Perfidious Albion

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A WW1-era German propaganda poster invoking the "Perfidious Albion" trope.

"Perfidious Albion" is a pejorative phrase used within the context of international relations diplomacy to refer to acts of diplomatic slights, duplicity, treachery and hence infidelity (with respect to perceived promises made to or alliances formed with other nation states) by monarchs or governments of the United Kingdom (or England prior to 1707) in their pursuit of self-interest.

Perfidious signifies one who does not keep his faith or word (from the Latin word perfidia), while Albion is an ancient and now poetic name for Great Britain.

Origins and use[edit]

The use of the adjective "perfidious" to describe England has a long history; instances have been found as far back as the 13th century.[1] A very similar phrase was used in a sermon by 17th-century French bishop and theologian Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet:[2]

'L'Angleterre, ah, la perfide Angleterre,
que le rempart de ses mers rendoit inaccessible aux Romains,
la foi du Sauveur y est abordée.

England, oh perfidious England,
Shielded against the Romans by her ocean ramparts,
Now receives the true faith.

The coinage of the phrase in its current form, however, is conventionally attributed to Augustin Louis de Ximénès, a French-Spanish playwright who wrote it in a poem entitled "L'Ère des Français", published in 1793:

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, when the revolution aimed at establishing a liberal constitutional monarchy along British lines, many in Great Britain had looked upon the Revolution with mild favour. However, following the turn of the revolution to republicanism with the overthrow and execution of Louis XVI, Britain had allied itself with the other monarchies of Europe against the Revolution in France. This was seen by the revolutionaries in France as a "perfidious" betrayal.[3]

"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 [fr], 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". (This sentence mixes two major incidents in French history that can be related to the UK's perfidy: Joan of Arc, whose execution may have been due to English influence; and Napoleon, who died in exile on Saint Helena. He may have died by being poisoned, according to the Swedish toxicologist Sten Forshufvud.[4])

In German-speaking areas, the term "das perfide Albion" became increasingly frequent, especially during the rule of the German Empire (1871–1918) against the backdrop of rising British-German tensions.[5]

Examples of usage[edit]

