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The 10 Most Important Events in British History: Part One – 43 to 1500 AD|
by Andrew Alexander
The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and may not be construed as in any way representative of the views or policies of Oxford Royale Summer Schools.
Norman knights and archers in the Battle of Hastings, as shown on a section of scene 51 of the famous Bayeux Tapestry
The British regard their history much as the Ottoman Greeks regarded their marbles, partly an elegant encumbrance, partly a quarry to build whatever slipshod (in this case rhetorical) edifice takes their mood for the moment, but never something of veneration or even of particular interest.
It is commendable that the history curriculum in England has changed to address this, but the Briton is still woefully ignorant of the key events which shaped his country. Successive surveys find this – in 2004 one in twenty teenagers believed Tolkien’s wizard Gandalf commanded the English navy as it defeated the Spanish Armada, a fifth believed the Americans were victorious at the Battle of Hastings, while a quarter of pensioners did not know that the Romans had set foot in Britain. A survey of elite university students in 2009 found that only one in six knew that the Duke of Wellington was victorious at Waterloo and only 11.5% could name a 19th century British Prime Minister. Meanwhile, a survey to mark the 300th anniversary of the Battle of Blenheim found that fewer than 90% of Britons believed Hitler really existed, and 9% believed Winston Churchill was a Hollywood creation.
[pullquote]History is made by ideas, the ideas of men tested in blood.[/pullquote]I fear for this generation – of adults, I mean, not those still on the rise. The hallmark of the modern Briton is a complete, wilful ignorance of anything other than his or her emotions. The refusal to reason, the refusal to learn facts and allow them to influence opinion, the need first to know what one thinks and then find an argument for it, all of these are signs of the deep silliness that now stamps every public debate. This list is presented as something that is in no way comprehensive, but in the hope that some part of it might provoke an interest in exploring our history in someone younger than myself, and in so doing prepare them to learn the lessons our past offers rather better than my own generation. For reasons of space, I shall restrict this survey to the period before the advent of the sixteenth century – that part of history that seems most remote and of which we are most ignorant. The sequel for the following 500 years can be read here.
Three caveats before we begin:
Firstly, it is difficult to separate British history from the wider affairs of the world and the European continent in particular. This list constricts itself to those episodes of history in which the British themselves participated. The victories of Charles Martel at Tours and what was left of the Roman Empire at Châlons were arguably of greater importance than most of the below – in keeping Europe a Catholic continent, they prevented Britain from becoming a total outcast in the world’s affairs and ensured that the thread of common religious identity connecting the Roman Conquest and the Norman Conquest was, while frayed, ultimately unbroken.
Secondly, the below is a martial list. I do not subscribe to the historical school which believes that the experience of the 11th century ploughman menaced by the armies of Stephen and Matilda is as deep and rich in historical lessons as those of the great Kings and Queens. The only important lesson to draw from such lives is that for the vast part of history, life for all but a tiny elite was laborious, miserable and painful, and that it is not now even for those who fondly pretend that it is. History is made by ideas, the ideas of men tested in blood. This list acknowledges such.
Finally, of necessity this list is concerned with the island of Britain, rather than with the United Kingdom – Irish, particularly Northern Irish, history would require an essay of its own, and quite a painful one for an Englishman to write, at that.
Here we go, then. The events of history which have shaped modern Britain:
The current political and cultural landscape of Britain has remained relatively steady for almost two thousand years. The borders of the Roman empire have become the fissures of the modern day British isles. While ethnic and cultural communalities between the Scottish, Welsh, and Cornish persist to this day, only the Scottish have consistently maintained a distinct political identity over a roughly continuous geographical area since Roman times.
Conquest affected England and Wales differently. England was settled whereas Wales, aside from Carmarthen, was fortified. England enjoyed, for the first time, the benefits and refinements of continental trade and political association, while the tribes of Wales noticed the occupation largely in terms of the extent of the dislocation from traditional customs that it brought about, given the massacre of the druids. When the Romans left, the English had become reconciled to being a continental people, the Welsh to being occupied but not subdued, and the Scottish to the solitary aim of their national policy ever since, which has been to resist subjugation from the south. So, to some degree, it has remained for each for most of the time since.
