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You Only Live Twice – Cool Britannia to Cold Brexit: The United Kingdom, 1999-2019. Part One: Economics, Culture & Society.   Leave a comment

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Cold Shoulder or Warm Handshake?

On 29 March 2019, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will leave the European Union after forty-six years of membership, since it joined the European Economic Community on 1 January 1973 on the same day and hour as the Republic of Ireland. Yet in 1999, it looked as if the long-standing debate over Britain’s membership had been resolved. The Maastricht Treaty establishing the European Union had been signed by all the member states of the preceding European Community in February 1992 and was succeeded by a further treaty, signed in Amsterdam in 1999. What, then, has happened in the space of twenty years to so fundamentally change the ‘settled’ view of the British Parliament and people, bearing in mind that both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, while England and Wales both voted to leave? At the time of writing, the manner of our going has not yet been determined, but the invocation of ‘article fifty’ by the Westminster Parliament and the UK government means that the date has been set. So either we will have to leave without a deal, turning a cold shoulder to our erstwhile friends and allies on the continent, or we will finally ratify the deal agreed between the EU Commission, on behalf of the twenty-seven remaining member states, and leave with a warm handshake and most of our trading and cultural relations intact.

As yet, the possibility of a second referendum – or third, if we take into account the 1975 referendum, called by Harold Wilson (above) which was also a binary leave/ remain decision – seems remote. In any event, it is quite likely that the result would be the same and would kill off any opportunity of the UK returning to EU membership for at least another generation. As Ian Fleming’s James Bond tells us, ‘you only live twice’. That certainly seems to be the mood in Brussels too. I was too young to vote in 1975 by just five days, and another membership referendum would be unlikely to occur in my lifetime. So much has been said about following ‘the will of the people’, or at least 52% of them, that it would be a foolish government, in an age of rampant populism, that chose to revoke article fifty, even if Westminster voted for this. At the same time, and in that same populist age, we know from recent experience that in politics and international relations, nothing is inevitable…

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One of the major factors in the 2016 Referendum Campaign was the country’s public spending priorities, compared with those of the European Union. The ‘Leave’ campaign sent a double-decker bus around England stating that by ending the UK’s payments into the EU, more than 350 million pounds per week could be redirected to the National Health Service (NHS).

A British Icon Revived – The NHS under New Labour:

To understand the power of this statement, it is important to recognise that the NHS is unique in Europe in that it is wholly funded from direct taxation, and not via National Insurance, as in many other European countries. As a service created in 1948 to be ‘free at the point of delivery’, it is seen as a ‘British icon’ and funding has been a central issue in national election campaigns since 2001, when Tony Blair was confronted by an irate voter, Sharon Storer, outside a hospital. In its first election manifesto of 1997, ‘New Labour’ promised to safeguard the basic principles of the NHS, which we founded. The ‘we’ here was the post-war Labour government, whose socialist Health Minister, Aneurin Bevan, had established the service in the teeth of considerable opposition from within both parliament and the medical profession. ‘New Labour’ protested that under the Tories there had been fifty thousand fewer nurses but a rise of no fewer than twenty thousand managers – red tape which Labour would pull away and burn. Though critical of the internal markets the Tories had introduced, Blair promised to keep a split between those who commissioned health services and those who provided them.

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Under Frank Dobson, Labour’s new Health Secretary, there was little reform of the NHS but there was, year by year, just enough extra money to stave off the winter crises. But then a series of tragic individual cases hit the headlines, and one of them came from a Labour peer and well-known medical scientist and fertility expert, Professor Robert Winston, who was greatly admired by Tony Blair. He launched a furious denunciation of the government over the treatment of his elderly mother. Far from upholding the NHS’s iconic status, Winston said that Britain’s health service was the worst in Europe and was getting worse under the New Labour government, which was being deceitful about the true picture. Labour’s polling on the issue showed that Winston was, in general terms, correct in his assessment in the view of the country as a whole. In January 2000, therefore, Blair announced directly to it that he would bring Britain’s health spending up to the European average within five years. That was a huge promise because it meant spending a third as much again in real terms, and his ‘prudent’ Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, was unhappy that Blair had not spoken enough on television about the need for health service reform to accompany the money, and had also ‘stolen’ his budget announcements. On Budget day itself, Brown announced that until 2004 health spending would rise at above six per cent beyond inflation every year, …

… by far the largest sustained increase in NHS funding in any period in its fifty-year history … half as much again for health care for every family in this country.       

The tilt away from Brown’s sharp spending controls during the first three years of the New Labour government had begun by the first spring of the new millennium, and there was more to come. With a general election looming in 2001, Brown also announced a review of the NHS and its future by a former banker. As soon as the election was over, broad hints about necessary tax rises were dropped. When the Wanless Report was finally published, it confirmed much that the winter crisis of 1999-2000 had exposed. The NHS was not, whatever Britons fondly believed, better than health systems in other developed countries, and it needed a lot more money. ‘Wanless’ also rejected a radical change in funding, such as a switch to insurance-based or semi-private health care. Brown immediately used this as objective proof that taxes had to rise in order to save the NHS. In his next budget of 2002, Brown broke with a political convention that which had reigned since the mid-eighties, that direct taxes would not be raised again. He raised a special one per cent national insurance levy, equivalent to a penny on income tax, to fund the huge reinvestment in Britain’s health.

Public spending shot up with this commitment and, in some ways, it paid off, since by 2006 there were around 300,000 extra NHS staff compared to 1997. That included more than ten thousand extra senior hospital doctors (about a quarter more) and 85,000 more nurses. But there were also nearly forty thousand managers, twice as many as Blair and Brown had ridiculed the Tory government for hiring. An ambitious computer project for the whole NHS became an expensive catastrophe. Meanwhile, the health service budget rose from thirty-seven billion to more than ninety-two billion a year. But the investment produced results, with waiting lists, a source of great public anger from the mid-nineties, falling by 200,000. By 2005, Blair was able to talk of the best waiting list figures since 1988. Hardly anyone was left waiting for an inpatient appointment for more than six months. Death rates from cancer for people under the age of seventy-five fell by 15.7 per cent between 1996 and 2006 and death rates from heart disease fell by just under thirty-six per cent. Meanwhile, the public finance initiative meant that new hospitals were being built around the country. But, unfortunately for New Labour, that was not the whole story of the Health Service under their stewardship. As Andrew Marr has attested,

…’Czars’, quangos, agencies, commissions, access teams and planners hunched over the NHS as Whitehall, having promised to devolve power, now imposed a new round of mind-dazing control.

By the autumn of 2004 hospitals were subject to more than a hundred inspections. War broke out between Brown and the Treasury and the ‘Blairite’ Health Secretary, Alan Milburn, about the basic principles of running the hospitals. Milburn wanted more competition between them, but Brown didn’t see how this was possible when most people had only one major local hospital. Polling suggested that he was making a popular point. Most people simply wanted better hospitals, not more choice. A truce was eventually declared with the establishment of a small number of independent, ‘foundation’ hospitals. By the 2005 general election, Michael Howard’s Conservatives were attacking Labour for wasting money and allowing people’s lives to be put at risk in dirty, badly run hospitals. Just like Labour once had, they were promising to cut bureaucracy and the number of organisations within the NHS. By the summer of 2006, despite the huge injection of funds, the Service was facing a cash crisis. Although the shortfall was not huge as a percentage of the total budget, trusts in some of the most vulnerable parts of the country were on the edge of bankruptcy, from Hartlepool to Cornwall and across to London. Throughout Britain, seven thousand jobs had gone and the Royal College of Nursing, the professional association to which most nurses belonged, was predicting thirteen thousand more would go soon. Many newly and expensively qualified doctors and even specialist consultants could not find work. It seemed that wage costs, expensive new drugs, poor management and the money poured into endless bureaucratic reforms had resulted in a still inadequate service. Bupa, the leading private operator, had been covering some 2.3 million people in 1999. Six years later, the figure was more than eight million. This partly reflected greater affluence, but it was also hardly a resounding vote of confidence in Labour’s management of the NHS.

Public Spending, Declining Regions & Economic Development:

As public spending had begun to flow during the second Blair administration, vast amounts of money had gone in pay rises, new bureaucracies and on bills for outside consultants. Ministries had been unused to spending again, after the initial period of ‘prudence’, and did not always do it well. Brown and his Treasury team resorted to double and triple counting of early spending increases in order to give the impression they were doing more for hospitals, schools and transport than they actually could. As Marr has pointed out, …

… In trying to achieve better policing, more effective planning, healthier school food, prettier town centres and a hundred other hopes, the centre of government ordered and cajoled, hassled and harangued, always high-minded, always speaking for ‘the people’.  

The railways, after yet another disaster, were shaken up again. In very controversial circumstances Railtrack, the once-profitable monopoly company operating the lines, was driven to bankruptcy and a new system of Whitehall control was imposed. At one point, Tony Blair boasted of having five hundred targets for the public sector. Parish councils, small businesses and charities found that they were loaded with directives. Schools and hospitals had many more. Marr has commented, …

The interference was always well-meant but it clogged up the arteries of free decision-taking and frustrated responsible public life. 

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Throughout the New Labour years, with steady growth and low inflation, most of the country grew richer. Growth since 1997, at 2.8 per cent per year, was above the post-war average, GDP per head was above that of France and Germany and the country had the second lowest jobless figures in the EU. The number of people in work increased by 2.4 million. Incomes grew, in real terms, by about a fifth. Pensions were in trouble, but house price inflation soured, so the owners found their properties more than doubling in value and came to think of themselves as prosperous. By 2006 analysts were assessing the disposable wealth of the British at forty thousand pounds per household. However, the wealth was not spread geographically, averaging sixty-eight thousand in the south-east of England, but a little over thirty thousand in Wales and north-east England (see map above). But even in the historically poorer parts of the UK house prices had risen fast, so much so that government plans to bulldoze worthless northern terraces had to be abandoned when they started to regain value. Cheap mortgages, easy borrowing and high property prices meant that millions of people felt far better off, despite the overall rise in the tax burden. Cheap air travel gave the British opportunities for easy travel both to traditional resorts and also to every part of the European continent. British expatriates were able to buy properties across the French countryside and in southern Spain. Some even began to commute weekly to jobs in London or Manchester from Mediterranean villas, and regional airports boomed as a result.

