Originally, there weren’t any. Not, in England, the ‘home’ of the gentleman in many people’s eyes, at least, not until the Middle Ages.
Before then and at the time of the arrival of the Romans, (50BC) the Celts routinely cut off the heads of their enemies after defeating them in battle, then enslaved and raped the wives and daughters, having first killed all those sons not already slain. It was gang-warfare of the most brutal kind.
Civilization is not a ‘given’ and neither are the best kinds of good manners, of which gentlemanly behaviour is the famous variety.
When the Romans did get to Britain, in numbers, (50AD), they installed under-floor heating, public baths, high roads with durable surfaces, sign posts and built walls to keep the Celts out of their civic spaces and then endeavoured to teach the locals a set of universal weights and measures, along with a sophisticated foreign language. A visit to the British Museum some two-thousand years later, reveals rooms of the Roman period that would not be out of place in an IKEA catalogue. The Romans must have been largely successful.
But this did not make the Romans gentlemen. Rome exercised power via a brutally efficient military state that crushed all resistance with the sword. Crucially, it was also divided into two classes: Roman Citizens and everyone else (slaves). Binary systems of this kind are antithetical to good manners.
Then, in about 300AD, the Saxons, Angles, Jutes and Alemands turned up, hoping for seasonal employment. They had a status of a kind of latter-day Eastern European agricultural worker or front-of-house security. They rapidly got out of hand and ended up driving out their former employers. These largely Germanic and Danish warriors built their own settlements on top of the IKEA ruins, reverted to drinking, hunting, singing and making jewellery when they weren’t removing heads of people who offended them. The new victors were clearly not gentlemen, either.
The next to barge into England’s hay-barns and steal the silver, were the Vikings, in 793AD. They spent the best part of 300 years also brutally slaying anyone they pleased. Had the term ‘gentleman’ been in currency at the time, the Vikings would have melted it down and turned it into male jewellery or sword-hilts. This does not mean that the Vikings were without honour, but let’s say that they took the view that the only good non-Viking was one paying protection money. One chieftain of the era specialized in pulling, by hand, the lungs of his victims out through their backs, having first cut an eagle-shape through their rib-cage. It may have been an unconscious parody of the Roman eagle. Or it may just have been for fun. It was not the act of a gentleman.
By 1066, and as evidenced in Byzantium, Persia and elsewhere, England was still a long way behind global standards of civilized behaviour. However, two major world-events were about to accelerate the inhabitants of England into the front rank of evolved social beings.
The first, paradoxically, was the invasion of England by William the Conqueror in, precisely, 1066. William was a keen proponent of the binary system of government and personal moral hygiene. He ruled by fear, intimidation, nepotism, extortion, murder and ethnic cleansing. And yet, he expected politeness, hospitality, generosity of pocket and selflessness in battle from all his subjects.
However, having divided England up between 200 of his client soldiers, William found that his usual tactics only went so far. What he needed, in fact, was an efficient taxation system and, with it, a single set of Laws so that everyone, apart from himself, followed the same set of rules while also paying him a standardized rate of tributes.
Rather unexpectedly, with this notionally ‘fair’ taxation and legal system, England became a haven for ball-sports and archery. In one bound, England invented itself as an early-Modern state through its insistence upon rules of the game.
But it would take the second hugely important European event of the Eleventh Century, the First Crusade, to kick England to the top table of emerging nations.
Setting off in 1095, by the time the First Crusaders reached Jerusalem, the invading knights has fallen in love with a new range of cultural accomplishments, including: chess, dancing, Turkish Delight, cushions and improved lovemaking. Many European warriors were so intoxicated by these new, Arabic, leisure pursuits that they forgot to return home.
For those that did, they were permanently altered by their travels. It was still important to know how to kill several people at once from horseback; siege-warfare was a worthwhile science; going without food for days was a useful accomplishment; foul language had its uses, but, when all that was said and done, knowing how to look good on a cushion, drink coffee and play chess while beautiful women danced erotically to superb local beats, had opened the soldiers’ eyes to another world of sensations and ideas.
A new and more refined notion of chivalry was beginning to emerge: a brutally efficient killer with the ability to read a guide-book and speak a (difficult) foreign language while indulging in foreplay with foreign women.
The Courts of Europe took to the new skill-set with relish. England, especially, went from a race of boyish thugs who mostly hunted and drank to one which also had a stab at writing songs.
It might not sound like a huge advance, but the shift was a seismic one.
