British Face Challenges In Forging New Identity

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Final in a five-part series

Canterbury Cathedral i

Some 600 years ago, Geoffrey Chaucer's pilgrims headed to Canterbury's cathedral to visit the shrine of Thomas Becket, the murdered archbishop of Canterbury. Now, tourists from Europe flock to the famous site. Rob Gifford/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Rob Gifford/NPR
Canterbury Cathedral

Some 600 years ago, Geoffrey Chaucer's pilgrims headed to Canterbury's cathedral to visit the shrine of Thomas Becket, the murdered archbishop of Canterbury. Now, tourists from Europe flock to the famous site.

Rob Gifford/NPR
A mix of European tourists and students in Canterbury gives the town a European feel. i

A mix of European tourists and students cruising Canterbury's narrow medieval streets gives the small town the feel of a buzzing European city. Rob Gifford/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Rob Gifford/NPR
A mix of European tourists and students in Canterbury gives the town a European feel.

A mix of European tourists and students cruising Canterbury's narrow medieval streets gives the small town the feel of a buzzing European city.

Rob Gifford/NPR
Lindsay Powell/NPR
An illustration depicts the murder of Thomas Becket. i

An illustration depicts the murder of Becket by four knights in 1170 in the Canterbury Cathedral. Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Hulton Archive/Getty Images
An illustration depicts the murder of Thomas Becket.

An illustration depicts the murder of Becket by four knights in 1170 in the Canterbury Cathedral.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
A dagger and a stone altar now mark where Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral. i

A dagger and a stone altar now mark where Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral. Rob Gifford/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Rob Gifford/NPR
A dagger and a stone altar now mark where Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral.

A dagger and a stone altar now mark where Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral.

Rob Gifford/NPR

The New Canterbury Tales

A five-part NPR series retraces the steps of Geoffrey Chaucer's pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales to explore Britain in the early 21st century. It offers a portrait of a changing nation some 600 years after the pilgrims made their colorful journey from London to Canterbury. Read an overview of the series.

Part 1: Britain Struggles With Questions Of Identity

Part 2: An England Coping With Change, Loss

Part 3: Importance Of Church Slips Rapidly Among British

Part 4: Chaucer's Cheek Returns To Britain

Great Britain has changed substantially since the time of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, which described life in late 14th century England. For this five-part series, Rob Gifford retraced Chaucer's steps, walking the 60 miles from London to Canterbury, to give a snapshot of Britain in the early 21st century.

Disparate tribes forged Britain in hundreds of years of conquest and amalgamation. Over another several hundred years, an empire grew, and a sense of Britishness among its people grew with it.

But in Britain's post-empire era, forces threaten that sense of common identity. There is growing Scottish and Welsh nationalism and an influx of immigrants, many of them Muslims.

And there is the European Union and its 27 member states. Britain is a part of that politically and economically, if not altogether in spirit.

So are the British British anymore? And are they Europeans?

Answer Unclear

Near the end of the road from London to Canterbury, there is a famous shrine of sorts, known here in England and abroad. It is the Bluewater Shopping Centre, the largest of its kind in Europe. It covers an area equivalent to 100 soccer fields and has 330 shops and 27 million visitors every year.

Shoppers can take the Eurostar — the train running through the Channel Tunnel — from Paris and be at the mall in less than two hours.

Not too far away, there is also a famous cathedral where tourists flock and where Chaucer's pilgrims were headed some 600 years ago.

Canterbury's cathedral and its narrow medieval streets echo with the chatter of European tour groups and students and visitors who have turned the small town into a buzzing European city.

It is inconceivable that any of the Europeans visiting the cathedral or the shopping mall would deny being European.

But the British?

"British," answers student Rachel Clarke, an undergraduate student at Canterbury Christ Church University, when asked to identify herself. "I can't say I'm just English, but I wouldn't say European because we are so separate from it."

Her friend and fellow student Sarah Collins declares: "I am a part of the European Union, but I am English."

When asked if she is European, she says she is, but only as part of the European Union. Then Collins quickly concedes that her heart isn't in it. "I really am British, and the only reason I'm in the European Union is the government chose to, not me. I didn't choose to. That's why I'm British."

Kylie Hazelden, a third member of the group, sitting having a drink in the shadow of the mighty cathedral, chimes in: "It's not that we don't want to be [European], but we are proud Britons or proud Englishmen. That's all it is."

A Britain More Like The U.S.

If the changes that have buffeted Britain in recent years have failed to shake the sense of British identity among some, just wait, experts say. Immigration, European integration and Britain's changing relationship with the United States could combine to produce a transformation.

"In 20 years' time, England will be England without its Englishness in its classical sense," says Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent at Canterbury and an immigrant himself, from Hungary via Canada.

He predicts a radical transformation that will make Britain look more American.

"That kind of melting of cultures and ceaseless transformation of public life that is normal in the U.S. is starting to happen in Britain," he says.

'Glue Between People' Missing

Near Canterbury, at the St. Mary's Community Center in Chatham, a little colony of Scots gathers for folk dancing on a recent evening.

The discussion turns to the prospect of Scottish independence from Britain.

"It's possible, and the way things are going it may happen ... it may have to because it's become such a big issue," says Rita Menzies, a pensioner who has lived in England for 35 years.

Most people here say they don't want to see Britain split apart.

Julian Grayland, who is English, worries the whole United Kingdom might actually fall apart as the sense of Britishness recedes and the local tribal loyalties grow.

"I think what's missing is the glue between the people. Because everyone is moving into their own little worlds and objectives and aims," Grayland says.

Swept Away By Time

Undoubtedly, the pilgrims who approached Canterbury Cathedral in Chaucer's time had their own questions about life and meaning. But a sense of national identity was probably not among them.

They were on their way to visit the shrine of Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury. He was killed in the year 1170 by four knights who had heard Becket's former friend King Henry II exclaim in anger: "Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?"

There is no longer a shrine to Becket in Canterbury, just a candle where the archbishop's tomb used to be and a stone altar and cross-shaped dagger where he was murdered.

It was all swept away by The Reformation, which changed everything. There are still pilgrims here, mainly foreigners. But the cathedral itself, like so much of Britain's history, feels so strangely disconnected from the modern, globalized world going on outside.

In Britain, the old is gone. And early in the 21st century, the new hasn't quite yet been established.

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