This timely book aims to correct many popular errors of which historians, of the British Isles at least, are guilty. Professor Kearney has taught at universities in Ireland, England, Scotland, and the US, so he is well equipped for his subject. The first error is to speak of “England” when we mean “Great Britain.” I am ashamed to say that I have committed this solecism in my time. A second error is to assume that the territories which we today call “England,” “Wales,” “Ireland,” “Scotland” always were England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. “Later national boundaries were extended backwards into a past where they had little or no relevance,” Kearney writes, “with the consequence that earlier tribal or pre-national societies were lost to sight.” A consequent error is to assume that the unity of each of these nations, in the form that it ultimately took, is good in itself, and that all history was inevitably moving in that direction.

So this is a refreshing book, especially salutary for English historians, but with lessons for Welsh, Irish, and Scottish historians too. The unity of Great Britain today was brought about by a great deal of bloodshed in the past. Englishmen tend to forget that Wales and Ireland were subjugated by military conquest. Anglo-Scottish relations were different because Scotland in the Middle Ages achieved a form of state, and a French alliance, which made it too tough a proposition for England to conquer, despite many attempts. In fact, when James I succeeded Elizabeth in 1603 the two nations were united under a Scottish king. The corruption and chicanery with which the formal union of 1707 was forced through were partially forgotten in consequence of the prosperity that union brought to the Scottish Lowlands; but they were remembered in the Highlands. The popularity of the memory of that unsatisfactory romantic hero, Prince Charles Edward, is testimony to lasting anti-English feeling there.

The most interesting chapters of Kearney’s book are the early ones, stressing the great diversity within what were to become the four nations we know today, and showing how little the present outcome was preordained. Kearney demolishes a number of traditionally accepted legends as he proceeds. “English historians of the Roman conquest,” he writes, “have seen it, on the whole, through the eyes of the victors, an understandable attitude in a society with its own strong imperial traditions.” Kearney stresses on the contrary that under the Roman Raj Britain was a colony, occupied by a powerful army (which never subdued the Highlands of what is now Scotland, and never tried to conquer what is now Ireland). Most towns originally had military purposes. The resources and raw materials of the colony were exploited for the benefit of the empire and its representatives. Slavery and forced labor were used to produce the necessary surplus. Roman culture prevailed among the elite in southern and eastern “England.” The Christian church, which had adapted itself through bishops to the Roman administrative model, began to spread Roman influences into Ireland. But pre-Roman cultures survived throughout most of the British Isles.

In the period between the departure of the Romans and the Viking invasions (c. 800), Anglo-Saxon intruders succeeded in controlling southeastern “England” and the Lowlands of “Scotland.” “Ireland” enjoyed a golden age of independence, extending its culture via Christianity into Scotland and the western isles, Northumbria, South Wales, and the Isle of Man. British culture lost ground in “England,” though expanding into northwestern France (“Brittany”). Historians, Kearney thinks, have been mesmerized by Bede into thinking of “the English people” as a single entity at this period.

Taking the British Isles as a whole, Kearney places new emphasis on the Viking raids, the Norman Conquest, and the Hundred Years’ War. He thinks that historians have greatly underestimated the impact of the Vikings. They established settlements and trading posts along the coasts of Britain and Ireland, in the Isle of Man, the Orkneys and Hebrides. “Along the east coast of Britain, ‘Anglo-Saxon England’ ceased to exist in any meaningful sense. The Christian literate culture…linked to Rome…was replaced by a pagan, oral culture, which looked to Denmark and Norway.” The military aristocracy of the Anglo-Saxon rulers was succeeded by a “democracy” of “farmers in arms,” more drawn to a market economy. York, Dublin, London, and Bristol became international trading centers. In eastern England there were more free men than in the Midlands and the west, men who actively participated in political decision-making. When England was ultimately united under a West Saxon military monarchy, at the price of heavier taxation and depression of the peasantry, the Danelaw remained distinct “in language, law, religion and art.”

So the term “Anglo-Saxon” obscures the realities of the situation. There was no real English “nation” to oppose the Norman Conquest in 1066. In Ireland too—which Saxons and Normans left alone—the coming of the Vikings contributed to the rise of new monarchies. Opening up the country to commerce offered governments new financial resources; new dioceses and royal appointment of bishops helped to extend government control. “Clerical teaching,” Kearney observes, emphasized “the duty of the king to exercise authority, and not…the limitations of his power.”


By 1066 “the future of the British Isles seemed to be largely linked to Scandinavia.” The Vikings were dug in from the Shetlands south to Galloway, Lancashire, and East Anglia. Seaborne trade was in their hands. The ports of the east coast of Ireland and of the eastern and western coasts of Britain were Viking centers. Even after Norway relinquished its rights to Scotland in the mid-thirteenth century, Viking traditions still remained strong in the Orkneys, Shetlands, and the western isles.

