a worm’s eye view of Quakers in Britain Yearly Meeting Gathering 2017


First, some vignettes.

In the room set aside for crafts, near the YMG information desk and the bookshop, I used to find six or seven women, sitting round a large table piled high with balls of wool of many colours, knitting squares to be sewn together to make blankets for refugees, and softly chatting.  In their quiet work they embodied Quakerism for me.

For my accommodation, I chose to stay among strangers – strangers who quickly became friends.  There were six of us on our floor, four from Pendle Hill Area Meeting, Daniele, a young Italian from Suffolk, and me.  The Pendle Hill four catered for themselves, whereas Daniele and I took meals with hundreds of other Friends, half-board; but the way was open for all of us to get to know each other.

One of the delights of Yearly Meeting is the opportunity to meet old friends and to make new ones.  One of the aims indeed is to build a community.  Although it is not possible to get to know everyone, it is vital to sit with people you don’t know and to make an approach – and hence to learn new things.  In this regard (community building), I think that YMG was a success.

The University of Warwick (the host site) is not situated in Warwick but at the very edge of the City of Coventry.  It is a good location for a large gathering – flattish, fairly compact, and modern (so, fairly accessible for Friends who are frail).  The City of Coventry itself forms quite a contrast.  It is well worth a visit.  It presents a mixture of buildings from various ages – and notably several medieval buildings, which survived the World War Two bombing.  The Friends Meeting House, simple and practical, dates from 1953.  Visiting Friends received a warm welcome (with tea and cake).  I visited the two cathedrals, medieval and modern, for the first time.  In the Chapel of Unity, I found a copy of the booklet that lays out the British Christian Response to the Palestine Kairos document: I found the name of my wife Jane among the signatories, and I felt a thrill of pride.

There were many Quaker visitors from around the world, and guests from other Faith traditions, who appeared very happy to be present and to be able to contribute to non-business sessions.

Indeed, the choice of what one might loosely call “spiritual nurture” sessions (or workshops) was vast, and one had to choose carefully and pace oneself.

I enjoyed the Retreat Lecture, given by my Friend Bronwen Gray, who vividly conveyed the connections between our faith and the principles of good mental health care (seeing that of God in all).  I enjoyed too the lecture by Gethin Evans on the life and work of printer and publisher John Edward Southall (1855 – 1928), who came from Leominster but moved to Newport and vigorously promoted both Quakerism and the Welsh language. (Repeated from the lecture Gethin gave at the 2016 National Eisteddfod.)

Lectures were given in front of much larger audiences: first, the Swarthmore Lecture, by Catherine West MP, and secondly, the Salter Lecture, by Molly Scott Cato MEP.  Both Friends gave good accounts of themselves and made a good case (in my opinion) for active involvement in politics, including campaigning through political parties.  They served as a useful counterpart to the business sessions.

The business sessions.

Sometimes, there were four women (no men) at the table – three Clerks (including Deborah Rowlands), plus Juliet Prager, Deputy Recording Clerk (who alternated with Paul Parker, Recording Clerk).  This seemed right and fitting.  The clerking was of a high standard.

With hearts and heads prepared, we slowly moved forward, on hands and feet, to work out what our involvement in the world  should or might be.  We heard from the Friends that addressed us about movement building and co-operating with other organisations, in the cause of social change.  In particular, points were made about overcoming barriers to working with others, especially when some of their assumptions and procedures are different from ours.

I recollected Minute 36 of YMG 2011 (our ‘Canterbury commitment’) concerning sustainability and also our Minute 36 of 2014 about social justice and equality.  I did wonder whether we were consolidating rather than changing anything.  There was not the thrill created (for example) by the YM 2009 minute on equal marriage; but it is not right to expect great excitement on every occasion.

I appreciated the ministry of a Leeds Friends, who referred to her participation in party politics in her city and her service as a Councillor.  I had wanted to say how much I had enjoyed canvassing in the 2017 General Election, and how this had felt the right thing for me to do, but I was not called to speak.

I was struck by a non-business session in which our young introducers (Rachel Muers and Rhiannon Grant) told us the story behind the eight ‘Foundations of a true social order’ (Quaker faith & practice 23.16).  Despite the passing of a century since, and their male-centred language, the Foundations have stood the test of time; and no way has been found of improving on them.  (They were agreed speedily – during World War One!  Could we produce something so concise and punchy, in such a short time, nowadays?)

A highlight of the business was the oral report of the work of BYM Trustees (backing up the written one), given by Ingrid Greenhow (Clerk).  Ingrid made her points with great wit and enthusiasm.

In conclusion, many of the YMG addresses and lectures can be viewed via the Quakers in Britain website.  Recommended!


David Harries



Liberalism v authoritarianism – comparing 17th century England & Wales with the UK in the 21st century

On 3 May 2017 UK Prime Minister Theresa May made a verbal attack on unspecified critics associated with the work of the European Union.  But is she blaming them for her own problems?  Is attack seen as the best form of defence?

