Archive for the ‘East Anglia’ Tag

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

002

The Wars of the Roses and the Tudor State of Wales:

By the time of the ensuing Wars of the Roses, the Crown territories had spread throughout Wales, leaving the Marcher lordships with less power. Yorkist and Lancastrian families in the March provided fighting men for the armies of the rival factions, and when Harlech fell to William Herbert, the first Welsh-speaking earl,  the poet Guto’r Glyn had no hesitation in calling upon him to unite Glamorgan and Gwynedd, pardon not a single burgess, and expel all Englishmen from office in Wales. Only the Anglo-Welsh Lancastrians should be spared. However, it was Edward of York, earl of the March and Lord Mortimer, who became Edward IV in 1461. As a result, many of the lordships changed hands or were forfeited. Many of these passed to the Crown, the twenty-two Mortimer lordships included. York controlled the March and Lancaster the Principality, and practically every family of substance was drawn into the conflict. William Herbert built himself up to become Earl of Pembroke, the effective ruler of south Wales. Griffith ap Nicolas rose from humble origins to make himself and his family ‘kings of south-west Wales’ and to establish the ‘House of Dinefwr’.

The Crown lordships and the Principality now dominated the political landscape of Wales, enabling the king to establish a Prince’s council of the Marches of Wales in 1471 which continued to function intermittently until the Tudor ‘invasion’ of Wales and ‘takeover’ of England in 1485. The Tudors of Anglesey were, like the bulk of their compatriots, survivors. The family fortunes had been established by Tudur ap Gronw, whose sons had fought alongside Owain Glyndwr as his cousins. One of them, Rhys was executed and another, Maredudd, was driven into exile. His son, Owen, was taken on as a page-boy by Henry V, later marrying his widow, Catherine de Valois. His stepson, Henry VI, made his Tudor half-brothers earls of Richmond and Pembroke. Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, married Margaret Beaufort, who brought a claim to the English throne. Edmund died and was buried in Carmarthen; his son, Henry, was born posthumously. His mother was now a fourteen-year-old widow, so the boy was taken in by his uncle Jasper at Pembroke Castle, where he learnt Welsh. Following the Lancastrian disaster of 1471, Jasper took the boy to Brittany, and when his small army landed at Dale in Pembrokeshire, he depended entirely on a Welsh rally to carry him through to his supporters in England. Many of the northern Welsh lords did rally to him at Shrewsbury, and at Bosworth Henry unfurled the Red Dragon of Cadwaladr. He called his eldest son Arthur, and the Venetian ambassador commented that,

The Welsh may now be said to have recovered their independence, for the most wise and fortunate Henry VII is a Welshman…

The old Yorkist order in the Marches tried to hang on and, in the boroughs, made a last stand against the incoming tide of Welshmen. Henry kept St David’s Day and packed his own minor offices with Welshmen. By the end of his reign almost every marcher lordship was in royal hands, ‘over-mighty subjects’ had been cut down and charters of emancipation issued to north Wales. Under Henry VII’s firm hand a reinvigorated Council in the Marches began in the king’s name to bring about some uniformity in the government of the various lordships, particularly in the field of administration of justice. The late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries saw an increasingly centralised Tudor state in which the special political arrangements of the March were becoming untenable. In 1490, Henry VII agreed to a form of extradition treaty with the steward of the lordships of Clifford, Winforton and Glasbury which allowed ‘hot pursuit’ of criminals in certain circumstances.

005

However, as he himself had demonstrated by his successful invasion on the way to ‘picking up the crown’ at the Battle of Bosworth Field, there remained a problem of the defence of the extended kingdom. Wales was England’s weakly bolted backdoor. Some degree of unified defence of Wales was of major importance to England’s security. His second son was left to find a solution to this problem, which was further complicated by his decision, in 1529, to go into action against the papacy. As the commissioners moved on the monasteries and their property, with Welsh gentry eagerly joining in, there was cause for alarm. As the Marcher lordships collapsed into gangster fiefdoms, just across the water, Catholic Ireland was also restive. If Wales was its backdoor, Ireland beyond ‘the Pale’ remained its back gate. It was from there that the Plantagenets had sought to dethrone Henry VII at Stoke Field in 1487, and even in the 1540s, Henry VIII remained paranoid about the threat from that quarter. The March of Wales had become so disorderly as a separate part of the kingdom that the Duke of Buckingham asked for a royal licence from Thomas Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor, to allow him to have an armed guard when he travelled through his lordships, declaring that he did not dare enter his lands in the March without an escort of three to four hundred armed men. Under these circumstances, the King’s solution for the disorder in the March of Wales was not to tinker with the constitutional anachronism which had become, but to abolish it.

By 1536, Thomas Cromwell realised that a ham-fisted coercion would not suffice. The law and order of England would have to embrace Wales with the aid of Justices of the Peace drawn from its gentry. The ‘British’ nation-state in the making was faced with the difficulty that there were two nations within it, with a visible border between them. So both the border and the smaller nation would have to become invisible. Therefore, between 1536 and 1543, the English crown put through a number of measures which have gone down in British history as the Acts of Union. The Act for Laws and Justice to be Ministered in Wales in like Fourme as it is in this Realm united the Principality and the March of Wales as part of ‘the kingdom of England and Wales’. The Acts of Union in 1536 and 1542, bound the two countries into a single state of ‘England and Wales’. The Act of Union of 1536 completed the long process of the absorption of the Principality of Wales and the March of Wales into the English kingdom. It rendered superfluous the castles that until then had held these territories in subjugation.

005

The old Principality was wiped off the map, and the lordships in the March were abolished and, by combining them in groups, new shires were created to be added to the two established by Henry III in South Wales, and the four in Gwynedd and Dyfed, which had been created by the Statute of 1284. Wales became thirteen counties in all. The marchers were permitted to retain their lands and rights of lordship as practised in England, but they lost their previous prerogatives and privileges. The whole country was subsequently administered as a corporate element of the same realm. Shrewsbury remained in all but name the administrative capital of the whole of Wales, with the Council in the Marches, responsible for maintaining law and order in the English Marches and Wales, meeting there until its abolition in the 1640s. A consequence of these changes was that the language of the ruling gentry class became predominantly English. The key office of the Justice of the Peace passed to the gentry as ‘kings of the bro‘ (the ‘locality’). Welshmen became entitled to the same rights under the law as Englishmen, including the right to representation, for the first time, in the Westminster Parliament. However, because Wales was poor compared to most regions of England, the ‘burden’ of sending an MP was reduced to one MP per county, and the boroughs of each county were grouped together to supply a second MP. Wales was provided with a distinct system of higher administration and justice, in that twelve of its counties were grouped into four circuits of three for a Welsh Great Sessions, meeting for convenience in the borderlands, which also meant that Ludlow became an important centre for many years.

010

In the Tudor ‘nation-state’, English was supposed to be the only official language. Henry VIII proclaimed the necessity of extirpating all and singular the sinister usages of customs of Wales. No person or persons that use the Welsh speech shall have or enjoy any manner of office or fees within this realm. The threat of cultural genocide was not, in fact, fulfilled. In many ways, Wales remained a ‘peculiar’, if not a separate nation, with a unique administration and its own customs and language. Although the official, written language of local administration and the courts was to be English, the right of monolingual speakers of Welsh to be heard in courts throughout the country necessitated the appointment of Welsh-speaking judges and ensured the continued public use of the language. The dominance of the local gentry ensured that the justices of the peace and the men running the shires on behalf of the Crown were magistrates of their own nation, thereby guaranteeing that Wales would not come to be regarded simply as a part of England. This was the case even in Monmouthshire, which was fully incorporated into England by the Act of Union, and became part of Wales only in 1972.

At the same time as its administration was being remodelled, Wales also experienced the religious upheaval of the Protestant Reformation. At first, the Reformation simply substituted one barely intelligible tongue (Latin) with another (English). However, in contrast to Ireland, where little effort was made to make religious texts available in the native language, Welsh translations of the creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer came out as early as 1547, and these were soon followed by translations of the Prayer Book and the Scriptures. Since the Welsh could not be made invisible in the Tudor state, they had to be made Protestant, which meant that the Crown was forced to accede to pressure and authorise Welsh translations of the Bible, whose 1588 version was to prove a sheet-anchor for the threatened language. The early translation of the scriptures into Welsh also helped Protestantism to be accepted in Wales. In fact, the Welsh people embraced it enthusiastically, and later Puritanism and Nonconformity.

002

Above: The frontispiece of the first full translation of the Bible into Welsh, published in 1588.

Nevertheless, although it could be used when necessary in the courts, Welsh ceased to be an official language and had to retreat into the Church and the kitchen. The long-term effects of this were very serious for the language. Since it was all but excluded from administration, the position of Welsh gained as the language of religion did much to ensure its survival. The survival of Welsh as a living tongue compensated for the collapse of the medieval bardic tradition with its characteristic prophetic elements. Another Celtic tradition that sank into disfavour was the use of patronymics, by which a person’s second name identified or her as the child of a known parent (e.g. ap Arthur). This was superseded by the use of surnames, in the English manner, handed down from one generation to another. Many traditional Welsh Christian names also fell out of fashion in this period.

At the time, however, the Union was celebrated among the self-confident Welsh burgesses, who saw themselves as being as free as Englishmen under the law of England and Wales. Most importantly, perhaps, the ‘ordinary’ Welshman was no longer at the mercy of his lord or prince in terms of justice, which could no longer be administered arbitrarily by a master who was ‘a law unto himself’. Henry VIII was as masterful a monarch as Edward I in cutting the Lords Marcher down to size, and the lords seem to have accepted that their time for full submission to kingly authority had finally come. Now fewer in number and with most of the lordships already in the hands of the Crown, they were largely absentee landlords; their interests in England were, vulnerable to royal retaliation, were more valuable to them than their Welsh ones, which were still recovering their economic value from the long-term effects of the Glyndwr Rebellion.

001

These political changes in Tudor times left the Border itself with less strategic importance. Wales after the Union was no cultural backwater. The Welsh adopted Jesus College in Oxford (founded in 1571) and the Inns of Court in London to complete their education. The Welsh gentry took enthusiastically to the Renaissance, building houses and art collections comparable with those anywhere else in Europe. Against these cosmopolitan tendencies should be set the work of Sir John Price in defending the Arthurian tradition in the face of general scepticism, and the work of Gruffydd Done, in the sixteenth century, and of Robert Vaughan of Hengwrt, in the seventeenth, who both collected and preserved Welsh medieval texts. By the time of the early Stuarts, ‘the Wales of the squires’ was entering a golden age in which Anglicanism and royalism were becoming rooted among the Welsh gentry. James I and VI was therefore favourably disposed to them and their loyalties were easily transferred to the Scottish dynasty with its own idea of Great Britain, not far removed from their own developing identity as Cambro-Britons. William Vaughan of Cardiganshire, who tried to launch a Welsh colony, Cambriol, in Newfoundland, was also keen to discard the ‘idea’ of the old frontier when he wrote:

I rejoice that the memorial of Offa’s Ditch is extinguished.

003

Above: Plas Teg, near Mold, Flintshire, the earliest Renaissance-style house in Wales, built c. 1610 for Sir John Trevor, a senior figure in naval administration.

