I remember watching some of Simon Schama’s acclaimed History of Britain a few years ago and finding much of it was a History of the English Monarchy. It didn’t do much on things that didn’t affect English interests, and even less on how any of it affected ordinary people.
I mean, if I were living in a small Yorkshire village farming my own plot, did it make that much odds when Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church?
The programme’s website encouraged viewers to take an interest in national history. It linked to English Heritage’s website. But not to Cadw, Historic Scotland, Manx National Heritage or the Northern Ireland Heritage Service.
This Anglocentrism is the main problem of popular understanding of British history and constitution.
Frustrated by being part of academic institutions that taught with such outrageous bias, Norman Davies' wrote his mighty work The Isles as a deliberate attempt to cover the history of these islands from a more balanced perspective.
He explains in the introduction:
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The true extent of this morass of mix-ups is marvellous to behold. One of the most extraordinary aspects of the current scene lies in the number of citizens of the United Kingdom who do not appear to be familiar with the basic parameters of the stair in which they live.
They often do not know what it is called; they do not distinguish between the whole and the constituent parts; and they have never grasped thc most elementary facts of its development. Confusion reigns on every hand. Nor is it confined to the old bad habit of using ‘England’ as a shorthand for the United Kingdom as a whole, and hence of travellers who imagine that they carry an ‘English’ as opposed to a British passport.
Such lapses are commonplace. But they form the tip of a far larger iceberg. The scale of the problem only begins to emerge when one observes the inability of prominent authorities to present the history of our Isles in accurate and unambiguous terms.
For a preliminary sounding, one only needs to enter a bookshop and examine the opening passages of the most popular volumes on British history.
My own experiment was conducted in a bookshop where, to my query about the best books in circulation, the assistant pointed out three titles: Roy Strong, The Story Of Britain (1992), The Oxford History of Britain (1999), and Antonia Fraser, The Lives of the Kings arid Queens of England (revised edition, 1997).
All three books undoubtedly possess manifold virtues in those aspects of the subject which most concern them. I was not making a general assessment. The point of the experiment was simply to test how they define and introduce the overall subject.
Roy Strong’s volume, for instance, was inspired by an admirable and passionate belief in the present generation’s need for a straightforward narrative history. Yet it opens with the baffling sentence, ‘Britain is an island’. One is tempted to mutter, ‘Well, yes and no.’
On the facing page, Strong offers a physical map showing an unnamed archipelago consisting of two large islands and several smaller ones. Uninitiated readers, say from Mars or Japan, would be forgiven for asking which of the islands was called ‘Britain’. And they would not helped by the answer, ‘It all depends on what you mean.’
Initiated readers, of course, would quickly recognise the familiar outline of the ‘British Isles’. For their part, they would be justified in wondering whether the book dealt with the history not of one island but of all of them. Judging by the contents, it would seem that Strong is using ‘Britain’ as the accepted shorthand for the United Kingdom.
The trouble there lies in the fact that, in its present form, the United Kingdom consists of two parts - Great Britain and Northern Ireland. So it is not ‘an island’ (singular) in the present tense. Indeed, it has not been one island since 31 December 1800.
Roy Strong’s misconception follows in the steps of numerous predecessors. One of these was A.L. Rowse, who published a survey with the same title as Strong’s. Rowse’s Story of Britain (1979, 1993) opens in almost exactly the same way:
The story of Britain is that of the island which has influenced the outside world more than any other island in history.
There it goes again - the one island fixation, embellished with an imperial flourish. And it is still there in the final sentence of Rowse’s epilogue:
It remains to be seen how the people work out their fate; and whether in this lucky island it will be worthy of so remarkable a history.
At this point, many readers may want to reach for their dictionary. The latest edition of the ultimate authority, The Oxford English Dictionary, defines ‘Britain’ as follows;
The proper name of the whole island containing England, Wales, and Scotland, with their dependencies; more fully called Great Britain; now also used for the British state or empire as a whole.
For the adjective British, the OED supplies five basic meanings;
1. 0f or pertaining to the ancient Bntoris
2. Of or pertaining to Great Britain or its inhabitants
3. Of or belonging to, Brittany. Breton. Obs(olete)
4. ellipt. as sb. pl. British people, soldiers, etc. [i.e. ‘The British’]
5. comb., British-born, -built, -owned adjs., British-man
From this, one learns that ‘Britain’ can refer to any one of three different entities - to the geographical unit of Great Britain’, to the British state, and/or to the British Empire.
Incongruously, however, British has somewhat different geographical connotations. It can only refer apparently to Ancient Britain, to Great Britain, and to Brittany. It does not pertain to the United Kingdom, therefore, except in that short period of history when the Kingdom was coterminous with ‘Great Britain’, i.e. from 1707-1800. Surely that cannot be right for a dictionary published in 1994.
