It could truly be said of the English gentleman, as of another gallant and gracious individual, that his honour stood rooted in dishonour. He was, indeed, somewhat in the position of such an aristocrat of romance, whose splendour has the dark spot of a secret and a sort of blackmail.... His glory did not come from the Crusades, but from the Great Pillage.... The oligarchs were descended from usurers and thieves. That, for good or evil, was the paradox of England; the typical aristocrat was the typical upstart.
But the secret was worse; not only was such a family founded on stealing, but the family was stealing still. It is a grim truth that, all through the eighteenth century, all through the great Whig speeches about liberty, all through the great Tory speeches about patriotism, through the period of Wandiwash and Plassey, through the period of Trafalgar and Waterloo, one process was steadily going on in the central senate of the nation. Parliament was passing Bill after Bill for the enclosure by the great landlords of such of the common lands as had survived out of the great communal system of the Middle Ages. It is much more than a pun, it is the prime political irony of our history that the Commons were destroying the commons.
It would be folly to suggest, however, that, conscious though Mr. Chesterton is of the crimes of history, he has turned history into a mere series of floggings of criminals. He is for ever laying down the whip and inviting the criminals to take their seats while he paints gorgeous portraits of them in all the colours of the rainbow. His praise of the mighty rhetoricians of the eighteenth century could in some passages scarcely be more unstinted if he were a Whig of the Whigs. He cannot but admire the rotund speech and swelling adventures of those days. If we go farther back, we find him portraying even the Puritans with a strange splendour of colour:—
They were, above all things, anti-historic, like the Futurists in Italy; and there was this unconscious greatness about them, that their very sacrilege was public and solemn, like a sacrament; and they were ritualists even as iconoclasts. It was, properly considered, but a very secondary example of their strange and violent simplicity that one of them, before a mighty mob at Whitehall, cut off the anointed head of the sacramental man of the Middle Ages. For another, far away in the western shires, cut down the thorn of Glastonbury, from which had grown the whole story of Britain.
This last passage is valuable, not only because it reveals Mr. Chesterton as a marvellous rhetorician doing the honours of prose to his enemies, but because it helps to explain the essentially tragic view he takes of English history. I exaggerated a moment ago when I said that to Mr. Chesterton English history is the story of the rise of a governing class. What it really is to him is the story of a thorn-bush