This week’s blog comes from another of our MLitt British Studies students, Brian Symons. This is one of the assessments on our module ‘British Identities’, but Brian has also reflected on some of the material covered by our Archaeology module, ‘Britain Begins’. BS Img


Last year marked the 950th Anniversary of the Battle of Hastings.[1] For those not raised on the school version of history (despairingly known as M3 – Monarchy, Military and ‘Mpire) the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066. William the Bastard[2], a Norman Duke who claimed the throne to a substantial portion of Britain, invaded England, and defeated the indigenous army. Subsequently the Norman soldiers slaughtered the local population, primarily Saxon, burnt houses and crops, and killed livestock particularly in the area north of the River Humber. William then apportioned the country between his Norman Baronial supporters for their exploitation.

“Cavalier Normand, 1066.” by Vinkhuijzen, Hendrik Jacobus is licensed under CC0 1.0
‘Cavalier Normand, 1066’, by Hendrik Vinkhuijzen, licensed under CC0 1.0

Sitting on the seafront at Hastings two questions come to mind: why are we celebrating an invasion – apart from the obvious tourist potential, and why do I feel unsure if ‘we’ had won or lost?

It is tempting to search for continuity of ethnic identity in Britain; studies of the DNA of Celtic-Italic Y-Chromosome suggest that in early prehistory British ethnic identity was much the same as large parts of Western Europe, having a shared linguistic grouping with the European mainland.[3] Whilst this may represent a degree of ethnic homogeneity, by the time of the Roman invasions, according to Roman sources, the British Isles were populated by a large number of independent tribes or kingdoms most probably having some sense of separate identity[4].

The Roman invasion introduced to Britain significant numbers of troops, administrators and traders from the extensive racial and tribal diversity of the Empire: with consequent effect on the British gene pool.[5] Even in the Highlands where the Romans established some settlements, it is safe to assume that some degree of miscegenation, voluntary or involuntary, would have influenced the genetic mix even in areas with less direct Roman contact.

From the seventh century onwards there were extensive Norse invasions and settlements of Ireland, Scotland and the North of England with some thriving commercial settlements with Hiberno-Norse populations.[6] Additionally, if we accept 18th century writings, then far from being remote, the Picts and Scots ‘had frequent intercourse with the Romans, the Britons and the Western Highlanders, the Irish and merchants from different countries’.[7] It can be assumed that ‘intercourse’ in this context refers to contact, however it can be expected that such contact would also include the alternative reading of the term with consequent hybrid offspring.

Harley 7182 f.60v
British Isles from BL Harley 7182, f. 60v by Ptolemy, licensed under PDM 1.0

Interestingly, records at the time of the 7th to 9th century commenting on Scandinavian settlers in northern and eastern England, distinguish between the Danes and the Norsemen, the latter being those invaders who had come from Dublin.[8] In addition to the Norse, Danes and Romans, the centuries saw successive migrations to the British Isles of Celts, Jutes, Angles and Saxons with much mingling of these peoples; and of course the Normans.[9]

I choose to identify myself, if pressed, as English yet I have Cornish and border Reiver recent ancestors. I love music and savour melancholy so does ancestry and disposition make me Celtic? London is my spiritual home, not because I see it as superior but it was where I spent my formative years, but now I live in the Highlands. So which part of this makes my identity: Britishness, Englishness or Scottishness or some other fusion of genes and character? Having lived and worked in many places the notion that identity arises from a blend of place and culture is a weak paradigm for me. Certainly I identify with British culture, even if I am often at odds with some of its elements, but this feels like a small, plastic identity in the current world.

“Franklins 1066” by wonker is licensed under CC BY 2.0
“Franklins 1066” by wonker, licensed under CC BY 2.0

However there is certain value and perhaps pride to be taken in the hybrid nature of the British but little to support any notion of a racially pure (if such a thing exists) British identity or indeed any of the four nations’ identities. Identity is not physiological; in the historian’s view identity and national identity is a subjective process by which we and our associated groups identify ourselves, usually with reference to common interests or by contrast with ‘others’.[10] All identities are therefore constructed: we are given them in childhood and they are socially and culturally reinforced by education and the media; however in the end we choose our identities. Starting with my own self-referential meta-identity of British, a descriptor of the geographical identity of being of the British Isles, then sub identities under this umbrella are fluid but in the end equally self-referential.

Whilst the conventional qualities of identity are currently being challenged as being over simplistic[11], they have an emotional resonance, else why should I feel, without any intellectual justification, that ‘we’ lost the Battle of Hastings.

[1] ‘ROOT 1066’ <http://www.hastings.gov.uk/arts_culture/root/&gt; [accessed 15 November 2016].

[2] John Gillingham, ‘William the Bastard at War’, in C. Harper-Bill, et al., Studies in Medieval History Presented to R. Allen Brown (Woodbridge, 1989), pp. 141–58.

[3] Patrick Sims-Williams, ‘Bronze- and Iron-Age Celtic-Speakers: What Don’t We Know, What Can’t We Know, and What Could We Know? Language, Genetics and Archaeology in the Twenty-First Century’, The Antiquaries Journal, 92 (2012), pp. 427–49.

[4] Barry W. Cunliffe, Britain Begins, First Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[5] Cunliffe, Britain Begins.

[6] James Graham-Campbell and Colleen E. Batey, Vikings in Scotland : An Archaeological Survey (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998).

[7] Anon., ‘A Speculation on the Origin and Characteristical Manners of the Picts and Scots’, The Scots Magazine, 56 (1739), p. 756.

[8] Dawn M Hadley, ‘Viking and Native: Re–thinking Identity in the Danelaw’, Early Medieval Europe, 11.1 (2002), pp. 45–70.

[9] Norman Davies, The Isles: A History (London: Macmillan, 1999).

[10] Peter Mandler, ‘What Is “National Identity”? Definitions and Applications in Modern British Historiography’, Modern Intellectual History, 3.2 (2006), pp. 272–74.

[11] Mandler. ‘What Is “National Identity”?’

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