Brexit lessons from history

As Britain prepares to leave the European Union, five historians consider previous schisms – including King John’s misadventures in France and Henry VIII’s break with Rome

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Henry VIII invents ‘England’

The Tudor king’s break with Rome in 1532–33 established the idea of English exceptionalism and paved the way for 2016, argues David Starkey

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Let’s put our cards on the table: there is no doubt whatsoever that Henry VIII’s break from Rome is not simply a parallel, it is the direct ancestor of Brexit. The dispute with Rome was about jurisdiction and the rejection of any foreign authority within England at a time when Henry, along with everyone else, was the subject of the Universal Church of Rome, a pan-European, supranational ancestor of the EU with its own non-English system of law that covered whole swathes of public and private life – including Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

Although Henry did want an heir, what really drove him was his lust for Anne Boleyn. His decision to marry her was the Tudor equivalent of the Brexit referendum, a gigantic event that nonetheless had the smallest of motives: love. But it also very quickly became political for Henry, because he became deeply attached to the idea of not simply being king but head of the church. After all, seeing yourself as direct successor of King David and King Solomon is bound to make you feel good about yourself.

Following humiliations in his efforts to secure a divorce – and after pausing to assemble a think-tank of scholars who worked up arguments to say that Rome had no jurisdiction because Henry, not the pope, was rightful head of the church – it’s striking how cunningly Henry proceeded. In his foreign policy he deliberately divided Europe, splitting France from Spain by writing off the equivalent of billions of pounds in reparations owed to England.

Henry also made sure he had a favourable archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, in post. Then, at the last possible minute, Henry passed a key act of legislation, the Act in Restraint of Appeals (1533), which meant that even if poor Catherine appealed to Rome from Cranmer’s rigged court, which in 1533 ruled her marriage to Henry as against the law of God, it would have no application in England. All of this was totally calculated and shows a sense of strategy that puts us to shame. The final step, in 1534, was to protect the king’s title as supreme head of the church by the law of treason.

The widest strip of water

The deeper consequence of all of this is that Henry VIII actually invented ‘England’ – and, remember, we’re talking purely about England here. This is why England and Scotland voted differently in the Brexit referendum: because they have had different experiences of the Reformation. The Scots had a European-style Reformation that cemented their ties to continental Europe.

The whole Brexiteer position can be traced back to Henry and the propaganda that followed the break from Rome: that sense of English difference and distinction, of Europe as foreign and strange, and of the Channel as the widest strip of water in the world. Even the concept of parliamentary sovereignty was invented for Henry as a means by which he could bring about a sovereign independent state.

This schism is the foundation of English self-identity, one that ran counter to so many other aspects of English history. From the Norman conquest onwards we were tied to Europe. Before then, we were essentially part of Greater Scandinavia. The Normans pulled us across the Channel, and for most of the Middle Ages we were part of a cross-channel monarchy. The Channel wasn’t a barrier, it was an essential means of communication. The Tudors themselves were the result of a French invasion: many of Henry VII’s troops at Bosworth were French, the money was French, the ships that brought him over were French and the bloody tactics in the battle were French.

It’s astonishing that people have refused to chart this story, and having a better grasp of history would have helped people in the current debates. Henry turned English history around. He created Fortress Britain, because he had to. England became a pariah. What followed was an enormous programme of land fortification and the construction of a new, heavily armoured Royal Navy, but at the same time England invented for itself the concept of empire. What emerged from all of this was Battleship Britain – a kind of embattled island standing proud against the wickedness of Europe – but also an island that looked outwards across unknown waters.

David Starkey is a historian and broadcaster. In 2017, he presented Reformation: Europe’s Holy War on BBC Two.


King John is booted out of Normandy

Nicholas Vincent charts the aftermath of England’s defeats on the continent in 1204

On the eve of the feast day of St Nicholas, 6 December 1203, King John’s galley slipped anchor from Barfleur at Normandy’s northernmost tip. Normandy itself was in open rebellion. Within six months, the ducal capital at Rouen and the greatest of the king’s castles north of the Loire all surrendered to French invasion. After nearly 140 years of rule by French-speaking kings, John’s English subjects were about to experience their own version of Brexit, the gravest breach in Anglo-European relations since the Norman conquest of 1066.

