Tag Archives: england

’Henry Viii’s invention of England’ – review


History is a story of a people who have accumulated their cultural artifacts, political crafts, and societal conventions into a great reservoir of Tradition that becomes the bedrock of a country. Therefore, it is always helpful to understand the origins of political and social systems as well as cultural propensities of a country if you want to pronounce your opinion on the stimulating current affairs of a country without Ignorant Prejudice.

The one such apposite example can be illustrated in the case of Brexit, which is the UK’s withdrawal from the E.U, seemingly unwelcome by people who are involved in international businesses and those who want to work and live in the UK as non-citizens. As an outsider who has never been to the UK, I think it deemed inappropriate to criticize its decision to exit the E.U. for the reason that only the decision makers and the people favoring the Brexit should know better. Nonetheless, one thing is certain that the current Brexit fervor and all its inclusive phenomena are never a new thing.

The proverbial English isolationism or exceptionalism, a quaint sense of Englishness different from its continental counterparts, goes back to King Henry VIII’s break from the Church of Rome in 1532. His unquenchable passion for Anne Boleyn, while still married to Catherine of Aragon, led him to bold separation from the Church of Rome, the Pan-European, supranational ancestor of the EU and the Leviathan of Christendom, which would disallow his divorce from his wife who was an ardent Catholic from ardent Catholic Spain. With an audacious proclamation of being the Head of Church of England, Henry VIII ordered a confiscation of the lands and wherewithal of monasteries and convents all over the Island and banning of professing the papist religion to his subjects from the Duke to the Butcher. Furthermore, the king constructed Royal Navy to remind himself and his subjects that England was Fortress bound by watery demarcation. In this manner, Henry VIII gained the absolute jurisdiction over the ecclesiastical as well as political matters and rejected any foreign authority within England. In fact, the substantial consequence of all of it is the king’s creation of England – not Great Britain (excluding Northern Ireland) or the United Kingdom (including Northern Ireland) – as a national and cultural identity, firmly entrenched in religious, political, and cultural sensibilities of the English that we frequently associate.

In view of Henry VIII’s schismatic separation from the Church of Rome, today’s Brexit movement is a historical reprise of the English exceptionalism that has something to do with its geographical characteristic as an island that shaped the particular national character known as “Englishness.” Hence, Henry VIII’s establishment of the Church of England can be regarded as the forerunner of Brexit today and the invention of the cultural sensibilities encompassing all things English deeply embedded in its national character. With this in mind, we can look at the Brexit phenomenon in a more sensible and balanced perspective and understand that history is not a thing of the past but an ongoing process that moves on within its cultural legacies for centuries.   


Author’s note: this is based upon my reading of an article about ”Henry VIII’ s invention of England” from this month’s issue of BBC History. Knowing one’s history can quell blatant antipathy. Hence this essay.

Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

Notes from a Small IslandNotes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It has been twenty years since Bill Bryson, a writer originally hailing from a small town in Iowa, fell in love with Great Britain where people are delighted in small pleasures, call strangers “Love,” and orderly wait on lines in public without peevishness. So much so that he has even married one. Now it is high time that Bryson returns to the States along the lines of Odyssey, who returned home in Ithaca twenty years after the decade-long Trojan War and another decade of travails. In retrospection of the memories collected on his beloved adopted homeland, Bryson decides to take a valedictory jaunt around the island small but big enough to nurture him with a wealth of culture and a bounty of humanity. And he does it on public transportation and by hiking equipped with his trademark razor-sharp wits, intractably keen intelligence, and his usual touchy-feely way of observing people and things that either irk or pique him. All of it comes to fruition in this highly amusing and genially forthright travel memoir.

You will be surprised to find out that the British think that the cereals are their invention. You will be overawed by the ubiquitous hedgegrows dated back to Anglo-Saxon times embroidering on the British landscape. Bryson will also take us for a ride in a London cab driven by an affably jocular cabbie who has to pass the Knowledge Test to memorize almost everywhere in the City of London. But London is not his demarcation of traveling. Bryson will further come along with you to Bournemouth, Exeter, Liverpool, which is his favorite city, Manchester, and even up north to Scotland all by train or coach, and by walking. With his truculent feistiness, irrepressible inquisitiveness, and scintillating sense of humor fabulously ingrained in his choice of the apropos words and jovial descriptions devoid of malice, Bryson is a cool cicerone, and your excursion will never be a bore.

