The idea of Britain as an island nation with an intrinsically maritime character and history is well-established. It is generally accepted that Britain has, and always has had, a close relationship with the sea, and that its people have always been predisposed towards travelling across the waves, drawing wealth and sustenance from them, and ruling over them. This idea also has a long heritage. One of the most famous expressions of it is in the words that William Shakespeare gave to John of Gaunt in Richard II, probably written in the 1590s:
This royall Throne of Kings, this sceptred isle,
This Fortresse built by Nature for her selfe
Against infection, and the hand of warre,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a Moate defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier Lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this Realme, this England
Like most popular ideas, however, this one begins to break down under a closer examination. Strictly speaking Britain is not an island, but an archipelago; and nor is it one nation but several, united relatively late in their existence. Shakespeare here writes exclusively of England because at that time there was no Britain in a political sense. Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that the real John of Gaunt would have placed such faith in the sea as a ‘Moate defensive’, setting England apart in splendid isolation from ‘less happier Lands’. He operated in an essentially European political world and pursued serious designs on the Castilian throne, while a French invasion was a very real possibility throughout his rule of England during the infancy of his royal nephew.
Indeed, Shakespeare depicted the sea as a threat just as much as an asset, due both to its own hazardous and stormy nature and to the access it granted to invaders in those periods when travel by sea was generally easier and quicker than travel by land. Some hint of this can be found, perhaps, in a later passage of the same speech: ‘England, bound in with the triumphant sea, / Whose rocky shore beates backe the envious siedge / Of watery Neptune’.