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“I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England, too; and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realms: to which, rather than any dishonor should grow by me, I myself will take up arms” Queen Elizabeth I – 1588
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Cate Blanchett in the film ‘Elizabeth’ – a powerful national myth?

r as long as I have been trying to understand the history of this period I have found myself reflecting about the similarities with our own times – take the picture and the quotation above. (NB you can hear this speech recreated in a sound file from the Imperial War Museum)

For many English people, Elizabeth’s words still have meaning.  The national idea of England as being alone and surrounded  by potential enemies runs throughout our history – arguably it is as current an idea now as it was in Elizabethan times.

From the outset,  (see previous post) Elizabeth faced problems and threats, from both within and outside the country. England was closely faced with hostile powers in Ireland, Scotland, France and the Netherlands. Spain, the greatest power of the day was hostile and keen to support any anti-English moves. Quite frequently during Elizabeths reign, England felt itself embattled and surrounded. I love these lines from Shakespeares Richard II which for me say something about how people felt:

“This royal throne of kings,

this sceptered isle,

This earth of majesty,this seat of Mars,

This other Eden, demi-paradise,

This fortress built by Nature for herself

Against infection and the hand of war,

This happy breed of men, this little world,

This precious stone set in a silver sea,

Which serves it in the office of a wall

Or as a moat defensive to a house,

Against the envy of less happier lands,

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,

This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,

Feared by their breed and famous by their birth”

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White cliffs of Dover (courtesy of Kev on Flickr : click image)

It seems clear that this idea of England being alone and embattled was well established in Tudor times – what about more recent times? – take a look at the start of “Dad’s Army”. I used to love this (1970’s) sitcom about the British Home Guard – an army composed often of older men or those thought unsuitable to fight in the regular forces.

My own Grandfather Francis McCabe was in the Home guard,  I remember his stories about how they had been tasked to stop German tanks coming up the Bristol road into Birmingham. They had no proper weapons and it seems unlikely that they would have been able to do very much from their base at Selly Oak toilets and the Great Oak pub!

Winston Churchill is of course famous for this speech which needs no introduction .. ( a slightly unusual take on it – see what you think?)

This history of fighting against the odds has served England well in the past. I am not sure about how well this ‘fits’ now and what effect this has on relations with our neighbours today?

  • I think that the rest of Europe sometimes sees us as being a bit jingoistic and hostile to foreigners.
  • Some of our politicians define themselves by their opposition to European integration. (Co-incidentially, a recent leader of this political party was born in Birmingham at around the same time that my Grandfather was preparing to defend it!)
  • How much does a percieved ‘foreign’ threat serve to justify restrictions on freedoms?

Arguably, current concerns about the extent of an internal threat from Islamic fundamentalists and the need to clamp down on this is really reminiscent of Elizabethan moves against Catholics – but more of that at a later date.

What do you think? – I know that most people who visit this site come from outside the UK ( I really hope that we make you feel welcome too!) – try the poll below.

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