The Telegraph on what it means to be British

I may or may not edit this post over the weekend. I have a feeling I should write something about The Telegraph’s poll on British identity (and some other articles and stuff).

But when you start by reading the line “[British] People also know how much they owe to the fact that Britain has not been invaded since 1066”, you can’t help thinking you’re in fairly dodgy territory. Admittedly, the French effort to invade via south-west Wales in 1797 was a bit of a farce, so alright, we could put that to one side. (Don’t know that contemporaries were quite so dismissive though. And they did land on the British mainland.) And 1688 – well, there was a sort of ‘invitation’ to William, with his Dutch troops, so perhaps that’s different too.

But what about 1485? Or even 1470-71 (twice)?* Or perhaps none of these count, since the armies were not led by ‘foreigners’ (even if they contained a lot of them, and were largely backed by foreign money). And it doesn’t count either, I suppose, that English armies invaded and occupied Wales in the thirteenth century, and ‘visited’ Scotland on an almost regular basis well into the sixteenth century (and, yes, Scottish armies on occasion returned a few favours too). A bit of Rough Wooing, anybody?

The Telegraph can get very worked up about British people’s ignorance of ‘their own’ history sometimes. But clearly not when that ignorance suits the purposes of a set of articles like these. It looks to me like they’re going to be the usual lazy anglocentric (and southern-anglocentric at that) thou-shalt-never-criticise-or-question-Britain’s-greatness kind of shite to me. I just look at them and start to feel very, very tired. I know I should engage. I should do something. But don’t be surprised if I can’t get up the energy.

But if anybody does read them and gets some pleasant surprises, let me know.

*1485: Henry Tudor and a French-backed army, landed in south-west Wales and marched east to England and you know the rest, right? 1470: the French-backed army of Henry VI (Lancastrian, deposed in 1461) and his son, throwing out Edward IV, who escaped to Burgundy. 1471: Edward IV (Yorkist) and his Burgundian-backed army chucked the Lancastrians out again. (I used to know all the details of those ones too. I had this Wars of the Roses thing going at one time.)


NB: If I don’t update on this over the weekend, there might be a different reason. The necessary piece of kit has arrived in the shop and I’m planning on going wireless. So there’s always the possibility that I might break my internet connection completely in the process and not be able to fix it until Monday.

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14 Responses to The Telegraph on what it means to be British

  1. Hmm. Apparently being blockaded (WWI) or bombed (WWII) doesn’t count. How interesting.

    Not to mention all those little colonial wars….

  2. Remington says:

    “But when you start by reading the line “[British] People also know how much they owe to the fact that Britain has not been invaded since 1066”

    That’s not a fact at all– it’s a myth. There are at least two occasions since 1066 since Britain was indeed successfully invaded outright by an enemy force. One was in 1595 IIRC against Elizabethan England, when a Spanish naval attack squad managed to land on western England, whence they proceeded to defeat the local defenders and set fire to a good deal of Cornwall, including Penzance and many other towns. The Spanish commander was some bloke named Don Carlos de Amesquita, see e.g. here:

    Amesquita attacked the towns, grabbed some supplies, and took off for Spain before Drake and company could respond. Then there was the probably better-known case of Michiel de Ruyter in the Second Anglo-Dutch War in 1665-67. De Ruyter was the scourge of England, one of the few guys to utterly defeat the Royal Navy on every occasion he fought. After clobbering the British fleet, he then brought his own navy up the Medway and torched many of the English ships and surrounding towns. He too escaped any retaliation.

    Remember too, that from 1066 up to another 2 centuries or so, England was essentially the property of Normandy until Normandy itself got conquered by the French king; therefore there was no need to invade England then, it was already a conquered land. As for WWI and WWII, the Germans really didn’t care too much about invading Britain at all. In fact in WWI Germany entered the war with the express intention, at the outset, not to fight Britain– their focus was on capturing Paris, period. Even in WWII, the focus was on the Continent– after bombing the crud out of some very nice British cities (of little military value) and airfields and aircraft factories (of substantial military value), Hitler turned his attention against the USSR, where it had been from the get-go.

    I guess this underscores that for the most part, opposing armies really haven’t had much intention of invading Britain whatsoever. It’s too much trouble and cost to organize a fleet and then hold an island nation. Remember that the Romans held Britain for over 3 centuries after the conquest by Claudius, but it was not Romanized as much as Gaul because it was too darn costly to keep posting troops and sending administrators there. So outside of the successful invasions by Amesquita and de Ruyter (and of course the WWI Zeppelin bombings and WWII aerial attacks), for the most part very few opponents even tried. The German invasions by the Saxons, Angles and Jutes in the 400s which brought the base culture to Britain were a special case, since these were effectively mass migrations and colonizations by a seafaring people before a national identity had really gelled there. The Normans of course had a fiefdom but they themselves were assimilated after Normandy was conquered. So in short, Britain has suffered relatively few invasions since 1066 (outside of the Spanish and Dutch invasions and the German aerial bombings) is mostly because few adversaries made the effort.

  3. Sharon says:

    You’re quite right that it’s a myth – but it’s a powerful myth. My real annoyance is that the Telegraph simply repeats it as though it’s true, when in other instances it will rant about ignorance of our history. If the writer had talked about the significance of the pervasive *belief* that Britain has never been invaded since 1066, I would have less of a problem – except that I think this particular attitude is fairly recent and grows out of the security of the very recent past. Historically I’d suggest that fears of invasion were a rather more significant element in shaping various British identities.

