Friday, August 12, 2016

History of the English-Speaking People by Winston Churchill

*update* I know this is RIDICULOUSLY long, but I simply cannot think of a good way to summarize a history book. A lot of stuff happened! Just remember, it's shorter than the book!

I had heard of the book History of the English-Speaking Peoples by Winston Churchill, and the title alone fascinated me. As I am desperately trying to educate myself, I knew I had to read it. It’s probably one of my favorite history books up to this point. But this time, I read it a little differently than I read most books. While I always take notes and write up a summary, this time, I used Susan Wise Bauer’s suggestions for how to read a history book. She includes over 20 questions to ask yourself as you read the book. So I did that and this summary took quite a bit longer. But I think it was worth it for the depth I feel I gained in doing so.

Churchill has written a political history. He is largely concerned with those in power, both how they got it and what they did with it. He uses these stories to tell the overriding story of the English. He organizes the book into three “books” within the whole: Book I: The Island Race; Book II: The Making of the Nation; Book III: The End of the Feudal Age. He states his purpose for writing saying, “[This book] aims to present a personal view on the process whereby English-speaking peoples throughout the world have achieved their distinctive position and character.” (p. viii) The major events of the history which he details include the Roman invasion and takeover of Britain, followed by the Viking takeover after the Roman Empire falls. Then the leadership turns to the House of Wessex, then the Normans and Plantagenet Dynasties, and finally the Houses of York and Lancaster battle it out. The book ends with the beginning of the Tudor line. Therefore, he story begins with the invasion by Julius Caesar in 55 BC and ends at the crowning of Henry VII (of the Tudors) in 1485 AD (Sometimes considered the end of the Middle Ages). It largely takes place in England with lots of forays into France. It also jaunts from time to time into Scotland and Ireland, but mainly concerns itself with the English and their French holdings. 

When discussing who the story is about, Churchill states, “I use the term ‘English-speaking peoples’ because there is no other that applies both to the inhabitants of the British Isles and to those independent nations who derive their beginnings, their speech, and many of their institutions from England, and who now preserve, nourish, and develop them in their own ways.” (p. viii) The challenge in the narrative comes about because the people are continually threatened by outsiders seeking power over the island nation. Usually the native inhabitants lose, but they always manage to find a way to bring the outside, usurping leader into their customs and habits through the great power of the nobility and the existing institutions. The story has a forward progression. The tyrannical leaders are repeatedly forced to come to heel. Each new dynasty promises to respect the unwritten Constitution and affirm the understood rights of the people and the nobility. This continual replacement of bad kings with kings who promise progress shows the English are not willing to settle for a bad king and eventually a bad dynasty.

The next stage of diving into a history book, the logic stage, concerns the major questions and assertions of the author. 

I believe the first question implicitly asked is, “What was the impact of Rome on England?” He begins the answer to this question with the first incursion by Julius Caesar when the island was inhabited by the Briton, Celt, Pict, and Scottish tribes. The British tribal chief Cassivellaunus was able to negotiate with the invading Romans and in exchange for hostages and tribute, get them to quit the island. Thereafter, they began to trade with Rome, but they were not conquered. 100 years later the Romans were back. “In the wild North and West freedom found refuge among the mountains, but elsewhere the conquest and pacification were at length complete and Britannia became one of the forty-five provinces of the Roman Empire”. (pg. 33) Of that time, Churchill states, “For nearly four hundred years Britain became a Roman province. This considerable period was characterized for a great part of the time by that profound tranquility which leave little for history to record. It stands forth sedate, luminous, and calm. And what remained? Noble roads, sometimes overgrown with woodland; the stupendous work of the Roman Wall, breached and crumbling; fortresses, market towns, country houses, whose very ruins the next comers contemplated with awe. But of Roman speech, Roman law, Roman institutions, hardly a vestige. Yet we should be mistaken if we therefore supposed that the Roman occupation could be dismissed as an incident without consequence. It had given time for the Christian faith to plant itself.” (p. x)Those Britons who accepted Roman ruled lived comfortable lives in a stable, but static colony. However, the North required a wall and vigilant defense. As Rome’s foundations were beginning to crumble, Britain seemed not to notice.

