By triggering Article 50 to start Britain’s process of exiting the European Union, Theresa May will launch the country into the unknown. History provides examples of Britain leaving Europe – and sometimes Europe leaving Britain – that help give some perspective on the events that are about to unfold. The clearest lesson of all is that the European mainland has been essential to Britain’s prosperity, and that when the relationship with Europe is poor, the lot of the ordinary Briton is poorer for it.
Sometimes, for sure, contact with the continent has brought its problems. For example, the arrival of the Black Death on the shores of Britain from southern France in 1348. For the most part, however, Britain’s relationship with the continent between the arrival of the Romans and the end of the Middle Ages brought prosperity – when was nurtured by both parties. And there have been significant moments in Britain’s relationship with Europe when rupture with the mainland brought dire consequences.
For most people in Roman Britain, the departure of Roman government in 410 brought widespread economic hardship. The British historian, Gildas, writing from somewhere in the west of the island in the 5th century, entitled his work on the subject The Ruin of Britain. According to Gildas, when the Romans left, attacks by barbarians and pestilence followed.
The archaeological record shows that Gildas did not exaggerate the consequences of the retreat of Rome. In the fifth and sixth centuries, native Britons were no longer able to obtain their continental wares. Towns were abandoned, the economic power houses of the villa economy went into terminal decay, and the indigenous population underwent a sharp decline in its number.
The beginnings of the return to prosperity had to await the Christian mission of Augustine and his followers in the 7th century, who reconnected the island with the mainstream of the continent. There was massive and permanent disruption which occurred in lowland Britain between 410 and the arrival of the Christian missionaries in 597. Only after the arrival of Augustine and his followers did the material culture of the Anglo-Saxons begin the long slow path of recreating the quality of what had been available to the British under Rome. Only when the Normans arrived in 1066 was Britain dragged into the mainstream of European political culture.
If we measure the wealth of a nation by the quality of the goods that its ordinary citizens can enjoy, then the period after 1066 was one in which growing specialisation and consumerism brought enormous wealth to Britain. People had more to spend and they had more to spend it on as the economy became increasingly commercialised. For ordinary men and women, trading and cultural connections to the continent gave them luxuries that their grandparents and great grandparents could have barely imagined.
Britain’s entry into the mainstream of Christian Europe also delivered important freedoms to ordinary men and women, the people about whom we hear so little in the historical sources but who, nonetheless, lived out their lives in the medieval world. After 1066, the Anglo-Saxons and Celtic peoples gradually stopped enslaving their own people and their captured enemies, and increasing wealth in the course of the next 300 years brought about a decline and then the end of serfdom.
The loss of the lands of the Angevins in France by King John in 1204 brought about a new, destructive relationship with Europe which lasted much of the rest of the Middle Ages.
A century of war
The United Kingdom is four nations in one, and was forged in the Middle Ages by war and blood as the English rulers sought to dominate their neighbours and to take from them their lands and resources. Wales effectively ceased to exist as a place of independence by 1283. Scotland survived independently, but at enormous cost in life, land, and resources, and Ireland was squashed beneath the heel of the oppressor.
All this misery was brought about because England entered a destructive phase in its relationship with Europe as it sought to replace European revenue by conquest at home, and then sought to take war back to the continent in a century-long drive to win control of the kingdom of France.
When England was at war with Europe, its citizens (and those of its European neighbours, let’s not forget) were poorer, its institutions smaller and narrower, its economic potential much reduced. While some historians have sought to find “good” in the impact of the Hundred Years’ War on England and its neighbours, just like modern-day Brexiteers on the retreat from Europe, this does not give the full picture. The impact of conflict with Britain’s European neighbours was catastrophic for everyone involved.
Whatever happens next in Article 50 negotiations, the lesson from Britain’s first 1,500 years is that the lot of the ordinary British citizen has been better when the British isles are working in harmony with their European neighbours. Here’s to hoping that May’s negotiators can keep Britain in the European loop even if outside the institution of the EU. The alternative is much less attractive.