  • The term often refers to the English reneging on the Treaty of Limerick of 1691, which ended the Williamite 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.[6][7]
  • The Irish ballad "The Foggy Dew" includes the term in its lyrics. The song concerns the Easter Rising and the perceived hypocrisy that England is concurrently fighting World War I so that "Small Nations might be free", while Ireland's struggle for freedom is forcibly suppressed.[8][9]
  • In Portugal, the term was widely used after the 1890 British Ultimatum, after Cecil Rhodes' opposition to the Pink Map. Portugal and England had been allied since 1386.[10]
  • Bastiat uses the term sarcastically in his satirical letter "The Candlemakers' Petition", first published in 1845.[11]
  • It is used by Ian Smith in his memoirs (The Great Betrayal, 1997) to describe his opposition on the British handling of Rhodesian independence.[12]
  • In his book I'm Not the Only One (2004), British politician George Galloway expressed the opinion that Kuwait is "clearly a part of the greater Iraqi whole, stolen from the motherland by perfidious Albion".[13]
  • In 2012, Fabian Picardo, the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, used the phrase to describe the UK government's position on the UN Decolonisation Committee: "Perfidious Albion, for this reason ... 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".[14]
  • The father of Israeli novelist Amos Oz wrote pamphlets for the Irgun that attacked "perfidious Albion" during the British rule in Palestine.[15]
  • The Italian term "perfida Albione" (perfidious Albion)[16] was used in the propaganda of Fascist Italy 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".[17] The term was used frequently in Italian politics after the Second Italo-Abyssinian War, because despite having gained large colonial territories for itself, 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, while at the same time, Britain was trying to extend its own influence and authority.[18] The same term was used after World War I related to the so-called mutilated victory.[19]
  • The term was used in reference to a possible United Kingdom withdrawal from the European Union in the run up to the referendum on the issue in 2016. An article in the French newspaper Le Parisien claimed that a poll showing that only 54% of French people supported UK membership of the EU (compared to 55% of British people) showed that "the British will always be seen as the Perfidious Albion".[20] In contrast, the editor of the Financial Times, Lionel Barber, has written that "Too many people in the UK are under the illusion that most European countries cannot wait to see the back of perfidious Albion."[21] Eventually, the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU.[22]
  • In arguing for a "hard" Brexit, and the EU rejecting a possible extension requested by the UK of the deadline to leave the EU, the Brexit-supporting British MP Mark Francois said to the Bruges Group in April 2019: "My message to the European Council ... If you now try to hold on to us against our will, you will be facing Perfidious Albion on speed. It would therefore be much better for all our sakes if we were to pursue our separate destinies, in a spirit of mutual respect."[23]
  • After their victory against England at the 1950 World Cup, the president of the Spanish Football Federation sent a telegram to Spanish dictator Francisco Franco that read, "we have beaten Perfidious Albion."[24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Schmidt, H. D. (1953). "The Idea and Slogan of 'Perfidious Albion'". Journal of the History of Ideas. 14 (4): 604–616. doi:10.2307/2707704. JSTOR 2707704.
  2. ^ Jacques Bénigne Bossuet, "Sermon pour la fête de la Circoncision de Notre-Seigneur" in: Oeuvres complètes, Volume 5, Ed. Outhenin-Chalandre, 1840, p. 264
  3. ^ Dictionnaire des usages socio-politiques (1770-1815): Tome 4, Désignants socio-politiques 2. Dictionnaire des usages socio-politiques (in French). Klincksieck. 1989. pp. 37–39. ISBN 978-2-252-02694-6.
  4. ^ Jean-Michel Hoerner, "La Famille Fenouillard: une œuvre prémonitoire ?", Hérodote, 2007/4 (no. 127) ISBN 9782707153555, doi:10.3917/her.127.0190
  5. ^ Geiser, Alfred. "Das perfide Albion". via Archelaus.
  6. ^ Carruthers, Gerard; Kidd, Colin (2018). Literature and Union: Scottish Texts, British Contexts. Oxford University Press. p. 99. ISBN 9780198736233. Retrieved 29 August 2018 – via Google Books.
  7. ^ Schwoerer, Lois G. (1992). The Revolution of 1688-89: Changing Perspectives. Cambridge University Press. p. 236. ISBN 9780521526142. Retrieved 29 August 2018 – via Google Books.
  8. ^ "History – British History in depth: Ireland and World War One". BBC. Retrieved 18 March 2020.
  9. ^ Giotto, Labri. "The Foggy Dew: Processes of change in an Irish Rebel song". Outreach Ethnomusicology – An Online Ethnomusicology Community. Archived from the original on 18 March 2020. Retrieved 18 March 2020.
  10. ^ Saramago, José (2010). The Revolution of 1688–89: Changing The Collected Novels of José Saramago. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 122. ISBN 978-0547581002. Retrieved 29 August 2018 – via Google Books.
  11. ^ Bastiat, Frédéric (2007). The Bastiat Collection. Institute. p. 228. ISBN 9781933550077. Retrieved 29 August 2018 – via Google Books.
  12. ^ White, Luise (2015). Unpopular Sovereignty: Rhodesian Independence and African Decolonization. University of Chicago Press. p. 101. ISBN 9780226235196. Retrieved 29 August 2018 – via Google Books.
  13. ^ Hitchens, Christopher (30 May 2005). "Unmitigated Galloway". Weekly Standard. pp. 1–3. This essay is reprinted in Cottee, Simon; Cushman, Thomas, eds. (2008). Christopher Hitchens and His Critics: Terror, Iraq, and the Left. New York & London: New York University Press. pp. 140-50, 144–46, 149. The text of Galloway's book differs in reprints.
  14. ^ "Fabian Picardo (Chief Minister of Gibraltar) discusses politics in Spain and Gibraltar" – via YouTube.
  15. ^ Gorenberg, Gershom (31 July 2014). "'Perfidious America': Behind Netanyahu's hostility to Kerry". Haaretz. Retrieved 4 August 2014.
  16. ^ Palla, M. (1993). Mussolini e il fascismo. Giunti. p. 112. ISBN 9788809202726. Retrieved 15 October 2014 – via Google Books.
  17. ^ Borelli, Gian Franco; Luchinat, Vittorio (2012). Benito Mussolini privato e pubblico. INDEX. ISBN 9788897982067. Retrieved 15 October 2014 – via Google Books.
  18. ^ "Italy's place in the sun". The Age. 31 May 1926. p. 11. Retrieved 15 October 2014 – via Google News.
  19. ^ H. James Burgwyn. "Italian Foreign Policy in the Interwar Period 1918–1940". BJC McKercher and Keith Neilson (eds.), Praeger Studies of Foreign Policies of the Great Powers.
  20. ^ Samuel, Henry (1 April 2016). "French more keen on Brexit than British, says major poll". The Telegraph. Retrieved 10 June 2016.
  21. ^ Barber, Lionel (16 April 2016). "Could Brexit be a good thing for Europe?". Financial Times. Retrieved 10 June 2016.
  22. ^ Erlanger, Steven (23 June 2016). "Britain Votes to Leave E.U.; Cameron Plans to Step Down". New York Times. Retrieved 1 August 2016.
  23. ^ Sparrow, Andrew; Jones, Sam; Oltermann, Philip (9 April 2019). "Brexit: ERG Tories tells Brussels it will regret letting 'Perfidious Albion' remain in EU beyond Friday – live news". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 9 April 2019.
  24. ^ "Spanish stars' Premier League moves have been of mutual benefit". ESPN.