This story shall the good man teach his son.
- William Shakespeare, Henry V.
What does it feel like to be British? Does your heart swell when you think about the achievements of this scepter'd isle, set in a silver sea? Or on the other hand, is this union dominated by England, the 'Auld Enemy' and does your national pride reside firmly in your Celtic roots? If you're English, maybe you feel particularly uneasy about the whole business and unable to celebrate your nationhood while hordes of kilt-wearing or leek-waving Celts take every opportunity to vocalise their particular affiliations. Three lions do make a very small pride.
The British don't have a shared patron saint or a national day. The English do little to celebrate St George's Day - you'll find more red and white crosses attached to cars when the football team is playing a World Cup qualifier against Moldova than flying from the rooftops on 23 April. But as national pride is eroded, what about the knowledge of our history and our achievements?
The Knowledge Gap
George Courtauld is as English as you could expect to be and this particular question concerned him one day during his regular rail journey between Essex and London. Climbing aboard the train he observed a small group of schoolchildren, aged around 12. As the carriage was somewhat full, one boy had to sit away from the others. A lady passenger then offered to swap places with the boy and, noticing he had his arm in a sling, said, 'Wouldn't Lord Nelson like to sit with his friends?' Met with a blank look, she continued, 'You know, England expects? Admiral Nelson?'
'Oh, of course', the boy exclaimed, 'The guy in Star Trek!'
Courtauld, no doubt shaking his head, took the story home with him. Assisted by his family, he drew up a list of notable dates in British history, interspersed with a few stirring quotations - it ran to around seven pages of A4. He pinned it to the toilet door.
After maybe the 100th request from friends for a photocopy, Courtauld looked into publishing it, but couldn't get any of the major publishers to take it on. One of them told him:
This is an absolute dodo... Patriots don't buy books, George. They buy tacky flags.
The rest, as they say, is history. Three months later, nearly 200,000 copies had been shifted. Wholesalers who had previously rejected it were now beating down his door. Courtauld was subsequently hired to advise on equivalent versions for the United States and elsewhere.
Looking not unlike an oversized passport, the book is very thin and dark blue with gold lettering. Don't be fooled by the size - inside it packs an enormous punch, as it condenses a timeline of historical events, quotations, speeches, poems and songs into little more than 60 pages.
The History of Britain and the World
The largest section, occupying around two thirds of the book, is an historical timeline. You've seen these before - it looks a bit like a crib sheet for a history exam. Courtauld's differs in a couple of ways: the events are very carefully selected achievements and they are interspersed with some relevant sound bite quotations. Starting with 'Stonehenge (2200 - 1300 BC)' it runs through to 'England wins the Rugby World Cup (2003)' - an equally mysterious event by all accounts.
The sound bites are coloured red, and leap out from among the dates:
Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest1!
You shall have no other captain but I2.
God made them as stubble to our swords3.
Ours is composed of the scum of the earth - the mere scum of the earth4.
The only illustrations in the book, a single page displays the St George's Cross, the Saltire, and the Red Dragon5. A later page shows the Union Jack. The flag of Northern Ireland is conspicuously absent - Courtauld's scope doesn't appear to extend to that province.
Speeches, Commandments and Charters
This varied collection begins with three extracts from the Bible. The Ten Commandments are followed by Jesus's Great Commandment, and the section from the Sermon on the Mount which we all know as the Lord's Prayer. Many of us will have learned these at school or at church.
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind.
This is the first and great commandment.
And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
- Matthew 22.
Hot on the heels of the biblical references comes an extract of the Venerable Bede's 8th Century Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People), a masterwork which earned him the title the 'Father of English History'.
Bede's6 five-volume work, written in Classical Latin, is an early history of the English people dating from the Roman invasion. It covers most notably the acceptance of Christianity by the ruling nobles.
So the life of man here appeareth for a little season, but what followeth or what hath gone before that surely we know not. Wherefore if this new learning hath brought us any better surety, methinks it is worthy to be followed.
The Magna Carta
After an armed rebellion by his barons, King John was cornered at Runnymede on 15 June, 1215 and forced to put his seal to a documented list of demands. Although its significance is largely symbolic today - many of its articles had been removed, even before it became law in 1225 - its principles of limiting the monarch's power, of restricting taxes and ensuring religious freedom and justice for all is probably the best definition we have of an English Constitution or Bill of Rights.
No free man shall be taken or imprisoned or dispossessed, or outlawed or exiled, or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him, nor will we send against him except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.
- Clause 39.
Shakespeare and Milton
Two of the bard's great speeches have made it into the book. The first being the 'England' speech from Richard II, delivered by John of Gaunt before his death. This was notably performed by John Gielgud in the 1978 BBC television production:
This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden,...
...This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England...
Courtauld probably could have filled half his book with Shakespeare, but it would only serve to dilute the second offering, which features what is surely some of the most motivational writing in the English language. The 'Feast of Crispian' speech was issued by Henry V to his troops on the morning of the Battle of Agincourt: 25 October, 1415.
...And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother...
- Henry V 4:3.
