This trilogy of publications by Brian Milne examines what has brought Britain to brink of isolation and aversion to the principals of the European Union. In part one, Brian goes back to the birth of a nation, England and brings us on a journey that leads to the birth of a union of the British Isles and trading empire abroad.
Part One: England, uncomfortably united with neighbours and first empire
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I shall begin…
I am going to probably appear like a history bore for many of you. It is a small price to pay for what are actually diagnoses of the UK’s allergy to the EU and the depth of contradiction and hypocrisy that are there immediately under the surface just waiting to be scratched, thus revealed as raw wounds. I am dividing the story into three parts which will be published one shortly after the other. This is the first. So, let me begin.
Let’s start over with a blank canvas, as if we do not know geography, history and such fripperies by looking at our subject. There is a place in the world where a large number of ethnicities, cultures and languages came together, wave after wave, for hundreds of years thus suppressing the aboriginal people’s claim to their country and leaving more or less only archaeological evidence of the indigenous groups’ existence. That place exists because it took parts of each of those waves to give it what it considers to be its own very unique culture, its bastard language is now the third most spoken and because of the Internet the most written on this planet. That place is, of course, England. It must be England, not Britain, Great Britain or the United Kingdom, since parts of those places that include England have their own histories and languages. Yet this mongrel nation and its less than willing adjuncts are engaged in a contradiction that probably beats many other geopolitical and historic contradictions over several centuries hands down.
In the past, England, later the United Kingdom, fought wars against European nations who are now supposed to be equals. In some cases they lost leaving resentment that continues to this day, in others they won proving their superiority. Whatever the case may be, the assumption was always that other countries are not as good as England, but now the UK, which stands out above all other countries and forever shall be so. At least, as they see it. That has translated into an inability to join with others as equals, since the assumed superiority should mean that they are a notch above all others, thus could lead but not follow or be equals. The long sulk in the European Union since 1992 has come to a head with an advisory referendum to sound out people’s feelings on membership that has been translated disingenuously into a mandate to leave the EU.
We are now getting used to the shorthand version of what that is. We call it Brexit. The question it begs is how the UK, dominated by England as its founding force, has come to this? The United Kingdom itself is an artifice. It may be ‘old’ but is it not customary to dispose of old things when they become obscure and no longer function properly? Like the UK that at present appears to be engaged in political and economic suicide.
The slow and painful birth of the first union
How did this union happen? Of course, up until 1066 there was no England as we perceive it, but along came William, Duke of Normandy, who won at Hastings and kept pushing inward. England became a single realm. Around 1200 the Normans began to push their way into Wales and after disputes, invasions and eventual defeat, the Welsh became part of the Kingdom of England with the Statute of Rhuddlan in 1284. That was the easy bit and the beginning of 800 years of the English empire.
Scotland was never conquered by the Normans. William I tried to invade Scotland in 1072 but failed. The border between Scotland and England was always in dispute; there were skirmishes, battles and wars but the first few centuries following the Norman invasion of England and takeover of Wales were comparatively peaceful for Scotland. William’s youngest son became King Henry I in 1100. He was the first English-born Norman king. He married the daughter of the king of Scotland Malcolm Canmore. She was known as Good Queen Maud. One of her younger brothers, David, was raised at the Scots court where he spoke French, learned how to live as a Norman and had Norman friends. He married the widow of a Norman lord who brought with her vast tracts of English land. David returned to Scotland, where in 1124 he became King David I of Scotland. It was not until 1603 when the Union of the Crowns gave the accession of the Stuart King James VI of Scotland to the thrones of England and Ireland. At the same time, the Union of England and Scotland Act appointed a commission led by Lord Chancellor Ellesmere to meet and negotiate with a commission appointed by the Parliament of Scotland for discussions aimed at looking into the possibility of arranging a formal political union between England and Scotland, going beyond the existing Union of Crowns then to report back to parliament. The commission failed and similar subsequent proposals also fell flat.
The two kingdoms were eventually united over a century later by the Union with the Scotland Act 1706 passed by the Parliament of England and the Union with England Act passed in 1707 by the Parliament of Scotland. The 1603 Act was repealed by the Statute Law Revision Act 1863 because it was obsolete. A group of Scottish aristocrats and gentry had invested in their country becoming a world trading nation by establishing a colony called ‘Caledonia’ on the Isthmus of Panama on the Gulf of Darién in 1698 – 99. The Company of Scotland was the enterprise the small group founded, swelling its number with former officers and soldiers, who having little hope of other employment, enthusiastically joined the Darien project. Despite being backed by 25–50% of all the money circulating in Scotland, poor planning and supplies, a much divided leadership, no demand for trade goods from that part of the world and an English trade blockade along with epidemics, complicity between the East India Company and the English government and failure to foresee the Spanish Empire’s response saw its demise. Darien was abandoned in March 1700 after a siege by Spanish forces, who blockaded the harbour until its surrender.
England came to the ‘rescue’. Scots nobility petitioned Westminster to cover their national debt in order to stabilise the currency. Although at first, the request was not granted, the second application was and the Scots shilling was given the fixed value of one English penny. Personal financial interests were also involved, especially the Commissioners who had invested heavily in the project and they believed that they would receive compensation for their losses. The 1707 Acts of Union, Article 15, granted £398,085 10s sterling to Scotland to offset future liability towards the English national debt and needless to say it was also used as a means of compensation for investors in the Company of Scotland’s scheme, since 58.6% was allocated to shareholders and creditors. Furthermore, bribery was also part of the settlement when one realises that £20,000 (£240,000 Scots) was given to Scotland for distribution by the Earl of Glasgow. From that sum, the Duke of Queensberry, James Douglas, who the Queen’s Commissioner in Parliament, received £12,325, which was more than 60% of the settlement. Scots poet Robert Burns referred to this in one of his best known poems:
We’re bought and sold for English Gold,
Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation.
At a time when the party in office is dependent on the support of the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland that was founded by Ian Paisley in 1971 during the ‘Troubles’, for which funding was given for Northern Ireland as part of the deal, echoes of the Scots settlement resound, raising the ugly spectre of possible bribery. However, given that the campaign that led to the outcome of the referendum was based on more untruths than truths, as we are now more than ever seeing, there is reason to believe we have a parcel of rogues in our midst against, making decisions on false premises that will never be kept.
What history tends to ignore or avoid is the unrest that followed. As Scots heard how a few nobles and gentry had sold away their country after wantonly gambling away a large part of the country’s finances, there were riots and small uprisings. As it was, there had been recurrent Jacobite Risings from 1648 that lasted until 1746 when Charles Edward Stuart’s dissolute army failed in its attempt to regain the crowns of Scotland and England at in a defeat at Culloden despite having successfully marched as far south as the outskirts of Derby. Thus the Stuarts’ last major attempt to reclaim the throne and was followed by repression. Many of the prisoners taken were executed but most were allowed mercy and transported under the Traitors Transported Act 1746, thus followed clearances for the rest of the 18th and until well into the 19th century as the Highlands were cleared for sheep and hunting estates awarded to loyal nobles, most of them not Scots. This ended all resistance to the Union. It served the purposed of subjugation that lasted well into the 20 century.
In neither the case of Wales or Scotland was there any kind of plebiscite or general consent of the people of those countries. One was brought about by invasion, occupation and subjugation, the other by bribery. Ireland next.
When the Normans took England they began to attempt to consolidate control over the entire British isthmus. Ireland was divided politically as several ever changing kingdoms whereby power was held by the heads of regional dynasties fighting among themselves for supremacy of the whole island. One of the kings Diarmait Mac Murchada of Leinster was forced into exile in Aquitaine by High King, Ruaidri mac Tairrdelbach Ua Conchobair of Connacht. Diarmait obtained permission from Henry II in England to recruit Norman forces to regain his kingdom; thus Norman knights landed in Ireland in 1167, followed by a large force of Normans, Welsh and Flemings. A number of counties were restored to Diarmait’s rule. He named his son-in-law, Norman Richard de Clare, known as Strongbow, heir to his kingdom. Henry feared the establishment of a rival Norman state in Ireland, thus resolved to establish his authority through a papal bull, the Laudabiliter from Pope Adrian IV. Henry landed in Waterford in 1171 to become the first English monarch to set foot in Ireland. He awarded the Irish territories to his son John with the title Dominus Hiberniae or Lord of Ireland. When John succeeded his brother Richard, the Lordship of Ireland fell directly under the English crown beginning more than 800 years of direct English involvement in Ireland. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was established as a sovereign state on 1 January 1801 by the Acts of Union 1800, which merged the ‘united’ kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland. It was never a happy union, always violent, with Ireland suffering English repression and interference to attempt to quash the cause for an Irish Republic that led to the Irish War of Independence from 1919 to 21. Its outcome saw Ireland seceding from the Union under the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, thus forming the Irish Free State in 1922. Northern Ireland remained part of the UK, thus the state was formally renamed the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
How to lose friends then build an empire
The subjugation and direct rule over the British Isles was only part of English ambitions. From 1337 to 1453 the the Plantagenet rulers of England, fought a long war against the House of Valois who ruled the France over succession to the French throne. Five generations of kings from the two rival dynasties fought for the throne of what would have been the largest kingdom in Western Europe. Ultimately the French won, English claims to large parts of what is now France ended, thus English ambitions turned elsewhere. England was a trading nation, however navigators and their ships stayed very close to the ‘known world’, at least European seaboard and as far as anybody had been. It was other trading nations who began to open the seas and dominate trade who set the trend. A quick insight into that leads to the story of English expansion.
Thus, having lost in France, the French were enemies and rivals, a deeply entrenched feeling that despite the 1904 Entente Cordiale never really goes away. So continuing in the competitive vein, the English coexisted with other nations until the competition became so fierce they became enemies. A look at how this happened with the Iberian countries gives an insight into how it came about, albeit ironically Portugal is often said to be England’s oldest ally, even ranking above other parts of the UK.
For long there had been a silk and spice trade dominated by Venetian and neighbouring kingdoms’ traders who used a combined land and sea route to the countries of the east. At the same time as the English were pushed out of France in 1453 the Byzantine Empire died with the conquest and occupation of Constantinople by Mehmed the Conqueror. The age of exploration to find new sea routes to Asia began. It was a serious blow to Christendom and long established business relations that had linked Europe with the east. Thus, in 1455 Pope Nicholas V issued a bull, Romanus Pontifex, that underpinned an existing one from 1452, the Dum Diversas, that granted all lands and seas discovered beyond Cape Bojador on the coast of the western Sahara to King Afonso V of Portugal and his successors, with all trade rights and the task of conquering the Muslims and pagans en route to India. He commissioned the Fra Mauro world map in 1459. In 1488 Bartolomeu Dias rounded the southern tip of Africa, thus the sea route to the Indian Ocean once discovered began to be exploited but the length of voyages to and from Europe and the tempestuousness of the Atlantic and hazards rounding the tip of Africa dictated a need for a shorter, safer route to India.
Portugal’s Iberian neighbour Spain, spent much of the 15th century pushing the Arabs out of their country, which culminated in the capture of Granada in January 1492. The kingdoms of Castile and Aragon had already begun exploration and occupation of new territories, but the ultimate goal was the trade route to India. In August of that year the Genoan navigator Cristoforo Colombo who we now know as Christopher Columbus, set out from Palos de la Frontera with three ships. In October 1492, Columbus called the island he found in what is now the Bahamas San Salvador, locating that in what he thought was the West Indies. Whilst he explored and occupied the Caribbean it was not until Pedro Álvares Cabral landed on the Brazilian coast in 1500 that the ‘discovery’ of North and South America as we know them began in earnest. In 1494 the Treaty of Tordesillas divided the world between the two powers, whereby Portugal received everything outside Europe east of a line that ran 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands and others discovered by Columbus on his first voyage giving them control over Africa, Asia and the part of South America that is now Brazil. Spain received everything west of this line.
Sugar and spice and all things nice
However, other European countries wanted a share in the spoils of discovery and the discovery of a route round the new ‘islands’ to India. Giovanni Caboto, who we know as John Cabot, a Venetian navigator discovered of the coast of Newfoundland under the commission of Henry VII in 1497, beginning the first European exploration of the mainland of North America since the Norse visits to Vinland in the 11 century. No attempts to establish English colonies in the Americas were made until during the last decades of the 16 century. In the interim the Protestant Reformation had made England and Catholic Spain into enemies. England began to compete with other nations, including old adversary France, Holland, Portugal and Spain. They began to establish overseas colonies in the 16 century. Using the growing knowledge of the world as explorers went further afield, the English expanded their interests so that by 1783, Great Britain had a large empire with colonies in America and the West Indies. In 1585, Sir Walter Raleigh had set up a small settlement at Roanoke in Virginia that very quickly failed. In 1607, Captain John Smith founded the first permanent colony at Jamestown in Virginia. England began looking at the Caribbean with the first successful colonies in the West Indies were founded during the 1620s where they set up sugar plantations using mainly slave labour. Initially Dutch ships traded slaves and bought sugar, however to make sure that increasing profits remained in English hands, in 1651 Parliament that only English ships would be able trade in English colonies. This led to conflict with the United Dutch Provinces that led to the Anglo-Dutch Wars that in the end consolidated England as a colonial power in the Americas at the expense of the Dutch. Between 1655 and 66 England annexed Jamaica from Spain and colonised the Bahamas.
As colonies grew on the American mainland, although they were less successful financially that the Caribbean ones, there was far more land and room for expansion, thus settlers from England who preferred their temperate climates and were looking at more conventional agriculture on plentiful, fertile land began to go there. In the north, forts and trading posts established by the Hudson’s Bay Company in Rupert’s Land were frequently attacked by the French who had their own fur trading colony in adjacent New France. Later England was to take absolute control of both parts of what became Canada during the Seven Years’ War of 1756 – 63 when the French lost their New France territories after General Wolfe’s capture of Quebec in 1759.
In 1672 the Royal African Company was launched, given the monopoly of trade to supply slaves to the British colonies of the Caribbean by Charles II. Slavery was the basis of the success of empire build in the West Indies until its abolition in 1807. The United Kingdom had been responsible for the transportation of 3.5 million African slaves to the Americas, about one third of all West African slaves transported across the Atlantic. Forts were set on the coast of West Africa so that the percentage of the population of African descent rose to around 80% in the Caribbean 1780 and in about 40% in the Thirteen Colonies in North America at the same time.
What goes up must come down
Imperial expansion came with high powered trading rivalries elsewhere in the world. Toward the end of the 16th century, England and Holland began to challenge the Portuguese monopoly of trade with Asia, thus forming private joint stock companies to finance the voyages known as East India Companies that received their charters in 1600 and 1602 respectively. The French already had their own East India Company present in south and East Asia. The main aim of English and Dutch companies was move into the lucrative spice trade, focussing mainly on the East Indies and India. From 1612 on the English, later British, East India Company began to build up a small empire around trading posts all over India, entering in to direct competition with France for domination of the subcontinent. It was over century later that the Seven Years’ War between France, the United Kingdom and other major European powers was to have significant consequences for the future of the British Empire. The Treaty of Paris in 1763 recognised the claim to Rupert’s Land and gave them New France that left a substantial French speaking population under British control in what was now Canada. Louisiana was given to Spain who in turn ceded Florida to Britain after it had achieved its victory over France in India. By then the Britain had naval bases in the Mediterranean at Gibraltar and on Minorca and in 1769 Captain Cook claimed New Zealand for the British crown. Until the American Revolution, around 1000 prisoners had been transported to the Americas, along with forced migrations of Irish, Scots and some English and Welsh from cleared lands who were often pressed into bonded labour and many others who had debts to be cleared forced into long years of indentured employment. In 1787 the first shipment of prisoners was sent to what is now Australia to form convict colonies.
This was the core of the first British Empire that continued to expand slowly although it was to come to end with the American Revolution. By 1733, there were thirteen colonies in North America. In 1775 the war between the colonies and UK that we now call the American Revolution began because the colonists were upset by changes in British policies. The Currency Acts of 1751 and 1764 upset them a bit, but when the French and Indian War took place from 1754 to 63, King George III lost a large amount of money owing to the crown to buy expensive supplies for his army and the colonies. In order to pay off the debt he had made, he imposed taxes on the American colonies without any form of discussion about it which seriously outraged the colonists. In 1775, the war began and on the 4th July 1776, the people of the thirteen colonies declared the United States Declaration of Independence. In 1776 Thomas Paine, an Englishman from Norfolk who was to become one of the founding fathers of the USA, wrote a pamphlet called Common Sense in which he argued that all colonies should be free of English rule based on the English ideas of natural rights and social contract proposed by John Locke and others. The Declaration of Independence said that the colonists were free and independent states, no longer part of England. The 1776 Declaration was not the end of the war, the army led by George Washington lost several battles until the Britains’ European enemies, France and Spain joined the war on the side of the Americans. In 1781, an American victory at Yorktown assisted by the French forced the British to stop fighting and surrender the colonies. America had thereby both won the war and fully gained its independence. The UK would probably have defeated the colonists except that France entered into the war in 1778 thus tipping the military advantage in the Americans’ favour. American independence was acknowledged at the Peace of Paris in 1783. Therewith, the first empire ended and Britain landed on its imperial rump with a resounding crash.
In Part two, we take a look at how Britain claimed vast parts of the world by bribery, trickery and violent conquest to become the centre of the largest global empire than has ever been or may ever be seen.