What are the twenty key years in the last millennium of British history? That was the question I set out to resolve when I started commissioning the Turning Points series for BBC History Magazine in the closing months of 2005. I asked twenty leading historians to pick the year that they considered to have the most significance in a given half-century, to nominate the one year that they thought was the turning point for that particular fifty-year period.
Of course, there are several problems with this. First, as Michael Wood goes some way to countering in his Introduction, is the arbitrary starting date of AD 1000. British history clearly does not commence in this year and by taking this as our starting point we miss much of significance prior to that. We hear nothing of Romans arriving, occupying and leaving, Celts surviving and prospering, Anglo-Saxons finding their new home, Christianity spreading across the islands, Vikings invading and settling, not to mention the long swath of silent prehistory that goes before all that. Clearly this is something of an oversight, but it is worth saying that the further back in time one treks, the more difficult it becomes to ascribe events to specific years and thus the harder this particular task becomes.
The second issue is whether years can actually be ascribed as turning points. History is as much about trends as events, so aren’t we distorting the past by trying to shoehorn the wider themes of the past into critical years? That is a valid criticism, but every trend has a pivot point, so it is perfectly acceptable to try and pluck out that moment. Trends aside, sometimes history does turn on the big moments; set-piece battles do lead to regime change, new charters and laws do transform the political landscape, and virulent plagues do enforce dramatic alterations in the way society works.
Third, and perhaps most challenging, is the ‘British’ bit of the equation. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as we know it today is not much more than a century old. A large part of the story of the British Isles over the past thousand years is that of English attempts to dominate Wales, Ireland and Scotland. This makes things rather tricky. We have to contend with the fact that before the various political and dynastic unions, events of undeniable moment in one country might be rather less significant in the short term in another. The choice of the year when Magna Carta was signed (1215) for the period 1200–49 is a good case in point. In the immediate aftermath, the signing of the charter forced a change in John’s kingship in England, but Scotland, Wales and Ireland did not feel the consequences of this significant step on the road to our modern sense of British liberty until much later, when the nations were bound together as one. In the end, however, that idea of a certain sort of liberty espoused at least in part at Magna Carta does permeate the British identity, and so an initially English event can be read as a British turning point. I realize I’m leaving myself open to accusations of Anglocentrism, so I would like to stress the point that I’m certainly not saying that what is important for England automatically becomes important for Britain, but there are cases where that applies.
Some of our turning points dwell specifically on this expansionist desire from England, and the English attempts to dominate and conquer abroad have clear-cut implications for the whole of Britain and its history, a good case in point being the 1171 invasion of Ireland, or 1285 and Edward’s effort to consolidate his English rule in Wales. In these cases, the wider consequences for the whole of Britain are more immediately apparent.
Britishness today, of course, is a concept under some stress, with devolution and perhaps more on the agenda outside England, and immigration from Europe seemingly causing consternation in some quarters about a dilution of our national nature. Politicians seem constantly on the look-out for ways to open up debates about Britishness or to find ways to shore up what they appear to see as this faltering concept. It is interesting and pertinent, then, I hope, to look back at the years that have been of signal importance in creating the Britain that is being so widely and regularly discussed today.
It might seem to you that some of our contributors had an easier time than others with their fifty-year slice of history. Could Nick Higham have chosen anything other than 1066 for his slot, for instance? Probably not, given its iconic status in our national story, although I’m sure a good case could have been made for 1086 and the Domesday Book. To offset that, we have allowed our historians to hedge their bets slightly, by picking nine other key years. That no doubt helps those invited to write on half-centuries where the choice is not quite so immediately obvious. As we get closer to the present day, the task for the historian does seem to get ever harder. Is the pace of the past hotting up or are we just more familiar with the events? Whichever it is, Catherine Hall’s 1832 will be decried by some for missing the more obvious Trafalgar 1805, Waterloo 1815, and indeed the slavery abolition years within that half-century. Peter Mandler had a similarly taxing choice with 1850–99 and then Gerard DeGroot had an embarrassment of riches for his 1900–49 slot. Two world wars, one great depression and the creation of the NHS make for a hard decision. And then we must spare a thought for Pat Thane, who got the poisoned chalice of the last half-century of the last millennium. Her choice of Suez is eminently defensible, but she also had the Cold War to contend with, plus at the very end of her fifty years the moves to loosen the bounds of the United Kingdom, of which so much of the previous nineteen half-centuries were concerned with bringing together.