History is a story of a people who have accumulated their cultural artifacts, political crafts, and societal conventions into a great reservoir of Tradition that becomes the bedrock of a country. Therefore, it is always helpful to understand the origins of political and social systems as well as cultural propensities of a country if you want to pronounce your opinion on the stimulating current affairs of a country without Ignorant Prejudice.
The one such apposite example can be illustrated in the case of Brexit, which is the UK’s withdrawal from the E.U, seemingly unwelcome by people who are involved in international businesses and those who want to work and live in the UK as non-citizens. As an outsider who has never been to the UK, I think it deemed inappropriate to criticize its decision to exit the E.U. for the reason that only the decision makers and the people favoring the Brexit should know better. Nonetheless, one thing is certain that the current Brexit fervor and all its inclusive phenomena are never a new thing.
The proverbial English isolationism or exceptionalism, a quaint sense of Englishness different from its continental counterparts, goes back to King Henry VIII’s break from the Church of Rome in 1532. His unquenchable passion for Anne Boleyn, while still married to Catherine of Aragon, led him to bold separation from the Church of Rome, the Pan-European, supranational ancestor of the EU and the Leviathan of Christendom, which would disallow his divorce from his wife who was an ardent Catholic from ardent Catholic Spain. With an audacious proclamation of being the Head of Church of England, Henry VIII ordered a confiscation of the lands and wherewithal of monasteries and convents all over the Island and banning of professing the papist religion to his subjects from the Duke to the Butcher. Furthermore, the king constructed Royal Navy to remind himself and his subjects that England was Fortress bound by watery demarcation. In this manner, Henry VIII gained the absolute jurisdiction over the ecclesiastical as well as political matters and rejected any foreign authority within England. In fact, the substantial consequence of all of it is the king’s creation of England – not Great Britain (excluding Northern Ireland) or the United Kingdom (including Northern Ireland) – as a national and cultural identity, firmly entrenched in religious, political, and cultural sensibilities of the English that we frequently associate.
In view of Henry VIII’s schismatic separation from the Church of Rome, today’s Brexit movement is a historical reprise of the English exceptionalism that has something to do with its geographical characteristic as an island that shaped the particular national character known as “Englishness.” Hence, Henry VIII’s establishment of the Church of England can be regarded as the forerunner of Brexit today and the invention of the cultural sensibilities encompassing all things English deeply embedded in its national character. With this in mind, we can look at the Brexit phenomenon in a more sensible and balanced perspective and understand that history is not a thing of the past but an ongoing process that moves on within its cultural legacies for centuries.
Author’s note: this is based upon my reading of an article about ”Henry VIII’ s invention of England” from this month’s issue of BBC History. Knowing one’s history can quell blatant antipathy. Hence this essay.