The Norman Conquest changed all that. “The general tendency of English historians,” Kearney mildly complains, “has been to domesticate the Norman Conquest.” Bishop Stubbs saw a “masculine” race of Normans disciplining and educating a “feminine” race of Anglo-Saxons. For Kearney the main consequences of the Conquest were social and cultural. For nearly three centuries a French-speaking colonial elite imposed its own cultural norms on a two-class society. Even the king of Scotland and the kings of Welsh Gwynedd in the thirteenth century did homage to the king of England. When war came between England and Scotland in Edward I’s reign it was “a struggle for power within the Norman ascendancy.” French settlers continued to arrive in England well into the twelfth century, including the ancestors of the quintessential Englishman, John Bunyan. “England resembled a Texas in which the Anglo-Saxons came to occupy second-class status. The Yankees in this case were the Normans.”

Norman castles proclaimed the realities of local power: for the great majority villeinage, not Parliament or King, was the dominant institution. Boroughs were created in order to attract settlers from the continent, ultimately to Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. Growing population, land hunger, and rising prices led magnates to exploit their market opportunities by raising rents and fines, increasing labor services, extending cultivation, exporting agricultural products, and founding new market towns. “The towns of England were not independent manifestations of the commercial spirit, but sponsored institutions controlled by the colonial ascendancy.” Towns that had existed before the Conquest lost their autonomy. Serfs (“villeins”) were excluded from access to the royal law courts.

The episcopate was staffed by foreigners. Monasticism was another instrument of Normanization: the role of monasteries in the colonial ascendancy, Kearney remarks, “may go some way towards explaining their unpopularity at a later date.” (The seventeenth-century radical theory of the Norman Yoke still associated the Church with the Norman Conquest.) Only with the coming of the friars in the early thirteenth century were “natives” admitted to high church office. The first unmistakably English religious movement was that of the Lollards in the later fourteenth century: they were, not unnaturally, heretics who thought the hierarchy anti-Christian.

The conquest of Wales extended this Anglo-Norman ascendancy. “Each lordship had its ‘Englishry’ of good land and its ‘Welshry’ of poorer land.” Norman law prevailed in the former, Welsh in the latter. “To live in a town [in Wales] during the Norman period was a sign of belonging to an English colony.” Wales was more clearly a colony than anywhere else in the British Isles. The Church became closely associated with the “Englishry.” Monasteries were often manned by foreigners.

Norman boroughs—often inhabited by Flemish or English immigrants dependent on the king or their lord—played a similar role in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. Kearney compares the Norman conquest of Ireland to the colonization of lands east of the Elbe by German landlords. It was started at the initiative of Norman landlords from south Wales. The military orders of the Templars and the Knights of St. John played their part. The Norman clergy in Ireland formed “an established church in a world of Irish-speaking dissenters.” “Castles, cathedrals and monasteries formed part of a single colonial complex, in which French-speaking culture was dominant.” Irish culture received as deep a shock as Anglo-Saxon culture had in England a century earlier.

Change came again with the Hundred Years’ War starting at the end of the 1330s. “The dream of an empire in France” ended “the vision of an empire in the British Isles.” The “auld alliance” was established between Scotland and France, and the Anglo-Scottish border became a subsidiary theater in the war between England and France. Marcher lords there and on the Welsh border were left to their own devices. The drastic decline in population after the Black Death meant that emigration from England to Wales and Ireland ceased: English landlords were hunting for tenants to exploit. If the Hundred Years’ War was not “a gigantic system of outdoor relief for the English feudal élite,” says Kearney, it certainly helped younger sons of the gentry.


Encouraged by heavy taxes on wool export, a native clothing industry established itself in the south of England during the fourteenth century, replacing the grain counties of the Midlands as the center of prosperity. Boroughs gained a new independence, and English—the language of the trading community—became socially acceptable. In the Lowlands of Scotland there was a shift to a cash economy; payment of rent by labor was commuted into money rent. In Wales Norman privileges were eroded by the demographic catastrophe; the Englishry was recolonized by the Welsh. A military society dominated by the castle gave way to one dominated by the squirearchy and the market town. The union of England and Wales under Henry VIII introduced English shires and English law.

The Tudor century indeed saw an extension of southern English “law and order” to northern England, Wales, and Ireland, after two centuries of withdrawal. The process was complicated by the Reformation: the dissolution of the monasteries contributed to the establishment of a new English landed interest in Wales. An increasingly Anglicized Welsh gentry began to attend Oxford and Cambridge. The London food market started to exercise a powerful pull on Wales, as later on Ireland and the Scottish Lowlands. Men with funny Welsh accents became stock figures in Elizabethan comedy.

In Scotland the Reformation was the work of a pro-English party; the deposition and ultimate execution of Mary Queen of Scots signalled its victory and the defeat of the pro-French party. When Mary’s son, the protestant James VI, succeeded to the English throne in 1603, this had consequences for Ireland as well as for England and Scotland. Ulster, like the border counties of northern England, lost its raison d’être as a military outpost against Scotland. Ulster was opened to English and Scottish colonization: the City of London financed the settlement there.

