‘Life in the United Kingdom’, a Criticism: Part 1

A friend of mine is undertaking the road to become a British citizen. To do so, they have to pass a test which includes aspects of British history. I took a glance at the book they have to learn from, and it took me aback. The text is called Life  in the United Kingdom: A Guide for New Residents, 3rd Edition, and it proclaims on the cover that it is ‘The ONLY OFFICIAL handbook for the Life in the UK test’ (capitalisation original), and is adorned with the seal of the Home Office (the UK ministerial office responsible for immigration, security, and law and order). I provide all of these details as I wish to underline the fact that what I am about to discuss is endorsed by the government of the UK and is being taught to potential new citizens, and they, as potential new citizens, are expected to learn and repeat some rather curious things. This book encompasses what the UK government wants them to know, it is the minimum bar for entry, and the bar is very, very strange in places.

Your starter for 10

Now, it may be because I am Irish, but I don’t like the fact that, on page 13, it is stated that ‘The words ‘Britain’, ‘British Isles’ or ‘British’, however, are used in this book to refer to everyone in the UK’. Now, it may surprise you to learn that not everyone who lives in the British Isles lives in the UK, a position the quotation might lead you to conclude. The British Isles consist of two major (and many smaller) islands, known as Britain and Ireland. These two islands contain two sovereign and independent nations, Ireland and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (contracted to ‘the UK’). Some of the territory of the UK rests on the island of Ireland, but the majority of the island is a free and independent republic. To imply that ‘Britain’, ‘British Isles’, and the ‘UK’ are synonymous is historically, politically, socially, and just plain factually inaccurate.

Furthermore, this section also notes that ‘The UK is made up of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The rest of Ireland is an independent country’. Do you see anything strange there? Do you think it odd that they do not name the independent country that governs ‘the rest of Ireland’? I do. It’s called Ireland, just in case you were wondering. Not ‘Southern Ireland’, not ‘the Irish Republic’, not ‘the Republic of Ireland’, and definitely don’t call it Éire/Éireann unless you can pronounce it properly. The official name of the state is Ireland, and it is a republic (but we are mostly fine with referring to it as ‘the Republic of Ireland’ for the sake of clarity). And calling it ‘southern’ is daft not least because of the fact that the most northerly point of land on the island belongs to the Republic and, oh yeah, it makes up the majority of the island.

Only six pages of text into the book and we are already hitting some weird issues. Now, I grant you, the historic and political relationship between Ireland and the UK is complicated, but the only nation which shares a land border with the UK has a name, and it is a free and sovereign state that governs part of the archipelago called the British Isles which mean the ‘UK’ cannot be synonymous with the ‘British Isles’.

Speaking of complicated history… Britain and the Romans

Throughout the text, there are some word choices and explanations of history which strike me as odd. Now, here I hold up my hands and admit I may be nit-picking, but, when we are informed that ‘Julius Caesar led a Roman invasion of Britain in 55 BC. This was unsuccessful and for nearly 100 years Britain remained separate from the Roman Empire. In AD 43 the Emperor Claudius led the Roman army in a new invasion. This time, there was resistance from some of the British tribes but the Romans were successful in occupying almost all of Britain’ (p. 17), I can’t help but be concerned how they frame the Roman invasion.

First off, after reading this, you’d be forgiven for thinking that not being conquered by Rome was a bad thing. Let’s not forget that being conquered by Rome involved a lot of killing, slave-taking, and the general rape and plunder of a people. This was not a ‘good thing’ from the native perspective (in this case, that of the Celtic-speaking Britons). On top of that, the Romans ruthlessly purged the native religious caste, essentially wiping out the histories and traditions of an entire people. This almost seems be designed to offer precedent and justification for the actions of the UK during its imperial phase: a ‘civilising’ empire invades and ‘successfully occupies’ a region, meeting some ‘resistance’ from primitive natives. From the other side, the native side, what happened was a bunch of expansionist invaders decided to invade their home, enslave their people, destroy their religion and culture, and strip their land of its resources. What was the price of Roman civilisation, what is the human cost of empire?

