'The Isles' - What You Never Knew About the History of Britain


Have you ever had a book on your bookshelf for almost twenty years before you decide to actually sit down and begin reading it?

In the last year, looking around for reading material, I finally decided to read some of the books I had purchased many years ago ‘because they looked good’. One of these, The Isles, by Norman Davies, is a non-fiction volume almost two inches thick. Over the years, it has daunted me by its size, but attracted me through its subject matter — an over two thousand years' history of the British Isles — so that I have only recently opened it again with a view to getting through it, once and for all. I haven’t yet finished it — I’m about a third of the way through — but what I have read so far is worthy of comment.

I’ve always been fascinated by history, particularly the history of Britain, but I am gradually learning from this book that what I thought I knew about it was at least partly an illusion, a conjuration, a creation of historians rather than ‘what actually happened’. I remember at school that, given the option of doing a ‘project’ about anything, I would usually choose some aspect of British history. On a personal level, this was perhaps because I felt trapped in the Australian desert, surrounded by sometimes aggressively anti-British Australians, and wanted to cling to my national heritage — but whatever the motivation, what I thought I knew as the basic pattern of the last couple of thousand years was the following narrative, which may be familiar to you too:

The British Isles, occupied by largely Celtic tribes, is invaded by the Romans, who bring with them ‘civilisation’, including roads and planned towns, villas with central heating and a new civic regime; later, the Romans, pulled home by barbarian invasions of Rome, abandon the islands to the Dark Ages, the time of the legendary King Arthur, and the land is gradually overrun by wave after wave of Angles, Saxons and Jutes, who form a set of kingdoms the names of many of which remain today: Essex, Sussex, Middlesex and even Wessex (at least in Thomas Hardy’s novels) and so on. The more primitive Celts are pushed to the edges, geographically. Into this more or less settled new picture come the Vikings, ruthlessly raiding the coasts at first but gradually invading until they occupy more than half the country.

Along comes King Alfred, whose wisdom and military acumen drives back the Vikings. In a couple of hundred years, things again settle into a kind of equilibrium but this is shattered again by the Norman invasion, which heralds two or three centuries of upheaval, during which legends of Robin Hood and Richard the Lionheart grow. This then becomes the ‘Middle Ages’, which come to an end with the Reformation, Henry’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, and Elizabeth I’s ‘Golden Age’.

I won’t go any further — I’ve already gone beyond the point I’ve reached in the book. But I can report that almost everything in the narrative above is false or only slenderly connected with fact.