“England and Always”
The British, the Empire, and the Faith
Part I: Separated by a Common Language
If England was what England seems
An’ not the England of our dreams,
But only putty, brass, an’ paint,
‘Ow quick we’d drop ‘er! But she ain’t!
— Rudyard Kipling
Americans in general, and American Catholics in particular, have a very strange relationship with England and the memory of the British Empire. Much of it is fueled by more or less distorted remembrances of the territory covered in our last outing, as regards the Celtic Church. From the time the Angles and Saxons first invaded Britain, the natives and their Welsh, Cornish, and Breton descendants have nursed an understandable resentment — as have the Irish, Scots, and Manx later subdued by the English. And yet the ironies of history are such that many of the most passionate denunciations of England – given the retreat of the Celtic tongues – have been in English. One is reminded of an Irish delegate to the League of Nations who would only address that body in French — “I can’t speak in my own language, but I refuse to use that of my conqueror” was his explanation. A similar irony is found in the fact that I am writing and you are reading these words in English, for all that my ancestors fought them (and perhaps your ancestors as well) so bitterly in the French and Indian Wars.
On the one hand, the American identity was forged by combat with Great Britain. One can visit the various areas consecrated by our two wars: Lexington and Concord, Boston’s Freedom Trail, Independence Hall, Yorktown, Fort McHenry, the Battle of New Orleans, and on and on. We preserve as temples the homes of Washington, Jefferson, and the other military and political fathers of our independence. Hereditary societies such as the Cincinnati and the Sons, Daughters, and Children of the American Revolution help to keep the flame alive. Certainly, Independence Day is our most sacred national holiday — bolstered by Washington’s Birthday and the respective Evacuation days in Boston and New York. Patriot’s Day is another local specialty, peculiar to Massachusetts and Maine.
The British Monarchy is a particular target of derision, due in no small part to ancestral denunciation of George III, our last King. Every Royal scandal is picked up by the tabloids, and the institution routinely jeered at by our media. For such as they, the Queen is an irrelevant old woman, the Prince of Wales a weird plant-whisperer, and so on. Republicans in Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the other Commonwealth Realms are cheered on as erring brethren who have seen the light.
These latter are also encouraged as being enemies of the last remnants of the evil British Empire, which is held not only to have oppressed our stalwart Thirteen Colonies, but India, Africa, and much of the rest of Asia as well. The sufferings of the Irish and Scots are pointed to (though not those of the French-Canadians, whose Crown-bestowed freedom was denounced in the Declaration of Independence, nor the Afrikaaners, whose travails during and after the Boer War are cancelled out in the American mind by their imposition of Apartheid — so much like our own unlamented Jim Crow.). In the minds of many, part of Franklin Roosevelt’s, Harry Truman’s, and Dwight Eisenhower’s greatness was their nailing shut the coffin-lid of that Empire.
With Catholic Americans, the chorus of dislike of the English sounds even more shrill. In addition to all of the foregoing, the Irish backgrounds of many of us find expression with the Ancient Order of Hibernians, NORAID, and the like. In addition to George III, the Monarchy is hated for Henry VIII and Elizabeth I as well as — strangely enough — Cromwell. For many of us (including me!), the Jacobite Wars are still much of an issue. Does not the Queen still bear the title of “Supreme Governor of the Church of England?” Is she not the rightful heiress of the murderers of the English, Welsh, Scots, and Irish martyrs? Did not the British Empire spread the Anglican Communion across the globe — and even to these shores? And with that, did not there come the Penal Laws? Do not the Orange Order, the Royal Black Institution, the Apprentice Boys of Derry and the like continue to boast of loyalty to the Crown and hatred of our Faith?
Many schools of Conspiracy Theory continue to see the British Monarchy and the Empire as a clear, present, and continuing (although carefully camouflaged) threat to our American Liberties. Even if the Queen and Royal family are neither Black Guelphs nor Lizards (a debatable assertion!), are they not tied in with the American wealthy and powerful, such as the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations? Are not the Round Table, the Rhodes Scholarships, and the Masonic Grand Lodges of England, Scotland, and Ireland all part of what keeps us yoked to the Invisible Empire (er…British, not KKK)? Is not the City of London still the centre of international high finance? What about the Bank of England?
Yet there is another side to the American view of the “Mother Country,” and her works and pomps — sheer adulation. It is no secret that the most popular shows on PBS have been Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey — and who does not love their endless series of British sleuths? Indeed, is not a British accent considered the acme of “class? (this usage of that word, by the way, is strictly American; in the UK, when people say “classless,” they mean egalitarian, whereas for us this means “vulgar.”). What city of any size in this country does not crawl with British, English, or Scottish pubs? Think of the tremendous interest in British writers we Americans have: Chaucer and Shakespeare to be sure – but think of Dickens, Austen, Carroll, Doyle, Tolkien, Lewis, Chesterton, Knox, Christie, and on and on. Look at those peculiarly American institutions, the Renaissance Fair and the Society for Creative Anachronism!