Secondly, they follow this section with a brief reference to Boudicca (I’ll give points for the fact that they use the Celtic form of her name, not the Latin), ‘one of the tribal leaders who fought against the Romans’ (p. 17). In case you didn’t know, Boudicca took up arms against the Romans when they ignored her husband’s will that Rome rule his territory jointly with his daughters. A Roman force invaded the land of the Iceni, until then an independent ally of the Romans, and annexed the land. Boudicca was flogged and her daughters raped; the kingdom was pillaged. So Boudicca rose up in defiance against the invader, and was ultimately defeated. This is the true face of empire: rape and plunder, and the merciless subjugation of peoples. Is it any wonder that it is glossed over, especially when the UK’s own imperial history is less than universally benevolent?

Thirdly, the final act of the Romans in Britain is discussed as follows: ‘The Roman army left Britain in AD 410 to defend other parts of the Roman Empire and never returned’ (p. 17). This sentence is almost wistful of the Roman departure. Actually, a better word to describe what the Romans did would be ‘abandoned’. Rome abandoned Britain in favour of defending the more valuable regions of the empire. This left the region open to invasion and settlement by outsiders, and the Anglo-Saxons, Irish, and Picts duly obliged. The Romano-British citizens of the Roman provinces of Britain wrote to Rome seeking aid (recorded by Gildas in his De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae), but they were ignored. Rome had better things to do than defend the troublesome Romano-British; after all, empire serves the metropolis, not the colony.

Speaking of complicated history… Britain and the Anglo-Saxons

I do appreciate the fact that the text notes that Angles, Saxons, and Jutes then came to Britain – the poor Jutes are so often forgotten. I’ll even forgive the fact that these people are simplistically referred to as invaders – it was much more complicated than that, as some were invited to settle, some were mercenaries, some were traders, and some indeed were there to conquer. But then we veer into what is either baffling error or a strange ordering of facts which obfuscate reality. I reproduce here a paragraph which runs from pp. 18-19:

The Anglo-Saxons were not Christians when they first came to Britain but, during this period, missionaries came to Britain to preach about Christianity. Missionaries from Ireland spread the religion in the north. The most famous of these were St Patrick, who would become the patron saint of Ireland (…), and St Columba, who founded a monastery on the island of Iona, off the coast of what is now Scotland. St Augustine led missionaries from Rome, who spread Christianity in the south. St Augustine became the first Archbishop of Canterbury.

Is it just me, or does this paragraph suggest that Patrick helped in the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons? It clearly says that missionaries came from Ireland and then, immediately after, notes Patrick. Now, I hate to shock you, but not only did Patrick’s journey go in the exact opposite direction, not only was he a missionary to the pre-Christian Irish, but he is clearly from a Romano-British background, which would imply that the Anglo-Saxons were not yet a thing when he was active. So… yeah… Patrick aiding in the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons was not a thing.

Equally, Columba was not terribly involved with the Anglo-Saxons. His efforts focused on the Irish and Pictish kingdoms in what is now called Scotland (which is part of Britain), and he was active in Ireland. It would be one of his successors as abbot of Iona, Ségéne, who would be instrumental in the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria.

There is a more troubling interpretation of the paragraph. Considering the unsettlingly inaccurate statement from p. 13 that Britain = British Isles = British = UK and the lack of clarity here of where two missionaries were from and where they went, there is a disturbing muddying of the relationship between Ireland and Britain, and their constituent kingdoms, in the early medieval period. By equating a geographic region (Britain, and the British Isles) with a complex political entity (the UK), the authors of this text may lead the uninformed reader into believing that the Anglo-Saxons invaded the UK (which they didn’t) or Ireland (as part of the British Isles) (which they didn’t). Indeed, it is true that Patrick spread Christianity in the north of part of the British Isles, but this was the north-west of Ireland. Unless, of course, the authors are claiming the north-west of Ireland to belong to the UK, which is very unsettling indeed. Now, you may be thinking that I am taking this too far, but the information provided in this government approved text is confusing to me, and I have a PhD in history. Indeed, I have met people from Zimbabwe who have also read this book and who thought that Ireland, though not part of the UK per se, still held Queen Elizabeth as its monarch. They were surprised to learn that we do not have a monarch, we are a republic. I can’t help but see the fault of this confusion in bizarre paragraphs like this.   

