Archive for the ‘English identity’ Category

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 southwest 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 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 in 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.” Gildas continues:

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 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 “wipe-out” 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 truly are 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.

Sources:

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.

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 southwest 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 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 in 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.” Gildas continues:

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 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 “wipe-out” 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 truly are 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.

Sources:

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.

There is no doubt that the Normans who arrived in England in 1066 with William the Conqueror, and those who followed in subsequent years, were, as Thomas Paine  so aptly put it in Common Sense in 1776, a group of “armed banditti”. The “French bastard” William was “the principal ruffian of some restless gang”.

The Norman Conquest was a disaster for the English people

These thugs quickly ejected the vast bulk of English aldermen and thegns from their land and divvied up the spoils between themselves. They built castles to protect themselves from a cowed, though still resentful and seething, English population. More importantly the castles also served to ratchet up the level of fear and intimidation. In the long years and centuries that followed they systematically set about reducing the English to de facto or de jure serfdom. All this required periodic doses of repression and violence, a thing these brutal, (though when they really had to fight, not very chivalrous), armed and armoured knights on their huge war-horses loved to do.

England was a conquered and occupied country. To use the language of the seventeenth century Levellers, it had fallen under the “Norman Yoke”. For sure there was resistance but it would be many centuries before any amount of ordinary English people would  be able to make serious attempts to crawl out from under this cruel oppression – some might argue that they have yet to succeed.

Honi soit qui mal y pense

In reading popular versions of English history, and even sometimes more scholarly and learned works, it is all too easy to forget another very significant fact: These armed thugs were French and they spoke French. Of course the Normans were originally North-men, they were Vikings, but by the time of the conquest, while still retaining the brutal martial qualities of their Viking ancestors, they were thoroughly French and spoke one version of the many regional varieties of French in use at that time: Norman French. As more and more French men and women from other parts of France arrived in England throughout the late Middle Ages, the language spoken by the royal  court, by the barons, by the local knights and in the courts of law slowly evolved and morphed – away from Norman French and towards a more Parisian French. But let’s be quite clear: the conquerors continued to speak French as their primary language for a long time to come.

The English and their language were much despised, as indeed later on would be the Welsh, Irish and Scots as well.

At the end of the thirteenth century, Robert of Gloucester could write:

And the Normans could not then speak any speech but their own; and they spoke French as they did at home, and had their children taught the same. So that the high men of this land, that came of their blood, all retain the same speech which they brought from their home. For unless a man know French, people regard him little; but the low men hold to English, and to their own speech still. I ween there be no countries in all the world that do not hold to their own speech, except England only. But undoubtedly it is well to know both; for the more a man knows, the more worth he is.

The British Coat of Arms makes it clear who is in command

Of course there was a need for some sort of communication between the conquerors and the conquered. The native English needed to know some French if they had to serve and appease their new lords in their manors, work on the lords’ home farms or understand the lawyers and judges in the courts. Slowly but surely Old English or Anglo-Saxon evolved and morphed into Middle English, the language of Chaucer. Although French remained the principal language of the rulers, one by one, and at first very reluctantly, they started to be able to understand and then speak Middle English as well.

In 1362, Edward III became the first king to address Parliament in English and the Statute of Pleading was adopted, which made English the language of the courts, though this statute was still written in French! French was still the mother tongue of Henry IV (1399-1413), but he was the first to take the oath in English. That most “English” of Kings Henry V(1413–1422) was the first to write in English but he still preferred to use French.

It is interesting to note that it was not until the days of Henry VII in the late fifteenth century that an English king married a woman born in England (Elizabeth of York), as well as the fact that Law French was not banished from the common law courts until as late as 1731.

So when we read history books or watch television programmes about the exploits of “English” kings such as Henry II, his sons Richard “Coeur de Lion” and John, or later about Edward I “Hammer of the Scots” or indeed about the countless English barons and knights fighting each other as well as fighting the kings of England and France, it is advisable to remember that these people weren’t yet English in any real sense of the word and didn’t yet see themselves as such. Whether we call them “Anglo-Norman” or something else, and whether or not they were born in England, these were Norman/French “aristocratic” thugs.

I want to stress this linguistic and cultural point not because I have anything against the French, nor because there were only French thugs. Thugs in fact appear everywhere and their arrival on the historical stage is, rather sadly, one of the defining characteristics of our civilization itself. Rather knowing what type of people these really were can help clear some of the mist from popular English history as it is too often presented.

