The History of the British Isles (FHS)

The history of the British Isles continues to be one of the foundations of the Final Honour School, offering students the opportunity to study the development of the closely-related societies of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland over long periods of time.

The periods into which British History is divided are the same as in the Preliminary Examination in History, but the expectations of both tutors and examiners in the Final Honour School are significantly different. Students will be to expected to read more, in the monographic literature and in selected primary sources, and they will be expected to engage more precisely with specific issues within their chosen period(s). Students will also be encouraged to show greater historiographic awareness in their approach to a period. 

At the same time, the British History paper in the Final Honour School will continue to require students to show breadth of understanding. It is possible to study a very wide range of topics in political, social, cultural, economic, and intellectual history.

Depending upon the period and topic, there will be the opportunity to pursue interests in Scottish and Irish as well as English History, and to adopt a British perspective on common problems. It aims to encourage appreciation of the underlying continuities as well as the discontinuities within each period, and to explore the relation between political, gender, economic, social and cultural developments in determining the paths followed by the societies of Britain, severally and together:

These centuries saw the growth of new forms of social, religious and cultural organisation after the collapse of Roman Britain, and the forging of the ethnic and political identities that would eventually be England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. During the last twenty years the period has seen some remarkably lively debates and re-evaluation, which enable you to engage both with new ideas and – perhaps more surprisingly – with new evidence. The central written sources (for instance Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, and Beowulf, which may be read in translation) are limited enough to allow the subject to be approached directly through them, while the new emphasis on archaeology, landscape and art makes students confront challenging methodological problems. Those who study this period will quickly develop a sense of how diverse fragments make the foundation for a coherent picture.

During c.400-550, Germanic settlements in eastern Britain established the communities who would eventually think themselves ‘English’. The west and north still comprised Celtic states which remained Christian, literate and in contact with the Mediterranean world, while the Irish were developing a remarkable literary, artistic and religious culture. Their overseas impact included the colonisation of western Scotland, and missionary activity in Europe. Some long-accepted orthodoxies, such as the scale and ethnic homogeneity of the Germanic settlements, or the distinctive character of the ‘Celtic Church’, have recently come under attack, and students can re-examine these issues in the light of new perspectives.

The seventh-century conversions of the English to Christianity were part of an extraordinary series of cultural and political developments, involving increased contacts between the various inhabitants of the British Isles and of Europe, in which the sequence of cause and effect leaves much room for debate. Outstanding works of art were produced, such as the Sutton Hoo treasures and the Lindisfarne Gospels; with the growth of continental trade, ports were established and coinage reintroduced. Prosperity financed a rich monastic culture. During c.680-750, north-east England became one of the intellectual centres of Europe, and the English launched missions to their still-pagan relatives abroad.

Kingship and government operated on an ever-widening scale, though tempered by the enduring realities of warrior societies: marriage-alliances, gift-giving, plunder and the blood-feud. In 850 Britain was still divided between British and English states, while in Ireland provincial kingships were forming. Students can debate the size and ferocity of the late ninth-century Viking attacks, and the extent to which they altered the political map (by destroying some states, allowing others to expand) and the economic map (by linking Britain and Ireland to Scandinavian trade networks).

Alfred of Wessex (871-99) and his heirs built a unified, ideologically coherent English state, with systematic local government and tight control of the coinage. Meanwhile, the countryside and its inhabitants were being organised into more self-contained farming and parish communities; the network of manors, villages and market towns crystallized. All this makes late Anglo-Saxon England look much more developed than it seemed thirty years ago. The Norman Conquest, conventionally taken as a starting-point, is the epilogue to this paper: by the time you reach it, you will be well-placed to make up your own mind about how much it really changed. 