The Christianity of Britain has been one of the most important drivers of world history. The abolition of the slave trade was achieved by the combination of British evangelicals and the Royal Navy, the British Empire grew beyond all strategic reason on an evangelical impulse, shaping the modern world, it was England’s interpretation of its Christianising mission that set it at Ireland’s throat in the time of Henry II and that kept it snapping at France’s heels from the Reformation until the last century.
British Christianity began with the Roman Legions and was already existent to the extent that three English bishops attended a Church Synod in 314. Post-Romans, Christianity had a claim on being the religion of state since the Gregorian Mission converted Aethelberht of Kent in 597 although this push floundered when London reverted to paganism in 616. It was established as the English religion largely as a result of the Battle of the Winwaed when Oswiu, the Christian King of Northumbria, defeated a much larger coalition from across England and Wales led by the pagan Penda of Mercia. Vastly outnumbered and destitute, having surrendered all of his treasure to Penda in exchange for his life, Oswiu prayed to God before the battle offering to send his daughter to a nunnery and build 12 monasteries if he was successful in battle. God was clearly satisfied by this pledge, and Mercia’s armies were destroyed. The subsequent conversion of Mercia united England and Wales under the Christian religion, a feature of life that endures to this day, and gave both a spiritual and intellectual link with the European continent over the long, parochial expanse of the Dark Ages.
The Roman Conquest established Britain as a European nation. The battles of 1066 decided which Europe it would belong to, the intellectually and culturally wealthy hub of Western European nations, or the moribund, backwards Nordic arc. The defeat of the Viking army at Stamford Bridge by Harold Godwinson conclusively expelled the Vikings from England. Moreover, they led to the division of Norway, and the end of the Vikings as a major menace to Roman Catholic civilisation in Europe. The defeat at Hastings of Harold’s army to the Normans under William placed England firmly into the family of Western European nations, albeit as a vassal.
In 1307, University College won a lawsuit on the basis that it had been founded by King Alfred. Faced with an entirely different law suit 400 years later, it was conceded that this probably was not the case. In any event, teaching of some form here dates back to the 1070s and a university to 1167 when the French expelled the foreigners at the University of Paris. To save us becoming embroiled in the dispute between the colleges over antiquity, though, let us say simply that Oxford University was formalised with the royal charter granted to it in 1268.
A parochial inclusion? Possibly. But Oxford University has always provided England with much more than just a centre for academia. For a start, the fact that the majority of the ruling class has been educated here for the past 800 years has contributed greatly to England’s relative social cohesion, when set against the countries of the continent. It allowed that class to be a conduit for ideas, ideas dispensed at birth and then spread at Britannia’s spear tip to every point East and West – the evangelist movement took root in Oxford youth, and so too the liberal movement of the early twentieth century. An isolated, specialist centre of learning, such as Oxford still is, gave England an intellectual vitality that it still enjoys, and the former retains a special place in the history of the latter.
Arguably the greatest of all English warrior kings, Edward I’s conquest of Wales had important consequences for all of Britain. For the Welsh, it meant the loss of political independence, a thing never regained and unlikely ever to be. Ironically, this early loss of independence may have ensured the remarkable endurance of a separate Welsh language and culture as a practical means of maintaining separation from England. The English themselves won two great prizes. The first was military. Welsh archers were the best in Europe and for two hundred years would give England the ability to interfere on the Continent with undue weight. The second was democratic. The cost of fortifying Wales was so great that Edward was forced to call a parliament regularly, extending its tax base, and therefore its membership, to commoners and clergy as well as great magnates. Parliamentary democracy, therefore, took its first footling steps with the English subjection of Wales.
