Archive for December, 2011

The capture and hanging of an Irish outlaw

One morning in late March 1809, in the Irish town of Clonmel, County Tipperary, the outlaw William Brennan was standing on a cart that was taking him to the gallows. He “gazed cheerfully round him… recognizing in the crowd several of his friends, perhaps followers, he nodded and smiled to them gaily.” When the cart was pulled away, and he and two others fell, there were “yells, more loud and terrible than men ever utter.” Brennan was loved by the Irish and songs are still sung about him to this day.

Not Brennan but another Irish ‘Rapparee’ called Randal

William Brennan was a famous Irish outlaw and highwayman at the turn of the nineteenth century. Outlaws, often called ‘tories’ or ‘rapparees’, were generally loved and supported by the Irish poor. The British tried in vain for years to capture Brennan. They did eventually succeed and he was hung. It is thanks to the numerous versions of the Irish folk song or ballad, Brennan on the Moor, that his exploits and memory have been preserved – not only in Ireland and Britain, but to a surprising degree in North America as well. Yet like other outlaws, such as Dick Turpin, Jesse James and Ned Kelly, to name but three, his real life and death have become obscured in half-truths and legend.

Being a lover of folksong, I had a passing familiarity with Brennan’s ballad, but then quite by chance, and while researching the seemingly unrelated topic of the Peninsular War, I stumbled across what is probably the only eyewitness report of his capture and death. The discovery was the memoirs of Private George Farmer, entitled The Light Dragoon, which originally appeared in a serialized form in 1844. George Farmer is, I would suggest, a reliable witness; he actually participated in Brennan’s capture and was present at his death. His story clears away a lot of historical fog, but I also think it is also a tale worth telling for its own sake.

Ray Cashman, in his book The Heroic Outlaw in Irish Folklore and Popular Literature, provides us with a little background on Irish outlaws:

As a symbolic figure in Irish folklore and popular literature, the outlaw embodies folk morality in conflict with the self-interest and inequity of the state. In the aftermath of British colonization, the Irish outlaw is represented as more than a criminal. He provides a hero through whom ordinary Irishmen and women can vicariously enjoy brief victories, and imagine their collective dignity in the midst of political defeat and its consequences. Legends, ballads and chapbooks portraying the outlaw are the products of hard-pressed people representing themselves to themselves, reflecting on their strengths and weaknesses, and contemplating issues of morality and justice.

The ballad Brennan on the Moor is one of the most famous of these outlaw ballads, and it exists and is sung in many versions. While it only started to be printed in the mid-nineteenth century, the ballad had clearly been developing orally before. As far back as 1824, Thomas Crofton Croker commented:

It is not unusual to hear the adventures and escapes of highwaymen and outlaws recited by the lower orders with great minuteness, and dwelt on with a surprising fondness.

Here is one of the commoner renditions of Brennan on the Moor, printed as a ‘broadsheet’ in the 1840s:

                  BOLD BRENNAN ON THE MOOR

It’s of a fearless highwayman a story I will tell,
His name was Willie Brennan in Ireland he did dwell.
And on the Livart mountains he commenced his wild career,
Where many a wealthy gentleman before him shook with fear.

Chorus: Bold and undaunted stood brave Brennan on the moor.

A brace of loaded pistols, he carried night and day,
He never robb’d a poor man upon the King’s highway;
But when he’d taken from the rich like Turpin and Black Bess,
But he always did divide it with the widow in distress.

One night he robb’d a packman, his name was Pedlar Brown,
They travell’d on together till the day began to dawn;
The pedlar seeing his money gone, likewise his watch and chain,
He at once encountered Brennan and robb’d him back again.

When Brennan seeing the pedlar was as good a man as he,
He took him on the highway his companion for to be,
The pedlar threw away his pack without any more delay,
And proved a faithful comrade until his dying day.

One day upon the highway, as Willie he sat down,
He met the Mayor of Cashel, a mile outside the town;
The mayor he knew his features, I think, young man, said he,
Your name is Willie Brennan, you must come along with me.

As Brennan’s wife had gone to town, provisions for to buy,
When she saw her Willie, she began to weep and cry.
He says, ‘Give me that tenpence?’ as soon as Willie spoke,
She handed him the blunderbuss from underneath her cloak.

Then with his loaded blunderbuss, the truth I will unfold,
He made the mayor to tremble and robb’d him of his gold.
One hundred pounds was offered for his apprehension there,
And with his horse and saddle to the mountain did repair.

