This royal throne of kings, this sceptered 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,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England. . . .

Even in the twenty-first century, the words spoken by John of Gaunt in Shakespeare's Richard II remain among the most familiar as well as the most powerful celebrations of the English nation. The literature of the Elizabethan age abounds with similar panegyrics to a nation secure in its separateness and in its superiority. Yet what can sometimes seem like the jingoistic fervor of the Elizabethans conceals a far more complicated and troubled reality. Most English writers were far from certain of the innate superiority of their nation — or even certain what their nation was.

To begin with, England was not — and has never been — a "sceptred isle." Rather, the English in the sixteenth century shared the island of Britain with neighboring Wales and Scotland, with whom their relations ranged from uneasy and unequal co- existence to outright conflict. Still more troubled and productive of anxiety was England's relationship with the island of Ireland (where Richard II leads a military expedition in Shakespeare's play, precipitating his own downfall). As for the wider world, the proud separateness celebrated by John of Gaunt was not so much chosen as enforced. A Protestant state confronting a largely Catholic Europe over the channel, Elizabethan England with its excommunicated Queen was a lonely pariah among nations. The English were thus anxious to the point of paranoia about what foreign visitors might think of them. Little wonder that they sometimes attempted to compensate for these anxieties with outbursts of patriotic bluster.

Rebellious Ireland presented the English not only with a problem of governance, but with the problem of cultural identity. The more idealistic among the English administrators and adventurers who settled in Ireland in the later sixteenth century believed that if only the Irish could be taught 'civility' (meaning English laws, English customs, and the English language), they would eventually become indistinguishable from the English themselves. Pessimists countered that the Irish were by their very nature prone to savagery and rebellion. The implications for the native population were fairly dismal in either case: those who believed that the Irish were educable were prepared to resort to the most brutal measures to achieve their lofty aim, while those who did not saw no solution to the Irish problem but enslavement or extermination. Yet while they wrestled with the question of Irish adaptability, English settlers like Edmund Spenser were confronted with worrying examples of English mutability: all around them they found the descendants of medieval English conquerors who had, over time, adopted Irish customs, dress and language, becoming all but indistinguishable from those whom they had supposedly conquered. Thus, the future of Englishness was also at stake in the Irish wars of the late sixteenth century.

[Click on image to enlarge] Closer to home, England was bent on extending its hegemony over Wales and Scotland. Wales had been conquered in the late thirteenth century; in the 1530s and 40s, it was fully incorporated into the English state, sending representatives to the Parliament in Westminster. Yet the Welsh remained a separate people, with a separate language, and a fierce pride in their status as descendants of the ancient Britons, who had inhabited the island long before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons. Indeed, the term "Briton" as commonly used referred exclusively to the Welsh. Yet "Briton" could also be used in a wider sense, to mean all inhabitants of the island, be they Welsh, English, or Scottish. As English politicians bent their minds on subduing Scotland once and for all, they found it convenient to argue that they were really only asking the Scots to accept their common identity as Britons. The Scots countered that "Britain" was just another word for England. Then, when Scotland's King James came to the throne of England in 1603, the tables were turned. Now it was a Scottish king who insisted that his subjects should all call themselves "Britons," while the English found themselves clinging stubbornly to their Englishness. The long struggle over the meaning and future of Britishness was waged mostly by textual means, giving rise not only to innumerable propaganda pamphlets and treatises, but also to literary masterpieces such as Spenser's Faerie Queene and Shakespeare's King Lear.

[Click on image to enlarge] Whatever the boundaries of the state that emerged from these struggles, and whatever name it went by, everyone accepted that it would be ruled from London. The rapid growth of London in the sixteenth century was an unprecedented phenomenon, and transformed both the way the English thought about their nation and the way they were viewed by visitors from abroad. It has been estimated that one in eight English people lived in London at some point in their lives. They took an intense interest both in the daily changing face of the metropolis and in its long and complex history; both facets of the city are recorded in exhaustive detail in John Stow's extraordinary Survey of London. London was also the destination of the overwhelming majority of foreign visitors to England, be they ambassadors, merchants, Protestant refugees, or simply tourists, like the Swiss German Thomas Platter, who rounded off his tour of the city with a visit to the theater, to see a play by Shakespeare.


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