The bit on Augustine is fine. Except for the fact that it glosses over the key role played by Bertha, queen of Kent, daughter of Charibert I, King of Paris, and great-granddaughter of Clotilde, Queen of All Franks. Both Bertha and Clotilde were Christians princesses who married non-Christian kings and then aided in the conversion of their husbands. Indeed, Bertha’s daughter, Aethelburh, would serve a similar role in the first attempted conversion of Northumbria. In turn, her relative, Hilda, would establish Whitby, an extremely important foundation in terms of Anglo-Saxon Christianity; Aethelburh’s own daughter, Eanflaed would become abbess of Whitby after the death of her husband, Oswiu, King of Northumbria.

In this short paragraph, the history of Patrick is radically misunderstood, the position of Columba is made ambiguous, and the vital role of women in the process of conversion is obscured. Absolutely stellar work (he said in a sarcastic tone) from, and I want to underline this very important point, a book approved by the government of the UK for the education of potential citizens.

Speaking of complicated history… Britain and the Vikings

I’m going to leave aside the issue of the term ‘viking’ and the vastly misunderstood conceptions carried by that term, because that is an essay unto itself. But, in short, it is more helpful if you think of ‘viking’ as a profession, not an ethnic group. Anyway, this baffling book informs us that ‘The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England united under King Alfred the Great, who defeated the Vikings’ (p. 19). I feel you can guess by now where this is going. This statement obscures the fact that Alfred united the remaining Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (essentially Wessex and Mercia, the bit in the very south and a bit in the middle); he was king of the West Saxons and he conquered roughly half of England. The other half remained in the hands of the Danes (a.k.a, the Vikings) and became known as the Danelaw (most of the east of England). It was left to Alfred’s son and daughter to complete the (re-)conquest of the Danelaw, but that didn’t mean that the Danes gave up: Cnut the Great won control of the whole of England (c. 1016), not just the Danelaw, uniting it with his kingdoms of Denmark and Norway. And he wasn’t the first! There was also Sweyn Forkbeard, who added the kingdom of England to Denmark and Norway in 1013. So it is rather strange to say in such a definitive fashion that Alfred united the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and defeated the Vikings when literally half the land remained under Danish rule and Danish kings ruled England for quite a while, and that the kings of Denmark continued to play an important role in English politics until the Norman Conquest. The text does mention the Danelaw, in fairness, but it implies that it was part of an English kingdom, a territory that retained a Viking flair, not a separate polity.

Speaking of complicated history… Britain and the Normans

This section is… fine. They do gloss over a lot (and I mean a lot) of complicated dynastic politics, including the Scandinavian connection and the role of Emma of Normandy (who was married to Cnut after her marriage to Aethelraed, and whose sons from both fathers ruled England until 1066, at which point the line failed, precipitating the Norman invasion), and say that William defeated Harold to become king of England. Which is true, and I understand why they skipped over the complicated bits. But they don’t mention how brutal the Conquest was, especially in the north of England (still remembered today as the Harrying of the North, the shocking violence of which was recorded by Orderic Vitalis, a man who otherwise thought that William was a cool guy). The Domesday Book is also mentioned, which is a nice touch as this is an invaluable source for the social and economic history of the period. But then, it just makes me wonder why they didn’t mention Bede’s The Ecclesiastical History of the English People earlier.

Enough for now… Soon we move into what the book calls ‘the middle ages’. Which is weird, because the departure of Rome and the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon period marks the beginning of the medieval period in Britain. Oh dear, they can’t even get their time-periods right. This bodes well for the rest of the book.

3 responses to “‘Life in the United Kingdom’, a Criticism: Part 1

  1. I can’t help but dread what’s coming next… About the Roman invasion though, I’ve always thought the English bizarrely positive in their painting of all the invasions. Romans: great, brought civilisation, The Vikings: well Canute was ‘our’ king really, William: Hurray, 1066, this is where proper English history starts! William of Orange: oh we asked him over, the army that he brought along wasn’t actually used to chase James II away!

    • Indeed! I think it is rooted in a retroactive attempt to justify imperialism: ‘we were invaded, and it was great, so we can invade you, and it will be great’. Except it wasn’t.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Pingback: ‘Life in the United Kingdom’, a Criticism: Part 2 | A Frivolous Endeavour

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