How did the island of Britain come to comprise three distinctive ethnic identities—English, Welsh, and Scottish—and what does it mean to be British? In an age of political devolution, can Britishness survive if national identity erodes? In a fascinating daylong survey, historian Jennifer Paxton traces the emergence of Britain’s diverse ethnic landscape and examines the strains facing the United Kingdom as it renegotiates the relationship between England and its smaller, increasingly assertive neighbors.
9:30–10:45 a.m. The Making of England
Recent DNA studies show that the English are mostly descended not from the Anglo-Saxons but from the indigenous inhabitants of the British Isles who adopted their language and culture after they invaded sometime in the 5th century. Ironically, the Anglo-Saxons only coalesced into the kingdom of England under the pressure of another group of invaders: the Vikings. The Norman Conquest in 1066 contributed the final piece of the identity puzzle.
11 a.m.–12:15 p.m. The Making of Wales
Welsh resistance to the Anglo-Saxons produced the powerful legend of King Arthur, and Wales was not conquered until the English built the largest castles in Britain. Although Wales lost its political independence, it has preserved its indigenous language more successfully than other parts of the Celtic world, and it produced one of the most powerful ruling families in English history, the Tudors.
12:15–1:30 p.m. Lunch (participants provide their own)
1:30–2:45 p.m. The Making of Scotland
Northern Britain was subject to the most diverse influences of any part of the island: Pictish, Irish, English, and Scandinavian. Nevertheless, Scotland developed a strong national identity. Despite England’s attempts to conquer Scotland, the union between England and Scotland only came about by a dynastic accident, when the Stuarts inherited the English throne.
3–4:15 p.m. The End of Britain?
The Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707 created a United Kingdom, but will that kingdom survive unaltered in the 21st century? Immigration from Britain's former colonies and from the European Union has reshaped the ethnic map of the British Isles. The creation of devolved parliaments for Wales and Scotland only exacerbated national tensions within Britain, and the vote to leave the European Union may well lead to the breakup of the United Kingdom, as Scotland seeks to chart its own course for the first time in 400 years.
Paxton teaches Irish and British history at the Catholic University of America where she is a clinical assistant professor in the department of history and director of the university honors program.