Hello! How are you? I was working on a book and then a bunch of ostentatiously horrible political stuff happened, so instead I’ve spent the last three weeks drinking constantly and refreshing Twitter. Ha ha ha! [MUFFLED UNCONTROLLABLE SOBBING]
It’s become apparent that the leaders of the Leave campaign had zero plan, and either never really expected to win, or assumed everything would just turn out OK: I think possibly one of the reasons so many people went “yeah, sure, let’s leave the EU, no idea what will happen but it will probably be fine!” is that it taps into one of the main stories England tells itself about itself, about that time we told Europe to fuck off and it went great.
The story goes something like,
Once upon a time Henry VIII wanted to drop Catherine of Aragon because he didn’t fancy her, but he wasn’t allowed to because of all these regulations forced on him by unelected officials in Europe, ie the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. So he told them to fuck off and married his true love Anne Boleyn, who was nice and English, and also much sexier than Catherine (who was Spanish and a bit old, hmm not sure about that!). Then Henry took back all the money the country had been paying to that unaccountable unelected European group the Catholic Church, and suddenly the country was super rich, hooray! He married whoever he wanted, including Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr (all English – and fuckable!) and Anne of Cleves (European – unfuckable :( ), and we smashed it for a few decades and ate giant turkey legs and wrote “Greensleeves”. Lesson: Crushed it! Come on England!!
Then Mary I became queen, but she was not only the daughter of Henry’s Unfuckable Bad European First Wife and therefore herself a bit unfuckable, but she also fancied a European (Philip II of Spain) and this led to her burning lots of people to death. Lesson: Whoops!
Then Elizabeth I became queen (daughter of sexy Anne Boleyn – good!!) and she did not fancy anybody except a few English courtly boy toys, which is acceptable. Her cousin Mary Queen of Scots was also around, but she grew up in France (OH NO) and lived in Scotland (bit European!) so had to be executed (nice one Liz!), and also the Spanish Armada tried to attack us but England was SO GREAT that Elizabeth, Strong Female King, just turned up at Tilbury and glared at them and all the ships fell over and sank. Lesson: Fuck you Europe! YYYEAAAAHHHHH! COME AT THIS SCEPTERED ISLE YOU BEST NOT MISS!!!
Then James VI came down from Scotland and became James I, something something, witches, Bible, Guy Fawkes tried to blow up Parliament but he didn’t (TAKE THAT CATHOLICS/EUROPE!!!), the end. Lesson: Also we invented actually-good religious poetry, which didn’t exist before the King James Bible.
The tourist-historical version of this story does not include:
- Henry VIII’s series of failed, expensive wars in France and Belgium (if we hear about an English war on the continent it is, obviously, Agincourt, ie the time we went over to France and CRUSHED THEM THERE TOO!)
- Elizabeth I’s long and mutually productive alliances with the Netherlands and Protestant France
- James I’s work to reintegrate England and Scotland into the network of European relationships: he married a Danish princess, and engaged his son to a Spanish princess and his daughter to a German prince
- Any European spouse or suitor of an English monarch who was not personally unappealing: Catherine of Aragon was old and religious (one-two punch!); Anne of Cleves so offputting that Henry called her a horse and divorced her almost immediately after the wedding night; Philip II was a total dickhead (to be fair, he was definitely a total dickhead); and Elizabeth I’s suitors were either educated English explorers (boats! sonnets! potatoes! so hot!) or the Duke of Anjou, Elizabeth’s only French suitor we hear anything about, who is generally dismissed as politically incompetent and uninterested in women (in a dodgily conflated way – eg as a stereotypical hard-Kinsey-6 gay man in the film Elizabeth).
- Specifically we do not hear about the good-looking strapping ladies’ man, man’s man, man about court Henry of Navarre, who was suggested as a husband for Elizabeth when he was 17 and she was in her mid-30s. (Can you imagine? I can and I’m doing it right now and it’s pretty great)
- Or James VI’s hot brother-in-law Christian of Denmark (HELLO)
Not to say Remain would have won if these were part of the main historical narrative, but British culture has been especially Tudoriffic lately (Wolf Hall, #Shakespeare400, The Tudors) and I do wonder if the fact that our biggest historical memory period is so anti-Europe and successful-loner England that that isn’t hanging around the back of our minds when we think about English nationhood. And I definitely don’t think it’s unrelated that the two parts of modern Britain – London and Scotland – that have a long history of telling the English government to sod off, voted Remain.