Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, Anglo-Saxon Period, Archaeology, Belief, Britain, British, Culture, Dark Age, Dark Ages, England, Englishness, History, Identity, Kingship, Medieval Period, Migration Period
For most of my life I have always thought of myself as British. This is perhaps a misleading opening sentence because I am, of course, British. However, I am also English, and it is only really through studying the past that I really understood what that meant.
Growing up in England as a child is a strange experience. If you grow up in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, you are exposed to native, non-English language and a different, albeit broadly similar, culture. If you are born in Wales, for example, by the time you are an adult you will have certainly bought a leek, baked a welsh cake, spoken a few words of Welsh and gone to a rugby match. You would have also probably voted for both a Member of Parliament and a Welsh Assembly Member.
England is a little different, though. We have no national government save for the one in Westminster. Whilst the Welsh Assembly, Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly deal in Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish matters, there is no such body for England. There isn’t really any concept of an ‘English matter’ in politics.
Similarly, whilst the other nations might speak in Celtic tongues, we have only English. Unsurprisingly, we also only really learn the history of Britain at school, and the subject of English history is seldom broached in an explicit manner. There isn’t even much of a celebration to be had on St George’s Day, which one would think would be the day to consider Englishness.
England is essentially a political host nation that is seemingly scared to have its own national character.
Now please don’t think this is a political rant, because it’s not. England has a very unique and strange position in the United Kingdom and, indeed, the world. We often see ourselves as British because England makes up such a large and important part of Britain. There isn’t anything wrong with that in theory, but the pressing issue of Scottish independence shows that Britain is not as united as some might think, or hope.
Whilst growing up I failed to get a grasp on what England really was, and how one went around feeling English. It was only when studying the past turned from a passing fancy to a serious obsession did I start to consider these questions in an explicit way.
The past creates the present and can inform the future. It’s pretty darn important. In many ways, England only exists because of a desire to articulate a different identity from those to the north and west of it. Without the Anglo-Saxon migrations, some 1500 years ago, there would be no England.
I am both English and British. What it’s taken me so long to figure out, though, is that you can love being both. Understanding the past is important, as it constitutes a large part of your being, but making it relevant and applicable to your experience of the world around you is, to me at least, something pretty special.
Note: the modern word ‘English’ is derived from the Old English word Englisc.