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Letter: British Empire begins at home

British Empire begins at home

Sir: I hope the new Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol will find room for a more thoughtful account of the term "British Empire" than is apparent from Peter Popham's description (article, 6 February).

For much of the "500-year history" to which the museum's curator alludes, "the British Empire" meant not far-flung dominions but the rule and sovereignty first of England itself, then later of the British Isles in their various political constitutions. As the great G M Young observes, this older sense, with no particular overseas reference, prevailed as late as the 1830s, when McCulloch's Statistical Account of the British Empire gave more space to Oxford than Canada (Victorian England: Portrait of an Age, p32). It is not until 1857 that we find Thomas Hughes, in Tom Brown's Schooldays, celebrating that Empire "on which the sun never sets".

For Henry VIII in 1533, the "realm of England" was "an empire" because that meant it was "free from the authority of any foreign potentates". Today, when the constitution of the United Kingdom is in question, and half England is roused by a perceived European threat to "British" sovereignty, these less glamorous domestic aspects of imperial history have as great a claim on our attention as evocations of the comparatively brief period when maps of the world were covered in red.


St Andrews, Fife