Administration, Language, Trade and Religion:

Wales had acquired its historic frontier in the estate boundaries of an Anglo-Norman oligarchy. Ethnic minorities were left on both sides of the line. Old Ergyng (Archenfield) disappeared into Herefordshire but remained Welsh-speaking for three hundred years. The integration of Britain became visible in the large-scale migration of the Welsh to London, the growing centre of both trade and power. Dafydd Seisyllt, from Ergyng, was one of those who went up to London as a sergeant of Henry VII’s guard. He bought land and installed his son as a court page. His grandson was William Cecil, Elizabeth’s potent statesman. The Seisyllts, in a transliteration which became commonplace, became the Cecils. The family of Morgan Williams the brewer who had married a sister of Thomas Cromwell changed his name and Oliver arrived three generations later.

Monmouth became an anomaly; nearer to London and relatively wealthy, with an early tin-plating industry, it was saddled with the full parliamentary quota and subjected to the courts of the capital. Always reckoned to be a part of the ‘Welsh’ Church in diocesan terms, it was, however, excluded from the Great Sessions and the Welsh parliamentary system. This led to the curious hybrid title of ‘Wales and Monmouthshire’ as a standard secular description, which continued English settlement in the county reinforced. Among the landowners clustering thick in Glamorgan and Monmouth in the south were some of the richest squires in contemporary Europe.

The lordships had varied greatly in size and in physical character, which largely governed their capacity for profitable exploitation, their lords’ primary aim in winning, holding and administering their conquests:

Glamorgan (Morgannwg) was large, much of it agriculturally productive;

Maelienydd, a core lordship of the Mortimer family, was small, an upland and sparsely populated territory of little intrinsic value other than its strategic location;

Clifford, another Mortimer lordship, was very small, perhaps only twenty square miles in extent, but of strategic importance in the Wye valley, the ancient and medieval gateway into Wales.

Conquest was followed by settlement and the evolution of ‘Englishries’ and ‘Welshries’, an ethnic division of population. The Welsh were evicted from the more low-lying arable districts of the lordships which then became ‘the Englishries’, organised in the English manorial system. Here the lords established their ‘vassals’ and immigrant settlers to farm their ‘demesne’ as tenants, paying rent. Often the marcher lords would be absentee landlords, leaving their officials to administer the lands. In this respect, the Mortimers were atypical in that their power and prosperity lay in the March of Wales. By the end of the fourteenth century, they had connections all over Wales of long duration. A Mortimer had married Gwladus, daughter of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, in the previous century, and in the last half of the fourteenth century Roger Mortimer, fourth Earl of March, had probably as good a dynastic claim as any to the inheritance of Gwynedd. He became the focus of extravagant hopes among the Welsh gentry. The poet Iolo Goch, who was one of his tenants, wrote a fulsome ode of loyalty to him, presenting him as an Arthurian ‘Hero Returned’ who would rescue the Welsh from their degradation. What made this all the more significant was that Mortimer also had a good claim to the inheritance of Richard II. This shift in consciousness came just at the time when a  renaissance of the Welsh language and culture was beginning to provoke political responses and to meet with judicial resistance.

The dispossessed Welsh, were effectively ‘internal exiles’, resettled in ‘the Welshries’ which consisted of the upland and less productive districts of the lordships where raising cattle and sheep were the principle agricultural enterprises. These areas would be more or less self-governing, with courts conducted according to Welsh customs and practice, and in the Welsh language, with little if any interference from the lord provided its inhabitants gave no trouble and paid their tributes in kind. In the lordship of Hay, in the mid-fourteenth century, while the men of the Englishry paid for their land with rent and services, the Welshry as a whole gave the lord the traditional tribute of twenty-four cows every year, though this was later replaced by payment in money. In the later Middle Ages the gradual abandonment of Welsh laws, customs and systems of land tenure was welcomed in some quarters of Wales, particularly among peasant farmers; in the second half of the fourteenth century, Welshmen in Clwyd were eager to surrender their holdings and receive them back on ‘English’ terms, while others were willing to pay for the privilege of ‘English’ status. This was because they preferred the inheritance law of primogeniture to the Welsh system of gavelkind, the equal division of a man’s inheritance among his sons, involving restrictions on his disposal of land according to his family’s individual circumstances.

These moves towards greater integration in the March of Wales had various manifestations. The Welsh language had started to reconquer the Vale of Glamorgan; Welshmen began to appear in the lowland and valley towns, in Oswestry, Brecon and Monmouth; the Welsh began ‘harassing’ English merchants in the March. A chorus of complaint against them burst from boroughs not only in Wales but in the English border counties. Nearly every Parliament which sat between 1378 and 1400 demanded urgent action against these impertinent ‘scrubs’. Even as the gentry turned their hopes towards Richard II, the English administrations in Wales slammed their doors hard. This was a reassertion of colonialism in a régime that was breaking down under its own contradictions, and the Welsh-English tensions that it provoked provided an even greater incentive for the discontented Welsh to support Richard II and Roger (VI) Mortimer.

Although the distinctions between Englishries and Welshries were breaking down by the later Middle Ages, these can sometimes be identified on the landscape today from old place names, where these appear as either English or Welsh, or sometimes bilingually:

Gwerthrynion and Cwmwd Deuddwr (the latter identifiable on today’s map as one of the longest original Welsh place-names, Llansantffraed Cwmdeuddwr) were two Mortimer upland lordships, located north-west of Rhayader on the upper reaches of the Wye. Presumably, they were unattractive to English settlers as there is also a notable absence of English placenames in that area.

006

Newtown bears its English name, with a translation provided into Welsh (Y Dref Newydd), despite being surrounded by villages with Welsh nomenclature, because it was established as a borough by Mortimer. Other attempts by them to found boroughs were not so successful. Cefnllys remains the name of a long-ruined castle near Llandrindod Wells, because the Mortimers failed to take into account both its isolated position remote from major trade routes as well as the very limited potential for agricultural production within its close vicinity. When the once important castle had been abandoned as no longer of strategic value, its fate was sealed. Similarly, the prosperity of the borough of Wigmore, and the value of its castle languished after the Mortimers moved their seat of power to Ludlow. The military security of the marcher lordships depended on castles, boroughs and the lords’ private armies. Castles were pivotal in their survival and territorial ambitions as well as being status symbols; they served as ‘launching pads’ for aggression, defensive strongholds and bases in which they could reside when in their Lordships. They were also administrative centres from which their stewards could operate, collecting rents and dues and exercising justice.

007

The marcher lords inherited from the Welsh princes the obligation of all free men to fight for them, and Wales throughout the Middle Ages provided a pool of experienced fighting men on which the marcher lords, and by extension, the king, could draw. Most of the infantrymen in the king’s armies were Welsh, and the archers, in particular, distinguished themselves in the Hundred Years War, and for both Yorkist and Lancastrian armies in the Wars of the Roses. The bowmen of Monmouthshire and south Wales were celebrated in both English and Welsh writing; in the March this intensified a loyalty to their lords which became a political as well as a military force. Thousands of Welshmen in their proud livery – like Mortimer’s men, all clothed in green with their arms yellow – were a force to be reckoned with in the politics of England itself, whenever the marchers were heavily involved, as they nearly always were.

Some of the larger lordships, like Glamorgan and Pembroke were organised along the lines of English shires, long before they were formally recognised as such in Tudor times. Maelienydd, by contrast, did not even have knight service, and the Mortimer administration was far less English in form. Rhys ap Gruffydd was knighted by Edward III, one of a number of Welshmen who achieved rank, office and respect in the king’s service and in the March. He commanded the Welsh bowmen in France, as a discrete unit in the English army. Hywel ap Meurig’s family had long been associated with the Mortimer family. In 1260, he was appointed as the negotiator with Llywelyn ap Gruffydd on behalf of the Crown and then became constable of the Mortimer castle at Cefnllys. He served as the king’s bailiff in Builth and soon after the end of the Welsh War of Independence of 1276-77 was commissioned as a justice in Wales. He and his family prospered as important cogs in the administration of Wales. Roger Mortimer (IV) maintained a retinue, or private army of Welsh soldiers during his ascendancy in the late 1320s. Although the final resort in settling disputes among the marcher lords, and with their princely Welsh neighbours may have been to engage in warfare, a full-blown war was unusual and arrangements developed among them for settling quarrels which would usually have been of a minor nature over such matters as cattle rustling and boundaries. ‘Letters of the March’ were forms of passports for travellers and merchants passing from one lordship to another. If a traveller was arrested in a lordship other than his own, he could present his letter, which would have been issued by his lord stating that he was a tenant, and request to be returned to face justice in his own lordship.

003

The prosperity of the lordships depended largely on agricultural exports of cattle to England and across England to the continent. In 1349, four hundred cattle were driven from the Bohun lordship of Brecon to Essex for fattening. The first part of this journey was along long-established drovers’ roads through the hills, which still mark the landscape of Wales today. Twelve years earlier fourteen sacks of wool were dispatched to from the Mortimer lordship of Radnor en route to Dordrecht, and in 1340 another thirty were awaiting dispatch (each sack weighed 165 kilos). They were probably held up because of the chaotic conditions in trade as a result of the early stages of the Hundred Years’ War. Wool exports to Flanders had been a thriving business since the early twelfth-century. Welsh border wool may have been of an inferior quality to that of the prime sheep-rearing centres of the Yorkshire moors and dales, but it was certainly superior to the wool of East Anglia.

When Shropshire fleeces were fetching fourteen marks a sack, the Suffolk farmer could only get four marks for his. Yet Suffolk was richer than Shropshire and closer to their foreign customers. The sight of foreign buyers riding eastwards to Ipswich or Dunwich followed by long lines of pack horses laden with Welsh wool was a familiar one in medieval East Anglia. Suffolk farmers and merchants could do a brisker business with the continent because they were closer, but they could not compete in volume or the quality needed by the weavers of fine cloth in Flanders. Then Edward III decided to levy swingeing taxes on markets and customs duties on ports both in order to raise money for his wars with France and as an economic weapon in those wars. In the wool-producing areas the immediate effects were catastrophic, but after 1350 the introduction of weaving to East Anglia, accompanied by the migration of skilled weavers from the depressed textile industries of Flanders, led to a boom in demand for fleeces.

Throughout the early modern period, Wales remained predominantly agrarian, specialising in cattle production, rather than sheep-grazing; dairy products, and, until the Industrial Revolution, cloth-manufacture. The countryside underwent gradual enclosure and deforestation. Settlements remained small and scattered, with farmers maintaining upland summer homes and lowland winter houses. Towns, other than the boroughs already referred to, were not an important feature until the eighteenth century and even then were restricted largely to Glamorgan. There was some tin-plating in Monmouthshire, but neither coal-mining nor iron-casting was as important as they were to become.

004

Dislike of the Anglo-Norman hegemony in Wales was not confined to the civil sphere; it was also present in the Church. The great religious revival of the eleventh century in Normandy was carried to England by the Conquest, which the Roman Church and the Norman barons themselves regarded as a Crusade, predating the ones they began to the ‘Holy Land’ in 1096. They considered the Welsh Church, still with its independent Celtic roots, to be, like the English one, in need of reform and physical rebuilding. The early conquests in Wales were accompanied by expropriation of church property for the benefit of religious foundations in Normandy and appointed French bishops whose dioceses by the early twelfth century had been incorporated into the province of Canterbury. In the Anglo-Norman borderlands and the Anglo-Welsh March, the abbey at Much Wenlock was refounded circa 1080; the Mortimers founded an abbey circa 1140 at Shobdon, a predecessor of Wigmore Abbey, and were later benefactors of the abbey at Cwm Hir in Maelienydd. Llanthony Abbey (detailed below) was founded in 1107. The native religious houses of Wales were slowly superseded by Anglo-Norman foundations or reformed in the new tradition as religious and cultural control of the Church passed out of Welsh hands for the next eight hundred years. Hardly surprisingly, this meddling was a cause of great resentment, with that champion of the Welsh Church, Giraldus Cambrensis, indignantly asking the Pope, …

… Because I am a Welshman, am I to be debarred from all preferment in Wales?

