One Little Road

seem quite impressive to be able to find so many items of information associated with one little road, but such is the nature of English History - deep, dense and, above all, well-documented.

But, if this road were to run from, say, Pisa to Perugia, or Toulon to Toulouse, or Granada to Gibraltar, the depth and density of the history would fill many more pages than the A361.

English history isn't really all that deep. The earliest tribe of whom we have any certainty is the Belgae, who came over as recently as 100BC (and there are some who believe that the Belgae were an invention of Julius Caesar). In other parts of Europe we can identify peoples 2-3000 years earlier. We can even name individuals. The earliest certain individual in these islands is Cassivellaunus - one of the Britons who opposed Julius Caesar's incursions from Gaul. When you consider that JC represents the end of the long history of Republican Rome, and that Cassivellaunus is not a conspicuously Celtic name ("Hey, Cassie! How about a few bevvies and we'll beat up a few Romans!") - we get some indication of the true depth of British history.

In terms of the come and go of society, the replacement of tribe by tribe, people by people, England is poorer. There are places in Europe where everybody's been.

The difference is that England's historical strata are much more easily defined. The Channel barrier insisted that each wave of settlement had a relatively discrete beginning, and, once established, gave the new settlers time (as long as 400 years) to set things up the way they liked it, without much interruption. They even had time for civil wars.

Then, another tribe would come along and, instead of destroying everything, would build on top of existing social structures - perhaps lording it over the previous occupants.

This has given English history (and its remains) a pattern of distinct layers. It is a palimpsest - a pattern built up of layers upon layers. We can recognise the same sort of process in the strata revealed in cliff faces, with differently coloured rocks revealing successive periods of deposition.

It may be that English historians have made too much of this layering. In the prehistoric period (roughly, before the Romans came) each new pattern on a piece of pottery was once assumed to herald the arrival of some new tribe, just arrived from the continent. But it's quite possible that the pottery arrived in the course of trade and the locals copied it.

For the Channel hasn't always been a barrier; for most of human history, the sea has provided a clear thoroughfare for travel and trade, in comparison to the dangers and hardships of travel by land. The Channel and the North Sea has carried this traffic for thousands of years.

The traditional view of history has also tended to presume distinct "peoples" or "tribes" - each quite different from their predecessors.

Yet, the Belgae (mentioned by Julius Caesar) were a Celtic tribe originating in modern Belgium (the modern nation gets its name from them). The "Anglo-Saxons" who challenged the Celts a few centuries later included sizeable numbers of Frisians - who originated a few miles away in the modern Netherlands.

Also amongst the "Anglo-Saxons" were a contingent of Jutes - from Jutland in modern Denmark. Yet the Danes who threatened Anglo-Saxon control of England for many centuries after were somehow regarded as an entirely separate race.

The events of 1066 are usually described something like: "The Anglo-Saxon King Harold faced challenges to his crown from the Danes and from the Normans.
He marched his troops Northwards and defeated the Danes at Stamford Bridge. Then, in a brillaint forced march, he arrived at Hastings in time to face the invading Normans."

But the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle - the nearest thing we're ever going to get to an action report - talks about Harold defeating the "Norrmen" at Stamford Bridge and then marching to face the "Frenssh" at Hastings.

In fact, William's bunch didn't start calling themselves "Normans" until much later - long after William's death - when his successors had fallen out with the French King, and wanted to distinguish themselves from their continental cousins. By which time, the Kings of England weren't even strictly Norman anymore, they were Angevin (descendents of Fulk Nerra, Duke of Anjou).

Just to confuse things further, the "Norman" forces contained a contingent of Breton knights - descended from Romano-Celtic peoples who left Britain at the time of the Saxon invasion to found Brittany (Little Britain).

The truth seems to be - British history is just an account of a family squabble, amongst the peoples of the North Sea coast.

What's in a Number? What's in a Number? British Politics... 1066 and all that
© David Craig Send me a message