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State and Nation Building in England

Forschungsarbeit 2012 16 Seiten

Geschichte Europa - and. Länder - Neueste Geschichte, Europäische Einigung


Contents Page

I. Introduction

II. Was England a Feudal State?

III. The English Nation-State

IV. Liberalism, Nationalism and Mass Democracy

V. Conclusion

I. Introduction

It can be argued that the states in Europe are a historical construct and the result of many factors, including feudalism and wars over sovereignty. England as a state, for example, was shaped into a state when in around 1000 A.D the Vikings conquered the land, and unified it into the region that we call England today. England has had a diverse and complex history over the past 1000 years, since the Viking conquest, having been ruled by many different types of ruler, and has been shaped into one of the most powerful countries in the world today. This paper investigates the process of state-and nation-building in England, focusing on why and when England emerged as a state and a nation, and arguing that the English state appeared before the English nation. It is essential to define the concepts of state and nation, which many people use synonymously, to fully understand the process of English state- and nation-building.

The term state has been defined by Simon Roberts, an established author, as ‘a supreme authority, ruling over a defined territory, who is recognised as having the power to make decisions… and is able to enforce such decisions’ (1979, p.32). However, defining the term nation has many contrasting interpretations. The two of the most significant views on defining a state are Gellner’s modernist theory and Smith’s evolutionist perception. Gellner argues that the state is a modern invention, while Smith believes that the nation is a long-standing concept. Gellner furthers his argument by stating that nation and nationalism emerged in the nineteenth century, and is therefore a product of modernity. He continues to argue that the conversion to high culture, another product of modernisation, formed a nation through norms and values, an educational system and one accepted common language throughout the land (Gellner, p9, 1994). Smith strongly believes that the nation has existed throughout history, and believes that the bounds of solidarity based on common values resulted in the emergence of the state, and finally nationalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This paper will examine the emergence of the state and English nation-building while analysing these contrasting definitions of a nation. The third concept used in this paper is nation state, term used to describe the unity of nation and state, since the two are not synonymous terms.

This paper outlines the emergence of England during the Middle Ages, until the outbreak of World War One in 1914, starting with the Viking conquests between the years 800-1000 A.D. Secondly, this paper considers the role and influence that feudalism (and its rise and decline) since the Norman Conquest, had on the emergence of England. Thirdly this paper will also analyse the role of Absolutism in the process of the state formation of England.

The Viking Conquest

In the eight century, England did not exist as a geographical concept, and the area we now call England was divided into the three kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex. All three of these kingdoms were inhabited by the Anglo-Saxons. The Vikings conquered both Northumbria and Mercia, for Athelstan of Wessex (925-939) to recapture them both from the Vikings. Athelstan was the first to reign over a large area of united England as first King of England. Once the three Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were unified into one large English kingdom, it was possible for the emergence of an English state and nation.

II. Was England a Feudal State?

Norman England

It can be argued that Feudalism in England was the initial point of centralisation that resulted in the emergence of an English nation state (Schulze, 1996). On the other hand, it can be argued that feudalism seems to be contrasting to the idea of modern territorial states, with the medieval system of intersecting powers and decentralised sovereignty. In 1066 William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy invaded and occupied England. He took the crown after his victory in the Battle of Hastings. William then introduced Feudalism to England, and removed the English upper class, in place of his loyal Norman landlords. He re-allocated the land and gave the land to his lords and Anglo-Saxon landholders. This created a bond of loyalty between him and the lords, and also became the foundations of the feudal vassalage system. This meant that he could offer access to his vassals, in exchange for financial and military support.

Despite the power William had as King, he relied heavily on his lords to ensure his laws were enforced de facto laws, and to collect taxes. William also relied on the support of the Church, as the people of England highly valued the Church. If the Church did not support the reign of a King, then this meant it was highly likely that the people would not support the reign either. This meant that there were obligations as King, which led to the decentralisation of power, and sovereignty in a state of estates. The three Estates (the clergy, the nobility and the burghers and merchants) opposed the crown and tried to gain power.

This was a vital development for the English nation-building because major Anglo-Saxon rebellions against Norman rule were halted. Also despite Williams attempts to introduce Latin and French, the Normans and Anglo-Saxons had united into one society, and English became the chosen language. Without this unification of the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans, it can be argued that there would not have been the continuation of the English language as the dialect and emergence of England.

As well as the adoption of the English language, feudalism was also important for the emergence of the state as the town charters enabled the peasants and merchants to generate their own income, and a national wealth. The result of the conflicts between the monarchy and the nobility later determined the type of government that was developed in England. Feudalism also marked the beginning of an administrative system in England; this was a crucial step for the building of state administration and institutional government. However, it is important to understand that Feudalism was only a step towards the emergence of the English state and nation; neither an English state nor nation existed yet.

The Rise of Medieval Parliament.

The Middle Ages were filled with wars and conflicts due to the instabilities produced by both the crown and the Estates wanting to gain more power. This struggle for supremacy led to a collapse of central authority that led to the civil war, known as ‘The Anarchy’ (1139-1153) (Black,2000, pp.62-103). When Henry II took the throne, he made England part of the Angevin Empire, also controlling significant parts of France. This would have helped the feeling of unity between the Normans and the Anglo-Saxons in England (Black,2000, p.64). However, England was still not a nation, as we understand the term today, despite this feeling of belonging because there was no equality or civil society in England. The Middle Ages in England certainly developed a national consciousness, as the common law recognised the right of individuals, although politics in England remained limited to the upper classes and the ruling classes (Black,2000, pp.64-66). Wormald states feeling of ‘Englishness’ was common (Wormald,2005, p.118). He argues the main reason for this, is the interdependence of the King and his subjects. The indisputable authority of the king’s laws assisted in the formation of the governmental institutions and stability in the future English political and national identity (2005, p.67).



ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
471 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Universiteit Maastricht
State Nation England feudalism Liberalism Nationalism United Kingdom Britain Mass Democracy Vikings Norman England Military Revolution



Titel: State and Nation Building in England