Remembrance of a forgotten nation

Reminders of our country’s shared past

This article is taken from the October 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

I was at Magdalene College, Cambridge when the death of Queen Elizabeth II was announced on the bright, warm early evening of Thursday 8 September. 

I was about to deliver a talk to an assembly of diners on Oliver Cromwell’s resettlement of the Jews in England, an action for which this most contentious of Englishmen garners approval, even among those who revile him as a regicide. 

The host toasted the late Queen, welcomed Charles III with a “God Save the King”, and the evening continued in a tone that reflected quietly on the surprising contingencies of the past, on profound events little known, and on Edward I’s vile treatment of a long-persecuted people corrected during what is often considered Britain’s only experiment in republicanism; in fact, by 1656 (from when the resettlement is dated) it was a monarchy in all but name. 

Cromwell, I stressed to an audience receptive to the messiness of the past, was not opposed to monarchy, merely one monarch in particular: Charles I, “that man of blood” whose dissembling and deceit had led, in two avoidable civil wars, to the greatest loss of life these islands would endure until the First World War. 

Some historians, including that peerless observer of the crises of the seventeenth century, Blair Worden, argue convincingly that the trial and execution of “Charles Stuart” in 1649 is the reason the British monarchy exists to this day. It fractured the continuity that was the proud characteristic of the constitution and, in doing so, induced an enduring mistrust of radical institutional change. Since then, we have preferred what works — the a posteriori — to what should work — the a priori. The empirical takes precedent over the rational.

The political experiment that followed the regicide collapsed soon after Cromwell’s death in 1658 and was not something to be repeated. Anyway, the original aim of Cromwell and his allies — the Crown in Parliament — was ultimately achieved. There remains good reason that a statue of Cromwell stands prominent on the green outside Parliament that bears his name and right, too, that a bust of Charles I faces him slyly from a niche in St Margaret’s Church on the opposite side of the road. In that space at the heart of political power, there is poetry: the Fire and the Rose, to use T.S. Eliot’s phrase, become one.

On the spur of the moment, motivated more by curiosity than reverence, I, too, had become one, joining The Queue for the Queen’s vigil soon after it was opened on the early evening of Wednesday 14 September. Even by then, it stretched to the Globe Theatre, which seemed apt, connecting the world of the first Elizabeth to that of the second. 

The walk along the south bank of the Thames, which links the worldly maze of the City to that of the broad thoroughfares of royal Westminster, a route studded with commemorative stones celebrating the silver jubilee of 1977, is one I have walked thousands of times, and usually takes about 40 minutes. This time, it would take seven-and-a-half hours, though I didn’t know it then, among a company of strangers who soon became friends, into the early hours of Thursday. 

At first the queue was stalled. For an hour or so, I put in the earbuds and listened to a book or two of Anton Lesser’s sublime reading of Paradise Lost: a reminder, if one is needed, that when we walk this path, we follow in the footsteps not only of Milton, but of Chaucer, Donne, Dickens, Eliot and all that this city’s literary riches offer, a starting point for the wider journeys of what is now the global tongue, reflected in the make-up of The Queue, of people from, or with ties to, all four corners of the earth. 

Things slowly picked up as we passed the old City of London school, founded by John Carpenter, contemporary of Chaucer and author of the first book of English common law, and trudged beneath Blackfriars Bridge. Then it became a bit of a sprint as we reached the BFI and the South Bank, well-touristed and with joggers heading in the other direction. It was minimally marshalled, all very jovial, even picturesque, as the ample disc of the late summer sun fell in front of us. The mood was punctured only by the attempt of two young Chinese tourists to inveigle themselves into the queue. It was not a wise ruse: the police intervened. 

As the London Eye approached, so did a handful of stewards handing out the fabled wristbands, pilgrim badges de nos jours. “The excitement begins now,” one steward explained, with little conviction but, as we were to discover, considerable irony. 

