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Britain’s divisions go way, way back Political maps here and across Europe reflect the actions of long-dead kings and empires

The investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales, as depicted in The Crown. Welsh speakers are rather less keen on royalty

The investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales, as depicted in The Crown. Welsh speakers are rather less keen on royalty

November 27, 2019   6 mins

When the Queen was crowned in 1953 the coronation ceremony that took place was little changed from the 14th century — barring the occasional TV camera — reflecting the ancient nature of the British monarchy. Indeed, the structure of the coronation dates back to the year 973 with the crowning of her ancestor King Edgar, the first king of the English to be anointed by God in this way.

Edgar’s coronation was followed by a pledge of allegiance by the various sub-kings of Wales and Scotland, the whole thing supposed to display English supremacy over the whole island — and a millennium later many feel that not much has changed.

Although the Royal Family is British — indeed the Queen is rather more Scottish — the emotional connection with the monarchy still remains a more English thing. This has been borne out by UnHerd’s Britain-wide survey into constituency-level social and political attitudes, which showed support for the monarchy weakest in Scotland and Wales, but especially the Welsh-speaking west of the country that also shows highest support for Plaid Cymru.

Look more closely at the map, however, and you’ll see an anomalous monarchy-loving area in the bottom left — southern Pembrokeshire, a region which has historically leaned towards the Conservatives while neighbouring constituencies vote for Labour or the nationalists.

Today across Britain and Europe voting patterns and other cultural divisions often reflect very ancient and forgotten events that still reverberate centuries later, and the unusual nature of Pembrokeshire is one of them.

After the Norman Conquest of England the new rulers had soon embarked on the colonisation of Wales too, because if the Normans saw a country next door they just couldn’t help themselves. “Marcher lords” established themselves in the area; then in the 12th century Anglo-Norman barons had encouraged English and Flemish settlers to move to lowland Wales, and a three-part racial hierarchy was established, with Francophone aristocrats at the top and English or Flemish-speaking townspeople in the middle, and below them the native “British”.

In those areas still inhabited by the natives — pura Wallia — ancient Welsh law lasted into the late medieval period, but English dominance was eventually established by the ruthless Edward I, who had the last Welsh princes chopped into bits. Centuries later and the Welsh-speaking people here still aren’t especially keen on Edward’s family.

Such was the level of English and Flemish migration into one part of south-west Wales, however, that southern Pembrokeshire became known as “Little England Beyond Wales”, developing a distinctive culture that was inclined towards more English things like Toryism and the monarchy.

Even today there are distinct genetic differences between northern and southern Pembrokeshire, with people in the latter showing more markers associated with continental Europe, although to what extent this reflects Flemish, Anglo-Saxon or older Viking settlement is hard to establish.

The Normans, unfortunately, were never content to just stay anywhere if there was an opportunity for conquest next door, and once established in Wales they inevitably set their sights further afield.

In Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral you will find the last resting place of one such Norman — Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke and better known to history as “Strongbow” (and yes, the cider was named after him). De Clare was the first of these “Cambro-Norman” lords to invade Ireland, starting England’s long and painful relationship with that country; Strongbow’s expedition led Henry II to invade the country too, to prevent de Clare from setting up a rival powerbase.

The medieval colonists of Ireland became later known as the “Old English”, to distinguish them from later settlers after the Reformation. They eventually intermarried with the Gaelic population, which is why lots of Irish Catholics today have Norman names like Barrett or Fitzgerald. (The later “New English” settlers in Ireland were Protestants and so remained separate.)

After centuries of British domination Ireland finally achieved independence in 1921, but the nature of the treaty with Britain — especially the partition between the Catholic south and Protestant-majority north — split the independence movement. A civil war ensued, out of which came Ireland’s two dominant parties: the pro-treaty side becoming Fine Gael, and their enemies evolving into Fianna Fáil.

