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            Why was this? It seems to me that this one of the main questions of British history.

            The main argument of these sessions will be that, despite their title, our history was
            far from being a “pastoral”. It was never a story of a stable and insular “little world”.
            Instead, our geographical location – the fact that we were “offshore islanders” -
            exposed us geopolitical forces originating beyond our shores. These forces, as we’ll
            see, frequently generated division, conflict and instability. If the desire for stability
            became a leading theme of British history and identity, perhaps this is due to our
            long battles against the forces of instability. Tracing the origins of this will be a core
            theme of these sessions.


            A chosen people?
            Despite all these reservations, John of Gaunt’s sceptred isle speech has had immense
            influence on our view of ourselves. It is the iconic patriotic statement. My late father,
            who left school at 14, could recite bits of it (along with the Charge of the Light
            Brigade and Daffodils.) It represents the English as specially favoured by God,
            providence and nature. The belief that we were in some sense a chosen people living

            in a “promised land” - “This other Eden, demi-paradise” - is another theme we’ll
            explore in future sessions. It appears early on in our history; we’ll find it when we
            look into the pages of our earliest historian Bede. By John of Gaunt’s time, the
            Hundred Years War had intensified patriotic feeling among the English and it was
            even stronger by Shakespeare’s time. The year before Shakespeare’s birth in 1564, a
            zealous Protestant called John Foxe wrote in The Book of Martyrs that the English
            were the chosen people of European Protestantism. Here is  yet another theme of
            these sessions: that Christianity was fundamental to our emerging identity, at least as

            much as ethnicity or nationalism. There is no suggestion that Shakespeare shared
            Foxe’s Protestant  views, but in Gaunt’s speech he clearly portrays the English belief
            that they were exceptionally blessed.

            The chosen people theme goes even further. Shakespeare writes that the English and
            their kings are


            “Fear’d by their breed and famous by their birth,
            Renowned for their deeds as far from home,
            For Christian service and true chivalry,
            As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry,
            Of the world’s ransom, blessed Mary’s Son,
            This land of such dear souls, this dear, dear land,
            Dear for her reputation through the world.”
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