In his latest book, Derek Taylor (Christ Church, 1965), investigates the origins of the nation’s identity, from the Anglo-Saxons to Brexit.
Author Derek Taylor
Publisher The History Press
ISBN 9780750977395
RRP £12.99

Derek Taylor book jacketThe English are often confused about who they are. They say ‘British’ when they mean ‘English’, and ‘English’ when they should say ‘British.’ They share much with the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish, but as the Brexit vote showed, the English have a separate character, with their own traditions and values. So, it’s time the English sorted out in their minds what it means to be English. 

A nation’s character is moulded by its past. And the English have a political and social history that goes back in an unbroken line further than that of any other race on earth. Ever since William the Conqueror triumphed at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and was crowned king of England, no jack-booted army of occupation has ever goose-stepped through the land. Napoleon, Hitler and others tried. None managed it. That doesn’t mean the English have been free from any outside influence for all those centuries. Far from it. Nevertheless, the results have been a strong sense that the English are different, and the notion – in English minds at least - that they’re a free and independent people. 

The first to call themselves English were the Anglo-Saxons. In the early eighth century, the Venerable Bede wrote A History of the English People. And once he reached the final paragraphs, he dropped the word ‘people’, and instead referred to the ‘English nation.’ The leading twentieth century historian of the Anglo-Saxon period, Patrick Wormald (a friend and contemporary of mine at Oxford in the 60s, now sadly no longer with us) wrote that Bede had a decisive ‘role in defining English national identity.’ Not bad for a people who were actually German in origin. 

And it’s only by luck that we English aren’t all French, or at the very least French-speaking. Then who would we be? For 150 years after Hastings, we were ruled by Normans and Angevins. The king, his courtiers, land-owners, the church hierarchy – everyone who was anyone in England – spoke French, and regarded England as little more than a backyard to their main power base across the Channel.

It was King John who saved us. His failings were our salvation. In a series of wars with the French king, he managed to lose almost all the crown’s territories in France, and - because of the complications of feudal custom - that meant his barons too had to decide where their futures lay, in France or England. From then on those who ruled us started to see themselves as English. And a new language was born. We call it English, but its glory is that it’s a rich mix of Anglo-Saxon and French with a smattering of Latin. 

So now over the next two hundred years, the English settled down to recognise that they were a separate nation, and began developing their own distinct character.

Martyrs memorial 1.jpgOxford played a role in forming that identity, though I’m afraid not a very honourable one. In the 1560s, during the reign of Bloody Queen Mary, the three most notable protestant churchmen of the day, Bishops Latimer and Ridley and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer were brought here. The authorities in London knew that Oxford was the only place with the intellectual agility and religious fervour capable of doing battle with these three men. They were put on trial at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, then burned at the stake outside Balliol College (though not where the Martyrs Memorial sits in St Giles – that’s a Victorian mistake). Their agonising deaths and those of thousands of other so-called heretics, would soon be followed by civil war and the rule of a republican despot. But by the end of the seventeenth century, the English had had enough of this oppression and bloodshed, and two of the most admirable qualities in the English were born: in place of religious persecution, the English adopted tolerance. Instead of revolution, they embraced political stability.

But the English character, as it developed in reaction to events over the next three centuries, wasn’t all harmony and morality. English character – like that of people we know – is often a confusing mix. The English place the highest value on their democracy, but took centuries to give everyone the vote. They can be eccentric and funny, but have also been conformist and straight-laced. They fought like lions in wartime, while making hatred of war respectable. They’ve managed to be both self-centred and outward looking, puritanical and permissive, arrogant and benevolent. And for much of their story, the English have been divided by a snobbish class-system, yet united against all outside foes.

And how much of what we think of as being typically English – whatever that is - survives today? Mass immigration, European federalism, and globalisation have all been blamed for watering down what it means to be English in the twenty-first century. 

And what about Brexit? We’re sailing into a fog of uncertainty. Has there been anything in the history of the English to help guide us? 

