Wednesday, February 24, 2021


When did Englishness become a thing? 

The 'idea' of England as a unified political entity is said to have come to fruition in the reign of King Edgar (943-975), yet 'the peaceable' appears to have been laying an acquisitive eye on Scotland as part of this amalgam. 

After Hastings the English language would enter its wilderness years and Englishness was put on hold. 

It's hard to put one's finger on a precise breakthrough moment, but Hank Cinq's continental campaign of 1415, culminating in the battle of Agincourt, contains a number of key indicators suggesting that the process was nearing consummation.


Firstly, there's an instant when a group of Henry's young knights start speaking English, ostensibly just to annoy their French counterparts. 

And then there's the account of how the French priest and possible double agent Raoul le Gay supposedly escaped from captivity at Harfleur and duly reported to the Norman authorities that the worst part of his experience had been the English beer. 

Henry's effort to unify the states of on either side of the channel — in effect a brazen attempt to turn France's civilisation into our junior associate in a vice versa-fication of the status quo which had prevailed for nearly 400 years — would stoke the Hundred Years War, the losing of which would, slightly perversely, signal the true arrival of England as a nation state on the world stage. Though, this would also be the lead up to acquisitions via reverse take-overs, first by the Welsh (Tudors) and then the Scots (Stuarts). 

Those mounted English aristocrats of the later Plantagenet era, who spoke a Germanic language and burned young French girls at the stake in order to infuriate their near continental neighbours, had only recently been conversing almost exclusively in Norman French and their closest ancestors would in general have hailed from an area right behind what Erwin Rommel would later dub the Atlantic Wall. 

This is a sure indication of just how malleable and self-selected Englishness was to become as an identity in the future. 

By way of an aside, it can be observed that it is also for this reason in the main that the English still consume more red wine than most other Europeans (along with all that warm beer) — perhaps an oddity given our island's own damp climate — as, for a significant part of our history, Bordeaux was in all but name, part of England. 

A couple of years ago I came across this shelf in a Parisian bookshop where, rather than Dark Age texts like Beowulf, translated contemporary British and North American fiction had been collected under the heading Littérature Anglo Saxonne

It's a little ironic that it is now the French, more than anyone, who perpetuate the myth that the English (and the Yanks too) are 'Anglo-Saxons', for they earlier spent a large part of the middle ages perpetuating the myth of King Arthur, a notorious British Anglo-Saxon basher, and did so with the clear objective of suppressing the cultural distinctiveness of the society overrun and overhauled by Duke William in 1066. 

I say cultural rather than ethnic distinctiveness, because it has never been so easy to frame Englishness as a racial identity in the modern sense, no matter what a certain substratum of White Van Man would have us believe. 

Spotted on Quora recently
'More complicated than the propagandists would have you believe.'

One might say that the 'native' English have been Britons who were first Romanised, then Anglo-Saxonised, then (at least partially) Vikingised, before that famously unambiguous conquest of 1066, by Normans (French-speaking Vikings) accompanied by Bretons, descendants of Britons that had fled the Saxon hegemony several centuries earlier. This in turn led to long rule by a dynasty hailing from the aforementioned vineyard-abundant parts of France. 

Even those original Britons were themselves a compound population deriving from groups that had wandered in from the areas we now refer to as Scandinavia, Germany, France, the Low Countries and Iberia.  

The wall in Cornwall, as well as the wal in Wales, derive from a Germanic word for Celtic-speakers, which also came to refer to slaves or serfs. A reminder that for much of our early history — notwithstanding all those tales of Camelot — a Celtic identity was even less desirable than an Anglo-Saxon one*. 

Yet another incident from Henry V's campaign in 1415 reveals how Englishness was at that moment somewhat delicately poised between the enduring lure of francophone pretentiousness and the rather earthier realities of British demographics.

The defender of Harfleur, Blason de Raoul de Gaucourt (1371-1462), an English gent with a suspiciously continental-sounding name — founder member of the Order of The White Lady on a Green Shield and the slightly kinkier (and froggier) Order of the Fer de Prisonnier — believed that the ideal way to resolve a siege was in fact a tournament of mounted chivalric jousts, a l'outrance, underground. And so he had tunnels dug for this specific purpose, by Welsh miners. 

Nice Hoodie

Many reasons are cited for Henry's triumph at Agincourt, most notably his archers and the mud. It certainly also helped that the French, under the rules of chivalry that they themselves had made up, were obliged to allow their opponents the choice of battleground, a traditional gallic courtesy that Wellington would also be availing himself of at Waterloo exactly four hundred years later. We English have an enduring aversion to being out-flanked. 

It was also recorded that the flower of French chivalry, having apparently put aside many of their famed differences just in order to amass there in such superior numbers, accordingly demanded conjointly to be in the vanguard, such that this spearhead ended up stumbling over its own innumerable heraldic banners as it advanced towards the English longbowmen. 

*It is often said today that the overtly 'Celtic' identities of Wales and Scotland have been distorted by 19th century Romantic phoney-ness — and its modern rehashings — yet it is also true that the Victorians were long keen to put the Anglo-Saxons to similar use at Westminster. 

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