The Isles: A History 
by Norman Davies.
Macmillan, 1222 pp., £30, November 1999, 9780333763704
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The main island, the Great Isle, of what became known, centuries later, as the British Isles had a peculiar geography. It was ideally proportioned for the division that was eventually made of it. No inland location lay more than two days’ march from the coast, which gave a marked advantage to maritime invaders. The position of the main estuaries – the Solway, the Clyde, the Forth, the Dee, the Severn, the Thames and the Humber – made it possible for each of the more mountainous parts of the island to be isolated by invaders and guarded by them. When they lost the towns and forts commanding these estuaries, the resident Celts were pushed back into their mountain fastnesses. The inhabitants at this time mostly were Celts, of the British rather than Southern European variety – we’re speaking of the turn of the fifth and sixth centuries. The invaders were Angles, or other Germanic peoples, and they created a chaotic patchwork of statelets which took half a millennium to evolve into larger political and cultural units.

This did not have to happen. It wasn’t inevitable. But about two hundred years later, after countless battles, marriages, mergers and chance occurrences, a dozen rival kingdoms emerged, followed, in another two hundred, by settlement in two distinct zones, one mainly Celtic – behind those mountains, and on the Green Isle to the west – the other exclusively Germanic. Thus, Norman Davies writes, ‘the conditions had been created where England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales could begin the initial and most tentative phase of their crystallisation.’

The Isles’ deep history, therefore, was Celtic and, before that, genetically Continental. These were lands of migration from the east, which the Celtic strain came to dominate long before the later wave of Germanics. ‘Britain’ has been Britain, in the sense of a unified island, in only two brief phases of geological time, first when, with the exception of Scotland, it was under Roman occupation (55 BC – 407 AD) and known as Britannia, and then since the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707. Otherwise there has been no such place as Britain, and therefore no proper repository for the kind of British nationalism, imbued with the sanctity of ages, that now excites so much political interest. Britain is a brief artefact, not a continuous entity, and it is a profound falsehood that generation after generation should have grown up imagining the opposite. This is Davies’s ferocious contention, the error that has driven a notable scholar of the history of Central Europe – he has devoted less time to this new terrain, he grandly announces, than an undergraduate would normally spend on a history degree – to write the saga of the islands he belongs to.

Historians, Davies says, have a lot to answer for. They have misread and, more important, ideologically miswritten these islands’ past. He sets himself the task of reconstructing it, from a perspective which refuses to be merely English. The Englishing of history, Davies believes, has been a betrayal of scholarship and a serious disservice to understanding, not least about the nature of the country and civilisation that is now being asked to make an irreversible commitment to the European Union. Though the euro, he happens also to insist, is the wrong project at the wrong time, his book rises from the vastness of the centuries to a quotidian conclusion about current events which he regards as irresistible. He thinks ‘Britain’ cannot last. As an internally united entity, the Great Isle is finished, and ready to recede back into the shape it held at roughly the mid-term of its broken past. He also makes it seem incomprehensible that the divided bits of the former Britain – and England above all – should imagine they either have, or need to lust after, a future separated from the Continent, all in the name of a precious British identity that faces imminent liquidation. This is certainly a book it was surprising to see serialised in the Times.

The Englishness of received history, Davies says, has produced not only falsehood but massive intellectual aggrandisement. ‘The English have been taught for centuries that their civilisation is superior to that of the Celts ... the weight of popular admiration, and indeed a strong sense of identification, has been attached to the Roman occupiers of Britain rather than to the native British.’ The Romans, though invaders, had the merit of not being Celts. The Roman Empire worked as a psychic forebear to the British Empire: a noble legitimation, which accounted for a whole literary genre, epitomised by Kipling, stressing the bond of identity between imperial Britons and ancient Romans. Rome provided the model for the civilising mission of a multinational empire, and the precursor of centuries of English leaders who suppressed or ignored the Celts while still, at any rate latterly, grandly proclaiming Britain’s rulership of the waves. In conventional histories, Davies writes, ‘it is as if Anglo-Saxon England were bordered by an ocean to the north and the west as well as by a channel to the south. The mental planet that is peopled by Alfred and the Danes and Harold and the Conqueror has no place whatsoever for Hywell Dda, for Brian Boru, for Kenneth Mac Alpin or Macbeth.’

