Heritage & Culture

What is heritage?

Peterborough Heritage Festival, the UK’s largest multi-period living history festival, returns on 15-16 June 2019 for another weekend of free family fun. For 11 years now the city has been celebrating the dramas and achievements of the past, and especially its own past. But what is this thing called ‘heritage’ and why does it matter to us? Moment editor and historical novelist Toby Venables explores the idea – while some leading cultural figures offer their own views on the ‘H’ word...

Back in September 2016, historian and broadcaster Dr David Starkey visited Peterborough Cathedral to deliver a talk on the occasion of the opening of its new visitor centre. During his address, he said: ‘I always say, if I’m being a tad more provocative than usual, that there is a direct line from Henry VIII to Nigel Farage. The Reformation is the first Brexit. This cathedral, with the tomb of Katharine of Aragon, is literally the crucible of that process.’

David Starkey is certainly no stranger to controversy, but there was more to this statement than mischief. First of all, making connections between current events and those in the past is what he does. It’s a good way to bring history to life – it makes distant events seem more relevant and more immediate, and creates a connection with the people of the past that was sadly lacking from the dry history lessons of my childhood. But it was doing something more than this. It was suggesting that past events, distant though they may seem, are in some sense connected to us by this ‘direct line’ – that they are not just things that happened back then and are over and done with, but still reverberate through our own times, and are still alive and affecting what we do and think.

At the very beginning of his talk, he spoke of ‘history interacting with now’ and added: ‘The great issue which is convulsing the country now is called Brexit. It’s the whole debate about what we are, where we’re from, where we’re going.’

Since heritage is what we inherit from the past (‘what we are, where we’re from’) it seems it is an absolutely vital component in the sometimes bitter arguments that continue to rage about our future. If Starkey is right – and I believe he is – then we can’t really know ‘where we’re going’ unless we come to some understanding of our heritage.

When I interviewed him after the address, he expanded on the idea, relating it directly to this rapidly expanding city and its sense of self: ‘In many places, partly as a result of Brexit, partly as a result of social and economic turmoil, there is a very real desire for some sort of identity, and if new Peterborough does not have an identity then by definition it has to forge a new one. Or a renewed one. But the components of history will be an absolutely fundamental part of that.’

So, ‘heritage’ may be entertaining, fascinating, awe-inspiring and fun, but clearly it is also much more. It’s our cultural DNA, the building blocks of now – and therefore of the future. And while there is more to heritage than just ‘history’, history is clearly one of the means by which our heritage is communicated to us, and is in its substance, too. When I think of myself as ‘English’, I’m not just identifying myself as someone who comes from a particular part of the world, but as someone whose values, thoughts, language and sense of self has been fashioned by centuries of events, large and small.

Of course, most of us are not historians. We don’t go back to sources or check documents unless there’s a very particular need to. And ‘heritage’ isn’t just about facts, anyway – it’s also about beliefs, legends, superstitions, eccentricities. It’s about feelings. So what happens when the line between facts and feelings gets blurred? And how do we learn from history, use that experience to establish a notion of who we are, and build our future, if our perception of history is skewed – or just plain wrong? What if our sense of self is based in part on something that never even happened?

This is where the question gets far more complex, and far more murky.

Recently I witnessed one of those Brexit debates that is convulsing the country. It was not in Parliament. The way it unfolded was depressingly predictable, but it led to one participant asserting England’s outright superiority to other nations with the claim ‘We saved Europe in the war…’ He presented this as an incontrovertible fact, and the end of the discussion.

What makes this problematic, like so many sweeping assertions these days, is that it is not entirely false – but nor is it entirely true. The fact is that while Britain was a major part of the Allied force that ultimately defeated Nazi Germany, we could not possibly have achieved it without the direct support of the US and other nations and the blows dealt by the Russians on the Eastern Front.

When we stood alone against Hitler after the fall of Europe, long before the US entered the war, we were far from being the awesome military power the ‘We saved Europe…’ assertion suggests. We may have had a global empire, but those resources were far distant. Britain was ill-prepared, still recovering from what was then the most devastating conflict in history, with a population that regarded the whole notion of war with dread and dismay. In reality, Britain was nowhere near strong enough to defeat Hitler, and possibly not even strong enough to repel him. There were those who argued against even attempting it, and there is evidence to suggest Hitler would have left Britain to its own devices. Britain could have simply stood back and done nothing. But it stood against him anyway.

