Wednesday, May 25, 2011

History of England Part Eight

Note:  This is the final installment of my highly unofficial brief history of England.  It was written for Babs and Sis, in hope that their upcoming journey be enlightened.  And watch out for that scrumpy stuff, it's mean! 
So what else was going on in England while the later Royals were carrying on?  Lots, of course.  England went from a European power to a globe spanning empire.  How?

Well, it helped to be a maritime nation.  British ships fanned out across the globe setting up colonies and carrying raw materials and manufactured goods back and forth.  Sometimes the natives had a few issues with all this-the prices of things seemed very much to favor the British side.  In modern eyes the degree of bribery, gunboat diplomacy and private wars that it took to build the Empire would not look good.

Britain was also at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution, where things were made en masse at a factory versus by hand in a workshop.  England had plenty of coal, relatively effective transportation by sea or canal, and a certain knack for innovation.  Perhaps that whole rebellion from the Church provided a degree of  liberation of the imagination.

Of course there were problems.  Industrialization put a lot of folks out of work.  Some, the Luddites, even tried to do something about it.  And there were always a few international issues.  England has not gotten along with the French at all until recent times.  Why, in the closing days of the 1700s the French actually deposed and executed their king, replacing him with a dictatorship.  Wherever did they get such a notion.

The struggle with France, especially under Napoleon was a stirring era for England.  Read the Hornblower series of naval stories if you want a flavor for it.

But mostly England got rich and just a bit lazy.  New wealth built the great manors that now serve as backdrops for PBS shows. 

By the late 1800s England had the system down so well that the other rising nations of Europe decided to imitate them.  A rush to build navies and to acquire overseas colonies resulted.  Serene in their belief that war was unlikely, and if it occurred would be short and ceremonial, the diplomats of the Great Powers made a series of secret treaties that brought disaster.

In World War I the Royal Navy mostly waited in vain for the German navy to turn up.  The British army of that time has been described as “lions led by donkeys”.  In one of the stupidest conflicts in the long troubled human epic, an entire generation sat in trenches waiting for clueless upper class officers to order them forward to try and win a few more square feet of worthless mud.  In one battle roughly 20,000 British soldiers died in a single horrific day.  And to make it worse, the Army had as a recruiting gimmick allowed the young men of a given neighborhood or village to enlist as a group in “Pals Battalions”, so there were instances where the entire future of a small community was wiped out all at once.

The Great War created a profound sense of disillusionment in British society.  Religious belief took a nosedive and has not recovered.  Poetry and literature became cynical and bitter.  The very class structure of England was weakened.

You will see a lot of war memorials in English villages.  They reflect a profound sense of loss.  Not just of lives but of a way of life.

By the time the Second World War came around England was mostly running on empty.  Despite a spirited and crucial effort by the RAF, much of central London was destroyed in the third of the great calamities to strike that city. (Boudicca and the Great Fire being the other two).

By herself England would not have been able to survive, and more or less made it through on the basis of allies.  True, the French did not help all that much, but the overseas colonies pitched in manfully---in exchange for assurances of independence to follow.  And both America and Russia came into the war, winning it by sheer force of numbers.

The England you will find today has a curious feel to it.  London in particular is a city filled with monuments and great buildings.  It was at one time the capital of the world.  Now it is the capital of an island with severe financial issues.

It is akin to an elderly but yet spry former Guardsman, slightly stooped but still proud in his ornate but now too large uniform.

But it is for all that a place of greatness.  A place of tradition where gulfs of time that seem enormous to mere colonists are as yesterday. 


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