Category: Culture


In the last two posts we have looked at such questions as rulers changing religious (not to mention political and philosophical) beliefs of their people, and the question of national sovereignty as opposed to perceived national interests. We have used two examples over 3000 years apart – Akhenaten  of Egypt and Henry VIII of England. We have looked at the beginnings of an international organization to maintain peace and hopefully enable nations to settle differences as represented by the Western Christian Church, based on Rome, from mediaeval times onwards.

This early organization had its weaknesses. For example it could encourage member states to combine together to make war on a defaulting member or an outsider – not the best if we regard world peace as a Christian ideal. (Crusades). Again, it represented only a proportion of the nations which were within the orbit of the Western European community. Middle Eastern countries  and the Byzantine Empire could never be part of the set-up.

However it was a great step forward compared with early history when a powerful nation could create an empire and keep a number of nations in subjection – no question of consultation around the table! Ancient Egypt and later Persia created their areas of influence without the need to refer to an international body, so the Western Christian Church was a big step forward in international affairs. After Spain and Portugal had made their voyages to Central and South America each felt that the world was literally “its oyster”. There was huge potential for conflict between the two, which would have involved other nations as well. Papal intervention ensured that a line could be drawn dividing the huge new tracts of the world now in dispute peacefully between the disputing parties.

Philosophers/Idealists did explore the concept of “world” cooperation and world government from early times. In practical terms it was always regarded as requiring the sacrifice of too much national sovereignty. Every nation could envisage a situation where it might have to sacrifice too much of its independence in the general interest. However there were occasions where cooperation in matters of international trade made it possible to avoid a common cause of war. Even disputes over territory could be settled from time to time by nations meeting together.

The period from the 16th. to the 20th. century had seen the encroachment of Western Europe into all the Continents. Wars of conquest, and wars between would-be conquerors, were frequent and costly. The culmination of all this was the bloodbath of 1914-1918, the First World War – dubbed by some as “The War to End All Wars”. (Interestingly it was also described as “The Great War For Civilization” – did they really believe that?) As a consequence the League of Nations was set up. Sadly The League has been condemned as a failure – but it was a colossal advance in world thinking. It did not stop war. It was condemned for” having no teeth” which sounds an unfair comment on a peaceful body. But a key issue relevant to our discussion was that it must infringe too much on some members’ policies, notably those of the “great dictators”, who found resignation the appropriate answer.

The next attempt at following on from the two earlier international bodies was the United Nations after the Second World War. Again similar problems emerged in countries being frustrated when their policies were called into question. Again, a problem was its location in the USA, the most powerful participant in the War. A location in somewhere neutral and small – as had happened with the League – might have been more easy to accept. As so often sovereignty rears its head, and nations see resignation from the general body as the only solution.

We mentioned earlier the occasional coming-together of nations involved in mutual trade and commerce voluntarily agreeing in policy for their mutual advantage. Three tiny nations, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Luxemburg formed the Benelux group after the War. The European Coal and Steel Community was formed around the same period for the general good.

Out of all this emerged the Common Market concept, and the European Community. The Vatican , Geneva, New York were succeeded by Brussels (perhaps as a tribute to Benelux origins?) Regulations governing trade, manufacture etc., etc., became perhaps bureaucracy for its own sake in the eyes of many. The concept of breeding a “straight banana”, creation of “lakes” of unwanted milk and butter mountains etc. in a starving world did not appeal to all. Paying farmers not to grow food or to destroy their crops seemed strange to many. No doubt much good was done , but it is always the crazy stuff which makes an impact on “the man in the street”. And it is he who in a democracy has the vote.

One very interesting and hopeful aspect of the European Community was the European Parliament. The concept of moving from cooperation in  trade, commerce, manufacture into the political scene was a great step forward. But how did England feel about it all? One indication all along was that England retained the Pound Sterling and did not adopt the Euro. Henry VIII must have been cheering on the sidelines. That was a warning sign that perhaps was ignored – it indicated only conditional support of the project. Again we are faced with an island’s sovereignty, and with a stubborn independence. Western Europe under the unifying influence of the Church, under Napoleon, Hitler, and the European Community is used to a “group concept” – England is not. Confused? Join the club! A Happy Hallowe’en to all.


