If you are an Englishman living on the European mainland, you will no doubt have come across the idea that England is a conservative relic; an impression that either charms or infuriates the continental observer. But while there is some veracity contained in this concept, its truth may belie the assumptions upon which it rests. You see, the English are naturally held to be divided from the rest of Europe on account of their stubborn will to be different. And Englishness is, in this view, an Anglo-Saxon declaration of independence from Europeanness.
But what if England’s lingering peculiarities were not, in fact, the result of a long separation that disregarded foreign customs, but a relic of Europe itself? What if the characteristic oddities of the English way were the marks of a distinctly European inheritance that had endured in England after the rest of Europe had mostly abandoned it? In other words, when continental Europeans look at apparently English political idiosyncrasies, perhaps they are staring into a mirror of their own partially neglected heritage.
Needless to say, this will not cover all noted divergences. The propensity of the English to turn their own historical towns into generic shopping streets and car parks is a lamentable failure to conserve anything at all, standing in stark contrast to the lovingly preserved squares and city centres from Brittany to the Carpathians. Furthermore, the swift and thorough separation from Rome initiated by Henry VIII seems to have disconnected England from the festal and sacred rhythm of the European year more than both fellow Protestant and more secularised countries. More recently, Victorian imperialism in particular made England and the rest of Britain the centre of a vast network of allegiance, causing the English to increasingly think on and identify with the Orient and the Antipodes before the Danube and the Alps.
Certainly, whatever one views to be the nature and cause of major English difference, the geographic impediment provided by the North Sea and the Channel is inescapable. Conflicts that scorched the earth and ravaged the communities of Europe, such as the Thirty Years’ War and the War of Spanish Succession, barely touched the government and people of England, sparing them destruction and upheaval. If there is an ultimately shared cultural and historical base – and none could plausibly deny that this was the case between the people of England and other European countries – then it stands to reason that being isolated from episodes of destruction would enable the one so protected to preserve what others could not.
If this was the case with England and European culture, it would be far from the only example in which the roots of a contrast were earthed in the selective preservation of former commonalities. Take, for example, the now regional English accent that is particularly found in England’s West Country and frequently derided as the mark of country bumpkins. Yet those whose words are so tinged, in fact, carry the remaining evidence of speech patterns that were common in England up to Shakespeare’s day and emerged from the old Anglo-Saxon tongue. It is Received Pronunciation, with all its inauthentic flattening, that is the aberration and imposition.
But were there decisive moments of disintegration to which we can trace a European civilisational destruction that England was largely spared, enabling it to preserve elements ruined elsewhere? Surely two stand above all: the Napoleonic Wars and the Great War. What these cataclysms had in common was, on the one hand, the undermining and the severing of authentic, lived and rooted connections both among people and between people and their governors, and, on the other hand, the replacement of these fundamental bonds with impersonal, invented and entirely abstract concepts. In addition to the suffering caused by destruction of the old, the imposition of replacements was just as bloody – the inability of reality to conform to the purity of the abstract incites the uninhibited horror of “rational” violence.
The multi-faceted European heritage which these horrors largely wrecked is meaningfully represented by the institutions of monarchy and diet, which in turn carried with them much else that defined European thought and practice for many centuries. A great deal of what is now referred to as medieval was formed by the slow and organic accumulation of practices and forms, in which everyone within a kingdom or principality was connected through mutual layers of locally represented obligation and allegiance, which encapsulated the family and village no less than the realm. Napoleon was a crucial culprit in the uncoupling of Europe from so much of this socio-political heritage and modus vivendi because of both the desolation his imperial forces unleashed on the Continent and the alternative concepts imposed in their wake.
Far from being a betrayer of the French Revolution, as some still insist, Napoleon exquisitely pursued and implemented its logic. The man who crowned himself emperor was an apt successor to men who arrogated to themselves the absolute leadership of an imagined people. At the heart of Napoleon’s rule of Europe was Revolutionary France’s reductive delusion masquerading as an enlightened liberation: to regard a human as a unit of measurement – to separate him and her in law and theory in a way that reality never can, from family, community and heritage. The revolutionary project that inspired vicious massacres of rural Catholics in France’s Vendée region was an accurate harbinger both of similar outrages wherever its army and fiat extended, and of the tyranny of abstraction over heritage.
