174. Painfully United

The UK has a painfully long name – the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. How it came to be united is also painful; it is a millennium long story full of warfare, with some significant sore losers.

Since BREXIT, every knowledgable news commentator is predicting at least a partial breakup of Great Britain. A full understanding of why would take a book. I am going to put it into shorthand, with all the inaccuracies that entails. None of what follows is wrong, but it’s a kindergarten primer.

Once upon a time the British Isles (that includes Ireland) were Celtic. During the first millennium AD, Germanic invaders began to raid and colonize. These invaders were speakers of Germanic languages, including the languages ancestral to English. That doesn’t mean they were Germans, as we use the word today. Germany came to nationhood only very recently.

Over centuries, these Germanic speaking invaders came to conquer a good deal of what is now England, and were essentially the native population by 1000 AD. One group, the Angles gave us the name England.

Meanwhile, a  bunch of Vikings (Northmen, Normans) conquered the part of western France which came to be called Normandy. They shed their Scandinavian branch of the Germanic language family and took up French, along with wine, clothing that wasn’t fur, and other aspects of a better life style. in 1066, William the Bastard crossed the channel and conquered England, becoming William the Conqueror. He brought top-down feudalism, displaced the local lords, handed out fiefdoms to his followers, and introduced French as the language of the court. Middle English became the language of the commoners; it would take centuries for English to supplant French as the language of the intelligentsia.

The Robin Hood legends with poor Saxon serfs under the hated Norman lords comes from this period.

Wales fell under English domination through simple conquest in 1284. Full union with England took place in 1536, at which time Welsh law was suppressed.

In what would become Scotland, ancestral languages similar to Middle English had already overtaken the lowlands by the time the followers of William moved in. Beyond the highland line, as in Ireland and Wales, Celtic languages remained. Over the centuries, Scotland became a nation, with its own kings, traditions, and court culture. As it did so, the ancestral languages evolved into Scots. Scots is not English with a bad accent; it is a similar but separate language with its own literature, used in the Scottish court.

Scotland and England fought intermittently throughout the centuries. Since England was larger and more fertile, and could field larger armies for longer times, England won more often than it lost. Scotland became sometimes a vassal state and at other times, nearly so.

When Queen Elizabeth died childless, her cousin James the Sixth of Scotland was given the English throne. His proper title became James the Sixth and First, but the English ignored his Scottish heritage. So did he. He was ill used as a child in Scotland, and he couldn’t get to London fast enough. Although a Scottish King on an English throne, his home country was only a bad memory to him. 1603 was called the Union of the Crowns, but Scotland still had its own parliament.

For four generations spanning most of a century, the Scottish/English kings had their hands full fighting against English protestants who disliked their Catholic leanings. Back in Scotland, rabid Protestants had increased their power. Mid-century brought about the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, sometimes called the English Civil War, although it was also fought well beyond the English border. It was a complex situation, with the English vs. the Scots, Royalists vs. those who opposed the Divine Rights of Kings, and Catholics vs. Protestants. Individuals found themselves torn between conflicting loyalties, and the changing of sides was common. The planting of American colonies was heavily influenced by these events.

1707 saw the Act of Union. The Scottish Parliament was subsumed by the English one, after English manipulations had nearly bankrupted Scotland. The Scots language was suppressed. At one point, maps labeled Scotland as North Britain.

Events in Ireland were even more harsh, with multiple invasions from England, annexation, the plantation of Scottish protestants in Northern Ireland during the War of the Three Kingdoms, the genocidal Irish Famine, rebellion, partition, and the Troubles. Since 1921 Northern Ireland has been part of Great Britain while the bulk of the island became the separate Republic of Ireland. Ironically, this was done by vote, during which Northern Ireland stayed with Great Britain basically because the mass plantation of Scottish (now Scots-Irish) Protestants three hundred years earlier had shifted demographics.

If this sounds like England bashing, I apologize. It’s a complex situation, but winners tend to be hated by losers, and those feelings can last a long time. Just ask anyone who lives on the route of General Sherman’s march to the sea. England, AKA Great Britain, was the most powerful country on Earth for a third of a millennium. Such a country makes enemies. Unfortunately, some of them live in England’s back yard.


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