Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination - By Peter Ackroyd



Of the English imagination there is no certain description. It has been compared with a stream or river, in the same manner as English poetry. It may be a fountain perpetually fresh and perpetually renewed, as in the Marian hymn of the early sixteenth century: “Haill! fresh fontane that springes new . . .” It can also be seen in close affinity with the flow of English poetical cadence:

In the hexameter rises the fountain’s silvery column; In the pentameter aye falling in melody back

It can be compared to an aeolian harp, of which. . . the long sequacious notes Over delicious surges sink and rise

These words of Coleridge suggest in turn the drawn-out melodies and vast chromatic harmonies of the English musical tradition. And yet, if a literary metaphor is required, then the most powerful may be taken from Henry Vaughan in the seventeenth century: “Like a great Ring of pure and endless light.” The English imagination takes the form of a ring or circle. It is endless because it has no beginning and no end; it moves backwards as well as forwards.

Albion is an ancient word for England, Albio in Celtic and Alba in Gaelic; it is mentioned in the Latin of Pliny and in the Greek of Ptolemy. It may mean “the white land,” related to the whiteness of the cliffs greeting travellers and suggesting pristine purity or blankness. But the cliffs are also guardians and Albion was the name of the primaeval giant who made his home upon the island of Britain. He is the “elemental and emblematic giant” whom G. K. Chesterton observed in his study of Chaucer, “with our native hills for his bones and our native forests for his beard . . . a single figure outlined against the sea and a great face staring at the sky.” His traces can be seen in the huge white horses which populated the primitive landscape, inscribed in the chalk of the hills. Today, like those fading memorials, Albion is not so much a name as the echo of a name.

There is clear evidence that the concept of Englishness—the “Englishness” of the Anglo-Saxons, as opposed to the “Britishness” of the Celts—circulated widely in the Anglo-Saxon world. Bede composed Historia Ecclesiastica GentisAnglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People), where the “Gens Anglorum” were deemed to be a specific and identifiable race sprung out of Saxon and Old English roots. In Bede’s history, “the English were God’s new ‘chosen’ nation elected to replace the sin-stained Briton in the promised land of Britain.”1 (This belief in God’s providential choice, most ably expounded by Milton in the seventeenth century, survived until the latter part of the nineteenth century.) The notion of Englishness itself was a religious one from the moment Pope Gregory sent Augustine to England with the mission of establishing a Church of the English, in the light of his celebrated if apocryphal remark “non Angli sed angeli” (“Not Angles but angels”). A late seventh-century biography then declared that Gregory would lead “ gentem Anglorum” into the sight of God at the time of the Last Judgement. One of the reasons for the success of the Reformation, and the formation of the Church of England, lies in this national zeal.

King Alfred is associated with “the councillors of all the English race” in a late ninth-century treaty, and defined himself as “ rex Anglorum et Saxonum.” In the preface to the translation of Gregory’s Cura Pastoralis he alludes to “ Angelcynn,” or Englishkind, and “Englisc.” The “D” and “E” texts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle evince the spirit of English nationalism with reference to “this nation,” “all the people of England” and “all the flower of the English nation.” 2

The nationalism of the Anglo-Saxon period has been maintained by the fact that no other European nation has kept its boundaries intact over so many centuries. English literature, too, is among the oldest in Europe. It has been remarked that the heroic poetry of England after 900 strikes a singularly patriotic note, and we may regard that date as significant.

Archbishop Wulfstan’s “Sermon of the Wolf to the English,” of 1014, continually invokes theodscipe or the nation in an act of sympathetic if admonitory communion. As one historian has put it, “Englishness was the creation of the Anglo-Saxons, and it was they who made England.” 3 It was of crucial importance, in this context, that many charters and wills were composed in Old English; the language itself becomes an image of unity and identity.