VCH International Symposium 2009
England: a country without regions, by Christopher Dyer
This talk consists of four parts. Firstly, a statement about the unity of England, which lends some support to the provocative statement in the title; secondly a brief account of the development of ideas about regions and localities, with a focus on the contribution of the Leicester school; thirdly, a brief account of a problematic example of defining a locality’s regional significance; and finally an examination of the utility of defining regional variety. These are all connected, because while the paper begins with scepticism about identifying regions, it then shows that the varied experiences of different parts of the country teaches us important lessons about social and economic change. This will use material from the middle ages a good deal, but will also refer to the early modern period.
1. The unity of England.
All nations, all states, are artificial constructs, and England is no exception. Its administrative unification began when it was a Roman province for more than three centuries, but it was not until the tenth century that a state was founded which has had a continuous existence until the present day.
The state was centralised, with units of local government (shires) imposed by the kings of England, based on fortified towns with royal officials, where centrally controlled mints produced a uniform coinage. From the shire towns law was enforced, armies and navies raised, and taxes collected. Religion was also centralised, under strong royal influence.
The state was underpinned by an origin myth, of an Anglo-Saxon invasion in the fifth century (which glossed over the survival of a British population), by a tendentious story of conversion to Christianity by Roman missionaries mainly in the seventh century, and by the rather more plausible narrative of resistance against a foreign invader in the ninth. A confident English culture and administrative structure could in the period 850-1100 absorb three invasions, two from Scandinavia and a third from Normandy, and anglicise the newcomers. An effective tax-collecting state
attracted predators, as capture of a few centres of power delivered wealth to the
invaders. The making of Domesday Book demonstrates the ability of the Old English state, twenty years after the Conquest, to gather data systematically over the whole kingdom and to deliver the results to the king.
With a few exceptionsEnglandbetween the tenth and fifteenth centuries had no territorial lordships, and certainly no city states and no significant sections of countryside ruledby cities. London, already by the eighth century the largest trading centre, standing at the hub of a transport network that stretched over much of the island, had by the twelfth century, in combination with its western suburb of Westminster become the administrative capital.
There were no serious attempts to break away into regional separatism.
When subjects rose up in rebellion, whether they were aristocrats (e.g. in 1215, 1258-65 and 1455-85) or lower orders of society (in 1381, 1450, 1549) they did not seek local autonomy, but to control the central government and to carry out reforms which applied to the whole country. The same seems to be true of the civil wars of the seventeenth century, but modern politics had a complicating British dimension, and this talk is focussed on England, not Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
The formation of a separate provincial consciousness was prevented by the close relationship between the Crown and the gentry. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries royal government became increasingly reliant on gentry administrators, and the same social group provided the lawyers who staffed the common law courts. The king shared authority and wealth with the aristocracy, and the rulers of the shires throughout the kingdom identified with the central state. People below the gentry joined in the processes of law and government as jurors, constables and sub-taxers.
Of course there were differences across the country in farming, settlements, economy, society, landscape, government, institutions, customs, architecture, culture, dialect and even language, but these cannot be gathered together into a coherent picture of a series of separate regions, either by ‘objective’ observation, or with reference to a strong consciousness of difference. Drawing precise boundaries causes great difficulties – one only has to think of the frontiers in the north supposedly represented by the Trent or the Tees or the Tweed. The ‘men of Kent’, northerners, the people of Norfolk even the Cornish, had distinctive ways of life, and were aware of their special character, but they defined themselves as English. The great majority
of the population in the south and the midlands were neither ‘distinctive’ nor ‘special’. Although the midlands are often mentioned as an English region, it has no agreed boundaries, and its inhabitants, even when encouraged to think of themselves as belonging to the east midlands or west midlands, show no enthusiasm or loyalty to these entities..
2. Ideas about regions and localities.
This speaker comes from the Leicester Centre for English Local History, which has played a special role in seeking ways of approaching regions, and classifying their characteristics. Here developments in thinking will be traced over the last sixty years.
