Why I... think David Starkey is wrong to dismiss the significance of Scotland's history

October 22, 2004

A peculiar aspect of the English psyche is a deep-rooted fear of the Scots. From Malcolm III's slave-raiding in the late 11th century to the descent of Scottish football supporters on Wembley in the late 20th century, cross-border incursions have long been dreaded.

David Starkey comes from Kendal, a town abandoned in 1388 when its terrified population mistook a riot for a Scottish attack. You might wonder whether his recent dismissal of Scotland's historic significance prior to the start of his Channel 4 series this week reflects such profound fears.

But as he is a friend who has told audiences that my focus on Scotland makes my papers especially worth attention, I shall spare him a kneejerk reaction.

I agree with much of what Starkey says. English kingship is indeed remarkable. Nevertheless, the most brilliant paper I ever heard was the late Patrick Wormald's demonstration of how strongly early Scottish kingship matched that of Anglo-Saxon England. While Alfred - one of Starkey's five favourite kings - and his successors are revered for their achievements, the Scots also managed to withstand the Vikings under equally impressive rulers.

These kings, descendants of Kenneth mac Alpin, made Scotland powerful enough to annex half of Northumbria and to deal with the English. Thus, in 1074, William the Conqueror, another of Starkey's heroes, found Scotland, unlike England, unconquerable.

Starkey's third hero, Edward I, tried to conquer it in 1296. His shock-and-awe tactics were initially successful, but conquest crumbled in less than a year, leading to almost three centuries of fighting that the Scots won. Edward I's imperial ambitions caused bankruptcy and virtual civil war and the efforts of Starkey's fourth hero, Henry VIII, were similarly fruitless.

There is as much to be said for the Scottish monarchy as for the English. I challenge Channel 4 to follow Starkey's series with one highlighting adept kings such as David I, Alexander III, Robert I and James IV.

England has always been bigger, wealthier and stronger - sufficiently so to engage in outrageous wars of foreign conquest. But even those who concentrate purely on England should acknowledge how much of its history was shaped by its contacts with Scotland. In fact, given the extent of Scots ancestry among the English today, it is tempting to view the migration south of the border after James VI took over England in 1603 in terms of colonisation.

Moreover, the British Empire flourished only after the 1707 Act of Union, and was unthinkable without the Scots, Irish and Welsh, despite Starkey's attempts to downplay this contribution.

But that's something the English have long found difficult to recognise.

Because the medieval idea of Englishness was extinguished by their idea of Britishness, they now cannot separate the concepts, and so have problems understanding the Scottish dimension of Britishness. It must be very confusing.

And that is Starkey's main point. He is right to call for a clear sense of English, as distinct from British, history.

But his apparent triumphalism is depressing. The histories of all countries are a mixture of pluses and minuses. Proper knowledge of our past is vastly preferable to jingoistic pride in it - and Starkey has done more than most to communicate such proper knowledge to the widest audiences.

Thus, while I have no problem with his telling us about English history, I trust that in more considered moments he will avoid the temptation of setting up a version of British and Scottish history as "others" against which he can react.

After all, not only British and Scottish history but English history as well, are sadly distorted by such an exercise.

Alexander Grant,
Reader in medieval British history Lancaster University

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