Moving on from the narrative of British history concluded in the last post, some thoughts about the way that Britain has existed as a European nation in comparison with other nations, mostly Germany and France. Britain has been defining itself in comparison with these two, in more or less friendly ways since Germany emerged as a modern unified state in 1871. The comparisons with France go back further, as has been partly explored in the narrative posts from Æthelred II’s (the Unready) marriage to a French princess to the Tudor loss of Calais.
The attitude to Germany has been coloured by the pre-1870 Prussian monarchy which became the imperial family of Germany, while retaining the Prussian royal title, in 1871. Even the Prussian monarchy, though, is new compared with the French state. The Prussian kingdom only goes back to 1701, as an elevated form of the Margravate of Brandenburg in which the Hohenzollern family had been the Margraves since 1415, and even that is rather recent compared with the beginning of the history of France. Anyway, we cannot think of Brandenburg-Prussia as a pre-formation of the German state until the early nineteenth century when it took lands on the Rhineland and emerged as the joint leading power in Germany, along, with Austria, after the European settlement at the end of the Napoleonic wars.
It is not entirely clear when we can date the beginning of the French state, since the earliest form, or preformation, of it was the Frankish kings who became rulers of some part of what is now France in the fifth century with the collapse of Roman rule in what had been Gaul. The Franks were German and the sense that the aristocracy of France had a different national origin from the common people lingered into the nineteenth century. It is only in the ninth century that Old French emerges as a written language of state business while the title of King of the Franks was separated from that of the dominant ruler of Germany, holding the title of Emperor of the Romans since the Frankish king Charlemagne was crowned by the Pope in 800.
The official title King of France only stated to replace King of the Franks in the late twelfth century, but it is safe to say that something like a swell defined the French state with a very broadly defined sense of shared culture between king and French speaking subjects goes back to the ninth century, after a preformation going back to the fifth century. Of course it should be remembered in relation to that it was only in the nineteenth century that a shared mass competence in the French of Paris prevailed across France including communities which were historically Basque, Flemish, Breton, German, Italian and Occitan (southern versions of French including Povençal), though a linguistic unity of the educated goes back much further.
One aspect of the sketches of French and German history above, is that the history of the dominant power in western Europe is often the history of France and Germany in various sometimes overlapping forms. This continues into the European Union which is at its heart a Franco-German union and that can be seen in the Euro which comes out of the French belief that it could import German economic success and discipline through a common currency, as well as the belief that it could mitigate German influence in Europe after post-Cold War unification though a shared monetary mechanism. One problem with British membership, maybe the most important, is a lack of interest in the French and German belief in a shared destiny best managed by some pooled sovereignty in a unified Europe, largely if not entirely consisting of countries strongly influenced in their history by contacts with France and Germany.
The most important issue in this post, though, is that France has a history as old and as grandiose as that of Britain, in fact preceding the unified British state history of England and Scotland only going back to 1603. The reason for emphasising this is the British sovereigntist-Eurosceptic tendency to regard France, like all European nations other than Britain in their view, as somehow less proud of their nationality, less patriotic, and less real as nations than Britain.
Really this is preposterous nonsense, and it should not be said that all British eurosceptics hold to this view, but it is hard to imagine the Eurosceptic current existing in Britain without this aspect of its culture, and hard to imagine even many of the more fastidious Eurosceptics do not believe this in their guts. The apparent willingness of France to share sovereignty with Germany in the EU even when Germany has become clearly the dominant EU country may to some degree explain this, but does not justify it.
More on this in the next post
This long series of posts is now going through a survey of British history from the beginning that history to the point where the series started, that is the middle of the eighteenth century. The last post reached the Anglo-Saxon Conquest, which seems to have been more of an elite take over by chieftains and their retinues than a major displacement of population. Nevertheless the Anglo-Saxon conquest was a real cultural transformation in which the evolution of the English language retained almost no trace of the Celtic languages and dialects or even speech rhythms, leaving aside areas where the Celtic languages lingered longer and survived on a minority basis, so influencing English. The Saxon language was not just dominant in England, as it spread in Scotland outside the Gaelic ‘Irish’ speaking areas, displacing non-Celtic languages. So English became the dominant language in what is now the UK and also in what now the Republic or Ireland.
