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BRITAIN: COUNTRY AND CULTURE 1: AN OVERVIEW
Dear Students,
The purpose of this course is to encourage you to gain an insight into the essential
institutional, political, social and cultural developments that have made up the
ingredients of today’s Britain. The course adopts a historical approach, taking in
developments since the Celtic period until the Act of Union with Scotland in 1707.
Topics include Roman Britain, the Viking and Danish invasions, the Norman
invasion, Anglo-French relations, the troubles with Ireland and Scotland, and
religious problems.
The course takes the form of lectures, which are but the tip of the iceberg, simply
providing you with the impetus to research and study further. You are encouraged to
share the results of your study with the class, helping not only your fellow students,
but the lecturer. We are, after all, in the same boat, even if I am at the helm.
Evaluation will be by unseen short written essays. I shall provide some examples of
questions at the end of this hopefully helpful guide.
We kick off with the beginning of the arrival of the Celtic tribes in Britain around 500
BC. One of the main tribes was called the Brythons, hence the Roman name
‘Britannia’. Another important tribe was known as the Goidels, or Gaels. Hence,
incidentally, the name ‘Gaul’. The Gaels were pushed northwards and westwards.
Interestingly, the Roman Tacitus wrote that the languages of Gaul and Britain were
similar. At any rate, the not very well organised and quarrelsome tribes were no match
for the Romans who ,having taken a look in 55 BC, invaded properly in 43 AD, under
the emperor Claudius. Unlike Gaul, where the Romans established themselves
definitively, Britain was seen as more of an important military outpost. The Romans
nevertheless built many roads, developed London (Lundinium), founded cities
(‘chester’ derives from ‘castrum’), introduced viticulture, the alphabet (at least to the
elite), and later on Christianity. Unable, or disinclined, to conquer the whole of
Scotland, ‘Hadrian’s Wall’ was constructed to keep out the marauding tribes from
Caledonia (Scotland), and yet further north, the ‘Antonine’ Wall was constructed. It
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proved difficult to hold. One Roman legion, the Ninth, went north to campaign
against the Pictish tribes, but never returned.
By 410 AD, the last Roman soldiers had left, to defend Rome against marauding
barbarian tribes, and in 449, a massive invasion of barbaric and pagan German
peoples invaded Britain, the three main tribes being the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. For
two hundred years the situation was chaotic, with the Celts being killed and pushed
westwards. Some escaped to western Gaul, hence the name ‘Bretagne’. The AngloFrench story of King Arthur, a Romanised Christian Celt, goes back to this period.
By the early six hundreds, things were beginning to settle down again, and various
Christian Celtic priests were returning from Ireland to again Christianise Britain.
Southern Britain was divided into various kingdoms. But now, towards the end of the
Eighth Century, began another wave of invasions, those of the Vikings, both from
northern Scandinavia and Denmark. First they pillaged and killed, but then began to
settle. Under King Alfred, who ruled Wessex and enjoyed much influence in the
South, hard fighting took place between his armies and those of the Danes, ending
with an agreement to divide the future England into the South, under Alfred and his
successors, and what was known as the ‘Danelaw’ to the north. Further north, in
Ireland and Scotland, the northern Vikings held sway. By the time of Ethelred, the
area we know as England was beginning to come together, Edgar having conquered
the Danelaw. However, tensions continued with the Danes who, under Sweyn, King
of Denmark, invaded England in 1003, Ethelred fleeing to Normandy in 1013, but
returning as king on the former’s death in 1014. In 1016, King Knut (Canute) of
Denmark cut the Gordian knot, and conquered England (some people were now
beginning to refer to the south of Britain as ‘Englalond’, the land of the Angles). He
and his sons ruled until 1042. Since there was no direct successor, Edward the
Confessor, connected to the Wessex blood of Ethelred, took over as king. He is said to
have liked the Norman-French scene, spending a fair amount of time in Normandy,
and promised the throne to his cousin William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy. The
Pope supported this. When Harold Godwinson tried to take the throne of England,
following his victory at the Battle of Stamford Bridge over his own brother Tostig and
the king of Norway, Harald Hardrada, he then had to march south rapidly, to contend
with William’s army at the Battle of Hastings. His army was defeated, and he was
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killed by an arrow in the eye, as we see from the ‘Bayeux Tapestry’. The year 1066 is
a veritable landmark in British history.
William quickly subdued the country, and the Normans - who, let us remember were
descended from Danish Vikings who had settled in northwestern France, becoming
‘more French then the French’ – now transformed England, building castles,
cathedrals, and writing the ‘Domesday Book’, which recorded every piece of property
in the country. Greece has still to have one! French aristocratic systems were
introduced, and French became the official language of England. Perhaps the biggest
impact was linguistic, with thousands of French words being imported into English.
