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Grundtvig and England

As a student Grundtvig learned to resent British acts against Denmark in the Napoleonic wars; but after 1815 (when, fired by the Old English poem Beowulf, he explored Anglo-Saxon literature) he came to esteem the English kin-group within the Northern family, which preserved ancient family-history, had served a divinely-ordained role in transmission of Christianity to Scandinavia, but was led astray by Latin and Norman-French cultures.

Frustrated by defeats (including censorship) in struggles against the authority of absolute monarchy, he secured funding for three study-visits to England, 1829-31. His letters home and his ‘Mands Minde’ lectures (1838) reveal how profoundly struck he was by contrasting civil and religious liberties enjoyed by the English.

The London Society of Antiquaries pre-empted his plan to publish a corpus of Anglo-Saxon texts; yet his studies enriched his understanding of the spirituality of the pre-Reformation Northern Church and its lyrical and metaphorical articulation, and introduced him to ancient models of Christian universal historiography. All these insights reinvigorated him as a catalyst in church and state.

Residence in a Cambridge college where he experienced the close contact and mutual respect between students and tutors contributed to later ideas for folk high schools. Even flirtation with Mrs Bolton (a society lady whose intellectual interests surprised Grundtvig) fed his reverence for woman’s role at the heart of Danish society. He and his circle published Anglo-Saxon Christian writings; further quantities of his unpublished work remain in the Grundtvig Archive.

In 1843 he went to Oxford, to influence leading Anglicans against embracing Rome. He failed, and thereafter the English church with its vaunted apostolic succession became a suspect friend. But, travelling round increasingly industrialised England by the new railways, he met fresh ideas including fledgling co-operative markets and banking. Never hesitant to criticise England, he yet understood to the end the shared heritage and material interests of the two nations.

S. A. J. Bradley, born 1936, Professor Emeritus
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