17th November 2006. Merrie England.
‘This other Eden, demi-paradise’ from Shakespeare’s Richard II, suggests an ideal of a ‘Merrie England’, the holy grail searched for ever since.
It now conjures up visions of deep country, of timeless villages clustered round an ancient church, a village green, inn, morris-dancing and manor house.
Today in 2006 an article in the Guardian Newspaper confirmed in the writer his belief that, ‘Britain was a merrier place before the Puritans came along with their black hats and hatred of fun-they did not dance round the Maypole, feast, drink beer all night, encouraged by a church making money from the church-ales’.(1)
No doubt thinking of the first Elizabethan Age which was set in an Arcadian paradise as described by pastoral poets Sir Philip Sydney and Edmund Spenser.(2)
Come the 18th century we see Hogarth’s portrayal of the ‘Roast Beef of Old England’, Hazlitt’s essay Merrie England (3), and a time when William Cobbett in his ‘Rural Rides’ (1822-26) contrasts the present rural misery with his youth.(4)
William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ extols an idealised countryside compared with ‘dark and satanic mills’ of early industrialisation, which later William Morris’s Arts and Crafts Movement hoped to correct.
Politically the past was invoked by workers wishing to reclaim their lost rights, as represented by Walter Crane’s ‘Garland for May Day’, inscribed: ‘shorter working days and lengthen life’, ‘The Land for the People’ with ‘Merrie England’ at the bottom.
The Romantic ‘rural simplicity’ worth dying for, was evoked by WWI poets-Owen and Brooke- inspired by Edward Thomas, who in August 1914 was sent on a tour of England by the English Review.
This was an idyllic theme complemented by composers such as Butterworth’s ‘Banks of Green Willows’ and Vaughan Williams, with his ‘On hearing the first cuckoo’.
Advertisers were always keen to play the nostalgia card especially brewers:
Worthington’s Ales (above right) in the 1930’s used a whimsical theme, where ‘the weary traveller may still ask and receive a crust of bread and a sup of beer’.(5)
Later folksy songs, ‘There’ll always be a England’, Novello’s, ‘We’ll gather Lilacs’, and J.B.Priestley’s ‘Journey through England’, show much metaphorical ‘thatch’, but supported us as another war loomed.
Kingsley Amis in his ‘Lucky Jim’ portrays the Madrigal group led by Professor Welch, and Jim’s cynical and drunken reaction in his lecture to the idea of Merrie England and its madrigals.
However we still today have our yearning for the Land of Lost Content.
(1) Tom Hodgkinson wrote: Ronald Hutton’s Study of the Church Wardens Accounts (1350-1520) placed the origins of Merrie England to these years with its elaborate annual festivals, around of liturgy and candles, pageants, processions, curtailed in the Reformation.
(2) Roy Strong says in ‘Visions of England’ (Vintage) 2011.
(3) Lecture on the English comic writer (1819).
(4) Collected in book form in 1830.
(5) The Illustrated London News Advertisements.
Ref: Ronald Hutton ‘Rise and Fall of Merrie England, The Ritual Years’ 1400-1700.
Ref: googleimages/Bottom Left Image.
Ref: ebay/Bottom Right Image.