Thursday, 15 July 2021

England is a Foreign Country

Everyone knows that the pro-Brexit vote was fueled in part by a desire to "get back control" of Britain's borders. "Border control!" is of course a euphemism for "there's too many damn foreigners here!"


The desire for Brexit was and is mainly an English one. 
Wales voted Leave but by a slim margin. Northern Ireland voted Remain, but also by a slim margin. 

A large majority of Scots (61 per cent) voted Remain. Many of them wanted to keep an open border with the EU. Scotland has been bleeding people for centuries. Most Scots want immigrants to come. 

Because England is much more populous than the so-called "Celtic Fringe" of the UK, its pro-Brexit majority dragged the others out of the EU. Now the UK (i.e. English Tory) government can "control the borders" -- except perhaps in Northern Ireland. They can put up the "No Entry" sign for undesirable foreigners. 

That would seem a victory except for one problem: England has  always been full of foreigners. Nearly everybody on the island of Britain is descended from people "from off" as they like to say in the American South. 

Leaving aside the prehistoric migrations of pre-Celtic and Celtic peoples, the first recorded foreign invasion is that of the Romans. Under Claudius, they arrived to stay in AD 43, having surveyed the place a century before. [Image: Emperor Claudius]

The Roman Army pulled out shortly after 400, as their empire crumbled in the face of Germanic incursions. Some of the Germans opted to go to Britannia, as the Romans called England and Lowland Scotland.  

The Germans came in large numbers in the 5th and 6th centuries and pushed the Romanized Britons to the west and northwest. Moderns usually call the Germanic invaders Anglo-Saxons, but there were other Germanic "tribes" in the mix. The name "England" derives from the Angles (Angle-Land). [Image: Sutton Hoo Helmet, Reconstructed]

In the modern era, England has often been referred to as an "Anglo-Saxon country" but this is a gross oversimplification. Besides the Britons who were already here, new migrants/invaders soon appeared: the Vikings. [Image: Vikings. From Minnesota, sorry, but the best image of Vikings I found]

The Scandy hordes first came to England in 793 with a raid on Lindisfarne Monastery in Northumberland. In the following century raids gave way to settlement and conquest. 

The Vikings who came to the British Isles hailed from Denmark and Norway. The Norwegians focused mainly on Scotland and Ireland. The Danes concentrated on England. Before they were stopped by Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, they had gained control of the eastern half of the country: what became known as the Danelaw. 

Alfred's successors gradually reconquered the Danelaw and created an English kingdom roughly as it is today by the late 10th century. But the Danes were not through. In 1013, Danish King Sweyn conquered England. He died soon after, but his successors ruled it as part of a Danish Empire until 1042, when a half-English, half-Norman king, Edward the Confessor, ascended the throne. 

Edward had no children and his death in 1066 ended the line of Alfred the Great. A disputed succession produced several claimants to the throne. The ultimate winner was another foreigner, William of Normandy, better known as the Conqueror. [image: A near likeness of William the Conqueror from the Bayeux Tapestry]

Normandy got its name from Vikings -- "Northmen" -- who took over that part of what is now France in the 10th century. The Norman invasion army of 1066 also included French knights William bribed with promises of English land. 

For the next two centuries and more England was ruled by a Norman-French aristocracy which gave us the term "robber barons." By the 14th century, however, the foreign elite began to merge with the locals culturally and linguistically. The England of today began to take visible shape, heralded by Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and the Hundred Years War with France. 

During the Middle Ages one group of "foreigners" was deported from England. In 1290, Edward I (Longshanks) formally expelled the Jews. That edict was not overturned until 1656, by Oliver Cromwell, who was tolerant of most folks except the Irish. Jews began to return -- at first in small numbers -- then in much greater numbers in the late 19th and 20th centuries. At that time, they were fleeing pogroms in Tsarist Russia and a general rise in anti-Semitism in Continental Europe.

The mongrelisation of England continued during the Middle Ages and beyond. England was part of a trading world that included merchants and artisans from Italy, France, Scandinavia, the Low Countries, and the Hanseatic League. Many people from those places settled in England and made it their home.

When Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, renewed persecution of the Protestants (Huguenots) population led many of them to emigrate. Large numbers of merchants and artisans fled to England. Among them were the famous Spitalfields silk weavers. London. 

The Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 brought another influx of foreigners, the Dutch who came in the train of William of Orange (William III). Daniel Defoe pilloried xenophobic attacks on the new arrivals in his brilliant poem, "The True Born Englishman." [Image: William III, of Orange]

Scots poured into England after the Act of Union (1707) established the Kingdom of Great Britain. They also aroused resentment, and were often portrayed in popular journals and images as impoverished, barbaric, and avaricious. (See "A Vile Country": Dr Johnson on Scotland and Scots

The Irish and Welsh also came in large numbers from the 18th century on. Irish navvies virtually built the canal and rail network of Britain, doing backbreaking, dangerous work that would be done by heavy machinery today. 

Many Italians came from the late 19th century bringing good food and ice cream. In the 20th century people from all over the far-flung British Empire began to arrive, first a trickle, then a flood. Africans, Asians, West Indians, Eastern Europeans. 

England is truly a nation of foreigners. That is part of its strength and greatness. Many different peoples, from Roman times on, have merged to create the England of today. If, like the USA, it hasn't always been welcoming to new arrivals, it has always accepted them in time. And for the most part, they have accepted if not glorified English culture, institutions, and customs. 

In 1953, the English writer L. P. Hartley published The Go Between. He opened the novel with the now famous line "the past is a foreign country." As a historian, I completely agree with that statement. I hope you will agree with me that England, too, is a foreign country. I mean that as a compliment.



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