British historian Lucy Worsley has a new TV series, and as I watched the first episode this week, I was delighted to find her talking about exactly the type of stories-of-us that I’m writing about in my book. Thanks to Elizabeth I’s fabulous sense of public relations, the English defeat of the Spanish Armada became the origin of not one but two stories of English identity. In one story, England is small and vulnerable, yet valiant enough to defeat the superpower of its age and assert its enduring sovereignty. In the other, England (and later Great Britain) becomes master of the seas, eventually developing an unmatched naval fleet that served as a foundation for a worldwide British Empire. I have to wonder, now that the second story has failed, could a turning back to the first story be one factor in the vote to “Brexit”?
It was the summer of 1588. Spain’s King Philip II had become fed up with the English queen’s resistance to his influence and decided to send a large fleet of ships, an Armada, to facilitate an invasion. The fleet was to sail up into the Channel, then serve as a ferry system for Philip’s large army, which was to meet them on the European shore. Elizabeth gave a stirring speech to her forces at Tilbury, a speech that’s still familiar to many of us today.
“I am come amongst you as you see at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of battle, to live or die amongst you all – to lay down for my God, and for my kingdoms, and for my people, my honour and my blood even in the dust. I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king – and of a King of England too.”
Under the leadership of Sir Francis Drake, the British fleet attacked the much larger Armada, sinking one ship and forcing the rest to flee. Drake was already something of a hero in England, having harassed Spanish ships worldwide as what was in essence a government-sponsored pirate, looting the treasure Spain had collected from its overseas territories and bringing it home to Elizabeth.
As Worsley points out, though, Elizabeth actually gave her speech eleven days after the routing of the Armada. It was all part of a public relations campaign to shore up her own political power. Later, she had a whole series of portraits painted of herself, like this one:
Here she is, the mighty Virgin Queen, her hand gently resting on the globe to show her power over the entire world. In the upper corners, we see that Spanish Armada, during and after the battle. Even the numerous pearls she’s wearing are part of the propaganda, symbolizing her “purity and chastity.” These paintings, along with numerous epic poems and ballads, were all part of an elaborate iconography that turned her virginity (otherwise problematic for the nation as it meant no direct heir) into a virtue, symbolic of “impenetrable” England’s own success at resisting invasion.
Worsley shows us how more than two centuries later, Queen Victoria was also riding on the coattails of Elizabeth’s victory. Even Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s “Iron Lady” prime minister in the 1980s, was still using the symbolism created by Elizabeth I to support her own worldview and power.
Meanwhile, the British Navy was also promoting the Armada defeat as its own origin story. Massive tapestries of the Armada hung in the House of Lords for many years, as Britain expanded its power over much of the globe. It wasn’t until late in the 20th century that the British empire essentially faded away, most of its constituent lands having achieved their own sovereignty.
In terms of narrative genres, both the “seemingly fragile yet powerful and unassailable” storyline and the “master of the high seas” storyline are Triumphs, achievements meant to endure for all time. They are both about England’s relationship with the rest of the world, as well – in one she stands apart, and in the other she dominates.
Last week I read a great article by Laurie Penny, “Tea, Biscuits, and Empire: The Long Con of Britishness.” She talks about America’s escapist fascination with Britain, our love for Downton Abbey and The Crown, Harry Potter and James Bond. As someone raised in a thoroughly Anglophilic American household, I can relate. It’s hard to reconcile the Britain of our imagination with the entitled, imperial power that, for example, inflicted the Opium Wars on China to force it into letting British traders import massive quantities of illegal drugs to addict its citizens. As Penny puts it, “The impression I was given as a schoolgirl was that we were jolly decent to let the Empire go, and that we did so because it was all of a sudden pointed out that owning other countries wholesale was a beastly thing to do — of course old boy, you must have your human rights! Really, we were only holding on to them for you.”
In 2016, Britain voted on whether to withdraw from or remain in the European Union. The “Leave” campaign emphasized regaining sovereignty, with the implication that too many decisions were being decided by the rest of Europe. Slogans included, “Let’s Take Back Control,” “We Want Our Country Back,” and “Believe in Britain.” I’m picturing that long-ago queen assuring her troops that England can handle everything on her own, thank you very much.
Not being British myself, I haven’t had much direct exposure to the Brexit campaign. I do know it was a lot more effective in the heart of England (and Wales) than it was in cosmopolitan London or in Scotland, which was still an independent country in Elizabeth’s day and maybe never fully signed on with that inviolate island theme.
I’d love to hear from my British friends. What do you think? Does Britain have a viable “story of us” that is neither withdrawn unto itself nor master/paternalistic benefactor of the world?
There’s a lot of pull in the “seemingly fragile yet powerful and unassailable” story – another salient example is the Battle of Britain (see the film of that name as an example of brilliant national propaganda). Tolkien, whose express intention was to create a mythology for the English, was so taken by this trope that The Lord of the Rings has not one but two sieges in which the plucky defenders hold out against seemingly unstoppable foes. I have to admit it strikes a chord with me, partly because I was born and grew up in England but also, I think, because it has universal appeal.
Elizabeth was a master of propaganda – in fact you could almost go as far as to say she invented it (of course, like most inventions, the Chinese got there way before anyone else, and you could even make the case that the whole of ancient Egyptian religion was a massive propaganda system). Before her reign, monarchs did pretty much whatever they wanted, and people sang their praises in the hope of person betterment, not because it strengthened the state. We saw the first stirrings of the British propaganda machine with Henry VII pushing the story that he was descended from King Arthur, but it was Elizabeth who got it into gear, sponsoring painter, poets, historians and even occultists to create the Gloriana myth.
As for whether it had anything to do with Brexit, I’m not sure, but my guess is that the “plucky island nation” narrative was a factor in the background. The generation that voted Leave most (the amusingly named “gammon” grew up in the aftermath of WW II watching films like the aforementioned Battle of Britain, The Dambusters, Henry V and swashbucklers filled with the likes of Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh. I suspect that with the Empire collapsing around them, the British establishment were consciously or unconsciously trying to revive the “seemingly fragile yet powerful and unassailable” narrative. As far as I can tell, it’s this generation that keep on about the Blitz and Dunkirk, rather than those who actually witnessed those events. There is also of course a serious “restoration” narrative going on with Brexit – I read so many posts about how wonderful life was before we joined the EEC, when you could leave school at fourteen and still make a decent living, a bag of chips cost sixpence, we didn’t have all that metric nonsense and I still had all my hair.
Thanks, Robin! I’ve spent some time trying to find info in the media supporting the Restoration storyline behind Brexit, but I haven’t had your first-hand access to Brexit supporters. (Shame on Brussels for inflicting inflation on the U.K., anyway! I wish I could blame the EU for all the changes I’ve seen in my own lifetime. Candy bars and comic books cost a dime when I was a kid, and of course a dime could buy an entire hamburger in my grandpa’s day.)
Years ago I read The Cult of Elizabeth, by Roy Strong. Fascinating. In the Worsley show, she mentioned a fake letter from the Spanish ambassador, telling his colleagues that even the English Catholics loved Elizabeth, and said that early drafts have been found in the handwriting of her #1 political assistant, William Cecil. That’s a pretty bold tactic to support an image.
I suppose the “plucky defenders hold out against seemingly unstoppable foes” narrative is a variant of the sympathetic underdog story that sells so well in Hollywood, from “David and Goliath” to Star Wars. In fact, that will make a good addition to my Chapter 5 – thanks!
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