The UK governments of recent years – Conservative-Liberal Democratic, 2010-15, and Conservative, 2015 till now – have been characterised by massive cuts to social expenditure and the demonisation of certain minorities, especially benefits claimants, migrants and asylum seekers.  There have been claims to be liberal but the practice shows features of authoritarianism.  Theresa May was an illiberal Home Secretary (2010-15).  She has advocated the repeal of the Human Rights Act and UK withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights.

Politicians as a bunch can display, and act upon, both liberal and authoritarian tendencies, at different times.  These have been noted in Labour, Conservative and Coalition governments in recent years.  Insofar as Mrs May keeps championing “strong and stable leadership” (in other words, her own leadership), she can be regarded as authoritarian.  We should learn from history the dangers of “strong” leadership.  There are enough tyrannical leaders around in the 21st century wider world – as there were in the 20th century.

Liberalism is messy – but it offers a better bet to voters than authoritarianism.  Authoritarian leaders find it hard to change course and to learn from criticism; or they change their mind and alter course, opportunistically, and claim they were consistent all the time.  (Remember George Orwell’s 1984.)  Mrs May herself was supposedly in favour of a ‘EU Remain’ vote in the 2016 UK referendum.  But now she is stridently hostile to the EU.  Her position is weak – one against 27!

17th century England and Wales suffered authoritarian rule under Charles I, the Commonwealth (led by Oliver Cromwell) and Charles II – the details varied. The poet John Milton who supported the Commonwealth (not uncritically); and he suffered for this after the Restoration of Charles II.  He went on to write his great verse epic, Paradise Lost.

Interpretations of PL are diverse; and there is controversy among scholars, not so much about the value, but about the arguments.  Is it religious and theological?  Yes.  Is it allegorical?  Maybe, to an extent.  Does it directly reflect the breakdown of the command of the Commonwealth over ordinary people?  Perhaps not.  Is Milton’s God authoritarian?  Milton does not think so – quite the opposite.  Is Satan authoritarian?  Yes he is, while pretending to be democratic.

One idea about PL is that Milton demonstrates in it a circular rather than a linear view of human history.  Consistent with a linear view is the belief (or hope) that humans as a whole are engaged in progress.*  Do not people of a liberal disposition embrace this idea?  The circular model fits in with the idea of repeated falls and rises in history.  Given Milton’s Christian beliefs, human history commenced with the Fall of the rebellious angels from heaven, followed by the Fall of Adam and Eve.

We should recall that Milton believed in mankind’s free will.  So all citizens have to take some responsibility for the politics of their country.

So perhaps the UK is now in a period of decline and fall long and drawn out.  Separation from the EU will probably hasten this.


*See: Weston, P (1987), John Milton: Paradise Lost, London: Penguin – pages 25-6.


When Religion Makes The News

On 8 November 2016, the National Union of Journalists and ITV Cymru Wales hosted the above-named event, at the Life Sciences Centre, Cardiff Bay.  It brought together journalists and people of belief (especially, media representatives), to discuss and improve communication and reporting.  It also offered a chance to “network”; over eighty people attended; and I got to speak to about a dozen, of a great variety of backgrounds, myself.

I should emphasise that the event came about at the initiative of journalists, not faith communities.  And it was a first in Britain.

The event was chaired by Roger Bolton, who has worked for many years in TV and radio – I have often heard him on the radio.

There were many speakers, throughout the day, both from journalist and faith groups.

The journalists’ situation can be summarised as follows.  The numbers working in traditional media have gone down.  Not only have they have been inclined, themselves, to be less religious than the general population, but also they have tended to subscribe to the idea that religious belief has been declining in importance.  (They have been proved wrong by events).  Those who wanted to report better were represented at this event, then.  They were challenged (loudly and clearly by Roger Bolton) (i) to inform themselves more deeply and (ii) to gain access to the wide variety of faith communities, while not relying solely on the contacts they already have.

In turn, the faith communities (Christians, Jews and Muslims) that were represented on a “panel” were challenged by Roger Bolton (i) to state explicitly what they have to offer to journalists and (ii) to outline the nature of their media operations. (The resources available varied widely between the communities.)

After lunch, journalists and faith communities met separately for one session.  For the faith group, the topic was: “Working with Journalists: an opportunity to consider your experience, your agenda, your media practice.”  It was led by three very knowledgeable women – with great communication skills – namely, Angela Graham (of the Media Policy Group of the Institute of Welsh Affairs), Christine Warwick, and Emma Meese (of Cardiff University’s Centre for Community Journalism).

Angela said that belief is wider than faith and includes atheism and secularism.  She set the context: relationships are more important than technologies.  She added that we all communicate through our daily lives.

Angela posed these questions.

What do I most want to communicate?

Why do I want to communicate this?

What results do I hope for?

How will I handle the reactions (the criticism)?

What are the implications of using media I don’t control?

