England, the largest and most populous country in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, can trace its roots to the Anglo-Saxons who first arrived in the 5th century CE. Once a global empire and epicenter of the industrial revolution, modern England is experiencing a post-Brexit identity crisis. Nonetheless, this storied island nation continues to embrace a rich tapestry of traditions and interesting facts.
England Has an Annual Cheese Rolling Competition
Since at least 1826, Coopers Hill in the English county of Gloucester has played host to the annual Coopers Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake. Following a countdown by the master of ceremonies, England’s strangest sport commences, as participants race down an incredibly steep 200-yard (180 meter) hill in hot pursuit of a 9- pound wheel of Double Gloucester cheese.
The first recorded evidence of the competition comes in the form of a message written to the town crier of Gloucester in 1826. The note makes clear that the tradition may have pagan, or even ancient origins. Either way, the race requires death defying courage. Due to the steepness of the hill and its highly uneven surface, very few contestants manage to stay on their feet. Ambulances await the majority that tumble head-over-heels to the bottom. The first person over the finish line at the bottom of the hill wins the cheese.
French Was Once the Official Language of England
After the Norman conquest of England by William the Conqueror in 1066, French became a major language of administration, education, literature, and law in England. From 1066 to 1362 (when it was replaced by English) the nobility spoke French. However, the French language was far from universal, the majority of the lower classes would have spoken old English.
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Nonetheless, while French would have been the mother tongue for several generations of Anglo-Norman aristocracy, the demands of communication and trade meant that many Britons must have learned French as a second language to get by in life. The result is that during the nearly 300 years that Anglo-Norman French was spoken in England, many French words (7,000 to be precise) entered the English language itself.
Though English is a Germanic language, it is full of French words, from cabaret, to hotel, honesty, and soup.
England Has Laws Against Public Swearing
Contrary to common belief, politeness is not inherent to the English national character. In fact, the English love to swear. Yet, despite its popularity, in England, public profanity has long been deemed a criminal offence. As far back as a 1623 Act of Parliament forbidding ‘profane Swearing and Cursing,’ to the Town Police Clauses Act (1847) – which carried the threat of up to fourteen days in prison for the use of ‘profane or obscene language’ – the English state has consistently waged war on the swearing masses.
More recently, this position was solidified by the criminalization of ‘insulting words’ outlined in section 5 of the Public Order Act (1986). In 2011, Justice Bean, a British judge, conceded that the war on profanity was a losing battle, ruling that the English should no longer be punished for hurling obscenities in public. Nevertheless, despite Bean’s concession, public swearing remains officially illegal in England.
Champagne Was Invented in England
Dom Pierre Pérignon (1638–1715), a Benedictine monk, was cellar master of the Benedictine Abbey in Hautvillers, north-east France. Dom Pérignon is considered to be a wine pioneer, and credited with introducing a range of techniques, from transformative purification methods, to the advent of the modern cork. According to legend Dom Pérignon invented sparkling wine in the region of champagne in 1697. The so-called ‘methode champenoise’ is thus said to be French. Yet history offers an interesting twist. It turns out that the English had begun to make sparkling wine a good three decades before Monsieur Pérignon.
In the year 1662, an English physician and metallurgist named Christopher Merrett (1614-1695) presented a paper to the Royal Society. In his paper Merrett detailed how English winemakers were deliberately adding quantities of sugar and molasses to their wines, to make them ‘sparkle’ inside the bottle. Today, this technique is called the ‘methode champenoise’. It’s worth noting that the English may well beg to differ.
Stonehenge Is Older than the Great Pyramids and the Roman Empire
The story of Stonehenge, an enormous hand-built circle of standing stones in the English countryside, began some 9,000 years ago. First, around 7,000 BC three tree trunks were raised near to where the stone monument would later be built. The remains of a feast at Stonehenge from around 3900 BC offer a fascinating glimpse into the use of the site as an ancient meeting place (archaeologists believe that hunter-gatherer tribes met and feasted with early farming communities on the site).
Around 3000 BC the first stones arrived and gradually, over time, the iconic stone circle was built. Stonehenge’s significance has changed over time: it has been a place of worship, a meeting spot, and a burial ground. Some even believe that the stone circle was built by ancient astronomers to observe the stars. Either way, this mysterious ancient monument is older than both the Great Pyramids and the Roman Empire.
By Scott MclaughlanPhD SociologyScott is an independent scholar with an interest in physical cultures, far-right movements, and Indian politics. He has a doctorate in political sociology from Birkbeck College, University of London.