Walking towards the front door… and glancing up at the portico, you cannot miss the words inscribed into the stonework: Unc jai serviray. Each letter is ornate, extravagant and decoratively carved to contribute to the embellishment and balance of the building. It is the motto of my husband’s family and, as was the way, when they transformed Highclere House into the castle of today, this was placed in a prominent position above the main door and then in further carvings inside and outside as well.
Curious visitors always ask what language it is and what does it mean. Read each word as it is written and that is what it says. Unc: only, jai: I, seviray: serve(future tense). The language is old Norman French and that is an explanation in itself. The Normans, under William the Conqueror, invaded England in 1066, except they were of course Northmen: previous Viking raiders who had settled in “Normandy”. Their invasion marked the end of the Anglo-Saxon Kings and, as the new ruling elite, they imposed their language in the local indigenous population. Geordie’s family, like many others, think they came over with William the Conqueror. My father thought the same, but I am not sure that is better or worse than being part of the Anglo-Saxon generations.
I asked Geordie whom he felt he served and he answered God. I know my reply would be the same. In some way, the history of the world, in its broadest sense, can be encapsulated into the need to construct faith, philosophy and power into some sort of working compromise. Do we follow the King/Government or God/ our moral framework? Who is most fit to gather the reins of power, the taxes and army?
English history is reasonably well documented and, as would be expected, punctuated over the centuries with various such challenges. For every English schoolchild, the most well-known one is perhaps that of Henry II who in 1287, frustrated by Archbishop Thomas a Beckett and his dual allegiance to the Pope, famously asked “who will rid me of this pestilent priest?” Thinking they were being helpful, four of Henry’s knights murdered Beckett in Canterbury Cathedral. Swiftly canonised, King Henry II, then had to make humble and expensive penance and peace with the Pope. Two hundred and fifty years later Henry VIII fell out with Catholic church over his own personal life. The Act of Supremacy made the King head of the church and he was able to sell off church assets to replenish his own. The Church of England was created. Later “Bloody Mary” and all its attendant martyrdoms came to the throne and it didn’t really settle down until well into the reign of Elizabeth 1.
Looking further back into antiquity, Tutankhamun’s father Akhenaten, developed a new religion around himself and his family, focussing power and tribute into his hands and not those of the traditional priests. He built a new capital city well away from Thebes in order to start again. After his death though, the old order re-asserted itself, the new capital Amarna was deserted and sank back into the desert. Statues were defaced and his reign was obliterated from the history books in so far as was possible. The priests regrouped around Tutankhamun and the traditional capital Thebes.
These are simplistic instances of abrupt ruptures in the tension between spiritual and political relationships but are repeated everywhere in bigger or smaller ways.
Family mottos and coats of arms are visible references to what mattered to our predecessors, to what banded them together as a group. My father’s family had various inherited mottos. The one we inscribed in his gravestone was Cruce in Salis (from the cross comes salvation) though another which is possibly rather apposite today is Post Tenebras Spero Lucem (After darkness, I hope for light).
Communities also create mottos to bring them together under a banner. Per Ardua Ad Astra is the famous RAF motto but used by others as well. Slightly amusingly, the Royal College of Arms in England has stated that “no authoritative translation is possible” of this but the usual translation is “Through adversity to the stars”. Most army regiments each have their own motto, some in Latin and others in English. The United States Marine Corps motto is “Semper Fidelis”, which was adopted in the 1880s but was actually the motto at my primary school – as well as many other schools and cities. In fact, I think you can generally say that most of the mottos chosen by countries, regiments, universities and schools tend to encourage virtues such as loyalty, heroism, sacrifice, glory and god.
Perhaps the most inspirational motto has been “Liberté, égalité, fraternité”. Adopted by both the French and the USA in spirit, these three simple words from everyday life have become fundamental to political philosophies and the consequent construction of constitutions. The Statue of Liberty guards the entrance to New York, equality has a construct in merit and law and fratertnity proposes a sense of community with moral obligations. Napoleon preferred the motto “liberté, ordre public” (liberty, public order) But, it was the original French motto which inspired the First Article of the universal Declaration of Human Rights: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
This pandemic has had an interesting interpretation of some of these “rights”. It is clear that we are all equal before the virus and many of us have had to forego our “liberty” in favour of the greater good, our “fraternite”. And so the mottos still stand but the interpretation changes to suit successive generations and their wider world. To go back to one of humanity’s earlier mentors:
“Non nobis solum nati sumus. (Not for ourselves alone are we born.)”
― Marcus Tullius Cicero