Britain's spiritual historyThis section explores the spirituality of Britain, from pre-Christian Paganism to the present day and its flourishing alternative spiritualities.
How has the idea of God has changed in the face of political upheaval, intellectual and scientific discovery, immigration and more intangible shifts in human sentiment?
On the following pages you will find audio and scripts from different series, organised into different historical periods.
Choose a period to begin your exploration or browse the sections in order.
The presentersThe story of Britain's religious heritage is told through two series of audio programmes.
William Dalrymple presents The Long Search, charting some of the key historical moments which have shaped the religious and spiritual outlook of Britain.
The series covers events from the execution of Charles I to the Anglo-Saxon invasion, the abolition of slavery to the rise of 14th-century woman mystics.
Christopher Eccleston presents Sacred Nation, written by poet Michael Symmons Roberts. Sacred Nation tells the story of religious belief in the British Isles.
From long barrows to stone circles, from Druids to Romans, and through holy wars, reformations and revivals, Britain has always been a pluralistic society.
Ancestor worship and natureAncient faith was influenced by the natural world and the threat posed by the elements. The inhabitants of Britain originally worshipped their ancestors, burying them in long barrows and performing rituals to influence the weather and the harvest. But when Britain's climate changed radically around 3,000 BC, the ancestor cult came to an end and Britons looked to nature itself to influence their fortune.
Prehistoric WessexWilliam Dalrymple looks at the religious systems which came and went in Britain in the centuries leading up to the Christian era. Why and how do these traditions still matter to us? And what do we make of them today?
Fathoming how our earliest ancestors understood the world is something we can only guess at very tentatively using the clues of archaeology. In Wiltshire, a unique collection of ceremonial monuments and burial mounds span several periods of pre-history. The earliest of them tell us that kinship and the support of a clan's ancestors seems to have lain at the centre of the conception of spirituality in prehistoric Wessex.
Roman Britain and the arrival of ChristianityWith the coming of the Romans and their gods, Britain became more multi-faith. The Romans are instinctively tolerant of other religions, but a problem occurs when a new religion comes along telling people there's only one god. Christianity is on a collision course with the mighty Roman empire.
The Anglo-Saxon gods gave us our days of the week. We visit Sutton Hoo, burial ground of the Anglo-Saxon kings of East Anglia. By the 8th century Islamic influences had travelled as far as Britain, just 150 years after the death of the Prophet and before the coming of the Vikings in the 9th century. Viking Paganism also gradually gave way to Christianity.
Celts and Anglo-Saxons
Celts and Anglo-Saxons
Celtic ChristianityThe rise of what has come to be known as 'Celtic Christianity' has been one of the religious phenomena of recent times: go into any of the shops on Holy Island and you will find whole stacks of merchandise, all covered with little Celtic crosses and the old uncial script.
However, the extent to which there was any very distinct type of Christianity in the Celtic areas of Britain has become a matter of heated debate. William Dalrymple finds out about the Christianity brought by the early Irish monks, and what resemblance it bears to the modern practice of 'Celtic Christians' - and to ask the intriguing question of whether St. Aidan would recognise the strange goings-on on modern Holy Island.
Anglo-Saxon influencesWilliam Dalrymple looks at how early English Christianity and its understanding of the Divine was forged through its relationship with the Pagan beliefs of the Anglo-Saxons. It's something we learn about from archaeology, epic poems like Beowulf, the ecclesiastical history of the Venerable Bede, and the superby interlaced relief-sculpture produced by the Anglo-Saxons - unique in Europe, and their great contribution to Christian art.
The Anglo-Saxon tribes from North West Europe arrived in Britain throughout the fifth century, expelling the Celtic farmers who had lived on the land since time immemorial and renaming the landscape, towns and rivers in their own tongue. The Anglo-Saxons were sea-faring peoples with a great composite pantheon of gods. Some of those gods remain with us in the place names of the countryside - Thurstable and Thundridge in Kent are echoes of the thunder god Thor; Wandsyke - or Wodensdyke - in Wessex.
Benedictine revivalWhen the Normans arrived in England, there were no monasteries at all north of The Wash - not one single one was left or had been restored in the Anglo-Saxon revival in the 10th century. And very quickly, once the Normans had got the North more or less quiet, there was a big Benedictine revival. Benedictines in Durham, Benedictines in York, Benedictines in Whitby.