What happened next is well known. Britain sent an expeditionary force into France. It proved no match for Hitler’s far more advanced and battle-hardened army, and was forced back to Dunkirk, where ordinary people turned out in over 800 boats to ferry the defeated soldiers back to England. Then came the Battle of Britain, during which the nation came perilously close to defeat, but somehow held out.

This is the real story. It’s not about being powerful, but about being weak and vulnerable, and acting nonetheless. To my mind it’s far more compelling than the idea that we were an awesome power swooping to Europe’s rescue. It also happens to be the truth. It remains the truth regardless of one’s political views.

What does this version – the true one – say about us? It suggests we had a sense of duty towards our neighbours, perhaps, and that protecting their freedom helped protect our own. It suggests an understanding that their fate and ours were connected, as they had been throughout history. And it showed that the only way forward was through international co-operation. Ultimately, no one nation defeated Nazism. It was achieved only by a vast array of nations working together – including free fighters from every occupied country in Europe and from every one of the colonies in the British Empire: Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, Africans, Indians and many, many more. They did not all speak the same language, eat the same food or follow the same religion, but that did not matter. There was a job to be done.

That was the reality of the Second World War, but it has suffered severe indignities in the hands of some who fetishise this period of history. Several have misrepresented it to dubious ends. In 2009, a far-right group used an image of a Spitfire as part of its anti-immigrant campaign, and in 2014, another repeated the tactic on Facebook. In each case, however, these attempts to stir nationalist pride – with their implied hatred towards the immigrant ‘enemy’ coming from across the Channel – spectacularly backfired. Both Spitfires pictured were from Polish squadrons who played a vital part in the Battle of Britain. It pays to know your history, and get your fact straight. (Further investigation into the facts of immigration reveals that immigrants are not the source of all our economic woes – in fact, the UK gains economically from their presence.)

Churchill himself – that great symbol of defiance – has also been pressed into service in ways that are at odds with history. After the war, concerned to establish greater stability in the continent, he called for a ‘United States of Europe’ and – despite many insisting otherwise – was clear about the need for Britain to be involved. In 1961 he wrote that the government was ‘right’ to apply to join the EEC, and in 1963, just two years before his death, said: ‘The future of Europe if Britain were to be excluded is black indeed’. Whether you agree with him is another question altogether – I don’t agree with everything he said and did – but like it or not, these are the facts. Nevertheless, a far-right group – whose politics would have revolted Churchill – have seen fit to use his image on banners supporting their cause, idolising the war hero’s ‘bulldog spirit’ and refusal to surrender, while completely overlooking the fact that their own core values are closer to the enemy Churchill fought than the man himself. When heritage is built upon falsehoods, it is clearly not learning from history. It is simply delusion, and can lead to us repeating its mistakes – or worse.

Such misconceptions start small, with apparently trivial things. Think of all those traditional English names such as John, William, Robert and Richard. All of these are actually French, brought by William the Conqueror (whose own ancestors were Vikings). We all know the enduring legend of Robin Hood, the Saxon lord standing defiant against the Norman yoke, but the reality is that within just a few decades of the Conquest the people of England were giving Norman names to their children. Robin, Little John, Will Scarlet, Alan-a-Dale and Marian all have Norman French names.

So much for ‘pure’ Englishness. That, too, is a myth – and not a very healthy one. Here, it is useful to return to David Starkey: ‘The immigrant experience – the coming of the Anglo Saxons and the Normans, with its fusion of identities – is absolutely fundamental to Englishness. That immigrant experience is of such profound cultural significance. English is a fused identity.’

This is not the end of it, either. A recent study of the bone structure and DNA of the crew of the Mary Rose – Henry VIII’s flagship and the most English of vessels – revealed that the crew hailed from as far afield as the Mediterranean and North Africa. Whether we’re in or out of the EU this time next year, this is the reality of a thriving, outward-looking society and culture. It is diverse. It includes. It gathers riches to it.

But the grandest proof of this is around us, every minute of every day. It’s in our mouths. In our heads. In our books, newspapers and on all our devices. It’s our language.

