On Saturday, 10th December, England will play France in the World Cup quarter final. The rivalry between England and France is one of the longest and most influential in Europe – it has led to wars, battles, arguments, and much more. Let’s discuss the history of French and English relations and talk about why there is such a rivalry!



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Vocabulary List

Rival (n) – a person, company, product, etc. competing with others for the same thing or in the same area

He beat his closest rival by 25%

Rivalry (n) – a situation in which people, businesses, etc. compete with each other for the same thing:

There is a rivalry between the three brothers

Conquest (n) – taking control or possession of foreign land, or a group of people, by force

The Norman conquest of England introduced French vocabulary to Britain

Victorious (adj) – having won a game, competition, election, war, etc

The victorious team were loudly cheered by their fans.

To invade (v) – to enter a country by force with large numbers of soldiers in order to take possession of it

The Mongolians tried, and failed, to invade Japan twice

Ally (n) – a country that has agreed officially to give help and support to another one

During the First World War, Turkey was an ally of Germany.

To veto (v) – to refuse to allow something

In 1961, President De Gaulle vetoed Britain’s entry into the Common Market

Favourite (n) – the person, team, or animal most people expect to win a race or competition

France are one of the favourites to win this year’s world cup

 

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The World Cup Quarter Final!

On Saturday, December 10th, England will play France in the quarter finals of the 2022 World Cup. Both teams will be confident of victory.

France are the defending world champions – winning the tournament in Russia four years ago. They defeated Australia and Denmark in the group stages, and despite losing to Tunisia in the final group game, put in a very strong performance to beat Poland. With world class attacking players including Kylian Mbappé, France are considered one of the favourites to win the World Cup.

The opposition, England, will also be confident of victory. England reached the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup before losing to Croatia in extra time. Last year, they reached the finals of European Championships but lost to Italy on penalties. They are the top scoring team in the World Cup this year and have a young team full of talent – with captain and striker Harry Kane leading his country.

The game between England and France will definitely be an exciting game for all football fans – but for French and English people the game may have extra significance.

For over 1000 years, England and France have been rivals. Rivals in war; rivals in politics; rivals in influence; rivals in empires; and rivals in sport. For English people in particular, the rivalry with the French is one of the most passionate and long standing. I know some of my French listeners may feel a greater rivalry with other countries… but for England and English people – France have always been our national rival.

Even in recent years, the rivalry has been clear. Disputes between fisherman in the sea between England and France constantly occur. And France’s anger at the UK over a deal to build submarines for Australia was clear to be seen.

Today, I want to give you a brief history of the rivalry and relations between England and France. This is one of the oldest rivalries in the world, between two of the oldest countries in Europe. And, to conclude the episode, I’ll try to explain why France and Britain may be more similar than you think!


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Early Relations Between France and England

There is just 33km, or 20 miles, separating England and France across the sea. The ancient people of Northwest France and the British Isles were very similar – the French region of Brittany, for example, is considered one of the Celtic nations along with Scotland, Ireland, Wales, the Isle of Man, and Cornwall.

And both France and the British Isles were controlled at various times by the Roman empire. This left behind similar architecture, roads, and ancient towns and cities.

Norman Invasion

Yet, I think it is fair to say the beginnings of the modern rivalry between France and England came in the year 1066, long after the Roman empire had left northern Europe. For English people, the year 1066 is considered one of the most import dates in our country’s history.

Why is the year 1066 so important? Well, it was the date of the Norman conquest of England. The Normans controlled northern France – interestingly the Normans had actually invaded France centuries earlier. They were the descendants of a Viking leader from Scandinavia, who was given land in the north of France as a way of stopping him from attacking France’s biggest cities.

His descendants became the Normans – French speaking and influential landowners. In 1066, William, the duke of Normandy, decided to invade England. His arrival on the south coast of England forever changed the course of English history.

William invaded England with the support of influential lords and families who were promised land and roles in the country. The English king Harold had just defeated a Viking invasion in the north of the country – and William took the opportunity to invade England while the country was weak. Harold was killed in battle – famously after being shot in the eye by an arrow – and William’s forces quickly conquered the rest of the UK. Hence his famous name – William the Conqueror.

The Normans changed England forever, they brought with them noble families and influential leaders. They introduced new religious figures and new churches. They built a new legal system. And they introduced a new language to the country – today up to 50% of the English language is French in origin.

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Centuries of War

Despite, or perhaps because of, this new connection to France, England and France became bitter rivals and fought numerous wars throughout the medieval and early modern periods of history. The King of France would claim he should rule England, and the King of England would claim he was the rightful leader of France. France would also support and collaborate with Scotland (and sometimes Ireland) to work against their historical rivals England!

In some wars, France came out victorious. The Hundred years war, which took place between 1337 and 1453 (so longer than a hundred years) began after Edward III of England claimed to be the King of France. Battles occurred for over 40 years, until an English king, Henry V, was declared as the heir to the king of France.

However, after Henry and king both died, French forces led by the famous Joan of Arc defeated the English, supported the old king’s children as the new leaders of the country, reclaimed the city of Paris, and pushed England back to the coast. After the Hundred years war, England would never be able to regain control over French territory.

The English royal family once owned more land in France than the king of France (thanks to King Henry II of England being a French nobleman). The English king owned parts of France from the time of William the Conqueror until the year 1557 when they lost the port of Calais.

England and France were almost constantly at war from the time of the Norman invasion onwards, including a Second Hundred Year’s war beginning in 1689.

One of the most important of these wars was the Seven Years’ War from 1756 to 1763. This war was probably the first real “world war” – it was based on the rivalry between the growing French and British empires. Britain attempted to expand their North American colonies by taking control of French territory – leading to war.

