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?