His second implicit question was “What ended the Roman Rule?” “The Roman world, like an aged man, wish to swell in peace and tranquility and to enjoy in philosophic detachment the good gifts which life has to bestow upon the more fortunates classes. But new ideas disturbed the internal conservatism, and outside the carefully guarded frontiers vast masses of hungry, savage men surged and schemed. The essence of the Roman peace was toleration of all religions and the acceptance of a universal system of government. Every generation after the middle of the second century was an increasing weakening of the system and a gathering movement towards a uniform religion. Christianity asked again all the questions which the Roman world deemed answered for ever, and some that it had never thought of.” (pg. 44-45) As the Roman Empire declined, they moved out of far away, hard to defend Britain. The Anglo-Saxons of Germany took this as their chance to invade. The Britons fought back, possibly under the mythical King Arthur, but eventually had to make peace with the onslaught of Saxons. This led to powerful chiefs which eventually gave way to kings who rewarded their loyal followers with land. This became the germ of feudalism.

I believe the next question to be, “How did England come into its own as one of the leaders of Western Civilization?” Compared to Rome, Saxon England was barbaric small kingdoms fighting for supremacy. Eventually all become Christian and some of the great Christian thinkers and saints live in England at this time, in order to unify the faith. Saint Augustine is sent to help the islanders maintain pure theology and Saint Patrick makes tremendous inroads in Ireland. King Offa could reasonably make a claim to be the King of England when he conquered most of the warring territories. He even gained the respect of Charlemagne. In addition, Bede re-reckons the calendar so that the dates originate at the birth of Christ. “In the eighth century indeed England had claims to stand in the van of Western culture…England, with an independent character and personality, might scarcely yet be part of a world civilization as in Roman times, but there was a new England, closer than ever before to national unity, with a native genius of her own.” (pg. 87) Churchill cannot overstate the importance of Christianity in uniting the island and creating a stabilizing force.

While the Muslims conquered most of the eastern and southern Mediterranean Sea, the Vikings began making a play for the northern territories. Four hundred years after the Saxons invaded England, they were repaid in kind by the Vikings. Because the church, filling in the void left by the Romans, had become so powerful and rich in Britain, it provided a tempting target. When Ivar the Boneless conquered England in the name of the Danish, they didn’t just plundered. They stayed. “The Danish settlement in England was essentially military. They cut their way with their swords, and then planted themselves deeply in the soul. The warrior type of farmer asserted from the first a status different from the ordinary agriculturist.” (pg. 103) The Saxons very nearly succumbed and the estates founded by the Danes had a definite military flavor.

Next Churchill asks, “How did England unite such a disparate group of people into one nation?” Along came Alfred the Great, leading to the time of Wessex ascendancy. Churchill describes him thus, “The sublime power to rise above the whole force of circumstances, to remain unbiased by the extremes of victory or defeat, to persevere in the teeth of disaster, to greet returning fortune with a cool eye, to have faith in men after repeated betrayals, raises Alfred far above the turmoil of barbaric wars to his pinnacle of deathless glory.” (p. 117) Churchill believes it was Alfred who basically founded England as we know it. Concerning him, he states, “We discern across the centuries a commanding and versatile intelligence, wielding with equal force the sword of war and of justice; using in defense arms and policy; cherishing religion, learning, and art in the midst of adversity and danger; welding together a nation, and seeking always across the feuds and hatreds of the age a peace which would smile upon the land. This King, it was said, was a wonder for wise men. ‘From his cradle he was filled with the love of wisdom above all things,’ wrote Asser. The Christian culture of his Court sharply contrasted with the feckless barbarism of Viking life. The older race was to tame the warriors and teach them the arts of peace, and show them the value of a settled common existence. We are watching the birth of a nation. The result of Alfred’s work was the future mingling of Saxon and Dane in a common Christian England.” (p. 122)

The House of Wessex continued to unite and reorganize most of England under the rule of law. But under the foolish Ethelred The Unready things begin to fall apart. His widow marries the Danish king who reintroduces stability and respects the Wessex way of life. But eventually the kingship returns to the Saxons under Edward The Confessor, the last Saxon king. By this time, the England was weak and was experiencing internal conflicts and contradictions.