What came to be known as King John’s ‘loss of Normandy’ in 1204 provoked political crisis. A king who had previously been an absentee defending his lands in France now roamed England in search of money and manpower with which to win back his lost continental estate. Henceforth the ambitions of King John and his French-speaking courtiers diverged fundamentally from those of the majority of his barons to whom, despite their French ancestry, France was already a distant place.

John slunk back defeated from France in 1214. The result was rebellion and the civil war of 1215–17

This basic divide was to inflect political history for the next 50 years, as John and his son, Henry III, squandered the wealth of England in doomed attempts at reconquest. One such attempt, in 1214, from which John once again slunk back defeated, led directly to rebellion and civil war in 1215–17. Here, for a while, an army commanded by the future French king Louis VIII ruled over London and the home counties. The irony is that native baronial resistance to the king of England’s foreign adventures led to an alliance between English barons and the king of France. As late as the 1290s, the insistence by John’s grandson, Edward I, upon taxing the English to pay for wars in France provoked a series of baronial rebellions or standoffs.

Surrogate theatres

What of the economic effects upon England? Trade was disrupted, sporadically rather than permanently, but with sufficient negative effect to persuade the Londoners, after one such disruption in 1214, to side with the barons and their French allies. The effects were felt on both sides of the Channel. Archbishop Odo of Rouen, touring his diocese in the 1250s, reported how church after church had fallen into disrepair as the wealth that had previously flowed from Anglo-Norman alignment ceased to flow. For the inhabitants of Scotland, Wales and Ireland – used by English monarchs as surrogate theatres for continental adventures – the effects were catastrophic.

There were positive as well as a negative consequences. Great Britain was itself first forged in the wars the English now waged in the rest of the British Isles. The baronial rebellion of 1215 produced Magna Carta, albeit as a manifesto of future good government rather than as a practical solution to the problems of John’s bad kingship. The universities of Oxford, and in due course Cambridge, educated an intellectual elite who might previously have gone to Paris or Bologna. John presided over the building of a royal navy. But these were unintended outcomes of what no one was in any doubt was King John’s most shameful defeat.

Nicholas Vincent is professor of medieval history at the University of East Anglia.


Britannia goes it alone

In 286, Rome lost control of Britain, but the ensuing Britannic empire didn’t endure more than a decade, writes Andrew Brown

The 280s AD found the Roman empire in trouble, seriously destabilised in the west by the external threat of raiding Germanic ‘barbarians’ – Saxons, Franks and Frisians. The outlook in Britain seems to have been brighter, though. As a key exporter of grain to the continent and with a booming agricultural economy, the province off mainland Europe’s north-west corner appears to have been regarded as something of a safe haven. To repel seaborne attack, the Romans built defensive fortifications on both sides of the English Channel. A surge in villa-building seems to have been linked to the movement of wealthy Gallic and Romano-British populations to the relative calm of southern Britannia.

Yet by the end of the decade, Britain too had been pitched into deep crisis – one that caused the province to break away from the Roman empire and attempt to go it alone.

The trouble began when Maximian, emperor in the west, appointed a young general, Marcus Aurelius Mauseus Carausius, to command the northern fleet in Gaul and Britain and stabilise the prized trade routes between Britain and the Rhine.

Carausius was an astute general who reinforced coastal fortifications and strengthened the navy. But soon (perhaps due to self-aggrandisement or embezzling captured loot), he had fallen out with Maximian, and found himself sentenced to death. Carausius had no intention of going down without a fight: on learning of his fate, he usurped Roman authority and declared himself emperor.

After several months of campaigning on the continent, Carausius was forced to retreat to Britannia. His Britannic empire at times included territory in northern Gaul, notably Boulogne, but its heartland was Britain and London, its capital. Command of Roman military elements, coupled with sympathetic Gallic, ‘barbarian’ and British populations, meant Carausius faced little opposition.