003

A Pilgrimage to Llanthony Abbey & through Gospel Pass:

Above: The Landor Estate at Llanthony.

This is an appropriate point to engage with the path itself. The section from ‘Pandy to Hay-on-Wye’ officially begins where it crosses the A465 from Hereford to Abergavenny by “the Lancaster Arms.” However, by following the Afon Honddu northwards along the B4423 from Llanfihangel Crucorney, we can find our way to Llanthony Abbey. Given the remarks of Giraldus Cambrensis above, this is perhaps a better place to start a historical walk. The Priory is directly below in the deep Vale of the Ewyas which, as the twelfth-century itinerant Giraldus described it, is about an arrow shot broad. The priory he found, perhaps somewhat grudgingly, not unhandsomely constructed. It is, in fact, well worth the detour, either along the ‘B’ road or coming down from the Loxidge Tump from the Dyke Path (see maps below).

009

You come to the priory ruins in a beautiful setting of meadows and groves of chestnuts. It is said that St David settled at Llanthony during his travels through Wales in the sixth century, establishing the llan (church). It is unlikely that he stayed long, but Llanthony’s special claim to fame is that he supposedly ate the leeks here that were to become the Welsh badge during the campaigns of the Hundred Years’ Wars with France. The priory was founded in 1107 by the powerful marcher lord William de Lacy at the place where, while on a deer hunt, he is said to have forsaken ambition and decided to devote his life to the service of God. As a result of Welsh raids on the Augustinians whom they no doubt considered to be the Roman Church’s supporters of the Norman incursion, the monks sought refuge with the Bishop of Hereford, only a few of them returning to the priory. From 1300, with Edward I’s conquest, the priory flourished once more, and at some point housed the largest single body of medieval Welsh ecclesiastical manuscripts, but by 1376 it was in a poor state of repair. Owain Glyndwr burnt it down around 1400; by 1481 only four canons and a prior remained, and its end came with its Dissolution by Henry VIII.

007 (2)

In 1807 the estate was bought by the poet Walter Savage Landor (right) for twenty thousand pounds. From a wealthy Whig family, he held estates at Rugeley in Staffordshire and Bishop’s Tatchbrook in Warwickshire, but had been looking for a more secluded country property in which to write, and settled on Llanthony. The previous owner had erected some buildings in the ruins of the ancient abbey, but an Act of Parliament, passed in 1809, was needed to allow Landor to pull down these buildings and construct a house, (which he never finished). He wanted to become a model country gentleman, planting trees, importing sheep from Spain, and improving the roads. The Victorian diarist Kilvert wrote of his varied experiences of coming down the valley to the Abbey:

Under the cloudless blue and glorious sunshine the Abbey looked happy and peaceful. … How different from the first day that I pilgrimaged down the Vale of Ewyas under a gloomy sky, the heavy mist wreathing along the hillsides cowling the mountain tops. 

006

There is still an avenue of trees in the area known as “Landor’s Larches” and many old chestnuts have been dated back to his time. But though he had literally fallen in love with Welsh people as a young man in Tenby and Swansea, where he lived for a time, he quarrelled with local people and the Bishop of St David’s, also finding the Black Mountains to have an “ungenial clime”. He left the estate in the hands of trustees and moved to Italy with his wife, whom he had met and married in Bath while living at Llanthony. They had returned to live in Llanthony. The remains of Landor’s house lie at Siarpal in the ‘cwm’ above the priory formed by the Hatterall Ridge and the Loxidge Tump. Together with the tower of the priory, they form what is now the Llanthony Abbey Hotel. The main surviving buildings of the priory are in the care of Cadw, the Welsh ‘keeper’ of historic monuments. Entrance is free.

It’s a pretty steep climb up the cwm to the ridge and the tump where the path can be regained, so the four-mile trek up the valley road to Capel-y-ffin seems more inviting, particularly as it’s rewarded by another monastery, founded in 1870 by the Rev. J. L. Lyne (Father Ignatius) for the Benedictines, in an unsuccessful attempt to reintroduce monasticism into the Anglican Church.

Soon after his death in 1908 the community ceased to exist, and the church became ruined. In the 1920s, though, the artist Eric Gill lived at the monastery for four years, and the house remained in his family after he returned to London. Besides the Catholic church are an Anglican chapel and a Baptist chapel. Capel-y-ffin means ‘chapel on the border’.  Just over a mile further on towards the Gospel Pass is the Youth Hostel.

The road goes on through the pass between ‘Lord Hereford’s Knob’ and ‘Hay Bluff’, where it eventually joins the Dyke path for the descent into Hay-on-Wye, avoiding the steep section on the road. This is where you are likely to see the Welsh mountain ponies.  Following the path itself from Black Daren northwards brings you very gradually to towards the unmarked summit of the ridge, and of the path, at 2,306 feet, on a broad and bleak nameless plateau of peat.

The surrounding landscape becomes wild and remote, a place to avoid in mist and rain. The Welsh have a saying, mae’n bwrw hen wragedd a ffin, meaning “it’s raining old ladies and sticks” (“cats and dogs” in English, of course!) Although “ffin” could mean “boundary” as suggested above, it might also mean “sticks” and there is a legend tell of the Old Lady of the Black Mountains, who is said to appear at night or in mist with a pot and/or wooden cane in her hand and who, going before wayfarers, will cause them to lose their way.

007

A friendlier spectre, said to appear to travellers lost in the mountains between Llanthony and Longtown, is of a man who will guide them to the nearest road before disappearing. Best take the road in the first place, I say, with its beautiful views along the Ewyas Valley (above). At Pen y Beacon (or Hay Bluff), which is bypassed by the official path, we come to the to the steep north-west facing scarp of the Black Mountains, high above the middle Wye Valley. The way-marked alternative path to the beacon itself was described by the Victorian diarist Kilvert, and has apparently changed little over the last century and a half:

Soon we were at the top, which was covered with peat bog and black and yellow coarse rushy grass and reed. Here and there were pools and holes filled with black peat waters. … The mountains were very silent and desolate. No human being in sight, not a tree. 

008 (2)

On the high and windswept bluff, on the very cornice of the range, a wide-sweeping countryside stretches away almost to the limits of vision. Beyond the Wye, hidden from view, where the Dyke path continues its journey, the Silurian hills of Radnorshire rise to grassy tops or to open hill common. In the distance are the outlines of Mynydd Eppynt, and the Radnor Forest. Dropping down over the cornice of Brownstones you aim between two deep gullies to join the Gospel Pass road on its way from the Honddu Valley. The path leads past the prehistoric burial mound at Twyn y Beddau and along the side of Cusop Dingle, on a steady descent into Hay. In a triangle bounded on two sides by main roads, Hay forms a compact and sleepy town, except when the International Book Festival is in town, in May.

008

In the town, there are the remains of two castles, both Norman. The mound of the earlier motte and bailey, built around 1100 by William de Braose, is beyond the medieval core of the town, near St Mary’s Church. Legend has it that the castle was in fact built, not by William, but by his wife, Maud de St Valerie (‘Moll Walbee’). She is said to have built it in one night, carrying the stones in her apron. A pebble that dropped into her shoe is reputed to have been thrown into Llowes churchyard, three miles away. The ‘pebble’ measures nine feet in length and a foot in thickness! The later castle seems to have been destroyed by King John in 1215, the year that he signed the Magna Carta. It was rebuilt and then burnt by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth in 1231, though it was apparently still in use when Henry III rebuilt it about two years later. In 1236, the town walls were built, and by 1298 a compact town had grown within them. The castle was captured and changed hands several times in the succeeding decades so that John Leland in the sixteenth century found Hay to show…

… the token of a right strong Waulle having in it three Gates and a Posterne. Ther is also a Castel the which sumtime hath bene right stately.

The seventeenth-century Jacobean castle incorporated into it was owned in the 1980s by R. Booth, who ran a remarkable second-hand book business in the town. Apart from the castle itself, where rarer books were kept, many shops and other buildings have become bookshops. The collection is claimed to be the largest collection in the world, and it is well worth setting aside time to explore the bookshops. It is this recent remarkable piece of social history which has given rise to the book festival and Hay’s unofficial title as ‘the book capital of the world’. As a postgraduate student in Cardiff, I well remember organising a minibus trip to Hay and returning with a number of books which were out of publication, dating back to the early twentieth century, the period I was researching.

North of Hay, the Dyke crisscrosses the border into Herefordshire, before reaching the lowlands of Montgomeryshire. This is the ancient territory of the kingdom of Powys known as Rhwng Gwy a Hafren (‘between Wye and Severn’). Although Mercian influences were strong along this part of the Border, this is essentially a countryside of dispersed habitation in the Welsh tradition. Much of the walk is through some of the quietest and most beautiful, undulating country along the Border. Leaving Hay en route for Knighton you cross over the Wye into Kilvert country, where the wayfaring diarist we met at Lanthony Priory and atop the Black Mountains, Francis Kilvert, was curate of the parish of Clyro from 1865-72 and where, in 1870, he began his diary, describing vividly both the way of life in the area and much of the surrounding countryside. As it is only a mile along the road, but is not on the Dyke Path, it seems sensible to include the short walk to Newchurch as part of a sojourn in Hay. That is where I plan to end my journey this year.

001

For some of its course, the Dyke marks local government boundaries, or more locally the boundaries to farmsteads, like Pen Offa near Chirk, where I hope to get to next year. But while, for the most part, the political boundary between England and Wales no longer follows it, and there are many gaps in the great earthwork itself (mostly due to modern development), the Dyke retains its place in the imagination as the symbolic frontier. It represents a natural if man-made division between upland and lowland peoples, as the only visible and historic structure which corresponds both to the imagination of those peoples, and to the fundamental reality of that division.

Sources:

Charles Hopkinson & Martin Speight (2011), The Mortimers, Lords of the March. Hereford: Logaston Press.

Gwyn A Williams (1985), When Was Wales? A History of the Welsh. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Asa Briggs, John Morrill, et.al., (eds.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

Irene Richards & J. A. Morris (1946), A Sketch-Map History of Britain and Europe to 1485. London: Harrap.

George Taylor & J. A. Morris (1939), A Sketch-Map History of Britain and Europe, 1485-1783. London: Harrap.

John B. Jones (1976, ’80), Offa’s Dyke Path (Long-Distance Footpath Guide No 4). London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office (Prepared for the Countryside Commission). 

 

 

Posted July 2, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Anglican Reformation, Archaeology, Assimilation, Bible, Britain, British history, Britons, Castles, Celtic, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, clannishness, Colonisation, Conquest, Empire, English Language, Ethnic cleansing, Europe, Footpaths, France, Genocide, guerilla warfare, Henry V, Henry VIII, History, Immigration, Imperialism, Integration, Ireland, Irish history & folklore, Italy, Leisure, Linguistics, Literature, Maternity, Memorial, Middle English, Midlands, Monarchy, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, Nonconformist Chapels, Normans, Old English, Oxford, Papacy, Plantagenets, Population, Poverty, Recreation, Reformation, Remembrance, Renaissance, Shakespeare, south Wales, Statehood, Stuart times, Tudor England, Tudor times, tyranny, Uncategorized, Wales, War Crimes, Warfare, Wars of the Roses, Welsh language, West Midlands

Tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Britain Seventy Years Ago, 1948-49: Race, Class and Culture.   1 comment

The Windrush Experience: Commonwealth Immigration.

