Friday, November 06, 2009

The many entities within the Isles

This post returns to issues raised by Norman Davies' history, The Isles.

In my second post in this series, I referred to the confusion that could arise over the term British and the often conflation of that term with English.

I think that the key thing to remember in considering the evolution not just of British but also of related terms such as Celts, English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish is the very long time spans involved. The constructs that we accept and use today simply did not exist for much of the human history of the Isles.

During the terminal ice age, human habitation of what would become the Isles ceased. In what would become Australia, too, settlement retreated, if not as badly. Around 10,000 BC, improving conditions allowed human re-occupation of the the peninsular area that would form the Isles.

As a side-track, I have to be allowed these, it is a very long time since I looked at European pre-history. I was actually struck by the similarities with the Australian experience - the same climatic improvement, the advance of the seas, then came what Australian pre-historians have called intensification: rising population densities associated with technological change. The constructs that are used to interpret European pre-history do not fit. But if you stand back from these and look at underlying processes, there are similarities. Still, that's another story,

The first historical reference to the Isles dates from 325 BC, some 9,500 years after human re-occupation. By then, the Isles had been, well, the Isles, for a very considerable period.

The history of the Isles has been quite a bloody one, although again the pattern does not fit easily with modern constructs nor, for that matter, with the Whig version (the previously dominant paradigm) of English history.

Some idea of the complexity we face can be gauged by simply listing from Davies some of the "state" entities that have existed in the Isles during the known period:

  • the High Kingship of Ireland to AD 1169
  • the ancient British tribal principalities to c AD 70
  • Independent "Pictland" to the ninth century AD
  • Roman Britannia 43-c410 AD
  • the independent British/Welsh principalities from the fight century to 1283, including Cumbria, Cornwall and Strathclyde
  • the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms from the fifth to the tenth centuries
  • The Kingdom of the Scots from the ninth century to 1651, and 1660-1707
  • the Kingdom of England from the tenth century to 1536, together with its dependencies including the Channel islands, the Isle of Mann, the Welsh March and England occupied Wales and Ireland
  • the Kingdom of England and Wales, 1536-1649, 1660-1707
  • the Kingdom of Ireland, 1541-1642, 1660-1707
  • The Commonwealth and Free State of England, Wales and Ireland 1649-1654
  • the Commonwealth of Great Britain and Ireland 1654-1060
  • the United Kingdom of Great Britain 1707-1800
  • the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland 1801- 1922
  • the Irish Free State (later Eire and then the Republic of Ireland) since 1922
  • the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland since 1922.

So the constitutional entity that sent the First Fleet was in fact both a United Kingdom and a Great (er) Britain.

In some ways, Norman Davies' list only scratches the surface because there were more entities, including especially the occupation of parts of the Isles by other entities, as well as the long running claim by the Kings of England to parts of France and even the French throne, and indeed counter claims.

It's all very confusing, isn't it? Yet out of this melange came what was in many ways arguably the world's first modern state, as well as the super power of the nineteenth century.

Looking again at the history of the Isles through Davies eyes, I found that the reading and writing I have done over recent years has caused shifts in my own perceptions. I am struck by different things.

In my next post I will look at the emergence of some of the labels that we attach to the Isles and its peoples. I for one did not know the exact history.

Note to Readers: for a full list of posts in this series see Train Reading - Norman Davies The Isles: a history 1.

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