The Brenglish are Coming

Few things irritate the Scots, Welsh and Irish more than the casual use of ‘England’ when ‘Britain’ is meant. It’s bad enough when Americans do this, although at least they have some excuse; even so, one wonders how a Texan might react to being described as a New Englander, which is pretty much the same degree of crass inexactitude. But one still hears the all-embracing ‘England’, often accompanied by a quasi-racist arrogance, from the mouths of those who really should know better, notably London-based media personalities with a particularly smug conviction that civilisation ends at the Watford Gap or the Severn Bridge. (I could link to countless stories here, but this one and this one will suffice; and Wikipedia does a good job – with helpful maps – of laying bare all the layers of confusion.)

 

If anything, these confusions were magnified in the seventeenth century, the period in which the Journals of Matthew Quinton is set. From 1603 to 1707 Scotland was still an independent country, united with England only in the person of her king, and although the title ‘King of Great Britain’ was first adopted in 1604 (followed in short order by the use of the Union flag on warships) the term ‘British’ had relatively little wider currency for many years. Thus in 1660 Charles II’s official titles were ‘King of England, Scotland, Ireland and France’ – the latter a claim dating from the Middle Ages and not finally abandoned until 1802 – and when his brother succeeded to the throne in 1685 he became James II of England, but also James VII of Scots. (The question of regnal numbers remains sensitive north of the border; hence the attacks in Scotland in the 1950s on  postboxes that bore the legend ‘E II R’, on the basis that the present monarch is actually Elizabeth I of Scots.) The navy was overwhelmingly an ‘English’ navy, in the sense that it was paid for by, built and based in, and largely manned from, England; but it was also a ‘British’ navy in which Welshmen, Scots and Irishmen all served (not to mention Matthew’s obstreporous Cornish crew, who maintain the county’s proud tradition of independence that I witnessed at first hand when living there in the 1980s). Consequently, I have tried to use terminology that reflects these different realities. Matthew Quinton is very much a young Englishman of his time and sometimes uses the word ‘English’ when he means ‘British’, but he also encounters and has to overcome the many political and terminological problems created by the complex system of multiple monarchies that existed in the 17th century British Isles. Moreover, he is writing his journals as an old man at the end of the 1720s, by which time England and Scotland had been united for twenty years and the term ‘British’ was far more prevalent than it would have been in his youth (as with the use of ‘North Britain’ to describe Scotland), so the journals have to reflect this important change, too.

 

Finally, writing about the age of the Anglo-Dutch wars presents one other terminological conundrum. To this day, even many Brits who apply the correct terminology to their own country/countries/islands use ‘Holland’ to describe the country officially known as The Netherlands. But then as now, Holland was just one, albeit the largest and richest one, of several provinces, so calling the whole country ‘Holland’ is just as wrong as using ‘England’ for ‘Britain’. Before 1795, too, the Dutch navy was organised in five separate admiralties, two of which were not in the province of Holland. So although Matthew and his shipmates refer to ‘Dutch’ ships, they also frequently refer to their enemy as being ‘the United Provinces’ (the country’s 17th century name) and specify whether they’re fighting a ship of Zeeland, Friesland, Amsterdam, the Maas, or the North Quarter (of the province of Holland).

 

So all in all, this is one of  the few times when I envy those who write naval history set in the Napoleonic Wars. Britain against France. Simple. What can possibly go wrong?

2 Comments

  1. Sam says:

    This brings back lots of memories of undergraduate courses for me – For Wales; See England. Perhaps what was more interesting was a survey that I read that said that only the Ulstermen, Falkland Islanders and I think Gibralter said they were “British” in identity. Of course, the Ulster unionists were willing to prove this (with German weaponry) prior to World War I.

    I once proposed the theory in a British history class that the Royal Navy was more of a uniting military force- much more of a “British” force since it would accept sailors from almost anywhere, while the BRitish army system of local regiments seriously served to reinforce local identities and promote local rivalries.

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  2. Christine Hancock says:

    There was an interesting piece about Scots in the English/British (and Russian)Navy in last weeks Making History on BBC Radio 4. Listen again at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b013q20w#synopsis

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