An extract from John Milton's epic 1667 poetic work, Paradise Lost is also featured - Courtauld's tribute to this literary masterwork of complex theological themes.
Shakespeare may have put words into the mouths of many kings and queens, yet those who have reigned since have from time to time chosen their own memorable words for the occasion. Two such speeches are recorded in the book.
In 1588, England was under the threat of invasion by King Philip of Spain's approaching Armada. The monarch, Elizabeth I was under pressure for, as a woman, being seemingly unfit to lead a nation at war. She answered this by rallying her troops at Tilbury:
I am come amongst you .... to live and die amongst you all. To lay down for my God and for my kingdom and 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.
Following the parliamentarian victory in the English Civil War, King Charles I was tried and sentenced to death for treason. On 30 January, 1649, he was led to the scaffold at Whitehall, where he made a damning speech of martyrdom.
I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown, where no disturbance can be, no disturbance in the world.
Churchill is rewarded by Courtauld with no less than three quotations, all of them from speeches made to the House of Commons. The first of these was delivered on 13 May, 1940, just three days after he had become the leader of the wartime coalition government. Popular support in the House was with Labour leader Chamberlain, but Churchill immediately imposed his character on the proceedings, leaving them in no doubt who was in charge.
You ask, 'What is our aim?' I can answer in one word: Victory - victory at all costs, victory in spite of terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.
On 4 June that year, following the successful evacuation of allied forces from Dunkirk7, Churchill made another defiant speech to the House.
We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight in the landing-grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.
The third featured speech was made 14 days later. France had fallen and the Battle of Britain was about to begin.
Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour'.
Many owners will give the book an annual airing for lyrics which feature in the Last Night of the Proms, the rousing finale to the BBC's summer festival of promenade concerts. Millions of flag-wavers, whether inside the Albert Hall, picnicking in Hyde Park8, or clustered around their TVs will heartily compete with the mezzo-soprano in this traditional lung-bursting event.
Land of Hope and Glory was adapted from Edward Elgar's Coronation Ode of 1902. AC Benson rewrote the words for a separate song, set to the music of Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No 1 in D.
Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set;
God who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet.
Rule Britannia originated from Thomas Arne's masque Alfred, which was first performed for the Prince of Wales in 1740. It sets to music the words of James Thomson and David Mallet, and the tune later inspired works by Handel, Beethoven and Wagner, among others. By the end of the 19th Century it was well-established as a rousing patriotic anthem.
Blest Isle! With matchless beauty crown'd,
And manly hearts to guard the fair.
Jerusalem is the setting of William Blake's poem 'And did those feet...' to music by Hubert Parry in 1916, later famously orchestrated by Elgar at the 1922 Leeds Festival. Many have suggested that it would make an ideal choice for an English national anthem; as well as at the Proms, the song is sung in schools, churches9, Women's Institute meetings, party political conferences, and even on the football terraces.
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant Land.
Britain's national anthem God Save the King10 was first published in 1744 and first performed in the following year, in an arrangement by Thomas Arne. Its origins are believed to be much older, however. It's not as identifiably British as you might think; in the 19th Century, its tune was used for the national anthems of as many as 20 other countries, including Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Russia and the United States. It's often used today as an unofficial English national anthem.
Courtauld includes two further songs in this section, neither featured at the Proms, but which are well-known school or church hymns. The 23rd Psalm, better known as 'The Lord is my Shepherd', and 'I Vow to Thee my Country', written by Cecil Spring-Rice, the British Ambassador to the United States on 12 January, 1918, on the eve of his departure from Washington.
The British Empire
The decline and fall of the Empire is an unwritten backdrop to the book. Many of the historical references, the speeches and the songs directly refer to British imperial expansion, its battles against its rivals and its struggle to retain its territories. Today, the Empire is no more, partly replaced by a modern commonwealth of independent nations.
Courtauld invites us to compare and contrast by listing the British Empire and Imperial Territories as they stood in 1920, a snapshot of a time, less than a century ago, when the Empire was at its peak. It runs from Aden (which had come under British control in 1839) to Zululand (1887) and lists no less than 88 territories.
Further baselining of change is in the final section of the book, two pages of Imperial weights and measures from 1830:
1 tun = 2 butts
1 butt = 2 hogsheads
1 hogshead = 1½ barrels...
Patriotism in Modern Britain
So why was this book so popular? It plainly touched a nerve in ordinary people, who felt, like Courtauld, that they were on the verge of losing something. There was no one single reason why the Britons felt patriotically threatened - maybe it was just a relentless series of attacks on their personal idea of nationhood, fuelled by some emotive journalism in sections of the press. One day it was the European Union threatening their currency, their sovereignty and even their weights and measures. The next it was pictures of their soldiers returning in flag-draped coffins from Middle-Eastern wars of dubious legality. For some, it could have been the economy - the death of traditional manufacturing industries while seemingly millions of immigrants were arriving to change the demographical face of their cities.
Timing may also have been a factor. The book was published during the post-Millennium hangover, a time for reflection during their search for their cultural and spiritual identity. In short, it was a dripping tap of events for which the Pocket Book of Patriotism seemed to make sense.