We are always communicating, including with the Divine.  This helps us deal with failure.  We are vulnerable – we need to be prepared.  We need a strategy for dealing with consequences and people for handling risk.  We (believers) are making big claims and so are held accountable (eg by journalists).  Take care of the members of your own group.

Notice where the seed you have sown has grown.  Chase up the messages you have left.  Communicate widely, with discernment, creatively, painstakingly, persistently.

Journalism, she said, is a way to help us live well together.  Journalists must challenge us, push us to think harder.

What is noteworthy?  The novel, the topical, the relevant, the significant, the relational, the provable, the jargon-free, the researched, the practical, the visible.

Pictures help.

We should be contactable, available, responsible, ready for risk.

Avoid propaganda, preaching and proselytism.

Next, Christine Warwick gave us concrete advice on the writing of press releases.

Target your press releases accurately.  Know about deadlines.

The most important should be in the first paragraph and should tell the reader: who, what, where, when, how.

Include the body of your press release in your email, not as an attachment.

Finally, in this session, Emma Meese talked about social media.  What she said about this could be applied, in part, to the more traditional media.  Remember KISSKeep It Short and Sweet.

Make the most of your Twitter profile.  Sell yourself.  But “don’t feed the trolls.”


This was a very stimulating day.  Many of those present would welcome a repeat, where topics could be dealt with at greater length.


I came away wondering how Quakers – especially those in Wales – can best rise to the challenges posed so vividly at this event.  I am very grateful, both to the organisers, and to Meeting of Friends for letting me go.


David Harries




A few thoughts have come to me recently and have combined into a prompting.  I have shared this with my Local Meeting in Wales (Britain) and now I would like to share it further.

Quakers in Britain adhere to silent worship, with occasional vocal contributions (spoken ministry).  This is a minority position in the Quaker world.

Within my home country, Wales, I am continually impressed by the high standard of music playing and in particular of singing (solo, duet, choir, etc) at our Eisteddfodau (multi-aspect cultural meetings and competitions).  This reflects the time and effort put in, the value attached to it, and the tradition.

I have been thinking about the stewardship of a two hundred year old Meeting House in our Area: both Meeting and Meeting House need support, especially as the number of Friends is small and the building is in need of much attention.  It may well prove necessary (and desirable) to elicit the support of the local community, to raise awareness and interest, to generate wider use of the Meeting House, and indeed, to generate funds. Could music play a part here?

I have recently listened to a BBC Radio 3 programme (recorded and put aside for later listening) about the work of the Hungarian composer and teacher, Zoltán Kodály. He believed that everybody can sing; and he devised techniques to bring this about; and his influence is widespread.

In my work as a social worker, I have often remarked how useful and powerful music is in communication with, and stimulation of, people suffering from dementia.

I note that in my own lifetime, and during my long association with Friends, the arts have been warmly embraced, in various ways.  (This has been a cultural shift.)  Examples of our achievements are the Quaker Tapestry and the work of the Leaveners, among many others.

I wonder whether, in the seventeenth century, Friends in Britain missed a trick, as they turned their back on music and concentrated on silent waiting in Meeting for Worship.  I love the silence (and the vocal ministry, of course); and our tradition must be retained and suffer no infringement.  But to outsiders our form of worship must appear austere and off-putting.

Music is a part of all cultures on the planet.  All peoples sing.

I think that as Friends we should think about using music and particularly organised singing.  It has connected purposes: therapy, community generation, the understanding of our message, the conveying of our message to others, and (potentially) bringing new people in to sing with us.

Preaching in a public space is one thing; but singing is quite another – engaging and not threatening.

I envisage local groups of Friends (volunteers) practising singing together and getting better. (If they already exist, let’s have more.)  This may involve training, and it may mean payment.  But I see this as an investment.

I see this as a singing movement.  I foresee unaccompanied singing, at an early stage, but instrumentalists can be drawn in.

The material?  We have Quaker songs.  There are peace songs.  We can also have new songs and lyrics composed and written for us.

We have many singers and musicians among us.  Where do they perform now?  Surely, not much in Quaker contexts.

I would like us to sing out our message to the world, wherever and whenever we can.


David Harries

Member of Bridgend Local Meeting, South Wales Area Meeting

King John, died 1216, Shakespeare, died 1616, and the relevance of ‘King John’ to us in 2016

King John, died 1216, Shakespeare, died 1616 – thoughts on the relevance of Shakespeare’s King John, in 2016

Current political conflicts, and acts of violence, characterise the world in 2016:  Shakespeare’s plays about British history hold up a mirror to it

The relatively obscure and seldom performed early play, King John, resembles the much better known Richard III (written, perhaps, a little earlier)I value John, and I wish to make some comments in its favour, and to compare it with Richard.

It must be acknowledged that the play is only loosely based on historical events, from the reign of John (1199-1216).  Someone coming to it for the first time may be surprised to learn that there is no mention of Magna Carta.

