After the wild and murderous early period of viking and Norman invasions, things had started to moved in a civilising direction by 1215. The King of England was ready to sign up the Magna Carta and establish a parliamentary democracy.
But this did not mean that the English ruling classes spoke English as their first courtly language. That remained French until the 1340’s, when, after yet another routing of the ‘enemy across the channel’, a member of parliament stood up and asked why the affairs of state and those of law should not now be conducted in English.
It was a Monty Python moment. His logic was unanimously approved. Chaucer, born almost at the same moment, in 1340, was just in time to become the first, great, national poet of the English language, a favour won by war. By the time of Chaucer’s death in 1400 the English had not only given up invading France; but the kings and his brothers were speaking the same language as the humblest soldiers in their army.
The noblemen were also, as testified by Shakespeare’s plays, routinely using humour to bond and motivate their men. A successful king was a popular king. He was a courteous king to his subjects and an efficient killing machine to his foes. Anyone doubting this can refer to Henry V’s performance at Agincourt, just fifteen years after Chaucer’s death.
Let’s just take some time to disentangle all of these themes.
The leader of a mediaeval society needed to be supreme in war; a motivator of his men in ways that did not rely upon intimidation and non-judicial murder; it helped the monarch or leader to get on with people from all walks of life and to speak the same language as his subjects: meanwhile, there needed to be something like a universal system of Law and a form of social patronage that rewarded the national sport of killing Frenchmen.
Being good with a sword, understanding the role of the longbow, being able to quote some English poetry, sing a song or two and also play football with the men, also helped not just the monarch but those who sought his favour. Liking hunting played its part, too, as did having a nodding acquaintance with the law, paying one’s taxes on time and being able to read. If you added in knowing how to dance well, hold a conversation at another man’s table, knowing how and when to tell a joke then you have many of the rudiments of the gentleman that was to subsist until about 1913.
It helped, even in 1415, to have a few coins to rub together to join in these pleasant pastimes, but having land or money did not automatically confer these social manners upon the wealthy. And yet, to be a boor, handed the advantage to those who were not.
Manners are infectious, good or bad. Before the Middle Ages had gone too far, people were pretending to the kind of people who needed these social accomplishments in their daily lives, even if they did not. If you like, people held doors open for one another, even if they did not own the building: in fact, especially if they did not own the building.
The French version of the word ‘gentleman’ is ‘gentil homme’ or ‘kind man’. With this comes the idea of a courteous man, or a man who is well-behaved to women and to children, who does not use his martial prowess to get his way but who uses humour, wit, elegance of manners and mind to get not just what he, himself, needs, but what is good for the household.
Because all of mediaeval society depended upon patronage, whereby powerful men had less powerful men round for lunch and supper, to exchange favours, not all of which were material commodities, but other favours to be redeemed over time, so the interests of powerful men became identical with a wider notion of self-interest. What was good for your social junior was also good for you and vice-versa. And, indeed, to display the kind of manners that implied that your guests were your equals, won the more powerful man credit and respect from those who wished they could be more like him. One way in which they could, of course, would be to reciprocate with a similar set of manners. With each shake of the hand, so manners become contagious.
And so, manners became a mark of social integration with those richer than oneself. Good manners also facilitate social advancement. A well-behaved daughter who holds her knife and fork (for example), in the same way as those living in the big house, might well marry the more powerful man’s son. The values of a ‘gentil homme’ were useful not just to men but to their families as well.
This didn’t mean to say that everyone in England was happy to sign up to the same set of rules. At the end of the 1300’s, the dissenting peasants of the eponymous Peasants’ Revolt, were asking, ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?’ This can be taken to refer to the ‘airs and graces’ of those who were otherwise behaving badly as well as to those who were perceived to be unreasonably living off the toil of others.
But history had other dice to roll.With 1415 and the Battle of Agincourt, in which Henry V brutally dispatched hundreds of captured noblemen, the idea of English national, martial and tribal virtues received a boost. To be English, a soldier, of whatever degree, was more important than to be polite. And so the ship of state was blown between the reefs that wrecked other nations.