Then Brennan being an outlaw, upon the mountains high,
Where cavalry and infantry to take him they did try;
He laughed at them with scorn, until at length, ‘tis said,
By a false-hearted young man he was basely betrayed.

In the county of Tipperary in a place called Clonmore,
Willie Brennan and his comrade they did suffer sore;
He lay among the fern which was thick upon the field,
And nine wounds he did receive, before that he did yield.

Then Brennan and his companion knowing they were betray’d,
He with the mounted cavalry a noble battle made;
He lost his foremost finger, which was shot off by a ball,
So Brennan and his comrade they were taken after all.

So they were taken prisoners, in irons they were bound,
And conveyed to Clonmel jail, strong walls did them surround;
They were tried and found guilty, the judge made his reply,
‘For robbing on the King’s highway, you are both condemned to die.’

Farewell! Unto my wife, and to my children three,
Likewise my aged father, he may shed tears for me;
And to my loving mother, who tore her locks and cried.
Saying, ‘I wish Willie Brennan, in your cradle you had died.

By around the same time, i.e. the mid-nineteenth century, the ballad had already spread to North America. John McElroy recounts how he heard it sung in 1864 in a notorious Confederate prison camp called Andersonville. While in Canada, the “old buffalo hunter”, E. B. Osborn, relates how it was sung on the prairies by Scottish buffalo hunters.

Yet despite the wide-spread fame of the ballad or song, we know surprisingly little about the life, capture and death of Brennan – at least not with any degree of certainty. We will skip over Brennan’s early life; we don’t even know for sure where he was born. It has been reasonably suggested that he was born near “Killworth, some two miles north of Fermoy, in County Cork”, and that he took to his life of banditry after his family were evicted from their home. While telling us nothing about his birth, George Farmer’s memoirs can help us clear away a number of the uncertainties surrounding Brennan’s life, particularly his capture, trial and death.

A private in the 11th Light Dragoons like George Farmer – Brennan was in the 12th!

As a young man of 17, George had enlisted in London as a private in the 11th Light Dragoons – a regiment that was then serving in Ireland; trying to suppress Irish sedition as well as chasing outlaws such as Brennan. In preparation for joining the regiment, he was sent to a barracks in Maidstone in Kent. It was here that his real education began. He recalls:

For the first time in my life … I acquired some knowledge of the darker shades in human nature.

In his over twenty years as a Dragoon, which took him through Portugal, Spain, France, Germany and the Low Countries all the way to India, and saw him fight in many important engagements, including the Battle of Waterloo, George would get even more experience of the “darker shades in human nature.” But first he had to get used to army life:

My extreme youth… exposed me to many and great temptations. The same circumstances laid me open to chicanery and deceit on the part of those around me; and I lament to say that I became victim as well of my own folly as of the knavery of others.

He was robbed, preyed upon and bullied; an experience all too familiar to army recruits over the centuries. His particular ire is reserved for a certain Corporal Gorman, who was “of the sort of land-sharks out of which the staff of the recruiting department used long ago to be formed.” During the men’s long trek from Maidstone to Holyhead, where they were to take ship for Dublin, Corporal Gorman fleeced them of their sign-on pay and half their daily ‘walking-money’. Eventually, after being ordered to repay the money, he did so, but only in part, and took off as soon as they reached Dublin.

George and the other recruits arrived at their regiment’s headquarters in Clonmel at “a moment when both town and country rang with the exploits of two celebrated robbers, called, respectively, Brennan and Hogan. Brennan, as all the world knows, was originally a soldier… unless my memory be at fault… in the 12th Light Dragoons, from which regiment he deserted in consequence of some quarrel with one of the officers …”

Now it has often been suggested that Brennan had been a soldier, though never ‘proved’ beyond a reasonable doubt. Only in one Scottish version of the ballad is it said, “the first of my misfortunes was to list (sic) and desert.” Farmer’s statement can’t completely prove the assertion, but he does specifically say that Brennan’s army service was “known to all the world”, and it seems that this service was in the 12th Light Dragoons while George Farmer himself was in its sister regiment – the 11th! So maybe we should accept his word.

Most variants of the ballad recount how Brennan had a partner; he usually referred to only as the Pedlar or the Pedlar Brown. Supposedly they tried to rob each other, but seeing themselves to be kindred spirits, they joined forces. But, if we are to believe Farmer, the peddler’s real name was Hogan and, not just that, he is later mentioned by his full name: Paddy Hogan. Once again I think we can have some confidence here. Farmer’s testimony isn’t just hearsay; he took part in the capture of both Brennan and Hogan and witnessed them hang together.