The Normans strengthened and organised England at the same time as France was
itself strengthening, and introduced an inextricable link between the two young
countries that was to plague them for centuries to come. The first most obvious link
was that William the Bastard was not only king of England, but Duke of Normandy,
in the capacity of which he was subservient to the French king. During the reign of
King John (famous for the Magna Carta), Normandy was lost to King Philip of
France. Dynastic disputes increased the tensions. We need to bear in mind here (to
simplify a complicated story) that the powerful kings of the day ruled over vast
domains in both countries at various times. If you married a king’s daughter, then that
gave you a claim to land. At any rate, most of the tensions were dynastic, with various
claims and counter-claims. Matters came to a head when Edward III claimed the
throne of France, and in 1337, his armies invaded France. There was a series of wars,
lasting until 1453, later known as the Hundred Years’ War. For much of the war, the
soldiers from England (and Wales, by now under the yoke of England), did well,
winning battles such as those of Crécy (1346), Poitiers (1356) and Agincourt (1415),
but then the tide turned (remember the story of Joan of Arc?), and by 1453, only
Calais remained under the English crown, to be lost during the reign of Queen Mary a
hundred years later. Significantly, during the wars, in 1400, English replaced French
as the official language of England. It can be said that these wars defined to a
considerable extent the very characters of France and England. They did not lead to
peace: quite the contrary, since wars between the two countries were to continue on
and off until 1815. By the end of the Hundred Years’ War, England was approaching
the end of the rule of the French-connected Plantaganet dynasty, which passed to two
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junior branches respectively, the Houses of Lancaster and York. The matter was
finally settled with the final battle of the Wars of the Roses (York white and Lancaster
Red), when King Richard III, a Yorkist, was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field in
1485. The battle has been immortalised by Shakespeare, with Richard’s plea, before
he was killed: ‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!’ Henry Tudor, a
Lancastrian, then became Henry VII of England. By marrying the daughter of the
deceased Yorkist king, Edward IV, he united the two houses.
Under the Tudor dynasty, England grew stronger. Henry VIII reigned from 1509 (the
same year as my old school, St. Pauls, was founded) to 1547. During his reign, he
managed to wage several wars with France and Scotland, and conquered Ireland, or at
least managed to bring a large part of the latter under English control. Although he is
well known for having married six times (and had two wives executed), he goes down
in history as having broken with Rome, apparently furious at not being granted an
annulment of marriage by the Pope. He declared himself head of the church in
England and destroyed the monasteries, many monks being treacherously killed,
thereby also diluting what was once good English cuisine. Despite his undoubted
cruelty, he built up the navy, and can certainly be depicted as the monarch who made
England far less dependent of the continent of Europe than hitherto. He also
established Grammar Schools, where Greek and Latin were taught, thus contributing
to intellectual life.
As we have seen, religion plays a large part in the political evolution of England
under Henry VIII. Let us now depart from chronology, and look briefly at the clash
between Church and State that bedevilled England – and indeed the whole of
Christendom – in the Middle Ages and later. When Rome had collapsed, the only
organisation capable of re-establishing a semblance of order was the Church, so it was
inevitable that in would by default assume much political power. In England this
manifested itself in the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas a Becket, in
1170, as well as in Henry VIII’s unbecoming behaviour. In those days the Pope’s
power of excommunication meant a great deal. (I am tempted to wonder whether, if
the Pope had threatened Bill Clinton with excommunication, he would have gone
ahead with bombing the Serbs. But of course, there was no chance of that, since the
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Vatican was the first state to recognise Croatia.) At any rate, religion was now to play
an important role in Britain.
Henry’s daughter Queen Mary (Tudor) was a Roman Catholic who took England back
to Roman Catholicism, which involved the burning of a few hundred recalcitrants.
Owing to her marrying King Philip of Spain, England fell under Spanish and Roman
Catholic influence. But when Mary’s half-sister, the Protestant Elisabeth I, came to
the throne, a reversal took place, and Spain and the Papacy became enemies: with the
blessing of the Pope, the Spanish Armada set sail to conquer England, but were
unable to land and march on London, owing to the English Navy’s small boats
burning Spanish galleons by night, Dutch Protestants, and extremely bad weather. The
Spaniards were never able to land, and only about half of the fleet of some one
hundred and thirty ships returned to Spain, having sailed around Scotland and Ireland,
with some starving sailors having had to eat rope to survive.
One might now begin to see that some of England’s atavistic fear of Europe has its
origins in the Hundred Years’ War and Henry VIII’s attitude, apart from the fact that
Britain is an island.