By the time of Henry VIII, a gentleman could reasonably be expected to joust, sing, play an instrument, compose, hunt, speak Latin, Greek, French, have travelled abroad, be able to read, know the English bible (in due course), be civil to women and children, be kind to dogs, shoot a bow into a cooking apple from a hundred paces, know the names of his dependents and have a cracking sense of humour.
Being Elizabethan merely ratcheted this scale of accomplishments still higher. Elizabeth, herself, would have considered herself as much a gentleman as her father, even if he had executed her mother for reasons for state. She did no less with her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots.
Shakespeare gave full voice to this clamouring hub-bub of men and women who constituted the English body politic. Shakespeare’s Henry V shows courtesy just before arresting and having executed the noble traitors who try to sell him to the French. As a younger man, Henry carouses with Falstaff until reasons of state dictate otherwise. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Brutus struggles with his conscience until he accepts the despot must be killed.
And so on. Politics are an inevitable part of the English gentleman’s birth and early survival in a hostile Europe. Dancing is not only a courtesy to women but a preparation for the fine footwork needed in battle, just as sport tests teamwork and the coercive use of strength.
Foreign languages enable the speaker of them to invade foreign parts more effectively. Humour rallies troops. Courtesy pacifies the victims of aggression inflicted by one’s own hand. The values of a gentleman were supremely pragmatic and socially cohesive. The gentleman was not always gentle but he was always a man, in the sense that he knew how to fight, should the moment demand it. The ‘gentle’ part is the velvet glove around the mailed fist: soft when shaking hands, not when holding a sword.
As warfare moved ever more firmly into the age of gunpowder, so gentlemany virtues on the battlefield diminished in importance. Some remained. Wellington was a notable hard-case who remained concerned for the well-being of his men under fire. He also ran the same risks as his ordinary soldiers. At Waterloo, he lost five horses, shot dead from under him. He was the only staff office in his retinue to be still in the saddle and not wounded or dead by the end of the day. As Wellington stated after the battle: Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton: not for manners, because boys were not infrequently killed on those sports’ pitches, but for the martial endeavour sport inculcated.
War has, thus, always been an engine deep in the heart of what it is to be considered both English and a gentleman. The great schism in respect between the senior officers and the men came in WWI, when the generals sat fifteen miles behind the lines and did not join their men in the trenches. It would never have occurred to Henry V, Henry VIII or Harold Godwinson to have set such a poor example to their men. They would have considered it un-manly and dishonourable in the extreme. They would have forfeited their right and duty to reign had they behaved in that way and shown such disrespect to their subjects.
Such examples are powerful. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Franklin, a merchant who had never been to war, tells a story of how a man with a debt to an astronomer, has it discharged by each of the people to whom he is obliged once each of them learns that the person higher up the social scale than him has cancelled it in their turn.
This is why the current banking and scandals over MP’s expenses have been so damaging to the social fabric in Britain. If the rich do not behave well to those who have less than them, then the social fabric is unravelled, like wool on a jumper being caught on a nail.
If the same rules do not apply and are not willingly accepted by the rich, then those less fortunate see no reason why they should play by a double set of standards that oblige them to conform to an inflexible rule while the better off find profitable exceptions.
These moments have characterised every English revolt since the Fourteenth Century and will go on doing so for as long as England is the shape it is.
Being a ‘gentleman’ is not a sign of wealth nor even the elegant deployment of relative riches, but the social duty of everyone who has signed up for a living in Britain. We must all treat everyone as our equal; we must be outward facing to the world; we must use diplomacy and gentle language where we can, refrain from violence wherever possible, consider the good of the wider community over our own and use humour to diffuse tension and be mindful always to lead by example.
Swearing, behaving badly, being violent to one’s neighbours, being rude, unkind, even brutal, may seem to confer short-term social and pecuniary advantage but they are delusional. In the end and even quite quickly, all powerful people have realized that power confers responsibility and demands good manners.
As we saw in the Jubilee Year, good manners remain as infectious as ever, as is evidenced by the conduct of the present Queen Elizabeth, of David Beckham (a notable example of a modern gentleman) as much as it is by mine or yours.
To read part 1 go to http://test.theperfectgentleman.tv/part-1-the-english-gentleman-a-partial-history/