    Jonathan, we don’t like to think of ourselves as invaders. We prefer not to think about how our empire was created in the first place… and of course we justify uses of force to maintain it by characterising resistance as ‘mutiny’ or ‘rebellion’.

  4. Chris Williams says:

    Modest cough:

    Apparently 300,000 people listened to it. None of them were Telegraph leader-writers, obviously.

    More on invasions – I’m just working through NAM Rodger’s naval history vol.2, and have got to 1688, which looks like an invasion to me. He’s a bit of a fan of the later Stuarts, which I’m not comfortable with, being a partisan of the Good Old Cause myself, but it’s a damn fine book and he appears to know his onions.

  5. Simon says:

    Not to beat the southern-English drum too loudly, but none of the above-mentioned “conquests” were actually comparable to the utter subjugation of Britain by the Normans.

    The Normans occupied Britain for a couple of hundred years. Neither the Dutch, nor the Spanish managed anything like it.

    And as for Hitler not being interested in GB, had he not been such an inbred mongrel,* he might have finished in the west before opening an Eastern front.

    * Watch the upcoming ZDF documentary on Hitler’s family, that claims that Hitler’s grandparents were siblings who were both sired by their grandfather.

  6. Sharon says:

    Well, I agree that 1066 was very different from say, 1688 or 1595 or even 1485. But nobody here has said those episodes were ‘conquests’, just that they were ‘invasions’, which was the term used in the Telegraph article. Does an invasion have to be successful to count as an invasion? Not in the Fishguard 1797 case, that’s for sure: the historians call it ‘The Last Invasion’ even though it was a total failure.

    Perhaps ‘invasion’ in the Telegraph and respondents’ minds is just a kind of (rather sloppy) shorthand for ‘conquest’. But from the Welsh side of things they’re still wrong. Wales was invaded and conquered in 1282, and that was certainly comparable in its long-term impact to 1066 for the English. (Bunch of Normans again, of course…)

  7. Simon says:

    Yeah, I read “invasion” as “conquest”. Call me sloppy, do you? I blame the mass media.

  8. Sharon says:

    Oops. No offence meant… (And bear in mind that I am a professional pedant.) Seriously, I think that maintaining the national myth of invincibility to some extent depends on just what is defined as ‘invasion’. (Language being power and all that.) Events like those of 1485 and 1688 ought to be classed under that heading, I think, but that’s not the way we’re taught to see them – by some strange alchemy, I think they’re actually transformed into victories in a still remarkably influential (whiggish) narrative of ‘the emergence of the Greatness of Great Britain’ (conflating England and Britain, of course…).

  9. Simon says:

    No offense taken.

    I find it interesting that you consider the vanquishment of monarchical tyranny in 1688 an invasion. Sure, it turned out not to be too happy an event for the Irish, but that was a result of James’s movements rather than an Orange imperial project.

    As for Wales, I concede.

  10. Sharon says:

    Ah, but not everyone at the time saw it as vanquishing monarchical tyranny. Many saw it as heralding the return of Parliamentarian tyranny (which is how substantial parts of the country remembered the 1650s). When I suggest that we should think of the Glorious Revolution as an invasion, I’m thinking more of how it might have been experienced by quite a lot of people at the time. (And I don’t see the Stuarts as particularly tyrannical in the context of the time.)

  11. Simon says:

    I see your point, but it should be measured against the consciousness of a Catholic threat, which was more immediate. I readily admit I have a London bias, however. Perhaps things were vastly different in most other parts of the kingdom.

  12. Sharon says:

    Point taken. You get anti-popery pretty much everywhere; I don’t know if it was particularly intense in London (I don’t recall this coming up in the discussions of 17th-century Catholicism I read a couple of years ago. Interesting question). But alongside that you do get enormous hostility towards Dissenters and ‘Levellers’ in many parts of the country (which may well be less strong in London). You’re quite right, anti-Catholicism is central to the reasons for the overthrow of James (and the fatal lack of support for his heirs in the 18th century); you could say that his ‘tyranny’ consisted in part of attempting to foist tolerance of Catholics (especially in office) upon an anti-Catholic society. (The deluded fool attempted to win over Protestant dissenters at the same time with some relaxation of the rules against them too. It probably just made him even more enemies.) The perceived threat, strictly speaking, was not an immediate one: the fears at the time would have been more about James’ long-term intentions (the destruction of the Anglican Church, re-establishment of Rome). That’s why the birth of James’ heir (after he and his second, Catholic, wife had failed to produce any children for many years) was such a catalyst.

    (I sometimes wonder, by way of a little counterfactual speculation: if that heir (the ‘Old Pretender’) had been prepared to convert to Protestantism in 1714, might there have been another civil war, a clash between supporters of the rival Stuart and Hanoverian claims? Or would it have been enough to get the political establishment to accept him as Anne’s successor? And what would have been the consequences of that?)

  13. Steve says:

    Of course, if you hail from Hartlepool, you might also believe you were invaded during the napoleonic wars…

  14. Graham Asher says:

    Well, it’s obvious the Telegraph meant ‘successful invasion of England and its successor state Great Britain’, so it was a little sloppy. But too much has been made of this.

    Here’s an invasion not mentioned above, and my favourite counter-example to the sloppy claim. In my home town of Berkhamsted, Herts the castle was beseiged and battered by the trebuchets of King Louis of France in the early 13th century, and eventually surrendered.

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