The Rise and Fall of England: 1. This Sceptered Isle


Dr. Carson, Professor of History at Grove City College, Pennsylvania, will be remembered for his earlier FREEMAN series, The Fateful Turn, The American Tradition, and The Flight from Reality.

This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.


It is not for historians to pro­nounce sentence upon nations and civilizations; they are neither judges nor juries. It is proper for them only to record the fact of the rise, the decline, and the fall of nations and civilizations. It may be premature to speak of the fall of England. No conquering hordes have as yet crossed the English Channel, swept over her shores, and engulfed her in that night of disruption and chaos which can accompany conquest. No Barbar­ians have descended from the North to drive the natives to the mountains for a retreat to repeat an old historical process.

Yet England has fallen from its former high estate, fallen as surely as if Claudius, the Roman Emperor, had directed a new con­quest, or as if some new Barbar­ians—in the manner of the Anglo-Saxons or Vikings — had de­scended upon her. However, "the fortress built by Nature for her­self" has not fallen to some con­queror from without this time; it has crumbled and is falling from within. It may well be that this inward decay will offer the oppor­tunity for conquest by some for­eign power, but it has not hap­pened yet.

As is usually the case, Eng­land’s decline or fall did not occur overnight. The disintegration has been going on for many years. The devaluation of the pound in 1967 was only one more in a long chain of events that signalize de­cline. Though the yielding up or cutting loose of England’s empire is the most obvious and impres­sive sign of decline, it is not as im­portant as it appears to be. Ac­tually, the acquisition and formal­izing of the imperial structure in the latter part of the nineteenth century was a sign that decline had already set in. The evidence of decline can be seen in the aban­donment of free trade, the erec­tion of trade barriers, the succes­sive declines in the exchange value of the pound, in England’s infe­rior trade position, in the inability to carry out obligations abroad, in the drop to status as a minor pow­er after World War II. Underly­ing these outward developments can be found the loss of confidence, the failure of nerve, the abandon­ment of principle, the moral decay of which the Profumo Affair and mini-skirts are signs but not the substance.

Future Unknown

Whether England will continue her current fall into historical ob­livion is not known as yet. It is not for historians to predict the future; they have a massive enough task in reporting the past. It is in the realm of possibility that England could become the center of a new renaissance in the future, that revival might come and a new era of greatness pro­ceed from the British Isles. It is possible, though not likely. At any rate, a people do not necessar­ily disappear because they have fallen from the pinnacle of great­ness. There is still a Greek people in our day, as there is a Greece; but their greatness is now more than two millennia in the past. The Byzantine Empire continued to exist for a thousand years as a civilization that was a faded re­flection of Rome. Dictators in the twentieth century—Mussolini and Nasser, for example—have attempt­ed to awaken their people from the somnolence into which they have sunk to a new effort at gain­ing a place in the sun; but thus far they have had little success. In short, there is no way of knowing what the future place or di­rection will be of a people who have fallen. For now, however, England’s fall is a fact or, if that is too precise, a trend that has been going on for a sufficient time that its character is apparent.

Historians have been under­standably reluctant to record the judgment. For Americans, anyway, England is too much a part of our own background for us to welcome or even to recognize her fall. Be­sides, it is ungracious and proba­bly impolite to call attention to the loss of station of another. Even so, the rise and fall of na­tions is of moment to peoples other than those most directly involved. If there is something to be learned from it, we would want to know it, though that learning be con­tingent upon calling attention to unpleasant facts. Moreover, this investigation and report is not made in the spirit of the Pharisee. We in America can hardly afford to rejoice and be thankful that we are not as the English. What has happened to them should be an object lesson having the most di­rect bearing for us. In many re­spects, these United States have followed the lead, though some­what more slowly, of the English in the policies which have signaled and perhaps caused their decline. Their travail should be an occasion for our awakening. But for it to work in this fashion we must confront the story and its implica­tions.