England is and was a very diverse and hugger-mugger nation. People lived relatively close to one another and in very distinct social and racial groups. Fighting would all too easily break out if the English had not all learned to use humour and measures of charm to diffuse these potentially lethal tensions. There had to be a common set of values, if the English were to rub along together. Cultural pursuits, especially if they can be accommodated within a scheme of dinner parties, had a binding force.
By 1215, things had moved sufficiently far down this line of pleasant chit-chat, for the King of England to have to have signed up to the Magna Carta and thus to the beginning of parliamentary democracy.
A mere but busy two-hundred years later, the English gentleman was emerging as a man who had travelled, spoke more than one language, (apart from Latin), who could ride, use a sword, afford several warhorses, sing, dance, indulge in foreplay, win at chess and appreciate fine food, while also being supremely manly and utterly cold in battle but with a cheery word for his companions. In Henry V’s campaign of 1415 in France, resulting in the battle of Agincourt, in which 6 000 Englishmen, standing side-by-side, irrespective of rank, defeated an army of 80 000 Frenchmen.
This victory perfectly exemplified the virtues of patronage in English society at the time. The English army was all in it, together. And this was a reflection of the social system that applied at home.
Because English mediaeval society depended upon patronage, so the interests of powerful men became identical with a wider concept 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 one’s guests were one’s equals, won the more powerful man credit and respect from those who wished they could be more like him. Good manners were contagious. The values of a ‘gentleman’ were useful not just to men but to their families as well.
A hundred years after Agincourt and in the court of Henry VIII, a gentleman could reasonably be expected to joust, sing, play an instrument, compose, hunt, speak Latin, Greek, French, as well as Welsh (perhaps), 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.
But, for all this accumulation of agreeable manners, Henry VIII executed Elizabeth I’s mother, just as she had her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, beheaded. No gentleman could afford to be ignorant of politics and none could afford to stand by when his vital interests were threatened.
These were lessons of which the English gentleman had constant cause to be reminded in the face of an envious and hostile Europe.
Dancing was not merely a courtesy to women but a preparation for the fine footwork needed in battle, just as sport tested teamwork and the coercive use of other manly virtues. Foreign languages facilitated the invasion of foreign parts. Humour rallied troops. Courtesy mollified the defeated more quickly. As such, 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.
War has, thus, always been an engine deep in the heart of what it is to be considered both English and a gentleman. Samuel Johnson, England’s finest-ever conversationalist and writer of its first dictionary, was heard to say, from the very great heights of his bookishness, “Sir, every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier or not having been at sea”.
Indeed, as warfare moved ever more firmly into the age of gunpowder, so some gentlemanly virtues became even more important. At Waterloo, four hundred years after Agincourt, Wellington 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. He had five horses shot dead from under him. As Wellington stated: ‘Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton’. By this, he did not mean that his officers behaved meekly: boys were not infrequently killed on Eton’s sports’ fields. Gentlemen were expected to know how to fight.
Arguably, the English gentleman suffered a very great reverse in his standing when, in WWI, the senior staff, unlike Wellington, chose to remain out of the range of the guns that were killing their men. Neither Henry V, nor Henry VIII, nor any general-king up until 1914 would have regarded this as anything but unmanly, dishonouring and ignoble. The triumph of the gentleman is that he subscribes to the same set of values as those who serve him and is judged even more severely by them.
This is why the current banking scandals and shameful disclosure of MP’s expenses have been so damaging to the social fabric of Britain. If the rich do not behave well to the poor, if they do not share the same pains, then the social fabric of the ‘commonwealth’ is unravelled, like wool on a jumper being caught on a nail, until all are naked. If the same rules do not apply to us all, then the less well-off will see no reason why they should play by standards that oblige them to conform to an inflexible rule while the better-off find profitable exceptions.
Being an English gentleman is not, therefore, a privileged status of the relatively well-off and ‘cultured’, but the social duty of everyone who has signed up for a living in England. The same rules must apply to us all: we must all treat everyone as our equal; we must be outward-facing to the world; we must use diplomacy and gentle language; we must refrain from violence wherever possible; we msut 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. A true gentleman is aware of all of those around him and seeks to ensure the harmony of all parts of society, in an effort to establish the greater good. This, he strives to achieve through learning, politeness, wit, humour, good grace and hospitality.
For a warlike, frequently invaded and tortured nation, England has produced an alloy that has great value in times of peace, as in war. Remember that each time you put on a jacket, slide in you cufflinks or, as a woman, do the same. We should all be gentlemen now, whether your hero is Washington, Gandhi or Saladin, gentlemen all.
Have a look at Part one at http://test.theperfectgentleman.tv/part-1-the-english-gentleman-a-partial-history/