Westminster Bridge came into view, as did the Palace of Westminster

Westminster Bridge came into view, as did the Palace of Westminster. We descended into the deep embankment that faces Parliament and waited to ascend the steps to Lambeth Bridge. “How long now?” asked someone. “About three hours,” came the reply. It would be longer. Time enough and more to get to know my fellow pilgrims as the conversations began.

They had made their way from as far as Portugal and as close as Surrey, with others from Scotland, Teeside and a couple from near to where I grew up in the Black Country. It was notably diverse in ethnicity and class. Many were unfamiliar with the surroundings and eager to know more and there were no end of questions directed at me when it was revealed what I do and that I was more than familiar with the terrain. 

I could have played the smartarse “historian here” card and punctured the air of wonder and curiosity with a half-digested reading of Eric Hobsbawm et al’s The Invention of Tradition, but I’ve never been entirely convinced by its argument and, professionally, I’ve spent too long introducing the public to the past in all its complexity. Better to encourage than

In fact, contrary to the arguments of the invented tradition thesis, as the historian Bijan Omrani among others has pointed out, many of the rituals that relate to Britain’s royal family can be traced back much further than the nineteenth century: adaptation should not be confused with invention. Among the monarch’s principal, and highly visible, duties is that of the State Opening of Parliament, a fourteenth-century innovation. 

Delving deeper, the first coronation of an English king — in shameless imitation of then-wealthier European contemporaries — is that of Athelstan in 925. The anointing of kings, a deeply religious act born of the example of the Old Testament, can be traced back even earlier, to 787 and the reign of Ecgfrith of Mercia. We are, despite the claims of Tony Blair and others inclined to a permanent present, a manifestly old country. 

The couple from the Black Country, from a place called Brownhills, were familiar with the deeper past, as the Staffordshire Hoard, the vast haul of early medieval artefacts unearthed by metal detectorist Terry Herbert in 2009 on farmland in what was once the Mercian heartland, was discovered near to where they live. 

They, like many (including me) had made a previous pilgrimage of sorts to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, when the Hoard was first put on public display. I remember going to a curtain- raiser at the British Museum, at which the then Labour MP for Dudley, Ian Austin, laid on the Black Country accent, forgivably thick with pride – though he was outshone by the blazered landowner Fred Johnson, a man with the bluff air of someone with “considerably more money than yo” — especially once he’d shared the proceeds of the treasure with the humbler Herbert. 

There hasn’t been much else of late to celebrate in this Middle England that doesn’t look like “Middle England”, a place devoid of thatched cottages, or Daylesford Organics, but with ancient names like Willenhall, Bloxwich, Wednesbury (“Woden’s Burgh”) — another link to the Queen, who claimed descent from Woden via the family tree of the West Saxons of Cerdic. They evoke a deep and continuous history of settlement that predates the Conquest; many are recorded in Domesday. A question often asked, not least by the locals, is: do they have a future?

These are places where the cross of St George is flown, pictures of the monarch displayed, and where soldiers, far too often abroad in recent decades, are recruited. The monarch and her armed forces are often the sole objects of respect in communities suspicious of politicians and other authority figures, for good reason: the state’s most basic functions — policing, healthcare, education, housing and the supply of utilities — are inadequate there and will get worse. 

It is where the Brexit vote was largest, a firm two fingers up to an Establishment that had long lost interest in them, despite recent talk of levelling-up. These Red Wall seats are now being courted by Keir Starmer, who is at least canny enough to appreciate that all of Labour’s prime ministers, from Attlee onwards, have been staunch monarchists, numbering, it is said, among the Queen’s favourites. 

Starmer’s more juvenile MPs, more Marxist than Methodist in contrast to Labour’s best traditions, may not get the message to the detriment of their electoral ambitions. On the government benches, Liz Truss, the peripatetic daughter of privilege denied, and chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, of privilege undeniable, seek a Britannia Unchained. More likely, given the talent on display, is a Britannia unchanged.

At my more pessimistic, I wonder if this England, the peripheral bits of the great urban sprawl of the Midlands and the North, loyalist, but little rewarded for all that, is beginning to resemble Northern Ireland, marginal and overlooked, when not despised, while London and the other big cities, and a Scotland notably cool on the Union, get the attention and, more importantly, the investment and the future that comes with it. 

