The Conquest of England (and Those Other Nations)

The Conquest of England (and Those Other Nations)

PhD student Christian Melby (King’s College London) explores late 19th century invasion scare stories and argues a focus on England alone leaves the genre’s treatment of national identities and politics unexplored.

When the French finally, in the later 1880s, decided to vanquish Perfidious Albion, they not only decided to invade by way of Scotland, but also tried to convince the Scottish people to join them:

[I]t was soon found that the Highlanders were not to be tempted from their allegiance to the British Crown. The Bas Breton interpreters employed by the French appealed to them as kindred Celts, but their appeals were in vain…[1]

This description of Scottish loyalty is taken from an invasion-scare story written by the pseudonym “Posteritas”, titled The Siege of London. Such stories were churned out in large numbers in the years between 1871 and 1914, with Britain being downtrodden by a host of conquering armies, depending on which country relations were on lukewarm or hostile terms with at the time of publication. However, invasion-scare stories were often more preoccupied with domestic issues rather than external enemies, meaning that Britain and the British are portrayed more vividly than the invaders. As the stories were mostly written from a metropolitan and southern-English viewpoint – with English authors portraying a Great War in Little England, so to speak – it is easy to gloss over the other nations, seeing them as less important. This would be a mistake, however, as invasion-scare fiction as a genre involved all four nations in one way or another.  After all, the story that constituted ‘the break-in phase’ of the invasion-scare genre – George Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking from 1871 – was originally published by Blackwood’s Magazine, an Edinburgh journal;[2] and the perhaps best known story, The Riddle of the Sands, was written by the Englishman Erskine Childers,[3] who died in front of a firing squad as a staunch Irish nationalist.[4] In the fictional realm as well, although southern England at times seems like a veritable highway for various invading armies, the other nations are actively present.

In a number of invasion-scare stories, doubts and mistrust of the Irish are the most obvious examples of how the genre portrays different nationalities. Already in The Battle of Dorking Britain is vulnerable to invasion because of the need to station troops in disloyal Ireland, thereby further diluting the already dangerously thin red line of British troops. Ireland, in this narrative, is part of a general imperial overstretch: the disturbance in the country is presented as part of a wider imperial problem that also includes a rising in India.[5] Similarly, ‘Posteritas’ makes it clear that while the Highlanders stay loyal, Irish troops are more open to treachery: Irish artillerymen in The Siege of London set the magazine at Dover castle ablaze, enabling a French army to take the city. This is in marked contrast to the loyal inhabitants of Edinburgh, who blow up their castle only after the city has fallen to the invaders, taking many French soldiers with them in death.[6] ‘Posteritas’ contrasts Irish betrayal with Scottish and English resolve: the enemy is ‘daunted by the splendid fighting qualities and magnificent valour of English and Scotch [sic] soldiers’ as the Highlanders, ‘shouting to each other in Gaelic, made such a mad onslaught on their foes that the French lines recoiled’.[7]

Accounts like this, of English and Scottish soldiers fighting side by side, also described a Britain that was more than the sum of its parts. Writers of invasion-scare fiction, aside from stereotyping different nationalities, often specifically mentioned the impact invasion had on nations and localities of Britain. In a pamphlet written in the immediate aftermath of The Battle of Dorking, local communities come together to resist the invader, presenting a united front composed of all walks of life and from different parts of the country:

The stalwart miners of Northumberland and Durham, of Cornwall and the Welsh coal-districts; the great muscular navvies, and healthy agricultural labourers, the sharp mechanics of the manufacturing towns, and the yeomen, gentlemen, clerks – in fact everybody rushed to arms.[8]

Others even included Ireland in this united opposition, like the anonymous author of After the Battle of Dorking, also from 1871. In this pamphlet, when invaders attempt to foment rebellion in Ireland they discover that ‘like a bickering wife, HIBERNIA quarrels with her husband JOHN BULL simply because he never allows her to have another enemy; but now, having the opportunity, she has shown both her love and her fighting powers…’.  The marriage thus saved, Britain and Ireland prevails over the invaders.[9]

Invasion-scare stories primarily belonged on the Conservative side of the political spectrum, and their readers did not passively accept the arguments put forth in them. Nevertheless, the way this kind of literature described the four nations is still an indication of how a group of writers, eager to present political arguments in the guise of colourful prose, wanted their imagined invasions to impact all of Britain. A narrow focus on England alone leaves the genre’s treatment of national identities and politics unexplored, as the other nations had their melodramatic parts to play in the fictional dramas of subjugation or resistance. As the above examples suggest, while having the invaders reach the heart of England was often the climax of invasion-scare fiction of this period, it was Britain that was invaded, not just England. 

[1] Posteritas’, The Siege of London (London: Wyman & Sons, 1885), 42.

[2] I.F. Clarke, Voices Prophesying War: Future Wars 1763-3749, second edition (Oxford, 1992), 27.

[3] Erskine Childers, The Riddle of the Sands (London, 1903).

[4] Jim Ring, Erskine Childers: Author of The Riddle of the Sands (London, 1996).

[5] Anon. [George T. Chesney], The Battle of Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer (Edinburgh, 1871), 7.

[6] Posteritas’, The Siege of London, 37, 49-50.

[7] Posteritas’, The Siege of London, 65.

[8] Anon. [Charles John Stone], What Happened After the Battle of Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer. Being an Account of the Victory at Tunbridge Wells (London, [1871]), 7.

[9] [Anon.], After the Battle of Dorking; or What Became at the Invaders! (London, 1871), 14-15.

Christian Melby is a first year PhD student at King’s College London, studying British invasion scares in politics and culture between 1870 and 1914.

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