September 26, 2005

Creating symbols

This may seem to be slightly off the main theme. However, the image of Queen Elizabeth I in the Ditchley portrait is worth thinking about, as, indeed, all the various portraits of that queen.

England under Elizabeth was a stormy and unsettled place. Across the Channel there loomed a great enemy - Spain as the representative of the Catholic Church - which had many supporters within. Not that different, really, from the present situation, except that the enemy was more powerful. On the other hand, Walsingham's lads could do things to those they caught that the present police can only dream about.

There was a folk memory of many years of a hideous civil war and the reign was punctuated by potentially catastrophic rebellions. The Tudors' claim to the throne was negligible and Henry VIII's marital affairs undermined Elizabeth's own standing. At the same time she and her personality were vital as the unifying and steadying factor.

Above all, there had been the long process of the politial and religious reformation. While Elizabeth herself genuinely preferred to steer a middle course and had little time for the more extreme Protestant sects, she knew that many of her people did join them. She also knew that there were many Catholics around, whose loyalty remained doubtful as the Pope had pronounced what we would now call a fatwa on her.

The symbolism created by Elizabeth and her entourage with herself at the centre (the Virgin Queen) served a dual purpose: the solidification of English national feeling in the face of the enemy and a substitution of a new imagery for the old religious one.

Posted by Helen Szamuely at September 26, 2005 05:10 PM

The English, and the Anglosphere peoples in general, seem to have a reasonable talent for generating new symbols and ceremonies and soon after acting as if they were ancient and long-established.

I think one important difference between the Catholic recusants in Elizabethan England and the alienated Muslims today is that the Catholics had always been there. They were put in the awkward position of being forced to choose between two loyalties they had never thought of as opposed -- in fact they had been raised believing most strongly that they two loyalties were part of a unified whole.

In some ways their dilemma was more like that of American loyalists in 1776, where they were suddenly forced to choose between being loyal subjects of the Crown, and Americans -- again, two identities they had always thought of as being part of the same package.

Throughout the Anglosphere symbols and identities have become unsettled, just as social systems in general have gone through an unsettling period. Now many of the people who have done so much to dissolve the old binding narratives are starting to look around and realize exactly what their handiwork has accomplished. But it has happened before, and we survived. It's useful to look back at unsettled times in the past to see how those transitions were handled. Thanks, helen.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at September 26, 2005 06:54 PM

It is precisely because Catholics had always been there (the whole country being that in Elizabeth's childhood) that the new symbols had to be created as a substitute. But the concept of England had to be there, too, for the new symbols to work. The parallels with Muslims are inexact, of course, but the need for symbols round which to gather is understood by most people. Hence the British obsession with the Monarchy.

Posted by: Helen at September 27, 2005 03:57 AM