Merry England

Merry England
Poor little birdie teased, by the 19th-century English illustrator Richard Doyle. Traditional English fairytales depicting elves, fairies and pixies are set on a "Merrie England" setting of woodland and cottage gardens.

"Merry England", or in more jocular, archaic spelling "Merrie England", refers to an English autostereotype, a utopian conception of English society and culture based on an idyllic pastoral way of life that was allegedly prevalent at some time between the Middle Ages and the onset of the Industrial Revolution. More broadly, it connotes a putative essential Englishness with nostalgic overtones, incorporating such cultural symbols as the thatched cottage, the country inn, the cup of tea and Sunday roast. Storybooks for children about fairytales written in the Victorian period often used this as a setting as it is seen as a mythical utopia. They often contain nature-loving mythological creatures such as elves and fairies, as well as Robin Hood. It may be treated both as a product of the sentimental nostalgic imagination and as an ideological or political construct (either of the left or the right).

"Merry England" is not a wholly consistent vision, a revisited England of which the late Oxford folklorist Roy Judge observed that it is "a world that has never actually existed, a visionary, mythical landscape, where it is difficult to take normal historical bearings."[1] By contrast, Ronald Hutton's study of churchwardens' accounts[2] places the creation of "Merry England" in the years between 1350 and 1520, with the newly-elaborative annual festive round of the liturgical year, with candles and pageants, processions and games, boy bishops and decorated rood lofts. Hutton discovered that, far from being pagan survivals, many of the activities of popular piety criticised by sixteenth-century reformers were actually creations of the later Middle Ages and that "Merry England" reflects historical aspects of rural English folklore that were lost during industrialization.[3] Favorable perceptions of Merry England reveal a nostalgia for aspects of an earlier society that are missing in modern times.


Origins and themes

O the Roast Beef of Old England (The Gate of Calais) by William Hogarth contrasts English plenty with French and Jacobite Highlander misery.

The concept of a Merry England may have originated in the Middle Ages, describing a utopian state of life that peasants aspired to lead (see Cockaigne). Peasant revolts, such as those led by Wat Tyler and Jack Straw invoked a visionary idea that was also egalitarian. Tyler's rebels wished to throw off the feudal aristocracy (though the term "Norman yoke" belongs to a later period) and return to a perceived time where the Saxons ruled in equality and freedom. The main arguments of Tyler's rebels were that there was no basis for aristocratic rule in the Bible, and that the plague had demonstrated by its indiscriminate nature that all people were equal under God. Thus they adopted the rhetoric of Norman vs. Saxon conflict as part of a much wider ideology. This idealized view of society was in any case an unrealistic version of life in the 14th and 15th centuries, although there was a period after the Black Death when labour shortages meant that agricultural workers were in stronger positions, and the good harvests and gentle inflation of the thirteenth century had eased fixed burdens owed to landlords by smallholders.

Ronald Hutton's study of churchwarden's accounts, The Rise and Fall of Merrie England: The Ritual Year, 1400-1700 places the creation of "Merry England" in the years between 1350 and 1520. Hutton describes the collapse of the annual festal round in parish society with the English Reformation. Official prohibitions suppressed the confraternities that organized and supported church ales. A growing fashion for religious austerity forced maypoles and the like into the secular sphere, where they were attacked by the godly as disturbances; James I wrote a pamphlet against such sports. The Long Parliament put an end to ales, the last of which was held in 1641, and drove Christmas underground, where it was kept privately, as a form of protest. Hutton's work was criticized as "methodologically naive" by a reviewer.[4]

At various times since the Middle Ages, authors, propagandists, romanticists, poets and others have revived or co-opted the term. The celebrated Hogarth engraving illustrating the patriotic song "The Roast Beef of Old England" (see illustration), is as anti-French as it is patriotic.

William Hazlitt's essay "Merry England", appended to his Lectures on the English Comic Writers (1819),[5] popularised the specific term, introduced in tandem with an allusion to the iconic figure of Robin Hood, under the epigraph "St George for merry England!":

The beams of the morning sun shining on the lonely glades, or through the idle branches of the tangled forest, the leisure, the freedom, 'the pleasure of going and coming without knowing where', the troops of wild deer, the sports of the chase, and other rustic gambols, were sufficient to justify the appelation of 'Merry Sherwood', and in like manner, we may apply the phrase to Merry England.

