English History Made Brief, Irreverent, and Pleasurable

English History Made Brief, Irreverent, and Pleasurable

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by Lacey Baldwin Smith

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No people have engendered quite so much acclaim or earned so much censure as the English: extolled as the Athenians of modern times, yet hammered for their self-satisfaction and hypocrisy. But their history has been a spectacular one. The guiding principle of this book's heretical approach is that "history is not everything that happened, but what is worth


No people have engendered quite so much acclaim or earned so much censure as the English: extolled as the Athenians of modern times, yet hammered for their self-satisfaction and hypocrisy. But their history has been a spectacular one. The guiding principle of this book's heretical approach is that "history is not everything that happened, but what is worth remembering about the past...". Its chapters deal mainly with 'Memorable History' in blocks of time over the centuries. The final chapter recounts the achievements, personalities and idiocies of the royal family since the arrival of William the Conqueror in 1066. Spiced with dozens of hilarious cartoons from "Punch" and other publications, "English History" is a welcome and amusing tour of a land that has always fascinated Anglophiles and Anglophobes alike.

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English History Made Brief, Irreverent and Pleasurable

By Lacey Baldwin Smith

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2007 Lacey Baldwin Smith
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-89733-630-7



* * *

No people have engendered quite so much critical acclaim or earned such unrestrained and bitter censure as the British. The tight little island has been extolled as the Athens of modern times, the cradle of ideas and institutions that have shaped entire societies and encompassed the globe. Conversely the British, secure in their island isolation off the western shores of the European Continent, have driven Europe and indeed the rest of the world to fury by their insolent self-satisfaction and perfidious hypocrisy. For many, the words attributed to Duncan Spaeth still ring true — "I know why the sun never sets on the British Empire: God wouldn't trust an Englishman in the dark." How then is it possible to reduce such a masterpiece of contradictions into an ordered narrative, to comprehend the incomprehensible? The answer, of course, is that you can't, without calling upon the magic and conceit of storytellers who select and shape their material into whatever form their imaginations and personal biases dictate. And so a double warning is in order.

First, the Anglo-Saxon component of the British Isles is unabashedly given stage center over the Celtic fringe. Ireland, Scotland and Wales appear in this story only when they impinge on English history or when it is impossible to disentangle Anglo-Saxon from Celtic culture and history. After all, the English Royal House of Stuart was Scottish, the Tudors were Welsh, and the Duke of Wellington was Anglo-Irish. Second, the warts and follies of English history, though not forgotten, are neither exaggerated nor treasured. As a specimen of his species, the English lion, who actually started off as an Anglo-French leopard, may today be more than a little arthritic and a heraldic parody of his former magnificence, but in the past he was a splendidly ferocious beast. Over the years he has proved to be a surprisingly resilient creature, possessed of an unparalleled talent for dressing his aggressive instincts in the deceptive mantle of good intentions. As a consequence, true Anglophiles are always inclined to ignore his appetite for raw meat, forgive him his pride, dismiss his tendency to regard anyone born in the Celtic fringe as slightly fey and all visitors from the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan and Africa as ex-colonials, and concentrate on the magnificence of his royal performance.

When the author of this slim volume asked his friends, mostly at cocktail and dinner parties, to free-associate on the essence of Britishness, a few elderly types answered "Empire"; a younger generation spoke of warm beer, tea, umbrellas and the Royal Family; but the most common response of all was simply to say "history." Great Britain may no longer be a great world power, but Britannia still possesses a great history and, except for a short chapter on a few indispensable facts and figures about the tight little island, that is what this book seeks to recount: the English part of British history made brief, irreverent and pleasurable.



* * *

We invariably speak of the British Isles as two islands: England-Wales-Scotland and Ireland. Actually they are an "Atlantic archipelago" of 400 islands, of which 200 are inhabited. At one time the two major islands were attached — at their closest point only ten miles divide them — and scarcely 10,000 years ago the entire archipelago was connected, probably in a fairly marshy fashion, to the European continent.

The name Britain stems from Brythonic, one of the two dialects spoken by the Celtic peoples of the isles: Brythonic was the language of England and Wales, Goidelic the tongue of Scotland and Ireland. The Celtic peoples inhabited most of Western Europe, and though later generations of Britons might bitterly resent it, British Celts were closely tied to their continental brothers and sisters in culture and kinship, the Parisi of Yorkshire being related to those Celts in Gaul who gave their name to the river settlement that eventually grew into the capital of France.

In size, the two islands are only slightly larger than New England and New York combined. England is 50,000 square miles, which is 900 square miles larger than the State of New York; Wales is 8,016 square miles, or almost the size of Massachusetts; Scotland is 30,400 square miles, about equal to Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont combined; and Ireland (the Republic of and Northern Ireland) is 32,000 square miles, or the area of Maine. As a consequence, the British have difficulty comprehending the size of the rest of the world. The story is told that back in the days of sea travel, an English family sent their daughter off to New York. Not wanting to have their only child land unescorted in such a dangerous city, they telegraphed a friend in California asking him to meet her. He wired back, "Meet her yourself, you're closer."