The former are historically stronger in Dublin and more friendly towards England — the derogatory term is “West Brit” — but these divisions are very deep; even today Fine Gael TDs (members of Ireland’s parliament) are almost twice as likely to have Norman or Old English surnames while Fianna Fáil representatives tend to have Gaelic ones.

So you could still bet, with perhaps a better than 60% chance, which way an Irishman will vote based on where his paternal ancestor lived at the time of Henry II.

The Norman legacy has not died out on this side of the Irish Sea, either. As late as 1800, people with Norman surnames were eight times as likely to be MPs than the general population but even today people whose paternal ancestors won in 1066 tend to be richer than the poor Saxons.

As Gerald Grosvenor, the late Duke of Westminster put it, when asked by a young journalist what advice he’d give to young entrepreneurs hoping to emulate him: “Make sure they have an ancestor who was a very close friend of William the Conqueror.”

Indeed the Duke’s forebear Hugh Lupus, le gros veneur or “chief huntsman”, had been granted land by King William in Cheshire in order to keep the Welsh subdued, and the family are still based in that county, at Eaton Hall.

Wales’s ancient history could also still be seen in the 2016 referendum, where heavily Welsh-speaking areas of the west and north voted to Remain with Europe. This would seen fitting, since as Bryan Ward-Perkins (perhaps facetiously) pointed out, when Edward I conquered north Wales in the 13th century it arguably became the last part of the former western Roman Empire overrun by the barbarians.

Yet to the south Pembrokeshire voted strongly to Leave, and across Wales there was a correlation between strong British identification and Leave voting.

In England the opposite is true, so that people who identify as English rather than British were far more likely to have voted Leave. Indeed the whole Leave vote looks distinctively Anglo-Saxon in some ways.

All over Europe, political maps reflect ancient history. The recent election in Portugal still echoes the country’s history in the 12th century, when the south was conquered by crusaders, establishing large latifundia and so with it an impoverished peasantry ripe for Communism centuries later. The same is true of Spain, where the south was taken from the Moors much later.

Likewise, the political map of Poland still closely matches the old imperial borders between Russia and Germany, following the country’s partition in the 18th century. The former Russian-occupied territory votes heavily for the Law and Justice (PiS) party, while support for the more liberal Civic Platform (PO) party maps almost perfectly onto former German territory. Serfdom remained in tsarist Russia until 1861, while before the outbreak of the First World War German-controlled west was far wealthier than the east.

Other parts of central Europe still show the impact of long-dead empires. In Romania, those areas formerly in the Austro-Hungarian realm tend to vote for more liberal pro-western parties, while the long-lasting impact of living under the Habsburgs can still be seen today. One in-depth study found that: “Comparing individuals living on either side of the long-gone Habsburg border within the same modern-day country, we find that respondents in a current household survey who live on former Habsburg territory have higher levels of trust in courts and police”, and less likely to pay bribes.

Likewise in Germany voting patterns today reflect divisions, not just caused by Communism but the split between Catholics and Protestants. The AfD vote today is far stronger in historically Protestant areas of the country.

France’s divisions are even older. The country owes its name to a German tribe, the Franks, who crossed the Rhine into Gaul towards the end of the Roman period. Over the course of the early medieval period the Franks established rule over most of what is now France, eventually coming to adopt the version of Latin spoken by the Gallo-Roman inhabitants, although French retains substantial numbers of German loan words. Yet the Franks barely settled below a region referred to by ethnographers as “the Geneva St-Malo” line, a division that can be seen in various area of French life such as education.

In The Discovery of France, Graham Robb commented on how “At least until the late nineteenth century it appears with surprisingly regularly when various sets of data are plotted on a map; south and west of the line, people tended to be shorter and to have darker hair and eyes; they were less literate, lived in smaller places, had less taxable income and were more likely to be employed in agriculture.”

These Frankish areas also had more industry, and so with it, deindustrialisation and the problems that come with it. And how did France vote in 2017? The Franks tended to vote for one party, the Gauls for another.

As William Faulkner famously wrote in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead, it is not even past.” Or as one Frank put it: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Ed West’s book Tory Boy is published by Constable


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