We could point to the reign of King John, when England went from being part of a trans-Channel Empire to being thrown back on its own resources, and becoming as a result a strong independent nation. On the other hand, we could look back at two world wars and see that we wouldn’t have survived without firm alliances with our neighbours. So where does that leave us? Maybe there’s something else, more fundamental in the English character, we could look to.

Ever since the Anglo-Saxons put down roots, the English have had to adapt, sometimes to outside pressures, sometimes to those within. That’s often meant learning new tricks. When the language of the Anglo-Saxons was threatened by French, we simply absorbed the useful words and anglicised them. When the world’s horizons expanded to far-away lands, the English made themselves sailors and colonisers. And the industrial revolution saw the English lead the world as enthusiastic inventors. 

Brexit will need us to be flexible.

Derek Taylor is a former editor of Cherwell, and later an international correspondent for ITN, who also worked for the Associated Press and BBC. His book, Who do the English think they are? From the Anglo-Saxons to Brexit, was published in August by The History Press

Pictures by Derek Taylor


By nel

'By the end of the seventeenth century, the English had had enough of this oppression and bloodshed, and two of the most admirable qualities in the English were born: in place of religious persecution, the English adopted tolerance.

'self-centred and outward looking'? Or how about 'self-seeking in their outward-looking rapaciousness to own and govern and exploit all the peoples of the earth?

Really? Catholics are 'tolerated' in England? Really? Was the humanity and dignity of other races ever 'tolerated' in the Empire? The English are probably the most bloody racists in the history of the world (Hitler's Reich didn't exploit, murder and enslave as many 'inferior races' as the British Empire). When will the English acknowledge their VAST crimes against humanity in the names of their own racial superiority?

The English are also utter cowards: strong when it means ravaging some less technologically advanced people and raping them of all their resources for the fattening of the lily-white English, but when challenged by a REAL threat - like the Axis powers - they run cap in hand to the Americans begging for rescue, and then - like the hypocrites they are - sneer and revile the Americans for 'not getting into it sooner' - when the 2 World Wars had nothing to do with Americans, and were not their fight. No gratitude for the tens of thousands of American lives sacrificed to save the British; no gratitude for the millions and millions of American taxpayers' dollars that were spent to support the British war effort before the US entered the war. Just hypocrisy, false superiority and utter blindness to their own vile national character.

By William Hetherington

Bloody Queen Mary reigned in the 1550s (1553-58), not the 1560s, by which time Elizabeth I reigned.

By David Roberts

Queen Mary I (can't we drop the hackneyed 'bloody'?) died in November 1558. The Anglican martyr bishops had met their deaths by the end of 1556. So what's all this about the 1560's? Queen Elizabeth I was on the throne by then. I was looking at relevant material in Lambeth Palace Library this afternoon.

By Hugh Richmond

I thought the Chinese had the longest cultural continuum. Didn't a French army put a Welshman on the English throne in 1485? Did not the Scots take over with James 1? Didn't the Dutch army defeat James II in 1688 and put a Dutchman on the throne? Were not George ! and his descendants German? The virtue of British identity is that it has always been multicultural, which may be why English is a successful international language. I see myself as half-Mercian, half-Highlander (i.e. 25% Irish 24% Scandinavian): just typical> Best wishes HMR

By Paul Cartwright

I wonder whether this book looks at the influence of England's geography? For example, England has a climate that enables more productive manual labour than in many other nations; in a fertile, mainly flat, landscape where you are never that far from the sea. Having lived for many years in Scotland, Germany, Pakistan, Africa, Cyprus and Singapore, I believe the influence of geography on a nation's character is underrated.

By Jill Gordon-Thomson

I couldn.t believe it when I read: ''the English have a political and social history that goes back in an unbroken line further than that of any other race on earth''. Indigenous Australians have lived in this country for over 50,000 years and have Dreamtime stories (oral histories) passed down for tens of thousands of years. What was Derek Taylor thinking?

By Anonymous

"And the English have a political and social history that goes back in an unbroken line further than that of any other race on earth."