Thugs fighting thugs

Simon de Montfort – a very big French thug indeed

On the political level one could, I think with some justification, regard the whole of the thirteenth century as being a period of thugs fighting thugs. Once these Normans and French had divvied up the spoils, and when they weren’t preoccupied with trying to squeeze more and more surplus out of the enserfed native population, they were fighting each other, both in England and abroad. At home from the barons forcing King John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, through the Second Barons’ War between 1264 and 1267 and even including Edward I  seeking dominance in Britain at the turn of the century by fighting the Welsh and the Scots. Abroad the various wars fought by the “English” Plantagenet and Angevin kings and barons on French soil from the time of the Conquest right up at least to the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 (and arguably until the final loss of Calais in 1558), were also essentially dynastic fights between groups of “strenuous” French-speaking Frenchmen.

Regarding the Magna Carta and all that, the British human rights barrister Geoffrey Robinson once accurately commented:

The appearance of ‘rights’ as a set of popular propositions limiting the sovereign is usually traced to Magna Carta in 1215, although the document had nothing to do with the liberty of individual citizens: it was signed by a feudal king who was feuding with thuggish barons and was forced to accede to their demands.

Very true. But it needs to be added that with the help of the Pope he soon got out of even his limited commitments to the barons.

At the local level in England, the kings, barons and knights fought each other to get more land (the basis of medieval power) and to be allowed more “liberty” to extract the maximum surplus from their feudal dependants with the minimum possible truck or hindrance from either the king or from other lords. In fact “Liberty” originally and literally meant the freedom to exploit properties and people. They fought each other with swords and axes in the fields and, with inexhaustible alacrity, with words in the courts, the words of course being French; although court proceedings were usually recorded in Latin.

A Shropshire tale

My concern in this essay is just one such local event. The setting is the thirteenth century in the Welsh borderland (March) county of Shropshire. It is a story of local thugs fighting each other and fighting King John. It concerns two pretty representative thuggish French families: the FitzWarins and the Corbets, one thuggish Welsh family – that of Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn, Prince of Powys – as well as the King himself.

Let’s allow Winston Churchill to eloquently summarize the story:

Fulk Fitz Warin, the third of that name, was a Shropshire knight, arbitrarily deprived or ‘Disseissed’ of his land by King John (1199-1216) in the first decade of the 13th century. His exploits during the years of rebellion and ultimately successful struggle to regain his estates was recounted in a popular French Romance, probably written to sustain the morale of the family when the Fitz Warin patrimony was again in danger in the 1250’s. At that time Fulk Fitz Warin IV purchased from the Royal Chancery a writ of ‘novel disseissen’ by order of which, in January 1256, the Sheriff of Shropshire brought before a party of royal justices on circuit at Shrewsbury, a leading Shropshire baron names Thomas Corbet, together with a jury who were required to say whether Thomas had dispossessed Fulk in the recent past of 120 acres of arable land in Alberbury. The jury told the justices that the case had risen from a ‘love-day’ held on the borders of Wales to settle a minor war between Thomas Corbet and the Prince of Powys, at which Fulk, as a tenant of Thomas, had been present with the rest of the local gentry. In the heat of argument, Thomas had called Fulk ‘a traitor as his father was to king John’ and Fulk had replied that, after such an insult, he would renounce his homage to Thomas and ‘never hold land from him again’. Thomas had taken Fulk at his word and occupied his land but the jury replied to questions from the justices that Fulk had not renounced his land in due legal form: it had all been mere feudal histrionics. So damages of 40 shillings were awarded against Thomas and Fulk recovered his land.

What a great story! I’ll discuss the “French Romance” later; but first a little background on the three border families involved.

Hugh Le Corbeau. Founder of the English Corbets

The Corbets were one of the leading marcher families in Shropshire.  Hugh “Le Courbeau” (The Raven) came from Caux in Normandy, he had perhaps been with William the Conqueror at Hastings. He was rewarded with extensive lands in Shropshire that had previously belonged to King Edward ‘the Confessor’, as it says in Domesday Book. He built his castle near Westbury in Shropshire and called it Caus after his Norman home. At first he held his fees from Roger de Montgomerie, who William had created first Earl of Shrewbury in 1074. But when Roger’s grandson Robert, the third Earl, rebelled against Henry I he forfeited his title in 1102. Hugh  le Corbeau’s descendants then held directly from the Crown and much of the history of Shropshire for a long time thereafter can be characterized as various baronial and knightly families alternately fighting each other and marrying each other, trying to grab as much land for themselves as they could following Robert de Montgomerie’s removal from the scene. One of these fractious, war-like families was the Corbets, who by the mid thirteenth century had consolidated large feudal holdings in Shropshire and elsewhere. The head of the senior branch was the Thomas Corbet mentioned by Winston Churchill.