Hazlitt's subject was the traditional sports and rural diversions native to the English. In Die Lage der arbeitenden Klasse in England (1844: translated as The Condition of the Working Class in England), Friedrich Engels wrote sarcastically of Young England (a ginger-group of young aristocrats hostile to the new industrial order) that they hoped to restore "the old 'merry England' with its brilliant features and its romantic feudalism. This object is of course unattainable and ridiculous ..." The phrase "merry England" appears in English in the German text.[6]

"A Garland for May Day 1895" woodcut by Walter Crane

William Cobbett provided conservative commentary on the rapidly changing look and mores of an industrialising nation[7] by invoking the stable social hierarchy and prosperous working class of the pre-industrial country of his youth in his Rural Rides (1822–26, collected in book form, 1830). The later works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge also subscribed to some extent to the "Merry England" view. Thomas Carlyle's Past and Present also made the case for Merrie England; the conclusion of Crotchet Castle by Thomas Love Peacock contrasts the mediaevalism of Mr. Chainmail to the contemporary social unrest. Barry Cornwall's patriotic poem. "Hurrah for Merry England", was set twice to music and printed in The Musical Times, in 1861 and 1880.

In the 1830s, the Gothic revival promoted in England what once had been a truly international European style. Its stages, though, had been given purely English antiquarian labels—"Norman" for the Romanesque, "Early English", etc.—and the revival was stretched to include also the succeeding, more specifically English style: a generic English Renaissance revival, later named "Jacobethan". The revival was spurred by a series of lithographs by Joseph Nash (1839–1849), illustrating The Mansions of England in the Olden Time in picturesque and accurate detail. They were peopled with jolly figures in ruffs and farthingales, who personified a specific "Merry England" that was not Catholic (always an issue with the Gothic style in England), yet full of lively detail, in a golden pre-industrial land of Cockaigne. In popular culture, the adjective Dickensian is sometimes used in reference to this view, but Charles Dickens's view of the rural past evoked nostalgia, not fantasy. Mr. Pickwick's world was that of the 1820s and 1830s, of the stagecoach before the advent of the railways. The pseudo Old English carol "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen" first appeared in 1833, in Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern, a collection of seasonal carols gathered and apparently improvised by William B. Sandys; after its brief appearance in Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" (1843), it quickly developed its reputation for being 16th century or earlier.

The London-based Anglo-Catholic magazine of prose and verse Merry England began publication in 1879. Its issues bore a sonnet by William Wordsworth as epigraph, beginning "They called thee 'merry England' in old time" and characterizing Merry England "a responsive chime to the heart's fond belief":

...Can, I ask,

This face of rural beauty be a mask
For discontent, and poverty, and crime?—
These spreading towns a cloak for lawless will?—
Forbid it, Heaven! —that Merry England still
May be they rightful name, in prose or rhyme.

In the late Victorian era, the Tory Young England set perhaps best reflected the vision of "Merry England" on the political stage. Today, in a form adapted to political conservatism, the vision of "Merry England" extends to embrace a few urban artisans and other cosmopolitans; a flexible and humane clergy; an interested and altruistic squirearchy, aristocracy and royalty. Solidity and good cheer would be the values of yeoman farmers, whatever the foibles of those higher in the hierarchy.

The idea of Merry England became associated on one side with the Anglo-Catholics and Catholicism, as a version of life's generosity; for example Wilfrid Meynell entitled one of his magazines Merrie England. The pastoral aspects of William Blake, a Londoner and an actual craftsman, lack the same mellow quality. G. K. Chesterton in part adapted it to urban conditions. William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement and other left-inclined improvers (whom Sir Hugh Casson called "the herbivores") were also (partly) believers. Walter Crane's "Garland for May Day 1895" is lettered "Merrie England" together with progressive slogans ("Shorten Working Day & Lengthen Life", "The Land for the People", "No Child Toilers") with socialism ("Production for Use Not for Profit"). For a time, the Merry England vision was a common reference point for rhetorical Tories and utopian socialists, offering similar alternatives to an industrialising society, with its large-scale movement off the land to jerry-built cities and gross social inequality.

