Lessons from Winston Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Vol. 1

It is said that those who will not learn from history are forced to repeat it but in fact people rarely learn from history.
The reason is that people always consider their particular situation to be different than the historical ones, and they are actually right in doing so.
As Heraclitus said you can’t step into the same river twice as both you and the river have changed, so are all situations in life different.
Add the most human trait of “it won’t happen to me” and you can see why the Germans invaded Russia, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and I fed that particular bear.

A better reason for the study of history is that in the right hands it can be an interesting and fascinating read.
Besides being a brilliant statesman and a rotten painter , Sir Winston Churchill was an incredible  writer of history, even winning the Nobel peace prize for literature as this conflicted entry shows.
Consider this passage describing the effects of the everlasting war between Britain and France on the common folk:

How, we may ask, did all this affect the daily life of England and her history? A series of personal feudal struggles fought in distant lands, the quarrels of an alien ruling class, were little understood and less liked by the common folk. Yet these things long burdened their pilgrimage. For many generations their bravest and best were to fight and die by the marshes of the Loire or under the sun-baked hills of Southern France in pursuit of the dream of English dominion over French soil. For this two centuries later Englishmen triumphed at Crécy, Poitiers, and Agincourt, or starved in the terrible Limoges march of the Black Prince. For this they turned fertile France into a desert where even the most needed beasts died of thirst and hunger. Throughout the medieval history of England war with France is the interminable and often the dominant theme. It groped and scraped into every reach of English life, moulding and fretting the shape of English society and institutions.
Well damn.

 A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Vol. 1: The birth of Britain starts off with the Roman invasion of the island and ends with the brutal death of Richard the third which kinda means it has a happy ending.
It’s a great read for anyone interested in English history or in seeing how beautiful English prose can be.
But the three things I’ll remember most from this book apply not only to English history but to life in general and are worth sharing here.

I Weakness breeds strength breeds weakness

Some of the best bits in the movie Braveheart involve the relationship between King Edward the first and his weakling son and heir Edward the second.
If you thought that portrayal was harsh, here is how Churchill describes the succession:
A strong, capable King had with difficulty upborne the load. He was succeeded by a perverted weakling.
It seemed that the strong blood of Edward I had but slumbered in his degenerate son.

But after reading the book you realize that this was the norm rather than the exception.
Nearly every powerful ruler was succeeded by a weak son who had difficulties protecting the kingdom and upholding the rule of law.
This was  no coincidence as some armchair psychology and a Lou Reed song confirm.
Pity the son of a powerful king! All but one who surround him treat him with the utmost respect and try to avoid hurting him in any way.
But the one person he looks up to, his father , usually subjects him to physical and psychological abuse resulting in the creation of a weak and cowardly character.
A weak and cowardly monarch rarely stays in power long and is in turn dispatched by the next king who is again fierce and brutal, laying the groundwork for another weak heir.
Thus achievements are unmade and progress reversed, it is difficult to build great projects of any nature when instability is rampant and the loyal administrators of the realm lose their heads on a regular basis.
This is one of the main reasons why strong dictatorships usually cause stagnation and regression; which brings us to the next point.

II Progression of time does not equal progress

Living in the comfy  western 21st century we often view history as a series of ongoing improvements.
In terms of material possessions and human rights we are much better off than our grandparents were 50 years ago and they were much better off than their grandparents.
We mostly take it for granted that things will improve in time and that the dark days are behind us.

But Churchill reminds us that is not the way it has go.

For nearly three hundred years Britain, reconciled to the Roman system, enjoyed in many respects the happiest, most comfortable, and most enlightened times its inhabitants have ever had.
In this period, almost equal to that which separates us from the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, well-to-do persons in Britain lived better than they ever did until late Victorian times. From the year 400 till the year 1900 no one had central heating and very few had hot baths. A wealthy British-Roman citizen building a country house regarded the hypocaust which warmed it as indispensable.
For fifteen hundred years his descendants lived in the cold of unheated dwellings, mitigated by occasional roastings at gigantic wasteful fires. Even now a smaller proportion of the whole population dwells in centrally heated houses than in those ancient days. As for baths, they were completely lost till the middle of the nineteenth century.In all this long, bleak intervening gap cold and dirt clung to the most fortunate and highest in the land.

Besides predating Monty Python by a few decades, this passage is quite startling in its own right.
This isn’t a historical hiccup involving one crazy ruler or a dynasty, we are talking about 1500 years during which most people were actually worse-off living under an English ruler than they were being a remote outpost of a foreign empire.
How could this happen?
The essence of the Roman peace was toleration of all religions and the acceptance of a universal system of government.

It’s important to keep this passage in mind.
Things don’t improve by themselves just because time passes.
There are still strong retrograde forces in the world and there always will be and who better than Sir Winston knew that appeasing inherently evil entities will only making them stronger by the time you have to fight them.

III The king and the pawn go back in the same box and a pawn can kill a king

Before Chuck Norris there was Richard the Lionheart.

A towering military figure, he commanded armies while still a teenager, went toe to toe with the great Saladin during the third crusade and survived years of imprisonment in an Austrian dungeon.
Today he is still remembered as a shining example of a Christian knight and defender of the faith.
His death however was whimsical.

In 1199 the king was gathering taxes for his next campaign to drive the French out of France when he got some good news.
It was said there had been dug up near the castle of Chaluz, on the lands of one of his vassals, a treasure of wonderful quality; a group of golden images of an emperor, his wife, sons, and daughters, seated round a table, also of gold, had been unearthed.

The king demanded the treasure as a tribute but the local lord insisted that taxes on winnings from gambling were at best vague and never Vegas.
Richard set out for a leisurely siege of the tiny castle which promised to be a lot of fun.
On the third day of the siege the king went out for a morning inspection, not even bothering to wear his armor.
One of the archers on the wall was using a frying pan as a shield, much to the amusement of the king who raised his hand and applauded him.
Just then he was struck by a crossbow bolt launched by a little boy and went down.
The wound was not deadly but the surgery was and Richard was soon dying of gangrene.
In one of his last acts he had his tender slayer pardoned and given a handsome reward of 100 shillings.
He then breathed his last.
A king’s word must be obeyed but a dead king has considerably less authority.
The king’s right hand man decided the boy would look better deprived of the 100 shillings.
Also his skin.
He had the boy flayed alive and then hung for good measure.
Till this day there are no taxes on winnings from gambling in the UK.

The lessons here are:
1 You should wear your Armour at all times.
The “dream team” lost to Puerto Rico 92-73 in the 2004 Olympics at 100 to 1 odds.
2 Humans rarely learn their lesson.
Richard the Lionheart knew the story of David and Goliath but this was a totally different situation;  he was as beloved of god as David, was English and not philistine and presented a much smaller target than Goliath.
3 You may as well resign yourself to the fact that you will have little control of what’s done after you are gone, better leave an ironclad will.

Hope you enjoyed this and learned something, maybe even a lesson.

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One Response to Lessons from Winston Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Vol. 1

  1. Pingback: From Daggers to Archers to Cannon | greatbooksdude

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