Sir Tim Berners Lee arriving at the Guildhall to receive the Honorary Freedom of the City of LondonThe internet, also known as the ‘World-Wide Web’, which was ‘invented’ by the British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee at the end of 1989 (pictured right in 2014), was advancing from the colleges and institutions into everyday life by the mid- ‘noughties’. It first began to attract popular interest in the mid-nineties: Britain’s first internet café and magazine, reviewing a few hundred early websites, were both launched in 1994. The following year saw the beginning of internet shopping as a major pastime, with both ‘eBay’ and ‘Amazon’ arriving, though to begin with they only attracted tiny numbers of people.

But the introduction of new forms of mail-order and ‘click and collect’ shopping quickly attracted significant adherents from different ‘demographics’.  The growth of the internet led to a feeling of optimism, despite warnings that the whole digital world would collapse because of the inability of computers to cope with the last two digits in the year ‘2000’, which were taken seriously at the time. In fact, the ‘dot-com’ bubble was burst by its own excessive expansion, as with any bubble, and following a pause and a lot of ruined dreams, the ‘new economy’ roared on again. By 2000, according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), around forty per cent of Britons had accessed the internet at some time. Three years later, nearly half of British homes were ‘online’. By 2004, the spread of ‘broadband’ connections had brought a new mass market in ‘downloading’ music and video. By 2006, three-quarters of British children had internet access at home.

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Simultaneously, the rich of America, Europe and Russia began buying up parts of London, and then other ‘attractive’ parts of the country, including Edinburgh, the Scottish Highlands, Yorkshire and Cornwall. ‘Executive housing’ with pebbled driveways, brick facing and dormer windows, was growing across farmland and by rivers with no thought of flood-plain constraints. Parts of the country far from London, such as the English south-west and Yorkshire, enjoyed a ripple of wealth that pushed their house prices to unheard-of levels. From Leith to Gateshead, Belfast to Cardiff Bay, once-derelict shorefront areas were transformed. The nineteenth-century buildings in the Albert Dock in Liverpool (above) now house a maritime museum, an art gallery, shopping centre and television studio. It has also become a tourist attraction. For all the problems and disappointments, and the longer-term problems with their financing, new schools and public buildings sprang up – new museums, galleries, vast shopping complexes (see below), corporate headquarters in a biomorphic architecture of glass and steel, more imaginative and better-looking than their predecessors from the dreary age of concrete.

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Supermarket chains exercised huge market power, offering cheap meat and dairy products into almost everyone’s budgets. Factory-made ready-meals were transported and imported by the new global air freight market and refrigerated trucks and lorries moving freely across a Europe shorn of internal barriers. Out-of-season fruit and vegetables, fish from the Pacific, exotic foods of all kinds and freshly cut flowers appeared in superstores everywhere. Hardly anyone was out of reach of a ‘Tesco’, a ‘Morrison’s’, a ‘Sainsbury’s’ or an ‘Asda’. By the mid-noughties, the four supermarket giants owned more than 1,500 superstores throughout the UK. They spread the consumption of goods that in the eighties and nineties had seemed like luxuries. Students had to take out loans in order to go to university but were far more likely to do so than previous generations, as well as to travel more widely on a ‘gap’ year, not just to study or work abroad.

Those ‘Left Behind’ – Poverty, Pensions & Public Order:

Materially, for the majority of people, this was, to use Marr’s term, a ‘golden age’, which perhaps helps to explain both why earlier real anger about earlier pension decisions and stealth taxes did not translate into anti-Labour voting in successive general elections. The irony is that in pleasing ‘Middle Englanders’, the Blair-Brown government lost contact with traditional Labour voters, especially in the North of Britain, who did not benefit from these ‘golden years’ to the same extent. Gordon Brown, from the first, made much of New Labour’s anti-poverty agenda, and especially child poverty. Since the launch of the Child Poverty Action Group, this latter problem had become particularly emotive. Labour policies took a million children out of relative poverty between 1997 and 2004, though the numbers rose again later. Brown’s emphasis was on the working poor and the virtue of work. So his major innovations were the national minimum wage, the ‘New Deal’ for the young unemployed, and the working families’ tax credit, as well as tax credits aimed at children. There was also a minimum income guarantee and a later pension credit, for poorer pensioners.

The minimum wage was first set at three pounds sixty an hour, rising year by year. In 2006 it was 5.35 an hour. Because the figures were low, it did not destroy the two million jobs as the Tories claimed it would. Neither did it produce higher inflation; employment continued to grow while inflation remained low. It even seemed to have cut red tape. By the mid-noughties, the minimum wage covered two million people, the majority of them women. Because it was updated ahead of rises in inflation rates, the wages of the poor also rose faster. It was so successful that even the Tories were forced to embrace it ahead of the 2005 election. The New Deal was funded by a windfall tax on privatised utility companies, and by 2000 Blair said it had helped a quarter of a million young people back into work, and it was being claimed as a major factor in lower rates of unemployment as late as 2005. But the National Audit Office, looking back on its effect in the first parliament, reckoned the number of under twenty-five-year-olds helped into real jobs was as low as 25,000, at a cost per person of eight thousand pounds. A second initiative was targeted at the babies and toddlers of the most deprived families. ‘Sure Start’ was meant to bring mothers together in family centres across Britain – 3,500 were planned for 2010, ten years after the scheme had been launched – and to help them to become more effective parents. However, some of the most deprived families failed to show up. As Andrew Marr wrote, back in 2007:

Poverty is hard to define, easy to smell. In a country like Britain, it is mostly relative. Though there are a few thousand people living rough or who genuinely do not have enough to keep them decently alive, and many more pensioners frightened of how they will pay for heating, the greater number of poor are those left behind the general material improvement in life. This is measured by income compared to the average and by this yardstick in 1997 there were three to four million children living in households of relative poverty, triple the number in 1979. This does not mean they were physically worse off than the children of the late seventies, since the country generally became much richer. But human happiness relates to how we see ourselves relative to those around us, so it was certainly real. 

The Tories, now under new management in the shape of a media-marketing executive and old Etonian, David Cameron, also declared that they believed in this concept of relative poverty. After all, it was on their watch, during the Thatcher and Major governments, that it had tripled, which is why it was only towards the end of the New Labour governments that they could accept the definition of the left-of-centre Guardian columnist, Polly Toynbee. A world of ‘black economy’ work also remained below the minimum wage, in private care homes, where migrant servants were exploited, and in other nooks and crannies. Some 336,000 jobs remained on ‘poverty pay’ rates. Yet ‘redistribution of wealth’, a socialist phrase which had become unfashionable under New Labour lest it should scare away middle Englanders, was stronger in Brown’s Britain than in other major industrialised nations. Despite the growth of the super-rich, many of whom were immigrants anyway, overall equality increased in these years. One factor in this was the return to the means-testing of benefits, particularly for pensioners and through the working families’ tax credit, subsequently divided into a child tax credit and a working tax credit. This was a U-turn by Gordon Brown, who had opposed means-testing when in Opposition. As Chancellor, he concluded that if he was to direct scarce resources at those in real poverty, he had little choice.

Apart from the demoralising effect it had on pensioners, the other drawback to means-testing was that a huge bureaucracy was needed to track people’s earnings and to try to establish exactly what they should be getting in benefits. Billions were overpaid and as people did better and earned more from more stable employment, they then found themselves facing huge demands to hand back the money they had already spent. Thousands of extra civil servants were needed to deal with the subsequent complaints and the scheme became extremely expensive to administer. There were also controversial drives to oblige more disabled people back to work, and the ‘socially excluded’ were confronted by a range of initiatives designed to make them more middle class. Compared with Mrs Thatcher’s Victorian Values and Mr Major’s Back to Basics campaigns, Labour was supposed to be non-judgemental about individual behaviour. But a form of moralism did begin to reassert itself. Parenting classes were sometimes mandated through the courts and for the minority who made life hell for their neighbours on housing estates, Labour introduced the Anti-Social Behaviour Order (‘Asbo’). These were first given out in 1998, granted by magistrates to either the police or the local council. It became a criminal offence to break the curfew or other sanction, which could be highly specific. Asbos could be given out for swearing at others in the street, harassing passers-by, vandalism, making too much noise, graffiti, organising ‘raves’, flyposting, taking drugs, sniffing glue, joyriding, prostitution, hitting people and drinking in public.

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Although they served a useful purpose in many cases, there were fears that for the really rough elements in society and their tough children they became a badge of honour. Since breaking an Asbo could result in an automatic prison sentence, people were sent to jail for crimes that had not warranted this before. But as they were refined in use and strengthened, they became more effective and routine. By 2007, seven and a half thousand had been given out in England and Wales alone and Scotland had introduced its own version in 2004. Some civil liberties campaigners saw this development as part of a wider authoritarian and surveillance agenda which also led to the widespread use of CCTV (Closed Circuit Television) cameras by the police and private security guards, especially in town centres (see above). Also in 2007, it was estimated that the British were being observed and recorded by 4.2 million such cameras. That amounted to one camera for every fourteen people, a higher ratio than for any other country in the world, with the possible exception of China. In addition, the number of mobile phones was already equivalent to the number of people in Britain. With global satellite positioning chips (GPS) these could show exactly where their users were and the use of such systems in cars and even out on the moors meant that Britons were losing their age-old prowess for map-reading.

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The ‘Seven Seven’ Bombings – The Home-grown ‘Jihadis’:

Despite these increasing means of mass surveillance, Britain’s cities have remained vulnerable to terrorist attacks, more recently by so-called ‘Islamic terrorists’ rather than by the Provisional IRA, who abandoned their bombing campaign in 1998. On 7 July 2005, at rush-hour, four young Muslim men from West Yorkshire and Buckinghamshire, murdered fifty-two people and injured 770 others by blowing themselves up on London Underground trains and on a London bus. The report into this worst such attack in Britain later concluded that they were not part of an al Qaeda cell, though two of them had visited camps in Pakistan, and that the rucksack bombs had been constructed at the cost of a few hundred pounds. Despite the government’s insistence that the war in Iraq had not made Britain more of a target for terrorism, the Home Office investigation asserted that the four had been motivated, in part at least, by ‘British foreign policy’.

They had picked up the information they needed for the attack from the internet. It was a particularly grotesque attack, because of the terrifying and bloody conditions in the underground tunnels and it vividly reminded the country that it was as much a target as the United States or Spain. Indeed, the long-standing and intimate relationship between Great Britain and Pakistan, with constant and heavy air traffic between them, provoked fears that the British would prove uniquely vulnerable. Tony Blair heard of the attack at the most poignant time, just following London’s great success in winning the bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games (see above). The ‘Seven Seven’ bombings are unlikely to have been stopped by CCTV surveillance, of which there was plenty at the tube stations, nor by ID cards (which had recently been under discussion), since the killers were British subjects, nor by financial surveillance, since little money was involved and the materials were paid for in cash. Even better intelligence might have helped, but the Security Services, both ‘MI5’ and ‘MI6’ as they are known, were already in receipt of huge increases in their budgets, as they were in the process of tracking down other murderous cells. In 2005, police arrested suspects in Birmingham, High Wycombe and Walthamstow, in east London, believing there was a plot to blow up as many as ten passenger aircraft over the Atlantic.

