The white cliffs of Dover—
to which the name Albion did not originally refer [cf. note].
(photograph: Wikimedia Commons/Fanny)
The name Albion first appeared in English in the very first sentence of the first Book of the 9th-century translation of Historia ecclesiastica gentis anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People) originally written by the English monk, theologian and historian St. Bede (circa 673-735):
– Old English text:
Breoton ist garsecges¹ ealond, ðæt wæs iu geara² Albion haten : is geseted betwyh norðdæle and westdæle, Germanie and Gallie and Hispanie þam mæstum dælum Europe myccle fæce ongegen.
(¹ garsecges: genitive singular of garsecg, ocean, sea — ² geara = yore)
Britain is an island of the ocean, that was a long time ago called Albion; it lies between the north and the west, opposite, though far apart, to Germany, Gaul and Spain, the chief divisions of Europe.
– original Latin text:
Brittania Oceani insula, cui quondam Albion nomen fuit, inter septentrionem et occidentem locata est, Germaniæ, Galliæ, Hispaniæ, maximis Europæ partibus, multo interuallo aduersa.
The classical Latin name Albion was used by the Roman statesman and scholar Pliny the Elder (23-79) in his encyclopaedia of the natural and human worlds, The Natural History (Naturalis Historia – 77):
ex adverso huius situs britannia insula, clara græcis nostrisque monimentis, inter septentrionem et occidentem iacet, germaniæ, galliæ, hispaniæ, multo maximis europæ partibus, magno intervallo adversa. albion ipsi nomen fuit, cum britanniæ vocarentur omnes de quibus mox paulo dicemus.
Opposite to this coast is the island called Britannia, so celebrated in the records of Greece and of our own country. It is situated to the north-west, and, with a large tract of intervening sea, lies opposite to Germany, Gaul, and Spain, by far the greater part of Europe. Its former name was Albion; but at a later period, all the islands, of which we shall just now briefly make mention, were included under the name of Britanniæ.
According to Bernhard Maier in Dictionary of Celtic Religion and Culture (translation Cyril Edwards – 1997), Albion is probably cognate with Middle Welsh elfydd, meaning world, land, and with Albiorix, the name of a Gaulish god probably meaning king of the World or king of the Land. Albiorix was probably the father or chief deity of the Albici tribe of southern Gaul.
These words seem to be from the same base as classical Latin albus, white. The Celtic base underlying the name Albion probably originally denoted the world above ground, illuminated by the sun, as opposed to the dark underworld — Albion did not originally refer to the white cliffs of Dover, regarded as a symbol of Great Britain [cf. note].
Originally therefore, Albion denoted the island of Britain. It was later applied to the nation of Britain or England. For example, in The Tragedie of King Lear (1603-06), the English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) makes the fool say:
(Folio 1, 1623)
Ile speake a Prophesie ere I go:
When Priests are more in word, then matter;
When Brewers marre their Malt with water;
When Nobles are their Taylors Tutors,
No Heretiques burn’d, but wenches Sutors;
When euery Case in Law, is right;
No Squire in debt, nor no poore Knight;
When Slanders do not liue in Tongues;
Nor Cut-purses come not to throngs;
When Vsurers tell their Gold i’th’Field,
And Baudes, and whores, do Churches build,
Then shal the Realme of Albion, come to great confusion.
The first known user of the French phrase la perfide Albion (the perfidious Albion) is the Marquis de Ximenès (1726-1817). In a poem titled L’ère républicaine (The republican era), he referred to the British joining the allies who were already fighting France in 1793:
Des Grecs et des Romains imitons le courage !
Attaquons dans ses eaux la perfide Albion !
Que nos fastes s’ouvrant par sa destruction
Marquent les jours de la victoire !
Of the Greeks and the Romans let’s imitate the courage!
Let’s attack in her waters the perfidious Albion!
May our annals opening with her destruction
Mark the days of victory!
This was a popular expression during the Revolution. For example, Le Mercure français of 6th October 1794 published an ode titled Le Vengeur (The Avenger), which contains the following:
Mais de nombreux vaisseaux les ondes sont couvertes.
La perfide Albion s’irritant par ses pertes,
Des batailles encore veut tenter le hasard.
But of many vessels the waters are covered.
The perfidious Albion irritated by her losses,
Of the battles still wants to tempt the fate.
The expression la perfide Angleterre (the perfidious England) had been used in 1653 by the French bishop and theologian Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704) in premier sermon pour la fête de la circoncision de Notre-Seigneur (first sermon for the feast day of the circumcision of Our Lord). Explaining that the Christian faith has spread all over the world, he writes:
L’Angleterre, ha ! la perfide Angleterre, que le rempart de ses mers rendait inaccessible aux Romains, la foi du Sauveur y est abordée.
England, ha! the perfidious England, that the rampart of her seas made inaccessible to the Romans, the Saviour’s faith reached it.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (3rd edition – 2005), in France, the phrase la perfide Albion was popularised during a recruitment campaign under Napoleon I in 1813, but its use as a slogan did not become widespread until 1840-1. It was adopted into German in its French form during the early 19th century and had become naturalised by the time of Bismarck. It was used in German anti-British propaganda during the First World War and during the Second World War to undermine French trust in Britain as an ally.
The French phrase was used by the Irish author Charles James Lever (1806-72) in Tom Burke, of “Ours” (1844):
The Emperor always connected in his mind — and with good reason, too — the machinations of the Royalists with the plans of the English Government. He knew that the land which afforded the asylum to their king was the refuge of the others also; and many of the heaviest denunciations against the “perfide Albion” had no other source than the dread, of which he could never divest himself, that the legitimate monarch would one day be restored to France.
The phrase the perfidious Albion seems to have been first used in 1801 in The Annual Register, or a View of the History, Politics, and Literature, for the year 1799. This periodical reported that during a parliamentary debate in France that year, one of the deputies, Moreau, had said:
What! do you talk of a committee, at the moment when your country points out the men who are her murderers, and this hall still re-echoes the transactions of the abominable assassins employed by royalty? They come for the purpose of seconding the designs of the perﬁdious Albion, for the destruction of the republic.
Note: It has often been said that Albion originally referred to the white cliffs of Dover. This erroneous interpretation was mentioned as early as around 1447 in Mappula Angliae, by the English poet and Augustinian friar Osbern Bokenham (circa 1393-circa 1464):
Old auctors seyene that this yle was clepyd Albyoun, perauenture of the white Craggis and Clyffis abowt the see-bankys, þe wych apperyne ferre in the see to heme þat commyne þer-towarde.
Old authors say that this island was called Albion, perhaps from the white crags and cliffs about the shores, which appear far in the sea to the one who comes towards them.