Tancred, or the New Crusade (1847), the third novel in Young England Trilogy, followed Coningsby, or The New Generation (1844), and Sybil, or The Two Nations (1845). This novel marks the end of Benjamin Disraeli’s early active involvement in literature and his shift to politics. Tancred, which Leslie Stephen described as a ‘strange phantasmagoria’ (376), is a complex and bizarre literary expression of Disraeli’s imperial dream to establish British rule in both the East and the West.

The novel, first published by Henry Colburn in three volumes, relates the journey of a young English aristocrat, Lord Montecute (Tancred), an idealistic representative of Young England disenchanted with the materialism of Victorian high society, travels to the Holy Land in search of ‘the great mystery of Asia’, as well as his own identity. In this novel Disraeli blends politics with religion when he fantasises about replacing the Ottoman Empire by British rule in Asia. In fact, Tancred has several subjects, including the shortcomings of parliamentary democracy, spiritual fulfilment, Jewishness and the origins of Christianity, racial purity and interracial love relationships, the superiority of Oriental races, the doctrine of ‘theocratic equality,’ and, finally, imperial expansion. These ideological subtexts make up a complex psychological, religious and political utopia.

At the outset of the novel, dismayed by the materialism and lack of spirituality of contemporary British society, Tancred, refuses to run for Parliament because he does not believe it has real power. As Disraeli’s protagonist explains,

Parliament seems to me to be the very place which a man of action should avoid. A Parliamentary career, that old superstition of the eighteenth century, was important when there were no other sources of power and fame. An aristocracy at the head of a people whom they had plundered of their means of education, required some cultivated tribunal whose sympathy might stimulate their intelligence and satisfy their vanity. Parliament was never so great as when they debated with closed doors. The public opinion, of which they never dreamed, has superseded the rhetorical club of our great-grandfathers. They know this well enough, and try to maintain their unnecessary position by affecting the character of men of business, but amateur men of business are very costly conveniences. In this age it is not Parliament that does the real work. It does not govern Ireland, for example. If the manufacturers want to change a tariff, they form a commercial league, and they effect their purpose. It is the same with the abolition of slavery, and all our great revolutions. Parliament has become as really insignificant as for two centuries it has kept the monarch [161].

Tancred, who is an embodiment of Disraeli himself, sees Parliament as ineffective, oligarchical, and corrupt because it is controlled by coteries, factions, and interest groups than cannot solve great social problems. Disraeli’s criticism targets the rising group of capitalists and manufacturers, who exert an increasing influence on national policy. Neither does Tancred believe in public opinion: ‘I do not believe the public ever think. How can they? They have no time’ (174). Disraeli also regrets that the Monarch has been robbed of her prerogative. Seeing his nation and its institutions in disarray, Tancred decides to go to the Holy Land to discover a spiritual dimension of the East that could rescue England from utilitarianism and materialism.

Religious and racial discourse provide perhaps the most conspicuous subjects of the novel. Disraeli had a problem with his dual national identity as an Englishman and a Jew. Therefore, because he was keen on emphasising a strong link between Christianity and Judaism, the novel presents the Semitic races, (including both Arabs and Jews) as superior to the northern (European) ones, claiming that Jewish unmixed blood and high spirituality made them ‘the highest members of the superior Semitic group’ (Glassman 50). In contrast, he characterises northern races, including Anglo-Saxons, by their spiritless materialism and practicality. However, thanks to Christianity, which Disraeli called in Sibyl ‘completed Judaism’ (256), the wisdom of the ancient Hebrews was transferred to Europe.

Sidonia, Tancred’s mysterious and charismatic Jewish mentor, argues for the threefold superiority of the Jews, who produced the world’s greatest legislator (Moses), the greatest sage and ruler (Solomon), and the greatest reformer (Jesus), all three of whom laid the foundations of Western civilisation. Sidonia, like Disraeli himself, does however respect Anglo-Saxons, and the novel argues that Jews and Saxons are the world's two superior races. Following this theory, Disraeli pointed to a surprising affinity between the English and the Jews, and in Coningsby, Sidonia, goes further and equals Jews with ... Tories (303).

When Tancred falls in love with the beautiful and wise Jewess Eva, ‘the Rose of Sharon’, Disraeli creates the symbolic union between Judaism and Christianity. Tancred attempts to blend Jewish Messianism with an English imperial idea based on the premise that England is God’s elect nation. In Disraeli’s argument England enjoys a favourable insular position, superior racial provenance (Saxons), and the Established Church, which is in a particular alliance with the State. However, Tancred regrets that the Anglican clergy do not govern the people, as they did in medieval times. The Church’s power declined ‘mainly from its deficiency of oriental knowledge and from a misconception of a priestly character’ (79). Earlier in Coningsby, Disraeli argues that the medieval system of parishes provided the foundation for the political system in England. In Tancred, he reconfirms this view, propounding his neo-feudal doctrine that England can be regenerated if the Anglican Church becomes again the spiritual foundation of the State. Disraeli also reveals his Orientalist bias and fascination with Eastern mysticism and spirituality when he asserts that England can revive if it expands to the East. He argues that the institutions and laws of English society, as well as those of Europe, are based on Semitic principles. Inspired by such premises, Tancred schemes to reinvigorate England through imperial expansion and unite the East and the West under British patronage.

