A royal carriage and its escort about 1480
A royal carriage and its escort about 1480

Geographical conditions kept the British Isles apart from the rest of Western Christendom as they had kept them apart from the Roman Empire. Britain was never completely Romanised, and the Teutonic invader did not in effect find himself in contact with Roman civilisation. Roman influences hardly touched him, and his isolation prevented him from being materially affected by the changes in the Teutonic civilisation of the Continent.

The English stood outside the new Holy Roman or German Empire more completely than the Britons had remained outside the old Roman Empire, To a greater degree they were brought within the ecclesiastical dominion of the Holy See, but still in a very much less degree than their continental neighbours. A Saxon king of England could appropriate to himself the imperial title of "Basileus," implying a claim to equality with the Emperor, and a Pope could designate the Archbishop of Canterbury, "papa attains orbis," implying at least what in a secular dominion would be called vice-regal authority.

To the English, as to every one else, the Pope and the Emperor were the two heads of Christendom by courtesy; but the Pope exercised hardly any direct authority, and the Emperor none at all. Thus the people of these islands were able to follow out their development in comparative isolation on national lines, modified but not absorbed by the political organisation of the Empire, the ecclesiastical organisation of the Papacy, and the social structure of continental Feudalism.

Accident united the North English to the Celtic kingdom of the Scots, and drew a dividing line between Scotland and England, from Solway to Tweed mouth; so that Scotland and England developed their nationality separately, while both stood outside the general current which was moulding Europe. Neither the Norman Conquest nor the Angevin Succession bridged the English Channel or effectively destroyed the isolation which enabled them to consolidate their nationality apart.

To some extent the Scandinavian kingdoms also remained apart; that is, as States they remained outside the borders of the Empire, though they planted their colonies not only in England, Scotland, and Ireland, but in France, in Sicily, and in Southern Italy. The aggression of the Scandinavians, however, ceased after the eleventh century.

Nation States
But the national idea was not confined to the British Isles and ScandiĀ­navia, the two great divisions which never came within the boundaries of the Empire. During the Middle Ages, France too became an individual nation and the Spanish Peninsula was also nationalised. Both France and Northern Spain were included in the Empire of Charlemagne; and it was only when the Carolingian dynasty which ruled over the western portion of the Prankish dominion gave place to the dynasty of the Capets that France was definitely and permanently separated from the Empire. And France was then already completely in the grip of the feudal system.

Hence the consolidation both of England and of Scotland long preceded the consolidation of France. It was not till after the final expulsion of the English that the process was completed. Almost at the same time the similar process was completed in the Spanish Peninsula. The union of the crowns of Aragon and Castile, and the overthrow of the Moorish kingdom, of Granada, shaped the Peninsula into the two greater and smaller nations of Spain and Portugal, somewhat as the island of Great Britain had been shaped into the greater and smaller nations of England and Scotland. Thus there were at the last three great national States on the west of Europe, besides Scotland and Portugal.

But a like process of consolidation had not taken place in Central Europe, Germany was still only a collection of Teutonic States professing allegiance and a very limited obedience to one Emperor; while Italy was a collection of small Latin States, individually far in advance of the rest of the World in culture, but without any effective sense of common nationality.

The republic of Venice had built up a great maritime power, and her fleets were still one of the bulwarks of Europe against the Ottoman Turks, who, in 1453, finally overthrew the Byzantine Empire when they captured Constantinople; but though she might fairly be called an imperial city, Venice did not constitute a nation.

At the very close of our period, Charles the Rash of Burgundy endeavoured to build up what we should call another first-class Power. With the Netherlands and the BurĀ­gundies already under his dominion, it was his ambition to construct a heterogeneous kingdom which should extend from the North Sea to the Mediterranean. That design was frustrated, and Provence, as well as the Duchy of Burgundy, was absorbed into France.

The Hapsburg Empire
But what happened instead in the course of the next fifty years was that the Austrian House of Hapsburg built up for its members through a series of marriages a huge dominion which comprised the Austrian duchies of South Germany, the Magyar and Slavonic kingdoms of Hungary and Bohemia, the whole Burgundian inheritance, the Spanish kingdom, and some slices of Italy, besides permanently appropriating the succession to the imperial crown.

Although this vast dominion with its numerous nationalities was parted between two branches of the house of Hapsburg, it not only expanded the Spanish dominion, but made the Austrian Hapsburgs a first-class power exercising a dominant influence over the States of Germany. Consequently, international politics assumed a phase unknown in the medieval period; so that the keynote of European diplomacy came to be found in the phrase, "the Balance of Power."

That is to say while each State sought a preponderance for itself, it sought also to keep the other States equally balanced. Hitherto England had been concerned only in her private contests with France or with Scotland; now she became concerned to prevent either France or the Hapsburgs from dominating Europe.

Since England was so far the first to consolidate her own nationality, it naturally resulted that she progressed in constitutional development at a very much greater speed than the European States. The conflict of authority between the Papacy and the Crown was less acute because England was out of reach of the Papacy itself, and the ecclesiastical organisation in England was at once less under Papal control and less able to challenge the supremacy of the secular power. In England, never completely surrendered to feudalism, the Crown was able at an earlier stage to concentrate power in its own hands.

The baronage in their resistance to absolutism became the champions of popular rights as well as of the privileges of their own order. The Crown followed suit, and in its resistance to baronial encroachments extended the popular rights. And thus at the close of the Middle Ages, England was the one State in which the next constitutional battle was to be fought with the sovereignty of the Commons as the stake; because it was the one State in which the Commons had already accumulated a solid and tangible authority.

This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.

Prehistory - Roman Britain - Dark Ages - Medieval Britain - The Tudor Era - The Stuarts - Georgian Britain - The Victorian Age