We’re delighted to publish a series of blog posts written by MLitt students at the Centre for History, University of the Highlands as part of their coursework for the module ‘British Identities’. This week, Susan Church examines the complexities of Englishness.

On the Blackwater estuary, sits the small town of Maldon and its port, the Hythe. Here at the end of a promenade, looking seaward is the statue of Earl Brythnoth. Over a thousand years ago, Brythnoth with his small army and questionable tactics failed to repel a Viking invasion, resulting in occupation and payment of Danegeld.[1]

Brythnoth statue, Maldon
By Oxyman – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4004207


Does this statue inform in any way about ‘Englishness’?  It certainly represents one of the key moments when two of the many ethnic strands of English identity were irretrievably joined.  But it also highlights how ethnicity hinders any attempt to define Englishness; the English are mixed, “the product of successive invasions from all over Europe”, not to mention immigration from empire. [2] Englishness cannot be tied to ethnicity because there is no English ‘race’.

The English language is no help either; it is synonymous with the whole British World and beyond; the English no longer have ownership. So, is Englishness, like Britishness, a convenient, overarching political construct?   Perhaps not; from 1537, the Book of Common Prayer, referred to ‘this Realm of England’ so England’s borders, although at times fluid and contested, are old.[3]

The unique ‘water land’ of East Anglia, Colley has suggested, exhibited a ‘peculiar separateness’ from the rest of Britain – at least until 1914. [4] It’s an interesting observation and highlights the challenge of compressing a multiplicity of identities into a single English national identity.

Englishness also puzzled the socialist author George Orwell who wrote, “Are we not forty-six million individuals, all different? And the diversity of it, the chaos!” “How can one make a pattern out of this entire muddle?”  [5]

And how can the tension between rural and urban be reconciled?  In Essex, the Dengie peninsula, pinned on three sides by the Rivers Crouch and Blackwater and the North Sea, is characterized by winding creeks and water meadows,  isolated farms, small hamlets and lonely villages; it exhibits a remoteness alien to global and cosmopolitan London, the old Imperial centre, just one hour’s drive away. [6]

Kumar however sees no muddle or need to reconcile, but suggests that Empire caused the English to suppress any strong sense of national identity; Englishness was considered anti-imperial. [7] So perhaps Englishness is subtle, ‘a rather shy and reclusive bird’; rooted at regional and local levels, gelling into something that is felt and lived rather than constantly articulated – football matches excepted![8]  And could it, as Orwell implied, reside in ‘difference’?

Indeed, difference is naturally imposed by the sheer variety of geology, landscapes, towns and villages, crammed into a small country. It is visibly manifested in  traditional building materials; flint knap,  London Brick, Bath, Cotswold, York,  and Portland  stone are not just markers of place but of  difference. Pevsner acknowledged this as he sought to understand Englishness through architecture.

Some aspects of regional/local identity – Cockney cheerfulness, Mancunian work ethic, Lancashire reliability, Yorkshire stubbornness – have been projected as English characteristics.  So, despite being complex, ‘problematic and varied’, ‘difference’ embedded in local identities and regions, can provide ‘building blocks’ for Englishness.[9]

Although the English language no longer belongs solely to England, regional accents are deeply ingrained in Englishness. Also, regions fragment into divisions of place and sometimes produce very local dialects. In Maldon, a series of streets adjacent to the Hythe produced the ‘Dagger Lane’ dialect, spoken by the fishing families who ‘unknowingly protected Viking, Anglo-Saxon and Huguenot words and sayings’. [10]

Individualism and the toleration of eccentricity appear integral to ‘difference’. Young suggests that the English dare to be themselves rather than “conform to the uniform demands of a collective identity”.[11] This in part would help explain (but not excuse) some of the more peculiar English traditions; Norfolk dyke jumping, Gloucestershire cheese rolling, the Maldon Mud Race and playing cricket on Bramble bank in the middle of the Solent – at low tide of course!

But people relocate. Populations change in ethnicity. If ‘difference’ is the key to Englishness then it must accommodate change – after all the English are not a ‘race’ but a people.   How does Englishness cope with such changes in its ‘differences’?  Young posits the idea that Englishness has a sheer indifference to difference although those who have experienced racial discrimination might not agree.[12]

If national identity is about self-recognition, then the statue of Brythnoth is a reminder that perhaps Englishness includes an acceptance of the heavy baggage of history.   [13] It is as much about where a person resides as where they are from; ‘a feeling, a sentimental attachment to territory shared by like-minded people’.[14]    It’s also about acknowledging difference (or indifference) and being able to look ‘forwards and back in order to embody both the living and the dead’.[15]

Vive la difference!

[1] The Anglo Saxon Chronicle,  991 AD

[2]  Robert J.C Young,   ‘The Disappearance of the English: Why is there no ‘English Diaspora’ ?’ in Tanja Bueultmann, David T. Gleeson, Donald M. Macraild (Ed.) Locating the English Diaspora, 1500 – 2010  (, Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 2012) pp. 227-228

[3] Simon, Heffer.  Five Hundred Years of Englishness (Centre for English Identity and Politics, University of Winchester, 2017) pp13-23

[4] Linda Colley Britons Forging the Nation 1707-1837  (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2014)  p.298

[5] Ben Clarke  ‘Orwell and Englishness’ The Review of English Studies, New Series, Vol57, No.228 (Feb., 2006), p.90

[6] Stephen Emms, ‘ Britain’s Wild East’ The Guardian, 24 March 2009

[7] Krishan Kumar, ‘Empire, Nations and National Identity’  in  Thompson Andrew (Ed) Britain’s Experience of Empire in the Twentieth Century  (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2011)  pp.9-10

[8] Anthony D. Smith ‘The Master Ornithologist’,  in John Hutchinson, Susan Reynolds, Anthony D Smith., Robert Colls and Krishan Kumar ‘Debate on Krishan Kumar’s The Making of English National Identity’   Nations and Nationalism 13 (2), 2007, p. 188

[9] Paul Ward, Britishness since 1870, (Abingdon, Routledge, 2004) pp. 68-72

[10] Arthur and Michael Emmett, Blackwater Men, 1992, (Bishops Stortford, Seax Books,  1992)

[11] Young,    Locating the English Diaspora,  pp. 227-228

[12]  Ibid

[13] Heffer.  Five Hundred Years of Englishness ( 2017) pp13-23

[14] Edward Royal  in Paul Ward Britishness Since 1870 p. 67

[15] Robert Colls ‘The Making of English National Identity or Krishan’s Kasino’  in John Hutchinson, Susan Reynolds, Anthony D Smith., Robert Colls and Krishan Kumar ‘Debate on Krishan Kumar’s The Making of English National Identity’   Nations and Nationalism 13 (2), 2007, p.131