The four countries that had acquired some sort of individual identities between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries became wholly interlocked again in the seventeenth century. Conrad Russell has recently reminded us of the importance of Scotland and Ireland in the “English” Revolution. When Charles I in the 1630s tried to force religious changes on Scotland, he created a resistance movement so strong, and so popular in England, that he had to surrender to it: he was compelled to summon Parliament in England in 1640, after eleven years of non-Parliamentary rule; and this marked the beginning of the “English” Revolution. In the 1640s and 1650s the governments of England and Scotland were first allies against the king, then rivals. Scotland was conquered by Oliver Cromwell’s army in the 1650s. His forcible union of the two countries lapsed in 1660, to be renewed only in 1707. The Highlands were not effectively conquered until 1745–1746.

In Ireland most of the population remained Catholic after the Reformation, illustrating Namier’s dictum that “religion is a sixteenth-century word for nationalism.” Under Strafford in the 1630s Ireland had been brought under tighter English control; but the opportunity to revolt was seized in 1641. War, with much brutality on both sides, led ultimately to the savage Cromwellian conquest and the transplanting of English to Ireland during the 1650s. At the restoration of monarchy in 1660 the power of the Protestant landed minority was confirmed: Ireland was economically exploited as England’s first colony. Attempts to reverse the situation were finally defeated in 1689–1690. Wales had been the main source of Charles I’s infantry during the civil war; but its subordination after 1645, coinciding with the religious liberty of the 1640s and 1650s, led to the establishment of a Welsh dissenting interest that was to be of great importance for the next three centuries. Charles I was condemned by an English court as a traitor to the people of England. Professor Kearney points out that Charles in 1648 saw himself as king of the three kingdoms. He tried to mobilize invasions from Ireland and Scotland as well as revolts by English royalists. The failure of these machinations sealed his fate in England. The Scottish Parliament was not consulted about the condemnation and execution of a king from the Scottish royal family. The Parliament of the Commonwealth in 1649 set English historians a bad precedent by acting as though England was the United Kingdom.

From the seventeenth century the four nations have acquired a recognizably modern shape, on which the colonization of Ulster by Scottish Presbyterians has left a lasting legacy. The latter part of Kearney’s book is in consequence less arrestingly original. But there are some good insights. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had been marked by heavy migration from England, Scotland, and Wales into Ireland; following the Industrial Revolution this gave way to a reverse movement from Ireland into the industrial regions of Britain. “The history of the British Isles during this period resembles that of the United States more than is commonly realised.” Conversely, “it is…impossible to understand the mentalité of Australia…without adopting a British Isles approach”; and the same is true of Canada and New Zealand.

From the mid-nineteenth century “Irish Catholicism, Welsh nonconformity and the Free Churches of Scotland formed an alliance with English dissent to bring pressure to bear on the English establishment”—leading to the formation of the Liberal party. But after the creation of the Irish Free State the eighty-odd Irish members ceased to attend at Westminster, thus depriving the Liberals of natural supporters and contributing significantly to the decline of the Liberal party, as class replaced religious issues. Noting that Stanley Baldwin emphasized his Englishness in a way that would have been impossible for the Welshman Lloyd George or the Scots Campbell-Bannerman or Ramsay MacDonald, Kearney insists that the strength of Baldwin’s Conservative party lay in the south and east of England. In 1926 the General Strike drew its main strength from the industrial north of England, from Clydeside, south Wales, and the East End of London. Faced with this trial of strength between “an increasingly prosperous and powerful south-east” and “a depressed north and west,” Baldwin acted in the interests of the southeast. In the 1930s the depression extended to Ireland (north and south), Wales, Scotland, and northern England generally. Economics has now replaced national questions in the politics of the British Isles. But the permanently depressed state of Scotland and Wales may lead to a fusion of the two.

Kearney’s book should be widely used to educate those who think they know about British history when in fact they know only English history. (What can they know of Britain that only England know?) My only criticism is that I should have liked more discussion of Cornwall and the Isle of Man, also very belated components of England. The book is particularly timely in view of the resurgence of nationalism in Wales and Scotland, and of the increasing bitterness of rival concepts of nationalism in Ireland. The English are always very good at forgiving those whom they have wronged: they are not perhaps quite so good at making the intellectual effort necessary to understand the feelings of their victims. Wordsworth listened complacently to his Highland reaper singing of “old unhappy far-off things / And battles long ago.” But as England’s economy crumbles, questions are being asked about the inevitability of the subordination of Wales and Scotland to the interests of south-eastern England, and about the old, unhappy, far off methods by which this subordination was originally achieved—as well as about the inevitability of the separate identity of Ulster.

One question has not yet arisen, but is suggested by Kearney’s book: Is it just a historical accident that the north of England never after 800 AD achieved the separate state toward which it often seemed to be moving? During the past two centuries it has had quite different interests and experiences from the south-east. Mrs. Thatcher, like Stanley Baldwin, is prime minister of southeastern England, not of the north (still less of Scotland, whose oil assets she has continued to squander). Perhaps the Labour party’s current proposals for regional devolution will start a northern separatist movement.

History is becoming relevant again: politicians will have to learn a little. Relevance is something which English historians have often said they longed for in their subject: now they have got it. Kearney’s book should be published in paperback forthwith.

This Issue

June 1, 1989