There is a widespread expression that points out in vivid detail the fate of those who try to do too much with too little focus, and that is the saying that someone is a jack of all trades and a master of none. There has long been the recognition that a dedication to being good at something often meant not being very good at other things. We have priorities in what we do, and accomplishing certain things means that we cannot do other things. Our time and effort and energy can only be spent doing so many things at a time, and in order to attain mastery of something, other things must simply fall through the cracks. We can all regale others with the story of people who were immensely talented at certain fields but showed shocking gaps in their knowledge and expertise once someone got outside of their favored space. Alternatively, we all know people who can do a great many things, but cannot do any of them extremely well, because being a generalist often precludes being a specialist. And those who try to do both find themselves under a high degree of pressure in managing to keep up with the demands of mastery as well as flexibility.
Such a thing is true not only of people but also of nations. The example of England during the Middle Ages is particularly useful here. During the Middle Ages, the relationship of England with the other realms of the British Isles as well as with the larger continent itself was in flux. During part of the Middle Ages, for example, England had to fight off the attacks of Scandinavian Vikings, at one point conceding a large amount of territory to the Danelaw. During the first part of the 11th century, after achieving some degree of freedom from this, England once again fell under the domination of Scandinavian rulers, being fought over by Danes, Norwegians, as well as the ancient House of Wessex and ambitious nobles like Harold Godwinson. This was but a prelude to the Norman and then Angevin domination that continued until the end of the Middle Ages altogether. Despite this, though, England long remained a key piece in various realms seeking to create or preserve empire during the entirety of the Middle Ages.
At times, this empire was connected to larger European trends. The empire of Canute and his short-lived sons was a Scandinavian empire that ranged from England into the Baltic Sea, where England provided steady taxation and a disciplined people. The Normans severed this Scandinavian bond and established a long-lasting bond between England as a kingdom and realm of its own and various French territories that owed allegiance to the King of France or other rulers. So, for example, we have the long struggle between the Kings of England and France over precedence, the use of a European base for springboarding into power in England, whether it be a Normandy for William the Conqueror, a Boulogne for Stephen of Blois (another French duchy), or Anjou for Henry II. It should be noted that this tendency did not end with the Middle Ages, and so we had Scotland as a base for James I, the Netherlands as a base for William of Orange in the Glorious Revolution, and Hanover as the base for George I. In all of these cases, the interests of England and the interests of the native realm of the claimant to the throne were potentially troublesome and problematic.
There were times, though, when the English rulers focused more on continental matters and more on local matters. So, for example, the joining of first Anjou and then the large territories of Aquitaine into the empire of Henry II led him and his son Richard “the Lionheart” to be deeply interested and involved in continental power politics relating to the Kingdom of France. The loss of most of those territories in the disastrous reign of John led, for a time, to a focus on internal matters, be it the divisions among the elites of England, or with a focus of dominating Ireland, destroying the independence of the Welsh principalities, or even ruling Scotland through a puppet king, all of which ended up happening during the course of the thirteenth century after the loss of England’s continental possessions aside from a small part of Aquitaine. After Edward II lost control of Scotland, his son Edward III returned focus to the continent, briefly ruling over a large part of France, with his reign followed by a period of internal dissension that led to the overthrow of Richard II and the establishment of the Lancastrians. Again, success in France briefly distracted England from its internal struggles until the loss of all French territories by 1453 except for Calais led once again to internal hostilities in England that culminated in the rise of the Tudors, who once again, after establishing harmony at home, sought to project that power abroad.
In all of these situations there were common threads. First the Welsh princes and then, more successfully, the Scottish monarchs sought to maintain an alliance between themselves and France in order to distract the English king. It was in the interests of both the French and the non-English realms of the British Isles for the English to be distracted. The French could effectively prevent England from trying to throw its weight around by efforts to attack at England through vulnerable areas, whether through supporting the Welsh or Irish or Scots in their efforts at preserving independence or through supporting rebellious barons against an incompetent and tyrannical monarch as was the case during the latter part of the reign of King John. Similarly, it was in periods when the French were distracted by internal divisions that England was able to demonstrate its power most effectively. As is often the case, those who are dealing with internal dissension are not able to master the external world through imperial power. One must first be master of oneself before one can be master of the world, and if one is distracted by having to deal with internal politics, one is not going to have the ability to master that which is outside. Obviously, this sort of issue has a large degree of relevance for present-day matters, and the wise student of history will recognize common trends and approaches that have long been enduring within the behavior of nations and peoples.