COLLECTIBLE BOOKS: England’s past seen through the eyes of some of its beholders
"There is something special about England, the verdant southern part of a small island off the coast of Europe."
So writes John Lewis-Stempel, editor of England: The Autobiography — 2,000 years of English history by those who saw it happen.
Lewis-Stempel agrees that it was an exaggeration when Cecil John Rhodes said that be born an Englishman was to have "won first prize in the lottery of life". Nevertheless, he says that even in medieval times and dark ages, living in England "has invariably been a better lot (for its people) — freer, more stable, more plentiful" than those experienced by people in other countries.
Lewis-Stempel points out that George Orwell believed that for an biography to be trusted, it had to reveal something shameful, and, Lewis-Stempel says, this the book does. "It does not forget the holocaustum of the Jews in York in 1190, the stomach-heaving slums of Manchester in 1844 and the massacre of the reformers at Peterloo in 1819."
He says England has a special place in world history. It is "the birthplace of parliamentary democracy, engine of the industrial revolution, the hub of the greatest empire the world has ever seen and the last ditch stand against expansionist Germany in two world wars". England "was the making of the modern world".
One of the people whose words are recorded in the book is Henry VIII, regarded as one of the most colourful characters in the country’s history. By 1525 he had become tired of his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and captivated with the lively and younger Anne Boleyn.
That he had become besotted with her can be seen from a letter he wrote to her in about 1526, addressing her as "Mine own sweetheart". He ends the letter, which contains some indelicate phrases, assuring her of his love for her with the words "Written with the hand of him that was, is and shall be yours by his own free will."
Of perennial interest is the tale of the Dane King Cnut (or Canute) and the waves. The incident was recorded by Henry of Huntingdon in about 1130. The story tells not of an arrogant king, but rather of a pious one, Lewis-Stempel says.
Huntingdon writes that Canute was the greatest king England had ever had. One of his "handsome and magnificent acts" was that, "at the very summit of his power, he ordered his throne to be placed on the beach when the tide was rising".
He then ordered the water not to move onto the land "and wet the clothes and limbs of its master".
However, when the tide came in as usual and flowed over the king’s feet and legs, he jumped up and said: "Know all inhabitants of the earth, that vain and trivial is the power of kings, nor is anyone worthy of the name of king save Him whose nod heaven and earth and sea obey under laws eternal." He never again wore the golden crown, Huntingdon writes, but put it above an image of the crucified Christ.
• England The Autobiography, edited by John Lewis-Stempel, was first published by Penguin, London in 2005.