During the Second World War, men from the Caribbean began to arrive in Britain, serving with the British Forces. There was a Jamaica Squadron and a Trinidad Squadron in the RAF and a West Indian Regiment in the British Army. Others came to work in factories, in the countryside and on radar stations. But once the war was over, most were sent straight home, leaving an estimated permanent non-white population of about thirty thousand. But almost unnoticed by the general public and passed in response to Canadian fears about the lack of free migration around the Empire, the 1948 British Nationality Act dramatically changed the scene. It declared that all subjects of the King had British nationality, reaffirming their right to free entry to the United Kingdom to all Commonwealth citizens and colonial subjects, without restrictions. This gave some eight hundred million people the right to enter and settle in the UK. At that time, this was uncontroversial, since it was generally assumed that the Caribbean and Asian subjects of the King would have neither the means nor the desire to travel to live in uncomfortable, crowded Britain. Travel remained expensive and slow, but, in any case, until the fifties, so few black or Asian people had settled in Britain that they were often treated as local celebrities and it was not even considered worthwhile trying to count their numbers. But as growing numbers of Caribbeans and South Asians began to take up their right to abode, most famously those who arrived aboard Empire Windrush (above & below), the British authorities became increasingly alarmed.

003

Paradoxically, therefore, Commonwealth immigration became an increasingly salient issue in British domestic politics. During the 1950s, the number of West Indians entering Britain reached annual rates of thirty thousand. The census of 1951 recorded 74,000 New Commonwealth immigrants. By the end of that decade, nearly half a million had moved to Britain, 405,000 of them from the ‘West Indies’. Immigration from the New Commonwealth was driven by a combination of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors. Partition of India and the construction of the Mangla Dam in Pakistan displaced large numbers, many of whom had close links with Britain through the colonial connection. In Britain, postwar reconstruction, declining birth rates and labour shortages resulted in the introduction of government schemes to encourage Commonwealth workers, particularly from the West Indians, to seek employment in Britain. Jamaicans and Trinidadians were recruited directly by agents to fill vacancies in the British transport network and the newly created National Health Service. Private companies also recruited labour in India and Pakistan for factories and foundries in Britain. As more Caribbeans and South Asians settled in Britain, patterns of chain migration developed, in which pioneer migrants aided friends and relatives to settle. Despite the influx of immigrants after the war, however, internal migration within Britain and Ireland continued to outpace immigration. The importance assigned to the Commonwealth in the 1950s prevented the imposition of immigration controls on New Commonwealth citizens.

002

There were other immigrant communities: There had been a substantial Jewish presence in London, Leeds and Manchester, making itself felt in retailing (Marks & Spencer), the food business and banking (Rothschild’s). In the five years before the war, since the advent of the Nazis to absolute power in Germany in 1934, some sixty thousand refugees had arrived in Britain, many of them highly qualified, helping to transform the scientific, musical and intellectual life of forties Britain. As Germany’s Jews were hounded from office in the first wave of lawless anti-Semitism in 1933, the Cabinet agreed to secure for this country prominent Jews who were being expelled from Germany and who had achieved distinction in science, medicine, music and art. No fewer than twenty of them later won Nobel prizes, fifty-four were elected Fellows of the Royal Society, and ten were knighted for their academic brilliance. Despite these contributions and the recent revelations of the horrors of the concentration camps, anti-Semitism was still endemic in British society. In particular, there was a widespread assumption that ‘they’ somehow got the best of scarce or rationed goods.

Potentially more serious in this respect was the re-emergence, in February 1948, of the fascists on the streets of London. Sir Oswald Mosely, the leader of the pre-war British Union of Fascists, had re-emerged into political life, forming the new Union Movement. For some time his former henchmen had been holding open-air meetings in the East End market at Ridley Road, Dalston, where many of the stallholders were Jewish. Not surprisingly, the meetings were the scene of violent opposition as the old fascists appeared under their new name. When Mosely announced his intention to march from Ridley Road through Stamford Hill to Tottenham, thousands of ex-servicemen, Jew and Gentile, gathered in Kingsland High Road to prevent the provocation. East London mayors called upon the Home Secretary to ban the marches and on 22 March 1949, Chuter-Ede announced a ban on all political processions. An assurance was sought that trade union marches did not fall within the compass of the ban, but a week later the Home Secretary confirmed that the forthcoming London Trades Council march was included in the ban. For the first time since 1890, London trade unionists were deprived of their freedom to march on May Day, the ban being imposed by a Labour Home Secretary. The photograph below shows a section of the vast crowd that gathered in Trafalgar Square to defy him and march with banners flying.

004

The Irish were also a big group in British life in the late forties, following a century of steady immigration, the vast majority of it from the south. It continued through the war, despite restrictions, as Irish people moved to Britain to cover the labour shortages left by mobilization. Ireland’s neutrality made it very unpopular with the British, and prejudice against its citizens in Britain continued for a long time after the war. Yet this did not seem to affect immigration, which continued at a rate of up to sixty thousand per year. Although The Republic of Ireland Act, of June 1949, confirmed the ending of Eire’s dominium status, the Republic was not to be regarded as a foreign country. The British government took the view that the Irish were effectively internal migrants and therefore excluded them from any discussion about immigration. There was also a large Polish presence resulting from the war since many refugees decided to settle permanently in the UK. It would be wrong to portray British society in the late forties as relaxed about race. More widely, the trade unions were bitterly hostile to ‘outsiders’ coming in to take British jobs, whatever their nationality. Even the Labour government itself spoke with self-consciousness and a legacy of inter-war eugenics about the central importance of the British race in its public information campaigns.

Country and Class:

Patriotic pride cemented the sense of being one people, one race, with one common history and destiny. But to be British in the forties was to be profoundly divided from many of your fellow subjects by class. By most estimates, a good sixty per cent of the nation was composed of the traditional working class; factory workers, agricultural labourers, navvies, riveters, miners, fishermen, servants and laundry workers. They worked by hand and muscle and were paid weekly, in cash (cheque-books were a sign of affluence). Most of them would spend all their lives in their home town or village, though some had migrated from industrial Scotland, Wales, Lancashire and the North East of England to the English Midlands, London and the Home Counties in the thirties. The sharp sense of class distinction was identified with where you came from and how you spoke. The war had softened class differences a little and produced the first rumblings of the future social revolution of the sixties.

With skill shortages and a national drive for exports, wages rose after the war. The trade unions were powerful and self-confident, particularly when the new Labour government repealed the laws that had hampered them ever since the General Strike of 1926. In 1948, they achieved their highest ever level of support. More than forty-five per cent of people who could theoretically belong to one did so, and there were some 8.8 million union members. In other European countries, trades unions were fiercely political, communist or socialist. In Britain, they were not, and the Communist Party spent much of its energy building support inside the unions, and winning elections to key posts. In general, British trades unionism remained more narrowly focused on the immediate cash-and-hours agenda of its members. Yet, a new generation of shop stewards was taking control of many workplaces, sowing the seeds of the great trade union battles of the seventies.

004

It wasn’t obvious at this time that the jobs in coal, steel and heavy manufacturing would be under threat by the seventies. The shipyards of the Clyde, Belfast and the Tyne were hard at work, the coalfields were at full stretch, London was still an industrial city, and the car-making and light engineering centres of the West and South Midlands were on the edge of a time of unprecedented prosperity. In 1945, only 16,938 cars had been manufactured in Britain; by 1950, the figure had reached a record 522,515. Alec Issigonis, an immigrant from Turkey, was the design genius of post-war British car-making. His first huge success was the 1948 Morris Minor (above), which was condemned by Lord Nuffield (William Morris) as that damned poached egg designed by that damned foreigner. But it supremely popular as an affordable family car. Gone was the split windscreen (see the older version below).

008

Britain was also, still, a country of brick terraces. It was not until the next two decades that many of the traditional working-class areas of British cities would be replaced by high-rise flats or sprawling new council estates. The first generation of working-class children to get to university was now at school, larger and healthier than their parents, enjoying the free dental care and spectacles provided by the young National Health Service, which was founded and began operating in the summer of 1948 (see below). For the most part, however, working-class life in the late forties was remarkably similar to how it had been a decade or more earlier, and perhaps even more settled. Politicians assumed that most people would stay put and continue to do roughly the same sort of job as they had done before the war. Rent acts and planning directives were the tools of ministers who assumed that the future of industry would be like its past, only more so.

The class which did best was the middle class, a fast-growing minority. Government bureaucracy had grown hugely and was continuing to do so. Labour’s Welfare State would require hundreds of thousands of new white-collar jobs, administering national insurance, teaching and running the health service. Studies of social mobility, such as the one carried out in 1949, suggested that while working-class sons generally followed their fathers into similar jobs, there was much more variation among middle-class children. Labour’s priority might have been to help the workers, but education reform was helping more middle-class children get a good grammar-school education. Fees for attending state schools were abolished and the school leaving age was raised to fifteen. A steadily growing number stayed at school until eighteen. Increasing numbers would make it to university too, an extra thirty thousand a year by 1950. The accents of Birmingham and Wales, the West Country and Liverpool began to challenge the earlier received pronunciation of perceived middle-class respectability. Churchill himself had told Harrow schoolboys that one effect of the war was to diminish class differences, that the advantages and privileges that had previously been enjoyed by the few would be far more widely shared by the many. Old distinctions were therefore softening, and the culture was slowly becoming more democratic.

006 (2)

Yet there was still a long road ahead since the ruling class was still the ruling class. Despite the varied backgrounds of the 1945 Labour cabinet ministers, Britain in the late forties was still a society run mostly by cliques and groups of friends who had first met at public schools like Eton and Harrow, or at Oxbridge. A public school education remained the key for anyone hoping to make a career in the City, the Civil Service or the higher ranks of the Army. These schools might only educate some five per cent of the population, but they continued to provide the majority of the political leaders, including many of Labour’s post-war cabinets. Briefly, it had seemed that such schools would not even survive the war: boarding schools had been in enough of a financial crisis for some to face closure through bankruptcy. Churchill’s own Harrow was one, along with Marlborough and Lancing, but all managed to survive somehow. More generally, there was a belief that the public school system had contributed to the failure of political leadership in the thirties right up to the military defeats of the first half of 1940. But Churchill had fought off the demands from Butler and others in his war cabinet that all or most of them should be abolished. Attlee, devoted to his old school, had no appetite for abolition either. Grammar schools were seen as the way to get bright working-class or middle-class children into Oxbridge, and a few other universities, where they would compete with and thereby strengthen the ruling élites. One civil servant described the official view as being that ‘children’ could be divided into three kinds:

It was sort of Platonic. There were golden children, silver children and iron children.