After many years of allowing dissident clerics and activists from the Middle East asylum in London, Britain had more than its share of inflammatory and dangerous extremists, who admired al Qaeda and preached violent jihad. Once 11 September 2001 had changed the climate, new laws were introduced to allow the detention without trial of foreigners suspected of being involved in supporting or fomenting terrorism. They could not be deported because human rights legislation forbade sending back anyone to countries where they might face torture. Seventeen were picked up and held at Belmarsh high-security prison. But in December 2004, the House of Lords ruled that these detentions were discriminatory and disproportionate, and therefore illegal. Five weeks later, the Home Secretary Charles Clarke hit back with ‘control orders’ to limit the movement of men he could not prosecute or deport. These orders would also be used against home-grown terror suspects. A month later, in February 2005, sixty Labour MPs rebelled against these powers too, and the government only narrowly survived the vote. In April 2006 a judge ruled that the control orders were an affront to justice because they gave the Home Secretary, a politician, too much power. Two months later, the same judge ruled that curfew orders of eighteen hours per day on six Iraqis were a deprivation of liberty and also illegal. The new Home Secretary, John Reid, lost his appeal and had to loosen the orders.

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Britain found itself in a struggle between its old laws and liberties and a new, borderless world in which the hallowed principles of ‘habeas corpus’, free speech, a presumption of innocence, asylum, the right of British subjects to travel freely in their own country without identifying papers, and the sanctity of homes in which the law-abiding lived were all coming under increasing jeopardy. The new political powers seemed to government ministers the least that they needed to deal with a threat that might last for another thirty years in order, paradoxically, to secure Britain’s liberties for the long-term beyond that. They were sure that most British people agreed, and that the judiciary, media, civil rights campaigners and elected politicians who protested were an ultra-liberal minority. Tony Blair, John Reid and Jack Straw were emphatic about this, and it was left to liberal Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to mount the barricades in defence of civil liberties. Andrew Marr conceded at the time that the New Labour ministers were ‘probably right’. With the benefit of hindsight, others will probably agree. As Gordon Brown eyed the premiership, his rhetoric was similarly tough, but as Blair was forced to turn to the ‘war on terror’ and Iraq, he failed to concentrate enough on domestic policy. By 2005, neither of them could be bothered to disguise their mutual enmity, as pictured above. A gap seemed to open up between Blair’s enthusiasm for market ideas in the reform of health and schools, and Brown’s determination to deliver better lives for the working poor. Brown was also keen on bringing private capital into public services, but there was a difference in emphasis which both men played up. Blair claimed that the New Labour government was best when we are at our boldest. But Brown retorted that it was best when we are Labour. 

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Tony Blair’s legacy continued to be paraded on the streets of Britain,

here blaming him and George Bush for the rise of ‘Islamic State’ in Iraq.

Asylum Seekers, EU ‘Guest’ Workers & Immigrants:

One result of the long Iraqi conflict, which President Bush finally declared to be over on 1 May 2003, was the arrival of many Iraqi asylum-seekers in Britain; Kurds, as well as Shiites and Sunnis. This attracted little comment at the time because there had been both Iraqi and Iranian refugees in Britain since the 1970s, especially as students and the fresh influx were only a small part of a much larger migration into the country which changed it fundamentally during the Blair years. This was a multi-lingual migration, including many Poles, some Hungarians and other Eastern Europeans whose countries had joined the EU and its single market in 2004. When the EU expanded Britain decided that, unlike France or Germany, it would not try to delay opening the country to migrant workers. The accession treaties gave nationals from these countries the right to freedom of movement and settlement, and with average earnings three times higher in the UK, this was a benefit which the Eastern Europeans were keen to take advantage of. Some member states, however, exercised their right to ‘derogation’ from the treaties, whereby they would only permit migrant workers to be employed if employers were unable to find a local candidate. In terms of European Union legislation, a derogation or that a member state has opted not to enforce a specific provision in a treaty due to internal circumstances (typically a state of emergency), and to delay full implementation of the treaty for five years. The UK decided not to exercise this option.

There were also sizeable inflows of western Europeans, though these were mostly students, who (somewhat controversially) were also counted in the immigration statistics, and young professionals with multi-national companies. At the same time, there was continued immigration from Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan, as well as from Russia, Australia, South Africa and North America. In 2005, according to the Office for National Statistics, ‘immigrants’ were arriving to live in Britain at the rate of 1,500 a day. Since Tony Blair had been in power, more than 1.3 million had arrived. By the mid-2000s, English was no longer the first language of half the primary school children in London, and the capital had more than 350 different first languages. Five years later, the same could be said of many towns in Kent and other Eastern counties of England.

The poorer of the new migrant groups were almost entirely unrepresented in politics, but radically changed the sights, sounds and scents of urban Britain, and even some of its market towns. The veiled women of the Muslim world or its more traditionalist Arab, Afghan and Pakistani quarters became common sights on the streets, from Kent to Scotland and across to South Wales. Polish tradesmen, fruit-pickers and factory workers were soon followed by shops owned by Poles or stocking Polish and East European delicacies and selling Polish newspapers and magazines. Even road signs appeared in Polish, though in Kent these were mainly put in place along trucking routes used by Polish drivers, where for many years signs had been in French and German, a recognition of the employment changes in the long-distance haulage industry. Even as far north as Cheshire (see below), these were put in place to help monolingual truckers using trunk roads, rather than local Polish residents, most of whom had enough English to understand such signs either upon arrival or shortly afterwards. Although specialist classes in English had to be laid on in schools and community centres, there was little evidence that the impact of multi-lingual migrants had a long-term impact on local children and wider communities. In fact, schools were soon reporting a positive impact in terms of their attitudes toward learning and in improving general educational standards.

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Problems were posed, however, by the operations of people smugglers and criminal gangs. Chinese villagers were involved in a particular tragedy when nineteen of them were caught while cockle-picking in Morecambe Bay by the notorious tides and drowned. Many more were working for ‘gang-masters’ as virtual, in some cases actual ‘slaves’. Russian voices became common on the London Underground, and among prostitutes on the streets. The British Isles found themselves to be ‘islands in the stream’ of international migration, the chosen ‘sceptred isle’ destinations of millions of newcomers. Unlike Germany, Britain was no longer a dominant manufacturing country but had rather become, by the late twentieth century, a popular place to develop digital and financial products and services. Together with the United States and against the Soviet Union, it was determined to preserve a system of representative democracy and the free market. Within the EU, Britain maintained its earlier determination to resist the Franco-German federalist model, with its ‘social chapter’ involving ever tighter controls over international corporations and ever closer political union. Britain had always gone out into the world. Now, increasingly, the world came to Britain, whether poor immigrants, rich corporations or Chinese manufacturers.

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Multilingual & Multicultural Britain:

Immigration had always been a constant factor in British life, now it was also a fact of life which Europe and the whole world had to come to terms with. Earlier post-war migrations to Britain had provoked a racialist backlash, riots, the rise of extreme right-wing organisations and a series of new laws aimed at controlling it. New laws had been passed to control both immigration from the Commonwealth and the backlash to it. The later migrations were controversial in different ways. The ‘Windrush’ arrivals from the Caribbean and those from the Indian subcontinent were people who looked different but who spoke the same language and in many ways had had a similar education to that of the ‘native’ British. Many of the later migrants from Eastern Europe looked similar to the white British but shared little by way of a common linguistic and cultural background. However, it’s not entirely true to suggest, as Andrew Marr seems to, that they did not have a shared history. Certainly, through no fault of their own, the Eastern Europeans had been cut off from their western counterparts by their absorption into the Soviet Russian Empire after the Second World War, but in the first half of the century, Poland had helped the British Empire to subdue its greatest rival, Germany, as had most of the peoples of the former Yugoslavia. Even during the Soviet ‘occupation’ of these countries, many of their citizens had found refuge in Britain.

Moreover, by the early 1990s, Britain had already become both a multilingual nation. In 1991, Safder Alladina and Viv Edwards published a book for the Longman Linguistics Library which detailed the Hungarian, Lithuanian, Polish, Ukrainian and Yiddish speech communities of previous generations. Growing up in Birmingham, I certainly heard many Polish, Yiddish, Yugoslav and Greek accents among my neighbours and parents of school friends, at least as often as I heard Welsh, Irish, Caribbean, Indian and Pakistani accents. The Longman book begins with a foreword by Debi Prasanna Pattanayak in which she stated that the Language Census of 1987 had shown that there were 172 different languages spoken by children in the schools of the Inner London Education Authority. In an interesting precursor of the controversy to come, she related how the reaction in many quarters was stunned disbelief, and how one British educationalist had told her that England had become a third world country. She commented:

After believing in the supremacy of English as the universal language, it was difficult to acknowledge that the UK was now one of the greatest immigrant nations of the modern world. It was also hard to see that the current plurality is based on a continuity of heritage. … Britain is on the crossroads. It can take an isolationist stance in relation to its internal cultural environment. It can create a resilient society by trusting its citizens to be British not only in political but in cultural terms. The first road will mean severing dialogue with the many heritages which have made the country fertile. The second road would be working together with cultural harmony for the betterment of the country. Sharing and participation would ensure not only political but cultural democracy. The choice is between mediocrity and creativity.

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Language and dialect in the British Isles, showing the linguistic diversity in many English cities by 1991 as a result of Commonwealth immigration as well as the survival and revival of many of the older Celtic languages and dialects of English.

Such ‘liberal’, ‘multi-cultural’ views may be unfashionable now, more than a quarter of a century later, but it is perhaps worth stopping to look back on that cultural crossroads, and on whether we are now back at that same crossroads, or have arrived at another one. By the 1990s, the multilingual setting in which new Englishes evolved had become far more diverse than it had been in the 1940s, due to immigration from the Indian subcontinent, the Caribbean, the Far East, and West and East Africa. The largest of the ‘community languages’ was Punjabi, with over half a million speakers, but there were also substantial communities of Gujurati speakers (perhaps a third of a million) and a hundred thousand Bengali speakers. In some areas, such as East London, public signs and notices recognise this (see below). Bengali-speaking children formed the most recent and largest linguistic minority within the ILEA and because the majority of them had been born in Bangladesh, they were inevitably in the greatest need of language support within the schools. A new level of linguistic and cultural diversity was introduced through Commonwealth immigration.

