When David Cameron recently declared Britain to be a “Christian country”, what was the Prime Minister trying to say? Many commentators have suggested that it was a coded appeal to tradition (and to traditionally minded voters). And to be clear, there is certainly a great deal of tradition to appeal to. Christianity (re)established a presence on this island in the sixth century at the latest, and exercised a kind of cultural dominance from the seventh. Culturally, Christianity has shaped British history.

But Cameron’s statement also reflected, or at least emphasised,  a simple fact. Britain, or rather England, unequivocally is a Christian country, not so much in a cultural sense, but in a legal one – because the Church of England is formally part of the apparatus of the British state.[1] The implications of this union have recently been discussed in the debates on gay marriage, but the impact of the church’s ‘establishment’ on how that state is conceived is perhaps not discussed enough.

Ironically, despite the appeals to the traditional, from a medieval historian’s perspective the Church’s current position is positively new-fangled. The Church was an enormously powerful organisation in the Middle Ages, when most people living in Britain were Christians (though by no means all – religious diversity is nothing new, either). But this Church was emphatically not a ‘national’ entity. There was a Church in England, but its members were part of a larger organisation centred on Rome, whose leader’s claims to authority were ultimately universalising.

What’s more, contrary to some assumptions, the boundaries between the religious and the ‘secular’ were intensely scrutinised in the Middle Ages. Of course political leaders were supposed to support the Church in its endeavours, and to obey its precepts, whether that meant burning heretics or distributing alms. The extent of their power over church lands and church officials was however subject to certain limitations. My current research focuses on one of these limitations: whether and how kings and their agents could bring churchmen in front of their ‘secular’ courts. This was a matter of debate, and sometimes fierce conflict.

So, it is not a tension between politics and religion that is the innovation in England, but their formal accommodation: an accommodation that is increasingly remarkable from a European and indeed world-wide perspective. If that accommodation were to break down or become more complex – that, in a sense, would be the real return to tradition.

Charles West lectures on Medieval History at the University of Sheffield. You can read Charles’s other History Matters blogs here and find him on twitter @pseudo_isidore.

Image: courtesy of Evan Bench, at The FD lettering on the coin stands for ‘Fidei Defensor’, alluding to the queen’s formal role as head of the Church of England.

[1] The position of Scotland is a complex one. There is no established church in Scotland, yet the country is nevertheless (currently) subject to legislation passed by the House of Lords, in which churchmen play a key role.

Tags : Christian BritainChurch and statecultural influence of ChristianityDavid Cameronmedieval Churchmedieval history
Charles West

The author Charles West


  1. Thanks Andy! Yes, it’s a great project. Of course, the Romans had already brought Christianity with them, and elements certainly survived, but there’s only so much complexity one can fit into a short blog 🙁

  2. Of course the FD on the coin stands for defender of the Roman Catholic version of Christianity which was awarded to Henry XIII by Pope Leo X. Shortly afterwards Henry began the process which resulted in the break with Rome and local control over the Church, although we kept FD on the coins! Not long ago Prince Charles said he would prefer to be known as Defender of the Faiths. I wonder if he had considered the legal implications and possible disestablishment of the Church of England. The times, as always, are achanging.

  3. Thank you, Felicity – you are quite right, of course! I chose my words carefully: it now ‘alludes to’ the queen as the governor of the church, but initially meant something rather different, as you say (the power of context). And I sense that the disestablishment question is not going to go away…

  4. On a personal level Charles, in connection with foreign influence on the Church in England, our household rather resembles the Synod at Whitby at this time of the year because, having lived in Greece for 27 years, my husband and daughter choose to celebrate Easter in accordance with the Greek Orthodox Church whereas I remaIn faithful to the English dates, so usually we have two Easters. I’m afraid I’m not as religious as they are and prefer the Pagan connotations of rebirth as the English name suggests. This year the dates were the same for a change. However, Easter was a lovely festival in Greece because of the candlelit processions. Not quite the same over here!

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