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England and Britain: Alan MacColl explores exactly what the word Britain meant, after the Romans had gone.

What did medieval writers mean when they referred to 'Britain'? They seem to have had a fairly clear idea of the geographical location and dimensions of the whole island, and were fond of repeating the description by Gildas in the early sixth century: 'The island of Britain, situated on almost the utmost border of the earth, towards the south and west ... stretches out from the southwest towards the North Pole, and is eight hundred miles long and two hundred broad, except where the headlands of sundry promontories stretch farther into the sea.'

But Britain was always more than an area of land, and from earliest times, the term 'Britain' has had two distinct meanings: the whole island, and the southern part which formed the Roman province of Britannia. Gildas himself referred to its twenty-eight cities, and his book, entitled On the Ruin of Britain, is about the downfall of a realm and its people. It is here, when we come to consider the various real and imagined political domains called 'Britain' in ancient and medieval times, that things become complicated. Though the Roman general Agricola got as far north as the Tay, and possibly Aberdeenshire, in the first century AD, most of what is now Scotland was never included in Britannia, whose northern limit was marked for most of its history by Hadrian's Wall, between the Tyne and the Solway. The farthest north that Roman rule ever extended was the Antonine Wall, between the Forth and the Clyde, and Gildas himself seems to have thought of this as the northern limit of British territory.

Bede, writing more than a 150 years after Gildas, made an explicit distinction between 'Britain' and 'the British part of it', explaining that the Britons were harassed by 'two extremely fierce races from over the waters, the Irish from the west and the Picts from the north'. He comments that 'we call them races from over the waters, not because they dwelt outside Britain but because they were separated from the Britons by two wide and long arms of the sea, one of which enters the land from the east, the other from the west, though they do not meet.' These 'arms of the sea' are clearly the Firths of Forth and Clyde. The ninth-century History of the Britons also seems to give us two Britains. First there is the island which is eight hundred miles long and two hundred wide, and is inhabited by the Scots, Picts, Saxons and Britons. But when the anonymous author went on to name the thirty-three cities of Britain, the most northerly of these appears to be Dumbarton on the Clyde (or, in one version, Carlisle), suggesting there was another, non-British, kingdom to the north. The same distinction was maintained in the Northern Version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which began with a preface repeating Bede's account of the dimensions of Britain, and went on to explain that 'the Picts went and took possession of the northern part of the island; and the Britons had the southern part.'


The first English king to claim the overlordship of Britain was Edwin of Northumbria (c. 586-633). The fifth in Bede's list of the seven kings who ruled 'over all the southern kingdoms, which are divided from the north by the river Humber', Edwin is said to have had even greater power than those who came before him, ruling over 'all the inhabitants of Britain, English and Britons alike, except for Kent only'. Bede's account of the sixth and seventh kings makes it plain that 'Britain' here must mean something considerably less than the whole island, because he says that while Edwin's successor Oswald ruled 'within the same bounds', his brother Oswiu extended his dominion and 'overwhelmed and made tributary even the tribes of the Picts and Irish who inhabit the northern parts of Britain'. Once more, Bede seems to be thinking in terms of two Britains: the territory excluding 'the northern parts', as ruled by Edwin and Oswald; and the whole island, of which Oswiu was overlord.

Bede's account of the seven kings was the source for a much-debated passage in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In the entry for the year 827 (really 829), his list is augmented by an eighth king, Egbert of Wessex, who, the Chronicle said, 'conquered the kingdom of Mercia and all that was south of the Humber, and was the eighth king who was Bretwalda'. Most commentators agree that Bretwalda, the reading of only one manuscript, means 'ruler of Britain'. The other manuscripts of the Chronicle have various forms of the word Brytenwalda, which might mean 'ruler of Britain' or the geographically unspecific 'wide ruler' or 'great ruler'. If these terms indeed meant 'ruler of Britain', they imply a restricted conception of that territory, as they evidently refer to no more than the lands south of the Humber. The same conception appears in a charter of AEthelbald of Mercia, dated 736. In the main body of the charter AEthelbald is described as 'king not only of the Mercians but also of all the provinces which are called by the common name of the southern English', while in the list of witnesses at the end he is called 'king of Britain'.

In tenth-century charters it is common to find claims to overlordship of the entire island. One document from 921 refers to Edward the Elder as 'king of the English, raised by the right hand of the Almighty to the throne of the kingdom of all Britain.' That 'all Britain' is intended to denote the whole island, or the greater part of it, is confirmed by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which records that the English kings, the Welsh, the Scots, all the nations of Northumbria and the Britons of Strathclyde chose Edward 'as their father and lord'. In a charter dated 934, Edward's son AEthelstan is referred to as 'king and governor of all this island of Britain'. AEthelstan's claims had some foundation in reality. As well as ruling all the English kingdoms south of the Humber, he had achieved the submission of the princes of Wales and the northern kings of Britain. An expedition of 924 had seen his ships raid the coast of Caithness, and his army reach Fordun, just south of Aberdeen. The most famous example of the English kings' claim to hegemony over the whole island at this time is the episode in which kings from different parts of Britain paid tribute to Edgar at Chester in 973. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us only that 'there six kings came to meet him, and all pledged that they would be allies on sea and on land'. In his Life of St Swithin (c. 1000) AElfric gave a more circumstantial account, recording that 'all the kings of this island, of Cumbrians and of Scots, once came to Edgar on one day, eight kings, and they all bowed to Edgar's government.' In the twelfth century the story was elaborated by John of Worcester, who told how the eight tributary kings, including those of the Scots, the Cumbrians and the Welsh, expressed their subservience to Edgar by rowing him on the river Dee.