The book seems to be primarily aimed for British readers who might be curious about what a foreigner would think of them and their country as a whole. In that regard, Bryson’s words are predominately British in the sense that the words and expressions he uses in the narrative are familiar to the British. For example, “bank holidays,” “coach,” “lorry,” or “Sainsbury’s” are peculiar to the British ways of life. But this kind of cultural barrier is kindly tackled by Bryson by providing you with a glossary of the British terms at the end of the book.

I have read other books by Bryson because of the same reason that induced me to select this book: his story-telling like narration is very appealing to me with his proverbial witticism smeared in every word he employs. He may appear to be a grumpy American man, but he has a heart to feel and see milk of human kindness in every quotidian thing or nondescript person by using the most appropriate words in wonderfully lucid expressions. There is a charm in his writing that will make you an admirer of his writings, and this book is no exception. It is Bryson’s long love letter to the small island he has fallen for head over heels with sincerity sealed with kisses and memories.

The Druids: The History and Mystery by Jesse Harasta and Charles River Editors

The Druids: The History and Mystery of the Ancient Celtic PriestsThe Druids: The History and Mystery of the Ancient Celtic Priests by Charles River Editors

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Stonehenge, which he described as a peculiar juxtaposition of primeval-looking stones that resembled “a group of brown dwarves in the wide expanse,” he was also overawed by its mysterious ambience laced with its ancient esoteric elements woven by the flight of ages and the succession of the primordial Druidic spirit peculiar to the British Isles. In the poetical visions of Emerson, the sacrificial stones of the Druids were a phantasmagorical display of the enigmatic nature of the Druidism and the Druids clothed in their long white robes of fierce mystery. Such mysteriousness surrounding the Druids is still paramount to the image and perennial legacy of the clandestine ancient cult with its formidable ritual practices and influences as vividly related in The Druids by Jesse Harasta.

In this book, Harasta draws up a wide range of historical contexts ranging from a memoir written by Julius Caesar to annals by Strabo, Pliny the Elder, and the Younger, and others, in search of the eyewitness accounts of this notoriously secretive cult and its ritual practices in the context of regarding its social and cultural influences on the colonial Gauls, especially the Britons. According to Caesar in his Notebooks about the Gallic War, which is still arguably the most detailed record of the Druids and their customs written in between 50 B.C. and 40 B.C., the Druids were originally initiated in Britain and that they acted as the grave executors of justice with solemn probity in conjunction with the religious elements to instill respect and order imbued with theocratic fear in people because the Druidism was by nature theocratic. In fact, such theocratic aspect of druidism is evident in Geography published in the 1st Century A.D. by Greek philosopher, historian, and geographer Strabo as follows: (1) the Bards: singers and poets; (2) the Vates: diviners and natural philosophers; and (3) the Druids: moral and natural philosophers. These three strata of the Druid ruled the roost of every aspect of their society with the authority and power tantamount to those of the Supreme Pontiff in later years.

The peculiarity of the Druidic custom is the absence of written records, save other public and private transactions recorded in Greek. Although the Druidic education was heavily focused on memorization of a great number of verses, writing was strictly forbidden based upon Harasta’s viable hypothetical grounds of (1) to make the knowledge of the study inaccessible to the other castes, such as warriors and common people to maintain their social supremacy and dominion; and (2) to improve the faculty of memory to develop cognitive ability, since an act of writing tended to reduce the ability to memorize.

The ritualistic practice of human sacrifice is the ubiquitousness recorded in annals and manifested in archeological evidence. Even before the rise of the Roman Empire, the ancient Greek historian Athenaeus in the 4th Century B.C. recorded the Druids’ sacrifice of their prisoners to the gods, which was subsequently echoed by Pliny in the 1st Century A.D, who confirmed that the emperor Tiberius outlawed the Druids and their murderous types of diviners and physicians, while the succeeding emperor Claudius obliterated the  inhuman cult.