By New World standards the tight little islands may be small, but in population, they are extremely crowded. The overwhelming bulk of the population — 46.2 million — live in England. That is as if you added to the State of New York, with 19 million inhabitants, the entire population of Texas and threw in Massachusetts for good measure. Nowhere in the world can one find so much variation packed into such a small space. The island boasts some 30,000 place names of which at least a third are unpronounceable and the rest delightfully inane, as Blubberhouses, Chew Magna, Great Snoring, Leighton Buzzard, Piddletrenthide, and Stiffkey (pronounced Stookey).

Travelers to Britain rarely realize how far north they are venturing. All of the British Isles, except the Channel Islands located deep in French territorial waters, lie north of the contiguous states of the USA. London is north of Newfoundland; Edinburgh is less than a degree south of Juno, Alaska; and the Shetland Islands, the furthest point north in Britain, are the same latitude as Julianehab, Greenland. What makes the climate bearable is the Gulf Stream, which is so essential to British existence that when in the nineteenth century a canal across the top of Florida was proposed, the British Government objected strenuously for fear it might deflect the Gulf Stream by a few crucial degrees. The idea was dropped. The mixture of warm Gulf Stream water that circulates both through the English Channel and north of Scotland and the arctic location of the archipelago produces some of the most capricious weather in the world. As a result British weather reports tend to read either "generally sunny with occasional showers" or "generally cloudy with occasional bright spots." The traveler is well advised to bring an umbrella and a summer-winter wardrobe.

Anyone who corresponds with a British friend knows how confusing it can be to address the letter. Should it be sent to England, Britain, Great Britain, or the United Kingdom? England is geographically limited to the southern and eastern two-thirds of the island of Britain, and Britain describes the entire island, including Wales and Scotland. (So don't call a Scotsman or Welshman an Englishman, but you may call an Englishman a Brit or British.) Great Britain is the legal political entity that came into being when England and Scotland were formally united in 1707, and the UK was created in 1801, when Ireland was absorbed into an even greater Great Britain. This is still the official designation, even though southern Ireland became an independent country in 1922, leaving only the northern counties as part of the UK. You stand a good chance of a friend in London receiving your letter addressed to England or Britain or Great Britain. Although the UK is the name you look for in an atlas or any official gazetteer, if you opt for UK, your letter is more than likely to arrive in the Ukraine, or even Uganda.

Britain used to be the land of the yard, the pound, the mile and the imperial gallon (larger than anybody else's gallon), all sacred measurements embedded in history. Legend maintains that Henry I (1100–1135) decreed the yard to be the distance between the tip of his nose and the end of his thumb. (The legal length of the yard, foot and inch are engraved in stone in Trafalgar Square, London.) Originally, the pound contained only twelve ounces, until Edward III (1327–77) rather arbitrarily decided it weighed sixteen ounces. The mile was first brought to Britain by the Romans and set at 1000 military double-steps, but was later redefined by Elizabethan statute to be exactly 5,280 feet. Local usage, and the nature of the liquid being bottled, determined the quantity of the gallon. But during the 1970s, British history and culture sustained an overwhelming defeat. The Kingdom was officially decimalized, leaving the United States to carry the historic torch almost alone. The rational, but alas "foreign," metric system, which had been part of the French baggage that followed in the wake of the Napoleonic conquest of Europe, finally triumphed, despite Waterloo and St. Helena. The meter, liter, and gram replaced the yard, gallon and ounce. As for pound sterling, that chaotic but endearing monetary system whereby there were 12 pence to the shilling and 20 shillings to the pound, vanished, when on February 14, 1971, the Queen's subjects were informed that there were now 100 pence to the pound and that the shilling was a victim of modernization. Only one archaic measure survives: the stone. True Britons still weigh themselves not in kilograms but in stones (14 pounds to the stone).

In one other area, however, the British have clung to their insular past: they still drive on the wrong, as opposed to the right, side of the road. For a time it looked as if in joining the European Union, the Kingdom would have to switch sides — the Swedes did — but now that the Japanese control the world's automobile market and themselves drive on the wrong side, the rest of us will have to worry about following suit.

English is still the official language of the Kingdom, but you may doubt it if you travel the London underground because London is the most cosmopolitan city in the world. Nevertheless, English-speaking tourists can generally make themselves understood, if only because English (much to the outrage of the French) has become the lingua franca of the world, which means everybody can understand us, but we don't have to understand them. It is important to remember, however, that the British don't speak American. Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde have all been credited with the bon mot "England and America are two countries separated by a common language." How true this is quickly becomes apparent when Americans ask for gasoline, a drugstore, the toilet, a truck, a napkin or a diaper. They are answered by, "Oh, you mean petrol, chemist, loo, lorry, serviette, and nappy." Be particularly careful if your landlady asks you if you take "tarts"; she is not running a brothel but offering you a jam or meat pie! Don't be upset if a Britisher offers to "knock you up"; he is only offering to wake you up in the morning, presumably for tea; but watch out if someone suggests a "quick shag." On the other hand, stopping at a "layby" is usually quite safe. Finally, do not ask for English muffins; no one has ever heard of them.

