Englishness and the Historians 1986-2016

14. November 2018 19:00

Prof. Robert Colls

The English have been thinking about themselves politically since England began but in modern times a period of intense reflection (1880-1920) was followed by a period of relative quiet (1920-1940) which in turn was followed by a period of near total silence after 1945. By the mid 1960s, “social history” had emerged as the most engaging way to think about the past. It was a moment when historians were contemplating their replacement by the friendly hand of Sociology, when social class and modularization had become the dominant conceptual platforms. Everybody wanted to study in a “workshop”; not a college. Everybody wanted to study Lancashire handloom weavers or Dorset labourers; not statesmen or soldiers. I went through my history degree at Sussex University – seen as the newest of the new universities – without studying the history of a single nation state including my own. We were interested in the flags being hauled up in the new developing countries but we were not much interested in the Union flag being hauled down except of course when Pete Townshend of The Who draped it round his shoulders in strictly ironic fashion. When I started university teaching in 1973 there was no continuous narrative history of the English or the British that I felt I could trust. History students knew more about “hegemony” and “social control” than they knew about the Union, Parliament, and the Constitution. In some ways this prevails inspite of the resurgence of interest in national identity. Up to 2016 at any rate, most of my undergraduate students didn’t know the difference between the Restoration and the Reformation.

This paper will consider the sudden revival of interest in Englishness and national and regional identities from the mid 1980s, and some of the reasons behind it.


Robert Colls is research professor in the International Centre for Sports History and Culture at De Montfort University in Leicester. Before that he was Professor of English History at the University of Leicester. He has held visiting fellowships at the universities of Oxford, Yale, and Dortmund, and with the Leverhulme Trust. In 1986, along with Philip Dodd, he edited Englishness. Politics and Letters, first of a new wave of histories of national identity. In 2002 he published Identity of England and in 2013 George Orwell English Rebel. He is currently writing a history of sport due to be published by Oxford University Press in 2018/2019.

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