Plot summary

Possession of the English crown is contested.  John has might rather than right on his side.  He maintains his power against the claim of Arthur, his nephew, supported by France and the Pope.  (Arthur dies, in suspicious circumstances: John is blamed.)  John nearly loses his crown, when the Dauphin (the French king’s son’s invades England and the English lords join sides with him.  John’s cause is rescued by Faulconbridge (a fictional bastard son of King Richard I) and Hubert (a commoner).  John dies, not in battle (as Richard III does) but as the result of poisoning by a monk.  He is succeeded by his own son, Henry III.


Both John and Richard portray the rise and fall of a king who is regarded by many commentators as a bad king.  Richard is single-minded, strong and tyrannous; but John is impetuous but fundamentally weak and indecisive; he is over-dependent, firstly on his mother, and secondly, on his loyal supporters, Hubert and Faulconbridge; he is easily outwitted by Pandulph, the papal legate.

There are in theory alternative kings for England.  Arthur is young and weak and over-dependent on his mother.  A victim of John’s machinations, he strikes a very pathetic figure.  Faulconbridge, the (fictional) son of Richard I, has the qualities of wit, strength of character and loyalty, but he is disqualified by his illegitimacy.

On the French side, the king and his son act in their own interest, against that of England; and Pandulph, the papal legate, does likewise.


Both plays feature dynastic marriages: in John, between John’s Niece, Blanche, and the future Louis VIII of France.

Both plays have English lords who have shifting loyalties as between rival claimants to the throne.

Both include battles and an invasion of England: in Richard, the future Henry VII makes good his claim to the crown; in John, the future Louis VIII of France returns home empty-handed.

The tragic fate of Arthur, John’s nephew, parallels that of Richard’s victims, especially that of his own nephews (the “Princes in the Tower”).

Women characters lose whatever power and influence they have, as the plays progress – they disappear from the stage and leave it to the military men.  In King John, major female characters exit early:

  • Blanche, at the end of Act 3 Scene 1
  • Eleanor (John’s mother), at the end of Act 3 Scene 3
  • Constance (Arthur’s mother), in Act 3 Scene 4.

(This feature was dealt with, in the RSC 2012 production, by combining two male roles and giving them to a woman.)


The nature of ambition, and its effects, are exposed, plainly and devastatingly, by King John’s (fictional) nephew, the “Bastard” Faulconbridge.  See his soliloquy (Act 2 Scene 1) about “commodity” (meaning: expediency, coupled with self-seeking and hypocrisy), described as:


                  ….that same purpose-changer, that sly devil,

That broker that still breaks the pate of faith,

That daily break-vow, he that wins of all,

Of kings, of beggars, old men, young men, maids….

That smooth-faced gentleman, tickling commodity….

This bawd, this broker, this all-changing word…


Pandulph, in particular, is a skilled practitioner of the misuse of rhetoric and specious arguments for his own ends.


Surprisingly, perhaps, Prince Louis of France does strike a note of regret about how events have turned out, in a few remarkable lines (Act 3 Scene 4):

     There’s nothing in this world can make me joy.

Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale,

Vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man,

And bitter shame hath spoiled the sweet world’s taste,

That it yields naught but shame and bitterness.




As in Richard III, it is the women who find the words to give expression to grief.  (Arthur finds the words for fear.)  Blanche talks about her divided loyalties, when her father and her husband are at war with each other.  Constance vents her grief, and her anger, over the capture of Arthur and his betrayal by his French allies.

Those who mourn, in the body of John are the victims of ambitious men (kings, earls and the papal legate) and their single-minded pursuit of power.  (Compare Richard III and his allies.)




The final scene is characterised by the quiet fading away of King John himself and the perfunctory mourning of his passing, followed by Faulconbridge’s putting in a few words acceptance of the present and optimism about the future.  To paraphrase: ‘the King is dead, long live the king!’ and ‘England is strong if we stick together.’




A problem is that John commences somewhat as a comedy but develops into a tragedy.  Well, it would be a tragedy (rather than a history, perhaps), if John himself was a stronger, albeit flawed, character – a hero, or at least a clear anti-hero – and if his death formed a climax to the play rather than an anti-climax.  John lacks Richard III’s wicked humour, cleverness and depth of deceitfulness, which simultaneously attracts and repels the reader or the member of the audience.  (The wit and wisdom are left to Faulconbridge.)


But do not many 21st century leaders resemble King John?  Vacillating at times, impetuous at others, lacking in understanding of issues, deceitful?


In accordance with many of Shakespeare’s early history plays, King John I contains many long rhetorical speeches (as does Richard III).  These require skilled acting on the stage.  In my opinion, several are over-long and repetitive and will benefit from cuts in performance.


On balance, then, King John is worth a look.

[the long version]













King John died 1216, Shakespeare died 1616 – the relevance of ‘King John’ to us in 2016

King John, died 1216, Shakespeare, died 1616 – thoughts on the relevance of Shakespeare’s King John, in 2016

Current political conflicts, and acts of violence, characterise the world in 2016:  Shakespeare’s plays about British history hold up a mirror to it.

