‘We have been an island for hundreds of years” – commentator on BBC news, June 2016.
While the taxis swarm around Charing Cross station, and commuters race anxiously for their trains, a Spanish queen gazes down on us from a stone monument, on an island in the forecourt. We should look up to her. Britain may have voted to leave the European Union, but the Eleanor Cross in central London serves as a reminder of the many links that bonded England to the Iberian Peninsula, centuries ago, injecting new life into the island kingdom.
In 1254, twelve-year-old Leonor—half-sister of King Alfonso the Wise—was married to the future Edward I of England. Raised in Córdoba, she brought with her to England much of the creative energy that pulsated in Andalusia, in the generation after much of the region had been overrun by Castilian armies. Just as the Eleanor Cross is emblazoned with the heraldic symbols of Castile and León, Leonor left a very Spanish stamp on England itself, introducing new and sophisticated elements into court culture. This week, in Winchester, Sara Cockerill and I told the story of the interwoven lives of the two Spanish siblings, tracing the way in which, moving away from a warrior ethos of rulership, (half-) brother and sister both embraced learning as a vital dimension of kingship and queenship. Sara described how Leonor not only excelled in her business dealings, and in estate management, but oversaw a scriptorium where the vitality of the Alfonsine “renaissance” in Spain was mirrored.
English xenophobia—the bulldog ‘island mentality’–has a long history. “The English,” wrote the fifteenth-century biographer Diego de Games, “have a liking for no other nation, and if it happen that some valiant knight visits them…the English try to seek some way of dishonouring them or of offering them an affront”. Leonor’s English subjects were not always enamored of her sophisticated Spanish ways. This xenophobia would later be compounded by Hundred Years’ War and by the Great Schism. Richard II would order his subjects to suspend any journey to recently-excommunicated Spain.
But Britain’s island status, in the Middle Ages, did not generally mean isolation. The contributors to María Bullón- Fernández’s edited volume on England and Iberia in the Middle Ages suggest many ways in which the two regions were inextricably interlinked. Shared participation in crusading activities had brought both Englishmen and Spaniards together ever since the 1147 siege of Lisbon. Pilgrimage, too, gave hundreds of thousands of English men and women—the real-life equivalents of the Wife of Bath—direct knowledge of life across the Pyrenees. The sea was no barrier; quite to the contrary, maritime highways meant that the port cities of northern Europe were enmeshed with the Mediterranean. Just as, walking through Soho today, we find dozens of Spanish shops within a few blocks (Mango, Camper, Jamón Jamón, and a plethora of other tapas bars), Spanish wine merchants thrived in fourteenth-century London. And Geoffrey Chaucer’s greatest achievement—the Canterbury Tales—would have been unthinkable without his familiarity with continental influences: as R.F. Yeager points out in his essay in the volume, Chaucer (son of a wine-merchant) may have picked up a smattering of Spanish even before he traveled to Navarre in the 1360s.
Dynastic unions, like Leonor’s marriage to Edward, were the tip of this transnational iceberg. Migration, international travel, and cross-cultural exchange (often in the context of colonial expansion) were hallmarks of this foundational period of English history. If we want to “get our country back”, we need to bring it closer to Europe. We have indeed been an island for hundreds of years–slightly more, perhaps. But to be an island need not primarily imply an anxious patrolling of frontiers. It should mean the freedom to reach out in a dozen different directions, as we have done since ever the Middle Ages.