Medieval society with its warriors, kings, bishops and peasants, can seem alien to us. These three centuries saw the emergence of essential pre-conditions for modern society. The whole spectrum of human activity was transformed, both through increasing collectivisation – in villages, towns, churches, and under governments – and by greater pluralisation in the ways of life. England’s own particular turning-point, the Norman Conquest, opens the paper: but just how much did it change and how much endured from previous centuries – or indeed would have changed anyway in a period of European-wide development? Its immediate result was a century of political instability, as England was drawn into the politics of northern France. Yet the Conquest also provided the foundation for a precociously strong monarchy, and the system of common law which still endures.

These developments had important effects. Kings and their warrior nobles, increasingly characterized by the culture of chivalry, attempted to colonize and dominate Britain. The different societies of Wales, Ireland and Scotland were affected in different ways by English imperialism, especially in Edward I’s successful conquest of Wales and unsuccessful assault on Scotland.

On the other hand, the power of English kings had to be restrained internally: in Magna Carta the barons demanded that the ruler treat his subjects lawfully and make their interests the concern of government. This was developed into a sophisticated political ideology of royal accountability, which could be used at the end of the period to depose a king. Edward II was seen as inadequate to provide stable government and secure justice to a national community increasingly conscious of the duties of kingship.

Royal ideology was also challenged by the church as the clergy, backed by the papacy, sought to exempt themselves from lay authority, a conflict seen most dramatically in the murder of Thomas Becket. Yet church reform gradually transformed social experience by putting religion at its centre, seen in the prevalence of saints’ cults and shrines, the popularity of the crusading ethos, and the rapid spread of monasteries and parish churches.

Education also underwent a sea-change as the ‘twelfth-century renaissance’ inaugurated a literate society, which created new institutions and administered them in more regular and bureaucratic ways. It also revived the cultural leadership of the western world, evident in the glorious cathedrals constructed at this time, and the revival of scholarship in the universities.

These were centuries of important social and economic change. More land was settled by an expanding population, markets and towns multiplied, and increasing trade created a more commercialized mentality. Family structures and the position of women were thus fundamentally affected. Recently historians have become increasingly intrigued by the role of perception in economic, social, and political life: was change led as much by culture, ideology and attitudes as by what used to be seen as more tangible factors? Gender is an important case in point, given that changes in ideology had specific effects on the roles not only of women but also men, and on the social, legal and political relationships between them.

In some ways this phase of European development was decisively brought to an end in the fourteenth century, with economic slow-down, widespread political instability and above all the Black Death. Even so, the fundamental changes of the central middle ages left a legacy to the modern world of political sophistication, social and economic diversification, and cultural dominance.

For England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales this was a period of dramatic conflict and change which presents many fascinating paradoxes. The Black Death of 1348-9 in which a third or more of the population died, the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, and frequent complaints of urban decay all suggest economic and social crisis; yet the cloth industry grew, living standards rose and economic opportunities for women temporarily widened. In the early fifteenth century the Welsh rose in revolt under Owain Glyn Dŵr, yet within a century and a half they were peacefully assimilated into the Tudor state. The Scots were united enough to resist English aggression, yet slew two of their kings in rebellion. The English won spectacular victories in France – Crécy, Poitiers, Agincourt – yet lost ground to the Gaelic lords in Ireland.

The English crown steadily endowed itself with one of the most effective governmental machineries in Europe, negotiating for the cooperation of local élites in the developing parliament, court and legal system; yet Richard II was deposed and his successors fell prey to factionalism in the Wars of the Roses, only for monarchical power to revive under the Yorkists and Tudors. The English church survived the challenge of the Oxford-grown heresy, Lollardy, and provided for an increasingly elaborate and informed popular piety, but fell victim to Henry VIII’s determination to become its supreme head. Architecture, music and vernacular literature flourished from Barbour, Chaucer and Langland to Lindsay, Wyatt and Surrey; yet by 1550 an increasingly influential humanism affected contempt for much of medieval culture.

All these aspects of the period continue to provoke debate among historians and this creates an opportunity for undergraduates to forge their own understanding of a field in which political, social, cultural and religious history interact in stimulating ways, and one in which the different societies within the British Isles can be studied both in their own right and in their mutual interaction. 