Progress through Liberty

The story of England’s rise and fall is particularly appropriate for those who are interested in the effect of liberty and order in the affairs of man. The greatness of England was not simply in the far-flung Empire which she once ruled, not only in that her navy ruled the seas, never in such arm­ies as she managed to muster, not in the pomp and ceremony of an apparently enduring monarchy, nor even finally in the vaunted stoicism and tenacity of the Eng­lish character alone. England’s greatness, in that nineteenth cen­tury moment of her glory, derived from the stability of her institu­tions, from the superiority of her product, from the confidence in the rectitude of the professed mor­al values, and in England’s grasp­ing and applying the idea of lib­erty when its time had come. For much of the nineteenth century, England was the leading nation in the world. That portion of an island known as England was the workshop of the world, the finan­cial center for the world, the world’s great market and trading center, and the nation whose polit­ical institutions were most imi­tated and copied. This is a part of the story to be told here, along with its background, before going into England’s fall and what oc­casioned it.

That England should have oc­cupied such a place of leadership and dominance in the world for the better part of a century is amazing in itself. Moreover, it should be made clear that the pe­riod of England’s leadership was more or less coincident with the flowering of modern Western Civ­ilization. It was a feat on a par with or greater than that of Athens in Greece in the fifth century be­fore Christ, of republican Rome in the second and first century before Christ, of France at the height of the Middle Ages, and of Italy at the time of the Renaissance. It is even more amazing when we look at the physical basis of this rise and review the usual place of Eng­land in the scheme of things.

Civilization came late to Brit­ain and had a most tenuous hold there for more than a thousand years after its tentative coming. There is no literary record of who was there or what went on before 55 B.C., when Julius Caesar put in a brief appearance on the island and made an account of his ex­pedition. When the Code of Ham­murabi was issued, Britain had probably not been heard of in the Mediterranean. When Egyptian civilization was at its peak, the inhabitants of Britain were still in the Stone Age. When Plato wrote his famous dialogues, il­literate Celtic farmers occupied parts of the island. Following the 400-year occupation by Rome, the Dark Ages descended upon Britain once again with the coming of the Angles and Saxons, at a time when the Byzantine Empire was the far-off center of civilization.

The Mediterranean was the cen­ter of Western Civilization for several thousand years before Christ, roughly speaking, until around 1500 of our era. Britain was far removed from and, at best, on the periphery of that civi­lization. She was usually at the very end of the trade routes; ar­tistic and intellectual develop­ments reached her shores very late, if at all. Usually, Britain fol­lowed rather than led in European developments. To Shakespeare, England was a "precious stone set in the silver sea," but to the rest of the world for most of history it was a remote island with back­ward inhabitants and unattractive resources.

The Geography of England

Geography tells us little enough about why civilization emerges or is centered at a particular place. Historians must still ponder why Greece, with its hilly topography and meager soil, should have been the center of a civilization. Even more favorable locations do not ex­plain why civilization develops there at particular times. Geogra­phy provides opportunities to a people, offers advantages as well as disadvantages for them, and helps to explain somewhat the par­ticular course their development takes. Still, it is important to know a little of the physical fea­tures of that land whose history we are to examine briefly. For there was and is a physical base of England’s development, and what was developed was made from these materials in large part.

Geographically, England is a part of the continent of Europe, though it is now separated from the continental land mass by water which is at its narrowest over twenty miles across. It is general­ly believed that Britain was joined by land to the continent until eight or ten thousand years ago. Eng­land is, of course, on an island. The name of the island is Great Britain. Present-day England oc­cupies the southern and eastern part of the island; to the west lies Wales and to the north is Scot­land. (England, Scotland, and Wales now comprise the United Kingdom.) Great Britain is the largest of a chain of islands which, taken together, are known as the British Isles. Before the fifth cen­tury A.D. what is now England was known, roughly, as Britain; after the coming of the Anglo-Saxons it became known as England (An­gle land).

