Appreciating the English Inheritance of the South


There is a tendency amongst some Southerners to downplay the Englishness of Dixie’s culture while emphasizing the influence of other ethic groups like the African or the French. Considering the Yankee preoccupation with presenting themselves as pure-blooded Anglo-Saxons, this is understandable. But at the same time there is also a great error mixed in with this that needs to be addressed.

General James Johnston Pettigrew gives a typical example of the anti-English mindset of some in the South. For him the ‘Anglo-Saxonism’ of the Yankees is synonymous with an overbearing pride, ‘an unjustified assumption of superiority by the English-speaking peoples, the criteria for superiority resting upon the “disposition . . . to place a money value upon everything” ’ (Clyde Wilson, Carolina Cavalier: The Life and Mind of James Johnston Pettigrew, Rockford, Ill., Chronicles Press, 2002, p. 215).

But this is just where the error comes in. For the pride here attributed to the English is not native to them as a people; it actually has another source: mainly the Frankish blood of the Norman invaders who conquered England in 10661. Author James Kelley writes (bolding added),

This Orthodox view of politics sees society as the coming together of the people of God in an ascetic, communal “work of the people” (leitourgeia) which accepts no final authority save that based in communion with God. Needless to say, the divine-human communion of the Eastern Roman society is opposed to that of the supposedly divine princes of the West, who have become deified through their anointing with uncreated Holy Oil and/or through the simple fact that they have blue Frankish blood in their veins.30 Rather, the Orthodox society places all hope in theosis, the union with the energies of the Holy Trinity achieved by prophets, apostles and saints, some of whom have been emperors, farmers, soldiers, and Patriarchs.

In her older, Orthodox, pre-Norman days, the English exhibited much humility2. This is seen especially in the abdication of many kings, princesses, and other high nobility to become simple monks and nuns in monasteries. An especially vivid example of this humility is captured by St Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, in an encounter between King Oswin of Northumbria and Bishop Aidan of Lindisfarne. St Oswin had become angry because St Aidan had given the fine horse given to him by St Oswin to a poor beggar. St Bede picks up the story from there:

Upon this they went in to dinner, and the bishop sat in his place; but the king, who was come from hunting, stood warming himself, with his attendants, at the fire. Then, on a sudden, whilst he was warming himself, calling to mind what the bishop had said to him, he ungirt his sword, and gave it to a servant, and in a hasty manner fell down at the bishop's feet, beseeching him to forgive him; "For from this time forward," said he, "I will never speak any more of this, nor will I judge of what, or how much of our money you shall give to the sons of God." The bishop was much moved at this sight, and starting up, raised him, saying, "He was entirely reconciled to him, if he would sit down to his meat, and lay aside all sorrow." The king, at the bishop's command and request, beginning to be merry, the bishop, on the other hand, grew so melancholy as to shed tears. His priest then asking him, in the language of his country, which the king and his servants did not understand, why he wept, "I know," said he, "that the king will not live long; for I never before saw so humble a king; whence I conclude that he will soon be snatched out of this life, because this nation is not worthy of such a ruler." Not long after, the bishop's prediction was fulfilled by the king's death, as has been said above.

--Book III, Chapter XIV, © Paul Halsall, Feb. 1999

An interesting point of contact between the humility of the Old English and the South is the attitude toward seeking offices of prominence. The Southern attitude is stated by Dr Wilson in Carolina Cavalier in reference to Gen Pettigrew: ‘ . . . this was the Cincinnatian code of the early Republic. A patriot did not seek office; the office came to him. To solicit office was to demean individual honor and undermine republican morals’ (p. 56).

The Old English analogue is presented in the life of St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne. St Bede in his Ecclesiastical History writes of St Cuthbert’s great reluctance to be consecrated bishop:

When he had here served God in solitude many years, the mound which encompassed his habitation being so high, that he could from thence see nothing but heaven, to which he so ardently aspired, it happened that a great Synod was assembled in the presence of King Egfrid, near the river Alne, at a place called Twyford, which signifies "the two fords," in which Archbishop Theodore, of blessed memory, presided, Cuthbert was, by the unanimous consent of all, chosen bishop of the church of Lindisfarne. They could not, however, persuade him to leave his monastery, though many messengers and letters were sent to him; at last the aforesaid king himself, with the most holy Bishop Trumwine, and other religious and great men, passed over into the island; many also of the brothers of the same isle of Lindisfarne assembled together for the same purpose : they all knelt, conjured him by our Lord, and with tears and entreaties, till they drew him, also in tears, from his retreat, and forced him to the synod. Being arrived there, after much opposition, he was overcome by the unanimous resolution of all present, and submitted to take upon himself the episcopal dignity; being chiefly prevailed upon by the mention that Boisil, the servant of God, when he had prophetically foretold all things that were to befall him, had also predicted that he should be a bishop.

--Book IV, Chapter XXVIII, © Paul Halsall, Dec. 1997

It is, therefore, not the Englishness that the South should be trying to root out of her culture, but the Frankishness. Father Andrew Phillips of Colchester, England, has written often about England’s need to be de-Frankinized or de-Normanized, so that she can be adorned once again in the dazzling beauty of the virtues seen so much in abundance during the Golden Age of her Christian life (7th to 9th centuries). Likewise, the South needs to focus on de-Yankeefication (the Yankees being the inheritors of the Frankish pride of the Norman invaders of England), so that she too can shine in the splendor of the virtues of her younger days.

In the meantime, the South should greatly rejoice in the cultural patrimony bequeathed to her by her English forebears: saints, songs, words, accent, architecture, the common law, and all such things. It is no less valuable than what she has inherited from any of her other kin groups.


1The negative influence of the Scandinavian/Viking culture on New England is also important to consider; this was explored in a separate essay. On the other hand, for a consideration of the positive influence of Scandinavian culture on the South, Prof Marion Montgomery provides this in Note 2 for the Preface of Possum and Other Receits for the Recovery of “Southern” Being, Athens, Ga., U of Georgia Press, 1987, pgs. 135-7.

2For one illustration of Southern humility, we turn to Prof Richard Weaver:

The Southerner tends to look upon nature as something which is given and something which is finally inscrutable. This is equivalent to saying that he looks upon it as the creation of a Creator. There follows from this attitude an important deduction, which is that man has a duty of veneration toward nature and the natural. Nature is not something to be fought, conquered and changed according to any human whims. To some extent, of course, it has to be used. But what man should seek in regard to nature is not a complete dominion but a modus vivendi—that is, a manner of living together, a coming to terms with something that was here before our time and will be here after it. The important corollary of this doctrine, it seems to me, is that man is not the lord of creation, with an omnipotent will, but a part of creation, with limitations, who ought to observe a decent humility in the face of the inscrutable.