March 28, 2015

Finest Hour 131, Summer 2006

Page 13


Q: I am told that Churchill quoted the famous speech by John ‘ of Gaunt in Shakespeare’s Richard II, act 2, scene 1: ‘This scepter’d isle,” etc. Can you tell me the speech? —W. D. Reeves

A: Churchill knew his Shakespeare—particularly Richard II. In The Gathering Storm, when visiting the fleet after becoming First Lord of the Admiralty for the second time in a war with Germany, he reflects on his experiences twenty-five years before and quotes other lines from the play: “For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings” (act 3).

He did quote some of Gaunt’s famous lines but not all—not in a speech, but in the opening of an article, “Let’s Boost Britain,” in the weekly Answers for 28 April 1934, reprinted in The Collected Essays of Sir Winston Churchill (London, 1975), vol. 4, “Churchill at Large,” page 291:

WSC: This week we celebrate St George’s Day, which is also Shakespeare’s Day, who wrote the noblest tribute ever penned to this England of ours:

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” This royal throne of kings,
this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise …
This happy breed of men, this little world;
This precious stone set in the silver sea …”

The words still thrill like the blast of a trumpet; thrill, I suspect, the Scots and Irish and Welsh among us as well as the English. They move us not only because they are beautiful, but because they are true—as true today in the reign of King George the Fifth as they were under Royal Elizabeth.

***

Churchill’s remarks after his fleet visit are so haunting that we thought our readers might like to be reminded. The quotation, “Some banquet-hall deserted,” is from Irish poet Thomas Moore….

WSC: It was, like the others, a lovely day. All went well, and in the evening we anchored in Loch Ewe, where the four or five other great ships of the Home Fleet were assembled…. My thoughts went back a quarter of a century to that other September when I had last visited Sir John Jellicoe and his captains in this very bay, and had found them with their long lines of battleships and cruisers drawn out at anchor, a prey to the same uncertainties as now afflicted us. Most of the captains and admirals of those days were dead, or had long passed into retirement. The responsible senior officers who were now presented to me as I visited the various ships had been young lieutenants or even midshipmen in those far-off days….

The perfect discipline, style, and bearing, the ceremonial routine—all were unchanged….It seemed that I was all that survived in the same position I had held so long ago. But no; the dangers had survived too. Danger from beneath the waves, more serious with more powerful U-boats; danger from the air, not merely of being spotted in your hiding-place, but of heavy and perhaps destructive attack!

…I motored from Loch Ewe to Inverness, where our train awaited us. We had a picnic lunch on the way by a stream, sparkling in hot sunshine. I felt oddly oppressed with my memories.

“For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground And tell sad stories of the death of kings. “

No one had ever been over the same terrible course twice with such an interval between. No one had felt its dangers and responsibilities from the summit as I had, or, to descend to a small point, understood how First Lords of the Admiralty are treated when great ships are sunk and things go wrong. If we were in fact going over the same cycle a second time, should I have once again to endure the pangs of dismissal? Fisher, Wilson, Battenberg, Jellicoe, Beany, Pakenham, Sturdee, all gone!

“I feel like one
Who treads alone
Some banquet-hall deserted
Whose lights are fled,
Whose garlands dead And all but he departed.”

And what of the supreme, measureless ordeal in which we were again irrevocably plunged? Poland in its agony; France but a pale reflection of her former warlike ardour; the Russian Colossus no longer an ally, not even neutral, possibly to become a foe. Italy no friend. Japan no ally. Would America ever come in again? The British Empire remained intact and gloriously united, but ill-prepared, unready. We still had command of the sea. We were woefully outmatched in numbers in this new mortal weapon of the air. Somehow the light faded out of the landscape.
—From The Gathering Storm

(London: Cassell, 1948, pp. 321-40), © Winston S. Churchill, reprinted by kind permission.

Finally, here is the complete passage from Richard II, act 2, scene 1:

John of Gaunt:

This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

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