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Birmingham’s booming postwar economy attracted West Indian settlers from Jamaica, Barbados and St Kitts in the 1950s. By 1971, the South Asian and West Indian populations were equal in size and concentrated in the inner city wards of North and Central Birmingham (see the map above).  After the hostility towards New Commonwealth immigrants in some sections of the local White populations in the 1960s and ’70s, they had become more established in cities like Birmingham, where places of worship, ethnic groceries, butchers and, perhaps most significantly, ‘balti’ restaurants, began to proliferate in the 1980s and ’90s. The settlers materially changed the cultural and social life of the city, most of the ‘white’ population believing that these changes were for the better. By 1991, Pakistanis had overtaken West Indians and Indians to become the largest single ethnic minority in Birmingham. The concentration of West Indian and South Asian British people in the inner city areas changed little by the end of the century, though there was an evident flight to the suburbs by Indians. As well as being poorly-paid, the factory work available to South Asian immigrants like the man in a Bradford textile factory below, was unskilled. By the early nineties, the decline of the textile industry over the previous two decades had let to high long-term unemployment in the immigrant communities in the Northern towns, leading to serious social problems.

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Nor is it entirely true to suggest that, as referred to above, Caribbean arrivals in Britain faced few linguistic obstacles integrating themselves into British life from the late 1940s to the late 1980s. By the end of these forty years, the British West Indian community had developed its own “patois”, which had a special place as a token of identity. One Jamaican schoolgirl living in London in the late eighties explained the social pressures that frowned on Jamaican English in Jamaica, but which made it almost obligatory in London. She wasn’t allowed to speak Jamaican Creole in front of her parents in Jamaica. When she arrived in Britain and went to school, she naturally tried to fit in by speaking the same patois, but some of her British Caribbean classmates told her that, as a “foreigner”, she should not try to be like them, and should speak only English. But she persevered with the patois and lost her British accent after a year and was accepted by her classmates. But for many Caribbean visitors to Britain, the patois of Brixton and Notting Hill was a stylized form that was not truly Jamaican, not least because British West Indians had come from all parts of the Caribbean. When another British West Indian girl, born in Britain, was taken to visit Jamaica, she found herself being teased about her London patois and told to speak English.

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The predicament that still faced the ‘Black British’ in the late eighties and into the nineties was that, for all the rhetoric, they were still not fully accepted by the established ‘White community’. Racism was still an everyday reality for large numbers of British people. There was plenty of evidence of the ways in which Black people were systematically denied access to employment in all sections of the job market.  The fact that a racist calamity like the murder in London of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence could happen in 1993 was a testimony to how little had changed in British society’s inability to face up to racism since the 1950s. As a result, the British-Caribbean population could still not feel itself to be neither fully British. This was the poignant outcome of what the British Black writer Caryl Phillips has called “The Final Passage”, the title of his novel which is narrated in Standard English with the direct speech by the characters rendered in Creole. Phillips migrated to Britain as a baby with his parents in the 1950s, and sums up his linguistic and cultural experience as follows:

“The paradox of my situation is that where most immigrants have to learn a new language, Caribbean immigrants have to learn a new form of the same language. It induces linguistic shizophrenia – you have an identity that mirrors the larger cultural confusion.”

One of his older characters in The Final Passage characterises “England” as a “college for the West Indian”, and, as Philipps himself put it, that is “symptomatic of the colonial situation; the language is divided as well”.  As the “Windrush Scandal”, involving the deportation of British West Indians from the UK has recently shown, this post-colonial “cultural confusion” still ‘colours’ political and institutional attitudes twenty-five years after the death of Stephen Lawrence, leading to discriminatory judgements by officials. This example shows how difficult it is to arrive at some kind of chronological classification of migrations to Britain into the period of economic expansion of the 1950s and 1960s; the asylum-seekers of the 1970s and 1980s; and the EU expansion and integration in the 1990s and the first decades of the 2000s. This approach assumed stereotypical patterns of settlement for the different groups, whereas the reality was much more diverse. Most South Asians, for example, arrived in Britain in the post-war period but they were joining a migration ‘chain’ which had been established at the beginning of the twentieth century. Similarly, most Eastern European migrants arrived in Britain in several quite distinct waves of population movement. This led the authors of the Longman Linguistics book to organise it into geolinguistic areas, as shown in the figure below:

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The Poles and Ukrainians of the immediate post-war period, the Hungarians in the 1950s, the Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s and the Tamils in the 1980s, sought asylum in Britain as refugees. In contrast, settlers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Caribbean, had, in the main come from areas of high unemployment and/or low wages, for economic reasons. It was not possible, even then, to make a simple split between political and economic migrants since, even within the same group, motivations differed through time. The Eastern Europeans who had arrived in Britain since the Second World War had come for a variety of reasons; in many cases, they were joining earlier settlers trying either to escape poverty in the home country or to better their lot. A further important factor in the discussion about the various minority communities in Britain was the pattern of settlement. Some groups were concentrated into a relatively small geographical area which made it possible to develop and maintain strong social networks; others were more dispersed and so found it more difficult to maintain a sense of community. Most Spaniards, Turks and Greeks were found in London, whereas Ukrainians and Poles were scattered throughout the country. In the case of the Poles, the communities outside London were sufficiently large to be able to sustain an active community life; in the case of Ukrainians, however, the small numbers and the dispersed nature of the community made the task of forging a separate linguistic and cultural identity a great deal more difficult.

Groups who had little contact with the home country also faced very real difficulties in retaining their distinct identities. Until 1992, Lithuanians, Latvians, Ukrainians and Estonians were unable to travel freely to their country of origin; neither could they receive visits from family members left behind; until the mid-noughties, there was no possibility of new immigration which would have the effect of revitalizing these communities in Britain. Nonetheless, they showed great resilience in maintaining their ethnic minority, not only through community involvement in the UK but by building links with similar groups in Europe and even in North America. The inevitable consequence of settlement in Britain was a shift from the mother tongue to English. The extent of this shift varied according to individual factors such as the degree of identification with the mother tongue culture; it also depended on group factors such as the size of the community, its degree of self-organisation and the length of time it had been established in Britain. For more recently arrived communities such as the Bangladeshis, the acquisition of English was clearly a more urgent priority than the maintenance of the mother tongue, whereas, for the settled Eastern Europeans, the shift to English was so complete that mother tongue teaching was often a more urgent community priority. There were reports of British-born Ukrainians and Yiddish-speaking Jews who were brought up in predominantly English-speaking homes who were striving to produce an environment in which their children could acquire their ‘heritage’ language.

Blair’s Open Door Policy & EU Freedom of Movement:

During the 1980s and ’90s, under the ‘rubric’ of multiculturalism, a steady stream of immigration into Britain continued, especially from the Indian subcontinent. But an unspoken consensus existed whereby immigration, while always gradually increasing, was controlled. What happened after the Labour Party’s landslide victory in 1997 was a breaking of that consensus, according to Douglas Murray, the author of the recent (2017) book, The Strange Death of Europe. He argues that once in power, Tony Blair’s government oversaw an opening of the borders on a scale unparalleled even in the post-war decades. His government abolished the ‘primary purpose rule’, which had been used as a filter out bogus marriage applications. The borders were opened to anyone deemed essential to the British economy, a definition so broad that it included restaurant workers as ‘skilled labourers’. And as well as opening the door to the rest of the world, they opened the door to the new EU member states after 2004. It was the effects of all of this, and more, that created the picture of the country which was eventually revealed in the 2011 Census, published at the end of 2012.

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The numbers of non-EU nationals moving to settle in Britain were expected only to increase from 100,000 a year in 1997 to 170,000 in 2004. In fact, the government’s predictions for the number of new arrivals over the five years 1999-2004 were out by almost a million people. It also failed to anticipate that the UK might also be an attractive destination for people with significantly lower average income levels or without a minimum wage. For these reasons, the number of Eastern European migrants living in Britain rose from 170,000 in 2004 to 1.24 million in 2013. Whether the surge in migration went unnoticed or was officially approved, successive governments did not attempt to restrict it until after the 2015 election, by which time it was too late.

(to be continued)

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‘The March of Wales’ – Border Country: A Historical Walk in the Black Mountains, following Offa’s Dyke. Part two.   Leave a comment

‘Smash & Grab!’ – The Norman Conquest of Wales:  

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The Norman Conquest of Wales, unlike that of England, was piecemeal, but that served only to expose and intensify Welsh disunity. The invasion was not conducted by the King, or as a religious crusade, but as a piece of private enterprise on the part of the Norman barons, with the King’s agreement. They advanced by the easier valley routes and using the old Roman roads, conducting ‘smash and grab’ campaigns from their newly acquired estates in the Borderlands, which they later gave the French name ‘March’. A little further east William established three great strategic centres, from which the Normans could advance into this area. From Hereford, important in Offa’s time, but re-established in 1066 and based on the cathedral settlement, went William FitzOsbern, establishing Border castles at Wigmore, Clifford and Ewyas Harold, at Chepstow and later at Caerleon. From Shrewsbury, dating from the time of Aethelfleda, Queen of Mercia, re-established in 1071, Roger de Montgomery proved a constant threat in the middle Border to Powys. From William’s third strategic centre at Chester, rebuilt in 1071 on the site of the Roman Deva, Hugh d’Avranches opened a route into North Wales, enabling Robert of Rhuddlan to press forward to gain lands of his own and establish his castle a Rhuddlan.

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The three earls were given widespread powers within their earldoms, untrammelled by the king, but what, if any, instructions they were given with regard to military adventures in Wales is not known; it seems likely, however, that they were advised that they could annex lands in Wales on their own account, but must not involve King William whose primary interests lay elsewhere. In the early twelfth century Henry I, in what is probably an example of the kind of licence that King William granted explicitly or implicitly to his border earls, authorised one of his barons to conquer part of Wales:

King Henry sent a messenger to Gilbert FitzRichard, who was a mighty, powerful man and a friend of the king, and eminent in his deeds. And he came forthwith to the king. And the king said to him: “Thou wert always asking me a portion of Wales. Now I will give thee the land of Cadwgan ap Bleddyn. Go and take possession of it.” And he accepted it gladly from the king. And he gathered a host and came to Ceredigion and took possession of it and made two castles in it.

