Ideas Featured

Remembering Our Future. History as a Cordial for Drooping Spirits.


The past cannot be changed but we are responsible for how we remember it. What we extract and carry forward creates possibilities for the future or closes them off. In an important sense we remember the future. In this creative activity, impartiality is not possible but honesty is a duty.

Featured image: Takashi Murakami and Virgil Abloh. Glance Past the Future, 2018.

In 1649, just before he was beheaded on a cold January morning in Whitehall, King Charles I addressed one final word to William Juxon, his companion on the scaffold and my predecessor as Bishop of London. The word was “Remember”

It is a word that reverberates and often ominously. The King’s enemies at this climacteric moment, when in the words of John Evelyn “un-kingship” was proclaimed, were naturally anxious to know what precisely the King meant. Juxon was summoned to a Parliamentary committee of enquiry and the question was put to him – What did the king mean by this word “remember”?

Juxon’s disarming reply to the Parliamentary Commissioners perhaps reveals why he did not himself end on the scaffold as his friend and patron Archbishop Laud had done. “The king knew that I was absent minded,” said the bishop. “He had given me the great George of the Order of the Garter to give to the Prince of Wales and he did not want me to forget.” The answer deflected suspicion and Juxon was simply consigned to internal exile and fox hunting in the Cotswolds.

He did however faithfully discharge the king’s will. The Great George, a cameo of St George and the Dragon set in gold and studded with diamonds, was given to the Prince of Wales, later Charles II. He bequeathed it to his brother James who took it with him into exile in 1688. Thereafter it passed down the Stuart line until Henry, Cardinal Duke of York sold it to the Marquess Wellesley who in turn sold it to his brother Arthur, Duke of Wellington – in whose family it remains.

Yet the Parliamentary Commissioners were right to be disturbed by the reverberations of “Remember”. Memories of the King’s piety and martyr’s death outlived and effaced the record of his political ineptitude and inconsistency. Memories of the Royal Martyr played a role in the restoration of his son in 1660.

One of the early uses of the phrase “a cordial for drooping spirits” was in a letter written by Thomas Warmstry and published in 1659. It is entitled “A handkerchief for loyal mourners or A cordial for drooping spirits groaning for the bloody murder and heavy loss of our gracious King.”

The command to “remember” reverberates through the history of many peoples. I have just returned from giving a series of talks on the countries bordering the river Danube. In Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia I was moved to see the holocaust memorial marking the site of the demolished synagogue with the simple but stark injunction in Hebrew and Slovak “zachor”, remember.

The Danubian countries demonstrate the power and the peril of historical memory. The building bricks of nationhood have been first and foremost a common language and then some shared historical memories consecrated in territorial and institutional expressions.

The British have on the whole done well out of history. Irish friends can perhaps better appreciate the passion with which debates about history are conducted in the successor states of the Habsburg Empire where the quest for national identity invests sometimes very remote periods with huge emotional freight. In the case of Slovakia, the short history of Greater Moravia 833-907 has assumed a pivotal role in the recent development of Slovak identity. The most important event during this period was the arrival in 863 of the missionaries Cyril and Methodius. They translated parts of the Bible into Old Church Slavonic and devised the Glagolithic alphabet, the basis of the Cyrillic still used in Russia. Their festival day, July 5th is a national holiday in Slovakia.

By about 907 however the realm of Greater Moravia disintegrated. The Slovaks became part of the kingdom of Hungary for a thousand years and their destiny diverged from that of the Czechs and Poles, their fellow Western Slavs. They found themselves in a state which also embraced South Slavs [Yugoslavs], Croats and Serbs, and East Slav Ruthenians as well. All these peoples have their own fiercely maintained historical title deeds, crucial to their identity. The conflicts between them illustrate the importance of forgetting as part of wisely and creatively remembering the past. It was a Czech political scientist Karl Deutsch, who with his profound knowledge of the history of Central Europe claimed that the definition of a nation is “a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbours”.

The past cannot be changed but we are responsible for how we remember it. What we extract and carry forward from what has gone before creates possibilities for the future or closes them off. In an important sense we remember the future.