The powerful European countries and states took sides – either supporting the French or the British. After seven years of conflict, Great Britain came out the most successful. They gained most of “New France” – basically all of France’s territory in modern day Canada and the USA, the Spanish part of Florida, some Caribbean islands, Senegal, and gave Great Britain dominance over France’s ports in India.

Victory over France in this war gave the British Empire the power and influence to become the largest empire and control most of the world’s trade.

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Napoleon

The last real conflict between England and France revolved around Napoleon and the French revolution. Britain sent armies to France to support the French nobles after they were removed during the revolution (Britain was scared the revolution could spread).

In 1804, Napoleon declared himself emperor of France, and quickly made plans to invade England. The French and Spanish navies attempted to take control of the English Channel (the sea separating Britain from Europe), but were defeated by the Admiral Nelson, leader of the British navy, during the battle of Trafalgar.

In 1815, the British army defeated Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo, and the rivalry between Britain and France became less violent. The battle of 1815 was the last time Britain and France fought each other in a conflict, and peace between the two countries was officially declared after the 1904 Entente Cordiale.

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Modern Relations

Since the beginning of the 20th century, Britain and France have been allies and fought on the same side in the majority of wars. In both World War I and World War II, Britain and France were allies fighting together against Germany. Britain helped to free France from Nazi control during World War II.

Both countries then became key allies of the USA during the Cold War. Britain and France took active roles in shaping European and western politics and society – especially in trying to promote democracy and capitalism as a better than socialism and communism.

The two countries were founding members of NATO, developed nuclear weapons, and were included in the 5 permanent UN security council members (alongside the US, Soviet Union, and China).   

France was one of the founding members of the European community, and later European Union, which the UK joined in 1973. Since the 70s, France and the UK have been very close allies – especially in terms of military cooperation and defence.

However, relations have not always been perfect since World War II. I mentioned the UK joined the EU in 1973… well they wanted to join earlier but French President Charles de Gaulle refused to accept their application. De Gaulle was suspicious of the influence of the USA, the UK’s strongest ally, and as well as vetoing the UK’s applications he decided to withdraw France from having an active role in NATO.

One of the biggest problems in the relationship in recent years has been Brexit – the UK leaving the European Union. France and Britain have long disagreed about the direction of Europe – France want closer and closer connections between European countries which caused the UK concerns for decades.

After leaving the EU, France and Britain have clashed repeatedly. There have been arguments over the terms of Britain leaving the organisation. Arguments about the refugee crisis with people using France as a base to cross over to the UK. Arguments over fishing in the English channel. Arguments over building submarines for Australia. And probably more things I’ve forgotten.

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Why do the British and French still hate each other?

So… why do the British and French still hate each other? Britain has been rivals with pretty much every country at some point over the past 1000 years – so why does France hold a special place? Well… I don’t think we do hate each other. We are historic rivals and have been in competition for almost 1000 years – from a young age we learn this competition.

In many ways Britain and France are very similar countries. We have similar size populations; we have long histories of democracy; we have a history of empire, colonialism, and international influence. Both Britain and France are also proud countries that believe they deserve respect; we both fear our countries are declining and that the US, China, Germany, Japan, and other countries are taking over our roles.

And I think this is why the rivalry between the two countries still exists – because we are similar and comparable. But we also have very different approaches to surviving in the modern world. After Brexit, many French government officials and diplomats were convinced the UK would become irrelevant and less involved in international politics.

In fact, the French ambassadors to the UK over the past few years have spent more time criticising the UK than learning about the UK’s intentions around the world. One consequence of this is that France were completely surprised a few years ago when France lost an incredibly valuable contract to build submarines for Australia – after giving France the opportunity, Australia changed its mind and gave the contract to the US and the UK.

France constantly criticises the UK for being a junior partner to the US. The US is the influential country… and the UK just follows and does what they say. But France is also having to deal with being a junior partner – Germany is the economic and political leader of Europe, not France.

Again, I think this is one of the reasons why there is still such a rivalry between France and England. We both are trying to convince ourselves that we are more important, powerful, and relevant than the other country. But really… we are both losing our power and influence every day!

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A Footballing Rivalry

So France and the UK have been rivals for hundreds of years, but how about a footballing rivalry?

To be completely honest, the rivalry between England and France in football has not been too important. For England, Germany is considered the biggest rival (even though Germans don’t always feel the same) and Argentina is considered a major rival (after Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal and David Beckham’s red card in the 1998 world cup).

England and France have played each other 31 times in competitive football games – England have won 17 times and France 9 times. However, many of England’s victories came a long time ago before World War II.

In World Cups, France and England have only played twice – with England winning both times… but the last time they played at the World Cup was in 1982. In the European championships, France won 1 game and the other 2 games ended in draws.

The rivalry between the two countries has not been particularly intense in football, but there is a chance that France and England could be building a new rivalry right now. Both countries are amongst the favourites to win the tournament, both have young and exciting teams, and both have performed well in previous tournaments.

Perhaps, after Saturday’s quarter final, England vs France will become a major footballing rivalry!

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Final Thought

Today I have talked about the rivalry between France and England (and Britain and the UK). For over 1000 years, there has been some kind of rivalry between the two countries.

Centuries of wars and conflict ended around 200 years ago, but the rivalry in terms of politics, language, influence, and power has continued.

When the two football teams take to the field on Saturday and represent their countries, they are continuing a long running and passionate rivalry – and victory would give the winners’ bragging rights over their old enemies!

Who do you think will win in the match between England and France? Who is your country’s biggest or traditional rival?

By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

One thought on “191. England vs France: An Historic Rivalry! (English Vocabulary Lesson)”
  1. Thank you for this historical overview about the relation between England and France. Now I will watch the game with a new understanding. As for my best football team it is BRAZIL without doubt and with all respect to other teams

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