Certainly the earls rapidly and individually moved aggressively against the eastern districts of Wales, with Earl Roger also launching raids deep into the interior. He became the major figure in the central sector of the Anglo-Welsh borderlands after FitzOsbern was killed in battle in Flanders in 1071. He was one of King William’s trusted lieutenants whom he had created Earl of Shrewsbury by 1074. Ralph Mortimer was his ‘vassal’, having come to England with the Conqueror. By 1086, Ralph was firmly established as a tenant-in-chief, possibly through his association with William FitzOsbern as Earl of Hereford. The Wigmore chronicler records that Mortimer distinguished himself in suppressing the rebellion of the Saxon magnate, Edric the Wild, who had taken up arms against the Normans in Herefordshire and Shropshire, having allied himself with two Welsh princes. The rebels had threatened Hereford and burned Shrewsbury as the revolt spread into Staffordshire and Cheshire. The significance of this rebellion can by judged from King William’s decision to temporarily abandon personal control of his campaign in the north of England to deal with the rising, doing so with the same ruthlessness with which he then ‘harried’ Yorkshire. It is likely that Ralph had come to the king’s notice during this short campaign and by 1086 he held estates which once belonged to Edric. He had also been one of the lords who had put down the rebellion of FitzOsbern’s son, Roger, in 1075. Ralph received a number of the estates that Roger forfeited. As the Earl of Shrewsbury’s kinsman and steward or seneschal, he was allied to one of the most powerful barons in the kingdom and was his right-hand man, holding his Shropshire lands through this service. The Domesday Book records that he held lands and property in twelve English counties, mainly in Herefordshire and Shropshire, with several manors waste in the Welsh March.

Thus began the piecemeal, private enterprise, ‘internal colonisation’ of Wales. The king’s solution to the problem of the Welsh frontier worked whilst his appointees were men with whom he had a personal bond and affinity; but when the earldoms with all their prerogatives passed to their successors by inheritance, there would be distinct dangers for the Crown, as was made evident in Roger FitzOsbern’s rebellion. Wales was very different from England in politics as well as in geography. Although its inhabitants acknowledged a common Welsh identity, it was a country of many sovereign states with mountainous terrain governing their borders and hindering relationships with their neighbours. These petty principalities, perhaps as many as eighteen in number in the eleventh century, were often at each others’ throats, as Giraldus Cambrensis, Gerallt Cymro, described:

This nation is, above all others, addicted to the digging up of boundary ditches, removing the limits, transgressing landmarks, and extending their territory by every possible means. So great is their disposition towards this common violence … hence arise suits and contentions, murders and conflagrations, and frequent fratricides.

A source of perennial political weakness were the rules of inheritance where land was divided equally between all the sons which militated against any constitutional centralisation. A politically fractured Wales made it much easier for the marcher lords to conquer the country piece by piece and conduct a policy of divide and rule; on the other hand, the usual lack of a Welsh national leader made it more difficult to conduct diplomatic negotiations. To what extent individual conquests in Wales were actually licensed is not clear, but many were probably not expressly authorised by the king. From time to time during the Middle Ages, however, a Welsh prince was able to win control over other principalities, form alliances and exert capable leadership over large tracts of Wales; the Welsh would then prove formidable adversaries to the marcher lords. Such Welsh unity was, however, fleeting; it did not long survive the departure of a national leader and the principalities soon reverted to their customary political isolation and division. When there were leaders such as Rhys ap Gruffydd in the twelfth century and Llywelyn ap Iorwerth and Llywelyn ap Gruffydd in the thirteenth, an uneasy modus vivendi between the Welsh and the English would be established after military successes had enabled the Welsh to recover some, and on occasion almost all, of their lands.

If ‘independent Wales’ was politically fragmented, so in one sense was the March. The lords may have, on the surface, presented a coherent power bloc, but the pattern of lordship and power in the March, with the marchers’ individual political agendas and rivalries, would often change. Death and the lack of a direct male heir, or line of heirs, marriage, wardship and the creation of new lordships by the king, as well as forfeiture of them to him, all influenced the development of the March. From a crude beginning, the Norman lordships of the March grew into a complex and multi-ethnic society and a power in their own right. The lords succeeded the Welsh princes in owing little beyond allegiance to the English Crown; they were often decisive in the politics of England and Normandy. As Gwyn Williams (1985) pointed out, their relationship between invaders and invaded, a simple one at first, soon became more complex …

… Very rapidly they became hopelessly enmeshed with the Welsh in marriage, lifestyle, temporary alliance. A new and hybrid culture grew up in the March with quite astonishing speed. Plenty of marchers over time were cymricized … several became more Welsh than the Welsh. … The formation of so peculiar and potent a society was the direct result of Welsh survival and recovery. At first, nothing could stop the Normans … The first smash and grab thrusts from Chester, Shrewsbury and Hereford overran the north and penetrated deeply into the south-west. … the robber barons swarmed all over Wales. 

Marcher Lords, Welsh Princes and Court Poets:

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Above: The Lordships of the Mortimers in Wales in 1282

It was from their lands in the March of Wales that the Mortimers exercised their power and influence in England. Holding lands in Wales as marcher lords they were members of a select group of barons owing allegiance as tenants-in-chief to the king but ruling their lordships with a degree of independence unobtainable by the Anglo-Norman aristocracy in England. Nevertheless, William I did make arrangements for the defence of the frontier, indeterminate as it was, and for the introduction of Norman administration into the English borderlands, a remote area where his representatives would have to have more freedom of action than in elsewhere in the kingdom. The Norman system of castle, manor and borough was dominant in the lowland areas where the Norman advance had been most effective. Weekly markets and yearly or twice-yearly fairs were now a feature of life where country folk could trade. The areas administered in this way constituted ‘the Englishries’. In contrast, in ‘the Welshries’, the more hilly areas, the Welsh by and large retained their own way of life based on the Law of Hywel Dda, but paid tribute to the Norman lord.

Many of the large number of castles that had been built up and down the March were therefore fortified centres of government, each lordship having one main castle and usually other castles the centres of sub-lordships. At first the castles were of the simple motte and bailey type; but, under increased Welsh attacks, were soon strengthened. On each lordship the lord developed certain lands paying in money or kind for their homestead and share of the plots. During the Conqueror’s reign, the Normans had made significant inroads to southern and northern Wales, but in central Wales the raids mounted by Earl Roger of Shrewsbury had not been followed up by more permanent occupation, probably because considerable military resources were needed to deal with a resurgent Powys under Gruffydd ap Cynan. No doubt, Ralph Mortimer was involved in these earlier raids. Unlike the Saxons or the Vikings, the Norman method was not simply to destroy Welsh houses; they marched to a point well inside Welsh territory and built a fortress, from which they proceeded to reduce the surrounding countryside to submission, including any local lords who might object. By the end of the eleventh century, the Welsh Border had undergone unprecedented political change. The Normans of the March who had gained their lands by private conquest ruled virtually autonomously. In these lands the king had little right to interfere. The origins of this constitutional anomaly lay in the Conqueror’s arrangements for the settlement and defence of the Anglo-Welsh frontier.

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The last decade of the eleventh century, however, saw a much more aggressive attitude towards Wales on the part of the Norman lords with lands in the Borders when a Welsh chronicler related with some exaggeration that the French seized all the lands of the Britons. Earl Roger pushed far into Ceredigion and then into Dyfed to set up what would become the lordship of Pembroke. Meanwhile, there was a free-for-all along the Anglo-Welsh frontier; the Welsh cantref (‘hundred’) of Maelienydd, adjoining the Mortimer estates of Herefordshire and Shropshire, offered a natural target for Ralph Mortimer to annex more territory for himself, probably in the early 1090’s when other border lords were acquiring Brycheiniog (Brecon), Buellt (Builth) and Elfael. Maelienydd had once been part of the kingdom of Powys but, after the collapse of Gruffudd ap Llywelyn’s ’empire’ when he was killed in 1063, it seems to have been ruled by local chieftains. It was an upland region with little scope for economic exploitation by its new lords, but by this relatively unrewarding conquest Ralph had made clear his determination that the Mortimers were not to be left out of the Border barons’ race to carve out for themselves territories and spheres of influence in Wales. Even though Maelienydd was the central lordship in Wales for the Mortimers, their control was to remain precarious  with it reverting to Welsh rule on a number of occasions before the final collapse of the fight for Welsh independence in the last quarter of the thirteenth-century. It is likely that Ralph built the castle at Cymaron to secure control of his new lands; this castle, on the site of the cantref’s old Welsh llys (court), became the major fortress of the lordship until it was replaced in the thirteenth century by Cefnllys; it did, however, remain the centre of Maelienydd’s judicature.

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Maelienydd seems to have been Ralph Mortimer’s only significant acquisition of territory in Wales, but his hold on it remained tenuous. In general, the Norman inroads into Wales at the end of the eleventh century met with setbacks. A widespread uprising broke out in 1094 and in many districts, including Maelienydd, the Welsh regained temporary control of their lands. The lords were unable to cope with the crisis and the king had to come to their rescue, a pattern which would be repeated on a number of occasions over the following centuries. In his When Was Wales? Gwyn Williams added colour to this chronicle:

The shattered dynasties … with their backs to an Irish wall, using their own weapons and stealing the Normans’, fought back. They beat the bandits out of the west, only to bring the power of the English king down on their heads. Henry I rolled his power into Wales over Welsh kings and Norman lords alike.

Ralph Mortimer had kept his distance from the rebellion of Robert, the third Earl of Shrewsbury and other barons in 1102, which was an unsuccessful conspiracy to replace Henry I with Duke Robert on the English throne. King Henry confiscated Shrewsbury and took the Montgomery lands in the west, making Carmarthen the first royal lordship in Wales. He imported Flemings and planted them in southern Dyfed where they transformed its agrarian economy, making it ‘the Little-England-Beyond-Wales’ that it is known as today, pushing the Welsh north of a line known as the landsker which still remains a cultural boundary. But that relates more to the other, original long-distance footpath, the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path. Nevertheless, it demonstrates how, by the early twelfth century, the Normans had re-established control over Wales as a whole, other than the remoter parts of the north-west,  even if their hold was to remain tenuous until the end of the next century.

