Why England is not Europe

An excerpt from David Starkey’s Crown and Country: A History of England through the Monarchy that gives an insight into why England is so different from continental Europe.


We tend to think of the Norman Conquest as the turning point in the history of England. But the Saxon Conquest was even more important, since it created both the reality and the idea of England itself.

Proportionately, it was the largest immigration that Britain has ever known. Moreover, as most of the incomers were men, it quickly turned from immigration into conquest. In the areas of densest Anglo-Saxon settlement, in the east and the Midlands, DNA evidence shows that up to ninety per cent of the native male population was displaced — they were driven west or killed — and their women, their villages and their farms taken over by the incomers. This was ethnic cleansing at its most savagely effective. And it was not only blood that changed.

This was ethnic cleansing at its most savagely effective.

The Anglo-Saxon immigrants imposed their own language: Old English. Most former places of habitation — towns, villages and villas — were abandoned and new ones established, to which new, English names were given. They also gave new names to natural features, such as mountains and rivers and woods. And they remade as well as renamed the landscape. In the fullness of time, they even gave the country they had conquered a new name: Britannia became the land of the Angles or Ængla Land.

This immigration at the point of the sword led to an outcome that was unique in the former territories of the Empire. For the sack of Rome in AD 410 had been followed sixty years later by the fall of the Empire itself in the west in AD 476. Nevertheless, in most places — in Italy and what were to become France and Spain — things continued pretty much as before. The cities with their bishops survived; ‘senatorial’ aristocrats continued to entertain each other in their opulent villas; the trade routes to the East remained open. The difference was that in place of the emperor, barbarian German leaders took over the imperial role. They divided it and localised it. But they kept all of the wealth, pomp and authority they could.

But in Britannia it was a different story. Here the fall of Rome really marked the end of Roman-ness. Despite their height and strength, the walls of Rutupiae (Richborough) and the other forts of the Saxon Shore were overwhelmed and abandoned. So were the walled towns. And their ruin marks the ruin of Britain. Or at least it marks the annihilation of everything that was Roman about Britain: the law, the language, the literature, the religion and the politics all vanished.

Quite why the Anglo-Saxons should have behaved so differently from their fellow Germanic tribesmen across the Channel it is hard to say. Perhaps the Britons, who, unlike the demoralised and by this time largely barbarian Roman field-army, were defending their own homes and families, simply fought too hard. Perhaps, in the fifty years since cutting off the imperial ties in AD 409, Romanised Britain had ceased to be a going concern, where, unlike the Continent again, there was nothing much for the barbarian invaders to buy into. Perhaps the Anglo-Saxons (and some of the Britons too) simply wanted to be different.

In Britannia, uniquely in western Europe, there was a fresh start.

But the important thing is that in Britannia, uniquely in western Europe, there was a fresh start. For along with their new language, the Anglo-Saxons brought a new society, new gods and a new, very different set of political values. And from these, in time, they would create a nation and an empire which would rival Rome. A version of their tongue would replace Latin as the lingua franca; English Common Law would challenge Roman Law as the dominant legal system; and they would devise, in free-market economics, a new form of business that would transform human wealth and welfare. Most importantly, perhaps, they would invent a new politics which depended on participation and consent, rather than on the top-down autocracy of Rome. It is a story to be proud of and, at its heart, lies a single institution: the monarchy.


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