A number of groups of monks left their old established rather comfortable, rich Benedictine monasteries, in the 11th century, and decided to lead a much more austere life, much further away from centres of population. Much the most successful was the Cistercian enterprise, which began with an Englishman and a Frenchman in Burgundy. It might have failed but for the most extraordinary man of the 12th century - St Bernard.
Pagans in the cathedralChristopher Eccleston continues his journey through the spiritual history of Britain and finds a landscape full of Norman castles and cathedrals. He reveals the Pagan images woven into the fabric of the Christian church.
Woman mysticsJulian of Norwich is perhaps the best-known of the mediaeval English mystics: her most famous saying - "all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well" - was taken up by T.S Eliot in The Four Quartets, and hence has passed into popular speech. But Julian was not a loner: she was part of an often-forgotten British phenomenon of mediaval mystics.
In all cultures, mystics have been remarkable for their freedom of expression; in 14th Century England, mysticism gave voice to a section of mediaeval society that was effectively silenced by the Church - women. William Dalrymple finds out how it became the vehicle of self-expression for mediaeval English women, what use they made of it, and how their legacy still inspires people in their search for the divine today.
Destruction of the sacredReaching the 14th century, we begin the bumpy ride through the Reformation. It threatened the whole structure of the church both theologically and artistically.
We've sanitised the Reformation. We've made it sound as though it was a marital tiff between Henry the VIII and Katherine of Aragon... And so he changes the church, and then we go 'Ho, ho, ho - isn't that funny? Y'know the Church of England is founded on adultery,' which is to some degree true.
What we forget is that what it unleashed over the next 30 years was the most... astonishing destruction of the sacred in its visible form you've ever seen.
Martin Palmer, historian
The Reformation and British identityPerhaps more than at any other moment in the country's religious history since Christianity arrived in these islands, the Reformation marked an irrevocable break with the past. In many ways, the modern age started here. For although still far from the largely secular world of today, a process of detachment - even disenchantment - with traditional religion was set in train, whose results form the world in which we still live.
William Dalrymple explores the effect the Reformation had on popular conceptions of the Divine, on our place in the world and in making us the people we are. He asks whether the Reformation is still central to our national identity, or whether its effects are now being finally unravelled.
Civil War and Restoration
Civil War and Restoration
Regicide and turmoilThe execution of Charles I was one of the most traumatic episodes in English history, an act that was seen as religious by those who supported the Regicide as well as those who opposed it. William Dalrymple visits the scene of the execution at London's Banqueting House.
The director of English Heritage, Simon Thurley, explains how the concept of the divine right of kings, expressed in the building's painted ceiling, is shattered by Charles' death. Social and spiritual anarchy follows - the abolition of the Church of England makes way for a proliferation of bizarre religious sects and dissenting churches who see in the chaos the signs of the end of the world or the possibility of building the Kingdom of God on earth.
Puritans and pluralismWe have arrived at the Civil War and a puritanical state under a Calvanist dictator - but despite the prevalent Christian fundamentalism it was the beginning of a new phase of pluralism.
...what the Puritans did was to introduce pluralism into every single part of Britain, because they said you don't have to go to just the one parish church to worship – there must be a choice ... I think that it's that tradition... which is quintessentially British. Which is why when Judaism returned in the 17th century and when Islam first started coming here in the 18th century, and when Hinduism and Buddhism first arrived here in the 19th century – nobody batted an eyelid.
Restoration spiritualityThe Restoration period brings with it a flourishing of the New Science. These are the early years of Royal Society, of Robert Hooke's microscopic drawings and Isaac Newton's famous work, the Principia. In this episode William Dalrymple gets to grips with one of the earliest pieces of experimental equipment - Robert Boyle's air pump - and learns about the theological controversy it caused.
While we tend to think of Newton and Boyle as the founders of modern science, they were also deeply religious men who saw their search for the natural laws of science as a spiritual quest. In pursuing their discoveries they were also asking some of the most profound questions of their age - about the existence of spirits and fairies, the meaning of the philosopher's stone, and about how God intervenes in the world.
