The Entropy of England—II

Is it English to Be Nationalist?

 “Welsh, Irish and Scots nationalisms could all be catered for, but English nationalism, however, cannot”.

—Winston Churchill, Westminster Gazette 1912

           For the last millennium, English nationalism appears to have suffered from a kind of political Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle—the more you try to establish its geographic scope, the less in defined its policies and attributes become. In England, post Norman Conquest—and apparently uniquely in Western Europe—the grand process of High Medieval nation-building was run by a colonial elite with an entirely different language from the peasantry they ruled. They were also distracted from connecting with them by the need to keep half an eye on their swollen French possessions of the Angevin Empire.

They needed foot soldiers for each stage of their colonial ambitions in both France and the archipelago, so they created an English nationalism in its earliest form to make the conquered natives feel like the most-favoured subject people, having been over-run by the very best. As an example, the anti-Welsh and anti-Scots vituperation that opens the official record of Edward I’s 1294 campaign against them:

“May Wales be cursed by God and Saint Simon! For it has always been full of treason. May Scotland be cursed by the mother of God!”

Not the broadest, not most inclusive foundation upon which to build a union. However, the French-speaking elite were kept busy plastering over cracks in England itself, until their own cultural unity began to fray. In deposing Richard II in 1399, Henry IV secured populist covering fire for this act by becoming the first king since Harold to accept the crown by taking the coronation oath in English.

But almost immediately, English unity was again in question. In 1405, the Percys, mighty in the North, and the Mortimers, who considered themselves Richard II’s rightful heirs, agreed the “Tripartite Indenture” with Owain Glyndwr. This proposed splitting England into northern and southern realms, with Cheshire, Shropshire and Herefordshire being incorporated into a revived Wales. Fifty years later, the Percy and Mortimer families were at it again as pivotal powers in the Wars of the Roses—in practice, another series of north/south fights. English histories decorously avoid referring to these serial fracas as “civil wars” to avoid the impression that England was as partial to internecine brutality as their continental counterparts.

This fratricidal slaughter only ended when a part-Welsh dynasty, the Tudors, took charge. They brought a cultural, if not dynastic, stability. For the next 400 years, anybody who was anyone in England was expected to master Greek, Latin and French. So the former Medieval French-speaking elite culture was thus replaced by a classically-educated elite culture.

Key powerbases of this new Tudor elite—the courtiers, parliament, Oxbridge, the Inns of Court, the Church of England—were all in the South. The real driver of the Reformation was a determination of state-builders to brook no regional or supra-national loyalties. National unity was forced by external threats, especially from Catholic Spain. But for all the unity at home and exploration abroad under Elizabeth just a year after her death, the pronouncement was made::

“wherefore We have thought good to discontinue the divided names of England and Scotland… and do intend and resolve to take and assume unto Us… the Name and Style of King of Great Brittaine.”

—King James I and VI

This is what one of his courtiers, perhaps channelling the much later Sir Humphrey, might have called “a courageous decision”.  James may have seen the union as one happy arrangement between equals, but the English were having none of it. Their Parliament would have nothing to do with “Great Brittaine”. Arrogant monarchs, religious schisms and puritan intransigence destabilised society that, by 1688 one faction could think of no way to avoid further civil war, except asking the Dutch to invade and loan them a king.

Having stared into the abyss, the elite of the early 18th century tried to abolish England and replace it with Great Britain. Though technically becoming the Parliament of the United Kingdom, it was in all aspects continuation of the English Parliament, with only 45 of 558 members coming from Scotland. This was the birth of our modern politics. For the next 85 years, this parliament fought to impose itself on a peripheral cultural patchwork of northern English, Scots, Gaels, Cornish, Welsh and Irish.

This did not go smoothly.

(to be continued)

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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