Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Wales (The Britons) v England (The Foreigners)

In light of the international football game tonight in which England struggled to beat Wales 1-0, I thought it would be appropriate to shine a light into the darkness of the past to reveal the confusing nature of these countries' names.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (from circa A.D. 890 to the 12th century) say that the Island Britain consists of five nations:
  1. English
  2. Welsh / British
  3. Scottish
  4. Pictish
  5. Latin

The fifth item on the list is the most mysterious - but that's for another day. So, let's begin by travelling back a thousand years before the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles were started to examine the second item: The Welsh, who are also intriguingly listed as "the British".

In a historic sense, "a Briton" can be assumed to be roughly synonymous with what might be better understood as "a Celt". This is the culture generally (but not necessarily correctly) thought of as the first inhabitants of our island - thus they are awarded the badge of "the original Britons". Theirs was the Iron Age civilization who fought bravely against the invading Romans in the 1st century BC and who later counted Boudica amongst their most famous leaders.

Four hundred years later, after the Romans abandoned the conquered Britain, their political infrastructure broke down and military support evaporated. The top echelons in the country had been Romans, but millions of ordinary folk would have retained a lot of their Celtic heritage from before the invasion, despite the revolutionary ideas and technology of their occupiers. So, when the Romans and their language left, the "Celtic" identity re-emerged, and the post-Roman British were able to re-assert themselves.

One British King was called Vortigern, and he struggled to maintain his grip on his lands in the wake of the Roman military departure. He was a leading ruler among Britons and when the Scottish and Pictish tribes to the north of Hadrian's Wall (nations 3 and 4 on the list) threatened his territory he invited the Saxons from mainland Europe to settle as mercenaries to aid his cause. Unfortunately these continental warriors rebelled, expanded their territory and brought new waves of immigrants in their wake, including the Danish tribe of Angles.

In 400 AD, all of the British mainland had been Romano-British. By 500 AD, the marauding Saxons and Angles had encroached from the eastern and south-eastern coast, with the latter tribe particularly spreading far inland to the midlands. By 600 AD, the Anglo-Saxons had swarmed over two-thirds of the country, pushing the Native Britons back to the far western areas. These Celtic/Romano-British became isolated in the places we now call Devon, Cornwall, Lancashire, Cumbria and Wales. By 700 AD, their last refuges were Cornwall and Wales only.

So, the invading Angles had taken lands from the native Celtic Britons who were forced back into their stronghold of Wales - and that's how the Chronicles arrived at their naming of "the Welsh" as "British", whereas the term "English" came from the incoming "Anglecynn" meaning "the kin of the Angles".

These invading Angles took their name from part of their ancestral home in Jutland, where they originated from a peninsula called Angeln. This peninsula in turn is named after its outline which is hook-shaped. From this same root we have the word "angle" as in the geometric figure, and similarly "angling" as in "to fish with a hook".

Thus, the Welsh are the British and the English are the foreigners.

1300 years later it might seem pedantic to highlight the oddity of a football score based on these ancient names of nations, but it is surprising how much pride and gentle racism there is between the countries which make up Great Britain.

The feelings of the Celts towards the continental invaders are still present in our modern language. For example, we are familiar with the Scottish insult "sasannach" which is used to unkindly refer to an English person. This originates from the Gaelic form of "Saxons"- a direct and derogatory reference to the invasive heritage of the English.

On the opposing side, the Saxon disdain of the natives is evident in the very name of the Celtic nation of Wales. The word "Wealas" is actually a Saxon term meaning "foreigners" and it stuck not only to Wales but also that other enclave into which the Native Britons retreated. Their refuge peninsula became known as "West Wealas" and also at one time "Corn-wealas" after the Celtic Cornovii tribe - but ultimately in the present day we call it "Cornwall", still carrying its -wall suffix branding them "Celtic Foreigners".

This pattern is repeated across the country, wherever Saxons observed and derided the Celtic tribes. Not far from where I live, the town of Wallasey bares the same root from "Wealas". Then there's the town of Walsden, and the old name of the Avebury stone circle was Waledich.

Casting the net wider and the word appears across Europe, wherever Saxons saw Celts or Romans. The Polish call Italy "Włochy", the Hungarians call Romanians "Vlachok" and there is even a wine called "welschriesling" from Slovenia.

The word "Wealas" mutated even further into "Galwalas" which was the Old English name for Gaul - and that bridges the gap to reveal that the word Gaul itself is derived from a corruption of "Walha". This complicated linguistic circle closes beautifully if you then recall that the modern-day French name for Wales is "le pays de Galles". What this means is that the Britons named the French nation "foreigners" and they returned the favour by calling the Britons "foreigners".

It's a reminder from history that we are all outsiders from someone's perspective - but also it's worth remembering that Celtic Britons were prehistoric migrants from mainland Europe too. So all this illustrates that the enduring rivalries can now be quashed by enlightened understanding of our shared heritage, and consequently all international sporting events in future become null and void.

But next time England play Wales, be sure to use this information to construct a pithy anecdote about the Welsh being the true Britons and I'm sure the nearest burly, tattooed English gentleman in the pub will be delighted and amused to hear it.

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