Access to the Sea

Generally speaking, England has the most favorable location on Great Britain. Wales and Scot­land are hilly and mountainous; most of the arable land lies in England. The climate of England is usually mild the year around, warmed and cooled by the sea and the land mass to the east. Most of the level and rolling land on the island is in England. In the north and west of England are found the hills which contain the valuable minerals; hence, this area became the great manufacturing region. To the south and east lie the fertile lands for farming.

The coast line is broken and heavily indented, an indication of the access of the country to the sea. As one historian says, "The many indentations in the coast pro­vide harbors which facilitate com­munication with the outside world. The harbors, moreover, are readily accessible to the people of the in­terior, for numerous rivers flow down to the sea, and no place in Great Britain is more than seven­ty miles from the coast."’ Small wonder, then, that when England’s time of greatness came, it should be in terms of trade, the sea, and the navy. Once England began to engage in foreign trade on a large scale, she had a decided advantage in transportation costs over most countries, and it should be kept in mind that transportation by boat along natural water lanes has ever been the cheapest mode for the carrying of goods.

A Backward People

But for most of history Britain had little impact on the rest of the world. The impact was usually exerted upon her, not from her. Whatever natural advantages the island enjoyed, they did not suffice to make the people there much of a positive force or influence in world affairs. As has been pointed out, for most of history the island was at the periphery of civiliza­tion. The peoples there were sub­jected to a succession of invasions from other peoples and empires, invasions that go back long before written records. There have been four successful invasions since recorded history began. Shakes­peare might think of England as an impregnable fortress, but for much of history it was quite pregnable.

It is easy to understand why this was so. The island is not far from the mainland; its numerous rivers flowing into the sea affordplaces to land for those who come from the continent. At the same time the number of landings make defense most difficult. So long as the peoples were not uni­fied politically, so long as no cen­tral force dominated the most ac­cessible areas, just so long could invaders come with relative ease. To turn the proposition around, once England was organized into an effective kingdom, it became a formidable task to invade her. This occurred in the eleventh cen­tury of our era, and since that time there has been no successful invasion. The impregnable fortress, then, was not a product of en­vironment but of human effort and organization.

Often Invaded

The first of the four invasions of recorded times was that of the Romans. In 43 A.D., the Emperor Claudius sent forces to Britain which were to succeed before the end of the century in conquering most of that territory now known as England. The Romans occupied Britain for the better part of four centuries, beginning their with­drawal in the early part of the fifth century. They brought the appurtenances of Roman civiliza­tion: the town or city, the aque­duct, the road, literacy and the Latin languages, effective political organization, and, even, Christianity, for it is known that there were Christian churches in Britain during the time of the Roman oc­cupation.

The Romans began to withdraw from the island and eventually abandoned it in the face of a new horde of invaders in the fifth cen­tury. This was the Germanic in­vasion, one which swept over most of Europe and brought to Britain, according to legend, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. There have been efforts from time to time to brighten the traditional gloomy picture painted of this wave of invaders, to call them Germans rather than barbarians, to say that the age that followed was not as Dark as it has been made to appear. Be that as it may, the new invaders were illiterate pa­gans who swept all before them. They drove most of the native population out of the lowlands of Britain, or so it is believed, al­lowed the towns and other ap­purtenances of the Romans to de­cay and all but disappear, and the country reverted to a rather prim­itive agricultural condition. There was a Celtic Christian church which made some impact upon these bar­barians, but not much.

Actually, literary knowledge of what was going on in England comes mainly after the late sixth century when Pope Gregory the Great sent missionaries of the Roman church to England. These succeeded in converting the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity in the course of the seventh century, by and large, anyhow. At this time in history, the Roman Catholic church was the main preserver and carrier of the remains and relics of Roman civilization in Western Europe. By its work, peoples were made familiar with the Latin lan­guage and some of the literature, with the idea of large-scale im­perial organization, and with a written and codified law.

