By Jonathan Woolley
“Rule Britannia/Britannia rules the Waves
Britons never never never shall be slaves.”
These are words I grew up with. To be sung at sporting events and public celebrations, while waving a little plastic Union Jack and being carried along with the crowd. Even if you haven’t come across them before, you will have heard the tune: it immediately calls to mind the maritime, stubborn spirit of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We will not be conquered – we fought off the Germans, twice! We stand for freedom. We invented democracy. Did you know we banned slavery before anyone else?
It’s catchy, this sort of thing. It rings out in the public sphere, and fades till it becomes a hum, till it becomes part of the white noise that lingers in the imagination even when all else is silent. Britons never shall be slaves. If our nation were one of the Seven Kingdoms, and the House of Windsor were our liege-lords, these would be their words. You don’t need to know much about blowing gales(1) to know the power that such songs command.
I can remember, when I was small, I just took all this on board. I’d see my mother proudly singing along while watching the Last Night of the Proms. Afterwards, she explained to me why they were important. We Brits have a proud naval tradition, she said, and that protects us from our enemies.
Rule Britannia! was written in 1740 by a Scottish poet called James Thomson. It was part of a production about Alfred the Great – the original patron of the English navy – written to mirror a spate of recent victories scored by the British navy against the Spaniards. It struck a chord, so to speak, and rapidly entered into the popular songbook. Nowadays, nobody really remembers the full lyrics: it’s just the short refrain above that is sung, with great ardour, over and over and over.
It is true, of course, that British sea power has been instrumental in protecting Britain and Northern Ireland from foreign invasion. From the sinking of the Spanish Armada onwards, there has been a sort of popular superstition amongst the British people that the seas and skies themselves defend our island – a tsunami of the occident – with our navy standing guard in their stead. Our seas are to us what Russian winters are to Moscow. Our navy made Operation Sea Lion a pipe dream, unless our air force was removed first.
But the last bit of the words – the indefinite proclamation, never shall be slaves – is a darker matter. Because it isn’t true. Not even a bit of it.
Britons have been – and still are – frequently enslaved. Whether we’re talking about entire Cornish villages being carted off by pirates from the Barbary Coast, or modern-day debt slaves in quiet suburban streets, the ardent claim made by Rule Britannia! rings rather hollow. And the history of the British Empire’s relationship to slavery is anything but noble. I suppose it could be read as aspirational; that slavery is inimicable with British values, even if the reality it somewhat different.
But beyond this, there is another story to be told. A sad one, with a horrible ending.
“Briton” – as a demonym – has deep roots. It stretches back far into the past, to the Priteni, or the People of the Forms (2) – the indigenous inhabitants of the British Isles in the Iron Age. I use the term “indigenous” advisedly, because the Priteni were progressively colonised by a bellicose foreign Empire: that of Ancient Rome. And a big, and often neglected part of that history, is slavery. Slaves were routinely exported from Britain, being listed by Strabo amongst other goods that were traded from there. Like many minor powers on the fringes of imperial players, it seems, the Ancient British chiefdoms were driven to enslave one another as a way of making money. Despite this, Cicero informs us that Britons would “not fetch fancy prices” in Roman slave markets, because they were too lazy. Cicero also observed in a letter to a friend that, after the conquest,
“It’s also become clear that there isn’t an ounce of silver in the island [Britain] nor any prospect of booty except slaves.”
But that was incentive enough for Rome. Slaves were the hydrocarbons of their day – their expropriated labour the primary energy source in Roman agriculture, industry, and domestic life. And just like our present-day Empires, Rome needed a constant supply of energy to keep itself going.
Historians like Tacitus open a window on what the invasion and conquest of Britain would have meant for the indigenous population: if you resisted, thousands of your people would be slain in battle, with the rest being taken into slavery. If you did not, you would be forced to pay tribute to Rome, and would be utterly subject to Roman laws. Your body and person would be free, but your spirit, wealth and society would be forever subject to the Pax Romana.
Within the narrative of conventional British patriotism, this was no bad thing. This was not enslavement, this was progress. Rome brought civilisation – literacy, underfloor heating, professionalised crafts, olive oil, wine, and – eventually – Christianity. The Roman armies protected the Iron Age tribes from one another; pacifying them. In this imagining, the ancient Druids – the spiritual ancestors of modern Druidry – were superstitious, murderous zealots; justifiably massacred on the Isle of Angelsey. History is written by the victors, of course; as such, it is often so much blood libel.
The Britons, of course, never threw off the Roman yoke. They never again were the Priteni – the People of the Forms. Many shaved their faces, put away their ink, and replaced their roundhouses with villas, their trousers for togas. Their wild and mysterious gods were weighted down with stone temples, then forgotten entirely when the Christ came. And Rome did bring peace, and opportunities for trade. The population grew, and lifespans increased. Winston Churchill claimed
“For nearly 300 years Britain, reconciled to the Roman system, enjoyed in many respects the happiest, most comfortable, and most enlightened times its inhabitants have ever had.”
