Flat White

The first Brexit

7 June 2017

3:37 PM

7 June 2017

3:37 PM

In coming days the world will watch the UK elections and ponder the result.

And following on, inevitably, people will think Brexit and its political implications.

But – Brexit isn’t new. What we’re watching is actually the second Brexit, the severing, politically, culturally and economically of Britain from continental Europe and the resulting fallout.

The first Brexit took place around 1534, in the reign of Henry VIII (yes, he of the Six Wives) and mainly religious, as it centred around Henry’s desire to divorce his queen, Katharine of Aragon, to marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn.

To do so meant pitting himself and England (the Union was yet to come), against the power of the Papacy and the emperor Charles, who, unfortunately for Henry, was Katharine’s nephew.


Back then, instead of a bureaucratic power based in Brussels, the power was based in Rome, an entity that ordained rules and regulations for everything from eating fish on Fridays (Italian fishermen had fallen on hard times) to ‘Peter’s Pence’ tribute money collected from the peasantry and sent to Rome, and the sale of ‘Papal Dispensations’ the selling of forgiveness for sins committed.

The Reformation in 1534, in England, enabled Henry to turn from the Church in Rome — creating the new ‘Church of England’ which he and his successors have headed to this day — and bring in a new order of economic, cultural and religious thinking, taking power from Rome and giving it to the English Crown.

Henry’s Act forbidding Papal Dispensations made this clear; England was to be ‘free from subjection to any man’s laws, but only to such as have been devised made, and ordained within this realm, for the wealth of the same.’  This, then, was the first Brexit.

There was, of course, blowback, the most serious, in the reign of Henry’s daughter Elizabeth, the threatened invasion by the Spanish Armada. England prevailed, going on to build its empire, from the American colonies to the pacific settlements of Australia and New Zealand and the plantations of the West Indies. A different mindset was created, one that centuries later would manifest itself in joke headlines like ‘Fog in Channel: Europe isolated.’

The spirit of the Henry’s Reformation sparked up Leave voters, despite the efforts of Remainers. A Queensland-born friend, married to a Welsh sheep farmer, emailed her satisfaction that British cheese-makers who produce Brie and Camembert-type cheese, previously disallowed from using those names, might now do so without fear of reprisals from the EU. “Before, we could only call cheeses like Wensleydale and Cheddar our own, because they were British.”

In 1994 the UK Milk Marketing Board was disbanded, after EU pressure. British dairy farmers are now hoping Brexit will provide opportunities to make Britain great again, at least where milk and cheeses are concerned.

The first Brexit produced a wave of new trade, cosmopolitanism and yes, influence for Britain, despite Henry, his heirs and his kingdom excommunicated from Europe under Papal decree – a punishment not unlike the one being currently threatened to Mrs May’s government. But the benefits of ‘Leaving’ were huge.

London became the centre of trade fuelled by Dutch Protestants, French Huguenots and Spanish Jews fleeing Europe to start afresh in the greatest city of the age, Britain’s navy went on to rule the seas, and a small trading post, Fort St. George in Madras — now Chennai — on land brought to England in the dowry of Charles 11’s Portuguese wife, became the nucleus of what would become the Government of British India.

No, Brexit Two will most probably not be the disaster Remainers predict.

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