Writing on the subject of his homeland in a 1941 essay titled ‘England, Your England’, George Orwell observed ‘we call our islands by no less than six different names – England, Britain, Great Britain, the British Isles, the United Kingdom, and, in very exalted moments, Albion.’ He went on to discuss regional and national differences between the numerous branches of Brits and then tellingly remarked ‘But somehow these differences fade away the moment that any two Britons are confronted by a European.’
This sense of separation from the Continent has been theoretically in place ever since the land border that joined us to mainland Europe was flooded around 6,500-6,200 BC; and despite the fact that successive waves of immigrants from modern-day Germany, Italy, Scandinavia and France laid the foundations for virtually everything we now regard as quintessentially British, it is the Sceptered Isle image that lingers, the precious stone set in the silver sea; John of Gaunt’s words in ‘Richard II’ are evoked whenever we feel the need to stress our physical isolation from the land beyond the Channel and express both political and emotional detachment from it. But it’s worth remembering Britain – or England (incorporating large chunks of Ireland and Wales) – once regarded the Continent as its backyard when it had its very own European Empire.
What has been retrospectively labelled ‘The Angevin Empire’ stretched from the border with Scotland all the way down to the Pyrenees. The marriage of England’s King Henry II to Eleanor of Aquitaine, former Queen of France, in 1152 was a union that took place in the shadow of a family feud known to history as ‘The Anarchy’. The death of Henry I (fourth son of William the Conqueror) without a direct heir in 1135 had instigated a crisis over the royal succession that morphed into a bloody civil war in England and Normandy – one provoked by rival claimants to the English throne, brother and sister, Stephen and Matilda. Stephen won that battle, but it was Matilda’s son Henry, already Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou, who succeeded King Stephen upon his death; and Henry’s ambitions for expanding English influence across Europe could only be achieved via the capture of territories, something he was so successful at that his descendents struggled to hold onto them.
Like many of the English kings descended from the Normans, Henry II spent more time on the Continent than he did in England, something that could be viewed as either an early example of an English Europhile or simply an English monarch who regarded his ancestral homeland (and indeed, the land of his birth and eventual death) as more relevant to his identity than the country whose throne he had inherited. His youngest son King John quickly realised the immensity of trying to keep his father’s hard-fought lands together when the Angevin Empire began to disintegrate as soon as Henry II died in 1189. Following the end of the twelve-year Anglo-French War in 1214, all that remained in English hands was the Duchy of Gascony.
The battle for control of former English lands in France didn’t end there, however. It reached its violent apex with the Hundred Years’ War between England and France from the mid-fourteenth to the mid-fifteenth century, and though England was the ultimate loser in a series of conflicts that saw power – and land – change hands regularly, including Henry V’s triumph at Agincourt in 1415 (leading to the greatest recapture of former English territories since the collapse of the Angevin Empire), the legacy of what England had won and lost on the Continent lingered. Indeed, English sovereigns retained their claim to the French throne until as late as the beginning of the nineteenth century.
By then, of course, England had been reborn through unions with its nearest neighbours as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and maritime trade way beyond the borders of Europe had put down roots in the wider world that gradually grew into the largest Empire the world has ever seen, utterly overshadowing the English’s medieval ownership of European soil. Despite ruling over a quarter of the world’s population at the peak of the British Empire, however, the international British still played a part in Europe’s future fortunes, none more so than in its defeat of Napoleonic France at Waterloo and participation in the Crimean War a generation later.
The two World Wars that followed in the twentieth century again underlined that ancient British ties to Europe were still intact, regardless of the fact that our Empire-cum-Commonwealth had a greater claim on our national identity up until the middle of that century. And we are a country, lest we forget, still headed by a monarch whose roots are European – roots that are, of course, German, descended as Elizabeth II is from the House of Hanover.
The oft-quoted 1962 comment by President Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson – ‘Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role’ – was uttered when the nation felt itself trapped in an irreversible decline, though renewing marital vows with our Continental cousins was entered into as means of arresting that decline. The success or failure of this intervention depends entirely on one’s opinion of its necessity; but the idea that we’ve only been European since January 1 1973 is a fallacy.
Today you have the rare opportunity to play your own little part in our long and extremely complicated relationship with the land mass we were once physically attached to. By the time you read this, you may have already played it. If not, make sure you do so before the polls close; and may the best man, woman and non-binary individual win.
© The Editor