Opinion and Editorial

Why Prince Charles is the defender of British culture

William Rees-mogg
Filed on June 18, 2006

SINCE the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, there have been rather few creative modernisers in the Royal Family — Charles II, whose patronage helped to establish the Royal Society, Prince Albert, who masterminded the Great Exhibition of 1851, and now Prince Charles.

He is, one might say, a post-modernist moderniser, partly reacting against the aesthetic and moral brutalism of the late 20th Century. None of the three has received much thanks for his attempts to modernise Britain. Our Victorian ancestors were irritated by Albert’s serious German idealism. We are now seeing a broadening recognition that Prince Charles has been perceptive in his choice of good causes to champion. Compared with our politicians, he has been an early bird, particularly in his defence of the environment.

Throughout his adult life, Prince Charles has opposed the progressive weakening and coarsening of our traditional culture, on aesthetic, spiritual and social grounds. Part of this has been a conservative reaction, similar in spirit to the 19th Century reaction against the early Industrial Age. Yet Prince Charles has usually reached out towards futuristic solutions, rather as the great Victorians, John Ruskin and William Morris, tried to do in their time. He has to be taken seriously; like Prince Albert he may receive more recognition from posterity than from his contemporaries.

Last week the Prince announced his latest initiative. He is to set up his own training programme to promote traditional methods of teaching English and history in state schools. He believes modern teaching methods have robbed children of their cultural inheritance. He is working with Cambridge University to establish the Prince’s Cambridge Programme For Teaching. ‘For all sorts of well-meaning reasons, and for too many pupils, teaching has omitted to pass on to the next generation not only our deep knowledge of literature and history, but also the value of education,’ he said.

There is extensive literature on the teaching of English and history and their role in education. There are both social and personal aspects. John Milton, England’s greatest epic poet, took an epic view of the impact of such an education on the individual. ‘I call that,’ he wrote, ‘a complete and generous education, which fits a man to perform justly, skilfully, and magnanimously, all the offices, both public and private, of peace and war.’

This is the extreme view of what literature and history can do for the individual. Yet, in very real fact, this was how Winston Churchill educated himself, with historic consequences. In 1940, he was prepared for his supreme role because he had read the historical works of Thomas Babington Macaulay and written the life of his great ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough.

Until the end of the Second World War, the grammar and public schools maintained the tradition of teaching Latin and Greek, and the major classical authors. William Pitt the Elder, who became Lord Chatham, was the leading British Minister of the period of the Seven Years’ War, in which India and Canada were both added to the British Empire, at the expense of France. He was, with Churchill, the greatest of British war Ministers; perhaps, in terms of strategic insight and global judgment, he was the greatest of them all. Thomas Pitt, his nephew, went up to Cambridge in 1754, around the time that the decisive 18th Century war for world empire begun. Chatham wrote occasional letters to his nephew, encouraging him in his studies. He repeatedly recommends the study of John Locke, the late-17th Century liberal philosopher who himself wrote an essay on education.

Chatham writes of the great classic authors. ‘I rejoice to hear that you have begun Homer’s Iliad; and have made so great a progress in Virgil. I hope you taste and love those authors particularly. You cannot read them too much: they are not only the two greatest poets, but they contain the finest lessons for your age to imbibe: lessons of honour, courage, disinterestedness, love of truth, command of temper, gentleness of behaviour, humanity, and in one word, virtue in its true significance.’ English literature, particularly Shakespeare and the King James Bible, is every bit as capable of developing these qualities as Homer or Virgil. I am not even sure that little children cannot be introduced to them. My mother read me Macbeth when I was three, and I can still remember from that reading the gleeful cackling of the witches and the cumbrous jollity of the porter. Naturally, I identified with Lady Macduff’s son who is so plucky in the murder scene: ‘He has killed me, mother: run away, I pray you.’

The history of Britain teaches the same lessons as the literature. In 1940, Churchill prevailed because he expressed the national mood: the determination of the nation not to surrender, a recognition of evil for what it was. That culture of defiance comes naturally from our history: from the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and from the defeat of the French tyrants Louis XIV and Napoleon, when they planned to invade our island.

The groundwork of education should be the development of character, the character of the individual as well as the society. This character is moulded by our liberal culture and culture is best taught through the study of literature and history. It should be taught openly and seriously as a gift from one generation to the next. That is in no way xenophobic; our culture is the best thing we have to give to new immigrants to Britain. It would be madness to discard it from a false shame about our history. Prince Charles is right. A nation that loses its culture suffers an irreparable loss. British culture reflects the development of our independent, tolerant and liberal society. Our history and literature form an essential part of our culture. They need to be cherished; they need to be well taught; they deserve to be enjoyed.

Lord William Rees-Mogg is a former editor of The Times. This column first appeared in the Mail on Sunday

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