If one turns for elucidation to The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, the plot thickens. The meanings of’ ‘British’ are essentially the same as in the OED, although point 5 is omitted.
The main definition of Britain is also essentially the same, except for one curious amendment. Where the OED reads ‘now also used for the British state or empire as a whole’, the SOED has ‘now used for the British empire as a whole’. For some reason, among its definitions of ‘Britain’, the SOED has chosen to to drop the ‘British state’.
If this is correct, then Roy Strong’s Story of Britain could be a history either of the island of Great Britain or of the British Empire, but not of the United Kingdom.
The inconsistencies are legion. They centre on the thorny question of what constituted the United Kingdom at any particular time. In their further explanantions to their definitions of Britain, both the OED and SOED use a similar formula.
The OED states:
After the O(ld) E(nglish) period, Britain was only used as a historical term, until about the. time of Henry VIII and Edward VI, when it came again into practical politics in connexion with the efforts made to unite England and Scotland; in 1604 James I was proclaimed ‘King of Great Britain’; and this name was adopted by the United Kingdom, at the union in 1707…
The SOED uses a condensed version of this information, while the OED adds some further details:
After that event [the union of 1707], South Britain and North Britain are frequently in acts of Parl. For England and Scotland respectively; the latter is in occasional (chiefly postal) use. (So West Britain, humourously or polemically for ‘Ireland’.) Greater Britain is a modern rhetorical device for ‘Great Britain and the colonies’, ‘the British Empire’, brought into vogue in 1868.
These comment are instructive, of course, as far as they go. But one cannot help feeling that the Oxford editors have been stranded in a rather distant period of history. Indeed, they appear to have progressed very little beyond 1707. They do not let on that the name and territory of the United Kingdom have changed twice in the last two centuries.
West Britain, for example, could only have applied when Ireland formed part of the United Kingdom between 1801 and 1922. Britain as shorthand for both ‘Great Britain’ and the ‘United Kingdom’ only remained unambiguous during the lifetime of the united ‘Kingdom of Great Britain’ between 1707 and 1800. Ever since 1800, as the dictionary definitions indicate, Britain has had to assume alternative meanings.
Nor is the matter much clarified by turning to the dictionary for an explanation of the term England. The SOED seems to offer three definitions:
1. The territory of the Angles. Only in OIld] E[nglish]
2. The southern part of the island of Great Britain… Often: the English (or British) nation or state
3. Short for The King of England, also for the English or a portion of them…
Looked at closely, this entry reveals that the SOED is actually offering seven definitions of England. Point 2 alone contains five. These five are:
- The southern part of the island of Great Britain - i.e., a geographical or territorial unit.
- The English nation, i.e., a community of people.
- The English state, i.e., a political entity
- The British nation.
- The British state
It is unfortunate that the editors elide all five definitions into a single point. One possibility is that they considered both ‘English’ and ‘British’, like ‘nation’ and ‘state’, to be synonyms and that all four terms are coterminous with ‘the southern part… of Great Britain’. If so, they have laid themselves open to some serious queries.
In this light, or twilight, one can turn to The Oxford History of Britain (1999). The editor’s foreword opens as follows:
The distinctiveness, even uniqueness, of the British as a people has long been taken for granted… Visitors from overseas, from those ubiquitos Venetian ambassadors in the late fifteenth century, through intellectuals like Voltaire or Tocqueville, to American journalists in the twentieth century, have all been convinced of the special quality of British Society.
The key phrases here are ‘the British as a people’ and ‘British society’. They immediately arouse suspicions of anachronism There can be no doubt that Voltaire in the eighteenth century, de Tocqueville in the nineteenth, and the American journalists in the twentieth were all reporting on a people and a society that could properly be called ‘British’. But there has to be a question mark over what exactly was visited by those Venetian ambassadors in the late fifteenth century.
More than two hundred years before the formation of the British state, one has to suspect that the Venetian ambassadors had only visited England and that their comments were confined to the special qualities of the English people and of English society.
It is surely out of place to suggest that the ‘English society’ of the fifteenth century was simply an earlier version of the ‘British society’ of the eighteenth century and later.
Reading on, one’s hopes for clarification are dashed when one meets a statement containing a still more convoluted muddle:
A basic premise of this book is that it deals with the history of Great Britain, two partitioned, poly-cultural islands, and not merely with England.
The book does not deal ‘merely with England’. That is fair enough. It supposedly deals with the ‘history of Great Britain’. Yet Great Britain cannot possibly be equated with ‘two partitioned, poly-cultural islands’. As the OED confirms, Great Britain is the full name of ‘the whole island containing England, Wales, and Scotland, with their dependencies’. It does not include Ireland. Unlike ‘Britain’, it can’t be made in refer to ‘two islands’, whether ‘partitioned’, poly-cultural’ or otherwise.
