Wednesday, 14 December 2011

This sceptred isle...

... This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house...

I've been dipping into Vanished Kingdoms, a new book by Norman Davies. Dr Davies writes about states which once existed in Europe, but which have now disappeared, remembered only by a few European history specialists. The kingdom of Montenegro was absorbed by Serbia, against the wishes of its government and people, at the end of the Great War. The republic of Carpatho-Ukraine declared its independence from Czechoslovakia in March 1939, only to be invaded by Hungary the next day.

The book reinforces my belief that we do not fully appreciate the difference that being an island has made to our history. We have in many respects been more fortunate than the 'less happier lands' referred to by Shakespeare. There are things we take for granted which people on mainland Europe have never been able to.

We cannot be invaded overland; we have never woken up to find the forces of a hostile nation massing on our frontiers.

Our borders will not change after a war, and again after the next war, and after the one after that. In Central Europe in the twentieth century, someone could have been born in the Hapsburg Empire under the Emperor Franz Josef, spent his boyhood and adolescence in Poland, lived under Nazi and Soviet rule and died in Ukraine - all without leaving his home town. 

The names of our towns and cities will not be changed to reflect the prevailing political ideology, or the language of the current ruling majority. (Streoneshalh became Whitby and Northworthy became Derby, but that was over a thousand years ago.)

For a thousand years up to the twentieth century, we could be sure that in any war other than a civil war, the fighting would take place somewhere else. We would not have bands of mercenaries roaming the country. Our towns would not be pillaged, our crops ruined and our people left starving.

In England, we take for granted that we have a system of law and government that has evolved continuously over 1500 years. It has not been overturned by conquest or revolution.

And in England we have written records going back almost as long. We assume that those records were kept (mostly) by Englishmen, (mostly) in English. We wrote the history of our own country, in our own language; unlike other European peoples, whose records were kept and whose history was written by a controlling or occupying people in a language other than their own; or whose records might have been destroyed in war, or never kept at all.

Being an island has shaped our history, the way we see ourselves, and the way we relate to others. We need to remember that fact when we try to understand ourselves, and also when we try to understand other nations and their histories.


  1. Really interesting Jackie and how true.

    There is also another fact , about UK being an island, which I think contributes to its character. Being a small island made its people explorers. And while that led to a whole era of colonialism it also exposed the British to a world outside their own.

    Perhaps, this is why I find here a greater degree of awareness of the rest of the world than in other Western countries.


  2. That's interesting, Anu. Now I'm thinking about it, there are a lot of reminders of the Empire and Commonwealth in day to day life that we don't really think about, but which do keep that awareness up. All the words that have entered the English language, the cricket, the Commonwealth Games, the tours the Queen makes to Commonwealth countries, the High Commissioners at the Cenotaph each year.