The Third Leader: Our other island story

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The Independent Online

The trouble with history is that it just won't stay still. There you are, happy with the version you remember acquiring, with varying diligence and attention, particularly on slumbrous afternoons like yesterday's, at school. And then, blow you if Professor Schama or Dr Starkey, drawing on fresh research, isn't telling you something else entirely.

The Anglo Saxons, for example. You know them. Stolid, uncomplicated farmers from Germany, came over when the Romans left. Given a terrible time, first by those vicious Vikings, and then by the arrogant Normans, when all they wanted was a quiet life enlivened every so often by a couple of meads and a few verses of Beowulf.

My doubts began when I read that the Vikings were, in fact, simply traders with a direct negotiating manner; and that the Normans were, actually, French Vikings. And now yet further complications arise with revelations about how beastly the Saxons were to the Britons, imposing an apartheid system on them. And that after what the Romans had already done to the poor Brits. One might begin to think that all invaders behave badly.

But, let us, as they say in the world of sport, take the positives. The Brits, whose name we all take, whatever the qualification, come out increasingly well (although Boudicca, exceptionally, clearly had anger management issues). Gentle, dreaming on the margins, uncomplaining and uninvading, parents to all that we think of as the Celtic gifts of wit and fancy, creators of such sophistications as Stonehenge and the Arthurian myth: not a bad model. Now then, who's got the dirt on the Jutes?

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