To revert to our chronology, we now comment a little on Elisabeth. She had the
flexibility to oversee a wonderfully gay period, when the theatre flourished. William
Shakespeare is of course the most obvious example. There is however a major stain
on Elisabeth’s morality: she approved the treacherous execution of her Roman
Catholic cousin, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland. Well before the execution, Mary
was forced to abdicate in favour of her son James. We now move on. Since the
unmarried and allegedly virgin queen Elisabeth had no known children, Mary, Queen
of Scots’ son James VI of Scotland also became King James I of England. Although
born a Roman Catholic, Elisabeth’s acolytes had ensured that he was forced into
Protestantism. He came to the throne of England in 1603, suspected by Protestants of
being ‘Catholic-friendly’. However, the ‘gunpowder plot’, when the Roman Catholic
Guido (Guy) Fawkes and his group tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament, made
him less tolerant of Roman Catholicism. He must have had a tough time in the
recesses of his mind.
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He was succeeded by his second son, Charles (Stuart) I, concurrently king of
Scotland, who believed that the king had more power than parliament, leading to the
English Civil War, fought between Charles’ ‘Cavaliers’ and Oliver Cromwell’s
‘Roundheads’ (they wore their hair short). To cut an unfortunate story short, it ended
up with a parliamentary kangaroo court sentencing Charles to death. He was duly
beheaded in early 1649. Cromwell’s rule proved to be very Protestant and dictatorial.
According himself the title of ‘Lord Protector, he divided up the country into areas
ruled by generals. In his various wars, he was particularly cruel towards the Irish. The
massacres of Wexford and Drogheda were not pleasant.
On his death, his son Richard lasted only two years, to be succeeded by his son
Charles II in 1660, his return to England being labelled ‘the Restoration’. England
again became a gay and carefree society compared to the Cromwellian period.
Charles, who entertained generally good relations with France, actually converted to
Roman Catholicism on his deathbed, in 1885. His son James II was a Roman
Catholic. Various conspiratorial power centres in England led to them asking the
Protestant King of the Dutch Republic, William III of the House of Orange-Nassau, to
become king. Cleverly, and perhaps slightly oddly, he had married the daughter of the
future James II. When the anti-French William landed in England in 1688 to claim the
throne in what is known as the ‘Glorious Revolution’, James naturally refused to give
up either the English or Scottish throne. The whole shenanigans ended with the
victory in 1690 of William’s forces over James’ French-supported army at the Battle
of the Boyne, in Roman Catholic Ireland, with James leaving for France. The war
continued in Scotland, ending up with William assuming the Scottish throne, although
many a Scot bewailed this. In 1692, the pro-English Campbell clan betrayed their proScottish guests, the Macdonalds, while they were asleep, in what became known as
the ‘Glencoe Massacre’. Even to this day, a Macdonald might walk from a room, if he
sees a Campbell. Today, problems continue in Northern Ireland, where a large
number of Protestants were ‘exported’ during the reigns of Elisabeth and Cromwell.
It is hardly surprising that in 1707, during the reign of Queen Anne, the Act of Union
between England and Scotland was signed. To this day, some Scots do not accept it.
This leads is to some considerations on Scotland, Wales and Ireland, as much a part of
Britain as England. We have seen how long it took for England to bring Scotland into
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her fold. Some of you may have seen the film ‘Braveheart’ which, although not
always historically accurate, certainly shows the main story. The Battle of
Bannockburn in 1314, when the Scots defeated the English under Edward II, is still a
beautiful event for many a Scotsman.
Wales succumbed to England much earlier, being taken by Edward I in 1282. In 1301,
the youngest son of the English monarch became the Prince of Wales, currently
Prince Charles. Ireland is a sad story. Although there was an Act of Union in 1800,
activated in 1801, Ireland never completely succumbed. In the 1840’s, at a time of
famine, over one million Irish died, and over a further million emigrated, mainly to
the United States, out of a population of eight million. The population has never since
returned to that level. In 1916, the Irish rebelled, leading to freedom for what
eventually became the Republic of Ireland. In Northern Ireland, the tension continues
today, with the majority Protestants in the North resisting efforts by Roman Catholic
Republicans to unite with the Republic.
That, very briefly, is an overview of the course. Of course, we shall also look at
strictly cultural matters, such as art, music and education, but the above overview
should enable you to learn such things fairly easily. Typical questions from past
examination papers have been:
‘What impact did the Normans have on Britain?’
‘Were the reigns of Queen Mary and her half-sister Elizabeth very different? If you
think that they were, explain why!’
‘Should Scotland have remained independent of England?’
‘Comment on the role of religion in the development of Britain.’
It goes without saying, almost, that merely learning the above few pages, parrotfashion, will not be sufficient to pass the examination: they represent only a skeletal
outline. I shall immediately see through any examination paper that appears to rely
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only on this brief guide. Most marks will be awarded for evidence of originality and
thinking, as well as of knowledge. Have fun!
Yours faithfully,
William Mallinson
25 October 2011, in the year of our Lord.
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