With thanks to Anne
In 2002, the BBC held a public poll to determine the greatest Brit of all time. Winston Churchill won, but we was robbed. It should have been Anne Boleyn.
Churchill was lucky enough to preside over a foreign war, and to be in power when the Allies won. However, with due regard to British courage and make-do, we played only a minor part in the prosecution of that war.
Britain’s physical isolation from Europe behind the moat of the Channel saved us as it had done before. Churchill purposefully kept our troops on the peripherals of the battle — for example, in Africa — to reduce casualties. The ferocious fighting that won victory on the continent took place on the eastern front. It was Russia that prevailed, at horrendous cost. Russian lives won that war for us.
The best we can say, then, is that Churchill helped us Brits to sit out the war largely unscathed. It is, at most, a very narrow definition of a hero.
Here in Japan, Churchill’s legacy is to have persuaded Roosevelt to drop the atomic bomb on our civilians. This was intended as a warning to Russia, at that point poised to invade the Japanese archipelago. Roosevelt had intended to drop it on a German city, again in order to turn back the Russians. Though America had done as little as Britain in the struggle against Hitler, it wanted its spoils of the decimated continent.
It’s ironic, too, that Churchill won his place as greatest Brit due to the votes of ordinary people. Churchill’s legacy was a cynical shift in British military policy.
In the Great War, officers led from the front. They were bedded in the trenches with the men and they were first over the top. That terrible war, devastating to all strata of British society, was particularly cruel to the upper classes.
Churchill’s war was different. He held the officers back, meaning that the working stiffs bore the brunt of the fighting. Unlike the Great War, this was a campaign in which Britain purposefully chose to sacrifice its poor. In retaliation, the moment the war was over the British people whipped Churchill out of government. In short, he’s hardly a figure of respect.
Even in the narrow list of 100 candidates that the BBC published, there are better contenders. People who actually enriched human society and understanding, or advanced the causes of freedom.
The closest we get to someone worthy of the stature of Greatest Ever Brit is Henry VIII. He fundamentally changed England for the better. But it’s impossible to commend Henry for the post. He was a psychopathic tyrant who left behind him a legacy of butchery and misery. His reformation was an unintentional side effect of what he actually wanted to do, which was to sink his penis in Anne Boleyn.
There’s more to it than that, of course. Henry, as supreme ruler, alpha male and rock star, was perfectly able to sink his penis in whomever he chose. What he wanted, after 24 years of marriage to Catherine of Aragon, was a son, and Anne seemed to promise him one. To make the succession legitimate, he needed to contrive a way to divest himself of Catherine so that he could marry her.
The consequence of a convoluted set of religious and legal maneuverings was the sundering of Papal authority in England. Because of Henry — or rather because of Anne, who was a reformist and Renaissance humanist with the king’s ear — England broke the Italian stranglehold.
Centuries later, the consequences continue to reverberate throughout Britain and, thanks to the British influence that burgeoned under Henry’s daughter Elizabeth, the world.
To understand how important this is, we have to remember just how tyrannical the Catholic Church was in Henry’s time.
For hundreds of years, the Church played such a dominant role in British society that practically every human endeavor was made in servitude to it. The Church dictated not only what you did, ate, and experienced, but what you thought.
You were indoctrinated in Catholicism from the moment you were born. You spent every waking hour immersed in it. If you were lucky enough to gain an education it was only so that you could read scripture.
Every week, you had to confess your transgressions to the Church. No part of your life was private, or protected.
Dissent was unconscionable. It was stamped out ruthlessly. Your own family would squeal on you. If you were suspected of heresy, you could expect torture and a brutal death, perhaps to be burned alive.
You toiled to give your money to the institution that was oppressing you, making it ever more powerful and rich, and able to create ever more imposing monuments to its own dominion.
I bet this idea of universal religious belief is not the true story — not by a long chalk. I bet many people, maybe even the majority, were actually atheists. But for obvious reasons, if they had doubts they damn well kept them to themselves.
Nothing was going to change because there was no opening for that change. It was Orwell’s boot stamping on a human face forever. We only gained our freedom because of Anne Boleyn.
If you want to know what your ancestors lived through, just look at the Taliban today. You may view them with horror and disgust. But there, but for the grace of god, go you.
In the centuries of strife that followed the reformation, Britain never again placed its head back in the Catholic yoke. While much of Europe struggled under religious persecution, it became a liberal country. (Again, I’m simplifying here.) It developed an inclusive system of social support and free education, invented our current world model of accountable democracy, and passed immense humanist reform. It’s no surprise that both Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin came from here.
It’s also notable that the United States based its constitution on the British model, and took its legal system almost verbatim from Britain. The founding fathers were secular humanists who were determined to divorce their young, liberal, progressive, atheist state from religious influence. How things have changed over there.
Today Britain remains essentially secular, which has enabled it to become a multicultural melting pot largely free of religious persecution. Its state religion is a liberal form of Christianity all but entirely divested of rules, restrictions and opprobrium.
All humanists believe in the principle of least harm: that we should encourage and support the choice that causes the least amount of damage to people, that least oppresses people, that loads them with fewest shackles on what they can choose to be. Given that many people need to believe in something, the Church of England is as good as it gets.
Anne herself was unfortunate. When she didn’t deliver the son she’d promised him, Henry found a way to be rid of her through what are almost certainly false accusations. Her name, never particularly good to begin with, was dragged through the mud.
Whatever her faults as a person, Anne Boleyn deserves better than her reputation. We all owe her a debt of gratitude. Sure, she’s my nomination for Greatest Ever Brit, but she’s more than that. I haven’t even touched upon her significance as the first true British woman of power, or on how her reformations led to women’s liberation through the rights of divorce, contraception, and abortion.
We should build her shrines. There, every once in a while, we can go to say a little thankful prayer.