The time has come to jump  just over 3000 years to a more modern European monarch, Henry VIII of England. In yesterday’s post (under same title) we saw how the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten became embroiled in matters of “religion”, an experience shared by his remote successor. The situation in each country was in some respects different. In Egypt the gods were worshipped on a local/national basis. There were differences of opinion between monarchs and high priests, but other nations and foreign policy would not necessarily come into the picture. In Western Christian Europe at the end of the Middle Ages the situation was very different.

When the Roman Empire dissolved and disintegrated during the Dark  Ages a unifying force remained – Christianity as embodied in the Western Catholic Church, under a Pope normally based in Rome. This was a civilizing influence under which the evolving states of Western Europe had their being. In theory such an arrangement could keep states on peaceful terms with one another and provide a means of settling differences under Christian principles. Unfortunately theory and practice do not always coincide. The Church became involved in a more militant role in international politics. The Crusades were an example of how war could become an acceptable policy. The Norman invasion of England had the sanction of the Christian Church, as had the later Norman-English incursion into Ireland. As time went on Popes and monarchs were often related to each other and family ties were important in international policy.

England, being an island, naturally had a strong “go it alone” preference. A  feature of th 16th. century was the growing wealth and power of emerging nations. France and Spain were major players. But physically small states like England, the Netherlands, and North German states were taking advantage of new opportunities created by the discovery of America to expand their wealth and power. Manufacture and trade were not an invention of modern times! Henry’s father, Henry VII had in the interests of peace and goodwill with Spain  arranged a marriage between his son Arthur and a Spanish Princess, Catherine of Aragon. When Arthur died prematurely his younger brother Henry was expected to inherit his wife as well. (Such were royal marriages – more reminiscent of the cattle market than “Mills and Boone”).

Alongside this international and commercial scene were  aspects of the Church. Henry VIII was a devout follower of religious practices. The Pope had awarded him the title of “Defender of the Faith”, which he retained to the end of his life – he was in no way a “Protestant”. But there was one aspect of the Church with which Henry did not agree. This was not theological but more administrative – namely the function of the Church as an international body with influence over international relations. England, like other emerging powers was developing an independent outlook. Matters came to a head when Henry responded to pressure from his advisors to remarry and hopefully produce a male heir, which was felt to be vital for England’s continued existence and safety. Since this would break the marriage-based alliance with Spain this was not acceptable to Church policy – or international policy.

Another aspect of the religious set-up was the monastic system. The enormous benefits brought to Europe by the civilizing influence of the monasteries were beginning to be looked at differently as the system was in a process of decline, no longer so necessary and not performing well. But another factor was that monastic administration rested in the hands of authorities in Rome. This went against the growing independent outlook prevalent in England. A third factor, which we have already mentioned in the case of Akhenaten was that the monastic establishments were wealthy and were endowed with large areas of land, which the monarch could use to buy loyalty from his supporters. This entailed a break with the Pope, as representing the international aspects of the Church.

Here a comparison with Akhenaten is timely. Henry had no major quarrel with the Church’s theology. Akhenaten on the other hand created a new theology, the worship of the Sun – Aten. Henry brought the system of churches, clergy, bishops, under his control, making the religious system in England subject to the Crown.. Akhenaten’s changes were of similar nature except that he abolished the traditional deities and replaced them with one God. The system worked in England – the main clash between Church and State in England which springs to mind is the fall of Archbishop Laud in Charles I’s day to parliamentary pressure. It worked because for years afterwards religious practices remained stable . Eventually in England Protestantism gained ground, and in the 1640’s Puritanism emerged for a time as a religious force. In Egypt a conservative people, while accepting apparently the Pharaoh’s system, returned to traditional practices as soon as the monarchy changed. So “hasten slowly” would appear to be the motto where religious changes were contemplated.

An interesting example of an attempt to introduce a new religion occurred in the course of the French Revolution when the government introduced for a time worship of “The Supreme Being”. The traditional Church had already “fallen from grace” so to speak, and this was a palliative, which was short-lived.

