Roots of the British come under new scrutiny

September 01, 2010

What constitutes 'Britishness' is turning out to be more complicated than many people previously believed. An innovative multidisciplinary research programme led by the University of Leicester is set to investigate its many dimensions and components.

The University is to receive a £1.37 million Research Programme Award granted by the Leverhulme Trust, over five years, to carry out a major study on The Impact of Diasporas on the Making of Britain: Evidence, Memories, Inventions.

This wide-ranging project will investigate the impact of the movement of people in the distant past on the cultural, linguistic and population history of the British Isles. It will also examine the influence of ancient diasporas - remembered or suppressed, perhaps exaggerated or even invented - on the construction of British identities, past and present.

Dr Joanna Story of the School of Historical Studies will direct the programme, alongside experts from Leicester's world-class Department of Genetics, the School of Archaeology and Ancient History, The School of English, The Centre for English Local History, and the School of Management, as well as the Institute for Name-Studies at the University of Nottingham.

The basic population history of Britain, and the cultural and genetic roots of the historical nations of the island - the Welsh, Scots and English - are contentious subjects. Traditional interpretations have held that different groups of people - Celts, Angles, Saxons and Vikings - migrated in large numbers to the British Isles before AD1000 and that each migrant group contributed to the 'blood', language and culture of the 'native' communities.

However, many established assumptions are being challenged and re-examined by historians and archaeologists, now in collaboration with geneticists armed with new techniques for DNA analysis. Recent research has begun to suggest more complex origins for the British peoples.

The Impact of Diasporas on the Making of Britain: evidence, memories, inventions is a programme of six interdisciplinary projects that will result in a greater understanding of the mechanisms of cultural change and the legacies of early, proto-historic diasporas on the population history of Britain.

Key to the programme is the cross-disciplinary nature of the project, which will encourage a fresh look at old evidence and will question popular perceptions about the roots of the British in the light of new data.

Joanna Story commented: 'History plays such an important role in modern perceptions of what it means to be British - and it was equally important 1000 years ago. This is a fantastic opportunity to reassess assumptions that have become embedded in popular culture and to test our longstanding academic theories with new evidence and methods'.

Professor Douglas Tallack, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for the College of Arts, Humanities and Law, added: 'The University of Leicester is extraordinarily well placed to study the impact of deep-time diasporas on British identity, and to bring the latest research methodologies to bear on a subject of continuing interest, not least to those in the East Midlands who have come from elsewhere but play such an important part in British society. I am delighted that Dr Story and colleagues from a number of Departments have been successful in this very competitive scheme, and I should like to express my thanks to the Leverhulme Trust for its generous support.'

The Leicester Impact of Diasporas on the Making of Britain programme is driven by six linked projects:



  1. Surnames and the Y-Chromosome, which will focus on the Viking genetic legacy and its impact in different regions of Britain.
    (Dr Turi King, Department of Genetics, University of Leicester and Project Manager for The impact of Diasporas)

  2. Modelling Migration, using computer simulations to provide a virtual laboratory to model processes of genetic change.
    (Prof Mark Jobling, Department of Genetics; Dr Simon James, School of Archaeology and Ancient History; Dr Joanna Story, School of Historical Studies - all University of Leicester)

  3. Genetics & early British population history, will use existing and new datasets to illuminate British population history, looking at genetic data on modern populations and seeking and validating new genetic markers for migration and diaspora
    (Prof Mark Jobling, Dr Turi King, Dr Simon James)

  4. Immigration and indigenism in popular historical discourses: using 'social remembering' across three generations this project will examine the cultural transmission of collective memories of community origins
    (Prof Steven Brown, School of Management; Dr Simon James)

  5. Dialect in Diaspora: Linguistic Variation in Early Anglo-Saxon England, will examine the impact of Anglo-Saxon and Viking diasporas on the development of early English dialects. It will look at inscriptions on early Anglo-Saxon coins and Romano-Germanic votive stones, place names and personal names and analogies with later, global diasporas.
    (Dr Phillip Shaw, Department of English, University of Leicester and Dr Joanna Story)

    People and Places: This doctoral project will look at the widespread genetic impact of the Viking diaspora through place-names to gauge the relative level of Scandinavian linguistic influence and compare it with levels of Scandinavian ancestry in the modern population.
    (Dr Jayne Carroll, Institute for Name-Studies, University of Nottingham)

  6. Home and Away in Early England: this project will examine aspects of the idea of home and homelands, and its opposite - exile, exclusion and foreignness - in Anglo-Saxon England, the construction of a shared past on Anglo-Saxon identities and the importance of a sense of place and community.
    (Dr Joanna Story and Dr Richard Jones, School of Historical Studies, University of Leicester)
-end-
Notes to Editors:

Further details are available from Dr Joanna Story, Senior Lecturer in Early Medieval History, School of Historical Studies, University of Leicester, e-mail: js73@le.ac.uk, tel: 0116 252 2803

The Leverhulme Trust was established in 1925 under the Will of the first Viscount Leverhulme. It is one of the largest all-subject providers of research funding in the UK, distributing funds of some £50 million every year. For further information about the schemes that the Leverhulme Trust fund visit their website at www.leverhulme.ac.uk

University of Leicester

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