Now we get to the question, “How did the French become so entangled with England?” William of Normandy, the illegitimate child of the Duke of Normandy, cousin of the last Saxon King, Edward the Confessor, angled to get the English throne. He made childless Edward promise it to him. And for good measure, he kidnapped the king’s brother-in-law, Harold, and made him swear fealty as well as a condition of his release. When Edward died Harold determined to get the throne for himself. He was first threatened from the north by a distant upstart and was forced to fight for the crown at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. This was immediately followed by the crossing of the channel by William in 1066 and the ill-fated Battle of Hastings.  William the Conqueror takes the throne and begins the Norman line of kings and the great entanglement with France that was to haunt the country for hundreds of years.

At first, William tried to keep the nobility French and impose French customs on England, but he was eventually forced to unite Norman with Saxon culture. His land reforms and redistribution led the beginnings of manorialism where, although the people might be free, the land was tied to the Lord and all belonged to the king.

William’s heir, Henry I further stabilized England, but on his death a succession crisis arose. HIs nephew, Stephen, claimed the throne, but Henry had stated he wanted his daughter, Maud, to succeed. A woman ruler was quickly denounced so she offered her son, Henry Plantagenet. The resulting civil war commenced in Henry II’s favor largely because he married Eleanor of Aquitaine who brought with her significant French territories. Of him, Churchill states, “The accession of Henry II began one of the most pregnant and decisive reigns in English history… He was accepted by English and Norman as the ruler of both races and the whole country. The memories of Hastings were confounded in his person, and after the hideous anarchy of civil war and robber barons all due attention was paid to his commands. Thus, though a Frenchman, with foreign speech and foreign modes, he shaped our country in a fashion of which the outline remains to the presents day.” (p. 199)
Henry II spread his influence throughout the area. He is known for his feud and possible inadvertent murder of Thomas Becket over issues of power and investiture. Because he was the most powerful Duke in France, the French king kept a wary eye on him. Despite his successful reign, Churchill states, “…Henry knew well that his splendor was personal in origin, tenuous and transient in quality.” (pg. 213)

Churchill then answers the question, “Where did English legal institutions that we would recognize today get their start?” Of Henry II Churchill sums up his importance, “ The Plantagenets were rough masters, and the temper of the age was violent. It was the violence however of vigour, not of decadence. England has had greater soldier-kings and subtler diplomatists than Henry II, but no man has left a deeper mark upon our laws and institutions… Henry II possessed an instinct for the problems of government and law, and it is here that his achievement lies… his fame will live with the English Constitution and the English Common Law.” (p. 215) His genius was in creating a system of courts under himself that used juries and promised greater justice than the provincial courts. This led directly to the English Common Law and the formation of the unwritten English Constitution as royal justice began to create national precedents.

His four sons each in turn rebelled against him, seeking to usurp the throne. His eldest, Richard, joined forces with the French King Philip to defeat his father. This kind of pattern was to play out repeatedly. “Although Richard was an absentee King (he fought in the Crusades and was captured then ransomed from the Duke of Austria) whose causes and virtues had proved a drain and disappointment to his subjects, his realm had not suffered so much as it would have seemed. The intrigues of the nobles and the treacheries of Prince John had been restrained by an impersonal Government ruling with the the force and in the name of high and also well-grounded principles. The system of administration devised by Henry II — the Civil Service as we may call it — had stood the test, and, undisturbed by royal interventions, consolidated itself, to the general convenience and advantage. It was proved that the King, to whom all allegiance had been rendered, was no longer the sole guarantee for law and order. There were other sureties upon which in addition the English nation could rely.” (p. 239)