W.G Hoskins recognised regional differences, but did not make them a great theme. His influential book about the Making of the English Landscape was as concerned with noting similarities as with highlighting differences – though forest zones, the fenland, the breckland and other areas with their own character are discussed in relation to his general themes, such as the progress of enclosures. He saw merits in the contrast drawn by Cyril Fox between the highland and the lowland zone. His book on Midland England had a most idiosyncratic definition of the region, which excluded Birmingham, which he evidently disliked. The title of one of his most influential books, The Midland Peasant, which was about the village of Wigston Magna, may well have been urged on him by his publisher to signal its broad canvas. In fact the specific comparisons are mainly to Leicestershire, and he was entirely comfortable, as is shown by his many writings about Devon and Leicestershire, with the county as a convenient context for local studies. His successor Finberg played a large part in the 1950s in planning the Agrarian History of England and Wales, and Joan Thirsk in her work for the volume on the sixteenth century, the first volume to appear, tackled systematically the task of defining farming regions, above all by collecting samples of data from probate inventories. Her maps of these regions with their varied mixes of husbandry, crops and livestock have been very influential on thinking about regions ever since, and her phrases such as ‘wood pasture’ have endured and have been given new nuances of meaning.
Alan Everitt, who worked with Thirsk, had developed the idea of ‘county community’ as an explanation of the political culture of the gentry at the time of the civil war. The idea did not survive partly because it did not take sufficient account of
the dominance of London, nor of the English and British dimensions. It is now thought that the conflicts had a strong basis in political ideas and religious principles, and that local interest and rivalries could not explain the depth of the antagonisms that were demonstrated in the period 1640-1660. partly because he did not give sufficient attention to regions larger than the county, nor did he make enough of the smaller neighbourhoods within counties within which many gentry operated. For all of the criticisms of the county community as an explanatory model for the political ideas and behaviour of the gentry, studies of the gentry are still based on the county, and historians still talk of gentry communities. Recent work on the writing of county histories in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries has emphasised the appeal of those histories for the gentry who mainly purchased and read them, and they obviously regarded the county as the territory to which they belonged.
Everitt wrote for the Agrarian History , and developedfrom the observation of local differences in farming systems the idea of pays, borrowed from French geographers, in which the countryside was seen as a finely textured patchwork of districts of varying size sharing common settlement patterns, farming methods, landscapes, social customs, religious affiliations and much else. Often the names of these pays already existed in the language of their inhabitants or in the writings of commentators in the early modern period : Cotswolds, Breckland, the Weald, the Chilterns, the Feldon, the Levels, the Broads, Mendip, Arden, or the Vale of York. They could be classified into various types – moorlands, downlands, fenlands, woodlands, champion country and wolds. The pays concept is widely accepted and employed, for example in Underdown’s characterisation of the popular culture of the ‘chalk’ and ‘cheese’ countries of Wiltshire. One sometimes finds that very subtle differences are detected by some historianswhich are not easily visible to the less sensitive observer. Most of those who use the idea, including Everitt himself, see them not as complete units but as part of a larger whole, because their specialised nature made them dependent on links and interactions – the Arden (woodland) and Feldon (champion) of Warwickshire depended on one another for the exchange of the Feldon’s grain, from the south and east of the county, for the timber, firewood and dairy produce from the pastoral Arden in the north and west. The wooded Weald of
Kent provided the corn-growing lands of north Kent with access to timber, fuel, pannage and pasture.
Charles Phythian-Adams, who worked with Everitt and succeeded him as head of the Department, while accepting the pays concept, developed a new way of looking at ‘cultural provinces’ which he now prefers to call ‘regional societies’. These
were larger then pays, and the influence of large towns helped to give them a focus
and unity. Phythian-Adams has been especially ingenious in his analysis of borders between his provinces, some of which were marked by river valleys, and others by watersheds, which were often relatively empty stretches of country used as woodland or pasture. His forthcoming book will reveal the full subtlety of the idea, and its many applications.
The current generation of local historians at Leicester have tended to focus on smaller units of settlement and society – groups of villages, individual villages, small towns even, but with broad questions in mind.. The small examples are chosen to illuminate large questions, such as the roots of the different trajectories of development which led to some rural communities coalescing into nucleated villages, while others became dispersed settlements. The internal history of villages is investigatedto reveal their inhabitants’ sense of belonging, or the extent to which they looked outwards. Research themes for recent seminar series include the perception of landscape and settlement, and the relationship between the names of settlements and our knowledge of them from conventional written and archaeological evidence.
Leicester local historians are obviously influenced by work conducted elsewhere, which provide additional or alternative insights into the identification of regions and the explanation of the differences between them. These include:
- A new classification of regional differences (broadly into three provinces; but also into much smaller subdivisions, based on mapping types of rural settlement, but closely echoing earlier work on field systems. The ‘central province’ identified using this method is close to the distribution of midland field systems first identified in 1916, and the ‘champion’ pays mentioned above.