Having emphasised this linguistic transformation, should emphasise that Irish has some distinctive speech patterns from Gaelic, that there is some modern Irish literature in Gaelic and that some Irish literature in English emphasises Gaelic Irish culture, most significantly the novels of James Joyce. Anglo-Saxon comes from the forms of Old German spoken in the areas the invaders came from in what is now the Netherlands, Denmark and intervening parts of Germany. One consequence is that the first great work of English literature Beowulf is an Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, epic poem set in what is now Denmark and southern Sweden. So the literary culture of the English speaking British is rooted in a tale from Scandinavia, though written down in England centuries after the events related, which can be given a rough historical location.
Anglo-Saxon England never established complete predominance in Britain. Viking invasions in the eighth century preceded the formation of an English state at a time when there was still an independent Celtic kingdom in Cornwall, turned into conquests and the establishment of Viking kingdoms. Though the Anglo-Saxons become predominant as far back as the sixth century, the generally accepted narrative of the English state goes back only to the ninth century. In the last decades of that century, King Alfred of Wessex (the west Saxons) in his struggles against the Vikings. Alfred, given the label ‘Great’ in the nineteenth century, a very remarkable figure in various ways, was pushed back into the hinterland of Wessex, but was able to defeat the Vikings in battle and negotiate terms that established a strong kingdom of Wessex, which came to incorporate London.
Wessex was the nucleus of the Medieval English state and Alfred’s grandson Athelston was the first all-England king, also receiving tribute and symbolic recognition of overlordship from Welsh and Scottish rulers, who nevertheless remained completely independent in practice. Athelstan was certainly not isolated from Europe, marrying his family into continental dynasties. The sense of English culture goes back further than Alfred, but not much further.
The northeastern English historian and cleric Bede, is probably the first ‘great’ English figure in Britain, dying in the early eighth century after composing a history in Latin rather than Anglo-Saxon. At roughly the same time Alcuin of York, the cleric and scholar, became an adviser to the Frankish (Franco-German) Emperor Charlemagne who dominated western and central Europe, reviving the title of Roman Emperor, or had it pushed onto him by the Pope. He was referred to as ‘father of Europe’ in his court and was the model of English monarchs including Alfred.
The only Anglo-Saxon king before Alfred who could be said to have lingered in national memory was Offa of Mercia (the centre of England) in the late eighth century, who seems to have made some symbolic claim to kingship of England, but whose kingdom was lost to the Vikings. The rise of the Kingdom of England was not completely straightforward as Vikings remained in England with their own towns, laws, and customs, and with Scandinavian princes still making claims in England. The consequence was a Danish King of England, Cnut (also known as Canute) reigning in England in the early eleventh century, along with varying parts of Scandinavia.
A rather confused period followed his death of English and Danish claims to the English crown, with other Scandinavian dynasties expressing an interest. This ended when the Saxon Edward the Confessor became king in 1042. However, this was not the triumph of isolated English sovereignty. Edward was heavily under the influence, even tutelage of the Duchy of Normandy, territory given to Viking invaders by the French king, which led to the invading Danes becoming completely French in language and other respects.
Edward was the son of Aethelred the Unready and Emma of Normany. Aethelred who was responsible both for gratuitous massacres of English Danes and losing the kingdom to the Danes, had fled to Normandy beginning an important connection. Edward died in 1066 childless, with the Duke of Normandy and the King of Norway both believing they had claims to the English throne that they fully intended to enforce through military might. The throne went in the first place to Edward’s most powerful subject, Harold Godwinson, because of the support of the Witan, the council of the king’s leading subjects, rather than inheritance or the wishes of Edward the Confessor. If there was ever a moment of isolated English sovereignty that might be it, but it was not to last more than a few months.
Next post, how England became part of a Norman and the Angevin French speaking empire