So Brennan became an outlaw and highwayman. Farmer even tells, in a very similar vein to the ballads, how Brennan and Hogan had fought and then become ‘partners in crime’. It such a good tale it’s worth quoting at length:

Of Hogan I am unable to say more than that common report spoke of him as a peddler, whose brave resistance to Brennan’s attack originally won for him the friendship of the outlaw. It is said that the bandit fell in with his future associate one day when the pressure of want was peculiarly severe upon him. He had alighted, for some purpose or another, when the peddler came up; and, not anticipating any resistance, he carelessly desired the latter to render up his pack. But the peddler, instead of obeying the command, closed instantly with his assailant. A fierce struggle took place between them, neither having time to appeal to the deadly weapons with which both, it appeared, were armed.

“Who the devil are you?” said Brennan at last, after he had rolled with his antagonist in the dust till both were weary. “Sure, then, I didn’t think there was a man in all Tipperary as could have fought so long with Bill Brennan.”

“Och, then, blood and ouns!” exclaimed the other, “if you be Brennan, arrah! then, aren’t I Paddy Hogan? and if you cry stand to all the world in Tipperary, sure don’t I do that same to the folks in Cork?”

This was quite enough for Brennan. He entertained too high a respect for his own profession to exercise it in hostility towards a brother of the order; so he struck up, on the instant, an alliance with the peddler, and the two thenceforth played one into the hands of the other.

Others have suggested that the “pedlar” name had been imported into the ballad, as it evolved, from the earlier Robin Hood and the Bold Pedlar, which might also have partly inspired it. But maybe not from what we read above?

Farmer continues his tale. In the tradition of all good outlaws:

He was never known to rob, or in any way to molest, a peasant, an artisan, or a small farmer. He made war, and professed to make war only upon the rich, out of the plunder taken from whom he would often assist the poor; and the poor in return not only refused to betray him, but took care that he should be warned in time, whenever any imminent danger seemed to threaten. The consequence was, that for full five years–a long space of time for a highwayman to be at large, even in Ireland–he continued to levy contributions upon all who came in his way, and had always about him the means of satisfying his own wishes.

There were lots of narrow escapes, feats of daring and, sometimes, semi-comical exploits. But the British wanted Brennan badly:

Large rewards were offered to any persons who should betray him: and day and night the magistracy of the counties were abroad, with dragoons at their heels, striving to intercept him.

It was perhaps inevitable that one day Brennan’s luck would run out.  “A gentleman riding along the high-road” saw two men creeping though a gap in a hedge; he guessed that it might be Brennan and his accomplice, the ‘peddler’, and reported his suspicions to Lord Caher, who immediately dispatched a mounted troop of the 11th Light Dragoons and some local militia to investigate. George Farmer was “one of the mounted detachment” that went to find him. Our broadsheet version of the ballad mentioned that it was a “young man” who betrayed Brennan, but many later versions, perhaps typically, say it was a woman. George’s eyewitness account certainly clears this up.

Arriving on the scene, the Dragoons see that near the hedge a new house is being constructed. The troops cordon off the area and start to close their noose. But when they arrived at the house and searched it, “they found it empty.” Farmer continues:

One of our men suddenly exclaimed, “You haven’t examined the chimney; you may depend upon it you’ll find him there.” It was no sooner said than done; for the speaker sprang from his horse, ran inside, poked his head up the kitchen chimney, and in an instant withdrew it again. It was well for him that he did so, for almost simultaneously with his backward leap, came the report of a pistol, the ball from which struck the hearth without wounding anybody. It is impossible for me to describe the scene that followed. Nobody cared to get below the robber; nobody fancied that it would be possible to get above him; and threats and smooth speeches were soon shown to be alike unavailing to draw him from his hiding-place. But the marvel of the adventure did not stop there. While a crowd of us were gathered about the house, some shouting on Brennan to surrender, others firing at the top of the chimney, a sort of salute which the robber did not hesitate to answer,–one of the Sligo men suddenly called out from the rear, that he had pricked a man with his bayonet among the gorse. In an instant search was made, and sure enough there lay Brennan himself, on his back in a narrow ditch, with a brace of pistols close beside his feet, of which, however, he did not judge it expedient to make use. He was instantly seized, disarmed, and put in charge of a sufficient guard; while the remainder of addressed ourselves to the capture of his companion, concerning whom we could not for an instant doubt that he was Hogan.