During his Eastern tour Tancred comes under the spell of Fakredeen, the Emir of Lebanon, who tells him one of his political phantasies, which exemplifies Disraeli’s imperial utopia. Fakredeen and Tancred talk about the new empire which could emerge after the collapse of Ottoman rule. When Fakredeen presents to Tancred a surprising proposal that Queen Victoria should move her capital to India, Disraeli reveals his full imperial dream as well as his true political intentions:

Let the Queen of the English collect a great fleet, let her stow away all her treasure, bullion, gold plate, and precious arms; be accompanied by all her court and chief people, and transfer the seat of her empire from London to Delhi. There she will find an immense empire ready made, a first-rate army, and a large revenue. In the meantime I will arrange with Mehemet Ali. He shall have Bagdad and Mesopotamia, and pour the Bedouin cavalry into Persia. I will take care of Syria and Asia Minor. The only way to manage the Afghans is by Persia and by the Arabs. We will acknowledge the Empress of India as our suzerain, and secure for her the Levantine coast. If she like, she shall have Alexandria as she now has Malta: it could be arranged. Your Queen is young; she has an avenir. [311]

Tancred, like Disraeli, who is enchanted by the East, experiences a religious revelation on Mount Sinai. A mysterious phantom appears before him, who calls himself the ‘Angel of Arabia’, proclaims the doctrine of ‘theocratic equality’. On Mt. Sinai Tancred laments that England, as well as all Europe, is failing because it has lost its spiritual faith, and asks ‘the Angel of Arabia’ to reveal before him ‘the great Asian mystery’.

‘O Lord God of Israel, Creator of the Universe, ineffable Jehovah! a child of Christendom, I come to thine ancient Arabian altars to pour forth the heart of tortured Europe. Why art thou silent? Why no longer do the messages of thy renovating will descend on earth? Faith fades and duty dies. A profound melancholy has fallen on the spirit of man. The priest doubts, the monarch cannot rule, the multitude moans and toils, and calls in its frenzy upon unknown gods. If this transfigured mount may not again behold Thee; if not again, upon thy sacred Syrian plains, Divinity may teach and solace men; if prophets may not rise again to herald hope; at least, of all the starry messengers that guard thy throne, let one appear, to save thy creatures from a terrible despair!’ [343]

Surprisingly, the Angel of Asia agrees to talk to a Gentile and tells Tancred that the intellect of Arabia comes directly from the Most High source, which is firmly located in the Holy Land. “‘Child of Christendom’, said the mighty form, as he seemed slowly to wave a sceptre fashioned like a palm tree, ‘I am the angel of Arabia, the guardian spirit of that land which governs the world; for power is neither the sword nor the shield, for these pass away, but ideas, which are divine.’”(343). The Angel of Arabia also reminds him that the East had built an ancient civilisation long before Europe was a ‘savage forest’

Yet in that forest brooded infinite races that were to spread over the globe, and give a new impulse to its ancient life. It was decreed that, when they burst from their wild woods, the Arabian principles should meet them on the threshold of the old world to guide and to civilise them. All had been prepared. The Caesars had conquered the world to place the Laws of Sinai on the throne of the Capitol, and a Galilean Arab advanced and traced on the front of the rude conquerors of the Caesars the subduing symbol of the last development of Arabian principles’. [343]

At this point the Angel of Arabia proclaims the doctrine of ‘theocratic equality’, i.e. a political system, opposed to parliamentary democracy, which revives the medieval hierarchical structure of society governed by the monarch, the church and aristocracy under divine impulse, and he urges Tancred to create a theocratic empire which will accommodate all the three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, as well as the Eastern and Western races.

The Angel tells Tancred that ‘the intellectual colony of Arabia once called Christendom, has been in a partial and blind revolt’ (345), because Europe has rejected the word of God. This mystical doctrine of ‘theocratic equality,’ Disraeli which is never clearly explains, seems very bizarre. He could have derived this idea from the theocratic state of the ancient Israelites, who had acknowledged the direct rule of God. Under the influence of his father, who had written a book, The Genius of Judaism (1833), in which he praised the biblical commonwealth, Disraeli proposes in Tancred to implement the doctrine of ‘theocratic equality’ in England as a substitute for ineffective parliamentary democracy. The monarch, who is also the Head of the Established Church, should assume the position of a leader best qualified to interpret the word of God and enforce it upon the whole empire.

