Great Britain is a political entity consisting of (at least) four nations spread through an archipelago of two major and many smaller islands off the northwestern coast of Europe. Legislatively united in the English parliament at Westminster by Acts of Union in 1707 (Scotland) and 1800 (Ireland), its flag, the “Union Jack,” is an amalgam of the superimposed crosses of Saint George, Saint Andrew, and Saint Patrick, patron saints of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Wales, despite having made a better job of preserving its own national language than Scotland or Ireland, was subjugated earlier than either, and is not represented on the Union flag.
This political unit formed the base from which in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries one of the world’s most successful empires was launched, but that unit now seems to many in process of political breakdown. Within the last five years Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have all achieved or revived their own legislative assemblies, of varying degrees of effectiveness and political reality, and anxious conservative voices have begun to warn against the progressive erosion of the Union. On this reading of things, a sense of “Britishness” is giving way to more assertive regionalisms or nationalisms within the archipelago. For Americans the most visible expression of this trend is probably Mel Gibson’s film Braveheart, which so successfully fictionalized the struggle of the medieval Scottish hero William Wallace against the imperialist claims of the Anglo-French King Edward I that the nineteenth-century Wallace monument in Glasgow is now referred to locally as “big Mel.”
The most ardent advocates of a distinctively “British” identity are now the Orangemen of Northern Ireland. Their brand of “Unionism” is a rejection of Irish nationalism, centered on symbols which were once the common currency of a wider British identity—swords, sashes, and banners, the Union flag, the monarchy, above all an ardent and anti-Catholic Protestantism fueled by annually renewed celebrations of the seventeenth-century triumph of the Protestant William of Orange over the Catholic King James II. On the larger island, however, these symbols seem increasingly and unendearingly alien, reminiscences of a past now infinitely remote, and a creed which fewer and fewer share.
How then do you do what Simon Schama has attempted, and write the history of “Britain”? What unifying principle can be found to structure a single story for the peoples of the British archipelago, from undocumented prehistory and Celtic settlement, through centuries of Roman, Germanic, and Norman-French invasions, and the complex processes of conflict, colonization, subjugation, and accommodation which produced the political unity of the last three centuries? Until recently, few historians found that question problematic, for the answer seemed self-evident. “Britishness” was essentially a looser form of Englishness, and the history of Britain was a history of “the English-speaking peoples,” indeed of England, a single “island race,” essentially Anglo-Saxon in culture and character. As Sir Lewis Namier (not himself a typical Anglo-Saxon) wrote, “A great deal of what is peculiar in English history is due to the obvious …