The Origins of the English

King Arthur (Tapestry 1488)

The English of 1927 were more than 90 per cent the descendants of the English of AD 927.

The story of the English people used to be straightforward. In the fifth and sixth centuries, following the departure of the Roman legions, successive waves of Angles, Saxons and Jutes crossed the North Sea to settle in Britain. I remember drawing three arrows to represent this in my very first grammar school history lesson. Initially pillaging invaders, they soon turned peaceful settlers and were converted to Christianity by Augustine, who landed in 597. Tempered by the Danes and Vikings, and forged into political shape by the Normans, the English people (as they had now become) were set fair for a glorious history, their achievements to include the greatest empire the world has ever seen, parliamentary democracy, the Common Law, the works of Shakespeare, and the defeat of Napoleon and Hitler. Despite enduring two world wars from beginning to end, they remained, in A J P Taylor’s words, ‘a peaceful and civilized people, tolerant, patient, and generous’. 

It was inevitable that in our ‘postmodern’ age, the imperial achievements of the British should be deconstructed, and revealed as oppressive and exploitative. Likewise, the notion that the British or English were a chosen people endowed with a uniquely favourable set of national characteristics has been exposed by modern historians and historiographers as ‘historical exceptionalism’, the connotations of racial superiority now considered ‘unacceptable’. Traditionally, the English character was regarded as having arisen from a mixture of Celt (or Briton) and Anglo-Saxon, with the emphasis squarely falling on the manly virtues of the latter. In his The Spirit of English History of 1943, A L Rowse wrote ‘There was a strong contrast between the Britons and the Saxons. Where the former were imaginative and extreme, moody and discordant, egotistical and irrational, a feminine people, the Saxons were … a virile, masculine stock: a stronger strain, when all is said, than the Celts.’ No historian could get away with such stuff nowadays. Besides, the new age mysticism surrounding King Arthur and the Celtic Twilight (think poetry, chivalry and courts of love) appeals more to our modern tastes than the stolid practical qualities of invading Teutons (think Hitler and the SS). 

But now, even our Anglo-Saxon origins are in doubt. In Britain AD: A Quest for Arthur, England and the Anglo-Saxons, the eminent archaeologist Francis Pryor explains that up till quite recently, the ‘culture-historical’ approach, according to which even minor changes in the archaeological record were explained by migrations of people (as opposed to fashions and influences), held sway among historians and archaeologists. Hence, the appearance of a new style of drinking vessel in early Bronze Age Europe heralded the arrival of the ‘Beaker’ people; and changes in burial rites (from burial mounds to cremation) and building-styles (from round to rectangular houses with sunken floors) across Eastern England from the fifth century onward indicated the arrival of a new people from across the North Sea. But modern archaeology, equipped with a dazzling panoply of new scientific techniques – genetic tracking, stable isotope analysis, computer-aided geo-physical surveys and so forth – has transformed the picture. In The Origins of the British, Stephen Oppenheimer reports that analysis of ‘intrusive’ gene markers from Continental Europe and exact gene type matches reveals that although there has been a 30 per cent intrusion of founder gene types from northern Europe into England since the last Ice Age, less than 5 per cent of this was from the putative Anglo-Saxon homelands. It is possible that invading Anglo-Saxons formed an elite ruling class, but as Pryor notes, there is no archaeological evidence for this. Nor is there evidence of a violent invasion, of burned towns or villages, or charred remains; only of continuity and peaceful evolution. Most telling of all is that isotopic analysis of the tooth enamel of bodies in early Saxon graves has revealed that none of the population sampled was born outside Britain. 

The traditional view that Britain was invaded en masse by the Anglo-Saxons, who drove the Britons westward, or exterminated or enslaved them (the ‘wipe out’ or ‘genocide’ theory), then, is simply a myth. Gildas and Bede, the Dark Age chroniclers on whom later historians have had to rely, were either ill-informed or actively engaging in propaganda. But how do we explain the rise of the Saxon kingdoms and the birth of the English nation? Perhaps even more puzzling, how do we explain the origins of the English language? Nobody knows for certain. But there is a growing consensus among archaeologists, pre-historians and linguists that genetic, cultural and linguistic influences on eastern England from Scandinavia and north-west Europe date back as far as the late Neolithic and Bronze Ages. In other words, Old English was already spoken in England by the ancestral English when the Romans departed, its roots derived not from the languages of Dark Age invaders (Old Saxon, Norse and Frisian) but from an ‘ancestral common Germanic root’ spoken thousands of years before. 