One final point about the British: they are extremely touchy about Europe and are far from united about joining the European Union. David Frost and Anthony Jay, good Brits both, once said the British define hell as a world "where the Germans are the police, the Swedish are the comedians, the Italians are the defense force, ... the Greeks run the government, and the common language is Dutch." As for the French and the Channel tunnel, "those whom God hath seen fit to cast asunder, let no man join together." So be careful when you refer to the UK as part of Europe. Brits get exceedingly irritated if you refer to them as Europeans.



* * *

On the basis of research in innumerable pubs, at sporting events and at social functions, W.C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman, the authors of 1066 and All That (1930) — the happiest short history of England ever written — maintain that there are only two memorable dates in English history: Julius Caesar's invasion of the island in 55 BC and William the Conqueror's victory at Hastings in 1066. It speaks wonders for the British temperament that it can exercise such economy of memory and that it should prefer to memorialize only the two greatest defeats the peoples of Britain have ever sustained. Very likely the authors, could they have carried on their research into more current times, would have found favor for a third memorable date: Britain's disastrous defeat at Dunkirk in June of 1940 which, through an extraordinary concatenation of priorities, has been transformed into the island's finest hour. Although this narrative of British history cannot claim such stringency of means, it does seek to maintain the same principle of memorability: history is not what happened in the past, but what today is worth remembering about the past.

In the Beginning

Although the dedicated Anglophile might prefer to have history commence with the coming of the Angles and the Saxons and their coinage of the name Angleland — later corrupted into England — the Romans got there first and invented the term "Britain." Credit for starting British history goes to Julius Caesar, because the Celtic population, who had arrived after 1000 BC to replace or intermingle with the original Bronze Age Beaker Folk and Urnfield People, had no written language and never recorded what they called their island home. However, Caesar's role in the Roman conquest was largely restricted to spreading the word that the island was ripe for the picking. He crossed the Channel from Gaul in 55 BC and again the following year, but was far too busy crossing his own Rubicon and limiting the number of would-be emperors to one — himself — to worry about Celtic barbarians living a thousand miles from Rome and the center of politics and classical culture. Then, eleven years later on the Ides of March, he also was eliminated. As a consequence the serious conquest of the island did not begin until 43 AD when, eventually, a Romanizing force of 60,000 administrators and soldiers transformed some four to six million Celts into proper Roman citizens for the next 300 years. This was a "civilizing" feat matched only by the British themselves a millennium and a half later, when 160,000 Brits succeeded in anglicizing the 300 million inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent and making them proper subjects of the British Imperial Crown.

The Celtic peoples and their predecessors in Britain had been in evidence since 3000 BC, give or take a few centuries. What the Celts lacked in ability to express themselves in writing, they made up in stone. All over the British Isles are granite, sandstone and volcanic outcroppings arranged as burial sites and magic circles. The most famous and mysterious of these is Stonehenge.


Stonehenge (Wiltshire) is possibly the most visited collection of rocks in the world. Placed in a series of concentric circles, they weigh up to 50 tons apiece, the smaller blue stones weighing in at four tons and quarried 135 miles away in Wales, the 50 tonners being mined locally and dragged a mere 24 miles. The original design goes back to the third millenium BC and was improved upon for the next thousand years. The picture of Druid priests making human sacrifices by moonlight is doubtless silly, but Stonehenge and the many other henge structures throughout Britain had something to do with burial rites, seasonal fertility ceremonies and possibly the worship of the sun and the figuring of astronomical calculations to predict solar and lunar eclipses. Alas, there are today so many tourists that visitors are no longer allowed within the magic circle, and are thus deprived of the right to add to British history by carving their names and sentiments in neolithic stone as countless generations have done. Close by, however, the traveler can visit Avebury Circle, the largest megalithic circle in Europe — over 11,000 feet in diameter — and Silbury Hill, the largest artificial mound in Western Europe: its 125-foot summit is large enough to hold all the stones of the two inner circles of Stonehenge. All these neolithic remains stand as enduring evidence of a people with few technological means "impelled by an overmastering impulse" to express themselves as best they could.


Excerpted from English History Made Brief, Irreverent and Pleasurable by Lacey Baldwin Smith. Copyright © 2007 Lacey Baldwin Smith. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Lacey Baldwin Smith is Professor Emeritus of History at Northwestern University and author of a number of histories and biographies, including Henry VII: The Mask of Royalty; Elizabeth Tudor: Portrait of a Queen; Treason in Tudor England: Politics and Paranoia; and Fools, Martyrs, Traitors: The Story of Martyrdom in the Western World, among others.

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English History Made Brief, Irreverent and Pleasurable 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Not a detailed work of history, but a completely entertaining read for an Anglophile. Whets ones appetite to further research various characters and facts. Helps us realize 'good government' is an aberration, not the norm.