In this creative activity of remembering, impartiality is not possible but honesty is a duty. Remembering is not so much taking down a file from the shelf containing a fixed representation of some past event as it is about recombining multiple sources of information and experience to create a living memory.

Plato in the ancient world saw memory as a process in which experiences or perceptions were encoded, stored and then retrieved. In more modern times, Frederick Bartlett first Professor of Experimental Psychology at Cambridge in his influential 1932 book, “Remembering” argued that memory was not so much reproduction as reconstruction shaped by our mental furniture. Memory involves an effort after meaning. That is why the writing of history is always in the end an art rather than a science although it is an art which must be practised with proper discipline.

Public remembering in the form of commemorations, saints days and festivals have always contributed powerfully to the sense of identity among groups or nations. It is also true that what and who we remember as individuals plays a vital role in the construction of our own identity. We are sad when with the onset of dementia more and more of a person’s memories are lost until that most painful point when someone we love cannot even recognise us.

What made the Israelites a people, distilled from the multitude of nomadic clans wandering the ancient near East, was their memory of their encounters with God, a story constantly rehearsed in their cultic assemblies. The very earliest creed recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures begins not with some abstract philosophical affirmation but with the phrase “a wandering Aramaean was my father”. The psalms abound with narratives remembering God’s dealings with Israel, a nation which time and again was rescued from assimilation and amnesia by remembering its time in the wilderness, its triumphs and its backslidings.

The central act, which over and over again creates and renews the Christian community, is also an anamnesis, a “not forgetting”, a memory of the night in which Jesus had a last meal with his friends and was betrayed by one of them. As he took the bread and the wine which nourish the physical body he told his friends to “do this in remembrance of me”. He was not inviting them to dwell on the past, on the hopeful beginnings of their mission in Galilee or the disappointment of so many of their hopes in Jerusalem; rather they were told to re-enact that last meal together as a way of keeping his teaching alive and deepening the bonds which made them into a community.

Rather than merely recalling the past this “remembrance” was a way in which Jesus confided his future in the world to his friends. The remembering, which Jesus commands, is not so much a recall of past events as a veritable re-membering, a re-assembling which makes him present as the once and future king. As Christians re-member his life and re-enact his way, they are incorporated into the story of Jesus and into the life of his body. In the process it is those who remember who are re-membered, recombined and reconstituted as a new community which is not dependent on blood ties, class solidarity or ethnicity. As a result of the practice of anamnesis, Jesus Christ re-members his followers and opens up the possibility of a new future.

It is unfortunately too often true, however, that Christians have far too frequently misused their memories in the service of dis-membering communities and nations.

But the power of remembering is such that it has been the ambition of every would-be tyranny to control our memories. In George Orwell’s dystopia 1984 the personnel of the Ministry of Truth work day after day to destroy the records of the past. They print new up-to-date editions of old newspapers and books knowing that the corrected version will soon be replaced by another re-corrected one. The intention is to nationalise personal and corporate memories and to make people more malleable. Our memories constitute our identity and deprived of them by degrees we become incapable of questioning anything we are told to believe.

One of the most heroic acts of remembering in the 20th century was Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s project to rescue the story of the sufferings of the victims of the Gulag and to unmask the great lie that sustained Soviet Communism. His Nobel Prize speech “One Word of Truth” is one of the most precious texts from the struggle in the 20th century against the messianic pretentions of the homicidal, pseudo-scientistic state.

No British government has ever set out to control memories with the rigour that the Soviet Authorities brought to the task but there have been modest and well intentioned efforts to edit the British and especially the English story in the hopes of opening the way to a kinder and more tolerant future.

I remember in particular how the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar in 2005 was observed. Nelson is buried in St Paul’s Cathedral and it was natural to assemble 200 years on to recall the Admiral’s death and the significance of the battle which preserved our islands from invasion. There was a large attendance of service chiefs and even the French military attache. Members of the Royal Family were there in force but not a single Government minster. It was not an event which suited the promotion of Cool Britannia and reflected the impatience with history which was such a marked feature of Tony Blair’s tenure as Prime Minister. As he wrote at the beginning of his Autobiography, he intended to write about the events of his political career “not as a historian but as a leader”.