The culprits here were the Victorian historians, writing from and into their imperial time, as if all previous events had led up to the glorious present. Some famous names come under the Davies hammer, as he destroys not only the Whig interpretation of history, but the Protestant prejudice and narrow nationalism of most of its exponents. An exception, gratifyingly, is Macaulay, whose brilliant narratives are freer than most of blindness to the Celts. But Henry Hallam, F.W. Maitland and, above all, William Stubbs are presented as the high priests of inveterate Englishism. ‘Despite their immense erudition and their enormous services to the subject, all these scholars positively crowed with nationalistic self-satisfaction.’ Moreover, the multicultural Davies crows, none of them gained a reputation outside the English-speaking world. They were mired in a mental framework that simply could not conceive of a world which did not place the greatest country, occupying a fourth of the globe, at its centre – and this held true even when they were writing about the Plantagenets and the Tudors. Moreover, not only was their work not read elsewhere, they were unaware of the existence of such a subject as comparative history. Thus, ‘England in the period when its Continental connections were most intense was effectively (and damagingly) divorced from its essential Continental context.’ J.A. Froude, A.E. Pollard and J.E. Neale, hagiographers of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, are demolished with equal relish. The pillars of the English historical tradition, whom A-level history students were urged to read uncritically a generation ago, receive a vigorous kicking. Only one merits Norman Davies’s unqualified approval. It is an arresting retrieval from oblivion. John Lingard’s eight-volume History of England (1819) has been thinly, if ever, read during the last hundred years. But, written by a Catholic priest, it escaped the grip of both nationalism and Protestantism. It gave, uniquely, something like a global perspective. ‘Lingard never gets anything wrong,’ Lord Acton wrote. For Davies he is a solitary hero, his achievement ‘colossal’.

Can the same be said of Davies? His book is at least colossally long, and shows signs of the short time its author proudly says it took him to write, from sources that are avowedly all secondary. It is not a measured book, with an even spread of interest, nor is the space allocated with any care for proportion. It won’t supply the first-time reader, who has resolved at last to digest the whole of these islands’ history, with a comprehensive text. On the other hand, it is moved by corrective passion and insatiable curiosity. General histories with argumentative themes are often more accessible than grand pseudo-objective tomes, and this one makes very clear what it is knocking down. It doesn’t have the confusing omniscience which is to be found, for example, in the brilliant work of Norman Davies’s own tutor at Oxford, A.J.P. Taylor, or give the reader the same tiresome sense that he is being got at in ways he cannot contest. Instead, the record of two millennia and more is bound together by an important and forgotten thesis. Celtic history, together with the sometimes over-copious richness of Celtic poetry, literature and myth, is accorded an equal place with the English line of kings and the English appropriation of Britain’s imperial identity. Liberated from the ineffable Stubbsian stereotype of England/Britain as the source of most good things in this world, we are forced to reconsider much we were never taught to think about.

Some of the myths left by the wayside have a sharp contemporary relevance. Two drive with special piquancy to the heart of the present obsession with British/English identity. First, this was for many centuries a country dominated and peopled by the French. The Norman and Plantagenet kings never fully distanced themselves from their French roots. In Crusader times, England was a part of the French empire. Its kings were Guillaume and Edouard and Jean. With the monarchs came many French settlers and a French ruling class; French was the language of the court and élite, and the insistent reach of French influence prevented the formation of a true national identity on the part of the natives. This mongrel country, after a century as a dependency of Denmark, became little more than an extension of France. The period of the Crusades, indeed, saw the beginning of something more than the Continent’s genetic aggrandisement: the reach of its culture overcame anything that could be called typically English. This happened elsewhere. ‘England, Sicily and Jerusalem,’ Davies spaciously suggests, ‘all formed part of what some historians have seen as the first experiment in the overseas export of European civilisation.’ The first year the Lord Chancellor opened a Parliamentary session using the English language was 1362. This was the session in which a statute was passed allowing English to stand alongside Latin in legal pleadings. But French remained the professional language of lawyers until 1600.

