Memories of the English

THE NOTION that the English is a grouping which employs a certain reserve, not to mention which enjoys afternoon tea, cricket and warm beer, as John Major had it, is not a new one.

But as British politics seemingly enters a new realm, one which is witnessing the rise of the more independent right, with firm views on immigration, it’s perhaps worth recalling who the English of old were.

Very many years ago, the Venerable Bede documented the history of these islands and the conflicts associated with such.

Almost everything that is known of Bede's life is contained in the last chapter of his Historia Ecclesiastica, a history of the church in England.

It was completed in about 731, and Bede implies that he was then in his fifty-ninth year, which would give a likely birth date of about 672–673.

Bede describes how very roughly in around 500 AD the Jutes, the Angles and Saxons, not to mention some of the Frisii migrated to Britain for apparently unknown reasons, or at least reasons which have been debated ever since.

Those who have read Grant Allen’s excellent although archaic history Anglo Saxon Britain will be impressed by his suggestion of a so called Aryan race (one which has nothing to do with modern Nazi-centric connotations of the word) in terms of the genus for five successive waves of humanity which emerged out of central Europe, if not Afghanistan and its environs.

In it he suggests that numerous swathes of humanity – including the Celts, and four other tranches of humans, emerged out of the very far East of Europe and settled numerous areas of the continent – variously Germany, Italy, France, Yugoslavia and eventually Britain in years of antiquity.

The Celts were the first wave who settled as far as France but who then, under pressure from indigenous populations and from those fellow migrants pushing from the East, entered Britain.

Allen’s book is an early Edwardian one and one which is perhaps to be taken with a pinch of salt.

However, the settlement of one of those waves into what was known as Low and High Germany is not that far beyond doubt, nor the subgrouping of this Germanic tranche into the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, who would collectively at some point invade the East coast of Britain and become known as the English (the word derived from the Angles of that name).

Britain’s ancient history is a curious one and one which is almost entirely lost in the mists of time.

Shakespeare, his contemporaries and his historical sources wrote of ancient kings, Titans even who lorded the land long before our formal histories were written.

After the Romans left, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, collectively known as the Anglo Saxons, invaded Britain in various swathes, mainly settling the E of Britain and the SE of such.

By then the Britons – or what had largely become the Romano-British – were pushed back into the hills.

Long before then, Britain, had had a chequered history.

Historians generally assert that that a grouping which originally emerged out of what is now N Ireland settled in the Western Isles of (what is now) Scotland and held a dual kingdom which straddled both NE Ireland and SW ‘Scotland’.

The Scoti or Scotti was the generic name used by Late Roman authors to describe the Irish war bands who raided Roman Britain

Formerly, Latin writers called the Irish Hiberni.

In the fifth century, the Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata emerged on the west coast of Scotland. As this kingdom grew in size and influence, the name was applied to all its subjects – hence the modern terms Scot, Scottish and Scotland.

In the following century Irish missionary Columba founded a monastery on Iona and introduced the previously pagan Scoti to Celtic Christianity, and with less success the Picts of Pictland who dominated what is now mainland Scotland.

The Scots or the Scoti originally inhabited Ireland (as we know it) or Hibernia as it was known then.

As the Anglo Saxons pushed westward, so were the indigenous Britons pushed into the West – the Welsh who had previously dominated in what is now England, largely fled to Wales, Cornwall and Cumbria.

The name Cymru is reported to come in some quarters from the ancient name of the Cymbric who were peoples who lived in mainland Europe some time back.

Our very language is taken from those English invaders – we have close connections to the Angles and Friesians, and the Jutes and Saxons still in terms of language if nothing else.

And it is important to remember this point – we (if you are an English reader) owe more to those invaders than the Britons and the Romano British who they succeeded.  Certainly those from Yorkshire, Essex, Suffolk and the Fens owe a great deal to these invaders – and their following Viking counterparts.

And yet, just as we were once invaders,or strangers in a strange land, 1000 years later the English are, ironically, beginning to look to theIr borders. 

Perhaps the great irony of the new policies of UKIP, without wishing to be overtly politico minded – is that they are judgemental on immigration policy.

Or perhaps the greatest irony is that the English – once foreigners themselves –can now afford to judge the coming and going of ‘foreigners’.

Not for the first time in English politics and history, the English in the true sense of the word, once outcasts who told tales of Beowulf and the Battle of Maldon, firmly ensconced in their new homeland, are looking to Europe wondering from whence the new invaders might arrive.

Those ancient Anglo Saxons lived in wooded hamlets within forests and kept initial trade and cultural exchanges between the next village or so. When they transplanted themselves to England, in those early days, that same culture prevailed.  Tightly knit communities with old fashioned values or nautical types who lived in the fringe of marsh and reed not far from a sail boat.

There have been numerous invasions since the days of the early English of course – the Vikings, the Normans, who derive their name from the Norsemen, the Plantagenets, the Tudors who were propelled to the top of the tree thanks to the butchery of the Wars of the Roses, not to mention the Stuarts who took the throne through happenstance.

But as more parties move to the right across Europe, the English’s collective West Germanic heritage – in terms of stock, bloodline, language and perhaps identity –  in the mindset of some at least, should perhaps deserve scrutiny once more.