I am not on the whole cynical about politicians and I believe that any country that denigrates those who offer themselves for public office gets the low level of leadership it deserves. I do not doubt for example that the Iraq campaign was conceived as a humanitarian intervention in the conviction that Western liberal democracy was the shape of things to come and was the answer to a universal yearning. Alas ignorance of the particular history and culture of the region and a lack of humility about the virtues of Western liberal democracy itself led the Anglo-American coalition into a cavalier policy of regime change which has brought chaos in its wake. It may be that a man who has a sense of history and little sense of destiny is a very tedious fellow. But there is no doubt that a man with a sense of destiny and no sense of history is a very dangerous fellow.

Trafalgar is well worth remembering as an example of that martial spirit which has kept our island secure over many centuries and preserved the English from the devastation periodically inflicted on the territories of our European neighbours. It was a defensive action won by courage and innovative tactics under an admiral who gave his life in the hour of victory.

Once upon a time everyone knew Nelson’s signal before the battle, “England expects every man to do his duty”. Now however our children are not always well served by how history is taught in our schools. Inspecting my daughter’s GCSE history syllabus, I discovered a focus on Twiggy and the Vietnam War with a lurch into ancient times represented by the Wall Street crash. There has never been a generation better informed about “now” with so little sense of how we came to be here. Every child in this country ought to have the opportunity of meeting Lord Nelson and considering his legacy. Amnesia can undo civilisations. They die in the night when no one can remember why once upon a time they inspired self-sacrifice.

We have been given the materials for a wise and creative remembering by a flotilla of historians who have shed fresh light even on such a well worked subject as Trafalgar.

Wisely the celebrations in 2005 eschewed any cheap point scoring against our European neighbours but it is worth being clear that our country was involved in 1805 in a life or death struggle with a military dictatorship which had been established over much of Europe in the wake of a Terror which had transformed France.

There are some times in history when it is proper to agree with John Toland the rationalist who said in 1711 with the horrific experience of civil war so present to his mind, “we prefer the quiet good natured hypocrite to the implacable turbulent zealot of any kind”. But in times of danger unless there are people who have a lively sense of what is worth living and dying for then our freedom to live at peace as a society is at risk. The cost involved in this lively sense of what is at stake and the need to make choices is huge and the accounts of the horrific suffering involved in the battle of Trafalgar should preserve us from any temptation to glorify war. Warriors have to face up to the reality of battle which is why they are commonly less belligerent than armchair generals.

But at such times of decision leaders need to make contact with foundational convictions and with a sense of calling which is fed by a memory of what England expects. This is the source of healthy self- confidence and the ability to master fear and to encourage people in the most extreme circumstances. Any education system which hopes to produce effective leaders and followers must take the formation of these foundational convictions very seriously.

We live at a strange time when the periodic table and anything that can be quantified and reduced to mathematics is regarded as an accurate description of reality but the Beatitudes and the teachings of the world’s wisdom traditions are seen as little more than the debatable opinions of dead sages.

Nelson’s sense of personal and individual call was developed within a tradition which also understood growth in the spiritual life as growth in love of neighbour. Nelson spared no pains to stand by and serve his shipmates. He exhibited an infectious trust in people which called out the best in them and engaged them not only to Nelson’s person but enrolled them in the cause in which he believed. This was not only true for the “band of brothers” who captained the ships of his fleet. People of all ranks in the little world which a ship constitutes became responsible leaders in their turn.

One of the hopeful aspects of our life in contemporary England is the growing involvement of young people in commemorations like the decidedly non-triumphalist ceremonies in Whitehall on Remembrance Sunday. When I began to be involved more than twenty years ago as Dean of the Chapel Royal, the first thing any journalist would say was “the war was a long time ago – isn’t it time we moved on?” Nowadays no one asks that question and the crowds grow in numbers and respect every year.

Geoffrey Hill the poet cried out “Ingratitude still gets to me, the unfairness and waste of survival, a nation with so many memorials but no memory”. The host of people in Whitehall show that many are capable of gratitude and this is indeed a cordial for drooping spirits.