The Vietnamese? Literate since at least 232BC and a nation which built its first university in 1066AD when William the Bastard and Harold Godwinson were eyeing off each other as to who would be Boss of England. Vietnam might have been occupied by the Chinese for close to 1000 years (111BC to 939AD) but their sense of nationality ensured a number of revolts, not the least of which was the revolt of the Trung sisters in 39AD; the Chinese finally received their due come-uppance in 939AD and left, making periodic thoroughly defeated incursions into Vietnam, the last of which was in 1978.

The Chinese? It seems that China could claim an unbroken record of nationhood since maybe 1046 BC?

Sorry, Oxford, Asia was flourishing when England was but a gleam in the eye of Julius Caesar. But, I will grant the civilising affect of England; China's leaders now wear English pin-striped suits, white shirts and ties.

By Marianne Victoria

There are older nations: the Jews, the Chinese, Tibet with longer histories than the English. And I don't know anything about the peoples of the Americas. Come to that, what about the Italians who could claim a Roman origin? The truth is that every nation believes itself unique and special and best

By Emma Shackle

Sad that Catholic martyrs like Edmund Campion are not mentioned by name

By Malcolm Rasala

Derek Taylor tells us "no jack booted army of occupation has ever goose stepped through the land". Is he mad? Stupid? Ill-educated? What did he think the Roman occupation was? Or the Danes? Or the Vikings? Or the Norman? Or the attempted Dutch occupation? To read such absurdity and asked to buy his daft book on an Oxford University website is truly shocking and jaw dropping.

By Bruce Rowe Lit ...

Fascinating summary.My Christian name was chosen by my mother; daughter of Notts farming family, after having visited Scotland on honey moon trip including the cave supposedly where Robert the Bruce hid mortified from his defeat at the hands of the English and was inspired by the long efforts of a spider trying to climb up the cave wall to go out and beat his enemy in battle.
I and my family moved to France in 1970, where we have become bi-l ingual resident Franco- Anglo-Saxon.

By Mike Staples

I look forward to reading this book. However, I must say that it will not be without an existing prejudice - when Derek says that "it’s time the English sorted out in their minds what it means to be English" I believe that is exactly what we don't want; as soon as we try to define"Englishness" we set ourselves an impossible task. I am totally comfortable with how I feel about being English but couldn't possibly define my version in writing let alone something that would describe the rest of the population. I think this is clear from the laughable attempts of governments to do the same, notably in the UK and France. We are all very different and long may it remain so.

By Derek Taylor

Glad to see it's raised a bit of controversy - though some mistaken comments I'm afraid.
No other nation has gone for the past 950 years without being invaded and conquered by force of arms. Vietnam? China? Indigenous Australians? Surely not. And I think we all know the Romans invaded rather a long while before the Battle of Hastings.
Tolerant? The 1689 Bloodless Revolution was immediately followed by the Toleration Acts. There's no suggestion that the English have been tolerant ever since. As the piece says, almost every positive characteristic seems matched at some stage by its opposite. That's the nature of Englishness.
Edmund Campion is most certainly covered by the book.
My apologies however, for the typo. 1550s not 1560s.

By Wayne Hankey

The only thing which prevents publishing this mixture of jingostic misrepresentation and petty error from being a disgrace to a university magazine is the printing of the comments, many of which beginning with the first bring truth to light.

By anthony ferney

I hold no brief for the British Empire (even if we were reasonably adept at dismantling it - albeit under pressure) but the the courageously pseudonymous Nel is way way over the top. This is clearly a case of advanced self-hatred and the comparison with Hitler -12 years in power and God knows how many millions exterminated - is odious to the extreme.


