Peter Jones: Questioning what the English have done for us
While other European countries seem happy to celebrate the contribution made by foreign nationalities, it’s not for the Scots, writes Peter Jones
So large does the fate of the euro loom in the headlines, it has almost become synonymous with Europe itself. Conventional thinking now tends to assume that if the euro fails, then Europe (or the EU at least) fails. But Europe, a couple of weeks in France have taught me, is more about people than it is about great projects.
The message was brought home to me at a remarkable local event, une grande spectacle as the French say. It commemorated the battle of Castillon, fought on the banks of the Dordogne river not far from Bordeaux in 1453. It was unknown to me, but it is a significant historical event in French and European history.
In a geopolitical nutshell, the French beat the English and pushed them out of Aquitaine, a big region stretching from just north of Bordeaux south to the Pyrenees, which the English had ruled for some 300 years. It ended a period known as the Hundred Years War between England and France.
In a great people nutshell, Charles VII reclaimed Aquitaine for the French crown from Henry VI of England, who had ruled the French province courtesy of Eleanor of Aquitaine, only daughter of the last Duke of Aquitaine, having married the soon-to-be Henry II of England in 1152.
To a Scot, that background had obvious parallels with Bannockburn. So I went expecting a big outpouring of French nationalism at English expense.
How wrong could I have been – the nutshell version is completely misleading. What was presented was the people’s history. Yes, there was some celebration of the French king’s victory, but the people lamented more the English dead, especially their general, John Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury, who died on the battlefield.
The people, it turned out, did not regard the English as hated occupiers, but rather liked them, so much so that various counts of Gascony lined up with their soldiers alongside Talbot. A booklet about the battle produced by the local historical society refers to Talbot’s troops as the Anglo-Gascon army.
The programme notes explained: “It must be appreciated that the long English occupation had brought with it neither misery nor oppression. On the contrary, the English kings granted to the local populace a series of increasingly liberalising charters, giving them more rights and more autonomy.
“In that way, close links based on commerce, were forged between the English throne and the people of Aquitaine.”
One of those links has left an vast legacy, for Castillon is in the heart of the St Emilion district, whose now famous wines, as did those of the entire Bordeaux region, first prospered under England’s thirst for them.
The tableaux proceed through the battle, with much charging about of cavalry, clashing of swords, and banging of fireworks to signify barrages of French cannon fire, which was Talbot’s downfall. After the obsequies for Talbot, sullen Aquitainois grudgingly salute Charles VII,
This account, apart from being a visual feast, seemed remarkably and impressively pro-English to me.
My car, like those of many Scots, sports an Ecosse sticker as I am not only proud of my Scottish background but I also imagine that the French, thanks to the Auld Alliance we all learn about in school, like Scotland but dislike England so the Ecosse brand means I get friendly rather than surly greetings from the French.
I put this to a couple of local amateur historians who were selling booklets about the battle. They looked at me as though I was deranged.
“No, no, we like the English,” they said. They told me that they had good friends among the “many” English who now live in Castillon.
Maybe in other parts of France? They thought a bit. Perhaps in Paris, they suggested. Politicians don’t much like the English, and maybe the waiters in restaurants, said one. Huh, waiters in Paris are rude to everyone, said the other.
A mayor of a small commune with whom I played golf said that if it wasn’t for the English, both the people with second homes and those who have moved there permanently, his village would be pretty dead.
That’s true of a lot of villages around here, including our own. About a quarter of the permanent population is English, perhaps about a tenth is Dutch, and amongst the second-homers, there are also some Scots, including ourselves. The National Front periodically tries to stir up resentment but happily, completely fails.
Our closest neighbours – Anglo-Scots – say they have talked to French locals about their villages being “invaded” by Brits, and tell us the most common reaction is: “ Well, you are only taking back what was yours for three centuries.”
At the weekend medieval fete in the village, all the nationalities pitched in to make it, despite a heavy downpour, a great success.
This seems to me to be what Europe ought to be all about. Different nationalities, equally proud of their varying histories, conscious of clashing histories but not resentful of them, mixing together.
Could we do that in Scotland? Frankly, I’m a bit dubious. If there were rural villages where up to half the population was French, would we be happy about that?
And although England has played a huge part in Scottish history, are we capable of celebrating the positive aspects of that relationship as well as marking the negatives? Look, for example, at the Scottish successes in the Olympics, all nurtured in a Team GB environment, particularly the glittering career of Sir Chris Hoy at the National Cycling Centre in Manchester.
But in the current political environment, where it is politically incorrect to suggest anything good has come out of England, I fear that the balanced generosity shown by the people of Castillon is not possible.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Thursday 20 June 2013
Temperature: 11 C to 19 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: North
Temperature: 11 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West