The sun shone and the temperature reached twenty degrees and the English shires assumed their customary beauty and Saint George’s Day was a good day, a fine day, an excellent day to be in England.
‘Cry God for England, Harry and Saint George!’ wrote Shakespeare in Henry V. Of course, God must have been on the side of the English, didn’t they win? But one wonders how seriously William Shakespeare took such lines, did he really think God was an Englishman? Probably not, this is the same writer who introduces humour into the tragedy of Hamlet with the dialogue of the between the clown-gravedigger and Hamlet, who the gravedigger thinks has gone to England.
Ay, marry, why was he sent into England?
Why, because he was mad: he shall recover his wits
there; or, if he do not, it’s no great matter there.
‘Twill, a not be seen in him there; there the men
are as mad as he.
Shakespeare could take his patriotism with a dose of realism; the men in the army of Henry V probably did believe God was fighting for them, but anyone who thought about things in times when the whole of Europe was part of Christendom would have realized that God couldn’t be on all sides simultaneously. Yet the belief persisted down through the centuries that God must be on one’s own side and because the English tended to win more often than lost, they became convinced that there must be divine intervention.
The belief that God and England went hand reached its peak in the 19th Century with the British Empire extending around the world. The Bible was seen as the secret of England’s greatness – it was convenient for politicians who could claim divine sanction for almost anything they did and it was convenient for churchmen who were influential because of their associations with a powerful British Establishment. In Ireland the Orange Order believed British rule to be part of the divine scheme of things, England was great because of its faithfulness to Scripture.
Did people really believe that God sanctioned English power?
How did the Scots feel about God supporting the massacre of highlanders at Culloden Moor in 1746? How did the Irish feel about an English government that presided over the Great Famine of 1745-1752? How many of those people would have cried, ‘God for England, Harry and Saint George?’
I love Elgar and Vaughan Williams and all the composers that get a run out on 23rd April; I enjoy Shakespeare (well, most of it, anyway), but let’s enjoy Saint George’s Day and leave God out of things.