Merry England did not really "decline" in the way that Storm Jameson said it did in her book The Decline of Merry England (1930), which has the significant subtitle an essay on Puritanism in England.

Deep England

"Deep England" refers to an idealised view of a rural, Southern England. The term is neutral, though it reflects what English cultural conservatives would wish to conserve.[8] The term, which alludes to la France profonde, has been attributed to both Patrick Wright[9] and Angus Calder.[10] The concept of Deep England may imply an explicit opposition to modernism and industrialisation;[11] and may be connected to a ruralist viewpoint typified by the writer H. J. Massingham.[12] Major artists whose work is associated with Deep England include: the writer Thomas Hardy,[13] the painter John Constable,[14] the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams,[15] and the poets Rupert Brooke[16] and Sir John Betjeman.[17] Examples of this conservative or village green viewpoint include the editorial line sometimes adopted by the British Daily Mail newspaper,[18] and the ideological outlook of magazines such as This England.[19]

Little England and propaganda

In Angus Calder's re-examination of the ideological constructs surrounding "Little England" during World War II in The Myth of the Blitz, he puts forward the view that the story of Deep England was central to wartime propaganda operations within the United Kingdom, and then, as now, served a clearly defined political and cultural purpose in the hands of various interested agencies.

Calder cites the writer and broadcaster J.B. Priestley whom he considered to be a proponent of the Deep England world-view. Priestley's wartime BBC radio "chats" described the beauty of the English natural environment, this at a time when rationing was at its height, and the population of London was sheltering from the Blitz in its Underground stations. In reference to one of Priestley's bucolic broadcasts, Calder made the following point:

Priestley, the socialist, gives this cottage no occupant, nor does he wonder about the size of the occupant's wage, nor ask if the cottage has internal sanitation and running water. His countryside only exists as spectacle, for the delectation of people with motor cars." (Angus Calder, The Myth of the Blitz, London 1991)

However, in Journey Through England, Priestley identified himself as a Little Englander because he despised imperialism and the effect that the capitalist industrial revolution had on the people and environment.

Part of the imagery of the 1940 patriotic song There'll Always Be an England seems to be derived from the same source:

There'll always be an England
While there's a country lane,
Wherever there's a cottage small
Beside a field of grain.

The continuation evokes, however, the opposite image of the modern industrialised society:

There'll always be an England
While there's a busy street,
Wherever there's a turning wheel,
A million marching feet.

The song seems therefore to offer a synthesis and combine the two Englands, the archaic bucolic one and the modern industrialised one, in the focus of patriotic loyalty and veneration.

Literature and the arts

The transition from a literary locus of Merry England to a more obviously political one cannot be placed before 1945, as the cited example of J. B. Priestley shows. Writers and artists described as having a Merry England viewpoint range from the radical visionary poet William Blake to the evangelical Christian Arthur Mee. The Rudyard Kipling of Puck of Pook's Hill is certainly one; when he wrote it, he was in transition towards his later, very conservative stance. Within art, the fabled long-lost merrie England was also a recurring theme in the Victorian-era paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The 1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris portrays a future England that has reverted to a rural idyll following a socialist revolution.

Reference points might be taken as children's writer Beatrix Potter, John Betjeman (more interested in Victoriana), and the fantasy author J. R. R. Tolkien, whose hobbit characters' culture in The Shire embodied many aspects of the Merry England point of view.

In his essay "Epic Pooh", Michael Moorcock opined:

The little hills and woods of that Surrey of the mind, the Shire, are 'safe', but the wild landscapes everywhere beyond the Shire are 'dangerous'. Experience of life itself is dangerous. The Lord of the Rings is a pernicious confirmation of the values of a declining nation with a morally bankrupt class whose cowardly self-protection is primarily responsible for the problems England answered with the ruthless logic of Thatcherism. Humanity was derided and marginalised. Sentimentality became the acceptable substitute. So few people seem to be able to tell the difference.

