The idea that the English are not a nation or have no sense of themselves as a people would have seemed very strange indeed to any generation of Englishmen and women before the present day. Cecil Rhodes’ belief that “to be born English was to have drawn first prize in the lottery of life” would have fitted very well with the sentiments of the average Englishman at most times in the past seven hundred years.
The roots of English identity are ancient. England was a cultural entity before it became a political state. When the Northumbrian monk Bede wrote his Ecclesiastical History in the early eighth century it was the Ecclesiastical History of the English not of the Saxons, Angles and Jutes nor of the various kingdoms of England, By the ninth century the English called themselves Angelcyn (Angelkin) and lived in Engalond speaking Englisc. When the Norsemen came they were opposed by the beginnings of a people. Certainly the bare rudiments of English national feeling existed from the time of Alfred. The various authors of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which began in Alfred’s reign (871-99) and continued for two centuries, had no doubt that the English existed as a separate people. Here is the Chronicle in 886: “The same year, king Alfred occupied the city of London and all the English turned to him, except those who were in the captivity of the Danes”. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is, incidentally, the longest continuous record ever written in Europe which says something about the strength of the early English sense of nation.
Political aspirations for an English state come early too. The eighth century Mercian king. Offa, styled himself as king of the English and in one document at least as rex totious Anglorum patriae: king of all the homeland of the English. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle progresses, it is ever more ready to write of England as a single Kingdom. In 1014, at a time of great trouble from the Danes (Cnut was to be king of England within two years), Wulfstan, Archbishop of York, made in “The sermon of the Wolf to the English” the first recorded appeal to the English nation as a whole. By the time of the Conquest, England was indubitably a single kingdom covering most of the land we know as England.
The Norman invasion stunted the development of English national consciousness for the better part of three centuries. However, even in those times there were public signs of awareness of England as a separate entity, most notably in the alteration of Arthur and his knights from an ancient British into an English myth, and throughout the later Middle Ages the English delighted in manufacturing world chronicles which showed the English occupying a primary role in world history.
Foreign visitors to England persistently reported from the fourteenth century onwards that the English were addicted to thoughtfully telling foreigners how splendid everything English was and how inferior everything foreign was. Venetian ambassadors seem to have been particularly favoured in this respect especially when they were at the mercy of Thames boatmen.
Shakespeare’s echoed this chauvinism:
My people are with sickness much enfeebled; my numbers lessen’d; and those few I have almost no better than so many French; who, when they were in health, I tell thee, herald, I thought upon one pair of English legs did march three Frenchmen. (Henry V)
In the sixteenth century national consciousness took a quantum leap forward. Englishmen began to think of themselves as not merely worth more than your average Johnny foreigner, but as a chosen people, the uccessor race to the Jews. Cromwell believed most passionately that God was on his and England’s side. By the twentieth century the idea still existed but the responsibilities of Empire had mutated it into a sense of duty.
Perhaps the most persistent and profound evidence for the English sense of themselves as a separate nation is the strong antipathy towards foreigners which they have persistently shown since the employment of Frenchmen at Edward the Confessor’s court after his return from exile in Normandy. The oft repeated liberal dirge about “this country’s proud tradition of welcoming foreigners” is so utterly at variance with the historical reality that it is both risible and sinister. The truth is that the English are an insular people who have ever been suspicious of foreigners, especially at various times the French, the Spanish, the Dutch, Italians and Jews. The truth, like it or not, is that immigration has always taken place in the teeth of opposition from the mass of English men and women.
Daniel Defoe’s poem “A true born Englishman” (written in 1701) is frequently cited by the England haters as proof of the insubstantial nature of English national identity. This is most curious because what Defoe (real name Foe) was attacking was not a lack of English national feeling but the reverse, a rampant chauvinism and hatred of foreigners which he portrayed as unwarranted because the English were he claimed an exceptionally mongrel race. But a tale lies behind this poem. Defoe was a hired pen who would write anything for anybody provided the work paid – he spent of his adult life stumbling from one financial disaster to another. After William died, Defoe sold his services to the Tory Harley without any qualms. The poem was a piece of Royalist propaganda to make William of Orange’s assumption of the throne seem to be merely the last in a long line of foreign conquests. If circumstances had been different DeFoe would have been as happy to pen a piece extolling the racial purity of the English if it had suited his purposes and circumstances.
Those who now decry the very idea of Englishness do so on very flimsy grounds. They almost invariably cite trivial aspects of culture when proclaiming the supposed stronger national identity of other peoples. The inadequacy of such definitions can be easily shown. The most commonly cited defining characteristics of the Scotch, Welsh and Irish are such things as these. The Scotch are known for tartans, the kilt, the bagpipes, haggis, the thistle, whiskey, golf and Burns. The Welsh are associated with Eisteddfod’s, the Welsh language, choirs, chapels, leeks, rugby and sheep. The Irish bring to mind shamrocks, Guinness, St Patrick, Catholicism and folk music. A similar list of symbols can be made for England without any difficulty: St George, fox hunting, Shakespeare, roast beef and cricket, All of which proves nothing about the respective strength of their national identities. What it does tell us is the nebulous nature of the reasons for despising Englishness which the England haters purvey.
How far a people are culturally united may be judged by their internal antagonisms. Englishmen recognise one another as Englishmen regardless of class and regional variation. Thus a working class Englishman may genuinely hate an upper class Englishman simply because of his class, but he will never think of him as anything other than English. A Northerner may curse “soft Southerners” but not as foreigners. Home counties folk may laugh gently at northern manners, but it is done in the form of family chafing. Such a sense of natural community is unmatched in other nations of any size.
The truly amazing political and cultural homogeneity of England is seen in the absence since the Norman Conquest of any serious regional separatist movement within the heart of English territory. There has been meaningful resistance at the periphery – Cornwall, the Welsh marches and the far north, – but nothing since the sixteenth century. Englishmen have fought but not to create separate nations.