For Pryor and Oppenheimer, the shattering of England’s ‘origin myth’ is to be welcomed. The way is opened to a ‘celebration of our diversity’ (Oppenheimer), to a recognition that ‘the British are by and large an inclusive nation’ (Pryor). But as Ed West notes in The Diversity Illusion, another interpretation is possible. That the English of 1927 were more than 90 per cent the descendants of the English of 927, the year Athelstan founded the English state (the Normans and Huguenots added relatively little to the gene pool), and that some 70 per cent of British DNA dates back more than 6000 years, explodes the fashionable myth that Britain has always been a multicultural society, a nation of migrants. The point is not that newcomers are undesirable; merely that a thousand years and more is ample time for a distinctive culture and pattern of life – for a strong sense of English identity – to have taken shape. Sir Arthur Bryant, the doyen of Anglocentric historians, put it in gloriously politically incorrect terms: although the English are formed of a succession of immigrants (if one goes far enough back), ‘this alien inflow has never been too rapid’ and England ‘has never suffered as other countries have from racial indigestion … Before the next inflow, the strong tradition of England has had time to mould the newcomers to the national pattern’.  

What of our sense of English identity? The problem, argues Linda Colley in Britons, is that it has been submerged in a British identity ‘too dependent on recurrent Protestant wars, commercial success and imperial conquest’. With the demise of empire and the established church, and the rise of Scottish and Welsh nationalism, it was inevitable the English should suffer an identity crisis. One solution is for the English to contribute through their own deconstruction to the creation of an ever more inclusive society forged in the furnace of mass immigration – self-inflicted cultural genocide. Yet, as we have seen, ‘diverse multicultural Britain’ is as much a concocted myth as any other. Moreover, there is a curious asymmetry at play concerning national characteristics. Current orthodoxy allows the British (or English) one characteristic: their tolerance, especially of migrants. But if tolerance is allowed, why not other characteristics? Why, for example, not intolerance and the xenophobia that has been remarked on by a succession of unfortunate visitors to our shores since 1500, when the Venetian ambassador to the court of Henry VII found that the English had ‘an antipathy to foreigners’. Why not a spirit of adventure and discovery (one thinks of the Elizabethan seafarers) or dogged determination in adversity (one thinks of ‘the thin red line’ and Dunkirk)? The national characteristics and eccentricities observed by George Santayana, Karel Čapek, André Maurois, Pierre Daninos and a succession of other outsiders were real enough in their eyes. The recent spate of books on the English by the English suggests that the English themselves have a strong sense of their own identity, albeit mostly humorous and self-deprecating – which is, of course, another notable English characteristic.  

The robust good-humoured swashbuckling Boris Johnson would seem to epitomise many of these characteristics. Even Theresa May, the vicar’s daughter, displays certain qualities of decency and fair play. The contrast with the opposing Eurocrats – preening, conceited, self-important, self-righteous, sulky and humourless – could not be more striking. Juncker, Barnier and the like, self-appointed system-builders and mini-Napoleons, would seem to encapsulate all that is worst in the Continental temperament. The English, of course, have no monopoly on good characteristics, or on bad ones. The tragedy of Brexit is that the love of freedom and independence voiced by so many in the EU referendum is shared by ordinary people across Europe. It is the intellectual elite that has hijacked the EU in the name of an abstract ideal, a diverse multicultural utopia to be ruled by a caste of guardians … And if there is another thing that characterises the English, it is their contempt for intellectual elites. 

Alistair Miller is a teacher.

This article is in the winter edition of The Salisbury Review – buy

7 Comments on The Origins of the English

  1. Oh, how I have come to detest the words “diversity” and “inclusive”.

    When I hear them it is as if nails were being scratched on a blackboard.

    Identity politics is the consequence of moral relativism and will eventually destroy us as noted some 70 years ago by C S Lewis in “The Poison of Subjectivism”

  2. The best short summary of England, it’s history and it’s people, that I have read. And a wonderful antidote to the multicultural, wish-fulfilling hogwash if the left.

  3. Near where I was born and grew up, there was an open green space called Horsenden Hill. There are archaeological records of Stone Age human habitation of the area.
    If, in 1960, it had been possible to match DNA records of the dwellers of 8,000 years ago to the modern population you would have found direct family links across that period.
    Horsenden Hill is still there, but the surrounding locales; Greenford, Southall, Ealing, Wembley, Harrow and Sudbury are all a majority of mixed Indian, Pakistani, Sikh, or West Indian negroes. The original population who continuously inhabited the area for thousands of years have been replaced in just half a century.
    Why? And by whose decision?
    So, interesting as the article is, what is the point?
    In another half century the “English” will be a tiny minority in their own country.
    But it is good to know that you have your sovereignty back!

  4. I don’t suppose the Enniskillen Fusiliers, the Black Watch or the South Wales Borderers would thank anybody for describing them as “a feminine people”.

    Try saying that on Sauchihall Street late on a Saturday night.

  5. But surely, AB, it is the relatively excitable nature of the Scots, the Irish and the Welsh (exitability being undeniably a feminine trait but one that transmutes within Celtic men into furious courage) that makes them such doughty fighters. Which is why the English have always been so keen to recruit them into the British army.

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