Caher Castle where Brennan and Hogan were held before they were taken to Clonmel for trial.

So this is the real story of how the famous Irish outlaw William Brennan and his accomplice Paddy Hogan ‘the peddler’ were captured. Brennan, it seems, surrendered “serenely”, but Farmer tells us, Hogan resembled a “wild beast” – refusing to surrender from his chimney refuge until his ammunition ran out. Even after he was obliged to surrender, he answered Lord Caher’s question as to why he had put his own life and that of others in danger, when the odds were so hopeless, with “silence”.

The prisoners were led, under heavy guard, to spend the night at Caher Castle, and the next day conveyed to Clonmel for trial.

No Irishman wanted to testify against them, yet their trial with swift. Farmer tells us that as “the robber was so far in the right … nobody could be persuaded to swear to his identity.” So, with only the testimony of one Quaker who, while he couldn’t be sure, “believed” that it was Brennan who had robbed his carriage, Brennan was convicted and sentenced to death. Hogan was “on some such evidence … in like manner convicted.”

Bearded men wept in the court-house like children. There were groans, deep and bitter, rising from every quarter; and more than one, especially among the women, fainted away, and was carried out. Meanwhile the troops, anticipating an attempt at rescue, stood to their arms, and the whole night long the streets were patrolled; but no disturbance took place. After indulging for an hour or two in useless howling, the crowd melted away, and long before midnight a profound calm pervaded every corner of the town.

Brennan and Hogan were hanged with a mysterious third man

When the morning of the executions arrived, huge crowds had gathered. The British were fearful of violence and soldiers escorted the cart carrying the prisoners and watched the crowd for trouble. This, it seems, was enough to prevent the Irish, who revered Brennan, from rioting. Brennan gazed “cheerfully round him, while Hogan “never bestowed upon any of the throng one mark of recognition, nor once addressed a word to his fellow-sufferer.” Just before the cart was pulled away, Brennan turned to Hogan and offered him his hand, but Hogan, “turned aside with undisguised contempt and loathing.”

Thus ended the lives of the Irish outlaws William Brennan and Paddy Hogan. Along, it seems, with a rather mysterious third person:

A young man, found guilty of forcibly carrying away a girl from her home and the protection of her parents, was the same day executed in pursuance of his sentence; and he chose to die in a garb which excited not only our surprise, but our ridicule. He came to be hanged in a garment of white flannel, made tight to the shape, and ornamented in all directions with knots of blue ribbon, rather more befitting a harlequin on the stage, than a wretched culprit whose life had become forfeit to the offended laws.

Who this person was we will likely never know; but it is interesting to note that in one of the most accurate early accounts of Brennan’s death, published in 1884 by the Dublin University Magazine, it was said that Brennan died “together with an accomplice, called ‘the White Pedlar’!

On April 8, 1809, the Lancaster Gazette reported:

Brennan and his associate, the Pedlar, after a short trial, have been capitally convicted at the Clonmel Assize.”

For George Farmer, however, it was just the beginning. After more than twenty years of fighting for King and Country throughout Europe and India, he eventually came home and left the Dragoons. One day in 1840 he walked into the London office of a certain Rev. George Robert Gleig and showed him the journals he had written during his service. He complained, says Gleig, of his poverty “as many of his class are accustomed to do.” But Gleig found the story “sufficiently interesting to warrant its insertion, as a series of papers, in a professional magazine.” And thus, with the good offices of London publisher Henry Colburn they were published in 1844 as a serial in twenty-seven parts; under the title The Light Dragoon. Rev. Gleig reports:

Mr. Colburn has remunerated the old soldier well.

We can only hope so.


George Farmer (ed. G. R. Gleig). The Light Dragoon. Henry Osbourne, London, 1844. (Internet: ; Juergen Kloss. Just Another Tune (Internet: ); Ray Cashman. The Heroic Outlaw in Irish Folklore and Popular Literature. Folklore, Oct 2000;  Graham Seal. The Outlaw Legend: A Cultural Tradition in Britain, America and Australia. Cambridge and New York, 1996.

