tue 16/07/2024

How God Made the English, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

How God Made the English, BBC Two

How God Made the English, BBC Two

Why do the English think they're better than everyone else? Perhaps God has the answer

Diarmaid MacCullogh believes that God has shaped the English soulCredit: BBC/Chris Gibbons

This programme wants to challenge certain stereotypes around English identity. It wants to challenge the notion that to be English is to be “tolerant, white and Anglo-Saxon”. But before it does any of that, it wants to address just one question, and that is this: just why are the English so damned full of themselves? That’s right. Just where does their sense of superiority and entitlement come from?

And what makes them think they can strut around the world with missionary zeal interfering in other people’s affairs all the time? OK, that’s several questions, but you see the theme. This episode, of three, was entirely devoted to answering it.

Diarmaid MacCulloch has a thesis. In fact, he thinks he’s got it pretty much wrapped. It’s because of God, he argues. God makes the English feel special, and therefore superior. MacCulloch is a historian of the Church of England, so it’s pretty evident that he knows a lot about the history of England in relation to the church. He begins with Bede, the eighth-century Northumbrian monk. Bede wrote the first history of the English people before there was such a thing as “the English”. He wrote it when the English were, in fact, a divided land mass ruled by different war lords. For Bede, however, to be English was to be one people under one Christian God.

Underpinning all this is the idea that England was reinforcing a link with the Israelites

To show how God made England, MacCulloch takes us on a heady historical romp that jumps vast spans of time. From Bede we arrive at Alfred the Great, the Anglo-Saxon king of Wessex who translated the venerable monk from Latin to the native tongue and under whom we had the first law code. From there, we briefly pause in the company of Æthelstan, the first ruler to be crowned with the title of King of England. And before we can blink, we’ve arrived at Henry VIII, whose dissolution of the monasteries might have seen off papal rule, but under whom the idea that England was a nation chosen by God was newly revived. The horrific loss of life at the battle of the Somme shows how faith in the 20th century was shaken by its roots. But before we can take another breath we're once again toasting royalty at the Queen’s televised coronation in 1953 – where, MacCulloch tells us, London melts into the Jerusalem of 3,000 years before.

And underpinning all this is the idea that, with each successive ruler, England was reinforcing a link with the Israelites. A biblical narrative that is specifically Jewish is being woven into English Identity. And so we’re taken to our most esteemed institutions and palaces and shown paintings, tapestries and inscriptions which each convey the same idea – that, like the Jews, the English have a special relationship with God, and one that can even be described as a tacit convenant.

How God Made the English is certainly full of fascinating detail, but I feel as if I’m missing something. In fact, rather a lot. Is a superiority complex really unique to the English? I think it certainly shows an arrogance – a blinkered self-obsession, too - to think that it is. Just think, after all, of the self-effacing French, the kow-towing Germans, the humble Americans, the clearly peace-loving Japanese. Yes, as odd as it might seem, economically successful countries just don’t do self-effacing. And there were empires before England. But perhaps it's only the English who spend so much time apologising for it.

What’s fundamentally wrong with MacCulloch’s thesis seems to me to be quite straightforward. The sense of having right on one's side, that sense of being morally superior, doesn’t originate from one historical source, that source being a belief in one's status as God’s chosen people - though certainly, it could be bolstered by it - but by simply being a very successful nation, economically, politically, militarily, intellectually, and having that success reinforced over time. England’s prosperity, England’s stability have given her not only the confidence but the means to bestride the world stage. If she had had neither, I frankly doubt if God alone would have been much help. 


The English made the English great not God. God may have made the English but he did not make them great. Greed was the key - it was all greed God was just the lipstick they used to make themselves feel good about it all. The English are very greedy and stick their noses into everything looking for gold. I think they are very giving also. These are not mutually exclusive traits. Still it is actually good and has lovely cinematography (well chosen sites) and he has a great story to tell. Lastly daft commission model for the BBC same as The History of Scotland etc was. They should be packaged into each home nations on the same topic - it all fits. Guess this will help split us up then all these home nations shows.

