England’s historical relationship with Europe and what this means for Brexit and the future.
In 1475 Edward IV of England signed a treaty with Louis XI of France in which he formally renounced his claim to the French throne. The war that would later be called the Hundred Year’s War finally came to an end. This marked a huge geopolitical and cultural shift for England. It would stop seeking to regain lost territory on the European continent and a generation later would embark on a colonisation programme that would eventually encompass the Americas, Africa, Asia and Australasia. This shift helps to explain Britain’s current ambivalence towards Europe and will influence the referendum on 23rd June 2016 on whether Britain remains part of the European Union. History Future Now goes back in time to see how the past impacts our present and our future.
Stage 1: Scandinavian and Norman invaders lock England into Europe
Prior to 1066 England had been an Anglo-Saxon dominated country with a large Danish minority that lived in much of eastern England. These Germanic and Nordic tribes had gradually supplanted the Romano British peoples after the fall of the Roman Empire in the west. England was thoroughly integrated into the culture of the North Sea. Canute the Great, for example, who died in 1035 and is famous for commanding the tide not to come in, was simultaneously King of England, King of Denmark and King of Norway. After the successful invasion of England by William Duke of Normandy, in 1066, the geopolitical orientation of England shifted from the North Sea to the lands to the south of the English Channel.
It is worth noting that the Normans themselves were originally Nordic raiders who had successfully taken over northern France with the reluctant agreement of the French monarchy who hoped that these Viking raiders would stop further incursions and invasions by their brethren. These Viking raiders married local women, abandoned their Nordic gods, language and names and became Christian, adopted French customs and swore fealty to the King of France. So when William invaded England he brought this French culture with him to England. He replaced nearly all of the old Anglo-Saxon-Danish land-owning aristocracy with Norman and French nobles who had joined him in his gamble to take the crown of England.
For several hundred years these Norman and French elites maintained their estates in both France and in England. England was a foreign country, to be dominated by castles and to be exploited. The main language spoken by these invaders was an early form of French which gradually diffused into the Anglo-Saxon language spoken by the majority of the population living in England. The ruling family in England, the Plantagenets for most of this period, controlled large swathes of what is now western France for centuries. Richard I, who is thought of in England as a “good English king”, barely spent 6 months of his ten year reign as King of England in England and imoored huge taxes to fund his Crusades. To highlight how French they were, both Henry II , who died in 1189, and his son Richard I, who died in 1199, were buried in Fontevraud Abbey near Anjou, France, and not in England.
The nobles were feudal subjects to the descendants of William, who had became King William I of England, for their lands in England and feudal subjects to the French king for their lands in France. Curiously, the English king was also a feudal vassal of the French king for their lands in France, a situation that frequently caused issues when conflicts between the ruling families of each country flared up.
Over time both the nobility and royal family lost their lands in France. The primary cause was how lands were split between children, as part of their inheritance. If you had two sons and had lands both in France and in England one son might inherit the bulk of the lands in France and the other the bulk of lands in England. As this practice happened over multiple generations the nobles in England would have very few French possessions and the nobles in France would have very few English possessions.
This had profound consequences. The less involvement the English nobility had in France the less supportive they were of fighting in France to defend Plantagenet family holdings. This accelerated the loss of French lands by the Plantagenet family culminating in King John’s loss of the Duchy of Normandy, the original landholding of the Norman conquerors of England, in 1204.
Stage 2: England abandons Europe and develops a global empire
As England’s royal family and nobility became increasingly English – and spoke English as their main language- and less French they also found other lands that they could take over and hold more easily – those in the Americas. In 1497, five years after Christopher Columbus discovered the Caribbean islands on a voyage financed by the Spanish ruling family, another Genoese navigator, John Cabot, discovered eastern Canada on a voyage financed by Henry VII of England. Further voyages resulted in establishments of colonies along the eastern seaboard of North America. After the American colonies became independent in 1783 Britain’s overseas empire would shift to Africa, India, the far East and Australasia.
England’s policy towards Europe gradually shifted from one of engagement and trying to retake lost lands in France to trying to maintain a balance of power so that no single European country could threaten England’s overseas empire. Europe switched from being the homeland of the nobility who ruled England to being a source of trouble, conflict and competition. In the 1500s Spain was a major threat to England. In the 1600s and the 1700s France was a major threat. In the 1900s Germany and then the Soviet Union became a major threat.
Stage 3: England loses its global empire and seeks to re-engage with Europe
After the end of the Second World War Britain went through a process of decolonisation. Colonies, which had been perceived as a source of great strength, became economic and political liabilities. Britain’s white colonies, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, which had emerged as