4 other times in history we had a stab at ‘Brexit’

by Richard D Simmons | 11.01.2019

For some, March 30 will be hailed as Brexit “liberation day”. For others, if the government’s deal goes through, it will be the exact opposite: a day of “vassalage”. Amongst the hyperbole of both sides, it is often forgotten that 2019 will not be this island’s first attempt at “Brexit”. Here are four others from history.

Pirate Brexit (AD 287?)

Carausius was an admiral of the Roman Empire with a taste for suppressing pirates and putting the booty in his own pocket. When he was about to be brought to book, he fled to Britannia and usurped the Emperor! The antiquarian Rev Stuckley, most likely basing his claims on 9th century chronicler Nennius, heroised Carausius as a great British leader, building a waterway from York to Peterborough (untrue) and suppressing the Picts and Scots (also likely untrue).

More likely, having failed to do a deal with Rome to make himself one of a triumvirate of emperors and reintegrate Britannia to the Roman trading system, Carausius was murdered by his finance minister Allectus in AD 293. The whole Brexit-style enterprise failed in AD296.

Supply Chain & Monetary Brexit (AD 410)

The end of Roman Britain around AD 410 shares many similarities with an extreme “no deal” Brexit. The Roman Army left, taxes stop being paid, the need for coin to fund the army disappeared, links to the Empire’s unified supply chains finally broke and the Britannia “single market” ceased over the next 50 to 100 years. The pace of change varied across the country, but the pattern is similar. Activity retreated to the aristocratic rural estates whilst towns declined. Agriculture strengthened but industries dependent upon supply chains and a monetary economy faded away. Civic structures broke down to be replaced by “islands” of authority centred around specific estates, and eventually invaders start to take control.

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Legal Brexit (AD 1530s)

A restless Henry VIII demanded a “wife change” for both dynastic and personal reasons. Facing an obdurate Papacy and no divorce, he used his minister Thomas Cromwell, a trained lawyer, to effect the change. This Brexit, while successful legally, soon stirred trouble as the ending of the monastic welfare system and threat to local customs stoked up bitter division and rebellion. This trend magnified through the reigns of Edward VI and Mary I. Even draconian rumour laws and regular executions could not quell the unrest.

Pragmatic Brexit (AD 1558-1603)

Upon her accession, Elizabeth I undertook a new break with the Continent known as the Elizabethan Settlement. By working through individuals with local knowledge and relationships, this Brexit insulated England from the European conflict of the second half of the 16th Century. For example, when Margaret of Parma closed the crucial Antwerp Cloth Market in 1563, Elizabeth had an alternative that had already been arranged by English entrepreneur George Needham.

Some yearn for Brexit to deliver a repeat of the Elizabethan Golden Age. Perhaps they should recall that the Virgin Queen’s achievements came through pragmatism and working with those around her rather than bombast and bluster. Of course, Elizabeth’s “Brexit” was to defend her people from a hostile, war-torn continent – not off the back of over 40 years of unprecedented peace with our neighbours!

Richard Simmons is a researcher at the University of Hertfordshire who has co-authored “Tales of Brexit Past and Present” published in December 2018 with Professor Nigel Culkin who is also at the University of Hertfordshire.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

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