Many Small Kingdoms

In the seventh century, England was divided into a number of small kingdoms. From time to time, one or another of these dominated the others. Not much headway was made toward uniting these into a single kingdom until England was faced once again with a new wave of invaders from the north. This invasion is known as the Viking invasion, and it went on sporadi­cally for nearly two centuries. The Danes began to arrive in England in considerable numbers around 839. For most of the rest of the ninth century warfare continued between the occupying Danes and English kings, the most notable of whom was Alfred the Great. The Danish invaders were a new onslaught of pagans, no better than pirates and raiders, creating destruction in their wake, exact­ing regular payments from those whom they conquered.

England was quite often divided between territory controlled by the Danes and that by the Eng­lish kings. The situation improved in the late ninth century and for much of the tenth, but in the late tenth century, there was a new onslaught of Scandinavians. For a time in the early eleventh cen­tury, all England was ruled by the Scandinavian King Canute, the first time it had been politically united since the withdrawal of the Romans. (It should be kept in mind that England is not very large, having slightly less terri­tory than the state of Alabama; hence, to be divided into many kingdoms would mean that each one would be quite small.)

United England had enjoyed the rule of only one native king (Edward the Confessor) when it was subjected to yet an­other invasion—that of the Nor­mans of William the Conqueror. This time there was nothing grad­ual, imprecise, or vague about the invasion. William made claim to the throne of England upon the death of Edward, invaded with his Norman soldiers in 1066, de­feated Harold Godwin at the Bat­tle of Hastings, and got the Witan to proclaim him king. He proceed­ed to remove the basis of all resist­ance to him and to organize the whole kingdom under his great tenants-in-chief (barons). For the next 150 years or so, England was little more than a fief of a line of Norman and Angevin nobles, and the sway of France became in some ways more decisive from the early thirteenth century onward.

The Norman Invasion

The point of this brief review of the history of England is to emphasize the obscurity, backward­ness, and impotence of Britain through most of history. It is a history filled with subjection to foreign invaders, of a people with a tenuous and unsure hold on civil­ization, of a people being civilized (sometimes) rather than engag­ing in the work of civilization.

Matters did improve somewhat after the Norman invasion. Since that time, there has never been another successful foreign inva­sion. Continuing political unity was established for England by the Normans and their successors. England even began to contribute to civilization; there were many famous English scholars and thinkers of the High Middle Ages: Anselm of Canterbury, John of Salisbury, Roger Bacon, Robert Grosseteste, Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, among others. France, however, exerted the dom­inant influence in the High Middle Ages; England was still at the edge of civilization, though no longer at the outer edge. At any rate, Medieval civilization disinte­grated in the fourteenth and fif­teenth centuries. England was finally disentangled from France by the middle of the fifteenth cen­tury, but the Hundred Year’s War which had this result was followed by a civil war in England for most of the latter part of the fifteenth century, a war which signalized the breakdown of the old lines of political authority. England’s in­fluence upon Europe and the rest of the world at this point was almost nonexistent.

England’s Gradual Emergence during the Sixteenth Century

Looking back from our vantage point, we can see that by the early sixteenth century the stage was being set for England’s emer­gence, if not to greatness at this point, at least to be a nation on a par with other nations. The reign of the Tudor monarchs was marked by many momentous de­velopments: the Northern Renais­sance, the Protestant and Catholic Reformations, the rise of nation-states, and, of equal importance, it was the Age of Discovery. The strategic location of the British Isles was greatly altered by the discovery of America. The Ency­clopaedia Britannica notes that the "Age of Discovery changed Eng­land from a land at the edge of the known world to a collection of har­bours in the centre of the land hemisphere and at a prime focus of maritime routes." Thereafter, England was no longer on the edge of developments. The Tudor monarchs established the monar­chy at a new peak of power, brought comparative political sta­bility to England, separated the English church from Rome, and began to assert English power upon Europe. During the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), England emerged as a sea power and was the scene of a considerable literary outpouring (the Age of Shakes­peare). English was made into a powerful and effective literary language during this period.