Such ritualistic killing of humans and animals as well as performing ritual cannibalism was the most exquisite act of the greatest kind of piety. To illustrate, diviners stroke a human being chosen for sacrifice in the back with a saber and divine from his death struggle in the presence of the Druids or stabbed the victim with a small knife in the area above the diaphragm. Then they interpreted the future by observing the nature of the victim’s fall, the convulsion of his limbs, and especially from the pattern of his spurting blood in ancient tradition of undivided observation. In another example, the Druids built enormous effigies and filled them with living persons and set them on fire for mass sacrifice. Also, they burnt faithful slaves and beloved subordinates at the climax of the funerals of their masters. All of the aforesaid rituals took place in oak graves, since oaks emblemized sacredness and wisdom as the word “Druid” was originally derived from Celtic word “derwijes,” meaning oak and “wid,” to know or to have a vision.

Pace other reviews of this book as desultory, partisan accounts of the Druids gleaned from ancient historical resources primarily written by the Roman colonials with supercilious opinions on their barbarous Briton colonialists, this book is an interesting read on this delphic ancient cult and its esoteric customs elegantly put together in plain language based upon the scholastic historical contexts. This is indeed a comprehensive overview of the quaint Druids whose formidable mysteriousness still resounds with the modern day revival of the cult in its outer form to the descendents of the Britons. For the reader who wants to delve into the Druidism in depth, this book serves as a decent primer on the subject as a preliminary requisition of rudimentary knowledge of the ancient cult. For all others, this book is an informative read that will bestow another literary pleasure and self-satisfaction on your mind.

The Mysterious British Isles by Charles River Editors

The Mysterious British Isles: A Collection of Mysteries, Legends, and Unexplained Phenomena across Britain and IrelandThe Mysterious British Isles: A Collection of Mysteries, Legends, and Unexplained Phenomena across Britain and Ireland by Charles River Editors

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Great Britain, which is composed of England, Scotland, and Wales, is arguably one of the ancient lands imbued with history and tradition, full of primeval sites, historical artifacts, unique landscapes where skyscrapers casting shadows over castles, and a people of equally unique heritage and culture. But most of all, to me England appears to be a gem of the Crown, the archetypal image of Great Britain because there is London that has existed for thousands of years. The Mysterious British Isles by Charles River Editors offers the reader an elegant history of London with interesting information on the city itself, including backgrounds of famous buildings, places, and on its equally fascinating inhabitants who lived and worked to make their ends meet before our time.

London has been a cosmopolitan city for centuries, and it is a city of amalgamation of the ancient and the new with churches built atop pagan temples, ordinary commercial buildings grounded around medieval burial grounds, and so on. To illustrate, St. Paul’s was built upon an old temple to Diana, the Roman version of Greek goddess Artemis. Also, Westminster Abbey, dating back to the reign of William the Conqueror and the Norman Conquest, was originally located on the Isle of Thorney – supposedly the site of a Roman temple to Apollo, which was destroyed by an earthquake and then replaced with an Anglo/Saxon temple to Thor. It was in 610 A.D. that it finally made Christian by King of the East Saxons, who had converted to Christianity, in dedication to St. Peter.

In addition to the aforesaid great churches, the ancient Roman time street named Hounds Ditch, still running through the City of London, was used as the old London’s dumping ground. But Hounds Ditch is not the only place of the disposed remaining to be seen today. There are quite a few modern buildings with part of their plots unused, bits of empty lands in crowded, expensive London with signs warning people to “Keep off the Grass.” In fact, they are old plague pits, mass graves used to place a myriad of infected corps during the period of great plagues in London.

Since London has been the center of economic activities, many professions have been come and gone as a consequence of changes of social and economic systems. Some of the worthwhile professions to mention in memory of the people who worked in them for their livelihood are listed as follows:

  • Chimney Sweep: It was city law that people should keep their chimneys clean due to a fire hazard. So many poor boys aged between seven and eight started becoming climbing boys, serving the apprenticeship to master sweeps. Unsurprisingly, may of them died of suffocation, suffered from deformity, developed scrotum cancer as a result of residue of soot.
  • The Mudlark: It was a popular job for poor boys in the 18th and 19th centuries; many of them were orphans. They scored the banks of the Thames for items of value. When the tides were low, the mudlarks looked for items through the muddy banks and became easy targets for police harassments, one of which was to throw the boys to the river. So the mudlarks were also good swimmers.
  • The Tosher: After the Great Stink of 1858, a genius engineer named Joseph Bazalgette developed a citywide sewer system that is still in use. It was this great Victorian engineering feat that gave birth to this profession. Toshers were specialized in the sewer system for any valuables dropped out of the pockets of Londoners.
  • The Linkboy: Before the late 19th century, London night was as dark as Persian night without public lamps. Hence these linkboys whose parents were dead or were so impecunious that they had to allow their little child to roam London’s dark nights became the essential night guides with lanterns on poles to drunken citizens or travelers or theater-goers. Sometimes, linkboys were also employed to decoy to guide customers to brothels in addition to their tips.
  • Sandwich Men: As a rise of advertising due to prosperous cheap printing with growing disposable income in the early 19th century, shops and stores were eager to hire the city’s impecunious citizens however old or young to use them as mobile advertisement. These sandwich men worked with poor pay by standing out in the sun and rain for up to 12 hours with their front and back covered with boards held up by ropes over their shoulders. In fact, the term was originated by Charles Dickens’s description of such man as a “piece of human flesh sandwiched between two slices of pasteboard. Sandwich men survived the centuries despite several attempts to ban the profession. Although the Westminster City Council prohibited the presence of sandwich men in 2008 in effort to upgrade the city’s shopping ambience in West End, the other boroughs of London have not yet perished sandwich men.