Ralph Mortimer remained a key figure in this consolidation, benefiting from the Earl of Shrewsbury’s disgrace, since the king’s decision not to appoint a successor to the powerful magnate had removed one of the contestants for power along the Welsh border and into central Wales. But in the following early decades of the twelfth century, his attention and resources were increasingly drawn away from his lands on the Anglo-Welsh Border to events in Normandy and the quarrels between the kings of England on the one hand and the dukes of Normandy on the other. For some time, Normandy remained as important as England or Wales to the Norman aristocracy, but the descendants of the first generation of barons in these countries were to become increasingly ambivalent in their attitude to the Duchy, until in 1204 they were forced to choose between their lands at home and those acquired by conquest across the Channel.

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But although Mortimer’s affairs both there and in England, as a loyal supporter of Henry I, would have been expected to prosper, there is no evidence of this in court rolls or chronicles during the twenty-five years from 1115 to 1140, perhaps suggesting that, on the contrary, he and/or his successor fell foul of King Henry and that the Mortimer lands were confiscated by the Crown. The only record is of a marriage alliance between Ralph’s daughter to William the Conqueror’s nephew Stephen, who had been implicated in the 1095 revolt as a possible replacement for William II and had also been involved in unsuccessful baronial revolts in Normandy which had been supported by Louis VI of France. Another record suggests that Ralph died in c. 1115, and that his son Hugh eventually received his inheritance of the Mortimer lands in Normandy, England and Wales. By the 1130s, they had added Maelienydd had fallen to their Welsh lands. But in 1135 Henry I died without a male heir and England descended into civil war between the supporters of Stephen of Blois and Matilda, Henry’s daughter. Once more the attention of the marcher lords were drawn away from Wales, and the Welsh princes seized their chance. Owain Gwynedd, son of Gruffydd ap Cynan, rebuilt Gwynedd into a power, driving it across north Wales to the Dee. He also thrust south into Ceredigion. Powys, in full revival and trying to recreate its ancient principality, was confronted with a new and permanent menace. In Deheubarth, the prince’s sons fought the Normans and each other for their inheritance, and Rhys ap Gruffydd began to establish himself.

The Normans took only five years to conquer England; it took them over two hundred years more for them to subdue and subjugate Wales. For the first 150 years it was subjected to periodic attack and colonisation by the marcher lords. It was beyond the military capacity of the Anglo-Normans, so often preoccupied, as they were, with events elsewhere, to mount a full-scale conquest of the interior. In 1154, the English civil war came to an end with the accession of Henry II, son of Matilda’s match with the Duke of Anjou who had also become Holy Roman Emperor. He established the Angevin Empire, and in two big land-and-sea campaigns brought the Welsh resurgence to a halt. Owain pulled back to the west of the River Conwy, while Rhys was hemmed-in, in his traditional base of Dinefwr (Dynevor). From here, he was able to launch raids against the marcher lords, and these transformed into all-out war when Gwynedd joined in. Clearly, the native Welsh, neither princes nor people, had yet accepted the Anglo-Normans as their masters, however. In 1163, during his first big military expedition into south Wales, one old Welshman of Pencader was asked by Henry II if he thought of his chances of victory, and whether his countrymen could resist his military might. He was, after all, ruler of the European empire of the Angevins as well as king of England. The old man had joined the king’s army against his own people because of their evil way of life, but his reply still amounted to a declaration of independence:

This nation, O King, may often be weakened and in great part destroyed by the power of yourself and of others, but many a time, as it deserves, it will rise triumphant. But never will it be destroyed by the wrath of man, unless the wrath of God be added. Whatever else may come to pass, I do not think that on the Day of Direst Judgement any race other than the Welsh, or any other language, will give answer to the Supreme Judge of all for this small corner of the earth.  

Henry, distracted by the Becket controversy, eventually responded by mobilising a massive expedition in 1165 to destroy all Welshmen. His attempt at genocide collapsed humiliatingly in the Berwyn Mountains in the face of bad weather, bad logistics and good guerilla tactics by the Welsh. Owain Gwynedd again cut loose to the Dee while Rhys took Ceredigion, Ystrad Tywi and much of Dyfed. Powys, threatened with renewed extinction, rallied to the English crown. But by 1170 Owain was dead and his sons began a ‘traditional’ fratricidal war for his inheritance. Henry offered a settlement, formally confirming Rhys in his lordships and making him Justiciar of South Wales. All Welsh rulers took oaths of fealty and homage to the king. By the end of the twelfth century, the frontier which had emerged over two generations or more had been settled.

The old kingdom of Morgannwg-Gwent was replaced by the shires of Glamorgan and Monmouth, two of the strongest bastions of Anglo-Norman power in Wales. In the end, Powys was split into two, Powys Wenwynwyn in the south usually supporting the English crown, while the northern Powys Fadog tended to side with Gwynedd. A core of the old principality of Deheubarth had been re-established, but it was ringed by marcher lordships with a strong base at Pembroke and royal estates around Carmarthen. Much of the south and east seemed to be under almost permanent alien control. Only Gwynedd had ultimately emerged as fully independent. Under Owain’s ultimate successors it grew into a major force, the strongest power in ‘Welsh Wales’ at the time. It was able to combine its natural mountain barrier and its Anglesey granary with its newly learned modes of feudal warfare. Its laws were based on those of Hywel Dda. There was a temporary Welsh overlord in ‘The Lord Rhys of Dinefwr’, Yr Arglwydd Rhys, but Gwynedd had its ‘prince’, an imprecise term which could be charged with constitutional significance. To the south and east, taking in most of the best land and expropriating much of its wealth, there was an arc of marcher lordships owned by the Montgomery, Mortimer, Bohun and the Clare families. Their lands stretched deep into mid-Wales and along the rich and open south coast. As Gwyn Williams commented, …

There was a permanently disputed shadow zone and endless border raiding, but there was also a fine mesh of intermarriage and fluctuating tactical alliances. The beautiful princess Nest of Deheubarth could play the role of a Helen of Troy, precipitating wars over her person.

During this period, the native Welsh were admitted to much of the rapidly developing learning of Europe; there were works on medicine and science in the Welsh language. In a revival arising directly from the struggle for independence, the bardic order was reorganised. Bardic schools were arduous and apprenticeships in the strict metres were long. Gruffydd ap Cynan was credited with the initial impetus, and he was, possibly, the first to systematise the eisteddfodau under the Maiestawd Dehau (‘the Majesty of the South’), The Lord Rhys, Justiciar of the King, who exercised some shadowy, theoretical authority over every lord in Wales, whether Welsh or Norman, and whose eminence endowed the Welsh language and its poetry with prestige. This was the age of the gogynfeirdd, the court poets, when every court and many a sub-court had its official pencerdd, the master-poet who sat next to the prince’s heir in hall, and its bardd teulu, the household poet. The poets had official functions and were the remembrancers to dynasties and their people. They evolved a complex, difficult and powerful tradition which, in the thirteenth century, involved a renaissance influence; princes like Owain Cyfeiliog were themselves poets. Most, like the great Cynddelw in the twelfth century, saw themselves as being in the service of a mission, rather than a simply the servants of a particular prince. Norman lords also succumbed to the charms of the court poets, harpists and singers. Giraldus Cambrensis made a special note of the harmonies he heard:

… when a choir gathers to sing, which happens often in this country, you will hear as many different parts and voices as there are performers, all joining together in the end to produce a single organic harmony and melody in the soft sweetness of the B-flat…

However, this was a period of temporary truce rather than permanent peace, and in the face of Welsh resistance and counter-attack, the marcher lords’ conquests were far from secure; their lands increased and decreased in area. Nevertheless, by 1200 much of eastern, southern and south-western Wales was under Anglo-Norman control. As the twelfth century progressed, there had also been a continuing and accelerated opening up of the land along the Border, many of the great woodland areas being cleared to make way for agriculture, and to provide timber for housing, fuel and ships. In addition, these subsequent decades saw the growth of townships around the Norman castles. Today the Border contains a fascinating variety of towns, while a number of the motte and bailey castles are now no more than mounds, like Nantcribbau near Montgomery. At White Castle, a township never developed at all, while at Grosmont the beginnings of a town are clear. Monmouth is a township which grew into a market town, while Oswestry grew into an important sub-regional centre. It was during this period the parts of Wales under Anglo-Norman control came to be known as marchia Wallie, the March of Wales, whilst ‘independent Wales’ governed by its native rulers was known as Wallia or pura Wallia. With the ebb and flow of conquest and the periodic recovery of lands by the Welsh, the boundaries of the March were constantly changing; the medieval ‘March’ as a geographical term, therefore, had a very different meaning from the early modern ‘March’ which Tudor government used to describe the Anglo-Welsh border counties.

The Fate of Princely Wales & Plantagenet Hegemony:

Within a few years of the beginning of the thirteenth century, Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (‘the Great’), Prince of Gwynedd, had united all the Welsh princes under his overlordship and was also supported by the English barons against King John. With the help of his allies, he had recovered much of the March for the Welsh, including the Mortimer lordships of Maelienydd and Gwerthrynion. In 1234, the ‘Treaty of the Middle’ brought about an uneasy peace between Henry III, the marcher lords and Llywelyn. His triumphs, and those of his grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, further inspired the renaissance of Welsh poetry, which did much to keep alive the desire for independence. However, on the death of the ‘Great’ Welsh Prince in April 1240, the king refused to recognise the rights of his heir, Dafydd (David), to his father’s conquests. Instead, Henry appears to have encouraged the marcher lords to recover ‘their’ lost lands by ordering the sheriff of Herefordshire to transfer possession of Maelienydd to Ralph (II) Mortimer. During the following summer of 1241, Ralph recovered the lordship by force and agreed a truce with the local Welsh lords. Earlier that year, however, they had met Henry III at Worcester, formally submitting to his kingship. In return, he had endorsed their right to resume hostilities with Ralph Mortimer after their truce had expired. In other words, it was not the king’s business to involve himself in disputes between the Welsh lords and the marcher lords.

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Fifty years later, Edward I did intervene decisively in the March, determined to demonstrate that affairs there were his business and that he was the overlord of the marcher lords. In 1267, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd had been recognised as Prince of Wales by Henry III (that is, overlord of the native princedoms beyond the March), but Llewelyn proved reluctant to fulfil his side of the bargain and accept, in turn, the feudal overlordship of the Plantagenets over the whole of England and Wales. Llewelyn had taken advantage of Henry’s problems with his English barons, which culminated in civil war in 1264-5, to expand his territories both at the rival Welsh princes and the English marcher barons: his success made him overconfident, however, and needlessly provocative. In the Statute of Westminster of 1275, Edward declared that he would do right by the March, and anywhere else where his writ did not run, seeking fairness and justice for all complainants. Meanwhile, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, who had inherited his grandfather’s Principality of Gwynedd, and had been an ally of the English rebel Simon de Montfort, refused to pay homage to Edward I. In 1277, determined to subdue Llywelyn and bring him to heel, Edward proceeded by land via Chester, Flint and Rhuddlan, and sent a fleet to cut off food supplies from Anglesey, so that the Welsh prince was forced to accept a negotiated peace. The terms were harsh for the Welsh prince: he was forced to surrender the area known as ‘the four cantrefs’ between Chester and the River Conwy, which Edward then used to create a new series of powerful marcher lordships. Edward also imposed a potentially crippling war indemnity of fifty thousand pounds. It is hard to see how Gwynedd could ever have raised such a sum, but the waiving of the demand was a means by which Edward demonstrated the control he now had over Llywelyn.

