Part VII

The Part of Tens

In this part . . .

This part gives you some information to slip into conversation at dinner parties. You know the sort of thing: The talk is flowing, people are blabbing away, and you have to go and say: “The British? I’ll tell you about the British. There are ten major things the British have given the world, and ten only. And if you’ll give me a moment to go look them up, I’ll tell you what they are.”

So here you are. My lists of turning points, documents, people who should be better known, and places to visit that you might not otherwise have thought of. Oh, and those ten things the British have given the world. You might not agree with any of them, but that’s the great thing about history - people think it’s about facts but it isn’t, it’s about opinions.

Chapter 23

Ten Top Turning Points

In This Chapter

● Important and far-reaching political events

● Pivotal military campaigns

● The beginning of an island race

Sometimes people know when something happens that it’s really important, that things will never be the same again. Usually, however, how pivotal an event is only becomes clear much later on. When Queen Victoria died in 1901, everyone talked about the end of an era, but now we can see that her passing wasn’t nearly as important as the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Yet when that happened, no-one really took it too seriously. They thought the war would be a short scrap, “over by Christmas,” in the famous phrase. So people living at the time aren’t the ones who make “turning points”; historians, who come later and can see what followed, do. Here’s my list of ten points in British history that really did make a difference.

End of the Ice Age, c.7,500 BC

There’s a good story about how a British newspaper once carried the headline: “Fog in the Channel: Continent cut off.” OK, the heading was a joke, but even so it encapsulates the British and their outlook on the world. Everything hinges on their being on an island, and this is the period when they became one. To read about the early, early history of Britain, head to Chapters 2 and 3.

The Romans Invade Britain, 43 AD

The English felt very proud of having once been Roman citizens and even started talking about being descended from a Roman figure called Brutus: a Roman past set them apart from the Scots and Irish. Later, the Victorians likened their Empire to the Romans’: Where the Romans brought aqueducts and the Pax Romana, the “Roman Peace” the British brought railways and the Pax Britannica. One Victorian Foreign Secretary even justified using military force against the government of Greece by saying that any British subject could claim military protection from London, just as a Roman citizen could claim Rome’s protection anywhere in the world (refer to Chapter 18 for more on this event).

The Synod of Whitby, 664

Christianity has played a central role in British history ever since it arrived back in Roman times. But there are many types of Christianity. Which version should the British follow? In 664, the issue was threshed out at a big meeting at Whitby Abbey in Yorkshire, presided over by King Oswy. On the face of it, the meeting was about whether England was going to stay with the Celtic Church, which was the church in Ireland and Scotland, or whether it was going to join the Roman church which had sent missionaries into Kent. But what was at stake was whether England was going to join the European mainstream, or whether it was going to stick to its own, native way of doing things. King Oswy opted for the Roman church and for links with Europe. The Synod of Whitby was the point when England finally turned its back on the Celts and squeezed them out, even in their own church. You can find out more about this Synod and life in Anglo-Saxon England in Chapter 5.

The Norman Invasion of England, 1066

The Norman Invasion is still one of the most remarkable military campaigns in history. The Normans shouldn’t have won: They came from a small, second-class duchy, and England was a stable, sophisticated, and wealthy kingdom. But once they had won, everything changed. The Normans made England a European power, not just strong enough to defend herself, which is what the Saxons had done, but able and willing to expand. That’s why 1066 matters to the Welsh, the Irish, and the Scots as well. Head to Chapter 7 for more on the Norman invasion.

The English Invade Ireland, 1170

Only one Pope has ever been English, Nicholas Breakspear who reigned as Pope Adrian IV. He was the one who gave the go-ahead for King Henry II to launch an invasion of Ireland. In fact, the King of Leinster, an Irish kingdom, had invited the English in to help him get power, but the English decided to stay and take power themselves. These actions changed England’s relations with Ireland for ever and started centuries of misery and bloodshed. (Chapter 8 provides more information on how the English became involved with Ireland). The English could never control all of Ireland, but as long as they thought they should, there would never be peace. And there wasn’t.

The Battle of Bannockburn, 1314

The Battle of Bannockburn is Scotland’s favourite battle. It’s the big one when they beat the English and sent them packing. The English had already conquered the Welsh, and there was every reason to think Scotland was going to go the same way. Bannockburn saved the Scots and shattered the idea that the English were somehow invincible. If England had won, Scotland would have become an English province, just as Wales had (Chapter 9 explains this in more detail), and the idea that it had once been a separate kingdom would have become a memory. The fact that Scotland retained its separate identity and history owes a lot to what happened at Bannockburn.

Henry VIII Breaks with Rome, 1532

Henry VIII’s quarrel with Rome may look like a purely English event, but it had huge implications for the whole of Britain. Henry’s taking the English church out of the Roman church gave the green light to a wave of religious change that spread throughout the islands. The Reformation crossed national boundaries - Scottish Protestants felt they had much more in common with English Protestants than with Scottish Catholics - but the English came to associate being Protestant with being English. Their Protestantism was one more thing that separated the English from the Irish, and it became one of the most important differences between them and the French or Spanish. Protestantism helped divide and shape Britain along lines we still see today, and Henry VIII started it off. Read Chapter 11 for details about Henry’s reign and Chapter 12 for the role religion played in the events occurring during the reigns of the Tudor and Stuart monarchs.

Charles I Tries to Arrest Five MPs, 1642

Anyone can have a rebellion, but defying the king to his face is something else. Even rebels usually protest their loyalty to the King and say they are only angry with his “evil advisers”. But when Charles I went into the House of Commons to arrest five MPs in 1642, the House told him, in effect, to get lost. Charles hadn’t just lost his authority: He had lost it for all the monarchs who might come after him as well.

The British may tolerate a monarch, may even go all gooey-eyed about a monarch, but after 1642, monarchs were there because the people said so and for no other reason. Charles I, James II, George III, and even Edward VIII all learned this the hard way. Cutting off Charles’s head set a powerful precedent for other revolutions to follow: You could say that the House of Commons changed the history of the world that January morning in 1642. Head to Chapter 13 to find out more about Charles I’s reign and the tug of war that lead to civil war.

The Great Reform Act, 1832

Time was when everyone learned about Earl Grey and the Reform Act (explained in Chapter 17). Not any more. That’s a shame, because the Reform Act was as important as any battle, possibly more so. On the face of it, the Reform Act was all about rotten boroughs and different types of franchise, but the Act was more important than the inequities it addressed.

When you consider that just about every other European nation had a revolution and the USA had a Civil War, the fact that Britain didn’t was no mean feat. The difference was that the British had mastered the art of reform, knowing when and how to change within the system. In the end, it meant that the British, without a bloody and violent revolution, could develop a democratic system that would survive through the twentieth century and beyond. Thank the Reform Act.

The Fall of Singapore, 1942

The British Empire was always based on bluff, and in Singapore, the bluff got called. Everyone thought Singapore was impregnable, the symbol of British power throughout the East. The British were so used to being superior that they assumed that, as Churchill put it, the “little yellow men” would never dare take on the might of the British Empire. But they did and, in the process, showed that it wasn’t so mighty after all. Singapore didn’t fall after some desperate last-ditch battle; it fell with hardly a shot. All those proud British officers and men had to surrender to an Asian army. All that sense of racial and military superiority the British Empire stood for collapsed. The British were no more special than anyone else, and the whole world knew it. From that moment on, it didn’t matter who won the war. The British Empire was doomed. You can find out more about the beginning and end of the British Empire in Chapters 19 and 22.

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