The frequently used formula 'king of all Britain' was perhaps intended to emphasize the aspiration to hegemony over the whole island, avoiding the potential ambiguity of the unmodified 'king of Britain', which might refer only to what Bede calls 'the British part of it', or an even more restricted domain south of the Humber. A similar intention may lie behind the introduction of the style 'king of Albion' during the reign of AEthelstan. In a charter from 929 AEthelstan is described as 'dispensing the kingly government of all Albion'. Elsewhere he is styled 'king and first lord of all Albion' and 'king of the English and likewise of all Albion'. This innovation was adopted by some of his successors. Eadwig is 'king not only of the Anglo-Saxons but also truly of the whole island of Albion'. Edgar is 'king of the whole island of Albion' and 'king and supreme ruler of all the land of Albion'. Sometimes the style used to describe these kings is more specific about the peoples over whom dominion is claimed. In a charter of 956, Eadwig is described as 'king of the Anglo-Saxons and ruler of the Northumbrians, governor of the pagans, and defender of the Britons'. But often it is vaguer: Edgar is styled 'king of the English and governor and ruler of all the surrounding nations'.

'Britain' could also mean 'the land of the Britons', as distinct from England. Britannia was sometimes used to refer to Brittany, the 'little Britain' on the other side of the Channel, and more frequently to mean Wales, for instance when Asset, in his Life of Alfred, described Offa's Dyke as 'the great rampart made from sea to sea between Britain and Mercia'. When Asser asserts that 'all the districts of the southern region of Britain belonged to King Alfred,' he must mean south Wales, as he goes on to list the rulers of the southern Welsh kingdoms. As terms referring to Wales and the Welsh, Britannia and Britones were replaced in the twelfth century by Gualia and Gualenses, derived from the Old English Wealas, 'foreigners', 'Celts'. However, the Welsh continued to think of themselves in terms of a British historical identity, and remained attached to the idea of ynys Prydein ('the island of Britain'). When the context allows us to identity, the territory signified by Prydein, it sometimes clearly means the whole island. According to The Names of the Island of Britain, 'The length of this Island, from the promontory of Blathaon in Pictland to the promontory of Penwith in Cornwall, is nine hundred miles. Its breadth from Crigyll in Anglesey to Sarre is five hundred miles.' Blathaon has been identified as John o' Groats or Dunnet Head in Caithness, and Sarre is in eastern Kent. On the other hand, Prydein sometimes appears to denote a more limited territory. The tenth-century Armes Prydein ('The Great Prophecy of Britain') concludes with a prophecy that the Welsh kings Cynan and Cadwaladr, supported by 'brave faithful men from Alclud' and 'a brave company from Brittany', will return to drive out the Saxons, 'and then they will possess all from Manaw to Brittany, from Dyfed to Thanet.' 'Alclud' is Dumbarton, on the Clyde, 'Manaw' is the area round present-day Edinburgh, and Dyfed and Thanet are the westernmost part of Wales and the easternmost of Kent, which once more gives us a Britain stretching from the Channel to the Forth-Clyde line.


The political dimension of the terms 'Britain' and 'British' is particularly significant in the context of relations between England and Wales. The awareness of a common British language and history helped to foster a sense of identity among the people of Wales, in opposition to the English who had overrun most of the British homeland. Among the English, the language of Britain and Britishness became a vehicle for the belief that they were the true inheritors of the ancient British heritage. Furthermore, the Normans and their successors did not share the preoccupation of the Anglo-Saxon kings with the whole island, and from the mid-twelfth century the English thought of 'Britain' primarily as the old name for their own kingdom.

One result was the sharpening of an ideological contest whose beginnings we can see in the histories of the Britons and the English that appeared between the sixth and ninth centuries. A Briton from Strathclyde, Gildas, had presented the triumph of the English as God's punishment for the evil ways of his own nation. Audaciously drawing on Gildas's unfavourable account of the British, Bede produced a providential history in which the English are a chosen people, rightful victors over the degenerate and heretical Britons. The ninth-century History of the Britons can be read as a riposte to Bede, equipping the British with an ancient Trojan lineage equal to that of the Romans, together with a more recent heroic past exemplified by Arthur. It has been suggested that the work should be seen against the background of the threat to the Welsh kingdoms posed by an increasingly powerful and aggressive Mercia, and that it was intended to further the aspirations of Merfyn Frych, king of Gwynedd from c. 825 to 844, to the leadership of the whole British nation.

This account of British origins was given a new lease of life by Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain (1138), in which the earlier work's somewhat confused and sketchy narrative was developed into an elaborate fiction tracing the history of Britain and its people from the Trojan War to the coming of the Saxons. Geoffrey's notorious ambiguity allowed both the English and the Welsh to claim his British narrative as the foundation of their national history, the Welsh using his inventions to keep alive the memory of their actual descent from the ancient Britons, the English embracing the fantasy of their unique title to Britishness as a core element of their national identity. In the later Middle Ages, 'Britain' became not just a term denoting some real or imagined geopolitical entity but an ideological space within which the English and the Welsh contested their claim to the same imaginary Trojan-British heritage. This competition of national narratives only achieved some kind of resolution under the Tudors. In the 1590s, Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queeue celebrates a Britain consisting of England and Wales in harmonious union, similar to the southern Britannia of the Romans and many early medieval writers, but utterly unlike the whole-island partnership of England and Scotland proposed by James VI and I a decade later.

Retired from full-time university teaching, Alan MacColl is an Associate Lecturer with the Open University in the South of England.
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Author:MacColl, Alan
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 1, 2008
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