002

Under Clement Attlee, pictured above being driven by his wife Violet, Britain remained a country of private clubs and cliques, ancient or ancient-seeming privileges, rituals and hierarchies. In the workplace, there was something like the relationships of pre-war times, with employers’ associations assuming their old roles as ‘cartels’ though some, like Captain Black at the Standard Motor Co. in Coventry, were successful in breaking out of the wage-controls which the Engineering Employers’ Association attempted to set. Inside the newly nationalised industries, the same sort of ‘bosses’ continued to manage, and the same ‘them and us’ mentalities reasserted themselves remarkably easily. In the City, venerable, commanding merchant bankers would still be treated like little gods, younger bankers deferring utterly to their elders and ‘betters’. Lessons in speaking ‘the King’s English’ were given to aspiring actors and broadcasters; physicians in hospitals still swept into the wards, followed by trains of awed, frightened, junior doctors. At the Oxbridge colleges, formal dinners were compulsory, as was full academic dress, and the tenured professors hobbled around their quads as if little had changed since Edwardian days. All this was considered to be somehow the essence of Britain, or at least of England.

The King and Queen also ran what was in all essentials an Edwardian Court.  After the national trauma of the abdication crisis, George VI had established a reassuringly pedestrian image for the family which now called itself simply ‘the Windsors’. There had been cautious signs of royal modernisation, with Princess Elizabeth making patriotic radio broadcasts. On the other hand, the Royal Presentation of rich young debutantes to the monarch continued until 1958 when Queen Elizabeth put an end to it, prompted by Prince Philip, who with characteristically candid brevity, labelled it “bloody daft”. Initially, it was very unclear as to how the monarchy would fare in post-war Britain. The leading members of the family were popular, and Labour ministers were careful never to express any republicanism in public, but there were demands from many of their backbench MPs for a less expensive, slimmed-down contemporary monarchy, such as existed in Scandinavia.

Yet the Windsors had triumphed again in 1947, with the wedding of, as they were then, Princess Elizabeth to Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten. For the ordinary British people, the wedding was a welcome but transient distraction from their daily struggle to feed and clothe their families. Because rationing affected the quantity of clothes you could have, but not their quality, it hit the poor harder. Government ‘make-do and mend’ campaigns about how to repair, reinforce or reshape old clothes, did nothing to improve the general public mood. For women, faced with an almost impossible struggle to replace laddered stockings or underwear, the wartime fashions felt unattractive – short skirts and masculine jackets, what was called ‘man-tailored’. If pregnant, they were encouraged to adapt their ordinary clothes. Yet the Hollywood films showed women immaculately dressed icons and the newspapers showed men the richest, flashiest Britons, like Anthony Eden and, of course, the King, both beautifully tailored. But they could not afford to look smart. Some men avoided drinks parties because they were ashamed of the state of their clothes and women avoided brightly lit restaurants when their stockings had gone, replaced by tea-stains and drawn-on seams. It was not until 1949 that clothes, boots and shoes were taken off ration.

007

For most ordinary people, too, food rationing was the primary example of the dreary colourlessness of wartime life. It continued long after the guns had stopped. It was still biting hard at the end of the forties, meat was still rationed as late as 1954, and though the poor were better fed, most people felt hard done-by. Many doctors agreed. Shortly after the horrific winter of 1947 was over, the British Medical Press carried a detailed article by Dr Franklin Bicknell which argued that available foods were four hundred calories short of what women needed each day, and nine hundred short of what men required: In other words, everyone in England is suffering from prolonged chronic malnutrition. This was angrily disputed by Labour politicians, eager to point out the effect of all that free juice, cod liver oil and milk on Britain’s children. But the people were on the side of Dr Bicknell. The fact that the ‘good things’ were still in short supply had left the way open for the growth of a black market (complete with ‘spivs’) and therefore for the demand for a restoration of the free play of market forces and, at least, something like a free market in food.

Apart from Ellen Wilkinson’s tragic death in 1947, other ministers falling ill, and still others becoming disillusioned, the Labour leadership had also begun to fracture along ideological lines in 1948.  The economy had been doing rather better than in the dark year of 1947 and though still short of dollars, the generosity of the Marshall Plan aid in 1948 had removed the immediate sense of crisis. By 1949, it was estimated to have raised the country’s national income by ten per cent. Responding to the national mood of revolt over restrictions and shortages, Harold Wilson had announced a ‘bonfire of controls’ in 1948 and there seemed some chance that Labour ministers would follow the change in national mood and accept that the people wanted to spend, not only to queue. The restrictions on bread, potatoes and preserves were lifted first, but milk, tea, sugar, meat, bacon, butter, fats and soap remained on ration, the fresh meat allocation being a microscopic eight pennyworth a week. Sweets had been rationed since 1940 and were not taken off ration until April 1949 when the picture below was taken.

001

‘Austerity’ was a word reiterated remorselessly by the anti-Labour press. If life was austere, however, it was better for the working-class majority than it had been in the years before the war and Britain’s industry was expanding. Full employment, never achieved until the Second World War, stimulated the private expectations and aspirations of large numbers of people who had been ‘deprived’ before 1939, though they themselves had not always recognised it. For those who preferred society to operate according to plan on the basis of one single aspiration, like winning the war or after the war achieving socialism, the new pluralism of motives and pressures and the growth of business agencies which could influence or canalise them were dangerous  features of the post-war world which contained as yet unfulfilled potential. One thing was clear: No one wished to return to the 1930s, and no one talked of returning ‘normalcy’ as they had done during the 1920s. That way back would have been deliberately closed even if it had proved possible to keep it open.

Culture and Society:

030

Some of the most eloquent cultural moments in the life of post-war Britain had religious themes, like the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral, with its tapestries by Graham Sutherland. Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem was written for the consecration of the new Cathedral building. This did not take place until 1962, but the story of the reconstruction began in the years after the war when a replica of the cross of nails made from the ruins (seen above in 1940) was given to Kiel in Germany as a sign of friendship and a symbol of reconciliation. A stone from the ruins of Kiel Cathedral was given to Coventry in return. This is the Kiel Stone of Forgiveness, now in the Chapel of Unity in the New Cathedral. Also in the late forties, a group of young Germans arrived in Coventry and helped to clear the rubble from one corner of the ruined cathedral. It became the Centre for International Understanding, where young people from all nationalities met through the work of the Community of the Cross of Nails. Through this work, Coventry soon became twinned with fifty-three cities and towns throughout the world. Post-war Britain’s major poet, the American-born T. S. Eliot, was an outspoken adherent of the Church of England. His last major work of poetry, The Four Quartets, is suffused with English religious atmosphere, while his verse drama, Murder in the Cathedral addressed an iconic moment in English ecclesiastical history. In 1948, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. It could fairly be said that during these years there existed an Anglican sensibility, a particularly English, sometimes grave, sometimes playful, Christianity, with its own art and thought. It was, in the main, a limited and élite movement, but it did sometimes connect with wider currents in British Society.

006

011

In the Britain of the late forties, the continuing influence of the established church was in evidence in the way that divorce still carried a strong stigma, across classes and reaching to the highest. Divorced men and women were not welcome at court. Homosexuality was still illegal and vigorously prosecuted. People clung to their traditional values since the war had shaken everyone’s sense of security, not just those who had served in it, but the bombed, evacuated and bereaved as well. The beginning of the Cold War underlined that underlying sense of the fragility of life. In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that there was a profound turn towards the morality of hearth and home and a yearning for order, predictability and respectability, in the street and neighbourhood, if not in the wider world. There was certainly a demand for political reform, but the British people were still, fundamentally, socially conservative.

In the summer of 1948, the Labour Government tried to cheer up ‘Austerity Britain’ by staging the Olympic Games in London. The games were a triumph in a war-scarred, rubble-strewn city, during which the athletes were put up in old army camps, colleges and hospitals. The Union Jack was missing for the opening parade, but cost overruns were trivial and security was barely an issue. The games involved nearly five thousand competitors from fifty-nine countries. Though the medal count for the British competitors was very meagre, holding the games was a genuine sign that Britain was back. For all its fragility and frugality, this was still a country that could organise itself effectively. Football was back too. By the 1948/49 season, the third since the resumption of top-flight football after the second world war, there were more than forty million attendances at matches. There was a general assumption that British football was the finest there was, something seemingly confirmed the previous May when a Great Britain team had played against a team grandly if inaccurately described as The Rest of the World (it comprised Danes, Swedes, a Frenchman, Italian, Swiss, Czech, Belgian, Dutchman and Irishman), thrashing them 6-1. That illusion was soon to be dispelled in the early fifties, with the emergence of the ‘golden team’ of the ‘Mighty Magyars’ among others.

001

But at a club level, this was a golden age of football. The stands were open and smelly, the crowds were unprotected, there were no floodlights and the greatest stars of the post-war era were still to emerge. But football was relatively uncorrupt and was still, essentially, about local teams supported by local people. On the pitch, play was ‘clean’ and honest: Stanley Matthews, the son of a barber from Stoke, already a pre-war legend who went on to play in the cup final of 1953, aged thirty-eight and whom I saw play in a charity match in the early seventies, only a couple of years after his retirement from top-flight football, was never cautioned throughout his long career. In June 1948 Stan Cullis, who in contrast to Matthews, had retired as a player in 1947 at the tender age of 31, became the manager of Wolverhampton Wanderers, literally the ‘old gold’ team of the then first division, according to the colour of their shirts. Cullis was a tough, uncompromising and inspirational manager who steered ‘Wolves’ through the most successful decade in their history. In 1947/48 Wolves ended the season fifth, and a year later were sixth, also winning the FA Cup, beating Leicester City in the final at Wembley. Two of the ‘legends’ of this period are shown in the pictures above and below, the little ‘winger’, Johnny Hancocks and captain Billy Wright, who also captained England.

003

002

Another great footballer of the late forties was Arsenal’s Denis Compton, who was still more famous for his cricket, which again became hugely popular after the interruption caused by the war. Some three million people had watched the ‘Test matches’ against South Africa in 1947 and Compton’s performance then and in the following seasons produced a rush of English pride. The cricket-writer  Neville Cardus found in Compton the image of sanity and health after the war: There was no rationing in an innings by Compton. In cricket, as in football, many of the players were the stars of pre-war days who had served as Physical Training instructors or otherwise kept their hand in during hostilities; but with the Yorkshire batsman Len Hutton also back in legendary form at the Oval Test, cricket achieved a level of national symbolism that it has never reached since. As with football, the stars of post-war cricket could not expect to become rich on the proceeds, but they could become national heroes. Hutton went on to become England’s first professional cricket captain in 1952; Compton first came int decent money as the face of Brylcreem adverts. The new rules of the Football League meant that players could earn up to twelve pounds per week.

The Welfare State Established:

012

In summer of 1948, on 5th July, the National Health Service, the brainchild of Aneurin Bevan (pictured below), opened its doors for business. There was a flood of people into the surgeries, hospitals and chemists. The service was funded directly from taxation, not from the new National Insurance Scheme which also came into being that year. That too was a fantastic feat of organisation, providing for a comprehensive system of social security, family allowances, and compensation for injury at work. A new office to hold twenty-five million contribution records plus six million for married women was needed. It had to be huge and was built in Newcastle by prisoners of war; at the same time, a propeller factory was taken over to run family allowances. The work of six old government departments was brought into a new ministry. Jim Griffiths, the Labour minister pushing it all through wanted a thousand local National Insurance offices ready around the country, and after being told a hundred times that all this was quite impossible, he got them. The level of help was rather less than Beveridge himself had wanted, and married women were still treated as dependents; there was much to be argued for over the next sixty years. Nevertheless, the speed and energy with which this large-scale task was accomplished represented a revolution in welfare, sweeping away four centuries of complicated, partial and unfair rules and customs in just six years.

