Tag Archives: East Anglia

On the Identity of England and East Anglia

Pre-Celts and Celts in the British Isles and Ireland

Like the rest of Western Europe, the British Isles and, from there, Ireland, have been inhabited for thousands of years. Originally, this population spread here from Asia. Possibly, the only representatives of this population in Europe today are the Basques. Some call the original people here ‘Ancient Britons’. This is wrong, as they were pre-Celts and ‘Briton’ is a Celtic name. In fact, we know little about them, though they built Stonehenge and their DNA still exists among the modern inhabitants of these isles. After them came new settlers from Western Europe, who had also ultimately come from Western Asia. These were the Celts (pronounced Kelts) and they left their name all over Europe and West Asia, from Galatia (now in Turkiye), Galicia (now in the Ukraine and Portugal), Vlachia, Wallachia, Gaul, Calais, Wallonia, Wales, Caledonia, Galloway and Galway.

They also left the name of their language, Gaelic and Welsh, or in France, Gallo.  Many Celts had settled in these isles only a few centuries before the Romans arrived in the first century AD. For the Celts too were ‘invaders’. When the Roman Army conquered what came to be called England and Wales, famously building walls to separate themselves from the Celts in what is now Scotland and not occupying but only visiting Ireland, it took control of what it called ‘Britain’. Although their numerical presence was tiny, like the British elite in India in the 19th century, the Roman elite exercised total control and exploitation and had an enormous influence on national infrastructure and later history. Indeed, the word ‘Britain’ was later used by, and the Roman project imitated by, Normans, Stuarts, Georgians and Victorians alike for their own imperialist projects.

The Coming of the English

In the third century AD, if not even earlier, the Romans in Britain began to recruit Germanic soldiers, above all from the Saxons. They settled especially on the eastern and southern coast of what is now England and manned the nine Roman fortresses there, on what came to be known ‘The Saxon Shore’. Local Celtic women called these foreign Saxon mercenaries ‘Sassenachs’ and intermarried with them. After the Roman presence grew ever weaker in the fourth century and then ceased with their withdrawal from Britain in 410, the Saxons were in the fifth and sixth centuries gradually absorbed by new and kindred Germanic settlers, notably Jutes, Frisians and above all Angles. The Angles settled all over the eastern half of what became England, from the north down as far as Essex, and into the interior in ‘the Midlands’. The Saxons remained in the south, in Essex, Sussex and Wessex. However, the other Germanic tribes were outnumbered and absorbed by the Angles, so the country came to be called ‘Angle-kin’ (that is, those who are related to the Angles), or ‘Angleland’, which became England.

The ‘Englisc’ (pronounced ENG-lish, unlike the modern French pronunciation of English as ‘ING-lish’) were so predominant that they imposed their language over the area which they had settled, whereas the Romans had utterly failed to impose Latin on the Celts. After the English, came Vikings. These were Danes and Norwegians, who settled mainly on the coasts of eastern England from the present Scottish border down through Newcastle, Yorkshire (the Geordie and Yorkshire dialects and accents are fundamentally Viking) and Lincolnshire to Norfolk and north-east Suffolk. Although the Vikings considerably modified and simplified the English language, they too were absorbed and their DNA accounts for only 6% of modern DNA in England. As for the Normans (French Vikings) who occupied England from 1066 on, their DNA is almost invisible except among the aristocracy. It may perhaps be only 0.1%. However, as the near-millennial Establishment, their cultural and linguistic influence is still felt today.

East to West: Angles and Celts

The English then settled densely only the eastern half of what we now call England. The further east the greater the English DNA, the further west the greater the Celtic DNA and the greater the Celtic population and influence. England itself is then divided between a mainly English eastern half and a mainly Celtic western half. Thus, the British Isles and Ireland are genetically an Anglo-Celtic community. Just as in France, one can see the distribution of DNA by what people drink – the Germanic north near Belgium drinks beer, the Celtic north-west drinks cider, but the vast bulk of Latinised France drinks wine – so in England to this day also.

For example, in East Anglia people refer to ale, in the East Midlands which begins after the Rivers Ouse and Cam in eastern Cambridgeshire and ends near Newark in eastern Nottinghamshire, they refer to beer, and in the West Midlands, west of Newark and ending on the Welsh border, they refer to cider. Beyond this of course, we arrive in what used to be purely Celtic areas, Cymru (pronounced ‘Kumri’, called ‘Wales’), Cornwall (the ‘Welsh’ who live in the ‘corn’ or ‘horn’), Cumbria, the Isle of Man, Scotland and Ireland. Here the Celtic languages are still today, if only among a minority, alive. English was not spoken there until recent centuries.

East Anglia and Its Character

East Anglia is the furthest east you can go in England (the actual most easterly point is Lowestoft) and therefore, racially, the most English. This is also the closest to the Netherlands, whose Dutch and Frisian languages are linguistically the closest to English. Geographically, East Anglia consists of Norfolk, Suffolk, eastern Cambridgeshire as far as the eastern bank of the River Ouse, including Ely, and of the River Cam, and of a strip of North Essex near the Suffolk border some seven or so miles deep. The extent of the East Anglian domain could once be determined by the dialects of Norfolk and Suffolk, lapping over to eastern Cambridgeshire and North Essex, though these are less and less heard today. Where East Anglia ended in eastern Cambridgeshire, there began the East Mercian (East Midlands) accent and where East Anglian ended in North Essex there began the Essex accent, which is the same as the east London accent. What can we say of East Anglians, who are always so underestimated by foreigners, newcomers and upstarts, who understand little of our history and reality?

The East Anglian character is outwardly modest and hidden, but inwardly we are sturdy, rugged and reliable. You do not mess with us, unless you are a foreign fool and you will always come off worse. We are also bluff, that is, good-naturedly frank, and our humour is very dry and wry. Here there is a similarity to our neighbours, the Dutch. Prone to invasions from Continental Europe just across the shared lake of the North Sea, we are suspicious and sceptical of others and always test them to see what they are made of. It is make or break time for them. We are practical and pragmatic, always concrete. However, there also exists among us a romantic lyricism. This can be seen by the fact that although the greatest English music in inspired in the west of England, the greatest English art is made in East Anglia. This is illustrated by the works of Gainsborough (1727-1788), Crome (1768-1821), Constable (1776-1837), Cotman (1782-1842), Munnings (1878-1959) and Seago (1910-1974). The huge skies, the rolling landscape and, above all, the characteristic light of East Anglia have here been fundamental.