It must be acknowledged that King John is only loosely based on historical events, from the reign of John (1199-1216).  (Someone coming to it for the first time may be surprised to learn that there is no mention of Magna Carta.)  It portrays the rise and fall of King John, who is regarded by many commentators as a bad king.  (Compare and contrast Richard III.)  He is impetuous but fundamentally weak and indecisive; he is over-dependent, firstly on his mother, and secondly, on his loyal supporters, Hubert and Faulconbridge.

It is the women who find the words to give expression to grief.  But the women characters lose whatever power and influence they have, as the plays progress – they disappear from the stage and leave it to the military men.

(This aspect was dealt with, in the RSC 2012 production, by combining two male roles and giving them to a woman.)

The nature of ambition, and its effects, are exposed, plainly and devastatingly, by King John’s (fictional) nephew, the “Bastard” Faulconbridge.  See his soliloquy (Act 2 Scene 1) about “commodity” (meaning: expediency, coupled with self-seeking and hypocrisy), described as:


                  ….that same purpose-changer, that sly devil,

That broker that still breaks the pate of faith,

That daily break-vow, he that wins of all,

Of kings, of beggars, old men, young men, maids….

That smooth-faced gentleman, tickling commodity….

This bawd, this broker, this all-changing word…


Other characters display their pursuit of “commodity”, to the detriment of others.


Do not many 21st century leaders resemble King John?  Vacillating at times, impetuous at others, lacking in understanding of issues, deceitful?  And dangerous!

[the short version]














Militarism, pacifism, Christianity

Events in the UK in 2016 make me think – particularly Brexit (a horrible new word) and the vote in Parliament in favour of a replacement for the current Trident submarine system.

Brexit means a sovereign nation state disentangling itself from an international alliances – against the worldwide trend.

Trident replacement also means a sovereign state trying to assert itself as a global power – in a changed world.

One excuse for Trident replacement is the assertion that it forms a UK contribution to NATO.  However, whatever the UK provides is dwarfed by the US contribution.

The building, testing and maintenance of nuclear weapons systems is extremely expensive – billions of pounds.  (Will the cost go up?)

This policy has been kept up since the end of the Second World War.

I would argue that the costs associated with nuclear weapons has distorted the UK economy all this time.  Compare the more prosperous Germany, which has no such weapons.

(The economic record of West Germany and subsequently the reunited Germany has been far superior to the UK’s.  The UK has suffered successive devaluations of its currency, with no visible long term benefit, whereas West Germany periodically revalued – upwards – the Deutsche Mark.)

UK policies are characterised by militarism – they rest on the belief that war, and preparedness for war – is an acceptable way of solving conflicts.

I wish to step back in time for a while.

In the 1930s, in the UK, success stories include the defeat of home grown fascism and the acceptance of refugees (many of them Jewish, many of them children).

In the 1940s, after long struggles and much shedding of blood, fascism was defeated in Germany, Italy, Japan, etc.  A case can be made that here, militarism worked.  Once defeated, resistance by the fascist elites crumbled; and democracy was installed (with a great degree of success).

The nature of war has changed.  Recognisable front lines have gone; guerrilla tactics and terrorism are prevalent; that the great powers rely heavily on air strikes (bombing both the armed and unarmed on the ground).  The world is flooded with so-called “small arms” and indeed BIG arms too.  So if a former imperial power, like the UK, or a current economic and military power, like the USA, invades a country, they run great risks of being confronted by Kalashnikovs and more.

The practicality of militarism is called into question.  (Have we realised this yet?)  As for Trident, is it really a cold war weapon?  Is it a useful response to the threats we all face, in 21st century?  In particular, does it help us counter terrorism?  I think not.

It is fair to recognise that governments have the responsibility to use ‘reasonable force’ (UK courts pay attention to this) to maintain law and order (‘the Queen’s peace’) at home.  Indeed, many people who work in the public sector play some role in this (eg social workers, myself included).

The picture, beyond the borders, is less clear.  For example, one of the duties placed on the UK’s Royal Navy is the protection of British trade, ie that carried by the Merchant Navy – this can be a long way from home.

So much for practicalities.  What about the ethics of militarism?  Is it compatible with (for example) Christianity?

To go to the root of Christianity: the teaching of Jesus is pacifist.  Consider the Sermon on the Mount (in Matthew and Luke).  We should allow for the fact that the Gospels do not provide a political manifesto, nor (in my opinion) a clear answer to every detailed moral problem that arises today.

One aspect of Christianity is other-worldliness.  Militarists constantly argue that we have to live in the “real world”.  (A counsel of despair.)  In other words, war will be abolished when all lay down their weapons.  Till then, “if you seek peace, prepare for war.”  An excuse or a reason?

If militarism is essential to the maintenance of “law and order” between nations, then the corollary is that Christianity, as it has been handed down to us, is imperfect – idealist and not realistic.

