today, but also play some small part in uniting the whole world, that I present this account.





January 15, 1956

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