So you’re an English history buff. You’ve seen Stonehenge, Stratford-upon-Avon and St Paul’s Cathedral. The deeper you go, the more you realize that some of the most significant sites in England aren’t English at all.
The Classical World
Some of the oldest historical sites in Britain (barring henges and stone circles like the ones in Wiltshire) were build by foreign invaders. The Roman Wall in London, Hadrian’s Wall in the north and the spectacular Roman Baths in the very appropriately named town of Bath are all part of the classical world. The styles and philosophies of the English have always been fundamentally shaped by the styles and philosophies of the Greeks and Romans. If you want to see a little bit of the culture that helped make Britain what it is today, visit Rome or Pompeii or check out Greek island cruises.
Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Danes
The early history of England is a history of invasions, both successful and unsuccessful. The Romans invaded, with partial success, bringing roads and forts and when they left, they left their mark in places and their names. The Latin word “castrum” meaning a fort survives in countless place names like Winchester, Lancaster, Manchester and many many more. Even the word “England” comes from the Angles, who invaded Britain along with the Saxons, Jutes and Danes in the post-Roman era. These immigrants all left their mark on Britain, bringing bits of Nordic and Germanic culture and language onto the islands. In many ways, English is a primarily Germanic language, and if you visit the ship burial at Sutton Hoo, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were actually somewhere in Norway.
Hundred Years’ War
That said, a huge part of England’s language and culture comes from France. To say that England and France have a history is to understate things slightly. The Tower of London was built by Normans from France, and for a hundred years starting in the 1300s, English kings of Norman descent fought for the right to rule France. Battles fought across the channel at Agincourt and Crécy were defining moments in British history that didn’t happen in Britain at all.
The fights between France and England didn’t end with the Hundred Years’ War. England butted heads with France periodically for centuries, especially after France’s revolution eventually lead to the rise of Napoleon. What could be more British than Trafalgar Square or Waterloo Bridge? These sites in the heart of London are both named after battles fought overseas during the Napoleonic wars. In fact, many argue that these were the first world wars, since many times when England and France butted heads, they did so in the Americas and other colonies.
Like many European nations, England took their show on the road, building colonies all around the world. “The sun never sets on the British Empire” was quite literal, as the British had colonies in every corner of the globe. This is, without a doubt, one of the darker sides of British history, as many British colonies were violently subjugated and their native cultures irrevocably changed or even wiped out. Just because the history is often dark doesn’t mean it should be ignored, and doesn’t mean it isn’t important.
Perhaps no greater expression of how important when you see that the fruit of all that competition and the one-upmanship of colonialism was the first and eventually the second World War. England’s role in both changed the country irreversibly, from the massive death toll in battles like the Somme to the incredible events at Dunkirk and later at Normandy. British history of the war and interwar periods is inevitably tied in with locations overseas.
While Britain may be a small island, it has never been truly disconnected from the rest of the world. A nation of immigrants, repeatedly invaded before becoming invaders and explorers themselves. If you’re only looking at historical sites within the United Kingdom, you’re only getting half the story.