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Perfidious Albion is a pejorative phrase used within the context of international relations and diplomacy to refer to acts of duplicity, treachery and hence infidelity (with respect to promises made to or alliances formed with other nation states) by monarchs or governments of Britain (or England) in their pursuit of self-interest and the requirements of realpolitik.
Origins and use
The use of the adjective "perfidious" to describe England has a long history; instances have been found as far back as the 13th century. A very similar phrase was used in a sermon by 17th-century French bishop and theologian Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet:
'L'Angleterre, ah, la perfide Angleterre,
(England, oh, treacherous England,
The coinage of the phrase in its current form, however, is conventionally attributed to Augustin, Marquis of Ximenez a Frenchman who wrote in a 1793 poem:
Attaquons dans ses eaux la perfide Albion.
(Let us attack perfidious Albion in her waters.)
In this context, Great Britain's perfidy was political: in the early days of the French Revolution many in Great Britain had looked upon the Revolution with mild favour, but following the overthrow and execution of Louis XVI, Britain had allied herself with the other monarchies of Europe against the Revolution in France. This was seen by the revolutionaries in France as a "perfidious" betrayal.
"La perfide Albion" became a stock expression in France in the 19th century, to the extent that the Goncourt brothers could refer to it as "a well-known old saying". It was utilised by French journalists whenever there were tensions between France and Britain, for example during the competition for colonies in Africa, culminating in the Fashoda incident. The catch-phrase was further popularized by its use in La Famille Fenouillard, the first French comic strip, in which one of the characters fulminates against "Perfidious Albion, which burnt Joan of Arc on the rock of Saint Helena" (Carried away by his anti-English fury, the character mixes up Joan of Arc with Napoleon, who was exiled to the British island of Saint Helena).
In the German speaking area, the term "das perfide Albion" became increasingly frequent especially during the German Empire (1871-1918) against the backdrop of rising British-German tensions.
Examples of usage
- The term often refers to the English reneging on the Treaty of Limerick of 1691, which ended the war between the predominantly Roman Catholic Jacobite forces and the English forces loyal to William of Orange, giving favourable terms to the Irish Catholics, including the freedoms to worship, to own property and to carry arms, but those terms were soon repudiated by the Penal Laws of 1695.
- In Portugal the term was widely used after the 1890 British Ultimatum, after Cecil Rhodes' opposition to the Pink Map.
- The term was used by then Vice President of the United States Dick Cheney in response to the meeting in November 2008 between British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
- The Italian version (Italian "perfida Albione") was used in the propaganda of Fascist Italy in order to criticise the global dominion of the British Empire.
Today the term is used in many contexts, and largely divorced from its historic origins.
- It is used in the Irish adaptation of the folk song Foggy Dew, about the Easter Rising of 1916, "Oh the night fell black and the rifles' crack Made perfidious Albion reel".
- It was used by Argentinians in the context of the football rivalry between the Argentine and English national teams.
- It is also often used in a humorous context, notably in France ("Perfide Albion"), Spain ("Pérfida Albión"), Italy ("Perfida Albione"), Portugal ("Pérfida Álbion") and Romania ("Perfidul Albion")
- It appears in the Wilbur Smith novel The Angels Weep.
- Schmidt, H. D. (1953). "The Idea and Slogan of ‘Perfidious Albion’". Journal of the History of Ideas 14 (4): 604–616. JSTOR 2707704.
- Hersh, Seymour M. (March 2009), "Syria Calling", The New Yorker
- Palla, Marco (1994). Mussolini e il fascismo (in Italian). Firenze Paris: Giunti Casterman. ISBN 9788809202726. p.112
- Luchinat, Vittorio (2012). Mussolini pubblico e privato (in Italian). ISBN 9788897982067. page
- Smith, Wilbur (2008). The angels weep, [and], A time to die. London: Pan. ISBN 9780330440998. p. 540