Blue Remembered Hills

Not so long ago I had the pleasure to attend a gathering where storytelling became important. Over the course of several days each of us listened to stories and told our own. The point, I guess, was to find our own ‘voice’. When it was my turn, I was at a loss as to what story I should tell. Then as if from nowhere a favourite poem came into my head. One of the few poems I have ever memorized by heart. This poem was by the English poet A. E. Housman and is usually called The Land of Lost Content, but I prefer to call it Blue Remembered Hills. So I started to recite the poem:

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

At first I recited the poem quietly, gently and with a sort of wistful nostalgia. Surely the poem speaks to those of us who are a little older – as we look back on our seemingly innocent, but certainly lost, youth? Next I tried a voice that was more pessimistic, that recognized the fleetingness of life and our own mortality. Maybe the poem is about how we will all die and, perhaps, that we should treasure each moment of our lives? I then tried a tone that sought to evoke the physicality of the place; the sense of the peaceful and never changing landscape of the Shropshire Hills. Several more renditions followed. Eventually I hit upon a voice that really expressed what this poem meant to me: I told it with anger.

The poem was part of a cycle of sixty-three that Housman published in 1896, under the title A Shropshire Lad. At least in part, I think that Housman meant the whole cycle to be a cry against the wanton and needless loss of young men’s lives – as Queen Victoria expanded ‘her’ Empire. This, I believe, can be seen clearly in another poem from The Shropshire Lad, entitled 1887:

From Clee to heaven the beacon burns,
The shires have seen it plain,
From north and south the sign returns
And beacons burn again.

Look left, look right, the hills are bright,
The dales are light between,
Because ’tis fifty years to-night
That God has saved the Queen.

Now, when the flame they watch not towers
About the soil they trod,
Lads, we’ll remember friends of ours
Who shared the work with God.

To skies that knit their heartstrings right,
To fields that bred them brave,
The saviours come not home to-night:
Themselves they could not save.

It dawns in Asia, tombstones show
And Shropshire names are read;
And the Nile spills his overflow
Beside the Severn’s dead.

We pledge in peace by farm and town
The Queen they served in war,
And fire the beacons up and down
The land they perished for.

“God save the Queen” we living sing,
From height to height ’tis heard;
And with the rest your voices ring,
Lads of the Fifty-third.

Oh, God will save her, fear you not:
Be you the men you’ve been,
Get you the sons your fathers got,
And God will save the Queen.

The Nile ‘spills his overflow besides the Severn’s dead’. We are implored to ‘get you the sons your fathers got’ and, with a large hint of irony, “God will save the Queen.” Now Housman wasn’t an overtly anti-war poet in the manner of Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen, yet I think his social and political stance is clear.

A. E. Housman

But it doesn’t really matter if my interpretation of the poem corresponds with Housman’s intention or not. It’s not often I have a kind word to say about the post-modernist school of literary criticism, particularly when it is imported into the writing and reading of history. But regarding my reading of Blue Remembered Hills, and what it means to me, it is surely right. My own‘angry reading of the poem is my ‘discourse’; one amongst many.

For generation after generation, young men in England, and in every country in the world, have been cajoled and pressured to go and fight in distant wars. Wars about which they have not the slightest conception. They go to fight an enemy whom they don’t know. And, if they did, they would probably find them to be very much like themselves. Whether English, German or French they will die, often screaming for their mothers, in the trenches of Flanders. These young men have been betrayed by their rulers, who saw them as just so much‘cannon fodder – to be used in their quests for greater power and glory.  This is why an angry reading of Blue Remembered Hills resonates so much with me.

It’s not surprising to learn that after an initially lukewarm reception Housman’s poems received much more attention during the Boer War and the Great War.

As a last thought, I feel the ‘sense of place’ in these poems is important. Housman wasn’t from Shropshire, yet he evokes this small region of England perfectly:

Clunton and Clunbury,
Clungunford and Clun
Are the quietest places
Under the sun.

In this day and age, when many of us seem to have lost a sense of belonging to the land, and to any specific locality, I love Housman’s sense of rootedness. Perhaps it’s because my own family lived in Housman’s Blue Remembered Hills for centuries; but I do hope his wonderful poetry will continue to find a wider audience, wherever they may be.

Modern population genetics suggests that the ancestors of the majority of English people were not fifth-century Anglo-Saxon invaders, but actually came from the ‘Basque’ region of South West France and northern Spain. What is perhaps even more surprising is that they arrived on these shores thousands of years ago. This turns one prevailing view of English national identity on its head, argues Stephen Lewis.

If you ask a person in the United States what is means to be American, their first response is often couched in terms of values, perhaps freedom, human rights and democracy. The more historically aware might even make mention of the War of Independence or the articles and meaning of the American Constitution. The English language might just get a look in; but as America becomes more multilingual this seems less and less critical.

