December 1, 2021

England turned 1500 last year – where was the party?

The older I get the more I enjoy reading about history.

Being a father I read alot of Horrible Histories books.

I used to read them to my kids. Now I read them to myself.

They serve beautifully crafted bite sized history lessons.

Anyhows, reading their book on the Celts I found out some interesting stuff about British history.

Two thousand years ago Britain was a Celtic island. There were Celts everywhere. Britain wasn’t a united nation. It was balkanised but it was a Celtic balkanisation.

The Romans arrived shorty after the birth of Jesus and stayed for some four hundred years. They bossed the Celts all the way up to Hadrian’s Wall. The end of the Roman’s reign coincided with the collapse of their empire.

The Roman’s collapse had a lot to do with the emerging strength of various Germanic tribes. As of 400 AD the new force in Europe were the German tribes. The tribes, I understand, were as balkanised as the Celts. I’m not quite sure what drove them onwards to new lands, maybe overpopulation.

But the main point is this. England, as we know it, is Germanic in origin. Horrible Histories put me in the picture on this. In 520 AD, the book on the Celts said that Angles and Saxons from Germany set up camp in the south east of England. Celtic tribes were too busy fighting each other to be able to stop the Germanic invasion. It was in 520 AD then, that Angle-land, which later came to be called England, came into being.

I’ve not read the rest. You know, the bit between 520 AD and now. However it seems to me that the longevity of the term England and its application to a large swathe of Britain, highlights the dominance of the culture, customs and power of the Angles and Saxons who arrived all those years ago.

Given this, it is curious that English identity has often been based on not being German. What did we get taught in our history lessons? If it wasn’t for the Russian’s our victory in the Second World War, we would now all be speaking German, and not the distinctively non-Germanic English we currently speak. When the England football team beat Colombia on penalties in the World Cup in 2018, forty young men celebrated in London’s Liverpool Street train station, by lining the balconies and singing a song about the RAF defeating the Luftwaffe. Hoorah, we beat Colombia and we’re not German! In fact, it doesn’t really matter that we beat Colombia, we’re not German!

But anyway, I digress, alot.

The point is that if England came into being in 520, then last year celebrated its 1500th birthday.

That’s quite a landmark right?

We celebrated the millennium as if it was some supernatural event.

We celebrate the Queen’s major jubilees.

We celebrate and reminisce about England’s national sporting successes.

Loadsamonies sang Brexit songs and laughed out like supervillains into the night when the country voted to leave the European Union.

But did anyone think about celebrating one and a half millennia of Englishness?

No.

I’m not sure anyone realised.

Why not?

Here are some thoughts. And they are based on two key ideas. That to celebrate England would be to celebrate the arrival of the Germanic peoples into the British isle. This is problematic for two reasons.

First to celebrate Englishness would challenge the national myth and assumption that those who identify as English have a God given, naturalistic right, to the land of England. In other words, if we celebrate Englishness as a social construction, and consequence of an invasion, then there’s more of an argument to challenge the natural order of things, to challenge the right of ‘white’ English people to be the dominant tribe in England. If Englishness is a function of immigration and invasion, then why can’t others do the same?

Second the Germanic nature of England and Englishness is problematic, for several reasons.

Celebrating Englishness would cause us to come face to face with our Germanic ancestry and being. But as we discussed earlier the English identity is based on not being German. I think this is what you call ‘being in denial’ and its this denial which stops us celebrating what we are, or where we came from anyway. That’s perhaps why Farage has stayed clear of advancing nationalist English arguments and celebrations. His argument has hinged on the idea that the UK is about to be taken over by Germans. The last thing he’d want is a celebration that reminds us of how Germanic we already are.

Another reason for not celebrating Englishness, is that its still a bit of a sore point for all the Celtic countries and peoples who have lived under the dominance of the English, via the United Kingdom. Perhaps that’s why Boris Johnson, who tried to rejuvenate St George’s Day whilst he was Mayor of London, has not whispered a word about the 1500th anniversary.

A celebration of Englishness would irk the Scottish, Welsh and Irish, who are all too aware of the consequences of the arrival of the English to the British Isles. In other words, to celebrate English would be divisive. It might hasten the end of the shaky union that we have.

It seems to me, then, that the cultural dominance of the English is protected by a silence around the English identity. The English national identity is well protected by being cloaked in the more diplomatic natural identity of Britishness. The myth of Britishness, the myth of the British as a culturally homogenous race helps to hide the dominance of Englishness.

The result of this, I think, is that English people are blind to their own Englishness. I’m one of them. I’m technically English, but I’ve never particularly enjoyed the feeling of being English. I’ve always thought of myself as British. Being English means nothing to me, I associate it with emptiness, blandness and boredom.

I wonder how Englishness is perceived by the Scottish, Welsh and Irish?

I wonder if Scottish, Welsh and Irish people, the Celts, have a more heightened sense of Englishness, of it being a group apart? And if they do, how rooted is their notion in the past? Do they understand the English as a Germanic race, as different in temperament and disposition. And what about the views of the Cornish people, who are also Celts?

Of course the thing is made more complex by the fact that there has been a lot of mixing of Angles, Saxons and Celts over hundreds and thousands of years across the British Isles. Other groups and immigrants have added to the mix. Religious divisions, which don’t necessarily split cleanly down Celtic and English lines, also complicate the picture.

Whatever the answers, Englishness, it appears, remains something of a taboo. First because it challenges the myth that to be English is not to be German. But also because it is likely to stir up old and current resentments about the dominance of the English people in Great Britain and the British Isles.

Perhaps it is for these reasons that we didn’t celebrate or even mention the 1500th anniversary of England.