Remembrance Sunday is of course a British and Commonwealth commemoration as we remember the contribution of all the nations of these islands as well as literally millions from the Indian sub-continent and other parts of the former British Empire. It is undeniable that in the retreat from Empire publically sanctioned commemorations of the English story in particular have changed, often for the better. Yet as the other nations in the British Isles recover a proper sense of their own unique identity [notably the Scots under the influence of the greatest living Scotsman, Mel Gibson in Braveheart] the contemporary impoverishment of the English story becomes ever more obvious. This might be thought to be a good development and the prelude to a more tolerant and inclusive society. It is certainly true that in the context of the 21st century there is a need to incorporate new participants and to weave new strands into the story of the English. This has happened over and over again in our history and is indeed one of its most important themes but the deliberate attempt to forget or deny what we have been leads to corporate delusion and a vacuum which is too easily filled with fits of irrational anger and scapegoating of those perceived to be outsiders. Any refusal of the responsibility to remember wisely and creatively will have malign consequences.

It is in fact true that by every statistical measure life in our country is for most people safer, longer and more comfortable than it ever has been in our history and yet a plethora of polls suggest that there is a pervasive of gloom about our future and that we are suffering from a national fit of the vapours. There seems to be a loss of English self-confidence in our capacity to make a creative contribution to what will be a very different multi-polar world.

There is abundant evidence that we are in a period of transition. The liberal democratic order which emerged under American leadership after the Second World War and was confirmed by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 is being challenged. In addition to an illiberal trend in Eastern Europe, the fact that the largest opposition party in the Bundestag after the last German election is “Alternative for Germany” should concern us.

This new situation has come upon us suddenly. In 1992 Francis Fukuyama in his book The End of History thought that he had identified the “end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western Liberal Democracy as the final form of human government”. In alliance with market economics he believed that enlightenment was reshaping the world. Part of this re-shaping was the relegation of God to the leisure sector as a harmless lifestyle choice.

There are still people who believe that this is the long term trend whatever the blips along the way but John Gray in an essay in the New Statesman [25 May 2018] thinks that there has been a liberal misreading of history. He argues that the liberal democratic vision is of a “world without precedent in which nationalism and religion will no longer be deciding forces in politics and rivalry for territory and resources will have been left behind” while basic freedoms will be protected in a universal framework of human rights.

In reality Gray goes on to say, “Liberal regimes are not free standing structures of law and rights but political constructions that depend for their survival on hard power and popular acceptance”. Both these foundations are eroding.

The hard power was supplied by the unchallengeable American hegemony of the past 75 years. America is now chastened by the chaos following the attempts to impose the liberal order on Iraq, Libya, Syria and the unending war in Afghanistan. She is also challenged by alternative models of government and economic development, notably in China.

What about popular acceptance? Polls reveal a considerable pessimism about the prospects for social mobility and rising living standards in the most developed liberal countries. Revolutions are made not by the poor but by the disappointed and there are many people not least in the UK who believe that they will not enjoy the opportunities that their parents had. Post war social mobility was fuelled by the creation of a large number of white collar jobs of just the kind that are now under threat from globalisation and AI. It is perfectly rational to anticipate the contraction of the market for the labour of modestly skilled men in particular and a consequent loss of dignity and self-respect among this vulnerable group.

There have been attempts to bolster “popular acceptance” by inserting an emphasis on so called British values in the education curriculum. Ofsted has defined British values as “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect”. The problem is that it is difficult to translate these worthy abstractions into transformative energy with a real impact on the lives of individuals. Universal aspirations have to be embedded in a particular community and its institutions before they can influence those of us who are not given to abstractions. They must be carried by particular stories with iconic figures capable of generating proper pride and emulation if they are to have a deep impact.

A snatch of conversation from many years ago haunts me. After some communal rioting in the East End I visited a number of schools with the message that we ought to respect one another’s cultures. I was confronted by a furious white teenager on the Isle of Dogs who said “What is my effing culture then bish?” He spoke from a sense of poverty and loss of self-respect which all too easily translates into hostility and even violence towards outsiders. You cannot exorcise the demonic by creating a spiritual vacuum.

In his discussion of democracy Aristotle notes the tendency of democracies defined by their common memories and moral compass to deteriorate into “ochlocracies”, rule by a crowd of atomised individuals swept by gusts of anger stimulated by sophists who today we would probably locate in the social media. This creates an unstable situation and Aristotle suggests that the next step is some kind of tyranny. In our case it could well be of the administrative kind equipped with a vastly increased capacity for surveillance and social control.