Akhenaten’s revolutionary reforms may be a reason why during his reign Egypt was under aggressive pressure from neighbouring states, perhaps not because their religious concepts were being threatened but taking advantage of internal unrest which was bound to exist in Egypt. In the case of England the links between Henry’s break with the Church’s international influence and opposition from the other European states can be easily assumed. Yet too much can be made of “religion” here. Spain’s opposition to England in the years to come, culminating in the Spanish Armada episode in 1588 would have been more due to the clash between England and Spain in the American trade than religious doctrine.  Religion is so often a convenient scapegoat for other more mundane issues like trade and commerce.

People tend to be sensitive – and conservative- when it comes to changes in belief and practice being imposed from above – and it does not only apply to religion. Henry and his daughter Elizabeth “kept the brakes on” in matters of religious change. Henry’s son Edward VI, (Tutankhamun’s  opposite number), Henry’s daughter Maty Tudor, and later James II forced the pace of change and created serious unrest, as happened in the case of Akenhaten.

Another issue involved could perhaps be best described as sovereignty. We will be looking at that in the third part of this post. This is where international combinations for diplomacy or commerce fit in.





What could these all have to do with one another? Be patient, and you will find out. History is a continuous process, with each event producing consequences which spread far and wide, over time and space. Again, situations arise over the millennia in nations which produce similar responses and consequences. Human response doesn’t vary from age to  age. Nor do the basic problems communities face over time and space change much either.

We have all heard of Tutankhamun, the boy-king whose tomb seems to be better known than the young ruler himself today. No doubt the shortness of his reign accounts to some extent for this. Similarly his father Amenhotep IV has been a shadowy figure with  reaction to his rule depriving future generations of historians of a source of interesting material. Sometimes there is a reverse reaction to a ruler’s actions   Henry VIII performed  similar deeds, provoking a stormy reaction which has given “grist to the historian’s mill”ever since. Which is better – obscurity or notoriety? Perhaps Henry was less lucky because now everybody is an  “expert”on his deeds, whereas the students of Akhenaten have had to do some hard work over a century or so. If I may be excused a side-step, both monarchs were followed by “boy-kings” of limited survival periods but this is perhaps purely coincidental! Edward VI, Henry’s son,   had a weak chest – Tutankhamun on the other hand is still the subject of debate on the question of “Did he fall or was he pushed?”

In the case of both Amenhotep, or Akhenaten as he is probably better known, it was religion which loomed large in his  story.  Egypt  in the period we are looking at – around 2000 BC –   had a religious system with a whole range of national, international, provincial, local deities serviced by priests, administrators, servants, tenants, and possessing wealth, temples, hospitals, educational establishments. Many aspects of this would be familiar to folk in Henry VIII’s day too. It could be said that the Pharaoh, as well as being the titular ruler of the state, had a prime responsibility for the army, defence, law and order, taxation, social and economic issues  etc. Christian Europe of the sixteenth century was not all that different. In both periods clashes occurred between the religious establishment and the state as embodied in the Pharaoh/King. In Europe there was only Christianity embodied in two main groups  – Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Eastern Church. In Egypt there was a vast range of gods and goddesses ranging from powerful gods like  Amun to humble household spirits. The temple set-ups of the great gods provided a challenge to temporal authority. Also it could well be felt that such a multiplicity of expressions of religious feelings could well be condensed into a simple faith headed by one supreme Deity.

Such a religious set-up  however, greater even than that of Amun, could have immense influence over the state. Amenhotep tackled the problem by establishing himself as the founder of the new faith, its creator. The new religion was to be centered around the Sun, with the Pharaoh as its manifestation, so to speak. The monarch changed his title to Tutankhaten, in honour of the Sun God Aten.     Temples of the  old  gods were closed – no doubt their immense assets “nationalized” (Wonder why Henry VIII springs to mind)? It is a pity that subsequent Egyptian rulers deprived us of much knowledge of how this was done because it sounds virtually unbelievable. Perhaps the traditional gods were losing their ground with the people – perhaps the combined personality of the Pharaoh and the heat of the Sun were deemed to be insuperable – perhaps taxes to one combined religious establishment were lower than hitherto (or am I being cynical)? Anyway the new system was established and survived the rest of Akhenaten’s reign – and he too survived!