Although the Battle of Bannockburn had banished English arms from Scotland, the nation was still preoccupied with the danger of invasion from the south. Against this backdrop, Scotland’s earls and barons joined to issue the Declaration of Arbroath, a plea to the Pope to intervene to quell the perpetual war between the two halves of Britain. No Middle Ages document matches its erudition or clarity of thought. As importantly, more than the Black Death it marked the beginning of the end of the Feudal System. Asserting the right man to freedom and placing the will of the people above the will of the King, it goes further even than the Magna Carta of 1215 in asserting the inviolable rights of men, foreshadowing the mass understanding of such thoughts in many parts of Europe by at least 500 years. The document is early evidence of Scottish exceptionalism, and a key indicator of how Scottish intellectual life, later to drive Britain, was shaped by the conflict with England.
The Battle of Agincourt is the moment of the Hundred Years War that holds the imagination, thanks not least to Shakespeare’s moving oration in the mouth of Henry V. It was the final one of three great land battles won by the English and Welsh against the French, following a similar crushing at Poitiers in 1356. The most important battles, though, were perhaps at the very beginning of the war. The Battle of Sluys in 1340 was England’s first great naval victory, all the more remarkable in that it was achieved without a navy. Edward III’s fleet was comprised entirely of requisitioned ships of the merchant marine. It was vastly outnumbered by a French fleet of 204 ships. For the loss of only two ships, the English smashed the French navy leaving some 20,000 dead. The dawn marked the birth of England as a great naval power.
The Battle of Crécy was arguably even more decisive. Like Poitiers and Agincourt, the flower of the French aristocracy fell under a storm cloud of Welsh arrows in the service of an English king. It was at this battle that England became a continental power, a force in European politics and one of the legs upon which the entire continent has rested on to this day. Only France and Germany have had a greater influence on the destiny of Western Europe since.
But neither England nor Britain was destined to be the continental power. The reasons for this – the impossibility of sustaining a large, professional army on an island tax base, the elongated supply lines, the lack of chains of command across the Channel – were made apparent in the last battle of the Hundred Years’ War. The fall of Castillon lost England its most cherished soldier, Talbot, and also its French possessions. England turned from being a continental colonist, where it was at a disadvantage against the concentrated force of other modern armies, and focussed instead on being a global colonist, where small groups of well-armed, politically savvy colonists were able to compete on an advantageous footing against other small groups of Europeans or against large, but technologically inferior, domestic populations. With the withdrawal from Europe came the realisation that Britain no longer needed a large standing army and could focus on the navy instead – the model of defence that persisted until after the First World War.
The end of the English Civil War was a very foreign affair. The victory of Lancaster over York at the Battle of Bosworth Field put a Welsh dynasty on the English throne. The Welsh pretender, backed by an army of Scottish and French soldiers, triumphed narrowly over the army of Richard III, the current and future kings of England at one point fighting within spitting distance of one another.
The rise of the Tudors provided for the end of the Middle Ages. Able administrators and skilled warriors, the Tudor monarchs brought with them different preoccupations to those of the warrior Plantagenet kings. Under the Tudors, England began to punch its intellectual weight in the world. Taxation and justice was reformed to provide the basis of a more competent state, one capable of mastering the New World and shaping the destiny of the Old World while providing peace at home. For the first time, the arts flourished. The Protestant religion usurped the Catholic faith after many years of bloody torment. In short, the modern age was arriving.
The intellectual life of the modern world was conditioned by the Enlightenment, Scotland’s most important contribution to world thought. The seeds of the Enlightenment were planted in the far sighted Education Act passed in 1494. The Act required all barons and major freeholders to submit their eldest sons to formal education from the age of 8 until such time as they had mastered Latin, art and law. The purpose of the Act was to aid efficient administration of the country, but the long term impact was to launch a vibrant intellectual culture that provided the foundation of economics (Adam Smith), the beginnings of a British philosophy (David Hume), and what remains one of the few strands of sensible philosophy (Thomas Reid’s Common Sense Realism). The intellectual life of Scotland and the World benefited greatly from these men, and these men were ultimately the beneficiaries of the intellectual life whipped into being by this Act.
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