The claim that the geographically insular nature of the British Isles has laid some sort of material foundation for cultural and political exceptionalism may have some basis in historical reality. Indeed, this was the sort of debate British Marxists in the 1970s explored in conceptual detail, often under the moniker of the ‘peculiarities’ of the nation. Yet treating the sea encircling the islands not as a moat but as an effective bridge to continental communities might deliver a better sense of the permeability and synergies evident in the political, religious and intellectual communities and ideas shared between Britain and mainland Europe. Whether exploring and defending communal notions of Protestant truth, exchanging innovative ideas about the natural world, or articulating defences of the ancient constitution and political liberties, thinkers, institutions and ideas were shared across a collective European heritage. It is no accident that the primary agency for encouraging the movement of students and staff across the EU today is named after the preeminent Dutch humanist, and some time fellow of Queens College, Cambridge, Desiderius Erasmus.
Over the centuries, British universities have attracted, valued and profited from a long list of European minds, from Erasmus to his compatriot Isaac Dorislaus (the latter helpfully briefing for the trial of Charles I). For their part, Anglophone authors travelled to the great universities of France, the Netherlands and Germany. The great ferment of ideas which brought Europe to the brink of modernity was underpinned by a European Republic of Letters and intellectual exchange. After 1700, the British Isles became a haven for refugees from persecution and intolerance. The Huguenot heritage has wielded ongoing influences in the world of ideas, technology and manufacture ever since.
The Stuart Age, of course, was not one of tranquility and conservative institutional stability but an age of revolution, brutal civil war, and innovation. As Andrew Marvell commented, the world was cast into a new mould. A series of brutal civil wars which caused hundreds of thousands of military and civilian casualties destroyed the monarchy, the Church, and divine right culture. Although the memories of that radical tradition have been systematically occluded in public culture despite the continuity of purpose in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and the last British Revolution of 1776, we would be historically deluded to claim an unbroken succession for the monarchy. Even the 1701 Act of Succession cautiously underpinned the contingency of dynastic legacy in determining the next suitable branch for a rational and Protestant monarchy.
The British tradition of liberty and freedom, while finding its roots in the recovery of the significance of the Magna Carta moment of 1215, of course not only authorised the rule of law and proper judicial process, but also, and perhaps more significantly, became a protean icon of resistance, protest and contestation whether invoked by Sir Edward Coke against Charles I, John Wilkes against George III, or Darcus Howe against a racist Metropolitan Police force. Britain may have stood alone at points in its history, but when it did so it was in the name of a set of wider and cosmopolitan European projects and principles.
Justin Champion is Professor of the Early Modern History Ideas at Royal Holloway, University of London and Chair of the Historical Association. His publications include Republican Learning: John Toland and the Crisis of Christian Culture, 1696 – 1722 (MUP, 2009)