How old is my country?

It’s the fourth of July, and while I shall of course be spending the day in quiet mourning for the loss of the Colonies, most Americans are celebrating the 235th birthday of the United States. The UK, of course, is much older than that. Well, sort of. It’s not actually that obvious that it is. Scotland and England were united—creating the state of Great Britain—in 1707, only 69 years before the United States Declaration of Independence. Great Britain only became the United Kingdom (barring a few prior references to Great Britain being a united kingdom, but apparently not with the intention of that being its official name) in 1801 when Ireland joined. And if you date it from then, the UK is constitutionally younger than the USA! Indeed, it only became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the twentieth century. Of course, if we use this sort of criterion, then the USA was born in 1959, when Hawaii was made a state. And that’s a bit silly.

But how can we give an age to Britain that supports one’s intuitive feeling that it’s older than the US? We could date it from the signing of the Magna Carta, which is somewhat analogous to the US Bill of Rights (or maybe the constitution, though probably not the Declaration of Independence), but it’s really rather an arbitrary choice, and it hardly marks the birth of the nation. Dating it to the writing of the Domesday Book—or the Battle of Hastings—is a little better perhaps, but (and the same is true of the Magna Carta) we’re only talking about England. It seems intuitively OK to say that the US was born before Hawaii joined it, but wrong to say that the UK was born before Wales or Scotland joined (I’ll leave Ireland to one side for a moment, for obvious reasons).

I guess we could go back to the prehistoric era. What about Maes Howe? Of course, if we go that far back, we again have to admit that the US isn’t necessarily any younger. America too has been inhabited since prehistoric times. Which is fine, but measuring it this way seems to be missing the point: we’re not really interested in how long each country’s been inhabited, but how long something corresponding to the current nation has existed.

My favourite option is to date it from AD 410, when Emperor Honorius reputedly told the Britons to take care of their own defences. This is a convenient year to mark two watersheds: the end of Roman rule in Britain (analogous perhaps, kinda, to the end of British rule in America), and the advent of the English, for it was the Angles, Saxons and Jutes that the Britons had to defend against (of course they lost).

As I say, this is my favourite year to choose for these purposes. And that’s because (while Scotland was never under the Romans’ thumb as southern Britain was) it had major consequences for all parts of Britannia. But it’s still a little arbitrary, and it’s not entirely clear Honorius ever explicitly said what he’s supposed to have said anyway.

So the answer remains problematic. But my purpose in this post was not to show how we can date the birth of Britain. It was to point out that, just like dating the birth of languages (compare this post), putting a date on the birth of a country for the purposes of comparison is much much harder than you might have expected.


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