011

The creation of the National Health Service, which Beveridge thought essential to his wider vision, was a more confrontational task. Britain had had a system of voluntary hospitals and clinics before the war, which varied wildly in size, efficiency and cleanliness. Also, a number of municipal hospitals had grown out of the original workhouses in the late twenties and thirties. Some of these, in progressive cities like Birmingham and Nottingham, as well as in London, were efficient, modern places whose beds were usually kept for the poor. Others were squalid. Money for the voluntary hospitals came from gifts, charitable events, direct payments and a hotchpotch of insurance schemes. By the time the war ended, the majority of Britain’s hospitals had been brought under a single national emergency service. The question was, what should happen next?  Should they be nationalised or allowed to return to local control? A similar question hung over family doctors. ‘GPs’ depended on private fees, though most of them also took poor patients through some form of insurance scheme. When not working from home or a surgery, they would often double up operating in municipal hospitals where, as non-specialists, they sometimes hacked away incompetently. But the voluntary insurance schemes excluded many elderly people, housewives and children, who therefore put off visiting the doctor at all unless they were in great pain or grave danger. The situation with dental care and optical services was similar; they were not available to those without the means to pay for them.

Labour was, therefore, determined to provide the first system of medical care, free at the point of need, there had been in any Western democracy. Although comprehensive systems of health care existed elsewhere, most notably in Germany, these were funded by national insurance, rather than through direct taxation. ‘Nye’ Bevan’s simple idea and his single biggest decision were to take all the hospitals, voluntary and municipal, into a single nationalised system. It would have regional boards, but would all come under the Ministry of Health in London. This was an act of heroic self-confidence on his part. For the first time, a single politician would take responsibility for every hospital in Britain, with the exception of a few private ones. Herbert Morrison, a municipal socialist, was against this centralisation of power but was brushed aside by Bevan.

001

A far more significant threat to Bevan’s ‘project’ was posed by the doctors themselves. Their opposition meant that the implementation of his simple idea was a far more complicated process than ever Bevan himself could have anticipated. The doctors, led by the Conservative-leaning British Medical Association (BMA), had it in their power to stop the NHS dead in its tracks by simply refusing to work for it. They were genuinely concerned about their status in the new service; would they be mere state functionaries? They were also suspicious of Bevan, and not without good reason, as he effectively wanted to nationalise them, making them state employees, paid directly out of public funds, with no private fees allowed. This would mean a war with the very men and women trusted by millions to cure and care for them. Bevan, a principled but pragmatic socialist, was also a skilful diplomat. He began by wooing the senior consultants in the hospitals. The physicians and surgeons were promised they could keep their lucrative pay beds and private practices. Bevan later admitted that he had stuffed their mouths with gold. Next he retreated on the payment of fifty thousand GPs, promising them that they could continue to be paid on the basis of how many patients they treated, rather than getting a flat salary. This wasn’t enough, however, for when polled only ten per cent of doctors said that they were prepared to work for the new NHS. As July approached, there was a tense political stand-off. Bevan continued to offer concessions, while at the same time fiercely criticising the doctors’ leaders, labelling them a small body of politically poisoned people who were sabotaging the will of the people, as expressed through Parliament. In the end, Bevan was backed by a parliamentary majority and, after more concessions and threats, they gave way. Yet it had been a long, nasty, divisive battle between a conservative professional élite and their new socialist ‘masters’.

007

Almost immediately, there were complaints about the cost and extravagance, and about the way the provision of materials not previously available produced surges in demand which had not previously existed. There was much anecdotal evidence of waste and misuse. The new bureaucracy was cumbersome. It is also possible to overstate the change since most people had had access to some kind of some kind of affordable health care before the NHS came into being. However, such provision was patchy and excluded many married working-class women in particular. The most important thing it did was to take away fear. Before it, millions at the ‘bottom of the pile’ had suffered untreated hernias, cancers, toothache, ulcers and all kinds of illness, rather than face the anxiety and humiliation of being unable to afford treatment. That’s why there are many moving accounts of the queues of unwell, impoverished people surging forward for treatment in the early days of the NHS, arriving in hospitals and doctors’ waiting rooms for the first time not as beggars but as citizens and taxpayers. As Andrew Marr has commented,

If there was one single domestic good that the British took from the sacrifices of the war, it was a health service free at the point of use. We have clung to it tenaciously ever since and no mainstream party has dared to suggest taking it away.

Nationalisation: Political Idealism and Economic Reality.

The same could not be said of some of Labour’s other nationalisation ‘projects’. The first, that of the Bank of England, sounded dramatic, but it had no real impact. Exactly the same men stayed in power, following the same monetary policies. I have dealt with the nationalisation of the coal industry and the establishment of the NCB on 1 January 1947 in a previous article. In the case of the gas and electricity, these utilities were already part-owned by local authorities, so their nationalisation caused little controversy. Labour had talked about nationalising the railway system from 1908, almost as soon as it became a political party in the wake of the Taff Vale case. The railway system had, in any case, been rationalised in the inter-war period, with the creation of four major companies – London & North-Eastern; Great Western Railway; Southern Railways; London, Midland & Scotland. Periodic grants of public money had been needed for years for years to help the struggling companies out, and the government had taken direct control of the railways at the beginning of the war. The post-war train system was more powerful than the pre-motorway road network, but it was now in dreadful condition and because of the economic crisis and shortage of steel, it would be starved of new investment. Nationalisation without investment was no solution to any of these basic problems. The only people who did well out of it were the original shareholders of the railway companies who were, to their surprise, well compensated. In other forms of transport, road haulage and airlines were also nationalised, as were cable and wireless companies.

010

By the time the last big struggle to nationalise an industry was underway, the steel debates of 1948-9, the public attitude towards nationalisation was already turning. The iron and steel industry differed from the coal industry and the railways in that it was potentially highly profitable and had good labour relations. The Labour Government had worked itself up, proclaiming that the battle for steel is the supreme test of political democracy – a test which the whole world will be watching. Yet the cabinet agonised and went ahead only because of a feeling that, otherwise, they would be accused of losing their nerve. In the debates in the Commons, Labour backbenchers rebelled. The steel owners were organised and vigorous, the Tories were regaining their spirits and Labour were, therefore, having a torrid time. Cripps told the Commons: If we cannot get nationalisation of steel by legal means, we must resort to violent methods. They did get it, but the industry was little shaken. It needed new investment almost as much as the coal mines and the railways – new mills, coke ovens, new furnaces. Again, nationalisation did not deliver this.

However hard the Tories tried, they failed to make Clement Attlee look like a British Stalin. The Labour Government was, in any case, at pains to make its collectivist programme look patriotically legitimate. After all, taking twenty per cent of the economy into public ownership was called ‘nationalisation’, and the proposed new public enterprises were likewise to be given patriotic corporate identities: British Steel, the British Overseas Airways Corporation, British Railways. The effort was to recast the meaning of being British as a member of a community of shared ownership, shared obligations and shared benefits: Co-op Britain. And because the Labour Party had such huge majorities in Wales, Scotland and the most socially damaged areas of industrial England, it would, at last, be a Britain in which rich southern England did not lord it over the poor-relation regions. It would be one whole Britain, not a nation divided into two, as it had been in the thirties. George Orwell, who wrote 1984 in 1948, had vividly described the divided Britain of that decade, and he now had great hopes that if the British people…

… can keep their feet, they can give the example that millions of human beings are waiting for. … By the end of another decade it will finally be clear whether England is to survive … as a great nation or not. And if the answer is to be ‘Yes’, it is the common people who must make it so.

Taking up Orwell’s theme, Asa Briggs has suggested that the forties need to be treated as one period of The People’s War and Peace. Britain had emerged from the War changed but not destroyed and this time, in Orwell’s terms, the right family members would be in control. From the very beginning, the Labour Government was not insulated from the perennial headaches and imperatives of twentieth-century British government – monetary viability, industrial over-capacity and, especially, imperial or post-imperial global defence. The only option it had, apart from shouldering those familiar burdens and getting on with building the New Jerusalem as best they could, was to plunge into a much more far-reaching programme of collectivisation, Keynesian deficit financing, disarmament and global contraction. But that was never actually on the cards because the Labour ministers were not cold-blooded social revolutionaries committed to wiping the slate clean and starting again. The ‘slate’ was Britain; its memories, traditions, institutions, not least the monarchy. Attlee, Ernest Bevin and Herbert Morrison were emotionally and intellectually committed to preserving it, not effacing it. They were loyal supporters of what Orwell called The Lion and the Unicorn (1941). Perhaps appropriately, Orwell died, still young, as ‘his’ decade came to an end, in January 1950, after he had warned of the danger of a dystopian Britain elevating collectivism over individual liberty.

The decision to keep an independent nuclear deterrent, and to sustain the projection of British power in Asia (through Hong Kong) and even more significantly in the Middle East, came at a huge price: $3.5 billion, to add to the estimated cost of the war, $10.5 billion. In 1948, defence spending had risen to seven per cent of GDP, and four years later to 10.5 per cent, incomparably higher than for any other European state. American help was desperately needed, so Bevin’s goal of keeping Britain independent in its foreign policy of the United States actually had the effect of deepening its long-term economic dependence. But the capital infusion, according to Cripps and others, would jump-start the economy as well as pay for investment in new infrastructure, after which surging economic growth would take care of the debt burden. The most idealistic assumption of all was that public ownership of key industries, the replacement of the private profit incentive by a cooperative enterprise, would somehow lead to greater productivity.  There were periods in 1948 when, in expert-led mini-surges, it looked as though those projections were not as unrealistic a diagnosis as they were to prove in the long-term. Britain was benefitting from the same kind of immediate post-war demand that it had experienced in 1918-19; the eventual reckoning with the realities of shrinking exports, as thirty years before, was merely postponed.

Labour was always divided between ideological socialists and more pragmatic people, but there was no real necessity for the party to have a row with itself towards the end of its first majority government, having successfully negotiated so many rapids. The problem was a familiar one. As the bill for maintaining pseudo-great power status and welfare state benevolence mounted, so did doubts and misgivings about the premises on which it had been thought the armed New Jerusalem could be funded. The government’s foreign policy initiatives had encountered serious difficulties. Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin negotiated Marshall Aid for Britain from the USA in 1949, and in the same year helped organise the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). But the price of such security and the maintenance of a place at the top table of international politics was high. American B-29 bombers stationed in East Anglia from 1948, were set to acquire nuclear capacity in 1950. As a result, the government had to accept inflated defence estimates, which also included increased costs for conventional tanks and planes. Should money be concentrated first on Britain’s overseas commitments, especially her large armies in the Middle East and facing the Russians across the German border; or on protecting the social advances at home?

