The only certainties in life are death, taxes, and the fact that whenever naval history makes the news, somebody is going to get it calamitously wrong. That’s how it’s been here in the UK for the last week or so, where we’ve had the Prime Minister himself intervening in an argument over whether a song with naval associations should be played with or without words, or at all, during a concert without an audience. Just as well he doesn’t have anything more urgent to occupy him at the moment, really… As if that wasn’t enough, we had the curious phenomenon of a seemingly arcane article on Anglo-Saxon naval history in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, not normally a must-read for Fleet Street’s finest, hitting national headlines after gaining considerable traction across the blogosphere.
The cause of all this sound and fury? To take the article first, it had the temerity to suggest that King Alfred the Great, often trumpeted as the founder of the Royal Navy, didn’t, umm, found the Royal Navy. There were naval successes under his predecessors, the authors claim, and a proper naval organisation wasn’t actually set up until the reign of his grandson, Edgar. Now, none of this should really be terribly controversial. I know a reasonable amount about Edgar, having gone into quite a bit of detail about his reign and legacy for my essay on naval ideology, published last year, and a good case can be made for saying that he made impressive and effective use of seapower. Was he the first English monarch to do so? I don’t know, because – to deploy the time-honoured historian’s copout – it’s not my period.
But it seems to me that this little storm in a teacup demonstrates two tedious truisms. One is that historians, and people in general, are obsessed with claiming things as ‘the first’ (often, in the case of historians, in order to make their own reputations and/or rubbish those of their predecessors), and with the idea that The Thing, whatever it might be, had A Founder and began at a precise moment in history. The idea that The Thing came into being gradually, and that many people contributed to its creation, is inherently messier, more difficult, less ‘sexy’, and sells fewer books for historians and writers keen to make their names, than identifying a precise moment when something comes into existence (and if you don’t believe me, compare the first chapter of Genesis with the theory of evolution…)
The other tedious truism is that in this day and age, pretty well any issue, no matter how innocuous, can be weaponised by one side or the other in so-called ‘culture wars’. For example, Alfred the Great has been appropriated as an icon of English nationalism; the boat sent out by Britain First to turn back migrants trying to cross the English Channel has been rechristened to bear his name. The very fact that he is the only English monarch to be awarded the soubriquet of ‘the great’ at once puts him on a pedestal, even though it can be attributed largely to the fact that he had a far superior propaganda machine to most of his predecessors or successors. So any suggestion that Alfred wasn’t, perhaps, quite as great as hazy memories of school history lessons fifty or sixty years ago might suggest is bound to trigger an avalanche of angry messages to newspaper comments sections. It’s depressing, demonstrating yet again that people often prefer myths or downright untruths to actual historical facts, an issue I also encountered with my new novel Armada’s Wake; I talk about this problem in the new issue of the Historical Writers’ Association’s splendid journal Historia.
And so to Rule Britannia, the famous naval anthem traditionally sung at that great British institution the Last Night of the Proms. This year, though, the vastly scaled down, audience-free format of the occasion, together with the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement, led to suggestions that Rule Britannia and that other tub-thumping ditty, Land of Hope and Glory, might be inappropriate and perhaps should be dropped. Cue outrage, including the aforementioned intervention by the Prime Minister, but once again, much of the outrage on both sides consisted of frankly ludicrous posturing based on shaky or non-existent historical foundations. So: yes, Rule Britannia contains the word ‘slaves’ in one of its most famous lines, ‘Britons never will be slaves’. But it’s a racing certainty that not one single person who heard it at its first performance, at Cliveden House in 1740, would have associated the word with African slavery. Written at a time of war with France, the line expresses fear of conquest by Catholic, authoritarian France, and the reduction of the British to slaves after the example of the Roman Empire – a context which would have been entirely familiar to Georgian gentlemen (and, yes, ladies) whose education had been dominated by the Classics.
(Incidentally, I’ll lay odds that I’m probably the only person who’s written about this subject who has heard the whole of Thomas Arne’s Alfred – yes, it’s that man again – from which the song is taken, and indeed has a CD of it. The song immediately preceding ‘Rule Britannia’ goes: ‘See liberty, virtue and honour appearing / with smiles and caresses each other endearing / to keep the dear blessing so hardly obtained / let virtue secure what our valour has gained / We can only boast of our national right / when liberty, virtue and honour unite’ – surely as ‘inclusive’ a lyric as anyone could wish for.)
So Rule Britannia might be jingoistic, but it’s not as jingoistic as people often think it is; for example, many sing along to the chorus with the triumphalist words ‘Britannia rules the waves!’, whereas the line actually reads ‘Britannia rule the waves’, so the sentiment is an aspiration, not a statement of fact. Moreover, it’s never been de rigueur for the singing of the words to be part of the Last Night of the Proms. Sir Henry Wood, who created the famous concert series and conducted the Last Night every year from 1895 to 1944, apparently never performed the piece with the words, while the format of the Last Night has changed frequently, having only become relatively ossified in fairly recent years. For example, in 1973 I obtained my first cassette recorder, and decided to experiment with it by recording the conclusion of the Last Night of the Proms, which involved physically holding the microphone in front of the TV. It worked and I still have the cassette, so I still have a record of the dulcet tones of the late, great Richard Baker introducing the full version of Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs, currently a regular part of the Last Night repertoire, by saying that it was the first time it had been performed for very many years.
Of course, the misappropriation of history to serve particular political agendas is nothing new, and it’s certainly not confined to the UK (hello, America). Sadly, I suspect we’re only going to get a lot more of it, but historians need to continue to stick their heads above the parapet to point out the unhistorical and, yes, often hysterical distortions of the record by those with ideological axes to grind. Of course, the likelihood is that the heads in question will be blasted to smithereens from both sides; but ultimately, that’s what historians are for.