One can argue that when Christians were a minority, in the Roman Empire, governance was not an issue for them – they were the governed.  (And they had to decide when to conform to Roman rule and when not to.  Saints Peter and Paul tried to give guidance on this.)

Eventually, of course, Christians (genuine or nominal) found themselves in positions of power, in many countries, and in many times.

This is the point where I need to refer to the conventional wisdom that the first duties of the State are to safeguard its population, internally and at its borders.  I also need to refer to the idea, concocted by theologians, of the “just war”.

It is virtually impossible to wage a “just war”, especially today.  No state or alliance can be sure that a display of its fire power will result in a conclusive military victory.  Recent history differs significantly from that of the 1940s (see above).

I worry that, once one steps into the arena of governance, backed up by force and the threat of force, it is not clear where one should stop – where the line should be drawn.

I also fear that, if one possesses military might, then one may be tempted to use it.  (Every challenge is like a nail; and the military response will be like a hammer.)

Self-restraint on the part of a government is required. Sometimes, members of the public, media moguls and populist politicians will demand the opposite.  I do not see the development of Trident as an example of self-restraint.  And I have grave doubts about other systems too.

Self-restraint is the watchword.  It is the best concept I can offer at present.

Building Bridges after the UK referendum

The Britain Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) has put out  a statement:

The outcome of the European Union referendum and the campaigning that led up to it have shown up and sometimes exacerbated divisions within and between our communities.

There is now great need for bridge-building, for reaching out to one another in love, trusting that below the political differences lie a shared humanity and a wish for flourishing communities.

Inequalities run deep in society and some are exposed by the vote.

Quakers in England, Scotland and Wales are committed to working together and with others – including Quakers cross Europe – for a peaceful and just world.  In the coming year our Quaker Yearly Meeting will focus ob building movements with others locally and globally.  We refuse to prejudge who is or is not an ally.

Turbulent times can be frightening, but the Spirit is a source of strength for all, in guiding us in who we are and what we do.  We take heart from the knowledge that with change comes opportunity.  We will look for creative ways to find common cause, to listen, to influence and to persuade.  As the status quo is shaken we and our neighbours must look to one another for support, wisdom and above all else ways of healing divisions.




Edmund Spenser (c1552-1599): ‘The Faery Queene’

In October 2015, in a BBC television programme in the series, ‘The Secret Life of Books’, Dr Janina Ramírez praised Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene.  This has led me to re-read it and make up my own mind about its merits.

FQ is a very long verse epic (nine-line stanzas, in a form invented by Spenser himself), dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I.  Books I-III were published in 1590, Books IV-VI in 1596, and a fragment (the Mutabilitie cantos), in 1609, after Spenser’s death.  Spenser envisaged many more books but did not complete his work.

FQ shows the influence of the literary heritage, notably: the Bible, Homer, Aristotle, Virgil, Ovid, Ariosto, Tasso, Chaucer, and histories of Britain.

The letter to Sir Walter Raleigh   

Usefully, Spenser provides a preface to FQ (Books I-III), in the form of an explanatory letter to Raleigh.  Here, he “expounds [his] whole intention.”  He describes the work as: “a continued allegory, or dark conceit”.  “The general end of all the book,” he writes, “is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline.” [The spelling is modernised.]

However, it is best to read FQ in an edition that provides explanatory notes.  (I have used: J P Roche Jr (ed) (1978), London: Penguin.)


FQ draws upon mythology, especially that created by Geoffrey of Monmouth, and Arthurian legend (Arthur and Merlin appear).

Spenser creates a fairy world, mysteriously adjacent to, and interpenetrating, Britain.  It is peopled by: elfin knights (male and female, Christian and pagan), damsels in distress, wizards, witches, giants and dragons (etc), which symbolise various vices and virtues.

History and politics

FQ has characters that represent historical persons, notably Queen Elizabeth herself.  The queen is represented by three figures:

  • Gloriana, the Queen of Fairy Land (mentioned rather than appearing)
  • Belphoebe, a Diana-like huntress
  • Mercilla, a queen who dispenses mercy.

There is a political dimension to consider.  In his writings, Spenser defended the 16th century Protestant constitution of England and the English hegemony over Ireland.

Much of the history of England and its neighbours, in Spenser’s lifetime, is portrayed (allegorically) in Cantos 9-12 of Book V: the trial of Mary Queen of Scots (Canto 9), the Spanish domination of the Low Countries (Canto 10-11), and the conversion of Henry IV of France to Catholicism (Canto 12).

The stories

Conflicts between characters (generally, good versus evil) are fought out as medieval battles: knights use swords and lances; rougher characters use cruder weapons.  Each time, virtue is triumphant, sooner or later.  As well as battles, there are also love relationships between knights and damsels, as well as the love of Britomart (a female knight) and Arthur.