Here the shift has taken place: Tolkien was profoundly conservative with respect to cultural traditions, as Moorcock is quite aware, but not at all an imperialist. He set an area based upon the West Midlands region within a Middle-earth, but made it apparent that its perimeter was maintained by external allies. The Shire seems to represent the comfort of childhood which Tolkien's characters must leave in order to grow into maturity and wisdom. In addition, in The Fellowship of the Ring, both Gandalf and Frodo express frustration with hobbits' staidness and dislike of anything foreign or out of the ordinary, and even in Concerning Hobbits the narrator shows a certain degree of impatience with hobbits' general narrow-mindedness. Rather than a celebration of a narrow, anachronistic idealism, Tolkien's works hinge upon his characters moving beyond that place of idealism into a broader, more complex interaction with the world.[citation needed]

The Pyrates, the 1983 spoof historical novel by George MacDonald Fraser, sets its scene with a page-long sentence composed entirely of (immediately demolished) Merry England tropes:

It began in the old and golden days of England, in a time when all the hedgerows were green and the roads dusty, when hawthorn and wild roses bloomed, when big-bellied landlords brewed October ale at a penny a pint ...

The novel England, England by Julian Barnes describes an imaginary, though plausible, set of circumstances that cause modern England to return to the state of Deep England. The author's views are not made explicit, but the characters who choose to remain in the changed nation are treated more sympathetically than those who leave.

In Kingsley Amis's novel Lucky Jim, Professor Welch and his friends are devotees of the Merry England legend, and Jim's "Merrie England" lecture somehow turns into a debunking of the whole concept (a position almost certainly reflecting that of Amis).

A few popular music artists have used elements of the Merry England story as recurring themes; The Kinks and their leader Ray Davies crafted The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society as a homage to English country life and culture: it was described by Allmusic senior editor Stephen Thomas Erlewine as an album "lamenting the passing of old-fashioned English traditions";[20] Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) also contains similar elements. Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull has often alluded to an anti-modern, pre-industrial, agrarian vision of England in his songs (the band's namesake was himself an agrarian, the inventor of the seed drill).

Merrie England is a comic opera by Edward German.

Further reading

See also


  1. ^ Roy Judge, "May Day and Merrie England" Folklore 102.2 (1991, pp. 131-148) p 131.
  2. ^ Hutton, The Rise and Fall of Merrie England: The Ritual Year, 1400-1700.
  3. ^ Tom Hodgkinson, The Guardian, 17 November 2006 - "Hutton's work confirms my belief that Britain was a merrier place before the Puritans came along with their black hats and hatred of fun. Merry England was not a myth. They really did used to dance around the maypole, feast all day and drink beer all night. And not only was it more merry, the merry-making was actually encouraged by the Church, particularly in the later medieval period. This was because the Church had realised that merry-making could be a source of funds - the profits of the bar went to church upkeep - and also because it helped bind communities."
  4. ^ Katherine L. French, The Sixteenth Century Journal (1995), 247-248.
  5. ^ It was often reprinted in collections of Hazlitt's essays, and, tellingly, included in Ernest Rhys' compilation of sentimental patriotism The Old Country: a Book of Love and Praise of England, first published in 1917, as the First World War was coming to an end, and republished in 1922.
  6. ^ on-line
  7. ^ William Sambrook, William Cobbett (1973), ch. I "Merry England?"
  8. ^ British Film - Google Book Search. Retrieved 2009-01-24. 
  9. ^ The Historical Romance - Google Book Search. Retrieved 2009-01-24. 
  10. ^ Village England: A Social History of ... - Google Book Search. Retrieved 2009-01-24. 
  11. ^ Imagining Cities: Scripts, Signs, Memory - Google Book Search. Retrieved 2009-01-24. 
  12. ^ Step-daughters of England: British ... - Google Book Search. Retrieved 2009-01-24. 
  13. ^ So Exotic, So Homemade: Surrealism ... - Google Book Search. Retrieved 2009-01-24. 
  14. ^ The Anxious City: English Urbanism ... - Google Book Search. Retrieved 2009-01-24. 
  15. ^ The Culture of History: English Uses ... - Google Book Search. Retrieved 2009-01-24. 
  16. ^ The Historical Romance - Google Book Search. Retrieved 2009-01-24. 
  17. ^ So Exotic, So Homemade: Surrealism ... - Google Book Search. Retrieved 2009-01-24. 
  18. ^ Daily Mail "Deep England" - Google Book Search. Retrieved 2009-01-24. 
  19. ^ Iain Sinclair - Google Book Search. Retrieved 2009-01-24. 
  20. ^ Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society. Allmusic.

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