Revolutions and Empire
Revolutions and Empire
Messianic visionsThroughout history and particularly at times of political and social upheaval, people have looked to a deliverer - or Messiah - to right the world's wrongs and inaugurate an era of peace and justice. The violence and bloodshed of the French Revolution was interpreted by many observers on this side of the Channel as a sign that the new messianic age was at hand.
In this programme William Dalrymple encounters two very different eighteenth century visionaries - the artist and poet William Blake and the Devonshire prophetess Joanna Southcott. Both drew on the apocalyptic image of the woman clothed with the sun and on the millennial longings of their age to articulate their vision for a new Jerusalem in England.
For William Blake, the Messiah is collective humanity, who - given the commitment and mental fight - can build Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land. For Joanna, the Messiah is the long-awaited Shiloh to whom she will give birth, notwithstanding the fact that she is sixty four years old and a virgin.
EmancipationFor many evangelical missionaries in the nineteenth century God was British, and the Empire provided a divine opportunity for them to convert its colonial subjects to Christianity.
In this programme, William Dalrymple looks at how the evangelical campaign to win freedom for slaves led in turn to a campaign that seems rather more suspect to modern eyes - the mission to free the so-called "heathen natives" from the superstitious chains of their native religions. The belief in this God-given mission is reflected in many of the most famous hymns of the era, sung to William by Noel Tredennick, organist at All Soul's church, Langham place - From Greenland's icy mountains, Thy kingdom come, oh God and God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year.
ImmigrationBy the beginning of the 19th century, the impact of the two revolutions - one in France, one in industry - had turned Britain into a more modern, educated, technologically advanced, urban society where the old social, political and religious certainties were questioned.
After Catholic emancipation in 1829 and the influx of Irish Catholics into Britain after the Famine of the 1840s, the nature of English Catholicism changes from a Patrician clique to a proletarian mass movement - so how does the Church adapt?
A similar trend arises in the Jewish community when the comfortable lives of the Anglicised 'Brotherhood' of British Jews are thrown into disarray by an influx of poor, dispossessed Jews fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe.
The expansion of Empire brings Muslim, Hindu and Sikh influences from India, Yemen and the Far East to British shores.
The 20th century sees two World Wars, the dismantling of Empire and decolonisation - all of which impact on the religious landscape of Britain, ushering in an era of secularisation and a breakdown of traditional religious authority. But this era also brings larger communities of Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Black Christians from far-flung parts of the Empire to help with the post-war reconstruction of Britain.
Today, our Sacred Nation incorporates a huge number of belief systems carrying on side by side in apparent harmony and is more like Roman Britain than at any other time in history.
Victorians to modern Britain
Victorians to modern Britain
Evolution and spiritualismGenerations of Sunday school children have sung Mrs Alexander's famous hymn, "All things bright and beautiful." For all its cheerful innocence, it was written at a time of deep anxiety, when the edifice of Christianity was under threat from evolutionary theory and biblical scholarship. One of the central questions for the Victorian period concerned the nature of humankind; are we material or spiritual beings? To the Victorians, who aspired to be angels, the idea that they had apes for ancestors was horrifyingly crude. Their response to the challenge of evolutionary theory was to turn to the mystical séance to "prove" the existence of a soul that survives beyond the grave.
In this programme William Dalrymple visits Oxford's natural history museum, scene of the notorious "monkey" debate between Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and Scientist Thomas Huxley. And in London's Science Museum, historian Richard Noakes shows him the instruments developed by the Victorians to detect spirits.
Superstition, spirituality and eclecticismThe folklorist Edward Lovatt crammed his house full of the amulets and charms he collected from Londoners in the early part of the twentieth century. Now housed in Southwark's Cuming museum, they reflect the diversity of folk beliefs and rituals which gave meaning to the lives of local traders. The same people who wore charms to protect themselves against the evil eye would also marry in church and attend watchnight services without seeing any contradiction in these practices.
Today, in spite of the supposedly secular age in which we live, people continue to select those beliefs and practices which nourish them spiritually. The standard story told of the twentieth century has been one of a gradual decline of religious faith and practice. Certainly there has been a dramatic drop in churchgoing. But all the surveys show that the majority of people still believe in God, and Britain has evolved into a multi-cultural and multi-faith society.