Jean-Baptiste Carrier, who ordered the execution of thousands of civilians in Vendée in 1793 and 1794, proclaimed that “prejudice and fanaticism were being swept away by the irresistible forces of reason”. General François Joseph Westermann reported: “There is no more Vendée, citizens. It has died under our free sword, with its women and children […]. I do not have a single prisoner with which to reproach myself. I have exterminated everyone.”
Wherever Napoleon later ruled, his abstract rationalism replaced rooted and locally authentic social systems with an alien, unitary, uniform and disconnected system of government, imposed through written constitutions and novel laws. Western Europe never recovered from the severing of its roots, and aspects of this new way not only survived Napoleon’s final defeat but remained to form a new standard and supposed definition of European governance. Dare we say it, but this had and has far more in common with the American approach to government, formed in the same era, than a historically authentic European one. By contrast, the unwritten constitution, the centrality of the monarchy within it, the legal and cultural hold of the state church, and the essential unruly vitality of the Houses of Parliament in England are utterly European institutions, congruent with the continent’s rich character.
What the French Revolution’s conquests did for Western Europe, the Great War did, even more devastatingly, for the rest of it. As well as extirpating four empires in its flames, this conflict isolated lands from their history and left peoples exposed to the ideologies and a-historical abstractions that raged for the rest of the 20th century and linger still. In some ways these were the final tremors of Napoleon’s victory over the Holy Roman Empire: the defeat of, as the philosopher Jan Patočka put it, “the medieval conception that based power on authority”. But perhaps the Great War’s characteristic ruination was of Hungary, Europe’s most tenacious kingdom, enforced by the Treaty of Trianon a year and a half after war’s end.
Even more than the invading Mongols and Turks, it was absolutism which became fashionable during the so-called enlightenment, that posed the greatest threat to Hungary’s royal and constitutional existence. That absolutism – celebrated as unitary efficiency and abstract detachment – faced Hungary in the form of Joseph II, the kalapos király (hatted king) who, rather than acknowledge the long-preserved restrictions and duties of Hungarian kingship by receiving the legitimising and sacred coronation, stole the holy crown of Hungary away to Vienna and ruled arbitrarily. It was in resisting this illegitimacy – and other attempts to turn St Stephen’s realm into a mere appendage of the Habsburgs who ruled both Vienna’s empire and Hungary’s kingdom – that redoubled Hungary’s affection for its own constitutional path.
As Hungary’s great defender, Count Albert Apponyi, described the years between 1848 and the Ausgleich of 1867, “[a]t such times Hungary, while powerless to prevail against superior material forces, had always stuck to legal continuity, waiting patiently until a turning of the tide should enable her to bring practical reality in line with juridical truth”. The 1867 Compromise did not, as is often repeated, create an Austro-Hungarian Empire. Rather it once more acknowledged what Hungarians had maintained, that theirs was an independent kingdom which could only be rightly ruled according to the continuity and legitimacy of its own constitutional customs, stitching together land, church, noble, county, commoner and king. While the same man ruled both Austria and Hungary, he did so on a different basis and according to disparate law.
Therefore, it is easy to see why, in a world falling in love with revolution and cheap universality, Englishmen held Hungary in high regard. How sad, then, that Britain played a full part in Trianon, which did not merely parcel out two thirds of royal territory to a series of novel and unstable states, but condemned the thousand-year-old kingdom itself. While Hungary’s inter-war Regency retained the threads of continuity, Britain sadly supported the insistence of the Little Entente that the return of Hungary’s lawful and legitimate king would be a casus belli. After the Second World War Hungary was subject to a new doyenne of abstract absolutism, the Soviet Union, at whose insistence a republic was proclaimed and continuity was renounced.
This may be the fate to which European lands have been subjected, one by one, but there is nothing European about the trend by which the continent’s own Christian, legal and royal heritage is denuded for the sake of fiat bodies based on haughty abstractions. And, make no mistake, England has assuredly been finding its way to a similar fate at its own hands. When the England of the ages is no more, we will, unlike others, have no-one to blame but ourselves. But while our crown, church, constitution and parliament remain, it can be rightly regarded as the fruit not only of English, but of a wider and noble European heritage.