Even so, England was still a long way from the greatness which influences and dominates a civili­zation. Spain was the dominant power of Europe for most of the sixteenth century. Probably, there was no one dominant power for the first half of the seventeenth century; much of Europe was immersed in the wars of religion. France would emerge once more in the latter part of the seven­teenth century as the great power of Europe, and her influence was prevalent during the Age of Louis XIV. England’s rise to power and influence would come in the eighteenth century and reach its cul­mination in the nineteenth.

Degrees of Civilization, Power, and Influence

But before detailing that story some premises need to be stated and the situation just prior to England’s rise needs to be ex­amined. I have spoken of civiliza­tion, of power, and of influence; they have been treated implicitly as values. There are, however, civ­ilizations and civilizations; there is, in like manner, power and pow­er, influence and influence. Civili­zation, any civilization, is, I think, preferable to an absence of civili­zation, if such a choice were to be made. Civilization implies order, stability, and shared values over a broad geographic area. It pro­vides conditions within which trade and exchange can take place among peoples, peaceably and prof­itably. There are, of course, de­grees of civilization, and the bene­fits of it may be reserved to a few. Thus, Medieval civilization was exclusive, and many of the op­portunities and benefits were mo­nopolized by a few. Great works of art may be produced as a result of the scantily rewarded toil of the many.

In like manner, the power of a nation may be used to subdue peoples and subject them to the whims of a ruling class. Influence may be disintegrative as well as integrative or helpful. As such, power and influence have little or no positive value. They are valu­able only when they are put to constructive use and when they are inhibited as to harmful uses. A truly great civilization is one in which the powers of govern­ments are limited and the energies of people—as many people as pos­sible— are released to constructive uses.

This was hardly the case in six­teenth and seventeenth century Europe. Power was increasingly concentrated in the hands of mon­archs who frequently employed it quite arbitrarily. The actions of people were often little more than the reflection of the will of the monarch. "I am the State," pro­claimed Louis XIV, and the Stuart monarchs of England failed to echo the sentiment only because they did not dare. Civilization, such as it was, existed mainly for a very few people. People all over Europe lay under a heavy burden of restrictions, oppressive imposi­tions, and persecution. Their en­ergies were channeled and inhib­ited by the state. England was lit­tle, if any, better than other lands. If she had been powerful and in­fluential, it would probably have been little more than the power and influence of a royal court upon privileged classes. England would become more civilized before she  would be worthy of imitation.

There is another matter that needs to be dealt with before taking up the foundations of the rise of England. Ever since the latter part of the nineteenth century there have been a considerable number of intellectuals who have romanticized the supposed idyllic heaped scorn and blame upon in rural life of an earlier England and industrialization for hardships which occurred and poverty which existed. There is no better way to set the record straight in this regard than to expose conditions as they were in pre-industrial Eng­land. Along with that, it will be valuable to look at the state of freedom, or lack of it, in pre-in­dustrial England. As should be well known, the amazing emer­gence of England to world leader­ship occurred after the release of the energies of the people of England by providing substantial lib­erty and in conjunction with England’s industrialization. The point needs to be placed in relief by contrast with despotic and rural England.

The next article in this series will relate to "pre-industrial England."



The Pursuit of Knowledge

Whenever a new property of any substance is discovered, it appears to have connections with other properties, and other things, of which we could have no idea at all before; and which are, by this means, but imperfectly announced to us. Indeed, every doubt implies some degree of knowledge; and while nature is a field of such amazing, perhaps boundless extent, it may be expected that the more knowledge we gain, the more doubts and difficulties we shall have; but still, since every advance in knowledge is a real and valuable acquisition to mankind, in consequence of its enabling us to apply the powers of nature to render our situation in life more happy, we have reason to rejoice at every new difficulty that is started; because it informs us that more knowledge, and more advantage are yet unattained, and should serve to quicken our diligence in the pursuit of them. Every desideratum is an imperfect discovery.

JOSEPH PRIESTLEY, The History and Present State of Discoveries Relating to Vision, Light, and Colours, London, 1772


March 1968

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