Upon Richard’s death in battle, his brother, John, attained his long sought after prize. Churchill describes him saying, “He united the ruthlessness of a hardened warrior with the craft and subtlety of a Machiavellian… his cruelties were conceived and executed with a cold, inhuman intelligence… In him the restless energy of the Plantagenet race was raised to a furious pitch of instability.” This led the nobility to revolt against him forcing him to sign Magna Carta in 1215. “If the thirteenth-century magnates understood little and cared less for popular liberties or Parliamentary democracy, they had all the same laid hold of a principle which was to be of prime importance for the future development of English society and English institutions. Throughout the document it is implied that here is a law which is above the King and which even he must not break. This reaffirmation of a supreme law and its expression in a general charter is the great work of Magna Carta; and this alone justifies the respect in which men have held it. The reign of Henry II, according to the most respected authorities, initiates the rule of law. But the work as yet was incomplete: the Crown was still above the law: the legal system which Henry had created could become, as John showed, an instrument of oppression. Now for the first time the King himself is bound by the law.” (p. 257)

John’s death came at a time when the nobility, fed up with him, had actually called for the king of France to usurp the English throne. But upon his death, the conflict ended and his nine-year-old son, Henry III inherited the title. He further alienated the English aristocrats by his love of foreigners and intrigues with the church. The common people turned to the King’s brother-in-law, Simon de Montfort for leadership and reform.

The resulting Civil War led to the first glimpses of a modern Parliament as the barons chose sides between de Montfort and the King. Prince Edward finally killed de Montfort in battle. Yet de Montfort had lighted a fire among the people and would forever be remembered as their saint. Ironically, the new king, Edward I was forced to draw deeply on Simon’s ideas to maintain support within his country.

“Few princes had received so thorough an education in the art of rulership as Edward I when at the age of thirty-three his father’s death brought him to the crown. He was an experienced leader and a skillful general. He had carried his father on his shoulders; he had grappled with Simon de Montfort, and, while sharing many of his views, had destroyed him. He had learned the art of war by tasting defeat. When at any time in the closing years of King Henry III he could have taken control, he had preferred a filial and constitutional patience, all the more remarkable when his own love of order and reform is contrasted with his father’s indolence and incapacity and the general misgovernment of the realm.” (p. 285) Under his rule, feudalism begins to die, Parliament begins to establish its authority through the ability to deny taxes to finance wars, Whales is defeated as well as William Wallace and Robert Bruce in Scotland, and peace is made with France through a marriage of his own as well as marrying off his son and heir to a French princess.

After the Norman invasion and the establishment of the Plantagenet line of kings, Churchill answers the question, “Why did England decline?” Edward II, the son of Edward I, was a weak and ineffectual king. He lost Scotland at the battle of Bannockburn. And it’s possible he was gay. For this he was rejected by his French wife. She took his son to France where she and her lover conspired to have Edward II removed, killed, and replaced with Edward III.

As a side note, at this time Ireland was never truly under British rule, but did fall under its sway. Meanwhile in Scotland, the loose and weak confederation came to be ruled by Robert the High Steward, hereafter euphoniously called the Stuarts.

To its shame, England continued to lose vast amounts of territory in France. But with the invention of the long bow, her army appeared invincible. When the French king demanded a show of fealty from Edward III, also known as the Duke of Normandy, combined with mercantilist concerns over the wool trade across the channel, Edward III asserted his claim to the French throne through his mother’s side. This was all the English needed to launch what would become known as the 100 Years War.

Throughout Edward III’s reign, reform becomes a major theme. Wycliff sought church reforms that would pre-date and lend credence to the later Reformation, although he was largely rejected in his lifetime. John of Gaunt, Edward III’s third son, sought to reform government The war with France weakened both countries, most of the English territories in France were lost,  and the crown prince died before his father. Therefore the crown passed to his ten-year-old son, Richard II. No one objected. Well John of Gaunt might have been less than pleased.