- New systematic mapping of land values, agricultural systems, mixes of crops and livestock, taxable wealth over the whole country in the later middle ages, which tends not to coincide with the various regions and pays mentioned
above, but which revives patterns mapped in earlier analytical work on Domesday etc.
- Research into urban hierarchies, networks and hinterlands, applying geographical theory.
- Recent classifications of parts of England depending on international connections, especially the western seaboard which is seen as looking
towards the Atlantic world.
3. A local example.
The aim of the later part of this talk is to turn the discussion away from airy generalisation about regions. I do not regard the study of regions as very important for their own sake, but rather as a means to an end. An understanding of regions helps us to appreciate the lives of the people that were played out within them. The people – their way of life, social standing, wealth, outlook etc. – are more important than dots on maps and different densities of shading.
To illustrate this point I am introducing you to a part of midland England on which I am currently working. The study of regions helps us to understand the place and its inhabitants. The place is the very small market town of Moreton-in-Marsh in Gloucestershire and its rural surroundings. Detailed documents of wool purchases by a woolman of Moreton, John Heritage, in the early sixteenth century delineate, a territory about 16 miles (24 km) across. I will call this ‘Heritage country’.
This territory was not peculiar to the business activities of one individual, but presumably bears some resemblance to the general hinterland of the small town. One would expect that purchases of a relatively valuable and specialised commodity like wool would take place over rather longer distances than the trade in cheaper and more everyday goods, like bread, dairy produce, fruit and vegetables, salt, and firewood. So Moreton’s regular, everyday or market day hinterland would be rather smaller. The evidence from comparable towns with more abundant sources, such as Shipston-on-Stour with its large number of debt records, confirms the existence for this rather more focussed hinterland.
Here is a good starting point for defining a territory: in objective terms this was the marketing horizon, or the sphere of influence of a trading centre In subjective
terms the 4000 or so country peopleof the hinterland c. 1500 looked to Moreton as a place to go to sell produce or buy their consumption needs. They had many other ways of defining themselves and making connections with other people and organisations. If we continue briefly with the town-country theme, hinterlands overlapped. Everyone in the hinterland, and certainly everyone on the outer fringes had alternative places go, as towns were spaced only 6-10 miles apart, and often there were two or three within a convenient distance. Larger and more distant towns could offer attractions unavailable in the smaller urban centres of any country dweller. For example the fraternity at Stratford-upon-Avon could offer a combination of religious benefits and social contacts that was simply beyond the ambitions of Moreton’s small scale institutions.
Turning to other dimensions of people’s lives, perhaps in defining themselves the people of ‘Heritage country’took note of the units of local government ? They thought of themselves as men of Gloucestershire, perhaps, and detected differences between themselves and neighbouring counties
They had the same reasons to take note of the county as anyone elsewhere in England, because the better off contributed to taxes collected on a county-by county basis, and the elite gentry and yeomen had duties as jurors and officials in the county administration. The county boundaries however cut through Heritage country in a very complicated way, with islands and enclaves of shires. To the east of Moreton lay the ‘Four Shires Stone’, at a point where an island of Worcestershire, Evenlode, encountered Gloucestershire, Warwickshire and Oxfordshire. The local government unit below the shire, the hundred, also provided no help to giving the locality any graspable straw of cohesion, as ‘Heritage country’ was divided between seven hundreds.
Church administration was heavily influence by secular boundaries, so a diocesan boundary cut through ‘Heritage country’, and the inhabitants were divided between the jurisdiction of four archdeacons.
I doubt if these subdivisions of local government really had much influence on the sense of place experienced by these people. The hundreds, for example, did some useful tasks which touched the lives of their inhabitants, such as the election of constables and the settlement of debt disputes, but most men and women were much more conscious of the village and the parish, and that shows up explicitly in their
wills, with their legacies to their parish church, and their requests to be buried in the church or churchyard. They sometimes reflect the large parishes with many settlements which were a feature of ‘Heritage country’, so John Palmer of Moreton in 1496 made religious bequests to Blockley parish church, but lavished more money on the local chapel of Moreton rather than on the remote mother church. Some of the townships within larger parishes were well organised with their own fields and commons to regulate, and were held responsible for bridge repair and other public duties. Carrying out administrative functions – collecting money and spending it, deciding on the width of the bridge or the number of loads of stone needed to make a road - bound villages or hamlets together. But important as the village was, people were not tied to them, as is evident from the high rate of migration.