Reformation, Revolution, Restoration: Throughout this period political and religious authority were contested, challenged, and re-imagined afresh.

The paper begins in the aftermath of the Wars of the Roses, with the Tudor dynasty consolidating a precarious grip on the English throne as well as a fragile hold on parts of Ireland and a delicate peace between Scotland and England. The long, contested process of Reformation unleashed a wide variety of religious ideas and encouraged new ways of understanding identity, community, and even family relationships. A period of sustained economic growth brought unimagined luxuries and new technologies to the growing cities, changing the social fabric of the country in complex ways. Literature, music and art flourished; Shakespeare’s plays, Tallis’s motets and Holbein’s portraits all express the grandeur and the individual anxieties of the period. Two hundred years later, the whole of Britain would be transformed, brought together into a Union with social and religious consequences no less important than the political implications. By 1700 Britain had moved from the fringes of Europe to become one of its leading powers, with a growing Empire in the Americas.

Students taking this paper have the opportunity to examine a wide range of social, political and religious developments across all three British kingdoms. The period is rich in source material, with texts and pamphlets ranging from royal proclamations to scurrilous, ‘tabloid’ newsbooks which are easily accessible in libraries and online. Historians are increasingly aware of the sophisticated political and religious culture which developed in this period, involving art, music and carefully staged rituals. Traces of the rich visual and artistic culture of the period can be seen across the city, in the Ashmolean and in many of the colleges, and students are encouraged to consider these sources alongside more traditional ones. Moreover, such a crucial period in British history has attracted some of the most passionate and engaged historians, and controversy over the nature of the Reformation, the flow of court politics, the causes of the civil war, and the events of the Glorious Revolution continues to arouse heated debate. No less important are questions of social and economic change, and historians now use the vast range of source materials in new and increasingly sophisticated ways. The paper offers students the opportunity to examine the central events and ideas of this period, but the flexibility of the tutorial system allows each student to spend time focusing on particular aspects of it, in consultation with their tutor. 

This paper begins with the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, which entrenched parliament at the centre of British government and established a system of regulated toleration for some kinds of Christian worship outside the Church of England. Commerce and manufacture were flourishing to such an extent that it was beginning to be possible for pamphleteers to claim for the nation the status of leading economic power. At its end in 1830 Dissenters and Catholics acquired full political rights, and the election of a reforming ‘Whig’ government put the reform and extension of the parliamentary franchise squarely on the agenda and Britain was considered ‘the first industrial nation’. These developments made Britain an object of fascination - sometimes, of admiration – for other Europeans.

The ‘British state’ was largely a creation of this period, which also saw the union of the Scottish with the English parliament (1707) and of the Irish with the Anglo-Scottish parliament (1801). A ‘British’ identity developed in parallel with English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish identities. The growth of Atlantic trade and the acquisition of substantial Indian territories added to the might of the ‘British Empire’.

Yet all these developments were associated with strains, tensions and conflicts. Britain spent almost half the period at war, defending and extending its position in Europe and the world. The legitimacy and very existence of empire were called into question by the American War of Independence 1776- 83. Meanwhile, the growth of ‘enlightenment’ in Europe raised questions about Britain’s claim to be an exceptionally liberal and humane society. Self-questioning was both intensified and complicated by the outbreak of the French Revolution, and the long ensuing war.

During the past few decades this period has been the subject of much lively and creative historical writing. John Brewer, Linda Colley, Roy Porter and several Oxford scholars have explored all these developments, their impact on British values and culture, and the ways in which they were experienced by men and women at all social levels. The quality of writing on the period reflects its fundamental importance and interest for the understanding of modern Britain. 