Killed by his minister

Carausius was likely quick to control the export of grain in order to bolster the local economy. He also established at least two mints, one of which was in London; another producing coins marked with a ‘C’. These coins reinforced his position by highlighting support of the military (the breakaway produced the first navy in defence of Britain), newfound peace and prosperity, and his role as ‘restorer of Britain’. He styled himself as a Roman emperor, a re-embodiment of Augustus and the ‘renewer of the Romans’.

But Carausius remained a usurper, and a failed invasion by Maximian in c289/90 offers evidence of Rome’s unwillingness to accept his authority. This did not stop Carausius trying to set his own political agenda, and he issued coins carrying his portrait, alongside those of the co-emperors Diocletian and Maximian with the legend CARAVSIVS ET FRATRES SVI – “Carausius and his brothers”. While Britannia’s physical and economic separation from Rome was clear, Carausius sought recognition as an equal with his ‘brothers’ in Rome – and they probably grudgingly accepted him, while planning to strike at him as soon as they could.

As it turned out, they didn’t have to wait long, for in 293 Carausius was assassinated by his own finance minister, Allectus. Allectus went on to rule in Carausius’s stead, but his administration was even more short-lived than his predecessor’s, falling victim to a two-pronged invasion of Britain in 296.

The Britannic empire had come to an end, and Britain was quickly reintegrated into the Roman empire. This victory was encapsulated in a triumphal march through London by Emperor Constantius I as REDDITOR LVCIS AETERNAE – ‘Restorer of the Eternal Light (of Rome)’. In Britain, it would be more than 100 years before that ‘eternal’ light was extinguished.

Andrew Brown is assistant national finds advisor for Iron Age and Roman coins at the British Museum.


Calamities abroad; chaos at home

Lauren Johnson outlines how Henry VI’s travails in France in 1453 led to the Wars of the Roses

At the end of the Hundred Years’ War, the English were finally driven from every corner of France to which they laid claim except for the pale around Calais. What had once been an extensive realm under King Henry VI was lost irretrievably. How did this happen?

Henry VI inherited the thrones of England and of France before his first birthday. Although, or perhaps because, he was the son of Henry V, the victor of Agincourt, his chief policy from his earliest days was to secure peace with France. In the cause of this policy, Henry VI sacrificed one bargaining chip after another in the misguided belief that he would forge an alliance to end the war without diminishing either himself or England. A French nobleman released from English captivity, Henry’s marriage arranged to an impoverished French princess, territory ceded – all were futile gestures made without reciprocal treaties ever being agreed.

But Henry’s inept diplomacy alone was not to blame for the loss of France. His subjects’ blind conviction of their own national superiority meant there was insufficient investment in holding French territories. The English were the victors of Agincourt, after all. They had defeated the French in pitched battle before, surely they would triumph over them again?

For the next decade, Europe looked on, increasingly bewildered, as England tore itself to pieces

Such complacency proved fatal. Repeated appeals from the commanders of Englishheld garrisons in France for support went unanswered. Warnings that the French army was being reorganised and readied for a major campaign were ignored. When, just as Henry’s commanders had predicted, the French marched into English-held Normandy, the duchy was lost. The Norman capital, Rouen, surrendered without a single cannon being shot. Perhaps if Henry had then imitated his father and led an army to France he could have rallied sufficient support to turn the tide, but there was never any indication he intended to do so. By 1450, only Calais and Gascony still held for the English crown.

Henry’s catatonic stupor

In 1453, at the battle of Castillon in Gascony, Henry’s commander, the sexagenarian John Talbot, launched a cavalry attack on a French gunnery. His army was blown to pieces and Talbot killed – his body so mangled that his herald could only identify it by feeling inside his mouth for a missing tooth. The collapse of Talbot’s army at Castillon had disastrous consequences not just for Gascony, which fell within four months, but for England. When Henry received news of Castillon, he fell into a catatonic stupor from which he could not be roused for 17 months.