The programme has got it all wrong as usual they need to read and understand the Bible before making programmes like this.a

I thought this was not good at all. You can't create a narrative from just plucking the hackneyed plums of English history. Why not mention of the 17th century, with its serious conflicts 1) between king and Parliament, and 2) on the place of religion in public life. And what of the British Empire before the Evangelicals got hold of it: commercially based (Drake & co were really just pirates), multi-racial (Stewart; Ochterlony). Abolition of the slave trade was due as much if not more to the Quakers than to the Evangelicals; it was just that the latter, being the established church, were keener to take the credit and blast the Quakers as heretics

This is by the BBC, commissioned by an Asian and told by a 'Celt'. BBC = British Brainwashing Corporation - add to that Anglo-phobic. The English are of Northern European Germanic descent, end of. Why does the BBC feel the need to challenge that fact? Why not apply the same twisted logic to the Scots, Welsh and Irish? Why isn't their identity challenged in the same way?? Those who point to an Empire might like to reflect on the fact that those on the Celtic fringe also played their part in it, and for commentators to come out with such baloney about the English being greedy for power and gold just shows the power of the media to brainwash them into applying traits to certain groups, when it fact those traits are within all human kind. Still, you can tell when someone has been successful, and that's by the amount of people in confederacy against them. The BBC is obsessed with the Celtic fringe, which is pushed to the nth degree by the BBC - while we English get this kind of crass garbage pushed down their throats on an almost daily basis. As far as the BBC are concerned, they want the English (and others) to think that they are a myth of their own making - and judging by the comments here I'm sure it works on some at least. Well you can shove your bigoted, Anglo-phobic crap where the sun doesn't shine. You know the place - you usually talk through it most of the time. Okay, that's the cue for some faux academic to take me to task for my terribly nationalistic, uniformed outburst , and no doubt will involve some pithy, clever dick remark. Well knock yourself out. Being English I'm used to hearing the same bullshit dished out.

'baloney' 'confederacy' 'garbage' 'crap' 'bullshit' I certainly won't make a clever dick comment about your being nationalistic!

I heart agree with and can only add that McCulloch's preening vanity was nauseating. He is such poseur in and his silly and totally pointless provides a wonderful symbol of his pretentiousness. Bigotry is OK in academia as long it's against a group called the Englsi.

Well said - I totally agree! I started watching this with the fear that it'd be the same old hatchet job on English identity, and very quickly saw that it was - any programme starting with St George's well-known non-Englishness as a means to help rubbish the whole English concept couldn't go any other way, so I turned off in deference to my blood presure.

WHILE DIARMAID MACCULLOCH presents hours of compelling exposition, he offers little in the way of support for the notion that active Anglicanism is the best hope for order in the religious agora. To portray Anglicanism as intrinsically flexible organization, the professor offers only a strained metaphor in the way bell-ringers vary their sequences; an ostensibly-celebrated history of accommodation is represented only by concessions imposed on an unwilling Church of England by parliamentary bull. IN CONTRAST, ANGLICANISM has an enviable recent record of enlightened attitudes and progressive policies--but MacCulloch fails to explain why fanatical fundamentalism cannot be contained without a strong Church of England. Presumably, a trusted, temperate denomination is more likely to draw human resources away from extremist religious movements than is a godless, secular liberalism--but that hardly seems sufficient to justify nouveay-antidisestablishmentarianism.

What was the point of Celtic Diarmuid McCulloch doing a DNA test to check his Anglo-Saxon origins ? To say that the Anglo-Saxons, Jutes & vikings etc had very little part in the making of the English people is nonsense. They changed the language, culture and ethnic make-up of the people living in England. To say it's all down to ancient Basques arriving in 5000 BC is further nonsense ! How does he think they got to Britain, on the Bilbao - Portsmouth ferry perhaps, rather than overland and after living in northern Europe for several thousand years.

It didnt start of that bad, I disagreed with points, but I listened to the Opinions. But the last episode, was just Multicultural propaganda. For one, the Celts in spain back then werent even "Spanish". Spaniards are a mix of Visigoth/Roman/Native Iberians later even some of the converted to Catholicism Moors/Arabs and Jews were absorbed into their identity. He talks about the Germanics settling in England even though we're mainly all "spanish celts" (according to the idiot), but then fails to mention Germanic amonsgt others migration to spain aswell. Why is it only English ethnicity that is put under the microscope?

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters