The island fortress fallacy

Across the millennia, Britain's landscape, psyche and genetic makeup have been irrevocably altered by the threat, and the reality, of invasions. Sam Willis and David Coward investigate...

A British soldier uses a searchlight to spot German aircraft during the Second World War. Britain has lived with the fear of invasion for several centuries, a fact reflected in its architecture, its art and its people’s mental health. (Photo by David Savill/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the Christmas 2017 issue of BBC History Magazin

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Imagine fearful eyes looking skywards, anxiously scanning the horizon for airborne invaders come to bring death and destruction to Britain. This is a scenario we tend to associate with 1940, when invasion fever anticipated skies heavy with Luftwaffe transport aircraft spewing out paratroops, or 1917, when Zeppelins and Gotha bombers launched modest yet deadly air raids over Britain. But it could also apply to 1803. For across the English Channel, Napoleon’s enormous Armée d’Angleterre was camped around Boulogne, poised to invade Britain. Rumours, even fanciful illustrations, of a balloon fleet carrying French troops over the Channel ran rife.

Did Napoleon plan to supplement his invasion of Britain with a balloon assault, perhaps in surprise attacks designed to seize vital ground? He had the funds, having sold Louisiana to the Americans – who paid him $27m with help from a British bank, Barings. He also had the technology. The first balloon flight had been made in 1783, the first channel crossing by hydrogen balloon came in 1785, and the French army balloon corps had been formed in the 1790s. Filming in a balloon just inshore of the Kent coast for BBC Four’s forthcoming series Invasion! made it all seem perfectly feasible.

Yet the difficulties – and dangers – of weather and navigation, and the sheer logistics of getting men and materiel over the channel are considerable, even with modern balloon technology. And the first channel crossers, Blanchard and Jeffries, only succeeded by stripping down to their underwear to prevent their aircraft dropping into the sea. Whatever Napoleon’s plans, serious or otherwise, he did achieve an unwitting coup of psychological warfare, taking invasion fear in Britain to fever pitch.

This particular invasion threat ended in 1805 (despite popular belief, before Trafalgar) when Napoleon marched his troops, now retitled La Grande Armée, away from the Channel and into what is now the Czech Republic where he defeated Austria and Russia in one brilliant coup. He never threatened Britain again.

Georgian Britain settled safe in its Island Fortress, seemingly invasion-proofed by the trusty English Channel. But the channel is neutral. It has helped invasion as well as hindered it. Invasions, peaceful and violent, have heavily shaped our nation, and that impact can be seen in our countryside, our genomes, our mental health, and our standing on the world stage.

Contrary to popular opinion, invasion did not begin with the Romans. Thousands of years before Julius Caesar landed on Deal Beach in 55 BC there were three massive pre historic invasions that changed the face of Britain. According to Professor Ian Barnes, a molecular evolutionary biologist at the Natural History Museum and a specialist in ancient DNA: “…the population of the British Isles is one of migration and replacement of existing peoples, and that pattern seems to go back at least 10,000 years”.

The first great prehistoric invasion of the British Isles occurred even longer ago than that (and proves that not all invasions involve enemy soldiers jumping out of landing craft onto British beaches). This was the Ice Invasion, when humans were driven out by glaciers and sub-zero temperatures as many as 10 times. Continuous occupation of the British Isles did not, in fact, begin until 9600 BC, with the arrival of Mesolithic – Middle Stone Age – hunter-gatherers.

The second great invasion transformed Britain in just 400 years, from 4200 to 3800 BC, when Neolithic – New Stone Age – farmers arrived from the Middle and Near East, completely replacing the hunter-gatherers who were here before them. As much as 10 per cent of our woodland was cleared for agriculture, a change to the face of Britain that was unmatched until the industrial revolution thousands of years later.

The third great invasion is still within us. From around 2500 BC, Neolithic farmers were replaced by invaders from the steppes of southern Russia and Ukraine. This invasion was so successful that it is estimated to account for 70 per cent of the entire genome in modern northern and north-west Europe. We don’t know if this invasion was peaceful or violent, and we don’t even know what these invaders called themselves. So archaeologists have had to invent a name: the Beaker People, after the distinctive Beaker-shaped drinking vessels that are found in their burials. Modern DNA research has demonstrated that, since this invasion, our genes have remained largely the same – a remarkable discovery that archaeologists and genetic scientists are only beginning to come to terms with.

Among the many implications, one of the most profound is that it suggests that one of the greatest ‘invasions’ – the Celtic invasion – never actually happened. However, a ‘fashion invasion’ of Celtic art did lead to a distinctive British Celtic art during the late Bronze and Iron Age.

Northern European descendants of the Beaker People, in the Anglo-Saxon, Viking and Norman invasions, maintained the dominant Beaker genome in the British Isles. The Beaker are always going to be named after a large ceramic pot, but maybe it is time that they were rehabilitated as conquerors in an invasion that had consequences more far-reaching than the Norman conquest of 1066.

And 1066 was far from the last invasion. Britain has been invaded many times more than you might think, and has also been strongly shaped by the constant fear of invasion. Scotland, Wales, Ireland, England and the Channel Islands have together been invaded more than 70 times since William the Conqueror landed at Pevensey. And if you include invasions by successful and unsuccessful claimants to the throne, attempted invasions, massed migrations and invasions of British air space – all of which feature in our BBC Four series – the total exceeds 100.

An early character to threaten Britain after William I was an outlaw, a Robin Hood or even Friar Tuck-like character who, after studying black magic in Toledo, became a Benedictine monk. Eustace Busket, or Eustace the Monk, began his career of invasion by seizing Sark in the Channel Islands in c1208 as an operating base. A freelance invader, Eustace raided the Normandy coast for King John of England, and then Folkestone for Philip II of France. A near-contemporary biography said of this mercenary and pirate: “No one would believe the marvels he accomplished, nor those which happened to him many times.” Eustace the Monk met his end in 1217 at the hands of an English fleet, while supporting a French invasion of England. Blinded with powdered lime in a fight off Dover, he escaped but was cornered off Sandwich. He offered a huge ransom in exchange for his life but was summarily executed at sea.

Eustace wasn’t the only pirate to invade Britain. The British Isles, especially the south-west coast of England, was once at the mercy of Barbary pirates. In 1625, state papers reported: “The Turks are upon our coasts. They take ships only to take the men to make slaves of them.” That year corsairs raided Mount’s Bay, Cornwall, abducting potential concubines or galley slaves for the Ottoman empire. The problem became so bad that, in 1640, a Committee for Algiers was set up to oversee the ransoming of captives, paying on average £30 per man (women were more expensive to ransom). Some 3,000 to 5,000 English people were held in captivity in Algiers.

In 1645, another raid saw 240 men, women and children kidnapped. English troops attacked Lundy Island, where pirates from what is now Rabat in Morocco had made their base, but corsairs continued to mount raids. The problem continued to a lessening degree until an attack by the British and Dutch on Algiers in 1816 liberated hundreds of Christians and broke the power of the Barbary pirates.

The French feature heavily in our invasion history, with at least 20 landings, from Eustace the Monk’s escapades to an invasion at Fishguard in Wales in 1796. But the most successful French invasion of Britain was both massive and peaceful. In the 16th century French Huguenots, persecuted and even massacred for their Protestant beliefs, flocked into Tudor England. When 1598’s Edict of Nantes permitted them to worship in France, the flow of refugees slowed. But in 1685 Louis XIV revoked this religious freedom with the Edict of Fontainebleau, and as many as 900,000 Huguenots fled their homeland.

In 1663 Samuel Fortrey – whose family had left France a generation before – wrote England’s Interest and Improvement, listing four characteristics that tempted migrants. It was a temperate and obliging land. The law, not open to “capricious distortions”, afforded some protection to the individual. It gave newcomers the chance to make a fortune. And it offered religious sanctuary. One migrant, Jacques Fontaine, wrote that “the good people” of Barn-stable “were kindness itself… I was completely domesticated with them as a brother”.

For every satirist who wrote “The nation it is almost quit undone / By French men that do it daily overrune…”, hundreds of people donated money to help the refugees. House-to-house collections raised £40,000 – a vast sum in the late 17th century. In return, the Huguenots provided exactly what an agricultural economy transforming into an industrial one needed: expertise in new trades, from textiles to watchmaking. While France experienced a massive brain drain, England experienced an intellectual and manufacturing boom. English silk production increased by 2,000 per cent in 50 years and Britain became a net exporter of silk… to France. Rapidly assimilating into British life and loyalties, the Huguenots have been described as a “dramatic injection of fresh blood” that helped propel a new United Kingdom towards vast economic power. In 18th-century Britain, it was said that “hardly anything vends without a gallic name”. Even ‘vending’ comes from the French.

This huge influx of expertise brought about dramatic technical changes that underwrote the expansion of empire. Huguenot migrants brought watchmaking skills, acknowledged by curators at the National Maritime Museum to have enabled the development of maritime chronometers accurate enough to measure longitude. James Cook took one, known as K1, on a voyage to Australasia and referred to it as his “trusty and unerring friend”.

But we know that the French gave the British more to think about than cloth, clocks and culture. The impact that this seemingly eternal confrontation across the English Channel – or La Manche – had on the British psyche is, perhaps, best captured by a French invasion of the Channel Islands at St Helier in Jersey in 1781. In repelling them, a particularly British style of martyrdom narrative, seen more famously in Nelson at Trafalgar or Wolfe at Quebec, emerged to fuel British invasion paranoia.

Tate Britain is filled with foreign artists who have made British subjects – and nationality – their very own. One particular example is American émigré John Singleton Copley’s The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781. Copley’s painting is stirring yet apocryphal, capturing the moment that Major Francis Peirson apparently sacrificed himself in Jersey to drive out the French invaders. An earlier print of the action in the British Museum shows Pierson slumped mortally wounded in a doorway as advancing British troops stream past him. But in Copley’s work he dies at the moment of victory, supported by his brother officers.

In a painting created for public exhibition to publicise a subsequent print run, there is a profusion of drama and the highly detailed depictions that Georgian Londoners delighted in. In a letter to Earl Bathurst in 1813, Wellington would soon call his soldiers “the scum of the earth”. But in Copley’s idealised, even democratised view, every Briton shows a moral essence in the face of invasion. Here were men laying down their lives for their country in the most vivid way possible – by protecting it from invasion. By contrast, the French invaders look almost cartoon-like.

The last great conflict with France, the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, with their accompanying threats of invasion by balloon or otherwise, ended in 1815. But not the fear of invasion itself, which continued through the first half of the 19th century. In the 1820s the journalist William Cobbett visited vast fortresses built on the Western Heights in Dover to defend against French invasion, seeing in them a waste of millions of bricks that he believed should be used to build workers’ cottages. He wrote: “This is, perhaps, the only set of fortifications in the world ever famed for mere hiding. There is no appearance of any intention to annoy an enemy. It is a parcel of holes made in a hill, to hide Englishmen from Frenchmen.”

In 1848 Napoleon’s nephew – Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte – was elected president of France’s Second Republic, then declared himself emperor in a coup d’etat that created the French Second Empire. Britain’s government and people wondered: was this new Napoleon up to the same old tricks? In the 1850s Britain had fought beside France against Russia in the Crimea but, by 1858, worry became paranoia. A mania of building new and rebuilding old fortifications gripped Britain. The cost was unimaginable – perhaps the equivalent of today’s nuclear deterrent. The New Napoleonic Threat disappeared in 1870 when Prussia defeated France and Napoleon went into exile – in the village of Chislehurst in Britain. His son joined the British Army and was killed in the Zulu War. The fortifications that had sprung up during this bizarre false alarm – the architecture of invasion paranoia – became white elephants, though many consider them now to be beautiful.

Still the fear of invasion remained. It had become a seed too deeply rooted, and even spawned a literary genre, telling us about Victorian fears of the outside world and how they saw weaknesses within their own society. In The Taking of Dover (1888), the author Horace Lester described the mighty fortress of the Western Heights being taken by invaders. Throughout the 19th century, this literary genre of being invaded – a genre that was unique to Britain – usually saw France allied with Russia. But as the Edwardian period progressed, Germany became the big enemy.

In the 20th century, a fear first encountered with Napoleon’s apocryphal balloon invasion gripped Britain once more. In the 17th and 18th centuries Britons looked to the sea as a place of danger but now they looked to the sky. Raids in the First World War – like that of 25 May 1917 on Tontine Street in Folkestone in which 97 people died, mostly civilians queuing for food – cemented the reality of this new anxiety. The first ever powered flight took place in 1903; the first powered flight across the channel followed just six years later. The dizzying speed of technological change whipped up latent British invasion paranoia, which was quickly rediscovered in the Second World War, in particular during the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, in which more than 43,000 civilians lost their lives. In this period a new type of architecture fuelled by invasion paranoia was born. In Ramsgate, for example, almost three miles of tunnels were mined in just nine months. This city of tunnels still survives today, an extraordinary shelter from invasion that could accommodate thousands of civilians.

By the end of the war, technology had leapt forward again, and with the V1 and V2, the first cruise and ballistic missiles, a new era of invasion arrived. Between June 1944 and March 1945, around 6,000 people died and almost 18,000 were injured by these unmanned ‘flying bombs’ and rockets. Around 800 alone hit London. When combined with nuclear weapons, this invasion from the sky by unmanned bombs created a terror that peaked during the Cold War but which still remains with us today.

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Dr Sam Willis is a historian, broadcaster and writer. David Coward is a producer and director for the BBC. Together they have conceived the three-part series Invasion! with Sam Willis, scheduled to be shown on BBC Four in December.