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What Do the British Know About Their Own History?


In order to understand the people of another country, you may not need to study their history in detail, but you need to know about their own idea of their past. (…)

The British (apart from those in Northern Ireland) live in a country which has not been invaded for 900 years. Monuments of our past cover our countryside: bronze age burial mounds, Roman walls, churches from the tenth century onwards, castles, palaces and simple country homes are all part of a landscape we take for granted. Because much of building was in stone or brick it has survived better than the predominantly wooden buildings in Russia. (…)

How much do most of us know of our history? “Rather less than can be written on the back of a postage stamp,” said one friend tartly. History teaching in our schools has never been ideological in the Soviet sense, although unspoken ideologies have shaped the story told to children; and in recent years there has been much discussion of what kind of history should be taught. I was expected to know a basic “chronology of events”, such matters as “reasons for the Civil War” and, later, an analysis of our relationships with other countries. My older children concentrated on economic and social history: they learnt about how we lived in different centuries, they studied the growth of industry and transport, they examined medical facilities in Victorian times. My younger children were taught that “history” was always the interpretation of evidence, and that therefore they must examine the evidence. So they investigated archaeological sites, studied census statistics and read conflicting reports of notable events in order to appreciate that the truth can never be fully known. Unfortunately, this taught them to be skeptical without an adequate basis of knowledge, i.e. of facts that need to be known before we can criticize them for being inadequate.

History teachers are constantly involved in such methodological discussion, and somehow from between the cracks in their debates emerges a “story of Britain” which is crude, simple and not very accurate, but which goes something like this:

After the stone age, bronze age, iron age, Romans, Saxons and Danes, England became England. William the Conqueror invaded England from France in 1066 (this is the date that everybody knows), killed King Harold and became Our King (1). In the Middle Ages we built beautiful churches, started limiting the power of the King, died in millions of the Black Death (2) and beat the French at Agincourt (though we forget that the French won the war). In the sixteenth century we had Henry VØ with his six wives. He abolished the Pope as the head of the Church in England and made himself Head instead. (This was a popular move.) Under Queen Elisabeth we fought and beat the Spanish (3); under James I we captured Guy Fawkes just before he attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament, an event which the English population celebrates every year on the fifth of November with big fires and effigies of Guy Fawkes. Under Charles we had a Civil war, executed the king (4), had a Republic briefly under Cromwell (5) and in 1660 restored the monarchy – on conditions. Power passed into the hands of Parliament and was – more or less – enshrined in law. In the eighteenth century we invented new scientific, agricultural and industrial processes, such as the steam engine. Then we beat Napoleon (6). During the nineteenth century we extended our Empire even further, produced learned men like Darwin (7), refined our sophisticated Parliament, increased Britain’s riches and went into battle in 1914 with all banners flying… Or did we? At this point the triumphant story falters. Many of the conscripts in the First World War had to be rejected for malnourishment and ill-health. The consequences of industrialization had been horrific (and in any case America and Germany were beating us). Yes, we won the war, but the soldiers returned to unemployment and even hunger. Some people, anxious that the poor at last would have wrights, hoped for a revolution such as had happened in the Russian Empire. The colonized peoples of our Empire were growing restive too. But Britain, unlike Germany, was never poised on the edge of revolution. Despite a General Strike (8) and a recession, many parts of the country were getting more prosperous. Between the wars, millions of people moved for the first time into decent housing, and electricity, roads and other public services became widely available. Our politicians wondered whether to fight Hitler. The people seem to have known that war was inevitable and that it would be grim and necessary.

Like you we have our national myths of the Second World War and every Christmas new books are published on the subject and old films re-shown. In Britain far fewer people were killed than in the First World War (about a quarter of a million, of whom some tens of thousands were civilian victims of bombing (9)). (…) In this country every able-bodied adult was conscripted; women were sent to do war-work; gardens were turned over to vegetables and spare pieces of land were cultivated. We needed food. Although never invaded, we suffered considerable bomb damage, and many people, especially children, were evacuated to safer parts of the country. Everybody was affected.(…)

After the war, the world position of Britain altered. Our Empire collapsed around us – and we conceded that we no longer had the right to rule other countries. We joined NATO and became part of the “American sphere of influence”. (…)


This version of our history in which triumph gives way to doubt and debate in the contemporary world has been questioned by some of our politicians. Should these doubts be voiced to children? Or should history be used as propaganda – for example to give children a new pride in Britain – which would mean being very selective about the facts. Mrs Thatcher was sure it should be so used; teachers, however, want freedom from propaganda. But can they get it? Should our lessons be more international, incorporating the stories of the West Indian and Asian communities living here? Or is the story of the English Civil War important for everyone, black and white?

Meanwhile, ordinary people here are exploring their “heritage” with immense enthusiasm. Groups of amateur historians write the history of their town or village; excellent programs are made for television and new museums open almost daily. Partly the enthusiasm is no more than a sentimental dream of the past, all stately homes and romantic aristocrats. But much of the passion is more significant. Although we have not been cut off the past by a colossal fracture in our history (as have the Germans and the Soviet people, for example) we nonetheless find it difficult to relate our contemporary experience to what has gone before. So people watch the TV programmes, read the books, study the documents, dig up the ancient cities, and wander round the museums asking themselves (…): Who are the British and how they come out of the past into today?

(from “Understanding Britain” by K. Hewitt)



On the name of the country:


England got its name in the early period of its history when its territory was invaded by Anglo-Saxon German tribes. When Elizabeth died in 1603, King of Scotts James VI became King James I of England in a Union of the Crowns. King James I & VI as he was styled became the first monarch to rule the entire island of Great Britain, although it was merely a union of the English and Scottish crowns, and both countries remained separate political entities until 1707. The Acts of Union between the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland were a pair of Parliamentary Acts passed by both parliaments in 1707, which dissolved them in order to form a Kingdom of Great Britain governed by a unified Parliament. The Acts joined two kingdoms into a single one.

The Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921 established the Irish Free State (now the Republic of Ireland) as a separate state, leaving Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. The official name of the UK thus became "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland".


  1. After Wessex dynasty with a short period of Danish kings William the Conqueror starts Norman Royal dynasty and the tradition to give numbers to Kings and Queens.

For memorizing the order of English Royal Houses after William one can use mnemonics like

“No Plan Like Yours To Study History Wisely”

which means: dynasty (famous person from it)

England Norman (William the Conqueror)

Plantagenet (Richard the Lionheart)


York (Richard III (described by Shakespeare))

Tudor (Henry VIII, Elisabeth I)

Great Britain Stuart (James I, Charles I)

Hanover (Victoria)

Windsor (Elisabeth II, since 1952)


Date: 2015-01-02; view: 1234

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