MLXVI & all that

Having supper last night with dear friends of the Anglican persuasion (not their fault, they were raised that way!), I felt, among them, a particular Christian warmth, in which Newfoundland was crossed with the far east, of Ontario. The parents are, by citizenship, both Canadian, but there are deeper cultural traits — which I share with them. They, we, are of British ancestry, with a Protestant history, preceded by a misty Catholic one, “beginning” with Normans, who spoke French. But prior even to this there were the indigenous English, who ruled over themselves, except while they were being overrun by Vikings.

Their English is, alas, a language we must now learn, for it looks as strange as Althochdeutsche, but has a poetry and a prose immediacy that makes the effort worthwhile.

When the French wish to insult us, they call us “Anglo-Saxons,” and this serves also as an abusive racial term to hurl at any “white man,” ignorantly. Our enemies were (sometimes still are) under the na├»ve impression that we habitually colonize and enslave the gentle, virtuous peoples. In truth, we were colonized and enslaved ourselves, nearly a thousand years ago. I do not complain about this, for it would be pointless: “history happens.” We were “got” by the Normans, to use a fine old Norse part-of-speech.

But the genuinely Catholic “old England” was of a kind with the old Ireland. Christianity was sprung on western Europe through missionary efforts from these islands — in days when England and Ireland were instinctively in league, rather than at each other’s throat, as imperial politics later put them.

My Anglican friend is a perfesser in the university here, who lives in the past, most impressively. He is a student of the Old English liturgical forms, chiefly accessible through Latin manuscripts. Under them we find Anglo-Saxon (or, “West Saxon”) speakers, in a national culture that would be utterly transformed by the Norman invasion.

The dynasties followed. One thinks of Angevins, Plantagenets, Lancastrians, Tudors, Stuarts, succeeding to the conquered estate.

And one contrasts them not only in language but with the monarchs of the authentic Old England. For these “furriners” changed the essence of the islands, from a religious into a political reality.

The earlier kings — Alfred, Aethelstan, Edmund, Edgar, Edward the Martyr — had been infused with a different spirit, and with an unambiguously Christian conception of kingship. Sanctity was not impossible for them. They made an England in every sense superior to the Englands that superseded.