The next person we need to consider must I guess for reasons of ethnic even-handedness be called a Welsh thug: Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn.  He was a Welsh prince who was lord of part of southern Powys. Powys being that portion of central Wales adjoining Shropshire. Gruffydd was the son of Gwenwynwyn ap Owain but his mother was Thomas Corbet’s sister Margaret. Hence he was Thomas Corbet’s nephew. Under pressure from the rise of the Prince of Gwynedd, Llywelyn the Great, Gruffydd, although originally a Welsh “nationalist”, increasingly allied himself with the English kings. He eventually even adopted the Norman family name of De la Pole – after the family’s main English manor of Pool (present day Welshpool in Shropshire).

Whittington Castle as it probably was. The cause of Fulk’s dispute with King John

Finally, there is the FitzWarin family, who probably arrived in both England and Shropshire only in the twelfth century. Not initially as powerful as the Corbets, they nevertheless soon became involved in the usual and never-ending power battles the border barons fought among themselves. The family traced its descent from the eponymous Warin de Metz. Either Warin, or just possibly some of his ancestors, came to England from Lorraine in eastern France. Warin, so the story goes, was victorious in a tournament, and he thereby won the right to marry Mellet Peverell, the heiress to the Whittington manor near Oswestry in Shrophire.

But throughout the second half of the twelfth century Whittington was being occupied by the Welshman Roger de Powys and later by his son Meurig (Morys) FitzRoger, so the FitzWarin family weren’t able to take possession. Fulk FitzWarin III, the great grandson of Warin, continued his family’s quest for Whittington. He paid a fine of £100 for the manor to King John but John refused to reverse his support for Meurig of Powys. “Exasperated” Fulk III “waged a guerrilla rebellion against the king between 1200 and 1203. His fifty-two adherents included his brothers William, Philip, and John, some Fitzwarine family tenants, and many younger sons of prominent Shropshire families. The king sent Hubert de Burgh with 100 knights to respond to this threat, but finally pardoned Fulk and his followers on 11 November 1203. Fulk paid 200 marks and finally received Whittington Castle in October 1204.”

A Minor War

The arguments and “minor war” between Gruffydd and Thomas Corbet mentioned by Churchill started in 1241 and initially concerned the question of the entitlement to Margaret Corbet’s dowry, which included a “tenement” at Caus, but eventually escalated to other matters in several different parts of the country.

Janet Meisel, the historian of these border barons tells us:

The longest and most complex of all Thomas’s legal battles began in 1241 with a suit between him and his sister, Margaret, who by then was the widow of Gwenwynwyn, prince of Powis, and mother of Griffin (sic) ap Gwenwynwyn. At first the only issue was Margaret’s dower, but by 1247 Griffin became involved in the dispute and the quarrel quickly grew to include such matters as alleged breaches of the peace by both men in several counties and a variety of land disputes ranging from Derbyshire in the east to Wales in the West. By 1255 the dispute had grown so large that the king appointed a special commission to investigate the various contentions of Thomas and Griffin, but this commission… appears to have met with little success.

In The Antiquities of Shropshire Robert W Eyton tells us:

On May 9, 1255, Justices are appointed to try an action of novel disseizin preferred by Thomas Corbet against Griffin Wenunwin (sic) for a tenement in Caus.

Novel disseizin just means someone has recently seized the land. Evidently Gruffydd had seized the tenement in Caus from Thomas, no doubt claiming it was part of his mother’s dowry. Further we read:

On July 5th, 1255, another Patent appoints three Justices to set to rights the wrongs and strifes which subsisted between these same persons…

Love-days

But obviously at least once Thomas Corbet and Gruffydd had tried to settle their disagreements without resort to violence or the courts of law. They had called a Jour d’Amour – a Love-Day – as Churchill rightly said. Finding their origins in Anglo-Saxon times, these days weren’t always, or even mostly, meetings of reconciliation freely decided upon by the antagonists, they usually had a certain form or process and were generally agreed upon in a court. It is quite possible that the Justices mentioned above had agreed to this love-day.

