~Israel and Early Modern English identity

It's one of the less well-known facets of British history that there was 'cult of Israel' of sorts which helped forge our national identity both before and during the age of the British Empire. Britain, it was held, was a second and superior Israel - a Protestant Israel, in fact, one of the few bastions of God's true Word in Europe. It was very much the opposition to the rest of Europe that was the glue which stuck the peoples of Britain together into the United Kingdom in 1707, but our story can even go back further.

After the death of 'Bloody' Mary I in 1558, Puritan emigrés who had spent their time in Geneva, Frankfurt or Zurich to avoid the bloody repression of her reign began to filter back into England. They brought with them hope that they might "drink the true milk of the Gospel" in England as they had done in Germany or Switzerland: a hope that Elizabeth to some extent dashed with the moderate religious settlement of 1559. Mary's reign can be seen as at least a symbolic milestone in the development of English nationalism, which was defined as being opposed to the Catholic European (Spaniard, in this case). Similarly, Protestantism was a way of defining oneself against the Frenchman - and each Englishman thought himself worth at least two Frenchman1.

At Elizabeth I's coronation, which took place on the 15th of January, 1559, various pageants had been organised by the city's mayor. On Fleet Street, a pageant showed Deborah, "the judge and restorer of the House of Israel", consulting with the three estates for the good government of Israel. A child recited -

Jabin, of Canaan King, had long, by force of arms,
Oppressed the Israelites; which for God's people went:
But God minding, at last, for to redress their harms;
The worthy Deborah, as judge among them sent.

Elizabeth was being prevailed upon to rule wisely and by consultation as Deborah had done for forty years (Elizabeth's reign would be 45 years long). The House of Hanover were seen by many in this similar light when they came to power in England. It was arguably the support George Frederic Handel lent to the staunchly Protestant Hanoverian dynasty that was part of his popularity in Britain. Of George II he sung -

He bids the circling seasons shine,
Recalls the olive and the vine,
With blooming plenty loads the plain,
And crowds the field with golden grain.

The House of Hanover would, it was said, bring in a new era of prosperity as befitted God's chosen people. This first sort of expression of the idea, in which England was the second Israel, invoked patriotism. During the eighteenth century England was involved in a long war with France and the threat of a Jacobite invasion was often perceived to be acute. Protestants would celebrate each year the successful Protestant invasion of William and Mary in 1688 along with events such as the publication of Martin Luther's Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences (1517), the accession of Queen Elizabeth I (1558) and even the short-lived "deliverence from Popery" by King Edward VI (1548). Popular almanacs and newspapers reminded people of all these events as well as advising them of Catholic atrocities abroad (often exagerated).

Language drawing analogies between Israel and England were very common among the clergy, especially in sermons for troops before battle or in victory ones. The Jacobites were compared to the Assyrians or their allies, and Britain was depicted as being in a nigh-apocalyptic battle against Satan's accomplices.

Was this cult limited to the rich and affluent, as has been suggested? After all, many poorer Britains probably did not feel like they were living in the promised land, or if they were they weren't receiving their share of the bounty. But it is a strange trick of nationalism that illusion takes place over reality, and people would accept as their guiding presupposition in the matter that "I, as a Protestant Englishman, must be richer in spiritual ways than a European Catholic, particularly a Frenchman". So although the English were more heavily taxed than most Europeans, they thought their true liberty to be the absence of Popery. The "superstition" of the French was held to be what bound them and made them inferior, whatever their wealth or power. William Hogarth wrote -

Let France grow proud, beneath the tyrant's lust,
While the rack'd people crawl, and lick the dust;
The manly genius of this Isle disdains
All tinsel slavery, or golden chains.

Brits could justify the Empire by seeing themselves as God's anointed, spreading his Word (through force). Their constant contact with the 'Other' - non-Protestant - peoples, especially in martial conflict, only enlarged this feeling until arguably the root of it all, as a religious institution, became subordinated to a secular society which it had done so much to create. As British society secularized, the mode of definition declined. But even in the trenches in World War I men took inspiration from The Pilgrim's Progress (which portrayed Pope and Pagan as equal evils) and in a largely secular society people could take comfort in tracts written in this time, even if the idea of England as a Protestant Israel had faded.

In the early 1800s William Blake wrote the lines below, in a poem called Jerusalem.

And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the Holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark satanic mills.

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

1. This is from Sir John Fortescue's The Governance of England (written in the early 1470s) and rendered into Modern English, and I admit I've been waiting for an opportunity to quote it for ages -

"It is only lack of heart and cowardice that keep the Frenchmen from rising.

Poverty is not the cause that the common people of France do not rise against their sovereign lord. ... but it is cowardice and lack of heart and courage, which no Frenchman possesses like an Englishman. It has often been seen in England that three or four thieves, on account of poverty, have set upon six or seven honest men and robbed them all. But it has not been seen in France that six or seven thieves have been bold enough to rob three or four honest men. As a result, it is very seldom that Frenchmen are hanged for robbery, for they have no hearts to do so terrible an act. There are, therefore, more men hanged in England in a year for robbery and manslaughter than are hanged in France for such sorts of crime in seven yeres. There is no man hanged in Scotland for robbery in any seven consecutive years. And yet they are often hanged for larceny, and stealing property in the absence of the owner. But their hearts do not serve them to take a man's property while he is present and means to defend it; which kind of taking is called robbery. But the English man is of another sort of courage. For if he is poor and see another man having riches that may be taken away from him by force, he will not spare to do so, unless that poor man is exceptionally honest."


Colley, Linda. Britons: Forging the Nation 1707 - 1837: Pimlico, 1992.

Guy, John. Tudor England: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Neale, J. E. Queen Elizabeth I: Penguin Books, 1930.