All in all we have to conclude that even the English, let alone the British, have a very different national essence from the one which has penetrated so deep into their modern psyche that it may never be successfully extracted. Maybe the uncomfortable truth will always be resisted. But a nationalism did emerge, thanks mainly to the Reformation. Until then, the Isles remained intimately bonded with the mainland. Davies elaborates for this earlier period the demystification performed by Linda Colley’s Britons (1992) for later centuries. He makes clear, as she does, the association of Englishness, and later Britishness, with self-preservation against Catholicism. The Reformation cut the Isles off from a connection that had lasted a millennium. ‘This spiritual isolation,’ Davies writes, with typical but stimulating hyperbole, ‘was arguably more profound than anything that resulted from all the political invasions and geographical changes since the Ice Age.’ The religious break didn’t just have political and religious effects. The definitive severance of the previously interwoven relationships with the people on the other side of 22 miles of Channel determined the only identity available: the Channel, by the way, far from being the defensive moat or sea-girt wall, was for many centuries the facilitator of the contacts that made the Isles the multi-tribal place they were. Since the Reformation, however, ‘the English have had little choice but to take pride in their isolation and eccentricity. Indeed they have recruited it as a virtue.’

This leads to a second undeceiving for modern British nationalists, whoever and whatever, exactly, they may be. The sacred date of 1066, since when the Isles have legendarily survived without foreign invasion, becomes a moment of reduced importance. Cultural if not military links with the Continent reached a peak in the era of Erasmus and Thomas More: 1534 was the year of greater truth, when Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy created an independent Church of England with him at its head.

This jarring adjustment of an iconic constitutional moment is one of several that Davies proposes or recalls. Simon de Montfort, conventionally presented as the originator of English Parliamentary freedom, may well, it now seems (the matter is under much scholarly debate), have been following French ideas. The very idea of Parliament’s Englishness, in fact, is one of the myths which the European Davies seeks to wrest from the Anglocentric Victorians, who regarded the imperial triumphs of Westminster as requiring an inexorable narrative to lead up to them: the story that parliamentarism was a uniquely local invention. Davies debunks it. Though absolutism came to grip the Continent in later centuries in a way that Britain escaped, parliaments, diets and assemblies were thick on the ground in late medieval and early modern Europe. Poland and Lithuania developed a legal and parliamentary tradition which ‘in several respects – such as the principles of habeas corpus and “no taxation without representation” – foreshadowed later developments in England’. In any case, the Mother of Parliaments harbours within her past the Court of Star Chamber which, for most of a century from 1540, mattered more than any Parliament, in a society that permitted no independence for judges, no immunity for jurors, no free press, no freedom of speech even for Parliamentarians.

This land of the uniquely free, in short, is not and never has been quite so unique or quite so free as its mythologists have contended, especially its modern ones. Today’s equivalent of Bishop Stubbs is the editor of the Daily Telegraph, relentlessly committed to a view of Britishness that does not account for Scotland, a view of Ireland that excludes Ulster, and a view of England that, regardless of history, depicts it as a place on which any European influence can work only as a contaminant. Brushing over the historic truth is a habit by no means confined to the Victorians. Into this situation, which becomes more fervidly ahistorical by the year, no more disturbing intellectual projectile than Norman Davies’s could have been launched.

His book divides into two rather different halves. The first, which has a genuine originality for the non-scholarly reader, opens up a period whose dimensions – indeed, whose very existence – have remained for the most part obscured. His discussion of the beginnings of the islands, the migrations that made them, the blank periods, whether of prehistory at the beginning or the so-called dark ages at the end, becomes an absorbing inquiry into the connections between past and present. Periods that the Victorians simply left untouched – as if they were undiscoverable or, if unearthed, likely to be uncongenial to progressive English history – are exposed, and become part of a whole. The fact that much of this new material concerns the Celts is a rebuke to history teachers in schools for many generations – and not only English ones. David Hume’s eight-volume History of England was as unsympathetic and diminishing to his native Scots as the work of Stubbs and Hallam.