If you leave the general public behind and go into special interests, this tendency becomes ever greater. For both judges and attorneys Magna Carta is the cornerstone of our legal system, and in 2015 the American legal industry is intensely celebrating its 800th anniversary. Such English-introduced professions as sheriffs, coroners, notaries public, and grand juries are proud of their origins. Many activist groups like the ASPCA have English roots for their particular struggle. The American Masters of Foxhounds are close to their British counterparts, and needless to say both the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches are proud of their connections to their English and Scottish mother churches. Our Ivy League Universities measure themselves constantly against Oxford and Cambridge, and the elite “St. Grottlesex” boarding schools do so as well vis-à-vis British Public Schools such as Eton and Harrow. Broadway actors have not really “arrived” until they have played London’s West End. Such British causes as the defence of the Book of Common Prayer, the King James Bible, Winston Churchill, and the reputations of Kings Richard III and Charles I have their adherents here. So too do the English-speaking Union, Daughters of the British Empire, the Royal Society of St. George, the Venerable Order of St. John, and many other such.
Institutions founded in the colonial era — ranging from Dartmouth College to the New York Chamber of Commerce to the Burlington NJ Public Library — that retain their Royal Charters glory in them. So too do National Guard and State Militia units, like Connecticut’s Governor’s Foot Guards, Massachusetts’ Company of Cadets and Ancient and Honourable Artillery, and Virginia’s 116th Infantry, that were raised to fight for the King and then turned against him in the Revolution. This is a period that such folk as the General Society of Colonial Wars, National Society of Daughters of Colonial Wars, National Association of Colonial Dames, National Association of Colonial Dames of the 17th century, and Colonial Dames of America struggle to keep alive.
Pleasing or horrifying as all this Anglophilia may be, it rises to a fever pitch whenever there is a Royal visit. However much Americans may trumpet their contempt of Monarchy, whenever a Royal of any nation actually appears, everything changes: I myself witnessed Hollywood’s elite falling over themselves to pay obeisance to King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia of Sweden at the Motion Picture Academy when they came to Los Angeles as part of the celebrations for the Tricentennial of New Sweden. When British Royals like the Prince of Wales, the Cambridges, or Prince Harry are involved, adulation rises yet further. If it is the Queen, doors open everywhere; over the course of her reign Her Majesty has been greeted by the Queen’s Guard at William and Mary (an ROTC unit raised for her first visit there, and still going strong); addressed Congress; been welcomed by ghetto dwellers in DC, who renamed their street after her and erected a bust in her honour; and even been paid in 1976 the 279 peppercorns in back annual rent owed her and her predecessors back to Queen Anne by Trinity Church, New York (in 1997 the then-rector brought the rent up to date by giving Her Majesty 21 more on a visit to Windsor Castle). So overcome by Prince Charles’ presence was President Reagan’s chief of protocol, Lenore Annenberg, that she curtsied to His Royal Highness — something Americans are not supposed to do.
Despite 232 years of our political independence from Great Britain and seventy years of our having dominated her politically and militarily, she is still this nation’s Mother Country, as she is for the rest of the Anglosphere. Without her history, culture, religion, legal institutions, and so on, we and the rest of her daughter countries would not exist. Hate her or love her, her hold on our imaginations is strong — as you will find very quickly if you either praise or damn the British or the Queen on the internet. Our relationship with Great Britain and the other countries to which she gave birth is essential to understand if we are to make sense of ourselves. Moreover — and far more importantly — it has and has had enormous implications as regards the Faith.
No Catholic American, especially if he is well informed, values his religion, and has any connection at all with Florida, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California and a dozen other states, Canada or Latin America, can doubt the providential natures of the French, Spanish, and Portuguese colonial empires. Under God, their Sovereigns, missionaries, soldiers, and settlers were responsible for planting the Faith here and in places across the globe. Pace both the wrongs and atrocities that occurred on the one hand, and the prattling of the ignorant about imperialism and colonialism on the other, untold millions owe their salvation to the efforts of those men and women, imperfect as they were. In their wake, of course, they brought what are often called ironically by the would-be sophisticated the “blessings of civilisation” – infrastructure, education, hygiene, and so on. To be sure, they also brought diseases and slavery as well. But on the whole, a comparison of the lives led by natives before and after the coming of the European speaks well for the latter. Moreover, after their withdrawal from such territories as they had not settled with their own colonists, the lives of the natives under “their own” leadership swiftly declined in most areas – as it continues to do.
Now, to help us understand our relationship with Great Britain, and despite the Penal Laws, the horrors in Ireland, my own ancestors’ defeat at the Plains of Abraham, the American Revolution, the injustices of the Boer War, and the reasoned and accurate critiques of Belloc and Chesterton, I am going to make a bold assertion: for the Catholic American, the British Empire too was an act of Providence. For better or worse, our future and that of the Faith is bound up with its legacy, and with England. That assertion is what we are going to explore.