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'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’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.

It comes as a surprise to learn, from Norman Davies’ book, that there exist something like 12,000 years of history prior to the Celts, albeit sketchy; that the legacy of the Romans was minimal; that the so-called Dark Ages were far more complex and nuanced than I had imagined (and not all that 'dark'); and that the Vikings’ role in the history of the islands was much more intricate than I had previously learned. The biggest shock, though, was discovering the real nature, extent and evolution of William I’s take-over of Britain. I found out that the Norman invasion was far more piecemeal and convoluted than school history books outlined — in fact, parts of it read far more like privatised mercenary incursions into foreign territory than a state-sponsored invasion. I learned that what we think of as England was much, much more a part of a feudal arrangement with France than I ever envisaged. Davies’ knack of retaining the key personages’ French names helps the reader to re-interpret familiar events. The barons’ subjugation of King John at Runnymede, for example, which resulted in the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, was actually part of a much wider, less clear and ever-shifting pattern of feudal and family allegiances which gives the impression that Britain was a stranger to settled peace of any kind for hundreds of years. And that’s without even touching upon the multi-faceted stories of Scotland, Ireland and Wales.

It’s a fascinating read — a re-education, in fact. We’re taught as school children that the Magna Carta was a key piece in what seemed like an inevitable progression towards parliamentary democracy and ever-increasing civic liberty, as part of the myth which places the United Kingdom in general and England in particular at the centre of world events and which encourages us to feel superior to other parts of the world still, despite the vanishment of Empire almost a century ago. The rise of Parliament is often seen as inexorable in common histories — an examination of the facts from different perspectives reveals this to be anything but the case.

All of this is intriguing in its own right, but it is dynamite material for storytellers. Robin Hood, for example — that famous tale of a disenfranchised Saxon noble who gathers a group of good-hearted warriors in the depths of Sherwood Forest to fight back against the Norman oppressors until Good King Richard returns — is shown to be more of a fiction than he already was. The ‘Normans’ as a cohesive force tend to collapse into a far more complex history of gangs and squabbles. And ‘Good King Richard’ is seen as something of a cruel gangster who spent less then six months of his reign in England and most of it involved in self-seeking atrocities in the Middle East.

This is not to give the impression that life during this long period was without pleasure or peace at all, but the main effect so far of Davies’ book is to shatter myths, some of them dear and some of them never before viewed clearly at all. Reading it is almost like reading an alternate history, scattered with familiar and unfamiliar names, all behaving quite differently to what was described in the school history books.


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