The modern scholar, by contrast, makes his own journey into fields he has never penetrated. This is not a handing-down from on high, but an investigation of new territory by someone who wants to explore hypotheses he apprehends but is not sure of. We can therefore share his own fascination at what he finds. He is especially good on the sheer emptiness of ancient pre-Britain. Dealing with these early centuries, his powerful imagination fuses with tireless reading of the sources to construct a gripping picture of people who had little sense of who they were or where they were going. If they thought about where they lived, as the Romans were departing, ‘they continued to think of Britannia.’ But there was no glimmering of an idea of national unity, much less ultimate destiny. Davies fiercely resists the shaping of history, even up to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, as it has generally come down to us. The heroes he fills out are not Henry VIII and William Shakespeare, but James VI of Scotland (and I of England) and Herbert Butterfield, the first iconoclast of Whig interpretations.

The second half of the book, from, say, 1688, is swifter and sketchier. There are numerous excursions out of narrative into set-piece essays on topics ranging from the 18th-century monarchy to the imperial growths of the English language, from Scotland’s own imperialism to a potted history of the Royal Navy. What emerges is something of an omnium-gatherum from the teeming mind of Norman Davies. His reflections on modern as well as pre-modern times sometimes cast the light of new prejudices on familiar material, and do not shrink from bold assertions. Illumination flows from brilliant summary. One such encapsulates the thesis of the book: ‘Scotland may have united with England in 1707; and Ireland may have united with England and Scotland in 1800. But England has never united with anyone.’

Sprawling widely, The Isles in its later part conveys the impression of a hell-for-leather chase to meet the deadline for a work that ends up, given its enormous ambition, too short at a thousand pages. But its modern significance is the point. It is a history of, but not for, the ages. It is even more for the here and now than was the work of Macaulay. It speaks to one of the most potent beliefs of this age: that the Britain we know is a place whose timeless history has composed a nation which now owes to that history a mighty struggle to preserve itself against enemies within and without.

Davies shows how much of this is bunk. The fact that it is bunk may not alter the perceptions of several million people, goaded to a different view by mass-media propaganda that simply does not want to inquire into the truth. The myths of the nation-state are perhaps what they incorrigibly like to believe. But the de-mythologiser – half-Welsh, half-English, larded with Lancastrian and European – deserves his own place in the annals of whatever nation he chooses to call his own.

The summary is this. There has been no long-lasting British nation. It came into brief existence as a product of, and accessory to, the making of an empire. When the empire broke up, it had served its purpose. Such as it is, it will not last. All its foundations are in an advanced state of decay. The so-called United Kingdom is not and never has been a nation-state. It has no single established church, no single legal system, no centralised education system, no common cultural policy, no common history – ‘none of the things, in other words, on which nation-states are built’. These were replaced by an invented belief system, which made people die for Britain, but can no longer hold out against the centrifugal experience of the nations that were suppressed by it, and are now regaining their own ascendancy in the larger context of a European community of nations that can give each of them succour and protection.

That, however, requires the nation that dominates this anachronism called Britain to abandon its attachment to the vestiges of superior status and national domination. Davies doesn’t explain how this is going to happen. He concedes that both the breakup and the absorption may be some way off. He also describes himself, with perhaps an exaggerated sense of his near-uniqueness, as part of a ‘tiny minority’ who sense they are standing on the edge of a volcano, or alternatively of ‘a quietly gathering avalanche that could strike out of the blue in the best of weather’ to overturn the British state as we know it. On the contrary, the history he has explored yields, in its fullness, little other conclusion. Messy and subjective though it is, and unwilling to allow merit to the perspective of almost any other historian, The Isles is a key book for its time. It seizes the conventional wisdom of the moment, and destroys most of its foundations. Might Britain last until its 300th birthday in 2007? Out of full communion with ‘Europe’? There will be a massive struggle, although the former is marginally more likely than the latter. But it would be a repudiation of history, either way.

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