What is distressing here is to see a discussion being carried on about the unevidenced and largely pernicious notion of "national character". People have characters (at least in the sense of bundles of individual behaviours that we can, as other individuals, share or differ from, like or dislike, and generally interact with: nations don't. They don't because the ranges of indvidual characters within a given nation (or "culture", if it comes to that) are always too wide to admit of any such way of assessing or knowing them. True, they are also narrowed down in any historical moment by other conditions obtaining then: in the sixteenth-century, for instance, the English had a reputation for musical aptitude and emotional demonstration that certainly wasn't there three centuries on. And nobody undergoes the experience of their country's acquiring and losing an empire without lasting damage to their semse of self and others. But that too is a transient legacy, and attempts to revive any illusion of supposed greatness become more fatuous in every generation. What nations have, then, rather than "characters", are competing "themes" and the competing stories in which these are embodied. Our interaction with these (our own as well as other people's) is part of the double-edged interaction between selfhood and otherness, through which we can hope to enlarge and enrich our lives. If the others were utterly unlike us, we would have no means of understanding or communicating with them; if they were totally identical with us, we would find them insufferably boring. Happily, there is in the patterns that I've been describing, enough diversity to keep us going – provided that we don't muddy the waters by grasping at the false reassurance of a fixed "identity" or "character" for ourselves, for others, or for our larger groupings. Sameness and difference, inseparably and inescapably constitute the challenge to us to live as humans. Every culture worth the name is set up to be a multiculture. But for that, it dies.

By james

Regarding the comment BY NEL ON 1 SEPTEMBER 2017

My comment is a reply to your comment. Re WW2.

It was a world war and the Americans entered the war as they declared war on Japan and shortly after the Germans declared war on America so America entered the war for reasons not related to the British.

Plus it was the Russians who won the war in Europe in affect as they lost over 10,000,000 soldiers and killed around 5,000,000 German soldiers and so did 95% of the job and were the only real affective force for the first few years of the war while we mostly sat around and watched.

The British and Americans mopped up a little bit at the end by entering the war in a big way on D-Day. By then the Russians were well on their way to Berlin and the American and British task was to stop the Russians getting any further West from Berlin.

American losses and British losses were more or less equal at 300,000 per country, which of course in terrible but pales into insignificance in relation to the Russian losses.

The Americans greatest contribution was fighting the war in the Pacific against the Japanese.

It is true America helped Britain before the war and did lend/lease us weapons and ships which we had to pay for after the war which more or less bankrupted us for a few decades.

I am English by the way and do not have a bias towards promoting Russia.

By RHFIndlay

Must confess to be becoming Anonymous (above). Perhaps it is something to do with old age. It is just a year away from my 50th anniversary of my invasion of Oxford.

"without being conquered by force of arms". Interesting. I am sure a Scot might dispute that, as did a great many Scots and Picts from the time of the Roman invasion. Southern Scotland might have come under the vicious heel of the English jackboot on a number of occasions but the Scots brought liberation and freedom and democracy to parts of northern England on a number of occasions after 1066. Then of course a conquering Scottish army got as far somewhere in the British Midlands in the 1700s, but got bored and went home; Scottish cooking was so much better than boiled beef and cabbage.

I rather think that the Chinese would claim never to have been "conquered"; the invaders just got assimilated. As for the Vietnamese; invasion seems to have been business as usual, but they have always emerged from the fog of invasion in the same place and as Vietnamese.

For how long does one have to have been invaded to have become conquered?

However, long may the 22 miles of the English Channel remain between England and foreigners and long may the Royal Navy sail the seven seas.

PS Would someone please remind those from the USA that the UK paid the USA for WW2 and the $21 billion (1945 dollars) war debt to the USA was finally paid off, with interest, in 2006?

By Ian Seaton

Derek Taylor ... a good response to the usual intemperate reaction enabled by the internet. As I read it, your book is a 'lighthearted' and provocative 'take' on Englishness, so I hope it does indeed provoke! Those interested in a more fundamental treatment of Britishness, and in particular our interaction with Europeanness, should read Roy Porter's great work 'Enlightenment - Britain and the Creation of the Modern World'. It's especially relevant when trying to understand the tragedy of Brexit. Ian Seaton (ChCh'64)

By Herbert Behrendt

With reference to their Anglo-Saxon roots it needs to be mentioned that the English people really are of German origin.

By Richard Hamer

Is that right? I thought DNA surveys had shown that we are more Celtic than Germanic.

By James Nicholson

This self-review reads like a hatchet job from mid-market tabloid leading articles, jack boots and all. Perhaps it was written originally for a different readership. I’d like to expect better from Oxford Today.