Apparently there was an immense freeing-up of art and culture during this period. Akhenaten established a new capital city – Amarna  –  and   there must have been a great “breath of fresh air” in what had been a stuffy and traditionalist Egypt. Some scholars have suggested that Akhenaten was  acquainted  with  Moses, who was also an exponent of the concept of One God. There is however a lack of evidence to this effect. It could well be that there was an underlying feeling that the multiplicity of deities was becoming too complex generally. Akhenaten was less successful in areas like foreign policy and Egypt’s territories and influence shrank during his reign. His son Tutankhaten on inheriting power changed his title to Tutankhamun – an indication that his counsellors had restored the old religion headed by the great   god   Amun. Not surprisingly political chaos reigned supreme for years as the old ways were restored. The great new capital Amarna was literally razed to the ground, with the foundations only being discovered in recent years. (It would almost  seem that one “modern”king, Louis XIV knew all this. He called himself the Sun  King and images of the sun dominated Versailles as they had dominated Amarna all those years earlier).


I Resign!

Such appeared to be the call from the people of England (as opposed to “Britain”) a few weeks ago. Now that the dust is at least partly settling it is a good time to look at things in a historical context.

First of all, did the English people really make that decision? Britain is, they say, a parliamentary democracy. But here we are reminded of the words of the French political philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau in the mid 1700’s  -” democracy is  dictatorship by the majority”. OK if, as some would have us believe, the majority is always right. But is it?

What do we mean by the majority? That is a very valid question in this case. The “majority” was small. We are told that the younger generation who would have supported maintaining the European connection didn’t for the most part turn out to vote! So where does that leave us? Again, something that surprises me is that it went on a 50/50 system. I would have thought that such plebiscites usually went on a two-thirds majority to prevent the sort of situation mentioned above.

Historically how does the vote measure up? Britain is an island, and islands historically claim the right to go it alone, manage their own affairs, pull up the drawbridge on foreign interference. Perhaps the larger half of Britain represented by England has a long and deep-rooted desire for independence and a suspicion of foreigners. I am minded of a poem by the Roman poet Horace almost 2000 years ago where he prays that heaven will protect the Emperor Augustus on his visit to the “Stranger-hating Britons”.    Such long-standing traditions must be hard to break – and let us stop blaming the Anglo-Saxons who didn’t appear until much later!

Scotland, a virtual “peninsula” of England, has historically much stronger ties with the Continent, going back over centuries. Ireland also, an isolated island, likewise has long-standing European connections. It is possible that both Scotland and Ireland have regarded certain European countries as potential allies against their larger neighbor. England on the other hand has over the centuries cause to  regard European countries, particularly from the south and east, as enemies (EG Scandinavia, Holland, France, Spain).

To look at a specific example of this we have only to consider the case of Henry VIII. Henry, in common with other European monarchs, had cause to resent an international system where hostile alliances could be made against them through link between the Pope of the day and other states. Far too much has been made of “religion” in looking at

Henry’s break with Rome. What we see here is an international situation where England’s independence and right to manage its own affairs was under threat.

An island nation has the advantage, given a strong navy, of being able to follow its own destiny without the constant apprehension of attack from a land-neighbor.  Ithas the disadvantage of losing cultural and other contact with the rest of the world. When exposed to outside influences suspicion can set in and a phobia may even develop.

The Romans went through this phase as their Empire developed. Juvenal and other writers condemned the decline in traditional Roman standards brought in by Greeks and other  races from  the east. Sounds familiar?

A factor which may have played some part in the vote would be the growing “Middle Eastern” presence. Probably the last time this happened was around 5000 BC when the first farmers arrived among the hunter-gatherer inhabitants of Britain , coming also from “Middle Eastern” countries. Emigration and resulting tensions never stop, do they? Did they have a brexit vote then? Can’t take the word brexit seriously – still sounds like a new breakfast cereal!