There is no doubt that numerous Americans seek their roots throughout the world, and can find a secondary identity in their national or racial origins: Italian American, Irish American, Japanese American, Native American, African American and so on. But individual, as opposed to national, identity has always been acknowledged to be a very complicated thing.

Deep down Americans know that they are all immigrants and celebrate the fact that their country is a melting pot. For sure, the country has suffered more than its fair share of racism, but this doesn’t negate the fact that today its citizens don’t primarily view their American identity in racial terms.

The situation in Britain is somewhat different. While the Scots and the Welsh tend to have a clearer understanding of what it means to them to be Scottish or Welsh – quite often defined by their opposition to the English oppressor – it is sometimes said that the English are suffering a ‘crisis of identity.’

Partially true though this might be, the heart of English identity isn’t nearly so fragile. It runs deeper and goes farther back than taking pride in the fact that a small people managed to rule a quarter of the world. Now here we get into a terribly British confusion of terms. The ‘Empire’ is usually described as the ‘British Empire’, yet most English people see it as theirs. After all didn’t the English conquer the Scots, Welsh and Irish first, before venturing into the rest of the world!

The legendary King Arthur

Now national identity, like that of individuals, is also a very varied construct. It has historical, linguistic, political, cultural and racial threads. These threads, mythic and even strange though many of them are, remain very real today. They were, until recently, taught to generations of English school children. Two very strange examples can be used as illustrations: those of King Arthur and Richard the Lion Heart. Both are often cited as having been important people for England and for what it means to be English. But Arthur was probably a British warlord, who fought against the English invaders; while King Richard was just another in a long line 0f thuggish French-speaking rulers who couldn’t have cared less about the English people – except as a source of fighting men and money.

But even if all the myths and falsifications that often pass as English history are stripped away, there still remains a core of “Englishness”. One widespread view is that this core is to be found in the language and racial origins of the English. Put as succinctly as possible, the English are the descendents of Dark Age Anglo-Saxon invaders, who slaughtered and replaced the indigenous British population, and brought with them their Germanic language, a language that would eventually become the English we speak today.

Vortigern meets Hengist and Horsa

Once the Roman legions had been withdrawn from Britain in the early fifth century, the British population, and the small remaining Romano-British elite, were faced by incursions and attacks from many sides – not least from the Picts and Irish (“Scots”). In response, Gildas, the sixth century British monk, tells us “they convened a council to decide the best and soundest way to counter the brutal and repeated invasions and plunderings…” They choose to invite the Saxons as mercenaries. Gildas continues:

Nothing more destructive, nothing more bitter has ever befallen the land. How utter the blindness of their minds! How desperate and crass the stupidity! Of their own free will they invited under the same roof a people whom they feared worse than death …

A pack of cubs burst forth from the lair of the barbarian lioness, coming in three keels, as they call warships in their language.

Later, the Saxons complained that they hadn’t been paid and “swore that they would break their agreement and plunder the whole island …. they put their threats into immediate effect.”

This is the ethnic ‘wipeout’ theory of English history. Although it is acknowledged that it took the Anglo-Saxons another three centuries to gain full control of most of what is now England, for many the facts seem plain.  The native Britons were either massacred and replaced or pushed back to more remote, and less fertile, mountainous areas, such as Wales, Cornwall or Cumbria. The hardy and adventurous English people settled ‘England’ – and we all speak English today as a result.

This is the English national origin story. Bloody and brutal though it is, it is what distinguishes the English from their ‘Celtic’ neighbours in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

While once common such a telling of history has not gone unopposed. Some have argued that the extent of Anglo-Saxon settlement was very modest and even (though not very convincingly) that there was no ‘invasion’ at all. These counter-arguments are generally based on different interpretations of the archaeological record. It is argued that the shifts in material culture that we can see, in no way indicate that they were ‘caused’ by the arrival of a new and ethnically distinct population – whether invaders or otherwise. Cambridge archaeologist Catherine Hills points out that “people can change their names, language, currency and political allegiances without the majority of the population being replaced”.

Archaeologist Francis Pryor puts his case as follows:

If Anglo-Saxon people and culture displaced ‘native’ practices, one would expect the latter to have vanished. They did not.

The problem in holding this view is twofold: 1) Although there is a paucity of historical documents, the ones we have, whether Anglo-Saxon or British, clearly state that the Anglo-Saxons did come, did rebel and fought many battles to secure their dominance and establish their Kingdoms, and 2) If there were no “wipeout” and, even more so, if there were no invasion at all, then how did English become the language of England while, tellingly, containing almost no vestige of the native British/Celtic languages?

