Earlier this week, the distinguished historian David Abulafia published an article in History Today, titled ‘Britain: apart from or a part of Europe?’, written on behalf of the group ‘Historians for Britain’. The article suggested that in light of the forthcoming referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, historians ought to facilitate debate by providing a historical perspective. And it sought to provide that perspective, drawing on the medieval and modern past to argue that ‘the United Kingdom has always been a partner of Europe without being a full participant in it’.
The piece has already aroused strong feelings on Twitter, and we can be sure that this is just the start of a debate. I shall however leave commentary on the article’s characterisation of more recent history to others (though I cannot resist mentioning Will Hutton’s observation that judging by that history, in many ways England is the most European country of all), and concentrate instead on Professor Abulafia’s emphasis on the medieval past.
That emphasis is perhaps timely, given that the future political structure of the island of Britain looks like it might come to resemble the Middle Ages, divided between independent kingdoms of England and Scotland, more than its more recent (and somewhat half-hearted) experiment with union. Yet the History Today article’s emphasis is very much on medieval history after the magic date of 1066, by which point the English political community was already centuries old. So what might a historical perspective from pre-Conquest England look like? The short answer is: unambiguously involved with the continent.
To begin with, we might note that the English in the early Middle Ages spoke a language closely connected to that spoken across the North Sea (as anyone who has looked at Old English will quickly recognise). It is no surprise that the English believed that their community had originated from mass immigration from the continent. The early English imagination was thoroughly continental too: it ought not to be forgotten that the greatest Old English poem, Beowulf, is set not in England but in Denmark. And thanks to the work of Frankish, Italian and Irish missionaries, from the seventh century the English were part of a Christian community centred on Rome, to which they contributed mightily in the eighth century, sending missionaries to convert their own flesh and blood on the continent, as they themselves saw it.
King Alfred of Wessex is an excellent example of all this. The only English king to be given the epithet of ‘the Great’, Alfred fought off the Vikings and laid the foundations for the united England that was achieved by his immediate descendants in the tenth century, and that has endured to this day. Yet Alfred’s step-mother was Frankish, his son-in-law was Flemish, and he himself had travelled to Rome on pilgrimage at least once. His court was filled with people from Ireland and Francia, and even his ideological programme may have been largely inspired by Frankish models. Alfred is in a way the most English early medieval king, but also the most thoroughly engaged with the continent. That is not a paradox, it is a reflection of England’s intense engagement with continental culture and politics: England was never more ‘European’ than when it was in the process of formation.
Naturally, early medieval England had some distinguishing features (for instance, a greater use of the vernacular than on the continent). But then, so too did early medieval Ireland, or Spain, or Denmark, or for that matter France or Italy. Every country in Europe can draw on a past that was in some respect ‘exceptional’. In fact, this pattern of differences is itself distinctly European in nature. For, after the Roman Empire fell in the fifth century, ethnicity served to differentiate political communities over the long-term in the West in a way that is historically rather unusual. Arguments of exceptionalism, in other words, are a common European heritage, based on a surprisingly venerable past.
None of this is to say that there is only one historically approved way to vote in the coming referendum. There is a gap between history and politics, and it is important to remember that the EU is not the same thing as Europe (and that Europe has itself meant different things at different times). But from an early medieval perspective, at least, it cannot be said that England has always stood apart from continental affairs. On the contrary, for England to continue to play a key and immediate role in those affairs in the future would be wholly consonant with the country’s very deepest roots.
 See Helmut Reimitz’s forthcoming book, History, Frankish Identity and the Framing of Western Ethnicity, 550–850.
Charles West is Senior Lecturer in Medieval History. You can follow him on Twitter
Image Source: Metz Mediatheque MS 351 (s.ix), https://www.flickr.com/photos/bmmetz/12499736474/in/album-72157640923158474/