The Oxford History of the British Empire - Vol. 4

By Judith M. Brown; Wm. Roger Louis et al. | Go to book overview

2

The British Empire in the Edwardian Era
RONALD HYAM

Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the Free,
How shall we extol thee, who are born of thee?
Wider still and wider, shall thy bounds be set;
God who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet.

These words—written as an ode for the coronation of King Edward VII in 1902 to accompany Elgar's brilliantly rousing music—became the transcendent anthem of Empire. In the popular imagination they may seem to symbolize Edwardian sentiment about the British Empire. In fact it is doubtful whether they did. Certainly to the man who wrote them they were purely 'occasional' and represented no sort of personal credo: A. C. Benson was a disenchanted Eton schoolmaster about to move to Cambridge, where he began the editing of Queen Victoria's letters and became a charismatic don. In later years, when Empire Day was becoming established, Benson was much in demand to make speeches for schools on 24 May. He always refused, confiding to his diary:
The 'Empire', thus treated, leaves me cold. I think that most people have quite enough to do with thinking about their neighbour. How can little limited minds think about the colonies, & India, & the world at large, and all that it means? ... The world at large, outside of the people I can actually touch & know, seems to me a great dim abstraction. I am not in the least interested in the human race, nor can I back our race against all races. I believe in our race, but I don't disbelieve in theirs. 1

This confession may provide us with important clues as to how educated Edwardians, other than politicians and administrators, thought about the Empire. And there is a direct line of intellectual descent from Benson to Noel Annan, who recalled in 1990 that although the word Empire was officially coupled with 'duty' and 'heritage' in the years before and after 1914, 'These sentiments were not in fact shared by the country... which had always been bored with the Empire: on this

____________________
1
Benson Diary, 1917, pp. 36-37, F/ACB/165, Magdalene College Archives, Cambridge.

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