England, My Lionheart

(Roman Mosaic depicting two hunters against a big cat)

On Saturday St George`s Day will hopefully be marked by a communal sense of love for the country of England, and the history, myths and legends that make it unique. England as a political entity is just over a thousand years old, but it has been inhabited by humans and animals for a much longer period. Only a few English people seem to feel a powerful emotional connection to the country and its very ancient past, and even fewer are prepared to defend it.

I count myself among those now unlucky few and I continue to resist all the brickbats from ignorant people who pour scorn upon Englishness which, to me is as immutable as my female gender. There is a kind of race memory attached to my sense of Englishness which is very real.

The heraldry of England, namely the 3 lions motif is more than symbolic, it actually pertains to a time when native lions stalked England. In 2009 Oxford University research revealed that 13,000 years ago there were lion species living in parts of London, Yorkshire and Devon.

Scientists discovered fossils that revealed that these animals were believed to be 25% bigger than the modern African lion.

(Paw print from an unidentified big cat in ancient England).

They also discovered that they would have weighed 50 stone, compared to the average weight of an African lion which is 39 stone. Our ancestors revered but also feared these big beasts and they were eventually hunted into extinction.

Lions are also part of heroic myth. Dragons, though not literal creatures are an essential part of explaining our island story. Dragon stories are an inherent part of English tradition which is why the apocrophal tale of St George has been subsumed into our identity as a people. Shakespeare evokes this in Henry V to explain this atavistic longing.

Tolkein also understood that our ancestors were superstitious and feared the wrath of fiery, fearsome beasts. One story from the eleventh century details the deadly visitation of a dragon in Christchurch after the local people refused to give money to a pious order of monks.

Tolkein was also a veteran of the First World War when an old order was violently overtaken by a new one. Arthur Machen created the legend of “The Bowmen” which is an almost direct homage to Shakespeare`s St Crispian`s speech. The story details the victory of a battle of Englishmen when a vision of St George vanquishing the dragon appeared to them.

I believe that it is treasonous to sneer at our traditions, it is time to show a greater respect.

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