Britain could not afford to be a great power in the old way, but neither could she afford to spend the Marshall Plan aid windfall mainly on better welfare, while other countries were using it to rebuild their industrial power. In the end, the government had to accept the need for cuts in welfare spending, leading to the resignation of Aneurin Bevan, who was determined to protect his ground-breaking achievement, the NHS, and Harold Wilson. The revised estimates helped to fuel a balance of payments crisis since the nationalisation programme had failed to provide the increased productivity the government had hoped for. Stafford Cripps, who had only a year earlier had been the most ardent ‘collectivist’ in the cabinet became, in 1949, an equally determined advocate of the mixed economy. He was forced to retire from the cabinet and the House in 1950 to replaced as Chancellor by Hugh Gaitskell. The socialist idealism of 1945-8 was put on hold, and Labour never returned to it, replacing it with ‘Gaitskillism’. With the benefit of hindsight, the post-war Labour years were a time almost cut off from what followed from 1950 onwards. So much of the country’s energy had been sapped by war; what was left focused on the struggle for survival. With Britain industrially clapped-out mortgaged to the hilt to the USA and increasingly bitter about the lack of a post-war ‘ dividend’, it was perhaps not the best time to start building The New Jerusalem. Most attempts at forced modernisation quickly collapsed; the direction of factories to the depressed areas produced little long-term benefit; companies encouraged to export at all costs were unable to re-equip and prepare themselves for tougher markets. In addition, inflation, which would become a major part of the post-war story, appeared, at three per cent in 1949-50.

Conclusion: A ‘Peaceful Revolution‘?

Between 1945 and 1949 the Labour Government undertook a programme of massive reform. It has been called ‘the quiet’ or ‘the peaceful revolution’. Just how far this is an accurate description and a valid judgement is debatable. It was certainly peaceful, but far from ‘quiet’. Jim Griffiths, Aneurin Bevan and Stafford Cripps all had to use coercive methods at times against active and organised resistance both in Parliament and outside. Whether the reforms were revolutionary or evolutionary is an issue which needs careful consideration. The debate was not about whether a Welfare State was needed, it was about the means by which it would be achieved. The issues of individualism versus collectivism, central control versus local control, competition versus cooperation, and reality and illusion can all be identified.

The degree of success which historians ascribe to these reforms depends on what he sees as ‘the Welfare State’. As Bédarida (1979) argued, there are at least three possible definitions for this enigmatic concept. The ‘official’ definition, as it appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary as early as 1955, was a polity so organised that every member of the community is assured of his due maintenance with the most advantageous conditions possible for all. As a historical interpretation, he refers to five points enunciated by Bruce in The Coming of the Welfare State which referred to the aims and objectives of a welfare state. He rejects this as a narrow, rather technical definition … amounting to little more than the enlargement of the social services. He argues that the phrase must be allowed to take on a wider sense, as a symbol for the structure of post-war Britain, a society with a mixed economy and full employment, …

… where individualism is tempered by State intervention, where the right to work and a basic standard of living are guaranteed, and the working-class movement, now accepted and recognised, finds its rightful place in the nation.

By its own admission Labour’s ‘revolution’ must be seen in the perspective of ‘evolution’. The key word (or phrase) is ‘social justice’. Without in the least denying the collectivist principles inscribed on Labour’s tablets, the revolution found its main inspiration in two Liberals: first Beveridge, then Keynes. These were the two masterminds whose ideas guided Labour’s actions. …

In seeking to determine the significance of the Welfare State one must bear three points in mind. Firstly, to use the word ‘revolution’  is to devalue its meaning. … In the second place, the arrival of the Welfare State was situated in the mainstream  of the history of democratic freedom, linking the pioneers of the London Corresponding Society with the militants of the Independent Labour Party, the Benthamites, with the Fabians, the Nonconformist conscience with Christian Socialism. … Finally, if the Welfare State was the grandchild of Beveridge and Keynes, it was no less the child of Fabians, since it concentrated on legislative, administrative and centralising methods to the detriment of ‘workers’ control’. But in thus stamping on any frail aspiration towards a libertarian organisation of society, Labour laid itself open to a charge that would weigh heavily on it in the future, namely, namely that of wanting to impose a bureaucratic form of socialism. …

The ‘Welfare State’ was not just a Labour ‘project’ or ‘programme’. Apart from its Liberal ‘grandfathers’, even Tory supporters were behind this desire for change and reform. It is significant that the inventor of the term was that pillar of the Establishment (and yet advocate of Christian Socialism), the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple. No one would doubt that the achievements of the Labour Government of 1945-50 were considerable. They undertook the massive task of social reconstruction and social transformation with vigour and attempted to establish a new social order. Yet their success in this area must be viewed against their economic failures, not to mention their foreign policy. The creation of the Welfare State did not, really, involve a transformation of society. It was, to a considerable degree, a substitute for it.

Sources:

Andrew Marr (2007), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Simon Schama (2002), A History of Britain: The Fate of Empire, 1776-2000. London: BBC Worldwide.

Richard Brown & Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents and Debates: Twentieth-Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

John Shipley (2003), Wolves Against the World: European Nights, 1953-1980. Stroud: Tempus Publishing.

John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem: A Photographic Remembrance of British Working Class Life, 1870-1950. London: Scorpion Publications.

Asa Briggs et. al. (eds.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Theo Barker (ed.) (1978), The Long March of Everyman. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 

 

Posted May 29, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Abdication, Affluence, Anglican Reformation, anti-Semitism, Austerity, Birmingham, British history, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Civilization, Co-operativism, Cold War, Commemoration, Commonwealth, Coventry, decolonisation, democracy, Egalitarianism, Empire, Eugenics, Europe, Factories, Family, Germany, homosexuality, Immigration, India, Integration, Ireland, Jerusalem, Jews, Literature, Marriage, Middle East, Midlands, Migration, Militancy, Monarchy, morality, Mythology, Narrative, National Health Service (NHS), nationalisation, Nationality, Nonconformist Chapels, Normalcy, Population, Poverty, Reconciliation, Remembrance, Second World War, Trade Unionism, Unemployment, Welfare State, West Midlands, World War Two

Tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A TEACHER’S TALE OF LIFE BETWEEN RURITANIA AND ‘BREXIT’ FAIRYLAND   1 comment

Here is my blog for ‘Labour Teachers’ from August 2016:

001

A Summer’s Sojourn in Brexit Britain

 

I wonder, I wonder,

If anyone knows,

Who lives at the heart,

Of the velvety rose?

Is it a goblin, or is it an elf?

Or is it the Queen of the fairies herself?

 

I took early retirement from the UK Education Industry in 2012, and have been teaching in Hungary ever since. My wife is Hungarian, and we have two boys, one, born here, teaching MFL in Suffolk and the other, born in Bristol, attending a Hungarian State Primary School run by the Reformed Church. Both are naturally bilingual, bicultural and binational. When we returned to Hungary after fifteen years, including a year teaching in France, we found it difficult to recognize the country as the same one we left in 1996. We had been back on extended visits during the summer, but nothing prepared us for the more nationalistic atmosphere which pervaded every walk of life and still does. Five years later, Viktor Orbán’s illiberal democracy is a project which seems to attract popular support with almost everyone who isn’t a gipsy, a migrant or a refugee, or at least two-thirds of them, enough to change the constitution.

Although the once-mighty MSZP, Hungarian Socialist Party, is still around, it has little prospect of returning to power, as it did three times in the twenty years of transition which followed the cutting of the iron curtain in 1989. The Left is like Humpty Dumpty, so fragmented and divided that it would take a whole regiment of Huszárok (Hussars) to put the pieces back together again. Here, referenda have become the preferred tool of the populist politician, except that, unlike Cameron, Orbán would never call one he thought he might lose. We’re just about to have one about the meneköltek, the asylum-seekers or bevándorlok, the ‘vagabonds’ or immigrants, as the government prefers to see them. Hungary is, of course, a strategic crossing point from the Balkan migrant group, and is third behind Germany and Sweden in the number it has played host to, but only for short transits on the way west. Few migrants or refugees want to settle in the country, and the revived Christian patriots of the Great Plain are not keen to receive people who they erroneously compare to the Muslim Ottomans of distant centuries. Here, national mythologizing is more important than a more interactive narrative between past and present.

This year, however, on returning to Hungary from our usual two-month sojourn in the UK (school summer holidays are longer in Hungary but are paid for throughout the year), I had decided not to give my usual answers referring to landscapes, seascapes and weather, to polite questions about ‘how I felt myself’ in England. I overlooked the obvious mistake, having spent a week in my beloved Wales, and replied that I didn’t recognize the country. It was true. For the first time in the ten years spent in Hungary, in the 1990s and more recently, I felt more alien as a returning native than I did in Viktor Orbán’s Ruritanian retreat. This was not to do with language, but rather with the bits of culture which don’t depend on language. I arrived with my younger son (aged 13) on the day before the Referendum vote, having promised to help with canvassing for the ‘Remain’ side in Bury St Edmunds, which voted 57% to 43% to ‘leave’ the EU.

My son enjoyed posting the reminder to vote leaflets, and we did find some encouragement on the poorer estates of the rich Cathedral city. But most people kept their heads down against the wind on an inclement early summer day. We could tell there was a sense of not wanting to engage about what they were about to do or had just done, a sense of guilty pleasure in expressing the traditional antipathy of Suffolk people for the ‘Establishment’. The results across East Anglia were generally even worse, with only Cambridge and Norwich defying the regional trend. While the people of those two cities may have been better informed on the finer points of the debate, this vote was not, fundamentally, a result of a lack of education. Neither was it, at least in central Suffolk, about excessive immigration. As the TV engineer who called at my teaching son’s house a week later told me, it was about a feeling of powerlessness in people’s lives, a lack of control, of which immigration was an obvious symptom, but one which the political élites refused to talk about or treat.

The day after the result was declared was one of the worst in my life, and there have been some pretty low troughs. It was the complete opposite of how I felt on 2 May 1997, as if twenty years of my personal and professional life had been completely wasted. My younger son, listening to the news with me, said he felt that he had been betrayed. I spent the rest of the morning writing to our local ‘pro-Remain’ Conservative MP about whether, in five years’ time, we will have to pay full-cost overseas student fees for my son if we don’t return to live in the UK before Brexit takes effect. I also asked about the Erasmus funding my elder son had received for teaching English in a special comprehensive school in Germany. Could my younger son expect to have such an experience after Brexit? I haven’t yet heard from him, except for a feature article in the local newspaper telling the people of Suffolk that Brexit would bring many opportunities for the county, things which he obviously hadn’t noticed when he wanted them to vote the other way the week before. He obviously doesn’t want to be deselected by the partisan Tory burgers of central Suffolk. Of course, Labour MPs would represent all of their constituents, not just the revolutionary cadres in the CLPs, and they wouldn’t change their views on the EU, and then change them again, just to keep their positions, unless they were party leaders. That wouldn’t be ‘authentic’!

Eventually, when we walked out together mid-morning, it was difficult to meet the eyes of elderly neighbours and other vaguely remembered faces in the small town where my elder son lives and teaches. The young waitress who served us in the en route café briefly expressed her disappointment, however. Yet no-one was celebrating. At my elder son’s school, there was a full-scale staffroom inquiry, since the teachers already knew that nobody had voted ‘Leave’. Even some tears began to flow, so bereaved did people feel. A fortnight later, in Pembrokeshire, I overheard the conversation of two elderly ladies sitting on a bench in a town square. One told the other that she had voted no because too much money was going to the EU, and we got nothing in return. The other pointed out that her friend was among the ‘misinformed’, because Wales gets far more out than it pays in. A month after the vote, my son’s well-networked colleagues reported that they had still not yet met one person in the whole of central Suffolk who admitted to having voted for Brexit, nor had the other people in their network. Ironically, the day following the vote, her son had arrived at our flat in Hungary, having walked across Europe for the charity of one of his friends whose sister had died from a rare form of leukaemia, into which research was going on in Cambridge, part-funded by the EU.