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It was Edward I’s single-minded concentration of the kingdom’s resources and his shrewd use of his armies and his navy (to supply them) that brought Welsh independence to an end in 1282 after a second rebellion was suppressed. Llewelyn’s brother Dafydd launched a revolt against the English from his lands in Gwynedd. Ironically, he had been an ally of the English crown but felt aggrieved at the lack of reward for his former services by Edward. Dafydd’s rebellion forced Llewelyn’s hand; instead of crushing the rebellion, he joined it. Edward’s response was to launch a full-scale war of conquest. Proceeding along the north Wales coast as he had done five years before, but now through what was friendly territory, his forces took Anglesey and pushed Llywelyn back into the fastnesses of Snowdonia. Llywelyn then attempted to move south, but was ambushed at Irfon Bridge near Builth, and killed. His brother, Dafydd, was eventually captured by Edward’s forces, possibly through treachery, in June 1283, and hideously executed at Shrewsbury. All of Dafydd and Llywelyn’s lands in Gwynedd were confiscated by the English Crown.

Independent Gwynedd was obliterated along with all insignia and other symbols which might be used to revive the cause. Chief among these were the courtly poets, whose martyrdom was later recorded by the Hungarian poet János Arány to serve as a parable of resistance to another Empire after the ‘heroic’ uprising and war of independence of 1848-49. Arány’s poem, Walesi Bardok (‘The Bards of Wales’; see the link below) is learnt and recited today by every school child in Hungary. It is also available in an English translation. Gwyn Williams wrote of how, with the fall of the house of Aberffraw, the epoch of the Wales of the Princes came to an end:

The Welsh passed under the nakedly colonial rule of an even more arrogant, and self-consciously alien, imperialism. Many historians, aware that the feudal principalities and princes have elsewhere made nations, have largely accepted the verdict of nineteenth-century Welsh nationalism and identified the hose of Aberffraw as the lost and legitimate dynasty of Wales. Llywelyn ap Gruffydd has become Llywelyn the Last. In fact, Wales of the Princes had to die before a Welsh nation could be born. That Welsh nation made itself out of the very tissue of contradictions which was the colonialism which choked it.

The Plantagenet hold on Wales, now extending over the north and west of the country, was accompanied by a second great phase of castle building. Edward rebuilt the castles at Caernarfon, Flint and Rhuddlan and built new concentric ones at Harlech, Conwy, Beaumaris and Criccieth, to overawe the Welsh, standing both as bastions and as symbols of Plantagenet rule. Important market towns grew up around the new castles. But the military occupation of the north-west was also followed up by a constitutional settlement, imposed and established by the 1284 Statute of Rhuddlan. By this, the former principality was placed under the direct jurisdiction of the English crown and Anglo-Norman law. Both Gwynedd and Deheubarth were divided into shires, like in England, and English courts of justice were introduced. Further revolts, in 1287 and 1294 were ruthlessly suppressed, and in 1295 the Earl of Warwick defeated the North Welsh rebel leader, Madog ap Llewelyn, at Maes Madog, in an engagement which presaged the tactical use of ‘mixed formations’ of archers and dismounted men-at-arms in the Hundred Years War.

The king then undertook a great circular progress through Wales to reinforce his authority. Although there was no drastic change in the customs of the people, and the tribal and clan groupings still existed, these slowly broke down over the following centuries. In 1301 Edward granted all the English Crown lands in Wales to his eldest son, ‘Edward of Carnarvon’, now called the Prince of Wales in what some have presented as an attempt to appease the Welsh people. In reality, however, it was a powerful reminder that the days of the native princes were over. Half of Wales became a unified Principality, to be ruled directly through statute by the English king. Gradually, too, there was a resulting decline in the power of the Marcher lordships. The king, concerned at their level of autonomy, had now acquired his own Welsh lands.

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The March of Wales in the Later Middle Ages:

Nevertheless, the forty or so marcher lordships, comprising the other half of the country, were left intact and remained in existence until 1536. Throughout the fourteenth century, strong undercurrents of discontent needed only the emergence of a strong leader to unite Wales in rebellion. Exactly how the marcher lords acquired and were able to hold on to their special constitutional status in Wales has been the subject of continual debate. It is argued on the one hand that they simply acquired the regal powers of the Welsh princes they dispossessed. The basic units of Welsh territory and administration within the gwlad (the territory of a single prince) were the cantrefi consisting of two or more cymydau which can be loosely equated to the English Hundreds. By annexing a relatively small cantref or cymyd, with its llys or administrative court, an invading lord stepped into the shoes of the local Welsh prince or lord, just as if one Welsh prince had defeated another and annexed his territory. On the other hand, the lords’ powers were openly or tacitly granted by the king as rewards for carrying out their conquests on the Crown’s behalf. The March of Wales was not, however, a homogeneous region, subject to a uniform style of conquest and administration. It was through a diversity of circumstances that the lords of the March won the prerogatives which were later collected into a set of privileges recognised by thirteenth-century lawyers.

After his conquest of Wales and the partition of the country into Crown lands and the March, Edward, with his passion for law and order, would have considered the divided administration of the country, the relative independence of the rulers of much of it and its fragmented judicial system as an anathema; but the marchers with their jealously guarded immunities were difficult to dislodge, and although Edward flexed his muscles towards them, he seems to have accepted the political reality of the March, provided his authority as monarch was recognised.  Whilst the king acknowledged that his writ did not run in the March, in the last resort he reserved his authority over the Lords Marcher as tenants-in-chief, especially in the case of disputed titles to lordships. In 1290, Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester and lord of Glamorgan and Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford and lord of Brecon were at loggerheads, mainly over a disputed debt. In 1291 the two earls were summoned in their capacities as lords of the March and arraigned before the king and council at Abergavenny, and the following January before parliament at Westminster. Gilbert de Clare was found guilty of waging war after the king’s injunction and Humphrey de Bohun of defying the king by claiming that he was entitled to act in the March of Wales in a way he could not do in England. The two lords were sentenced to imprisonment and forfeiture of their marcher lordships during their lifetimes; but the king soon relented and commuted their sentences to fines, which they seem never to have paid.

King Edward’s masterful management of this affair and the severe penalties meted out to two prominent marcher lords must have had a traumatic effect on their peers. What the lords had considered to be prerogatives, the king and his council now considered to be privileges, and the extent to which the king could interfere constitutionally in the affairs of the March was to prove a running sore between strong and ambitious kings and the marchers. The cherished symbol of their status, the right to wage war, had been abolished by a royal proclamation. Edward I’s intervention of 1291-92 constituted a precedent and a turning point in the standing of the marcher lords, especially as he had demonstrated that he had even been prepared to humiliate the two lords. In the same year, 1292, he persuaded the marcher lords to pay a tax on their lands in Wales as a contribution towards a subsidy granted to him by parliament two years previously. On one occasion, the king confiscated Wigmore Castle when Edmund Mortimer executed an inhabitant of the royal lordship of Montgomery, thereby encroaching on the king’s rights, and Edmund was only able to recover it after payment of a fine of a hundred marks and providing a straw effigy of the man to be hung on the gallows in the town of Montgomery. In 1297, the men of the Mortimer lordship of Maelienydd submitted a list of grievances to the king who seems to have induced Edmund to grant the men of the lordship charters of their liberties, another example of royal interference in the administration of the March.

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The position was further complicated by the fact that the marcher lords also held lands in England by normal feudal tenure; by the end of Edward’s reign in 1307, seven out of ten of them. A specific instance of the marchers’ autonomy related to castle-building; the earls of Hereford would have had, at least in theory, to obtain a licence to build a castle in Herefordshire, but in their marcher lordship of Brecon, they could have built one without reference to the Crown. The marcher lordships were to exist for more than another two centuries but their constitutional status would never again be as secure as it had been before the reign of Edward I. Furthermore, the conquest of Gwynedd and the de facto unification of England and Wales had rendered obsolete the justification for the very existence of the marcher lordships, namely the suppression of any threat to England. Although the marchers were conspicuously involved in the civil strife of Edward II’s reign, during the rest of the fourteenth century they were, by and large, left to their own devices at home. Edward III needed the support of his barons, many of whom held lands in the March of Wales, during the Hundred Years War with France, especially since it was from their domains that many of the Welsh archers and spearmen were recruited for the king’s armies. In 1354, when there was a possibility of a French invasion of Wales, Edward emphasised that the loyalties of the marchers must be to the Crown. The March of Wales and the borderlands were still viewed with suspicion; they remained territories in which it was difficult to exercise royal supervision and for the Crown to intervene militarily. Throughout the Middle Ages, the marcher lordships were a refuge for rebellious barons, criminals and anyone else who wanted to ‘disappear’.

The English exploitation of Wales and exporting of its wealth, particularly by the late fourteenth century, was a primary cause of intermittent national and regional rebellions. In 1387, eleven archers escorted a convoy of treasure worth close on a million pounds in today’s money from Wigmore to London, which had presumably been ‘milked’ from Wales. A particular cause of Welsh resentment was the status and privileges of the boroughs ‘planted’ in Wales, which often extended miles beyond the town’s actual boundaries. Newtown was a case in point, established by Roger Mortimer (III) in the 1270s, which, with its commercial advantages from which he would benefit, supplanted a nearby Welsh town.

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Much has been written for and against Owain Glyndwr, who appeared as the leader of the Welsh in 1400. I have also written an article about him, published on this site (see the links below). That the catalyst for the national revolt was a boundary dispute between Glyndwr and Lord Grey of Ruthin demonstrates the importance of marking borders along what was now ‘the March’. It left behind widespread destruction on both sides and a country broken by demands for lost revenues. Glyndwr was strongly backed by ‘English’ elements, including Edmund Mortimer, who married Catherine Glyndwr. Many others were hostile to Henry IV’s usurpation of the throne from Richard II. The very public failure of the marchers to contain the Glyndwr rebellion inevitably called into question their continuing utility as a group and reinforced calls for reform of the administration of the March. This demand faltered in the face of England’s preoccupation with the renewal of the French Wars in 1415.