Instantly, the traditional British imperial idea is turned on its head. Tancred contemplates organising an army with the help of Fakredeen in Arabia to conquer the Ottoman Empire and also to reinstate the true religion of God of Sinai and Calvary in Europe. Disraeli believes not only in an affinity between the Jews and Arabs, but also believes that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam alike are only alternative versions of ‘theocratic equality’. As Adam Kirsch contends, ‘Disraeli does not mean that Tancred should lead a crusade to conquer Palestine for Europe. On the contrary, he believes that the Semitic race, with its genius for religion, must reconquer the decadent, materialistic West’ (166). This sounds completely bizarre and baffling and Kirsch suggests that Tancred can be even read as a parody of Disraeli’s romantic Toryism. This observation seems very plausible because Disraeli had an exquisite sense of irony and a talent for self-parody. He allowed himself as a writer of fiction to parody not only his political views — if he had any, for he was often accused of political opportunism — but also his father’s, revealed in The Genius of Judaism.

However, it should be remembered that Disraeli insists in the novel that Tancred’s utopian mission is to reunite all the ‘people of the Book’, including Christians, Jews, and Muslims under English supervision and control. Thus the overarching theme of Tancred is the utopian dream of blending East and West in a new civilisation founded on Judeo-Christian principles.

Disappointingly, the novel does not explain the meaning of ‘the great Asian mystery’ and Disraeli’s arguments seem chaotic and self-contradictory. Tancred, who rejects the secular achievements of the European Enlightenment, turns to Eastern mysticism for the spiritual rebirth of the West. Disraeli’s intention, it seems, was to blend cultures and religions in a strictly hierarchical structure, with the heroic aristocracy at its top. The law of the God of Sinai and Calvary must lay the foundation of such an imperial, multinational civilisation which unites various races and cultures. In other words, Disraeli, in a veiled way, calls for the expansion of the British sphere of influence or simply colonisation of the East by the British, and definitely not the incursion of the Semitic peoples to Europe. The true message of the novel is hidden in its subtitle: ‘The New Crusade’.

However, the imperial dream is unresolved because it has an unsatisfying ending in the novel. In the finale, Tancred does not marry Eva because his parents arrive in Jerusalem unexpectedly and take him back home to England. Admittedly, as Patrick Parrinder points out, the end of the novel

is cryptic and unsatisfactory because Disraeli can neither commit his hero to the ‘great Asian mystery’ — which, as we shall see later in Daniel Deronda and Kipling’s Kim, would involve becoming a kind of double agent and losing his national identity — nor can he bring him back to the English world of Coningsby and Egremont (179).

Notwithstanding Disraeli’s bizarre, anachronistic race theory and his doctrine of ‘theocratic equality’, his conception of the Empire as a ‘new social system’ based on the principle of association laid the ideological foundations for the future British Commonwealth of Nations. In fact, Disraeli as a politician supported the idea that the British colonies should become self-governing. He also cleverly used the imperial idea to promote the Conservative Party and himself. Undoubtedly, he saw in imperial policy a way of promoting his popularity among new voters from the working class, and in foreign affairs he always sought above all to maintain the position of Britain as an imperial power, which gained him approval by both the Queen and the general public. Disraeli was overwhelmed by ambition, but he cleverly separated his political activity, which was highly pragmatic, from his idealistic literary musings. Tancred can thus be read as an emphatic imperial metanarrative which provides a ‘moral’ and emotional justification for expanding the British Empire to Asia, which would become the greatest empire that ever existed. The main theme of Tancred as an imperial utopia is, as Patrick Brantlinger asserts, ‘not religion, much less the role of the church in the political life of Britain, but the proper formula for ‘conquering the world’ — for founding and governing empires’ (155).


Blake, Robert. Disraeli. London: Eyre & Spottiswode Publishers, 1967.

Brantlinger, Patrick. Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990.

Disraeli, Benjamin. Sybil or, the Two Nations. London: Henry Colburn, 1845.

Coningsby. London and Edinburgh, 1904.

___. Tancred, or the New Crusade. London and Edinburgh: R. Brimley Johnson, 1904.

Glassman, Bernard. Benjamin Disraeli: The Fabricated Jew in Myth and Memory. Lanham, MA: University Press of America, 2003.

Kirsch, Adam. Disraeli. New York: Nextbook and Schocken, 2008.

Parrinder, Patrick. The Nation and Novel: The English Novel from Its Origins to the Present Day. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Stephen, Leslie. Hours in a Library. Second Series [1876]. New York, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Last modified 8 September 2017