Tuesday, 26 March 2013

British History: What we hear and what we know…

British History: What we hear and what we know…

When it comes to British history, the vast majority of those living in Britain have merely vague notions and references to events that in most cases only a selected few can truly understand. To make matters worse, much of the history of what we call United Kingdom is either unknown or the object of pure speculation based on very limited information.

This is why reading British history is a bit like reading a novel, a blend of facts and fiction that could be revised at short notice due to incidental or accidental discoveries of a past about which we know very little. When our knowledge is limited, half-truths, misconceptions and misinterpretation become insurmountable obstacles and the source of fake political debates.

When documentary evidence is either missing or is unreliable, we end up using archaeological tools to guess what really happened. In every age, in every period of history, whoever was around at the time would give us a tainted version of events influenced by vested interests and this is why interpretation and speculation exist to fill up the gaps.

What we know as United Kingdom is relatively recent. In very similar ways to what happened in other European countries, nationhood was preceded by centuries of a very chaotic process during which British Identity – as we know it today – was virtually non-existent.

Much of British history happened in a world in which unions, loyalties and centres of power were rather unstable and transient. In the end, in an environment characterized by religious conflicts and power struggles of a feudal nature, concentration of power in fewer hands led to the formation of the United Kingdom.

Paradoxically, the process of formation of a national identity was accelerated or made possible by foreign invasions. In 1066, a Norman invasion led by a French warrior with Nordic ancestry – Guillaume Le Conquérant (that became known as William ‘The Conqueror’) initiated a series of fundamental nation-building political changes. Despite the fact that the newcomers were actually French native speakers and had actually defeated an English King, the political processes that followed strengthened the notion of national identity.

This is why today, when we talk about British Culture, we need to take into account the complexity of British history. When we talk about the European Union, we need to consider that for many centuries what we call today United Kingdom were in fact separate entities of a wider Pan-European reality characterized by extreme fragmentation that were often at war with each other.

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