The paper covers a period which is today regarded by journalists and sentimentalists as an epoch of British ‘greatness’. That it was a very remarkable time is certain, and its most obvious defining feature is provided by a history of political and institutional change which appears in retrospect like a blaze of technicolor. To say this is not just a comment on heroic individuals such as Gladstone and Disraeli; rather it is reflection of what all ordinary Britons (though not necessarily Irishmen) really thought: politics lay at the centre of their historical world. The centrepiece of political struggle lay in the attempts variously to reform and to preserve England’s ‘ancient constitution’. The paper thus invites students to consider how satisfactory and complete were the ‘Victorian’ reforms which still supply the basic structure of our political institutions today. Why were they so seemingly successful in Britain and so troubled in Ireland? It also asks how these notoriously insular institutions functioned in Europe and as the ultimate rulers of a large and expansive empire. Could one have both empire and liberty?

This paper will also consider the shape of society in this period, specifically on the culture and economy of Britain. In considering British society students will be able to draw on rich and established traditions of writing on the working classes and on the traditional landed élite, alongside a more recent and openended body of writing on gender. Of course social class can no longer be seen simply as a material fact, or as a reflection of the workplace, important though this dimension undoubtedly was. Social situation also requires a consideration of social cultures and mentalities. Of these some were class bound and some were not, and here the histories of religion and of ethnicity occupy a prominent place in the focus of the paper, both of them relatively new and expansive areas of research inquiry. Students are invited to reflect on features which render England and Britain unique in a European context. For example: a notorious preoccupation with wealth creation; a religious geography based on the peculiarly AngloSaxon polarity between established Churches and Dissenters, and the absence of any tradition of a prestigious state bureaucracy on the Continental model. Were these distinctive traditions a source of privileged advantage, or did they render the British Isles merely backward and provincial? Both points of view were advanced with much enthusiasm by Britons and Europeans alike over the lifetime of this paper. 

The paper covers the history of the British Isles throughout the twentieth century. This was a period of almost unprecedented political, social and economic change. The paper is open-ended, since it has no terminal date, and it allows us to examine contemporary Britain historically. The core of the paper is political, but political in the broadest sense. It is concerned not just with parliamentary politics but with the relationships between political parties and society, the way political institutions have been shaped and the manner in which the political system coped with major challenges – for example, the two world wars, the emergence of Scottish and Welsh nationalism and the re-emergence of the ‘Irish question’, or the pervasive notion of economic ‘decline’ (something which people consciously tried to reverse) from the 1950s on.

At its beginning Great Britain was the centre of a world-empire, the hub of the world’s financial system, and Ireland was still politically united to Britain as well as almost wholly white At the end of the century, the Empire was gone, to be replaced by a Commonwealth, in many respects vestigial, but still of some authority. Ireland, with the exception of the northern six counties, had become an independent republic. The ethinic demographic of Britain had changed, to include a large ‘Black and Asian’ population, whose influence on British life was profound. By 2000 Britain was no longer central to the world’s financial system, though London was still one of its most important foci, and in military terms Britain had become a middle-ranking power. Economically, particularly in its manufacturing sector, Britain found it difficult to compete and an apparent political and economic decline was, especially after the Second World War, one of the principal themes of British politics and public life. And yet, despite its preoccupation with failure, few other societies had such a successful twentieth century. Its people experienced a rise in living standards and social opportunities which would once have been thought inconceivable; it emerged victorious from two world wars with its political institutions intact and increasingly democratic; its civil life was remarkably peaceful; it was one of the most culturally open societies in the world and its cultural productivity, at élite and popular levels, was surpassed only by the United States.

Although the period can usefully be divided into two by the Second World War – which in many ways was a ‘turning point’ – the paper and the lectures try to give the period a unity; to allow people, if they wish, to answer wider questions, while recognizing that some people will prefer to consider other questions in more detail. It is, however, by no means confined to its political core: it includes those subjects which are closely allied to politics but which we usually think of as ‘social’: gender, popular culture, the extent to which Britain was, or was not, a society based upon social classes, immigration and its consequences and, not least, the degree to which British life and culture was Americanised. 

Teaching: 7 tutorials over one or two terms, each with an essay.

Assessment: A 3-hour written examination takes place at the end of the Trinity Term of Final Year. This accounts for one seventh of the overall mark.

Please note that the options listed above are illustrative and may be subject to change.

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