Governments have two main functions – security and welfare provided by the distribution of wealth but they depend for their legitimacy on a sense of national identity which they can only marginally affect.

In the past religion and patriotism have contributed to this sense of national identity. They have both in the recent past been seen as subversive of the liberal project but if they are banished to the shadowy margins away from the challenge to provide a reasonable account of themselves in the public square they can easily become toxic. It is time to re-assess our engagement with both religion and a sane patriotism and to balance our understandable concern about extremism with a clearer recognition of the resources that both faith and love of one’s country can provide in the restoration of hope for the future.

It is true that attempts have been made by what are described as “right wing populists” both in the UK and in Europe to use Christian symbolism to demonise “the other” often Muslims. Recent surveys, however, reported by Tobias Cremer in his New Statesman article, “Defenders of the Faith” have demonstrated that such strategies are least effective in convincing practising as against merely cultural Christians. Regular Churchgoers are least likely for example to support AfD in Germany. At the same time in a generally negative report in The Times on the effectiveness of anti–extremism strategies there was recognition of the impact which courses drawing on the resources of religious texts have had on changing attitudes.

A properly critical historical examination of the English story reveals that there are in fact a number of competing views of the past which have nevertheless been contained within the architecture of our institutions. Robert Tombs in The English and Their History provides an impressive and readable account of these competing views.

The competing strands of our story are represented pictorially in a corridor in the Palace of Westminster leading to the lobby of the House of Lords. On one side is the nonconformist, republican account of the Civil War beginning with the failure of the King to arrest dissident members of the House of Commons and including the departure of the Pilgrim Fathers to establish their theocracies in New England. On the other side is the royalist story which begins with the King unfurling his standard and concludes with the puritan governor of Windsor Castle preventing Bishop Juxon from reading the prayer book burial service over the body of the erstwhile monarch. By 1649 both bishops and the Book of Common Prayer had been outlawed. The English story contains both conformist and nonconformist traditions and permits rapid adaptation while preserving the theatre and the props of tradition and continuity.

The memory of our historical experience has bequeathed to many of us a suspicion of utopias and zealots, a preference for gradual change and preservation of the institutional theatre with a disposition to see compromise as a victory rather than as a betrayal. The new unanchored populism and loss of historical memory is a threat to this sane tradition.

I found the tabloid headline branding the judges as “enemies of the people” for upholding the rule of law against vociferous sections of the media especially disturbing.

It is crucial to celebrate our particular inheritance of English law. No one not even the king should be above the law. This was the central message distilled from the otherwise very pragmatic comments of Magna Carta about such matters as fish weirs on the Thames. “Is Magna Carta nothing to you?” said Tony Hancock. “Did she die in vain?” I wonder whether school children are still taught that wonderful story of Prince Hal and the Lord Chief Justice as recorded in the second part of Shakespeare’s Henry IV?

But there are more recent examples. I recently attended a commemoration of Stephen Lawrence. He was murdered nearly 29 years ago and it is an event which should remain in our corporate memory. Despite attempts to frustrate justice the perseverance of Doreen Lawrence and the law in the person of Sir William Macpherson forced powerful institutions to face up to their failings. That is also a vital part of the English story which is always evolving to incorporate new themes.

The mention of Henry IV brings me to the English language which in Tudor times was the speech of a people inhabiting an island on the edge of mainland Europe but which now is an international means of communication between many different peoples.

The struggles of the Danubian countries to achieve nationhood were in every case bound up with the development of a vernacular language which in most cases only took their modern forms in the 19th century. Hungary for example used Latin as the language of administration until the first half of the 19th century.

English by contrast is recognisably the language we speak now as early as the 14th century in the poems of Geoffrey Chaucer. The Book of Common Prayer and the various translations of the Bible indebted to William Tyndale established a language remarkable for its expressive power and its nuances. The most vital part of remembering our future is to ensure that our children are equipped to inherit and enjoy this astonishing treasure.