As Churchill was an ardent imperialist, such a reading is unsurprising. For as with all Empires, the peace and properity of late-Roman Britain was bought and paid for with tens of thousands of lives that were taken in war, or swallowed by the slave trade, then promptly ended in the lead mines, galleys and plantations of Gaul, Spain, and Italy.
But the Pax was not to last in Britain. After 300 years, the Roman Army retreated to defend Gaul, leaving Britain defenseless and – crucially – without a source of currency. Deprived of military wages, and so no longer able to trade, the now highly specialised British economy collapsed. Whereas before ordinary people knew how to support themselves – making their own utensils, growing their own food, and building their own houses – within the Empire, they had access to specialist craftsmen who could provide all these goods. Once the money supply was cut off however, people could neither buy, nor make, nor grow the commodities they needed. The population crashed, with hundreds of thousands of people starving or dying of disease and exposure, simply because the Imperial economic system upon which they relied had suddenly spat them out, and they no longer knew how to cope without it. Much like the Western Australian Government currently; the Romans stayed long enough for everyone to become reliant upon them, before pulling out and leaving the population to fend for themselves. As Professor Ronald Hutton recently stated in a talk at a Lugnasadh celebration: “The paradise of late Roman Britain became a nightmare.”
The Roman Occupation was a time when Britons were – both collectively and personally – slaves. We were violently chained to a grand imperial machine, exploited, then rendered utterly dependent upon that machine for very our survival. True, that experience was varied – some were formally enslaved, others were free citizens of the Empire. But our liberty was utterly destroyed. So much so, that Rome hadn’t just stolen the sons, daughters, grain, gold, and sovereignty of Britain – it had stolen and corrupted its very soul. No longer did the Britons – as the warchief Calcagus once had, in Tacitus’ imagining – long for freedom from the oppression of vicious empires. The trauma of our abandonment scarred that sentiment, so over generations it would be perverted into a desire to become a new Rome ourselves. Britons never shall be slaves. So we shall make slaves of all others.
It’s over a thousand years later now, and a lot of water has passed under the bridge. The British people are no longer a collection of tribes preparing to fight for their lives, insulted as “barbarians”, and soon to be broken into death and slavery. We are the Romans now. Or, at least, we were. For a time. But our Empire fell, as Empires always do, and everyone who fell under Britannia’s long shadow has been left to pick up the pieces.
We Pagans look to our ancestors for comfort, support, protection, and advice. The Gods can be fickle, but our ancestors – as our kin – can be trusted before all others to look out for us and to teach us true lessons. This story from the past of the British people is pretty baleful knowledge. It isn’t a happy story of triumph, of a Sceptered Isle safe from slavery. It is a story, first and foremost, of the ancestral Britons’ total defeat – their subjection, and eventual decimation. Some died early, some died later, but the overriding theme is the total loss of sovereignty. What’s more, this didn’t just happen once in Britain’s early history, but several times in the various successor nations of Britain – from the Norman Conquest, to the Highland Clearances.
Some people respond to this realisation by creating a kind of victimhood narrative; in place of patriotic bluster, they nurse xenophobia – describing present-day immigration, often by people of colour, as an “invasion”; or trying to conflate the experience of present-day white people with present-day indigenous communities, who still live under a different sort of Pax. But to respond in this way is both foolish, and immoral. Foolish because it ignores the intervening history, and immoral because it justifies the continued persecution of indigenous peoples, and migrants.
These instances of colonalism in Britain’s past foreshadowed the creation of the British Empire centuries later. Rome set a bloody precedent across Europe; its lost golden age driving the ambition of generations of latter day Caesars. The people such conquering visions displaced often ended up in non-Western countries, replicated the abuses they had suffered on indigenous populations. It isn’t so strange that peoples when utterly conquered should themselves then seek to conquer; and sing songs about their own liberty. Most bullies are themselves subjected to abuse, and cover their weakness with ostenstatious displays of strength. But to understand this should never serve to justify or excuse bullying behaviour. The fact that Britain was once colonised in the past, can never be used to excuse present-day colonialism or racism. Instead, it should encourage us to do the opposite.
The irony is that both patriotic and victimhood narratives commit the same error – dishonouring and forgetting our ancestors’ struggle against the Roman oppressor. Putting Rome on a pedestal exemplifying a lost Golden Age, ignores the suffering of those who originally fought against her. And pretending that this idolising of Rome hasn’t happened in our more recent past, merely enables us to ignore those who suffer now. As Pagans, it is our duty and privilege to remember this past, to be inspired by it to show solidarity and support to those oppressed in the modern day, and to oppose Empire in the present, in memory of all our beloved dead who fell beneath its jack-booted oppression. Anything less is not only morally wrong, but leaves us chained to the ghosts of our once-conquerors. We must break those chains. Then, and only then, will the claim that there never shall be slaves ring true.
(1) Blowing a gale – The English word “gale”, referring to a strong wind, comes from the Middle English word galen, which means to sing, scream, cry, or practice enchantment. As such, when Asatruar sing galdr, we English might be said to blow gales.
(2) This etymology is believed to be a Gaulish description of British people, reflecting their tendency to tattoo themselves with blue pigment.
Jonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.
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