So one is faced here not just with an anachronism or with an ambiguity but with a fundamental error. It is rather disturbing. It would appear that the mix-ups are being disseminated by the very works that should be disentangling them.
Investigation of the constituent chapters of The Oxford History of Britain provides little reassurance. Despite the editor’s declaration, the ‘basic premise’ is largely ignored. The chapter on the sixteenth century, for example, is entitled ‘The Tudor Age’. It begins with a section on ‘Population Changes’, which contains no information on the population of anywhere other than England and opens with a statement that:
The age of the Tudors has left its impact on the Anglo-American mind as a watershed in British history.
Surely, the age of the Tudors, who reigned in England, Wales, and Ireland but not in Scotland, is an important period in the history of England. But it hardly represents a watershed in British history.
The chapter following, entitled ‘The Stuarts, 1603-1688’, offers meagre improvement. Once again, Scotland and Ireland are ignored; and the chapter opens with a remark about the Stuarts being ‘one of England’s least successful dynasties’. Such a judgement on an ancient Scottish dynasty which reigned only briefly in England is, to say the least, out of place.
In his foreword, the editor of the Oxford History makes a heartfelt appeal to the patriotism of Britain. ‘This rooted patriotism,’ he writes, ‘embracing Welsh, Scots and Ulstermen over the centuries – though, significantly, never the southern Irish - endured and remained unchangeable.’
One has to suppose that southern Irishmen like the Duke of Wellington do not come into the reckoning. But if Welsh, Scots, or Ulster readers take the trouble to seek out what is, and what isn’t, said about their countries, their presumed patriotic feelings are due for a dousing. If British historians are to continue to appeal the patriotism of the non-English, they will have to address non-English concerns with rather more accuracy and sensitivity.
If one now turns to The Lives of The Kings and Queens of England, one finds still more sources of confusion. Lady Antonia begins by saying that ‘in one sense… the volume… needs no introduction.’ A glance at the table of contents, however, reveals that on one point at least an introductory explanation is sorely needed. For the contents open with William the Conqueror and close with Elizabeth II.
For no apparent reason they exclude the ten pre-Conquest monarchs from Edward the Elder to Harold Godwinson, who were undoubtedly Kings of England, whilst including the eleven representatives of the Houses of Hanover, Sachsen-Coburg und Gotha, and Windsor who have been monarchs not of England but of the United Kingdom. All the Queen’s loyal but non-English subjects have good cause to feel aggrieved.
This Sceptred Isle was a book published to accompany the highly successful BBC Radio series in 1995-6. Liberally laced with trenchant extracts from Winston Churchill’s History of The English Speaking Peoples (1954-6), its fifty-five episodes cover the two thousand years from Julius Caesar to Queen Victoria. Both the book and the radio series revealed the public’s appetite for old-fashioned narrative history and for a comprehensive chronological framework to historical knowledge.
Yet, as the adoption of Shakespeare’s catch-phrase implies, the interpretation is Angloccntric to a fault. It accepts without a word of hesitiation that England is the only part of the Isles that counts and that British history is a mere continuation of English history.
Finally, one last book needs a mention. Paul Johnson’s Offshore Islanders (1995) bears a subtitle, A History of The English People. It opens on the frontispiece with a quotation from Milton’s Areopagitica:
Lords and Commons of England - consider what nation it is whereof you are and of which you are governor.
Amen to that.
…The ultimate devlopment in this regard was perpetrated in a recent TV advertisment which unceremoniously amended Shakespeare and came up with the ineffable line:
‘This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this Britain.’
The advertisers must not be blamed. After all, they are imitating the most distinguished academics.
One would be hard put to find another state or country which is so befuddled about the basic framework of its past. One of the few parallels that does exist can be found in the textbooks of the late and unlamented Soviet Union.
Although the Soviet Union was not created until 1923, Soviet historians customarily pretended that Soviet history stretched back to prehistoric times, just as it was destined to stretch up and away into the eternal future.
The standard textbook of the Stalinist era, A.M. Pankratova’s A History of The USSR, appeared in Moscow in three volumes in 1947-8. Only the third volume treated the formation and development of the USSR. The first volume opened with a section on ‘The Primitive Community System in Our Country’, and closed with ‘Important Dates in the History of the USSR since Ancient Times until the end of the Seventeenth Century’.
In this period of the ‘Soviet past’, space was found both for the ancient Greek cities of the Crimea and for Genghis Khan. The second volume opened with a chapter on ‘The Founding of the Russian Empire’ and closed with ‘Important Dates in the History of the USSR in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries’. The first date on this last list is ‘1682-1725… Reign of Peter I’.
One may be amused. But to state that the reign of Peter The Great formed part of Soviet history is no less eccentric than stating that the reign of Henry VIII formed part of British history. Soviet historians at least could plead that they were writing to the prescription of ideological commissars. British historians have no such excuse.