It is crucial that no focus on contemporary fads dims the seriousness with which we engage with the classic texts of our language and Shakespeare in particular who has words for every season.

England was undergoing a cultural revolution in Shakespeare’s time. The old world of his youth in Stratford was passing away. His birth place was stigmatised by those of a puritan persuasion as “an ungodly place on the blind side of the Diocese”.  In consequence he was steeped in the imaginative world of pre-reformation England with its fairies and enchanted Forest of Arden.

He was expected by some in consequence to be more committed in the ideological battles which raged at a time when warring Christian absolutisms were busy over-defining mystery in the interests of polemics. Instead he drew on the resources of the old world as he held up a mirror to his own times.

Shakespeare reflects the world described by his contemporary John Donne the Dean of St Paul’s as one in which “’Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone”. The search for truth was not a simple matter of adopting some consistent ideological position. As Donne said “On a huge hill cragged and steep, Truth stands and he that will reach her about must and about must go”.

The elusive authorial persona of William Shakespeare exudes scepticism about conventional pieties and official propaganda. As beloved Falstaff says “What is honour? A word. Honour is a mere scutcheon” The sentiment is echoed in Henry V where alongside the stirring patriotic speeches there is a vivid evocation of the horrors of a war which begins with bishops plotting how to distract the king from an imminent raid on church coffers by inciting him to invade France.

Shakespeare gives us multiple viewpoints but in particular he gives us the “stranger’s case”, the view of the outsider. He collaborated in a play on Thomas More in which More confronts a xenophobic crowd bent on mischief against the economic migrants in their midst. In a passionate speech More appeals to their common humanity and concludes “this is the stranger’s case and this your mountanish inhumanity”. Othello is another play in which Shakespeare puts the “stranger’s case” and defies contemporary racial prejudices.

Shakespeare shows us the face of compassion in an age of ideological passion when human beings did atrocious things to one another on principle – it sounds very contemporary.

The theme of his last plays, however, is the possibility of redemption through the divine, through nature and children. It may be that the speech given to Theseus in “The Two Noble Kinsmen”, a play on which he collaborated, was actually the last thing he wrote for the stage. It is an address to the inscrutable gods.

“Oh you heavenly charmers,

What things you make of us! For what we lack

We laugh, for what we have are sorry, still

Are children in some kind. Let us be thankful

For that which is, and with you leave disputes

That are above our question. Let’s go off

And bear us like the time.”

Ours is an age where all over the world in the many places where the Globe Company has played Hamlet, traditional cultures are eroding under the pressure of our new digital age just as they were in England in Shakespeare’s time. It is not clear what future is coming to meet us but Shakespeare’s language, humanity and humour constitute a treasury which shows no signs of being exhausted for reflection, wisdom and endurance in our times.

To sum up our review of remembering the future. It is obvious that a memory of Churchill’s Britain still casts its spell over many people as the reaction to the recent films Darkest Hour and Dunkirk demonstrate but ever since the rebellion of the sensitive self in the social convulsions of the 1960’s there has been an elite unease about celebrating the English story. I believe that it can be celebrated without blimpishness and that a critical reading of English history has resources which will assist us to make a wise and constructive contribution to the future both for ourselves and the wider world of which we are a part.

We should not be a nation with an abundance of memorials but no memory. As we remember the failures and the crimes we should also be grateful for the martial traditions which have preserved our island. We should revel in our language and entrust it to the next generation by opening up for them the word store in our great texts. We should respect our tradition of English law and appreciate the ways in which our institutions have contained conflict and made a virtue of compromise. We should acknowledge the different ways in which our pluriform Judaeo-Christian traditions have shaped and enriched our national life.  We should recognise our debt to successive waves of new arrivals who have contributed to the dynamism of the English story, and celebrate the truth that in the words of Daniel Defoe in his “True Born Englishman” we are “a mongrel half-bred race”.

But above all we should show our gratitude for this land, cherish its beauty, and combat its pollution, this dear, dear land, this blessed plot, this earth, this realm this England.

The Right Reverend and Right Honourable The Lord Chartres, GCVO, PC, was formerly Bishop of London.

An earlier version of this talk was given at the Chalke Valley History Festival, June 28th 2018. 

About the author


Richard, Lord Chartres