The Mysterious British Isles by Charles River Editors encapsulates some of the most interesting facts of Great Britain, such as the aforesaid history of London and facts of its inhabitants. It also covers subjects such as famous criminals, fairies and giants, and legends of historic places throughout the Isles. It is worthwhile to read this book as a concise but essential reference book on Great Britain either to satisfy your curiosity for the country where the Sun never set on in the past or to occupy yourself with something at once entertaining and informative during your lunchtime, coffee break, or before going to bed.

It’s a Strange Place, England by Jack Strange

It's A Strange Place, EnglandIt’s A Strange Place, England by Jack Strange

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jack Strange’s England is never a bore; it is a mystifying country with its tempestuous history and colorful characters populated by the ever undead of the bygone eras still roaming their past abodes or workplaces among the quick. It is a quaint country where history meets myth and legend. This book will guide the reader to Strange England where fanciful folklores and historical facts are anchored in the traditions and customs.

The author admits that England is perhaps arguably one of the most haunted countries in the world, thanks to its religiously and politically tempestuous pasts spanning the wheel of time from the Roman colonial period to the present. To illustrate, in Derbyshire a spectral Roman sentinel is often seen leading a parade of a circus comprising gladiators, chariots, and slaves, then all of them disappear into the mist. Another lovelorn Roman soldier is witnessed alongside Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland, wandering in despair of his betrayed love for a fair English maiden. The phantom English residents also encompass the Benedictine monks led by St, Cuthbert in Lindisfarne, which was a target for frequent raiding by Norsemen who also threatened the cradle of English Christianity. It is said that the best time to see the saint or the monks is when the tides are high and a full moon lights the shore as a natural lantern.

England is also a home of many interesting sports that are historically – and sometimes by happenstance – originated. The World Gurning Championship in Egremont in Cumbria was originated in 1267 when the Lord of the manor gave out crabapples to the locals. One can imagine without difficulty the consequence of tasting the apple, and thus can master the art of making as ugly face as possible. Hence this hilarious tournament comes to exist to this day. It’s open to everyone – yes, even to the fairest of all – , and it’s all about fun and participation. Also, there is Black Pudding Throwing Championship in Ridge, Lancashire. Originated in 1455, this tournament shows English humor mixed with historical irony, which makes it all the more convincing. It was during the period of “War of the Roses” elegantly referred by Sir Walter Scott (who was a Scot) to the feud between the House of York whose symbol was a white rose and the House of Lancashire a red rose. At the Battle of Stubbins in Lancashire in 1455, both forces decided to throw puddings at one another instead of lances. Believe it or not, the descendents still commemorate the incident by holding a championship every year with mirthful popularity.

Subsequent to Strange Tales of the Sea, the author Jack Strange has done a marvelous job gleaning the extensive historical documents and cultural artifacts from his tireless research to provide his reader with interesting facts about his England. Strange is a gifted artificer who digs artifacts buried in the depths of forgotten times and lost folklores. Strange is also a mysteriously reclusive figure himself because there’s no personal information about him. Maybe that’s why his writings are so hauntingly attractive and oddly addictive. Strange is an excellent storyteller who weaves a tapestry  of legends and folklores imbued with his impressive knowledge of the history of England and his English humor permeated in his writings. This book is Strange’s winking invitation to his beloved England that spins a general image of the country with enchanting oddity and wide-eyed wonder that the readers will not tire of.