Richard II became king under the regency of his uncle John of Gaunt. He had a son himself and was not anxious for Richard to come of age and take over the kingdom. Soon, King Richard II was unlucky enough to find himself king during the Black Plague. The social upheaval caused by so much death lead to peasants pushing for more power and eventually uprisings. This led to the aristocracy pushing back and in the process humbling the king. Richard did not stay humbled for long and sought vengeance on the kingdom. At one point, he banished John of Gaunt’s son, his cousin Henry. Churchill says, “The character of Richard II and his place in the regard of history remain an enigma. That he possessed qualities of high order, both for design and action, is evident. That he was almost from childhood confronted with measureless difficulties and wrongful oppressions against which he repeatedly made head is also plain. The injuries and cruelties which he suffered at the hands of his uncle Gloucester and the high nobility may perhaps be the key to understanding him. Some historians have felt that he was prepared not only to exploit Parliamentary and began maneuvers against the governing classes, but perhaps even that he would use social forces then and for many generations utterly submerged. At any rate the people for their part long cherished some such notion of him.” (p. 299-300)

After the upheaval at the end of the Plantagenet line, “How did England restabilize?” Richard’s cousin Henry soon took advantage of Richard’s unpopularity with the nobility and marched on London from his exile, and claimed the throne for himself. His reign was constantly marked by the label of usurper. He gained the prize but sank under the weight of it. His son was seen by those in leadership at the time to be a perfect antidote. He was much more sure of himself and made a strong king.

Henry V sought to cement his reign with victories in France. The battle of Agincourt restored English possessions in France, but reopened the bloody 100 Years War. It also gave Henry V the power to declare himself king of France. But he died young, leaving a nine-month-old infant son, Henry VI.
Of Henry VI, Churchill states, “Through his father he inherited the physical weakness of the house of Lancaster, and through his mother the mental infirmities of Charles VI.”  (p. 413) This is an auspicious beginning. France rebelled against the baby being declared King of France. Under the glorious vision and direction of Joan of Arc, France rose up and drove the English out. It was through her victories that the French king Charles IV was crowned, yet that didn’t stop him from abandoning her on the battlefield to be killed by forces loyal to England. Churchill sums it up thusly, “Joan was a being so uplifted from the ordinary run of mankind that she finds no equal in a thousand years. The records of her trial present us with facts alive today through all the mists of time. Out of her own mouth can she be judged in each generation. She embodied the natural goodness and valor of the human race in unexampled perfection. She glorifies as she freed the soil from which she sprang.” (p. 422)

Now that the House of Lancaster is firmly in place, “How did the War of the Roses between the Lancastrians and the House of York begin?” HenryVI was a very weak king who actually sunk into imbecility for a period. Meanwhile the Duke of York had built a popular following while ruling over Ireland. His followers pushed for him to be named the heir when it seemed that Henry would produce no offpsring. Because Henry IV of the house of Lancaster, had largely been seen as a usurper, Richard, the Duke of York, seemed to have a legitimate claim. Of Richard, Churchill states, “He was a virtuous, law-respecting, slow moving, and highly competent prince. Every office entrusted to him by the Lancastrian rĂ©gime had been ably and faithfully discharged.” (p. 433) Had Henry not lost almost all of the French provinces, Richard would have been content to rule over his territory there. As it was, he felt moved to exert authority over all of England.

Thus begins the War of the Roses. Richard, of the House of York, represented by a white rose, at first worked to legitimately gain the throne. The red rose of Lancaster was supported by the majority of the nobility. Richard was killed in a skirmish, and the younger generation, including his son Edward, took up the fight. Open war broke out. King Henry VI was weak and incapable of fighting, so his wife took up the challenge to ensure her young son would rule. “…the Lancastrian cause was sustained by the unconquerable will of Queen Margaret. Never has her tenacity and rarely have her vicissitudes been surpassed in any woman. Apart from the sullen power of Lancaster in the North, she had the friendly regard of two countries, Scotland and France. Both had felt the heavy arm of England in former reigns; both rejoiced at its present division and weakness.” (p. 450-451) Nevertheless, she was defeated and the king locked up in the tower. She and her son took refuge in France. Edward IV took the throne, the first king of the house of York.

