Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Compare and Contrast

In my last post I was responding to my Czech friend's comments about the British and finished noting the anger I felt when a civil servant tried to fob me off. It struck me that my reaction - "Who does he think he is?" was a very British one. And I wanted to explore it further.

My historical heroine Queen Elizabeth I issued an edict along the lines that a slave arriving on English soil "upon breathing English air" was immediately freed from slavery. Now, whilst acknowledging that this didn't apply to the black slaves, it is an important concept for understanding the English (and later the British) - "Britons never never never shall be slaves," sings the Proms audience. Few if any leaders of this country have understood the national psyche nor played it as well as Elizabeth. Elizabeth's edict reflects a long established belief among her people.

Her Armada speech also appeals to this belief: "Let tyrants fear; I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good will of my subjects."

She is contrasting not only herself with the tyrant Philip of Spain, but also her free subjects with his. Her comment on her relationship with her people - they are her main source of strength and her safety - is revealing. For what would happen if the people withdrew their loyalty and good will? Only 40 years after her death England was to find out, when a civil war broke out that tested whether the King was answerable to his people in the form of Parliament. After a terrible and bloody war (recent research suggests a higher percentage of the population died in the Civil War than in either of the last century's World Wars), King Charles was tried and found guilty of high treason. The first few lines of the charge against the King read

"That the said Charles Stuart, being admitted King of England, and therein trusted with a limited power to govern by and according to the laws of the land, and not otherwise; and by his trust, oath, and office, being obliged to use the power committed to him for the good and benefit of the people, and for the preservation of their rights and liberties; yet, nevertheless, out of a wicked design to erect and uphold in himself an unlimited and tyrannical power to rule according to his will, and to overthrow the rights and liberties of the people."

As my old history teacher would say, let us compare and contrast with what is happening over the water in the Czech Republic (then Bohemia) at much the same time. There the Estates (made up of Protestant Bohemian nobility) had also taken on the power of their Hapsburg monarch Ferdinand II. But the outcome had been very different. At the Battle of White Mountain the army of the Estates was routed by the forces of the king. Thus began the period which the Czechs have called doba temna - time of darkness. The battle was a disaster for the semi independent nation.

Ferdinand set about forcibly converting the country back to Catholicism assisted by the shock troops of the counter reformation, the Jesuits. The persecutions and land seizures that followed the defeat resulted in the emigration of some 150,000 cultural and social leaders of the Czech nation including 85 noble families, as well as burgers, leading scholars and ministers. If you visit the Old Town Square in Prague you can see crosses for the 27 leaders of the rebellion who were executed in the year following the battle. Perhaps worst of all the Czechs lost their sovereignty - prior to the battle the monarch was elected by the estates, now for a period of 300 years the Czechs would be ruled through inheritance by a Hapsburg.

What contrasting fortunes! The Czechs always had one major disadvantage - they were at the centre of Europe. Their action was unlikely to be without international consequences. Their revolt was against a king with other kingdoms, able to call on armies from across the continent. As the Thirty Years War rolled on, it rolled over the Czech lands time and time again. England, protected by the sea and on the edge of the Europe, was able to have its civil war to itself. And prior to that when England was threatened by the powerful Hapsburg family - by Philip II and his armadas - the English were saved by storms in the Channel. Thus the destinies of nations are set.

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