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Definition: English from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

The natives and inhabitants of England, part of Britain, as well as their descendants, culture, and language. The English have a mixed cultural heritage combining Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Norman, and Scandinavian elements.


Summary Article: ENGLISH
from Cassell's Peoples, Nations and Cultures

The largest of the nations that make up the United Kingdom. Many English are descendants of the ANGLO-SAXONS, who invaded and settled Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries AD, and of conquered native BRITONS who were assimilated to Anglo-Saxon culture and identity. In later centuries the English successfully assimilated substantial numbers of immigrant DANES, NOR-WEGIANS, NORMANS, FRENCH, FLEMISH and IRISH. Since the 18th century the English have seen their identity as being almost synonymous with the BRITISH identity Amid political devolution and resurgent nationalism in Scotland and Wales, however, there are, at the beginning of the 21st century, signs that the English are beginning to re-assert their Englishness.

English identity is relatively homogeneous but there are pronounced regional identities, strongest in the northeast, the northwest, York-shire and the southwest.

English beginnings

The Anglo-Saxons were not at first a politically united people – in the 7th century they were divided into seven kingdoms – but they shared a common culture and spoke closely related dialects of a West Germanic language which they called Englisc, and which linguists call Old English, a complex inflected language not easily understood by modern English-speakers. The modern English language is the product of gradual grammatical simplification and an enormously expanded vocabulary of words borrowed from dozens of different languages, the most important of which are Latin and French.

The earliest surviving expression of common English identity is Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written at the beginning of the 8th century. By about 850 Anglo-Saxons had come to describe themselves as the Anglecynn (‘Englishkind’). This nascent English identity came close to being wiped out in the later 9th century by invasions of Danish and Norwegian VIKINGS, who conquered and settled large areas of the northwest, Yorkshire, the east Midlands and East Anglia, creating a number of small kingdoms. Alfred the Great's Kingdom of Wessex was the only Anglo-Saxon kingdom to survive these invasions with its territory intact, and he was able to appeal to their sense of common identity to unite all those English who were not under Viking rule.

By the mid-10th century Alfred's successors had conquered the Danish and Norwegian settlements and created a single ‘Kingdom of the English’, whose borders closely approximated those of modern England (from Englaland, ‘land of the Angles’). The conquered settlers were not expelled, however, and by the 11th century they had come to regard themselves as English.

The Norman conquest of 1066 imposed on the English an alien ruling class whose language and culture were French. Yet the Normans came quickly to identify with the kingdom and people they had conquered. Soon after 1100 Normans born in England described themselves as English and were regarded as such in Normandy itself. These signs of assimilation were set back, however, when the Norman dynasty was replaced by the French Angevin dynasty in 1154, which revitalized the French cultural identity of the aristocracy. It was not until the late 14th century that English again became the language of the royal court.

“… thank the goodness and the grace Which on my birth have smiled, And made me, in these Christian days, A happy English child.”

Anne Taylor and Jane Taylor, Hymns for Infant Minds (1810)

Despite its lack of social prestige and aristocratic patronage, an English literary tradition survived and the language itself gained ground as a result of English conquests and settlement in Wales and Ireland. In retrospect, the Magna Carta of 1215, which curbed the arbitrary power of the monarch and guaranteed subjects’ (at least the barons’) rights under the law, came to be seen as the foundation of English liberty. The Hundred Years War (1337–1453), in which the kings of England tried to make good their claims to the throne of France, ended in defeat, but a string of spectacular victories won against heavy odds fed English pride and led to the beginning of a recognizably modern English nationalism. The end of serfdom, as much due to economic changes following the Black Death as the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, convinced the English that they were a uniquely free, and freedom loving, people, and they began to develop a strong tradition of economic individualism.

Protestantism and a global empire

The Reformation initiated another formative period in the development of English identity. Henry VIII 's break with Rome in 1533 left England without any important continental ally and embittered relations with its IRISH subjects, who clung resolutely to Catholicism. Diplomatic isolation and their successful resistance to Catholic Spain, the European superpower of the 16th century, confirmed the majority of the English in Protestantism, anti-Catholicism, and a firm belief that they were a race apart.

The 17th century was one of the most turbulent in English history seeing a dynastic union with the SCOTS in the Union of the Crowns (1603), a period of mid-century civil wars, the beheading of a king (Charles I), an unsuccessful experiment with republicanism under Oliver Cromwell, the deposition of a Catholic king (James II), the foundations of parliamentary government and a global colonial empire. England emerged as Europe's leading financial, commercial and naval power, as well as the leading exporter of population, all of which led to great colonial success. By 1700 England had 400,000 colonial subjects, most of them in North America and the West Indies, compared to a home population of 5 million. England's main colonial rival, France, with a home population of 20 million, had a mere 70,000 colonial subjects. This colonial success began the process by which English became the global language that it is today.

In 1707 England lost its political identity when the Act of Union with Scotland created the Kingdom of Great Britain. As the dominant partners in the union, the English were more enthusiastic about adopting the new BRITISH identity than the Scots or WELSH. For the English and indeed for foreigners, the English and British identities became almost identical. (It remains a source of considerable irritation to the Scots in particular when the English talk about ‘England’ when they are in fact actually referring to Great Britain.)

Between 1689 and 1815 England, then Great Britain, and France fought the ‘Second Hundred Years War’. Although Britain lost its most populous North American colonies along the way, it emerged victorious to enjoy a century of unparalleled global dominance. It seemed to the English that God himself must be an Englishman. English ideas of representative government and the rule of law, party politics and loyal opposition were spread around the world, as were Anglicanism and team sports such as cricket, rugby and Association Football.

By the early 19th century England had been transformed into an urbanized and industrialized society. The long separation of most of the English population from the reality of food production has bred an intensely idealized attitude towards rural life not found in other European countries, where urban living is seen as the ideal. The Church of England was slow to adapt to this process of urbanization and in the 19th century the English began to lose the habit of church-going: they are now among the most agnostic of peoples.

English identity after empire

The costs, financial and otherwise, of fighting World War I ended Britain's global dominance, while those of World War II saw Britain relegated to a second-rank power in retreat from empire. Although Britain joined the European Economic Community (now European Union) in 1973, the English, unlike the Scots, have only reluctantly accepted the need for engagement with Europe. The English still feel close kinship with other English-speaking people,s and for many the Channel remains, psychologically, wider than the Atlantic Ocean. The English have also had to come to terms with rising nationalism in Scotland and Wales which is forcing them to redefine the relationship between Englishness and Britishness. Large-scale immigration, largely from the West Indies and South Asia, poses another challenge to English identity. As the wealthiest constituency of Great Britain, England has attracted a proportionately far higher number of immigrants than Scotland and Wales, and most major English cities are now multiethnic and multicultural communities. Racial tensions have several times exploded into violence, but overtly racist political parties have enjoyed little electoral success, and optimists point out that England has the highest rate of inter-racial marriage in the Western world. The English have in the past prided themselves on being a ‘mongrel race’ but it is not yet clear if they will learn to do so again.

The population of England in 2001 was just over 49 million, a figure which includes recent immigrants and residents from other parts of the United Kingdom.

© Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2005

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