Britain is still reeling from its shocking decision to exit the European Union. Global markets are struggling to adjust to the new uncertain geo-political landscape. Spectators across the world are watching and waiting.
Will Britain’s decision to jump ship inspire other members of the European Union to follow suit? Will Scotland assert independence from England? The full implications of this historic moment are hard to predict. But the longer history of independence in Britain helps make sense of this astonishing event.
Independence is, of course, something that the American colonies declared against Britain in 1776. This was followed by a series of other independence movements from its maritime empire, charting its decline in the global world order across the twentieth century.
But ‘Independence’ was actually first coined as a phrase (and vigorously defended) in London. During the mid-seventeenth century Britain and Ireland were engaged in a series of civil wars. By 1649, this culminated in England with a radical Revolution: the first ever trial and execution of a king for treason. Those responsible for killing King Charles I were known at the time as ‘Independents’.
In some sense, these English ‘Independents’ were no different from others who followed after. Like modern day Brexit supporters, they were teed off. They protested against any sense of outside domination over the will of the people. And they justified their radical political interventions by making claims to popular rule.
It has been thought that Independents first emerged out of the revolutionary circumstances of the mid-seventeenth century. Historians believed these ideas and actions were inconceivable outside of the extraordinary turbulence of the times. Even here there is a modern day parallel to be made with concerns about global security and the acute threat posed by terrorist attacks on international society.
All this held true until a recent discovery. Newly uncovered manuscripts at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, reveal the secret birth of independence decades before the outbreak of the English civil wars. The puritan leader Henry Jacob explicitly defended the idea of independence as a new way of thinking about freedom. Exactly 400 years ago, in 1616, he secretly established the first independent church on English soil in Southwark, London.
In a series of underground debates, Jacob argued that it was not enough for individuals to be ordinarily left alone to do as they pleased. Instead, he argued that they must be guaranteed freedom from interference in matters of individual conscience and faith. Here he fused classical ideas about civil liberty with New Testament Scriptures to argue for the natural right of individuals to determine spiritual matters for themselves.
This pivotal move stretched the boundaries of religious freedom across both social classes and the genders. It also fed into new ideas about political liberty. For instance, during the English Revolution Jacob’s followers drew inspiration from his assertion of ‘Independence’. They also used his arguments to make new claims for the ability and right of individuals to make political judgments themselves.
But Jacob’s significance is even more telling: he tapped into English identity itself. He mounted a case for England’s political and spiritual ‘Independence’ by turning to the example of King Henry VIII’s break with the Church of Rome in 1531. This helped him to spin a particular version of a historic myth: England’s inherent independence from its British, Irish, and continental European neighbors.
There is more than a grain of truth behind this myth: England’s Reformation initiated by Henry VIII. This was later reinvented by his daughter Queen Elizabeth I in 1559. England’s rejection of Roman Catholicism under the Queen was coupled with a refusal to conform to German Lutheran and Swiss Reformed models of Protestantism.
The Church of England instead combined Roman Catholic and Protestant elements to create a unique version of Protestantism which developed into the Anglican tradition. This fed into English anticipation of its unique role in world history. Convinced of this special role, an early apologist went so far as to boast ‘God is English’.
So independence runs deep in the English psyche. But if we return to this secret history of the birth of independence, we uncover another side to the story. This is a story which is rarely told. It is a story about the fierce opposition against the idea of independence in England from its first appearance.
‘Independency’ was initially coined as a derogatory term of abuse. Church of England defendants and Puritans alike condemned the idea as a ‘disease’. They warned that it would inevitably lead to anarchy.
Universally scandalous when it first appeared, critics warned that Independence would unleash social unrest across English society. They predicted fractures throughout the British Isles. They threatened that it would shatter the bonds of wider global society.
Independence in Britain has a much longer history of polarizing opinion over British identity. And it was precisely that friction which caused the idea of independence to irreversibly change the course of history. Its profound ramifications would ultimately stretch far beyond the British Isles and the seventeenth century.