Friday, September 23, 2005

The Sermon of the Wolf

The birth of England
When did England become England? Some believe the English identity was formed long after the Norman Conquest, others are not so sure.
I think the idea of England and the allegiance to the English crown and English law was created by the Anglo-Saxon successors of Alfred the Great - long before 1066.
Wulfstan talks about the English as 'one people under one law'.
Let me give you an illustration, a snapshot from those days. It comes from a public speech by a bishop made in 1014.
At that time England was in deep trouble. By the winter of 1013-14, the government of Anglo-Saxon England had almost collapsed and the King, Ethelred the Unready, had gone into exile abroad.
The country had been devastated by Vikings and everybody complained about government inefficiency and failure to act and implement policy. Things could not really get much worse. It was at this point that Archbishop Wulfstan of York preached a sermon to the high-ups in the land.
"The devil has led this people too far astray... the people have betrayed their own country (literally their 'earth'). And the harm will become common to this entire people.
"There was a historian in the time of the Britons called Gildas who wrote about their misdeeds; how their sins angered God so much that finally He allowed the army of the English to conquer their land. Let us take warning from this... we all know there are worse things going on now than we have heard of among the ancients. Let us turn to the right and leave wrongdoing... Let us love God and follow God's laws." Archbishop Wulfstan, Sermon of the Wolf, 1014
Wulfstan was a leading member of what we might call the royal think-tank: the great and good who advised the king, the big landowners, earls, royal kinsman and prominent churchmen.
Archbishops were often the main motivators in policy: they told the kings what to do and Wulfstan did just that. We still have one of his notebooks where we can read for ourselves his thoughts, written in his own hand.
What can a speech from 1014 tell us about English identity? Audio requires RealPlayer, use this for help downloading the software.
Like the speech of any modern politician, of course, Wulfstan has to be taken with a pinch of salt. (Even then, some of his audience may not have followed his line that the Day of Judgement was nigh.)
But this short extract tells us a lot about Anglo-Saxon England. It tells us that the English themselves had been invaders of Britain, many centuries before; that they were Christian; and that they lived under the rule of Christian law.
What is very interesting is that even with the government tottering and the social order cracking, Wulfstan also talks about the English as "one people under one law". He takes it as read that we can refer to the English nation, so we can see that an allegiance between the people, the king and the law is already in existence.


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