The books

Each component book (each composed of twelve cantos) is designed to celebrate a particular virtue:

  1. holiness (approximately, piety combined with chivalry)
  2. temperance
  3. chastity
  4. friendship
  5. justice
  6. courtesy.

These are followed by a fragment, which features a lively debate, featuring the claim of Mutability, before the Olympian gods and Nature, that she is the one who rules the world, as everything (from the planets down to life on earth) is subject to constant change.

Morality and virtue

An example of Spenser’s underlying moral purpose is provided by Book III, Canto 11, stanzas 25-6, where Scudamour and Britomart are contrasted.  Britomart is portrayed as better equipped (through virtue) to overcome a manifestation of evil (in the form of a wall of flame), in order to enter Busirane’s castle:

Therewith resolved to prove her utmost might

Her ample shield she threw before her face,

And her sword’s point directing forward right,

Assailed the flame, the which eftsoons gave place,

And did itself divide with equal space,

That through she passed; as a thunderbolt

Pierceth the yielding air, and doth displace

The soaring clouds into sad showers ymolt [melted];

So to her yold [yielded] the flames, and did their force revolt.


Whom whenas Scudamour saw past the fire,

Safe and untouched, he likewise gan assay,

With greedy will, and envious desire,

And bad the stubborn flames to yield him way:

But cruel Mulciber would not obey

His threatful pride, but did the more augment

His mighty rage, and with imperious sway

Him forced (maugre) his fierceness to relent,

And back retire, all scorched and pitifully brent [burnt].


[Spelling modernised]


Further observations


1 Spenser chose old-fashioned language, which acts as a barrier to the reader.  It is quite different from that of contemporary poets.  He imitates Chaucer; but what is natural with Chaucer looks forced in Spenser.

2 Spenser is skilled at painting tableaux vivants:

  • the Seven Deadly Sins (Book I, Canto 4)
  • the Bower of Bliss (II, 12)
  • the Garden of Adonis (III, 6)
  • Busirane’s castle and the Masque of Cupid (III, 11-12)
  • the dance of the Graces (VI, 10)
  • the pageant of the seasons and months (Mutabilitie, Canto 7).

3 FQ is laden with allegorical figures.  It is difficult to sustain an allegorical narrative.  Purely allegorical figures tend to be abstract and unreal: they are either good or bad, and they cannot change.  As for the knights who largely personify one or more virtues but are less fully allegorical – they can be led astray by temptation or deception – but they are restored to moral health eventually.

4 FQ remains somewhat episodic, as there is no one unifying plot and resolution; and there are loose ends which (given time) Spenser may have tied up.  Recommended connected stories are:

  • Spenser’s continuation and conclusion of Chaucer’s unfinished Squire’s Tale (Book IV, Cantos 2-3)
  • The quest of Sir Calidore in Book VI (Cantos 1-3 and 9-12)
  • The Mutabilitie Cantos

5 For a present-day reader, other works by Spenser may be more attractive, especially his long poems that celebrate marriage, namely, the Epithalamion and the Prothalamion.  Long poems by other poets active in the 1590s may also appeal, especially:

  • Marlowe’s Hero and Leander
  • Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and Rape of Lucrece.

6 In his Don Quixote (1605 and 1615), Cervantes satirised both the chivalric epic and the deployment of magic in plots.  Once Don Quixote had been widely published and translated, the epic of chivalry, as a genre, died out.

7 The Faerie Queene has literary merit and is very vivid, even exciting, in places.  At the same time, it appears old-fashioned – backward rather than forward-looking – especially when compared with the works of Spenser’s contemporaries.


David Harries

December 2015

Christopher Marlowe and Christian morality


Christopher Marlowe lived from 1564 to 1593.  Rather than examining his life, I’ll look at some of his literary output, which includes seven plays.

The plays

Dido, Queen of Carthage is based on Virgil’s Aeneid, Books I, II and IV.  Edward II, Tamburlaine Parts I and II and The Massacre at Paris are historically based.  Doctor Faustus is based on legends about a 16th century magician.  The Jew of Malta is loosely based on history – the Turks’ unsuccessful attempt to conquer the island in 1565.

None of these plays is a comedy.  The term “morality play” would fit most of them, insofar as they portray an ambitious, aspiring man, who achieves short-term goals but loses all and dies ignominiously in the end.

There are very few characters in these plays who evoke our sympathy: those who do include Queen Dido, Abigail (daughter of Barabas, the Jew of Malta), and Zenocrate (wife of Tamburlaine).  (All these ladies, moreover, die on stage.)

Some of the plays are seldom performed; but seeing the Royal Shakespeare’s 2015 production of The Jew of Malta has prompted me to put down some thoughts on issues raised by this play and two others by Marlowe.


For my reading, I have used: J B Steane’s Christopher Marlowe – The Complete Plays (Penguin, 1969), H J Oliver’s Dido Queen of Carthage and The Massacre at Paris (Revels Plays, 1968), and J R Siemen’s Jew of Malta (3rd edition, New Mermaids, 2009).