It worked as follows (I take this from John of Oxford’s La Court Baron; Les Encoupemenz en Court de Baron of 1265): The defendant (in this case that would be Gruffydd) would ask the court steward or justice for a jour d’amour with the plaintiff (Thomas Corbet). “We grant it you”, replies steward, “so that you be at one between now and the next court”. As Michael Clanchy writes:

A ‘loveday’ … is therefore a day of reconciliation between disputants. The court does not adjudicate this reconciliation, nor does it inquire what its terms are; the court’s only function is to fix a time limit within which agreement is reached.

The court’s lack of responsibility is explained by the principle that ‘pactum legem vincit et amor judicium’ . The request of the steward for a day of reconciliation superceeds the law and the subsequent ‘bond of love’ between (the disputants) eliminates further action by the court.

When the court reconvenes the steward would ask the parties: “How then has business gone between you? Are you at one?” Which Michael Clanchy explains can be “ literally translated as ‘Are you one people or kindred? (une gent or une genz)’” If the plaintiff answers “Yes, sir” then that’s an end to it, except for the court’s fee.

The loveday makes the contending parties into une genz just as the marriage ceremony does. Like marriage, a loveday should be sealed with a kiss (the kiss of peace), blessed by a priest, and witnessed by mutual friends and kinsmen.

If there is no agreement, as apparently there wasn’t between Thomas and Gruffydd, the parties could go back to the courts. We know that this particular petty, though representative, dispute dragged on till Thomas’s death. But what is of importance to our little story here is that such love-days had to be witnessed “by mutual friends and kinsmen”. Fulk FitzWarin was one of these and following the love-day Thomas Corbet had seized Alberbury manor from him. Why?

Corbet’s insult and Fulk’s day in court

The Assize-Roll of the January 1256 Shrewbury Eyre Court tells us what had happened and why, I’ll quote this at some length:

An Assize comes on, to make recognition whether Thomas corbet hath disseized Fulk Fitz Warin, junior, of his free tenement in Alberbyr, viz. of about 120 acres.

Thomas says that the land is of his Fief, and that the Plaintiff, before many Magnates and Lieges of the King, rendered back his homage and the said land to the Defendant, and positively declared that he never would have either that land or any other land of the Defendant. For this reason the Defendant put himself in seizing of the said land, as it was lawful for him to do, the moment that Fulk abandoned it to him

Fulk says (in reply) that he never rendered back land nor homage, and asks judgement on the special point, – whether, even if it were true that under anger and excitement he had verbally rendered back his homage, yet had not subsequently changed his state, but had continuously remained in seizing, – whether it was competent to the Defendant to disseize him on the ground of a mere word. As to his never having, spontaneously, and of goodwill, surrendered the land, he put himself on the Assize. (ie appeals to the Jury).

The Jury declares that a certain day of reconciliation ( a love-day or dies amoris) was fixed upon between Thomas Corbet and Griffin ap Wennonwyn, touching several matters of contention; – that many Magnates met together on the occasion, and that Fulk, the present plaintiff, was of their number; – that Fulk and Thomas Corbet quarrelled together; – that Corbet called Fulk, Fulk’s father, a Traitor; – that Fulk announced to Corbet, that, seeing he charged his father with such a crime, he (Fulk Junior) would render back his homage to Corbet and would never hold land of him again.

The Jury, being asked (by the Court) whether Fulk, in his own person, made the said surrender, say that he did not; indeed that he made the surrender through Hamo le Strange.

The Jurors, being further asked whether Fulk, after he sent the message, returned to his seizin, say ‘Yes’, – and that Fulk is still in seizin of the Castle of Alberbyr, which is the capital Manor pertaining to the said land; and that Fulk caused eight days’ of ploughing to be done on the land, in the interval before Corbet ejected him.

The court decides that Fulk do recover his seizin.

Similar to all such martial societies who viewed themselves as heroic, going back at least to Homer’s Myceneans, these Norman Frenchmen were extremely concerned, touchy and tetchy about their honour and that of their family – however fictive this honour might had been in reality. Hence, in Churchill’s words, Fulk’s “feudal histrionics” following the insult to his father..

A view of Alberbury Church and Castle in the eighteenth century

But Fulk wasn’t stupid, he knew that he held his fee at Alberbury (I will use the modern spelling) not direct from the king but from Thomas Corbet. He had its use only so long as he did homage to Thomas and if he withdrew his homage Thomas could repossess or seize the property. And this he had done. Fulk claimed that it was all done in “anger and excitement” and was at pains to stress that after the love-day he had gone back to Alberbury and “caused eight days’ of ploughing to be done on the land”.