Edward IV loved war and the pleasures of peacetime. He did not love ruling. He fell in love with a commoner and brought her and her large family into the royal fold. This did not sit well with the nobility who saw their power diluted. They turned to the ex-Queen Margaret, urging her to renew the fight now that her son was old enough to take the throne. Unfortunately, he died in the battle at Tewkesbury. This last hope for the House of Lancaster meant the king, locked up in the tower, was no longer necessary. The forces of York murdered him. But the house of York was not as secure as it seemed. Edward died young, leaving two young sons. His brother Richard saw an opportunity to grab the throne under the guise of a Regent for the two princes. 

Churchill’s next question seems to be, “How and why did this period of internal fights end?” In order to “protect” the young boys, Richard had them secured in the Tower. Within two years, they disappeared. Everyone assumed Richard had them killed in order to secure his position as king. Richard III worked hard to be a good king, but he could never be forgiven the murder of his nephews. When his only son and heir died, Richmond Tudor, who could trace his lineage back to Edward III, was the obvious claimant. Richard was killed in battle and and Richmond married the daughter of Edward IV. “The marriage of Richmond with the adaptable Princess Elizabeth produced the Tudor line, in which both Yorkists and Lancastrians had a share. Richard's death also ended the Plantagenet line. For over three hundred years this strong race of warrior and statesmen kings, whose gifts and vices were upon the highest scale, whose sense of authority and Empire had been persistently maintained, now vanished from the fortunes of the Island.” (p. 499-500) This marks another turning point in the history of the English-speaking peoples. The  next volume will undoubtably pick up here.

In answering his own internal questions, Churchill makes much use of previous histories. He doesn’t seem to do original scholarship. He also seems to rely extensively on his own conclusions and opinions. Because his assertions are largely fact-based, he seems to support his assertions. He is not generally making statements of opinion. As an amateur historian, he doesn’t list his qualifications except that he has served in government and war and seen many historical events firsthand and so his personal views might be interesting. I believe they are in fact very interesting.

The final stage of analysis is called the Rhetoric Stage. At this point, the questions go beyond the contents in the book to an analysis of the what exactly is the point the author is making.

I believe that the purpose for which Churchill is writing is to show the English-speaking people, who had just won WWII what exactly they were fighting for, what he would call the character of the people and their distinctive qualities and position. His story certainly offers hope and forward motion if England can hold onto what makes her great. He traces the times of barbarism to the quintessential English institutions always assuming they represent progress. It would seem that in Churchill’s reckoning, to be human is to be civilized and live under good, well-run government operating on the legacy bequeathed to it. Things go wrong in history when people desire power over the good of the nation and exhibit a tendency to usurp the throne. 

I believe that free will is one of the central characters in this story. While “Acts of God” happen and the leaders are forced to respond, it is people exercising their free will that leads to all the troubles. Although they are frequently tossed and turned by events beyond their control, even the lower classes have the power to support whom they would see as their king. 

Churchill is an indirect advocate of social problems. He holds in high esteem the English institutions that he would like to see preserved. It is clear he sees that they are fragile and thousands of years of history can be erased if we are not careful. Churchill would say that the end of history is to secure human rights under a government that respects and promotes those rights. I love that Churchill is unapologetic about his love for support of virtuous English institutions. He is also unapologetic about the stabilizing influence of the Church and Christianity on the nation. The perpetual struggle for power between the Church and the King seem to provide, for Churchill, a good balance, combined with the aristocracy’s desire to protect their own interests.

Because he is an eyewitness to history, I give him great deference. I believe his telling of events and support his conclusions. Civilization is fragile. Men, exercising their will to power can upend all that has been secured. As he lurches from generation to generation from ruler to ruler, we see how a weak ruler can lose the goodwill of the people and open the nation up to a usurper. All that took thousands of years to gain can be lost should the people stop fighting for their rights as Englishmen.

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