Marlowe has a keen eye for conflict between social groups, based purely on religious differences, where the more powerful group oppresses the less powerful one.

The Massacre at Paris

The play is set in late 16th century France, at the time of the wars of religion, in particular, the period from 1572 to 1589.  It portrays a series of incidents where Roman Catholics mercilessly slaughter Protestants (also called Huguenots).  The Catholics are led by members of the royal family, especially the prominent and ambitious Duke of Guise.

The Duke vows: “There shall not a Huguenot breathe in France”; and he proceeds to carry out this threat with alacrity.  He overreaches himself and is murdered, on the orders of King Henry III.  Finally, Henry himself is assassinated: with his dying breath he names Henry King of Navarre (a Protestant) as his successor.

The play may seem to favour Protestantism, but mainly it can be seen as an attack on religious fanaticism.

Tamburlaine Parts I and II

This pair of plays dramatises the battles and conquests of Tamburlaine (Timur Lenk), the usurping King of Persia, in the late 14th century.

In the subplot of Part II, Orcanes, Emperor of Natolia (Anatolia, Turkey), makes peace with Sigismund, King of Hungary, his enemy, in the context of the threat from the east of the all-conquering Tamburlaine.  They both swear to keep their truce “inviolable”.

However, Sigismund and his allies soon decide to break the agreement, on the grounds that the Muslims are “infidels”, that treaties with them are not binding on Christians, and that, as the Turks are now turning round to face Tamburlaine, an opportunity presents itself to attack them.

The furious Orcanes tears up the articles of peace; battle is joined; the Christians are defeated.  Sigismund dies of his wounds, belatedly expressing regret for his “accurs’d and hateful perjury”.

This subplot can be seen as conveying the playwright’s condemnation of religious prejudice and the use of such differences to justify treachery.

The Jew of Malta

When this play was first published, in 1633, it was called The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta.  It is a tragedy, indeed, for the many characters who lose their lives.  It can be categorised as one or more of these: a savage farce or a morality play or a revenge play.

Barabas, the Jew of the title, is a successful ship-owner and trader, who loves his wealth (“Infinite riches in a little room”).  As for people, he is concerned only about himself and his daughter, Abigail.  It matters little to him that the Knights of St John of Jerusalem rule over Malta, so long as a stable peace permits the carrying on of business.

The spring that sets the play in motion is the arrival of a Turkish embassy in Malta, demanding payment of arrears of tribute.  Ferneze, the Governor, states that the Christians of the island do not have the resources to pay up, so he looks to the local Jews (and especially Barabas) to supply the necessary funds.  He adds insult to injury: he denigrates the Jews, calling them “infidels” and “accursèd in the sight of heaven”.  He implies that the Turks’ demand for tribute is divine punishment for the authorities’ toleration of the Jews.  Barabas argues back, eloquently, but to no avail.  For his pains, he is dispossessed of his house and of his wealth (apart from the part that is hidden).  He curses his tormentors and plans his revenge.

The political leadership not only picks on a defenceless minority community, it also permits the operation of a slave market.  So another defenceless group is made to suffer.

The religious men – two friars, Jacomo and Bernadine – are little better.  Each hopes that his own order will benefit from hearing Barabas’s confession of his sins and from baptising him as a Christian (never carried out, in the event).  The editor J R Siemon comments: “The thrust of the passage is that each friar naively believes himself in favour with Barabas and, hence, in line for his wealth” (page 88).

And when Abigail utters her dying words – “Witness that I die a Christian” – Bernardine comments: “Ay, and a virgin too, that grieves me the most” (Act 3 Scene 6, 40f).

Barabas himself is transformed from a self-serving accumulator of wealth into a ruthless, boastful murderer.  He is involved, directly or indirectly, in various deaths – of the blameworthy and the innocent (including his own daughter).  Eventually, overreaching himself, he is caught in a trap of his own making and dies, hoist on his own petard.

A parallel with Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is this: Barabas and Shylock are the only Jewish men that feature prominently, as the others are minor characters.  (Their daughters are unlike them.)  Their misdeeds are their own and not those of the Jews in general.  This point is relevant to a discussion of signs of anti-Semitism in either play.

The Christians, then, do not come out of this story at all well.  The Turks – albeit briefly sketched – come out better.  The Jewish men, other than Barabas himself, are given little to say or do.  And Abigail is a sympathetic character.


The Jew of Malta is a savage farce, on the basis of (a) the series of Barabas’s cunning stratagems and (b) his witty running commentary upon them.  It is a morality play, ie about moral living, with the twist that both moral and immoral people are vulnerable to the leading character’s plots.  It is also a revenge play, as Barabas is a self-avenger, who (a) retaliates against those he perceives as enemies and (b) dies himself in the end.  (Compare Kyd’s Hieronimo, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Middleton’s Vindice.)

Marlowe gives us an object lesson in the nature of discrimination and oppression, and the consequences.

Whatever our differences, we should all be humane.

David Harries

May 2015