Geoffrey Elton traces the evolution of the English sense of nationhood and of the distinctive characteristics of England and the English that gave it form and substance through 12 centuries. The result is a one-volume history of the English nation from its origins to the 1990s. The author shows how the English absorbed other elements into the Germanic origins of their language, thus creating an unusually flexible means of discourse. That the basic features of English society endured for more than a thousand years through vicissitudes that included a succession of foreign occupants of the royal power, an invasion, and two destructive civil wars, may be, the author argues, traced to two factors. The first was the early emergence of an institutional monarchy that created power, order and control. The second, made possible by the first, was a system of law that both preserved rights and liberties, and encouraged a respect for the autonomy of individual thought and action that was and remains the essential aspect of the English constitution. With the establishment of a world empire and industrialization, the English submerged into the larger nation identity called the British. The great transformations that took place in the 19th century effectively brought a close to the story of the English as a nation. At the end of the second millennium the life of this new entity is itself precarious, at once from the renewed nationalism of the Scottish and Welsh, and from the loss of sovereignty presaged by a united Europe. From these forces, the English identity may paradoxically reemerge.
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