During Henry’s ‘infirmity’ (as his councillors euphemistically put it), his kinsman, Richard, Duke of York, took control of government. A Yorkist faction that had been vying for authority with Henry’s Lancastrian courtiers for years hardened into a political opposition. The result was the Wars of the Roses. For the next decade, Europe looked on, increasingly bewildered, as England tore itself to pieces. After Henry had been deposed, then restored, then deposed again, one Italian ambassador, attempting to make sense of English politics, grew frustrated. “I wish the country and the people were plunged deep in the sea,” he wrote. “I feel like one going to the torture when I write about them.”

Insanity, civil war and international mortification: losing a substantial English presence in Europe had dire consequences.

Lauren Johnson is a historian and author. Her latest book is Shadow King: The Life and Death of Henry VI (Head of Zeus, 2019).


A semi-detached disaster

Piers Brendon argues that British parochialism in 1938 helped, ironically enough, to draw it into a second global conflict

At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, where Gladstonian Liberals had favoured international cooperation, Lord Salisbury’s Conservatives gloried in the idea of splendid isolation. But after the bloodletting of the First World War, Austen Chamberlain, as foreign secretary, extolled the merits of semi-detachment. Clinging chastely to her imperial draperies, Britannia would keep her European neighbours safely at arm’s length.

This involved enfeebling the newly formed League of Nations, which therefore could not provide collective security, and imposed only weak sanctions on Italy after Mussolini’s assault on Ethiopia. It entailed non-intervention in the Spanish Civil War. It also meant that Britain did not challenge Nazi Germany over the remilitarisation of the Rhineland and the seizure of Austria. Then, in 1938, Neville Chamberlain took the policy of disengagement to its most disastrous extreme. Facing Hitler’s threat to dismember Czechoslovakia, he expressed horror at the prospect of intervening in “a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing”.

Chamberlain’s motives were commendable: he wished to preserve peace abroad and, in the midst of the Great Depression, to promote prosperity at home. But he failed to grasp Hitler’s pathologically aggressive intentions. Describing him after their first encounter as “the commonest little dog he had ever seen”, Chamberlain assumed that Hitler could be mollified with titbits.

Chamberlain beat a cowardly retreat from the continent, thus feeding Hitler’s appetite for conquest

Averse to foreigners generally, like many of his compatriots, he also snubbed the French and spurned the Russians, refusing to recognise that Britain’s own security depended on the formation of a strong European alliance. To this, Czechoslovakia, with its 35 well-equipped divisions, could have made a potent contribution. But, as its ambassador Jan Masaryk remarked, he had to spend much of his time explaining to the British that his country, with its unfamiliar jumble of letters, was not an infectious disease.

A fatal sacrifice

Chamberlain’s three airborne overtures to Hitler culminated in the cession of the Sudeten fringe of Czechoslovakia at Munich. On 30 September 1938, he returned home in triumph, clutching his umbrella, waving his piece of paper and announcing he had brought “peace with honour”. Actually he had fatally sacrificed democracy to dictatorship and beaten a cowardly retreat from the continent, thus feeding Hitler’s appetite for conquest. Brendan Bracken, who served in Winston Churchill’s wartime cabinet, joked, “One Funk in the German cabinet, and twenty-two in the British.” Churchill himself prophetically declared that Britain had been “offered a choice between war and shame. She has chosen shame, and will get war.”

Chamberlain’s defenders claim that at Munich he bought valuable time for rearmament. But Hitler made better use of it and in any case Chamberlain thought he had achieved a permanent settlement. So in 1938 Britain missed its most favourable opportunity to resist Germany, whose generals predicted catastrophe if the small and ill-prepared Wehrmacht had to fight on two fronts. According to Mass Observation, only 54 per cent of Britons supported the appeasement policy at its zenith and that figure shrank rapidly after Kristallnacht, the occupation of Prague and the attack on Poland. By 1940 Britain had no European allies and, nostalgia for the Dunkirk spirit notwithstanding, its isolation was more perilous than splendid.

Piers Brendon is a former keeper of the Churchill Archives Centre and an emeritus fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge.

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This article was first published in the April 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine