When visiting the southern United States, I have occasionally been amused to hear the Civil War described as “the late unpleasantness.” That genteel and understated description could also be applied to an unpleasantness the English suffered some years before the American Civil War: the last successful invasion of England in 1066, henceforth known as the “Norman Conquest.”
Until the English ceded their sovereignty and law-making powers to the rule of Brussels in 1972, without even the dignity of a bloody battle and worthy defeat, the Norman invasion was, apart from the Reformation—or “catastrophe” as Belloc described it—the most significant event in English history. Belloc, in his typical contentious style, said “what we call England was made, grew from, began, upon a Sussex hill in 1066.” Yet he also happily contradicted himself by saying that all that is and was truly English is “immemorial,” and that “English Englishry is from the beginning of recorded time.”
In a recent issue of the center-right magazine Standpoint, the retired Anglican bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, argued that a post-Brexit Britain needs the “moral and spiritual framework” that can only be supplied by the “centrality of the Judaeo-Christian tradition in national life.” Certainly, the constant appeal to British “values” after every terrorist attack always begs the question of what precisely those values are, and on what they are based. However, while I do not disagree with Bishop Nazir-Ali’s hopeful plea and pious hope, the main conduits for providing the Christian “moral and spiritual framework” for the revival of national life—namely both the Anglican and the Catholic Church—seem to be unsure of their purpose and increasingly unwilling to proclaim the saving power of the gospel. Nature (or culture and society) abhors a vacuum. And as Benedict XVI wrote of an increasingly secular Europe and United States, where such a vacuum exists, something will fill it: either the growing totalitarianism of aggressive secular liberalism, or Islam, aided by large-scale immigration.
For the revival of a particularly English national life, culture, and spirituality, the Church—which is much more likely to be the “creative minority” foreseen by Pope Benedict for most of post-Christian Europe—has the saints of England, both before and after the “unpleasantness” of 1066, to provide inspiration to build anew the spiritual and moral framework of England. In his Life of Saint Edmund of Abingdon, Matthew Paris describes St. Edmund as the “jewel of the English.” Although Ireland is often described as the “Isle of Saints,” England is the land of saints, and its saints are jewels in the crown of English national life, culture, and spirituality.
Almost every day on the national liturgical calendar is devoted to a man or woman that gave witness. As the “cloud of witnesses” described in Scripture, the saints embody a spirituality that is intensely national. In The English Way, Maisie Ward writes that, following the mission of St. Augustine to the “Angles,” the “Englishman was not to be changed for but into the Christian.” If one of the principal purposes of canonization is to provide exemplars and teachers, the English saints can once again change contemporary Englishmen and women into Christians. The Anglo-Saxon saints, many with wonderfully unpronounceable names, speak to us of the land, of nature, and of hearth and home. Only a hundred years or so after the Norman invasion, the martyr St. Thomas à Becket, to give his Norman name, provided a worthy example for vacillating prelates who must summon fortitude and courage against the oppression of the State.
Chesterton expressed the essence of the English Catholic spirit, incarnated in the lives of countless English saints, as a “solitary and supernatural conviction” which expressed itself in “energy but not often in ecstasy.” Belloc, for all his French blood and bluster, also exhibited that “energy but not ecstasy” so quintessential to the national spirit. That energy is evident in the lives of English martyrs like St. Ann Line, St. Margaret Clitherow, and St. Margaret Ward. They also exhibit a particular characteristic of English sanctity much needed in dark days: the English sense of humor. From saints playing tennis on the day of their execution to St. John Kemble, martyred at age eighty, who demanded a last pipe and cup of sack, the saints’ humorous English sanctity provides plentiful cement for the foundation of a revived national spirit.
Christopher Dawson wrote of William Langland that he could see “Christ walking in the fields in the dress of an English labourer.” Dawson also notes that by the fourteenth century, the “submerged world of the common English”—the English view of life as it had been formed by nearly a thousand years of Christian faith—emerged. Is it too much to hope for that, through the life and witness of the saints of England, such a “submerged world of the common English” might emerge once again, and provide the moral and spiritual framework for an ancient yet ever new national revival?
Fr. Benedict Kiely is the founder of Nasarean.org, a 501c3 charity helping the persecuted Christians of the Middle East.