Weird History

Brexit and the History of England's Rocky Relationship with Europe  

Will Gish
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In June 2016, the people of Great Britain voted to leave the European Union. The decision came as a shock to the world, and immediately affected international markets. To anyone not paying attention to the lead-up to the British Exit (Brexit) vote, the decision and resulting furor seemed like it came out of nowhere. What does anyone really know about this tiny agglomeration of island nations at the edge of the Europe, anyway? The Beatles? Shakespeare? World War II?

While the result of the Brexit vote surprised even those with some knowledge of the turbulent, on-again, off-again relationship between England and continental Europe, resentment of the European Union from the English shouldn't surprise anyone. For the vast majority of recorded history, the relationship between England (and Britain, as a whole), and the rest of Europe has been extremely tempestuous, consisting almost entirely of invasions, attempted invasions, more invasions, counter-invasions, economic conflict that nearly resulted in invasions, and, in the first half of the 20th century, all-out industrialized war.

Read on for a concise but informative history of England's on-again, off-again relationship with Europe.

Britain Splits from Europe - Literally
Britain Splits from Europe - L... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list Brexit and the History of England's Rocky Relationship with Europe
Photo: erix!/flickr/CC-BY 2.0

England's long relationship with continental Europe began before the advent of recorded history. Tens of thousands of years ago, the British Isles (Britain and Ireland) were connected to one another, and to mainland Europe, and early humans migrated back and forth freely between England and the continent.

The oldest human remains found in Britain are at least 35,000 years old, and maybe as many as 40,000 years old. Britain remained part of the European landmass until 6100 BC, 30,000 years or so after people first arrived in the region. So, if you back far enough, Britain had a pretty stable, normal relationship with Europe (at least stable by Neanderthal standards), because it was just another part of the continent.

The Romans Arrive to Mixed Reviews
The Romans Arrive to Mixed Rev... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list Brexit and the History of England's Rocky Relationship with Europe
Photo: Samantha Simpson/flickr/CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

Regional cultures began developing as migrants to Britain settled in the wake of the island's separation from continental Europe around 6100 BC. In lowland England – basically, the southern and central parts of England – small communities developed as farming took hold. This gave rise to villages, and a settled way of life. In Wales and Scotland, nomadic, hunter-gather cultures and fierce warrior people such as the Picts claimed wild, mountainous territory.

In this milieu, the Romans arrived in 55 BC, then again in 54 BC, and finally, with intent on conquering the island and settling, in 43 BC. In some areas, the Romans met serious, violent resistance; so much so in Scotland and Wales, they basically gave up any hope of conquering those places, and even built not one, but two walls between England and Scotland.

The arrival of the Romans marked the beginning of political and social relationships between England and Europe, and the results were decidedly mixed. English farmers who lived in settlements didn't offer tremendous resistance, and even sold large portions of their harvest to the Romans who settled in England, while taking advantage of technology and fortifications offered by the Legions.

However, not all relations were so copacetic. Boudica, an English warrior queen, went on a rampage after Romans broke a treaty with her husband, a local king, raping her and her daughters and pillaging their kingdom after the king's death. What did Boudica do? She killed about 70,000 Romans before she was defeated by the Legions. A tempestuous relationship, to say the least. 

The Anglo-Saxons Are Invited to England but Overstay Their Welcome
The Anglo-Saxons Are Invited t... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list Brexit and the History of England's Rocky Relationship with Europe
Photo: DncnH/flickr/CC-BY 2.0

Once the Romans settled in England, the country began another period of relative isolation. The local people mixed with Roman soldiers from all over Europe. They intermarried, and advanced indigenous English culture by mixing it with that of the Romans. Eventually, the Legions left Britain to go defend the crumbling Roman Empire, but Roman influence remained.

At the end of the 4th century AD, Vortigern, an English rule, invited Germanic people from what is now northern Germany to help him defend his kingdom against marauders from Scotland. These German people, the Anglo-Saxons, accepted the invitation, showed up in droves, and decided to conquer England and Wales themselves rather than help some other person rule. They also tried conquering Scotland, but got their asses handed to them by the Picts.

Having decided to keep England for themselves, the Anglo-Saxons conquered more area than any other previous local ruler, and established the first English monarchy (though kingdoms were regional, not centralized, at this point). The languages spoken by the Anglo-Saxons merged into one, Old English, and their culture gave rise to the tradition of myth-making that created Beowulf. They also Christianized Britain.

So, in short, the Anglo-Saxons basically started the culture and country we now know as England. And they came from Germany. However, it should be noted that many aspects of Roman-Britain and pre-Roman Britain contributed greatly to the culture of Anglo-Saxon England. They didn't show up and erase everything that came before them, but rather built upon and expanded it.

The Vikings Do What Vikings Do Best
The Vikings Do What Vikings Do... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list Brexit and the History of England's Rocky Relationship with Europe
Photo:  alseeger/Pixabay/CC0 1.0

Given that Denmark is only about 350 miles from the eastern coast of England, and Norway only 400 miles, it's inevitable Vikings would show up eventually. After the arrival and settlement of the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings were England's next major contact with Europe. At first, the Vikings had no interest in conquering England (or Scotland). They just wanted to raid and pillage, and that they did. In 793, the Vikings destroyed a monastery. Vikings raided again in 802, and killed 68 monks in 806.

In the middle of the 9th century, the Vikings decided they wanted England, and so they invaded, conquering the kingdoms of Northumbria, East Anglia, and Mercia. The sole remaining Anglo-Saxon kingdom was Wessex, whose prince and future king, Alfred the Great, led an English army to a vital victory against the Vikings in the Battle of Ashdown, in 871.

After that decisive victory, the Vikings were pushed ever westward, and exerted increasingly little influence on British life. They hung around, however, for nearly 200 years, until King Harold crushed them at Stamford Bridge, in 1066, an important year for other reasons.