Many who bemoan the ‘erosion of our culture’ (whatever that actually means) extol the virtues – even the superiority – of the English language, citing its spread across the globe and the reputation of our poets worldwide, usually with reference to Shakespeare. In fact, such claims are not entirely without grounds. English has a lot of words; around a million, in fact – three times as many as French. Of course, more doesn’t necessarily mean better, but it certainly does offer plenty of choices when writing descriptively. How have we achieved this superabundance? Well, Shakespeare made a few words up. Milton invented hundreds. But there is one very major reason why the English language is so rich.

The basis of English is Anglo-Saxon, a Germanic language from Northern Europe. To us, however, Anglo-Saxon would be almost unintelligible, partly because the pronunciation has changed so radically. But also, most of the words we use now were never used by the Anglo-Saxons at all. As we’ve seen, after the Norman Conquest a load of French arrived, giving us pork (French) as well as pig (Anglo-Saxon), beef (French) as well as cow (Anglo-Saxon), mutton (French) as well as sheep (Anglo-Saxon). But it didn’t just stop there. Consider these words:

flannel, bard, crag, basket, slogan, galore, whiskey, phoney (Celtic); ugly, knife, window, husband, cake (Old Norse); glitch, schmooze, klutz (Yiddish); cockroach, mosquito, stampede, breeze, alligator, tornado (Spanish); tsunami (Japanese); chocolate, tomato, avocado (Nahuatl); gung-ho, typhoon (Chinese); moped (Swedish), graffiti, bust, apartment, biscuit, orange, banquet, novel, chipolata (Italian); tattoo (Polynesian); hoi polloi (Greek); lemon, sherbet, hubbub (Arabic); igloo, kayak (Inuit); husky, squash, toboggan (Algonquian); canoe, hammock, tobacco (Arawakan); jumbo, safari, (Swahili); jukebox, jive, banana (Wolof); bungalow, juggernaut, chutney, jungle, loot, bangle (Hindi)

And there are many, many more. In other words, what makes the English language great is the words we have invited in. They have not weakened it. They have not diluted it. They have made it what it is. This is our true culture, and our true heritage. Let’s celebrate it.

Photos: John Moore Photography


We asked a range of cultural movers and shakers what ‘heritage’ meant to them. This is what they said…

“The 18th and early 19th century political philosopher Edmund Burke, who was also an MP, wrote that the social contract is a covenant between those who have lived, those who are alive today and those who are yet to be born. What he is really saying is that heritage and the needs of the present, and our responsibility for the future have to come together. There has to be that continuity.”
The Most Revd Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury

“Heritage, as the name suggests, is what we inherit from the past. It can be built, visual, written, or recorded as history. In each case, it has enriched our civilisation in some way and made us what we are today.”
Alison Wier, historian and novelist

“Heritage is the stories and places we explore to make sense of our present and to look to the future. We can choose to be defined by it. Or enlightened. failing to recognise uncomfortable truths especially around oppression, exploitation and corruption, allows for injustice to continue.”
Kate Hall, Director, Jumped Up Theatre

“To me heritage is all about the foundation of where we come from and who we were and are and without it we could seem to be on a never ending, aimless wander, without values and norms accrued from the past.”
Prof. Stephen Upex MCIfA FSA, archaeologist

“True heritage should engage with the past, the present and the future. If it’s just about the past it’s mere nostalgia. I used to scorn the word heritage as being associated in my mind with tea-towels and coffee shops in old National Trust houses. But the more Eastern Angles has explored and celebrated old industries, people’s life stories, and other areas of hidden experience, the more I realise its potential for artistic projects, community participation and peoples’ wellbeing. Above all, heritage is not just about dead people as our Forty Years On and Delivered by Freemans projects have shown.”
Ivan Cutting, Director, Eastern Angles

“Heritage is not the same as history. Each person has a heritage that draws upon their own story and that of those they see as their forebears. A person’s heritage gives them an understanding of their place in history. The impact on the people of Paris of the terrible fire at Notre Dame shows something of the way in which heritage can act as a guarantor of identity.”
The Very Revd Chris Dalliston, Dean of Peterborough

Leave a Reply

Register an Account