Middle Age spin and European disunion

July 7, 2000

What do football fans have in common with English kings? An identity crisis, says Steve Farrar

As the dust settles on the football pitches and beery battlegrounds of Belgium and Holland, that elusive question - what does it mean to be English? - continues to haunt the nation.

It is no less a perplexing issue today than it was 1,000 years ago, when a kingdom of many different peoples had Danish and Norman as well as native-born rulers. It seems that then, like today, it was far easier to say who the English were not rather than who they were. Elizabeth Tyler, a scholar at the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of York, has approached this by analysing the language and concepts behind two important contemporary books that look at the reigns of the last kings of Anglo-Saxon England.

The first, The Encomium, was written by a Flemish cleric for Emma, the Norman widow of the Danish king Cnut during the turbulent reign of their son Harthacnut. Through its rich language and allusions to classical texts, it presents Cnut as the founder of a Scandinavian dynasty and empire that would long rule England, first in the person of Harthacnut and then, through another of Emma's sons, Edward the Confessor.

Elsewhere in the historical record, we see a Cnut who governs England by being more English than the English, but as Tyler says: "This text reminds us how malleable identity was in the early Middle Ages."

The Encomium carefully suppresses the fact that Edward was the son of Emma not by Cnut, but by Ethelred, the king conquered by Cnut. Edward - son of Norman Emma and English Ethelred - is subsumed into an Anglo-Scandinavian vision of England's future. Yet, only a few decades later that view had changed radically.

The second text, Vita A Edwardi, was written in the wake of the Norman conquest for Edward's widow, Edith, again by a Flemish churchman.

Edith was the daughter of a powerful Anglo-Saxon magnate, Earl Godwin, who rose to prominence under Cnut and married a Dane. But the tone of the book written for her is distinctly anti-Scandinavian. Here Edward's succession is portrayed as the glorious restoration of the English royal house of Wessex after the trauma of foreign rule. History has been consciously rewritten to play up English identity.

This spin clearly suited Edith, protected after 1066 by William the Conqueror's need to stress the legitimacy of his rule of the English. Tyler says: "The text shows us that English identity could be made and remade, adopted and rejected - but also that it was capable of surviving foreign rule by the Danes and was respected by William the Conqueror."

This strong sense of identity had its roots in the early 8th century. But it was not until the end of the 9th century that it began to gain political reality when all but one of the old Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were overrun by Viking invasions. This left Alfred's Wessex as the sole survivor, and Alfred portraying himself as king of the English.

In the course of the 10th century, Alfred's descendants forged an English kingdom from the shattered remains of Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria. This was a sense of Englishness that could include the very Vikings who had toppled and then settled in those kingdoms.

The 11th century brought dynastic insecurity, the foreign rule of the Danes, that very Norman of Englishmen, Edward the Confessor, and then the Norman conquest itself. But the author of the Vita, no doubt projecting Edith's views, has a clear sense of Englishness, complaining not only about foreign rule by the Danes, but about foreigners, French and German, in Edward's court.

The Anglo-Saxons' vision of what Englishness means may have been no clearer than our vision. But in their distrust of foreigners they might have found common cause with today's rioting football fans.

Old English, page 32

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