Such feudal fees were slowly but surely changing into hereditary possessions (what we now call cases of freehold or legally more accurately  “fee simple absolute in possession”). Fulk won the case. This was a pivotal period in the evolution of the law of property in England as it moved away from purely feudal holdings to a more modern form of absolute and inheritable private property.  As the historian of the thirteenth century Alan Harding noted:

The real meaning of the case is that even in the marches, where military feudalism lasted longer than elsewhere, the common law had deprived lords of the freedom to decide, in the company of their vassals in their honour courts and love-days, who should and should not hold lands from them.

Even though the 1256 court found in Fulk’s favour, Thomas Corbet refused to accept the verdict and continued to try to hold on to Alberbury. The case continued for years. It was probably to strengthen his case that Fulk commissioned a Norman French Trouvère at Ludlow to write the “French Romance” of his family and its long connections with Alberbury to which Winston Churchill referred. It is usually simply called Fouke le Fitzwarin  or The History of Fulk FitzWarine. The Fulk of the tale is our Fulk’s father generally referred to as Fulk FitzWarin III while his son of the 1256 Assizes is known as Fulk FitzWarin  IV. I will simply call them from now on senior and junior respectively.

The History of Fulk FitzWarine starts with a long history of the FitzWarin family,  its deeds and exemplary exploits from the time of the eponymous Warin de Metz up to the times of Fulk FitzWarin senior and then it tells us why King John had such an enmity towards him and the background to Thomas Corbet’s insulting Fulk junior during his love-day with Gruffydd by suggesting that he was a “traitor”. While obviously somewhat self-serving this part of the romance story is worthy of retelling.

Honour and feuds

As a boy Fulk senior was brought up in Henry the second’s Royal household at Windsor Castle, where he and the future King John were playmates. The two supposedly had a falling out at a young age while playing chess. Let me let the romance speak for itself. First I will quote it in the original Norman French; once again just to illustrate the point about the French culture and language of all England’s ruling class at the time:

Fouke le jeouene fust norry ou les iiij. fitz Henré le roy, e mout amé de tous, estre de Johan; quar yl soleit sovent medler ou Johan. Avint qe Johan e Fouke tut souls sistrent en une chambre, juauntz a eschekes. Johan prist le eschelker, si fery Fouke grant coupe. Fouke se senti blescé, leva le piée, si fery Johan en my le pys, qe sa teste vola contre la pareye, qu’il devynt tut mat e se palmea. Fouke fust esbay ; mès lée fust qe nul fust en la chambre, si eux deus noun, si frota les oryles Johan, e revynt de palmesoun, e s’en ala al roy, son piere, e fist une grant pleynte. ” Tès-tey, maveys,” fet le roy ; ” tous jours estes conteckaunt. Si Fouke nulle chose si bien noun vus fist, ce fust par vostre desert demeyne.” E apela son mestre, e ly fist batre fynement e bien pur sa pleynte. Johan fust molt corocée à Fouke; quarunqe pus ne le poeitamer de cuer.

In modern English:

Young Fulk was brought up with the four sons of King Henry, and much beloved was he of them all save John, for oft did he quarrel with John. And it chanced on a day that John and Fulk were alone in a chamber playing at the chess. And John seized the chessboard, and gave Fulk a heavy blow. And Fulk felt himself hurt, and he raised his foot, and kicked John in the chest, so that his head struck against the wall, and he became all powerless, and fell down senseless. And Fulk was sore afraid, but glad was he that no one was in the chamber save themselves alone, and he rubbed the ears of John, and he recovered from his faintness, and went to the King, his father, and made sore plaint. And the King said, “Silence, fellow, you are ever quarrelling. If Fulk has done by you aught but what is good, it must needs have been by your own desert.” And he called his master, and caused him to beat him soundly and well, because of his plaint. And John was sore angered against Fulk, so that never after could he bear good will toward him.

Henry 2 and Eleanor of Aquitaine – Fulk was brought up in Henry’s court with Henry’s four sons, including the future King John

The veracity or otherwise of this retrospectively amusing vignette is probably beyond recovery; the romance is after all an “official” family hagiography. But as it was probably written sometime between 1256 and 1264 and its content most likely derived from the telling of Fulk senior’s son Fulk FitzWarin junior himself, and was thus just still within living memory, I don’t see any reason to discount it. It’s also possible that Fulk senior was still alive at the time of writing, though we are told he was by now blind. Regardless of its truth, the episode does I think illustrate the very personal and vindictive preoccupations of these people, from the king on down. Insults or damage to honour were not forgotten and quite often led to long and bloody feuds.

