Culture club

4th July 2003 at 01:00
The English nation has been made by migration - and is all the better for it, says Dinah Starkey

The Norman conquest was a Good Thing, as from this time onwards England stopped being conquered and thus was able to become top nation."

That was the verdict of the spoof history book 1066 and All That. And in a sense the authors were right. The Saxons might have viewed the invasion of William the Bastard as a catastrophe, but it brought a kind of hard-won peace for this much-invaded nation.

The English are the product of centuries of migration, some peaceful, some forcible. John Bull may in fact be two parts Germanic Saxon to one part Celt, with a chunk of Scandinavian, a soupcon of French or Huguenot and a dash of West Indian, Asian, Jewish or Irish. The asylum seekers who enter our country today are only the latest immigrants.

Scotland and Wales have had their newcomers too, but England has always been a bigger melting pot. The Scots and the Welsh retained their native languages and culture for much longer and even now they have a separate identity, which is strongly influenced by the Celts who settled their lands thousands of years ago.

Go back 40,000 years and the original ancient Britons were arriving from continental Europe. They were followed, much later, by the Beaker people, who brought with them a distinctive style of pottery and skills in working the mysterious new metal, bronze.

The Celts arrived around about 700BC and with them came the iron age. Next were the Romans in 43AD. They stayed for nearly 400 years, transforming the landscape with their road systems, farming methods and new crops. Many of the towns they established still survive.

By 410AD the Roman empire was crumbling and the Angles and Saxons began to raid across the sea from what is now Germany. They continued the work started by the Romans, digging up the heavy soil of the river valleys with their big ploughs pulled by teams of oxen. It was the Saxons who named the shires and villages and laid the foundations of our constitution. It was during their time that the English language began to take shape.

But they finally lost their fight against the Norsemen in 1066. The Normans, themselves descendants of the Vikings, held all things Saxon in contempt. Their wholesale imposition of Norman culture had a curious spin-off. The ruling caste ignored the native language and continued to speak Norman French for generations. But the locals went on using Saxon and gradually the two languages began to meld. By the time of Chaucer in the 14th century a new dialect was emerging, rich in synonyms. So today we can talk about a child (Saxon) or an infant (Norman), a king (Saxon) or a sovereign (Norman).

As trade routes opened in Tudor times, African boys were brought to Britain to satisfy the fashionable demand for black pages. By the end of Queen Elizabeth's reign an estimated 20,000 "blackamoors" were living and working in London.

The Protestant Huguenots flooded into Britain in the 17th century to escape persecution in France. Many were cloth workers and they brought with them techniques which revitalized the British textile industry. In the 19th century, tens of thousands of Irish immigrants came to England after the potato famine, and from 1881 mounting persecution in eastern Europe and Russia led to the arrival of thousands of Jews. Many settled in East London, following in the footsteps of the Huguenots.

The evolution of our national identity has been slow and painful. The struggle for success that has faced each generation of immigrants continues today. Perhaps we can help to make the process of assimilation a little easier by teaching children about their past. That way they may come to understand what incomers have brought to our country and what they might contribute in the centuries to come.

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