By Bryan Ward-Perkins
English Historical Review, Vol.115:462 (2000)
Introduction: Ethnic and national identities have historical roots, both in the complex concatenation of events that brought them into being, and in the simplified historical myths by which they are sustained. The origins of peoples and nations have, therefore, always been a fertile subject for historical research. Within this broader framework, recent uncertainties over the future of the United Kingdom (as it faces both internal devolution and European integration) have encouraged a particularly active debate on die origins, development and persistence of the various national and ethnic identities of the British Isles.
For early England, interesting work has been done on the emergence of a single kingdom in the tenth century, and on the slow growth of a unified sense of ‘Englishness’ among the various peoples and kingdoms whom modern scholarship, for convenience, lumps together under the label ‘Anglo-Saxons’. However, historians have tended to assume that all these Anglo-Saxon groups would share one important thing in common, namely a sense that they were different from the native ‘Celtic’ population of southern Britain, the Britons.
In other words, whatever else they might or might not have become, it is considered self-evident that the Anglo-Saxons could never have become ‘British’ like the Britons. Indeed in the popular imagination (including my own), the separate identity of Anglo-Saxons and Britons (who later developed into the English and Welsh) is attributed to a difference in ancestry, in other words, to ‘racial’ difference; and is thought of as innate, rather than culturally acquired and mutable.’ Most of the English, if they know anything of early history, feel that their Englishness derives ultimately from a predominantly Anglo-Saxon ancestry, with perhaps a romantic tinge, but only a tinge, of later immigrant blood – Viking, Norman, Huguenot, or whatever. The Britons (and the Romans) play little part in the perception that the English have of their ancestry. Consequently, they see themselves as markedly different from the other ancient inhabitants of the British Isles; and they would never describe themselves as ‘Celts’, unless their recent ancestry included known Scottish, Irish, Welsh or Cornish ancestors.