It is not just investment they are starved of, though. Within my lifetime, these communities have lost — and are desperate for — the heightened language of ritual, of belonging, religious in essence, which Starmer, sounding like a Tory, grasped when he pronounced that the nation the Queen symbolised was the “sum total of all our history and all our endeavours”. The Fire and the Rose. 

This is why Remembrance Day has taken on such importance in such places, and explains the power and reach of another ritual — in this case truly an invented tradition, the most evocative and revealing of recent times — that took on royal association but was entirely the invention of the people: the silent roadside vigils that accompanied the repatriation of the bodies of troops from the calamities of Iraq and Afghanistan — no imperial nostalgia here, despite the monomaniacal claims of some historians — through the Wiltshire market town of Wootton Bassett, another Domesday entry. That it became Royal Wootton Bassett in 2011 suggests the royals have a least an ear for the vox populi. 

A people starved of ritual … are still able to create their own

A people starved of ritual, who once clung to the shared poetry of the Book of Common Prayer and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, are still able to create their own, and Charles could do worse than join them in a journey through the darker corners of his English realm in the early days of his reign and draw attention to the inchoate, quiet anger and, in turn, hold it up to the political and media classes, whose misreading of the Brexit vote was all too revealing: they did not know their people. A monarch should not make that mistake; history tells us that those who do pay a price.

Back in The Queue, we wound through Victoria Tower Gardens, an endless series of barriered snakes, watched over by portaloos, that made Heathrow look welcoming. I put on the historian’s hat again when asked “what’s that?”, and told our party about the Buxton Water Fountain, commemorating Parliament’s role in the abolition of the slave trade which, bizarrely, bears images of Caractacus, Cnut and Alfred, the land before the Norman yoke. 

The fountain has been imperilled by the planned arrival of a wholly inappropriate memorial to the Holocaust — more cack-handed interference by historically and aesthetically illiterate politicians. Rodin’s Burghers of Calais, an appropriate image of self-sacrifice, was our last sighting in the park, after which we eventually arrived at the great white tent of security. 

I nearly didn’t make it through. I had left a bookmark, metal and with a sharpish point, in my notebook. A policeman prodded it into his blue surgical glove several times and, considering confiscation, asked me if it was of sentimental value: “It’s Yves St Laurent,” I replied. He laughed and let me in. It was that kind of mood. And then, for a brief while, it got serious.

Westminster Hall is a familiar site to me. I first went there to see the late Tony Banks, in full cheeky chappie persona, open an exhibition of David Low cartoons, and I’ve passed through it for book launches, meetings with MPs, gatherings of the History of Parliament Trust, and numerous other events. I told my friends where to look for the plaques that commemorate the trials of Charles I and Guy Fawkes. Forget it: once in, the focus of all of us was concentrated elsewhere. 

The hall is both huge and intimate, starkly lit for television, and the one thing I remember above all was the incandescent scarlet of the guardsmen’s tunics, their regiment the direct descendant of that of the New Model, with the Crown — and orb and sceptre — literally “in Parliament”, atop the oak coffin draped in the Royal Standard. For three minutes or so, no one looked down at their phones, only up, eyes on higher things, punctuated by a bow, enveloped by memories of a shared past, a shared nation.

As we emerged from the light into the darkness of the capital, we were met with quite the sight: ratings of the Royal Navy, watched over by officers of the Royal Marines, practising a manoeuvre central to the funeral of their monarch — the pulling of the gun carriage that would bear her body on its final voyage. 

As they passed on, in the background, from the direction of Horse Guards, we heard the “metronome of death”, the single drum beat of which grew louder as the ranks of the united services approached: first, Marines, then the Navy, the Household Division and the RAF Regiment. Before them, in khaki, NCOs of the Coldstream Guards measured out steps with clinical precision. 

The state was, for once and very visibly, delivering on its promise, this time to its sovereign. It is now time it delivered for its loyal subjects. They have waited long enough. 

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