England’s historical relationship with Europe and what this means for Brexit and the future.  

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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.

Norman invasion

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.

British Empire Map 1915

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

About the Author

- Tristan Fischer is the author of all the articles on History Future Now. He is the Chairman of Lumicity Ltd, a company developing renewable energy infrastructure projects, Chairman of Fischer Farms Ltd, a vertical farming company using hydroponics, and a board Director of Fish From Ltd, an onshore salmon company. He previously worked for Camco International, Shell Renewables and Citigroup. He was educated at Cambridge University. To find out more click here: https://uk.linkedin.com/in/tristanfischer

  • Alison H

    I don’t think anyone is naïve enough still to be dreaming of the days of Empire, but there are many concerns and issues relating to EU membership. Having said which, I don’t think there’ll be a vote for Brexit, because people tend to vote on the lines of better the devil you know than the uncertainty you don’t know.

  • Lawrence JM

    There is a ghost of an Empire and it’s ex British Hong Kong where many Blue Eyed Chinese do not look 100% Chinese. I interviewed few and they do have a wild tale to tell in their exposure to the West from being on the Titanic to building Railroads in Texas to doing what ever in Chinatown in San Francisco. It is also, follow the money to Shanghai.

  • Malcom S

    Britain gained a permanent seat within the United Nations Security Council but Britain is a small country with less influence than in 1945. Even then we were no longer the industrial, commercial, imperial or political power we had been. Our military prowess was based largely on naval supremacy and financial support of our continental allies to fight a proxy war on our behalf. Since WW2 Britain has not faced a major adversary on its own. It fought a couple of essentially colonial wars and Argentina. The U.S.A. forced Britain to back down over Suez. Going to war is hopefully a thing of the past but these events highlight Britain’s changing place and role in Europe and the world. Britain joined age north atlantic treaty organisation and the European Economic Community in an attempt to bolster our waning influence. We felt we would be better off as part of a multinational group, that we would still have influence within those bodies.

    The E.E.C. evolved to promote co-operation rather than confrontation in western Europe. The British government later viewed membership of this economic union as beneficial. This his since developed into a political grouping. For most of our 40+ years as a member the Conservative party was in power and they oversaw this process.

    Britain played a major role in the establishment of the European Convention on Human Rights but recent publicity has turned the public against The European Court of Human Rights. The other ‘big issue’ is corruption and lack of accountability. Cameron ‘stuck his neck’ out but hasn’t achieved much of a ‘deal’. It is apparent that he always wanted to remain in the E.U. but his inability to negotiate any real concessions harms his case. He would have better trying to establish some means of overhauling and enforcing an effective auditing system. This would have gained him wider support in Britain and in Europe and would have appeared less negative.

    Maybe a vote for Britain to remain in the E.U. would provide some impetus to reform the organisation. Cameron should also have not used public funds to promote the ‘stay’ campaign. That may be the Government’s policy but the Cabinet is very divided so he doesn’t really have a mandate to use the taxpayers’ money. The intervention of external agencies does not help either. President Obama’s comments were immediately rebuffed with remarks about American defence of their sovereignty, but the U.S.A. is a member of N.A.T.O., admittedly by far the most influential, partly on the basis of its commitment. On the other hand Obama only articulated the reality of a post-Brexit scenario. There would be no point telling us after the event. Johnson’s comments don’t help his cause either.

    It would be informative to be offered clear figures of what we contribute and what we receive. The Brexit pamphlet for example starts with our £20 billion contribution. We were told this money would help to rebuild the N.H.S. This is in fact an admission of how precarious are the finances of our health service. Instead with the £5 billion rebate we contribute £15 billion. Various regions and industries receive money from the E.U. Our net ‘loss’ is something less than £4 billion. Individually that’s the equivalent of a broadband or Sky T.V. subscription. It depends on the hidden benefits you gain through membership or what you achieve through independence but those evaluations are less objective. 15 billion sounds a lot it is. So is 4 billion. Britain gives almost £12 billion in overseas aid.

    The world is a very different place from 1973. It is much more cosmopolitan. A million Britons own property in Europe. That may be enough to sway the vote. Britain has been a member the E.E.C/E.U. for over 40 years. Having joined a ‘club’ it will be difficult and unsettling to leave. That is the unknown. Will we be ‘ostracised’, will we be ignored, as Obama implies? Immigration and security are additional issues that have come to the fore in recent months. What is the impact of E.U. membership?

    ‘Brexit’ may harm or benefit Britain. It will damage the E.U. Other countries may follow suit.

    • fritz123

      “Maybe a vote for Britain to remain in the E.U. would provide some impetus to reform the organisation.” Yes!! Thanks for the overview. Suez, I posted some youtube BBC doc on it on fb today with the title “yes minister”. It sounds so terrible familiar from Chalabi etc and the Iraq war. The US were very wise in this situation IMHO. Much more wise than in 1990 and later.

  • Holland P

    As for the EU in general, this is the first time since the EU was formed has the government asked the people their opinion. Successive governments have taken it upon themselves to transfer powers to the EU without reference to the wishes of the electorate. This is one promise that Cameron was unable to get out of.

    You would think that less power in parliament would mean less need for government or lower salaries, you would be wrong. Salaries have risen faster than almost any sector, bar banking and charities. it is true that, finally, the government is looking to cut the number of MP’s.

  • Adam S

    What a fascinating perspective on the Brexit debate. Isolationism from Europe since 1475 and confusion since the end of the 2nd World War. Problem we have seen from Scottish question is that referenda do not solve issues. Will Brexit people accept a 51% majority or will we suffer for the next 50 years?

  • Charlie R

    It is unfortunate that the so-called “informed” debate to date seems low on fact and high on emotion and riven with hyperbole and a noticeable lack of impartiality from the BBC (no surprise there) and £9.3m on a leaflet drop may only serve to drive the undecideds into the Brexit camp. However what was meant to be economic nirvana appears to be lurching towards inexorable unelected federalism which in the current climate is totally unacceptable – it seems that the 1982 vintage has his finger on the pulse to a greater extent than the 1984

    vintage – Discuss!

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