The 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.
Oxford 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