In the style of ‘Longitude’ and ‘Fermat’s Last Theorem’, a narrative history of the making of the myth of the English. Three thousand years of our island history from Boadicea to Blair, from the acclaimed author of ‘Restitution’.
In 75,000 words Maureen Duffy covers three thousand years of history to show where the idea of the English has come from. The myth begins with the idea that the English were the original inhabitants of this island, that the ‘real’ natives of Britain are the English and anyone else is somehow a foreigner. The idea is captured by G K Chesterton in his popular poem of 1912 which begins ‘Before the Romans came to Rye or out to Severn strode/The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road’.
The first British heroes Boadicea and Caractacus ruled parts of an island that was divided into princedoms with names that sound like modern European football teams: the Iceni, Brigantes, Coritani and Catuvellauni. Boadicea was one of the many charismatic female leaders of the time. Tacitus, the Roman historian wrote that ‘the Britons make no distinction of sex in their appointment of commanders’. Not much evidence of the myth of the English rose here. Even in 1500 an anonymous Italian visitor described the English women as ‘very violent in their passion’.
The myth of the English woman is just one of the many threads in this fascinating book which explores the political, religious, environmental and physical influences that have arrived at the myth that is England. The Norman takeover; how the English became upper class and oppressed the rest of Britain; England becomes the Church of England; the contribution of Shakespeare to the myth; the Garden of England; the identification of class in dialect; the faking of the English working class, the British Bulldog – all are elements of the myth.
As Britain debates its future in Europe, this book – which shows how we have always been continentals – could hardly be more timely.