How we are to interpret the historical chroniclers, and to which of them we should give the most credence, will likely remain a troublesome issue for historians of England, as for all historians, for years to come.

The question of how English came to be the only language in England seems even more intractable. Why this is a difficult issue can be illustrated by two other, rather different, invasions. Invasions where the invaders’ language did not replace the native language.

The Franks were a Germanic speaking people who entered what is now France at much the same time as the Anglo-Saxons came to Britain. Yet even four hundred years later, around the year 800, when the Frankish King, Charlemagne, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor, he still spoke ‘German’, and had little grasp either of Latin or its offshoot: an early form of French. Despite the dominance of the Frankish invaders, there is almost no German influence in modern French – just a few, mostly military, words and quite a number of Germanic place names. This may be due to the fact that Roman Gaul retained a functioning Roman (and Latin speaking) administrative system even after the Western Empire had started to collapse. Whatever the reason, the French don’t speak German today!

Closer to home, and possibly more instructive, is the case of the Norman conquest of England in 1066. Although descended from Germanic speaking Vikings, William the Conqueror and his henchmen spoke Norman French. Over subsequent decades and centuries, as the Normans dispossessed and suppressed the English, their numbers were never very large. During all this time, they never failed to show disdain for the conquered English and their language. French remained the language of the kings, the lords and of much of the governance of the country. English, which in Anglo-Saxon times had been a great language of literature, religion and administration, was reduced to written silence. Yet despite all this English survived. It assimilated a huge swathe of French, which changed the language from the ‘Old English’ of King Alfred to the ‘Middle English’ of Chaucer, but it was still a predominantly Germanic language, as it remains to this day. Yet again a powerful and far-reaching invasion failed to lead to the wholesale adoption of the language of the victors by the indigenous population.

Let’s return to the ‘Saxon Advent’.  If, as Francis Pryor and others contend, there wasn’t really any Anglo-Saxon invasion and takeover, then how did English become so sweepingly and exclusively adopted? More traditional historians will concede that the number of Anglo-Saxons who came to Britain in the fifth century, and subsequently, was never very high in comparison to the existing native British population. Perhaps at most a few hundred thousand ‘English’ compared to a couple of million Celts. Unless the wipeout or pushback theory is in large measure correct, then how is it that the Germanic language of the invaders wasn’t eventually lost? As happened in Frankish Gaul. Or combined in some way with the native language or languages? As happened in post-conquest England.

And here we might be stuck if it weren’t for the population genetics.

Genetics has changed historical research!

Early attempts to use science to explore the origins of peoples and their historical movements had to rely on the analysis of blood groups. This approach was pioneered by the Italian population geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza. He and others used it to examine, among other things, how early neolithic farmers spread from the fertile crescent into Europe. But blood group analysis has severe limitations and looking more rigorously at human origins, and the origins of specific peoples, had to wait till the science of genetics was refined enough to make a contribution. This it has certainly done. In terms of the origins of the British, or in our case the English, dozens of studies have now been conducted. These have been synthesised (and extended by his own research) by the Oxford geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer. He presented the rather startling results in his book The Origins of the British. Oppenheimer writes:

To summarize, the phylogeographic approach establishes three broad aspects of West European and British colonization in the past 16,000 years which have a bearing on the Anglo-Saxon question. First, all but a few per cent of male and female gene lines appear to have arrived in the British Isles before the historical period (i.e. before the Anglo-Saxons). Second, most British colonizers, including about two-thirds of English ancestors, came from the Iberian refuge soon after deglaciation, or at least during the Mesolithic. And third, the subsequent colonization of the British Isles during the Neolithic and the Bronze Age was complex in time and space, but mainly came from the other side of the North Sea.

Oppenheimer estimates that the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ account for “only 5.5%” of the ancestors of modern English people.  That means that about 19 out of 20 English people are not Anglo-Saxon at all! What is more, the ancestors of fully two-thirds of English people came from the “Iberian” refuge – that is, an area of southern France and northern Spain centred on the present day Basque Country.