According to the History of Fulk FitzWarine this slight denting of his honour is the reason why King John, when he became King in 1199 on the death of his brother Richard “Coeur de Lion”, reconfirmed the grant of the manor of Whittington to the FitzWarin family’s old enemy Meurig FitzRoger of Powys and thus provoked Fulk senior to renounce his feudal homage. We are told that Fulk senior said this to King John:

Sir King, you are my liege lord, and I am bound by fealty to you the whiles I am in your service, and as long as I hold lands of you, and you ought to maintain my rights, but you fail me in my rights and the common law. Never was he a good king who, in his courts, denied the law unto his free tenants. Wherefore I relinquish my homage to you.

An outlaw but no Robin Hood 

Fulk became an outlaw, killed Meurig (Morys) and spent the next three years on the run, trying to evade, and periodically killing, all the forces the furious and vengeful John sent to capture and kill him. He went to Brittany, France, Scandinavia, Spain and the Saracen Barbary coast; just like Odysseus he slew a dragon, fought enemies and won renown and ladies’ hearts. On one of his visits back to England he captured John and, under duress, extorted pardons and restitutions from him, only to see John renege on his promises. He even held a love-day with the king. I can only recommend you read the whole ripping yarn.

As I have mentioned, in 1203 Fulk was finally reconciled with John and able to take possession of Whittington. He remained in the king’s peace for some years. In fact he “accompanied the king to Ireland in 1210 and was frequently with him during the next few years, including the king’s interlude in France during the summer of 1214. However, in 1215 Fulk joined the barons who were rebelling against the king, and although by February 1216 he was reconciled to the crown, mistrust of him lingered”.

The History of Fulk Fitz-Warine

There have been attempts to present Fulk senior as a type of Robin Hood; taking from the rich and giving to the poor, while fighting the tyranny of an evil king.

At the literary level they are many similarities between the early stories of Robin Hood and the romance of Fulk, they seem to have arisen in the same cultural milieu. But Fulk was no Robin Hood. He was just another Norman French thug fighting for local dominance and more land, not only with his local adversaries but also with the arch-thug- in-chief – in the person of the (French-speaking) King John. Even in the romance itself, which does of course try to cast its hero in the best possible light, there is nothing that implies that Fulk had any benevolent aspirations towards the poor and oppressed, or wanted to change an inequitable and repressive system nor indeed had any other motive than to get back his estates. What else should we expect? It would be completely anachronistic to suggest any of this for a Norman marcher baron such as Fulk.

Kisses of Peace and Monty Python

That was and is in some partial way the real history of England, and not just the history of the thirteenth century! The rulers of England might occasionally meet for a love-day in a field in England’s green and pleasant land and exchange a thuggish kiss of peace, but they never have been concerned with the bulk of the English people except insofar as they can squeeze them just a little more.

I leave the last words to the inimitable Monty Python. A scene from the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

Arthur: I am your king.

Woman: I didn’t know we had a king. I didn’t vote for you.

Arthur: People don’t vote for king.

Woman: How did you become king?

Arthur: The Lady of the Lake. Her arms clad in the purest shimmering samite held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water signifying by divine authority that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. That is why I am your king.

Man: Listen. Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from a farcial aquatic ceremony.

Arthur: Be quiet.

Man: You can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you.

Arthur: Shut up.

The English didn’t shut up, but it didn’t seem to make much difference for many hundreds of years. A E Housman concluded one of his poems in The Shropshire Lad as follows:

And God will save the Queen.

Indeed.

Sources and References

Alan Harding, England in the Thirteenth Century, Cambridge, 1993; Robert William Eyton, Antiquities of Shropshire, J.R. Smith, 1858; Janet Meisel,  Barons of the Welsh Frontier: the Corbet, Pantulf and FitzWarin Families, 1066–1272, 1980; Winston Churchill, A History Of The English Speaking PeoplesVolume I, 1956;  John of Oxford, La Court Baron; Les Encoupemenz en Court de Baron, 1265; Michael Clanchy, Law and Love in the Middle Ages, in Disputes and Settlements: Law and Human Relations in the West edited John Bossy,Cambridge UP, 1983; The History of Fulk Fitz-Warine, Translation by Alice Kemp-Welch, Cambridge, Ontario, 2001; The History of Fulk Fitz-Warine, Thomas Wright, London, 1855;

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.

Sources:

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.