England in a Disunited Kingdom:
Part One: ‘England’s Green and Pleasant Land: The Importance of the Natural in English Identity‘
In a time when the entity formerly known as the United Kingdom is in political disarray, there is much to be said for the importance of reclaiming and reconstituting a truly ‘English’ identity. It is arguably the case that doing so has never been more difficult, as complexities in terms of ethnic diversity, an uncertain future in global affairs and three hundred years of political unity with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. However, there is clear worth in considering factors that have historically united Englishmen as part of a discussion about what constitutes Englishness, both in the past and in the future.
Arguably one of the consistently fundamental tenets of Englishness is our preoccupation with the very country in which we live: the fruitful, diverse and beautiful natural environment of England. Whilst our pride in our institutions, and our pride in the physical manifestations of our faith, our Government and our commerce is perhaps an avenue worth exploring at a later juncture, it is the consistent use of the natural environment as a form of defining what constitutes England and Englishness.
In spite of Karen Stanbridge’s assessment that ‘there was no such thing as a distinct English national identity until the late nineteenth century’ and that such a national identity was manifested in ‘celebrating the English countryside, the “south country” in particular, the England of tourist brochures’, it is apparent that an English national identity in part defined by the natural environment dates to at least 1595, and Shakespeare’s mention of ‘This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England’ in Richard II. It is, however, true that by the late nineteenth century such explorations had exploded both in popularity and common prevalence. One of the most notable of these is William Blake’s ‘And did those feet in ancient time’:
And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land.
Two distinct strains of thought are emergent here. The first of these is the grounding of the celestial in English territory. Blake’s efforts to do so are cleverly nuanced, as his use of the popular term of the ‘Holy Lamb of God’ in the context of ‘England’s Pleasant Pastures’ serves to equate holiness with a distinctly English pastoral ideal. Furthermore, he discusses the construction of Jerusalem, the holy centre of Christianity, in ‘England’s green and pleasant land’, invoking the Crusader ethic and reasserting the importance of Christianity to the English constitution whilst celebrating the fundamental vitality of an England that remains ‘green and pleasant’. This is Blake’s other preoccupation: he rails against the ‘dark Satanic mills’ that represent a dangerous and growing antithesis to the ‘green and pleasant land’ that he rejoices in. It is the vitality of the physical environment that informs Blake here.
This was not always the case for those who defined England by its physical environment. Hugh Charles used both the pastoral setting and the urban setting to great effect in his noted patriotic song ‘There’ll Always Be An England’:
There’ll always be an England
While there’s a country lane,
Wherever there’s a cottage small
Beside a field of grain.
There’ll always be an England
While there’s a busy street,
Wherever there’s a turning wheel,
A million marching feet.
I shall posit that Charles has opted to include these verses side-by-side for two purposes: firstly, to engage the listener with romanticised imagery of the English countryside that were already prevalent in ideals of ‘England’, and secondly to represent all regions of the country and demonstrate solidarity with an urban environment that was at the time of composition being heavily bombed by Nazi air raids. However, and with Charles’ synecdochal use of the term ‘Britons awake’ in the song aside, this piece is a further testament to the importance of the ‘green and pleasant land’ in depictions of England: this time manifesting itself in stirring wartime nationalism.
What is significant about both these pieces is that they have been selected, as songs, to be candidates for an English National Anthem. It is not unreasonable to suggest, therefore, that the importance of the English countryside in the English national identity as inspiration and source of pride is one that lingers and one that will carry on into the future of discussions about what constitutes ‘Englishness’. Herein lies the cause for concern: the aforementioned countryside is rapidly disappearing or under threat.
A recent study by the Campaign to Protect Rural England estimated that
“over 1,100 hectares of Green Belt have been lost each year since 1997 and at least 45,240 homes – equivalent to a city the size of Bath – have been built on Green Belt land since 1997.”
Continuing this trend would mean the permanent destruction of vast areas that are of huge value socially, economically and culturally. And we must fight to defend what we stand to lose. Plans such as those of the former Labour Government to cover English greenbelt in runways to benefit Scotland are evidence of the fact that the English must highlight the very real danger facing this integral part of their shared heritage. After all, it is not only the benefit of the countryside that we lost, but a degree of our autonomy as a nation, as farmland is covered in concrete.
We must also celebrate what we stand to gain from a renewed sense of the countryside as a key aspect of the English identity. I warmly greet the news from Hertfordshire that 850 acres of new forestland (with the apt title ‘Heartwood Forest’) will be created in the coming years. We must endeavour to protect this kind of land at all costs, as its past, present and future significance to our country and its people is inestimable.