Europe during the last Ice age

How did this come about? The answer is to be found in the climate history of Europe. Modern humans first arrived in Britain at least 25,000 years ago. But then, not much later, the Ice Age came back with a vengeance. During the so-called Last Glacial Maximum, between about 22,000 and 17,000 years ago, large tracts of northern Europe and Britain became covered with an ice sheet, while more southerly climes became freezing wind-swept polar desert or arctic tundra. In these conditions human life became impossible, and we are pretty sure that Britain became depopulated. Humans retreated south and found sanctuary in a number of so-called ice age refuges. Two of the main refuges were located in the Balkans/Ukraine region and in South West France and northern Spain – today the region occupied by the ‘Basques’. Today visitors to the latter region can still marvel at the wonderful cave paintings of this population; dating from periods known to archaeologists as Gravettian, Solutrean and Magdalenian.

Around 16,000 years ago, as the climate began again to warm, and the ice and snow began to recede, groups of settlers started to move north. Predominantly sticking to the coastal route of western France, and finding the ‘English channel’ was still dry, they simply walked into Britain. With so much water still stored in the ice, it wasn’t just the ‘Channel’ that was dry, the same even applied to the North and Irish Seas. Britain was not yet an island, but rather a peninsular of the European continent.

At different times over the course of millennia, various ‘founder’ settler groups arrived in Britain. According to Oppenheimer, these early settlers came from a number of locations in Europe, at different times and via different routes. But the single largest ‘genetic origin’ of the English was the ‘Basque’ refuge’. As we have seen, these ‘Basque’ migrations account for two-thirds of the gene lines of the present-day English population.

The Basque Flag was based on the Union Flag

Now Oppenheimer’s conclusions are certainly not uncontested; although the evidence in their support is strong and compelling. But, if true, his analysis and results have profound implications for at least one view of English national identity; that of our ‘Anglo-Saxon origins. It seems the vast majority of English people can trace their distant ancestry not to a group of Dark Age Germanic invaders, the Anglo-Saxons, but rather to truly prehistoric settlers who came to Britain in the millennia following the last age. In this sense the English are truly more Basque than Anglo-Saxon!

This might be disappointing news for those who think that English and Anglo-Saxon are synonymous. But for others it is surely wonderful to know that our British or English ancestors have lived on this small island for millennia.

It needs to be acknowledged that many people, while perhaps accepting that speaking English is important for a sense of Englishness, would vociferously object to the contention that ‘being English’ has anything to do with ethnic or racial origins. The English people are not all immigrants, unlike the Americans, yet many feel absolutely no connection with the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ or any other racial version of English identity.  They might be recent immigrants themselves, or their ancestors could have arrived as French Huguenots, Flemish merchants, Jewish refugees or, more recently, as immigrants from the Indian sub-continent, the Caribbean, Africa or Eastern Europe. What does ‘being English’ mean to them? That is another question.

Perhaps if we want to value a sense of Englishness at all, we might find it in the supposed sense of decency and fairness of the English people, in their long struggle for social and political liberty and in their genius for invention and industry. Peoples throughout the world could, and indeed do, claim to share these qualities: the Americans, the French, the Dutch and many, many others. We need, however, to distinguish very clearly between some genuinely noble qualities of peoples and the actions of their rulers. The British or American governments, for example, have not always been a force for liberty, democracy and freedom in the world, nor have they even been so at home. Yet their peoples are predominantly decent and fair. As Francis Pryor nicely puts it:

If we are looking for English origins, we should forget the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ and turn instead to the resident population, who had been there in their millions and in their various cultures and communities, all the time. I refer of course, to the real heroes….: that diverse group of people – the British.

Watt tyler leader of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381

All peoples should know their ‘real’ history; the history of vast majority rather than the myths of the powerful that have been propagated so effectively. Knowing that most of us are more Basque than Anglo-Saxon shouldn’t be a cause for regret – it just goes to show that we have a long and intimate relationship with the land we inhabit. Is it not better to have a national identity built around a feeling of empathy and respect for those of our ancestors, of whatever race, who have struggled, in the face of enormous opposition, to obtain some of the rights and privileges we enjoy today? This, in my view, certainly applies to England.

One final remark might be in order. Although genetic studies seem to have ‘proved’ that the Anglo-Saxon wipeout theory is wrong, genetics can tell us nothing about language. If only 5.5% of English people have Anglo-Saxon roots then why do we all speak English? This question has yet to be satisfactorily answered.


Stephen Oppenheimer. The Origins of the British.  London: Constable & Robinson, 2006; Francis Pryor. Britain AD. London: Harper Perennial, 2005; Gildas. The Ruin of Britain. (Ed. John Morris).  London:Phillimore, 1978.