A Challenge to the 'Tolerant' British

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), June 18, 2005 | Go to article overview

A Challenge to the 'Tolerant' British


Byline: By Mario Basini Western Mail

Welcome to our new books spread. Each week, Mario Basini will pick one book to feature and cast his eye over several more. Opposite, we will be getting you involved by starting a book club for readers

THE TRIBES OF BRITAIN

IN 1334, less than half a century after the death of Llywelyn the Last had finally signalled its conquest of Wales, the English monarchy thought up a way of subduing the still-rebellious and troublesome Welsh.

They drove Welsh peasants off their fertile arable land in North Wales and replaced them with pliable and loyal English subjects. Colonisers from Pontefract, Skipton and Castleford in Yorkshire, from Blackburn and Clitheroe in Lancashire and from Sunderland in the North East of England were given 10,000 acres of fertile soil in the valleys of Clwyd.

The transplanted lords, merchants and peasants were happy to ignore Welsh laws and customs and to operate within those imposed by the English king. It was an early example of ethnic cleansing used as a weapon of war in the British Isles. It was by no means the last.

Less than 300 years later, the Catholic Irish were swept off vast tracts of Northern Ireland and replaced by Presbyterian Scots, English and Welsh. This time more than 160,000 acres were handed to the newcomers whose religion made them implacably hostile to the natives.

Far from solving the pressing problem that faced the English - how to subdue an instinctively rebellious colony - the Ulster plantations merely served to deepen and institutionalise the religious and cultural antagonisms which still plague that unhappy corner of the planet.

But, undaunted, the English government 100 years later was still prepared to use, what must have seemed to some at least, a useless as well as cruel and unjust political weapon. When, in the early 18th Century, the Scots refused to comply to the English (and Welsh) demands that the Westminster Parliament should be allowed to choose the Scottish king, London contemplated the idea of removing all those who lived in Scotland south of the border.

Fortunately, the scheme was dropped and London resorted to the simpler and less expensive expedient of bribing the Scottish Parliament into voting its own demise and agreeing to the Act of Union with England and Wales.

These insights into the cruel, troubled, violent, sometimes productive relationships between the various tribes and nations co-existing uneasily in the British Isles occur in a new history, The Tribes of Britain.

The book is a comprehensive and illuminating look at the history of this small cluster of islands off the edge of Europe. Its author, David Miles, takes us on a long but entertaining journey from prehistory to the 21st Century.

He covers an admirably eclectic range of topics from the physical characteristics of the Scots to the firearms borne by the Duke of Wellington's army at Waterloo. He includes potted histories of Marks and Spencer and Burtons the tailors. He shows that many of the clichAs clinging to the British nations have a very long history.

But The Tribes of Britain is not just another routine textbook, however sweeping and inclusive. It is proof that in history, as in haute couture or information technology, new ideas and techniques give birth to trendy new fashions.

David Miles, until recently the chief archaeologist at English Heritage, is one of those historians more at home sifting the soil with his trowel than they are leafing through dusty ledgers and files in ancient churches and government offices. …

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