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Five moments that changed the course of British history

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With Brexit looming large, Britain stands at the crossroads of history – but not for the first time. Historian Dan Cruickshank explores what could have been

It’s hard not to feel the weight of history on the current Brexit debate. Whatever route is taken, thousands of others will be instantly consigned to historical speculation. ‘The contemplation of the sometimes meagre threads by which destiny hangs helps put our current national dilemma in context,’ says historian Dan Cruickshank. Here, Cruickshank looks into five other key moments in British history that changed the course of our nation – and what might have happened had things gone a little differently.

What if we’d had King Arthur II?

In September 1486, Elizabeth of York gave birth to her first child with King Henry VII, a son and heir who promised to put an end to the dynastic struggles between Yorkists and Lancastrians during the Wars of the Roses. The boy was named Arthur, and in 1501, he married Catherine of Aragon as part of a plan to forge a powerful Anglo-Spanish alliance against expansionist France. But a year after his marriage, Prince Arthur died suddenly. The main beneficiary was his younger brother, Henry, who both married Arthur’s widow and became heir to the throne.

King Henry VIII remains one of the most influential monarchs in Britain’s history. His desire two decades later to divorce Catherine and marry Anne Boleyn would set in motion a chain of events that resulted in the break with the Catholic church that had such a profound effect on British religion, life, culture and landscape.

If Arthur had lived, subsequent British history would have been transformed. Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry and Anne Boleyn, would almost certainly not have been born, so her failure to produce an heir would not, upon her death in 1603, have ushered the Stuarts onto the united thrones of Scotland and England, leaving the two countries politically separate for far longer.

What if the English Republic worked?

After the execution of King Charles I in 1649 following the English Civil War, Parliament strove to bring about political and social stability in the country without a monarch as the head of state. Despite brief security during the five-year rule of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell from 1653, ultimately the experiment of the English Republic failed. Notably, the inability to find a democratic way to involve the population in the republic’s government (those who wanted suffrage extended to working people were very roughly handled by Cromwell) made it clear that this republic did not aim to be a government of the people, by the people, for the people. Perhaps more crucial in the short term, the Republic proved itself unable to establish a legitimate and unchallenged process of succession so that at Cromwell’s death in 1658, his hapless son Richard had – in a dynastic fashion most paradoxical in a republic – inherited his father’s mantle.

But what if the Stuart Restoration of 1660 had not happened and the Republic had endured, with Britain, along with the Netherlands, becoming the 17th-century models for prosperous and progressive Protestant republican nations? Obviously, Britain would not have evolved during the 18th century as a nation governed by a conservative, even reactionary, monarchical hierarchy, so undoubtedly its relationship with its American colonies (generally left untroubled by Cromwell) would have been very different. And with republican forces in late 18th-century France, arguably England might have become a closer ally across the Channel as revolution broke out.

What if Prince Frederick hadn’t been a cricket fan?

Frederick, Prince of Wales, born in 1707, was the son of King George II; in stark contrast to his father, he was intelligent, progressive, artistic and socially able. Frederick lived in Germany until he was 21, immediately establishing his own court as heir apparent, which was in political and artistic opposition to the dull and oppressive one run by his father. However, in 1751 at the age of 44, he fell ill and soon died. The exact cause remains unclear, but it seems something had damaged his lungs. As an ardent cricket lover, one theory is that he had been hit hard on the chest by a cricket ball.

When George II died in 1760, he was succeeded by Frederick’s son, King George III, during whose long and progressively reactionary reign the American colonies were lost, or rather provoked, into revolution, arguably in large part due to George III’s autocratic attitudes and poor choice of advisors. Had Frederick become king in 1760 and reigned for the following couple of decades, there is little doubt that the rift between Britain and its American colonies would not have happened, or at least not then. The consequences of a love of cricket can, at times, be immeasurable.

What if Irish independence had happened a century earlier?

In 1796, Irish patriot Theobald Wolfe Tone asked the French to assist a planned uprising in Ireland against British rule. They agreed, dispatching a fleet of 43 ships, packed with arms and 14,500 men under the command of the talented General Hoche. The plan was to arrive at Bantry Bay in secret, join with Irish forces, seize the port at Cork, defeat the small and scattered British garrisons, and drive the occupiers out of Ireland.

A speedy victory seemed probable, but things started to go wrong almost immediately. Due to the blockading British ships and bad weather, the invasion fleet was scattered as soon as it left France; a number of ships never made it to Bantry Bay, including that carrying Hoche. On 21 December, the first of the storm-battered fleet arrived in the Bay, but none could land because of a violent storm that lasted many days. Tone begged the French commanders to risk a landing. They agreed to attempt to land 6,400 men and artillery on Christmas Eve, but the storm grew worse and it was called off. On 26 December, the French withdrew without ever setting a foot ashore. Tone wrote in his journal, ‘Had we been able to land the first day and march directly to Cork, we should have infallibly carried it by coup de main… I see nothing before me but the… slavery of my country and my own destruction…’ The final French ships left on 6 January, just as the weather calmed. None had made landfall. There was an uprising in Ireland in 1798, but it was suppressed by the British, and Tone was captured and executed. But for this storm, the history of both countries would have been very different.

What if Edward VIII hadn’t abdicated?

Britain’s 20th-century history is rich in moments when an individual’s private actions had profound public consequences. Perhaps the most famous example is the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936. Forbidden from marrying divorcée Wallis Simpson by Parliament (an action that was deemed inappropriate at the time given his role as head of the Anglican church), he gave up the throne so he could marry her, leading to his younger brother, our Queen’s father, becoming King George VI.

There is little doubt that Edward was a profoundly selfish man, who took the pursuit of his own whims and pleasures very seriously indeed – but he was also a puzzle. He apparently had no sense of the basic obligations that went with his glittering inheritance, or at least had no intention of accommodating his desires to his obvious duties. It was also a turbulent time for Europe. As subsequent events revealed, Edward had a liking for the ‘strong’ men of Nazi Germany, with their nonsensical notions about racial superiority, and photographs of his fawning and obsequious meeting with Hitler in October 1937 (typically, against the British Government’s request) offer a chilling insight into what could have happened had he remained king. With little doubt, Edward, along with many of Britain’s ruling elite, would have been for appeasement with Nazi Germany, even after its invasion of Poland in 1939. As king, Edward’s likely support for appeasement could have allowed Nazi Germany to have had its way and sidelined resistance – in short, the world today would be a very different place. Ultimately, Edward’s determination never to do as he was told was a saving virtue for the country.