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Rebellion would be followed by repression and by ‘ethnic cleansing’ which was particularly severe in both the Principality and the March after the suppression of Owain Glyndwr’s rebellion. Glyndwr himself disappeared into Herefordshire’s Golden Valley (perhaps to his son-in-law’s manor at Monnington Straddel), so-called because the Anglo-Normans confused the Welsh word for water, dwr, giving its name to the River Dore, with the French word d’or. This misunderstanding was perhaps symptomatic of the continued disjunction between the Cambrian and Anglo-Norman cultures. Welsh hatred re-focused on the marcher lords as the mistrusted agents of English rule. Like Arthur, Glyndwr could not die and Henry V, born in Monmouth, would have had no desire to make a Welsh martyr of him. In 1415, he was to need his men of Monmouth, skilled bowmen, on the field at Agincourt. The outlaw prince was left to live out his days in seclusion, too proud to accept Henry’s twice-offered pardon, but his remaining son was taken into the king’s own service. Arthur would come again in the form of the grandson of Owen Tudor.

(to be continued…)

Posted July 1, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Anglo-Saxons, Archaeology, Britain, British history, Britons, Castles, Celtic, Celts, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, clannishness, Colonisation, Conquest, Dark Ages, English Language, Ethnic cleansing, Europe, Footpaths, Genocide, guerilla warfare, Humanities, Hungarian History, Hungary, Imperialism, Integration, Ireland, Linguistics, Literature, Mercia, Midlands, Narrative, Nationality, Normans, Old English, Papacy, Plantagenets, Population, Remembrance, Renaissance, Saxons, Statehood, Suffolk, Uncategorized, Wales, War Crimes, Warfare, West Midlands

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The Dialects of Middle English: Part two; From Mercian to West and East Midland.   Leave a comment

The Anglo-Saxons who invaded and settled the Midlands and Northern England spoke two distinct dialects of OE, Northumbrian (North of the Humber) and Mercian. During the ME period, Mercian or the Midland dialect developed distinctive features in the Danelaw, where it came under the influence of Danish Old Norse speakers. As a result, OE Mercian developed into two ME dialects, East Midland and West Midland. The West Midland dialect can again be divided into two, one to the north of the Trent and the other to its south, but there are sufficient similarities for them to be treated as one dialect.

The north-West Midland Dialect

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a romance in alliterative verse which tells a story of the legendary court of King Arthur. The story begins with the New Year celebrations at the court, when a green knight rides in, carrying a battle-axe, and challenges any knight to strike him a blow with the axe, provided that he can give a return blow a year and a day later. Gawain takes up the challenge.

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The only surviving manuscript (transcribed and in print above) was probably written towards the end of the fourteenth century, and the scholars are agreed that the dialect is the north-West Midland of present-day south Lancashire and Cheshire. The manuscript shows how, long before spelling became standardised, a single letter could be related to several different sounds in English. The poem is written in 101 stanzas which have a varying number of unrhymed alliterative lines followed by five short rhymed lines. Like all OE and ME verse, it was written to be read out loud to an audience. Although it was contemporary with Chaucer’s writing, it is more difficult to read for MnE users, partly because some of the vocabulary is from a stock of words reserved for use in poetry, and partly because many words of the West Midland dialect came down into MnE spoken dialects, but not into written Standard English. It contains a large number of ON, Old French and dialect words that have not survived into MnE.

The south-West Midland Dialect 

Piers Plowman is one of the most famous poems in ME. It must have been a very popular work in its own day, because over fifty manuscripts have survived. The poem is an allegory of the Christian life, and of the corruption of the contemporary Church and society, written in the form of a series of dreams or ‘visions’:

Ac on a May mornyng on Maluerne hulles (= hills)

Me biful for to slepe

And merueylousliche me mette (= dreamed),

as y may telle.

(Prologue, lines 6-7, 9)

Piers is a humble poor labourer who stands for the ideal of honest work and obedience to the Church. The poem’s author, William Langland, is unknown other than for this one work, in which he characterised himself as ‘Will’ or ‘Long Will’, living in London, at Cornhill, with Kit his wife and a daughter named Calote. Apart from what he tells us, there is no evidence about him. There are three versions of the poem extant today (A, B and C texts), which show that Langland continually revised and extended the poem from the 1360s to the 1380s, when the C-text was probably completed. It is a fine example of alliterative verse in English. The dialect is south-West Midland, but rather mixed, and there are many variant spellings in the fifty manuscripts. The later, printed text of Langland’s poem is ‘edited’, based on one of the C-text manuscripts, but using other manuscripts or making changes where these do not make good sense. Abbreviations are also filled out and modern punctuation added. In addition, the manuscripts used by the editor are copies, not the original. Consequently, any observations made about either Langland’s ‘idiolect’, or the south-West Midland dialect in general would need to be verified from other sources.

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There are relatively few words of French origin in Langland’s verse (extracts above and below), and even fewer from ON. The South, West and West Midlands of England had not been settled by Danes or Norwegians, so the scarcity of ON words is to be expected. The proportion of French words in one short text cannot be used to come to any significant conclusions, but it does perhaps demonstrate that the solid core of OE vocabulary continued into the ME of these regions of England, becoming the basis of their modern colloquial language.

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East Midland and London Dialects:

Of the ME manuscripts which have come down to us, a large proportion are in the form of sermons or homilies which set out the ideals of the Church and the Christian life. A typical example is in The Parson’s Tale from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in which the primary and most prominent theme is sin and repentance for sin, or penitence:

Seint Ambrose seith that penitence is the plenynge of man for the gilt that he hath doon and namoore to doon any thyng for which hym oghte to pleyne.

The secondary theme is the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’, those sins which were thought to be the most offensive and serious. These were pride, envy, wrath (= anger), sloth, covetousness, gluttony and lust:

Now it is behouely thing to telle whiche ben dedly synnes, that is to seyn chieftaynes of synnes… Now ben they clepid chieftaynes for as much as they ben chief and sprynge of alle othere synnes… This synne of ire, after the descryuyng of seint Augustyn, is wikked wil to be auenged by word or by ded.

One of the reasons for learning about the early development of the English language is to understand the relationships between the dialects and Standard English in the present-day language. In the conglomeration of different dialects that we call ‘Middle English’, there is no single recognised standard form. By studying the political, social, economic and cultural history of England in relation to the language, it is possible to determine that the conditions for a standard language to emerge were beginning to take shape by the second half of the fifteenth century. From the beginning of the sixteenth century, scholars and writers began to discuss the need for a standard in spelling, pronunciation and grammar, which naturally raised the question as to which dialect or variety of the language should be used to create that standard. A standard language, in modern sociological terms, is…

…that speech variety of a language which is legitimised as the obligatory norm for social intercourse on the strength of the interests of dominant forces in that society (Norbert Dittmar, 1976: Sociolinguistics).

By this definition, the choice is made by people imitating those with prestige or power in their society, while those in power tend to prescribe their variety of the language as the ‘correct’ one to use. A standard language is not, of itself, superior as a language for communication over other dialects, but in its adoption and development it is the language of those with social and political influence, and therefore intrinsic superiority is often claimed for it. For example, in 1589, the poet George Puttenham published a book called, The Arte of English Poesie. In it, he gave advice to poets on their choice of language:

It must be that of educated, not common people, neither shall he follow the speech of a craftes man, or other of the inferiour sort, though he be inhabitant or bred in the best towne and ciie in this Realme. But he shall follow generally the better brought up sought,… ciuill and graciously behauoured and bred.

The recommended dialect was therefore Southern, forming the usuall speach of the Court, that of London and the shires lying about London within sixty miles… This defines the literary language already in use in the sixteenth century, and clearly describes it as the prestigious language of the educated classes of London and the South-East. Being the centre of government, trade and commerce, its dialect was that of the ‘dominant forces’ in society, so that it was set to become the dominant form of the language.

The London dialect in the late fourteenth century derived from a mixture of ME dialects, but was strongly influenced by the East Midland dialect, partly because the city was then built wholly on the North side of the Thames, with suburbs running out into Essex and Middlesex, rather than into Kent and Surrey, and partly because there was a significant migration into London from the East Midlands and East Anglia in late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. There were also immigrants from south of the Thames, especially from Kent, which stretched from Dover to Greenwich at that time. However, although there are traces of the Kentish and Southern dialects in the London dialect, present-day Standard English derives its origins from the East Midland dialect of Middle English, which is why the English of Chaucer from the late fourteenth century is not so very different from the late sixteenth century language of Shakespeare. Both, of course, had Midland origins themselves. The extract below is from ‘The Friar’s Tale’ by Chaucer:

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Geoffrey Chaucer was born in the 1340s and died in 1400: He was acknowledged in his own day as the greatest contemporary writer, not only in poetry, but also in the arts of rhetoric and philosophy. He wrote in the London dialect of ME of his time; that is, the literary form of the speech of the educated classes. The dialect of the mass of ordinary people living in London must have been very different, both in form and pronunciation, as it is today. The Canterbury Tales is Chaucer’s best-known work, but some of the tales are much more widely read than others. Most of them are in verse, and it is unlikely that the two tales in prose will ever be popular, since their content and style are less accessible to the modern reader. However, they do provide evidence of the development of the language. However, changes and variations in the pronunciation of a language are much more difficult to study than changes in vocabulary or spelling. One useful source of evidence, however, is in rhyming verse. If two words rhyme, we presume that they contain the same sounds. We can then look up the derivation of the words and compare the spellings and possible pronunciations. The principle changes from OE to ME are in the loss of inflections, but there are many changes from ME to MnE in vowels, and some in consonants. There are also some interesting changes in the stress patterns of some words from ME to MnE, so that identical words no longer rhyme in present-day English.

From the fourteenth century onwards, we begin to find many more examples of everyday language surviving in letters and public documents than we do for earlier English. Literary language draws on the ordinary language of its time, but we cannot be sure that it tells us how people actually spoke. In Chaucer’s day London was, from time to time, the scene of violence and demonstration in the streets. Thomas Usk was involved with what turned out to be the losing side in the political factions of his day, and describes a series of incidents in the 1380s. He was unsuccessful in his appeal for clemency in 1384 (below), and was executed sometime after. His appeal is an example of the London English of a fairly well-educated man, and provide further evidence of its proximity to the East Midland dialect of ME.   

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