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Perfidious Albion is an anglophobic pejorative phrase used within the context of international relations and diplomacy to refer to alleged acts of diplomatic sleights, duplicity, treachery and hence infidelity (with respect to perceived 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, often as not employed by the loser in geopolitical affairs.
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).
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.
- It is used by Ian Smith in his memoirs (The Great Betrayal, 1997) to describe his views on the British handling of the Rhodesian independence issue.
- 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.
- In 2012 Fabian Picardo, the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, used the phrase to describe the UK government's position on the UN Decolonisation Committee, saying "The position of the United Kingdom is as usual so nuanced that it's difficult to see where they are on the spectrum, but look that's what Britain's like and we all love being British."
The Italian term "perfida Albione" (perfidious Albion) was used by Fascist powers in order to criticise the global dominion of the British Empire. Fascist propaganda depicted the British as ruthless colonialists who exploited foreign lands and peoples to feed extravagant lifestyle habits like eating "five meals a day". The term was used frequently in Italian politics after the Second Italo-Abyssinian War, because despite having gained large colonial territories for herself, Britain approved of trade sanctions in the wake of Italian aggression against Ethiopia. The sanctions were depicted as an attempt to deny Italy its "rightful" colonial dominions, whilst at the same time Britain was trying to extend its own influence and authority.
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.
- The English prog-rock band Big Big Train included a song called "Albion Perfide" on its 1997 album English Boy Wonders.
- Schmidt, H. D. (1953). "The Idea and Slogan of ‘Perfidious Albion’". Journal of the History of Ideas 14 (4): 604–616. JSTOR 2707704.
- Geiser, Alfred, Das perfide Albion, via Archelaus
- Palla, Marco (1994). Mussolini e il fascismo (in Italian). Firenze Paris: Giunti Caster man. ISBN 9788809202726. p.112
- Luchinat, Vittorio (2012). Mussolini pubblico e privato (in Italian). ISBN 9788897982067. page
- Fabian Picardo (Chief Minister of Gibraltar) discusses politics in Spain and Gibraltar, YouTube
- Smith, Wilbur (2008). The angels weep, [and], A time to die. London: Pan. ISBN 9780330440998. p. 540