So, here we are at the beginning of a new school year, and I have to think about how to enthuse my students to get their EU-rated ‘B’ and ‘C’ level grades in English so that they can travel and study in the world, while the birthplace of English, my birthplace, my reason for being here, is pulling out of the whole inter-cultural project I am supposed to represent. As I teach ‘British Studies’, what is still called ‘Anglo-Saxon Civilization’, I will need to find reasons not to feel ashamed of my country for the first time since the early 1970s, and explanations for the events of the summer.

I think I might take ‘The Velvety Rose’ nursery rhyme as my starting point since most of my students are training to be teachers. The rose could be taken to symbolize both England. At present, it is the ‘Queen of the Fairies’, Theresa May, who seems to live at the heart of England, however, with her ‘Brexit means Brexit’ mantra repeated as often as the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland emerged to cry ‘off with their heads!’ at the men around her. Certainly, teachers will recognize the resentment felt towards senior managers who return from their long holidays ‘reflecting’ on a Mediterranean beach or in Alpine meadows to lead a ‘brainstorm’ on a ‘bombshell’ announcement made at the end of term. All the teachers want to do is get on with the planning and preparation of their own departments, focusing on their pupils. But no! The ‘Headmistress’ wants us to help her create ‘Fairyland’, an abstract, utopian place otherwise known by the much more concrete noun ‘Brexit’. For Brexit, read Fairyland. It’s much more true to real life!    

Nineteenth and Twentieth Century English: Change and Continuity in the Language.   2 comments

Grammarians and Reformers:

William Cobbett (1763-35), the self-educated farmer’s son from Farnham in Surrey, who had served in the army in Canada from 1785 to 1791, then returned to England to become a journalist. He began a weekly newspaper, The Political Register, in 1802 as a Tory, but soon became converted to the radical cause of social and Parliamentary reform. After the passing of the Great Reform Act in 1832, he became an MP, continuing to write for and edit The Political Register until his death. In 1817, following the suspension of habeas corpus (freedom from imprisonment without trial), Cobbett was back in North America, from where he continued to write his newspaper. He wrote about how the use of the concept of vulgarity in language was used to deny the value and meaning of petitions to Parliament:

The present project… is to communicate to all uneducated Reformers, ‘a knowledge of Grammar’. The people, you know, were accused of presenting petitions ‘not grammatically correct’. And those petitions were ‘rejected’, the petitioners being ‘ignorant’: though some of them were afterwards put into prison for being ‘better informed’…

No doubt remains in my mind that there was more talent discovered, and more political knowledge, by the leaders among the Reformers, than have ever been shown, at any period of time, by the Members of the two houses of parliament.

There was only one thing in which any of you were deficient, and that was in the mere art of so arranging the words in your Resolutions and Petitions as to make these compositions what is called ‘grammatically correct’. Hence, men of a hundredth part of the ‘mind’ of some of the authors of the Petitions were enabled to cavil at them on this account, and to infer from this incorrectness, that the Petitioners were a set of ‘poor ignorant creatures’, who knew nothing of what they were talking; a set of the ‘Lower Classes’ who ought never to raise their reading above that of children’s books, Christmas Carols, and the like.

For my part, I have always held a mere knowledge of the rules of grammar very cheap. It is a study, which demands hardly any powers of mind. To possess a knowledge of those rules is a pitiful qualification…

Grammar is to literary composition what a linch-pin is to a waggon. It is a poor pitiful thing in itself; it bears no part of the weight; adds not in the least to the celerity; but, still the waggon cannot very well and safely go on without it…

Therefore, trifling, and even contemptible, as this branch of knowledge is ‘in itself’, it is of vast importance as to the means of giving to the great powers of the mind their proper effect… The grammarian from whom a man of genius learns his rules has little more claim to a share of such a man’s renown than has the goose, who yields the pens with which he writes: but, still the pens are ‘necessary’, and so is the grammar.

Cobbett therefore wrote A Grammar of the English Language in the same year, in order to satisfy that desire which every man, and especially every young man, should entertain to be able to assert with effect the rights and liberties of his country. At the same time, he cautioned his educated young readers against calling the Hampshire plough-boy… ignorant for his colloquialisms such as Poll Cherrycheek have giv’d I thick handkercher. It would be wrong to laugh at him, because he has no pretensions to a knowledge of grammar, but yet may be very skilful as a plough-boy. As Olivia Smith remarked, in her 1984 book, The Politics of Language 1791-1819 (OUP), Cobbett considered grammar, in short, as an integral part of the class structure of England, and the act of learning grammar by one of his readers as an act of class warfare.

It is clear that no significant differences in the grammar of Cobbett’s writing separate today’s language from the English of the early nineteenth century. What we now call Standard English has been established for over two hundred years, since the end of the Napoleonic Wars, at least. It is the only form of the language, together with its North American variant, which obtains universal acceptance. This seems to contradict the linguistic statement that all living languages are in a constant state of change. However, the grammatical innovations since Cobbett’s day are developments of established features, rather than of fundamental changes. Once a standard form of writing becomes the norm, then the rate of change in the grammar is slowed down considerably. At the same time, however, there have been significant lexical shifts and changes, plus modifications in pronunciation, especially in recent decades.

Vocabulary:

As there has been a constant change in the vocabulary of the language over the past two hundred years, it almost goes without saying that there have been many losses of gains of words since the eighteenth century. English is a language that has taken in and assimilated words from many foreign languages to add to the core vocabulary of Germanic, French and Latin words. I have more to write about this later, in connection with the late twentieth century.

Spelling:

The standard orthography was fixed in the eighteenth century by the agreed practice of printers. Dr Johnson set down accepted spellings in his Dictionary of 1755, and also recorded some of the arbitrary choices of ‘custom’:

… thus I write, in compliance with a numberless majority, ‘convey’ and ‘inveigh’, ‘deceit’ and ‘receipt’, fancy and phantom.

A few words found in the original versions of eighteenth century texts have changed in spelling, such as cloathing, terrour, phantasy and publick, but there are not many. More recently, it has become acceptable to change the ‘ae’ spelling in words like archaeology to ‘e’ – archeology. Some American spellings have also become acceptable in Britain, such as program, mainly as a result of its use in computer programming. With few exceptions, however, it is true to say that our spelling system was fixed over two centuries ago, and that every attempt to reform it, e.g. with a more phonetic system, has failed.

Grammar:

While the underlying rules of grammar have remained unchanged, their use in speech and writing has continued to develop into forms that distinguish the varieties of language use since the eighteenth century. This can be described in terms of ‘style’ and ‘register’. In present-day English we can observe, in some varieties of language use, a greater complexity in both the noun phrase and the verb phrase.

Modifiers of nouns normally precede the head of the noun phrase (NP) when they are words (normally adjectives or nouns) or short phrases, as in a/the red brick wall and follow it when they are phrases or clauses. The rule of pre-modification has developed so that much longer strings of words and phrases can now precede the head word, as in a never to be forgotten experience. This style is a particular feature of newspaper headlines and other media, where a noun phrase is used to shorten longer statements containing a number of post-modifying prepositional phrases. For example, the statement There has been a report on the treatment of suspects in police stations in Northern Ireland is turned into the headline Northern Ireland police station suspect treatment report…

The process of converting clauses with verbs into noun clauses is called nominalisation. The word is itself an example of that process. It has become a marked feature of some contemporary styles, including formal and academic writing. However, this does not signify a change in grammar, but rather reveals the way in which the flexibility of English grammar readily permits nominalisation. In Standard English, verb phrases can also be constructed in increasingly complex forms, such as she has been being treated, using auxiliary verbs to combine the grammatical features of tense (past or present), aspect (perfect or progressive), voice (active or passive) and mood (positive/ negative statement or interrogative). Question forms such as hasn’t she been being treated? and won’t she have been being treated? may not be common, but they are conceivable, and have developed since the eighteenth century. They are examples of how English has become a more analytic language in recent centuries, in that its structures now depend far more on strings of separate words, rather than on inflections of words.

Another development in the resources of verb phrases is the increased use of phrasal and prepositional verbs like to run across for to meet, put up with for tolerate and give in/ give up for surrender. They are a feature of spoken and informal usage, and although the structure can be found in earlier forms of English, they have increased considerably in modern Standard English, with new combinations being continually introduced, often as slang, as in get with it, afterwards being gradually accepted and assimilated.

The Queen’s English

We still tend to judge our fellow latter-day Britons by their speech as much as by other aspects of their behaviour, though some have been much more positive in their reactions than others. The relationship between social class and the language used in the eighteenth century was maintained through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Here, for example, is the dean of Canterbury Cathedral, Dr. Henry Alford, writing in a book called The Queen’s English: Stray Notes on Speaking and Spelling, in 1864:

And first and foremost, let me notice that worst of all faults, the leaving out of the aspirate where it ought to be, and putting it where it ought not to be. This is a vulgarism not confined to this or that province of England, nor especially prevalent in one county or another, but common throughout England to persons of low breeding and inferior education, principally to those among the inhabitants of towns. Nothing so surely stamps a man as below the mark of intelligence, self-respect, and energy, as this unfortunate habit…

As I write these lines, which I do while waiting in a refreshment-room at Reading, between a Great-Western and a South-Eastern train, I hear one of two commercial gentlemen, from a neighbouring table, telling his friend that “his ‘ed’ used to ‘hake’ ready to burst.”

Alford’s attitude here is no different from that of some eighteenth century grammarians in their references to ‘the depraved language of the Common People’. One common usage that is still taught as an error is what is called ‘the split infinitive’, as in the ‘infamous’ introit to the 1970s US television series, ‘Star Trek’, ‘…to boldly go…’, which has become almost as legendary in sociolinguistics as the series itself has become in popular culture. Here is Dean Alford on the subject:

A correspondent states as his own usage, and defends, the insertion of an adverb between the sign of the infinitive mood and the verb. He gives as an instance, ‘to scientifically illustrate.’ But surely this is a practice entirely unknown to English speakers and writers. It seems to me, that we ever regard the ‘to’ of the infinitive as inseparable from its verb.

The Dean was wrong in his assertion that the practice was ‘entirely unknown’. The idea that it is ungrammatical to put an adverb between to and the verb was an invention of prescriptive grammarians, but it has been handed down as a ’solecism’ (violation of the rules of grammar) from one generation of pedagogical pedants to another. It has become an easy marker of ’good English’.

001

001 (2)

Above: Details from The Village Choir by Thomas Webster (1800-1886), Victoria & Albert Museum.

Henry Alford was born in Bloomsbury, London, in 1810. His father, also Henry, was rector of Aston Sandford in Buckinghamshire. Henry junior was educated at Ilminster Grammar School and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he subsequently became a Fellow. Ordained in 1833, he became curate of Ampton in Suffolk, and incumbent of Quebec Chapel, London, before becoming Dean of Canterbury Cathedral in 1857, where he remained until his death in 1871. He became a distinguished scholar and wrote numerous books, including a critical commentary on the Greek New Testament. A strong evangelical, he wrote a number of hymns, some of which remain well-known and are still used regularly today. Among these is the harvest hymn, Come ye thankful people, come, which he wrote in 1844 for use in services in his rural Suffolk parish. It uses the parable from Mark’s gospel (chapter 4. 26-29), about the seed springing up without the sower knowing about it, including the line: For the earth bringeth forth of herself; first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear. As they sang this verse, the local farmers and labourers from Suffolk’s ‘grain belt’ would have had a very clear image to match the meaning of the parable. The hymn was first published in his own collection of Psalms and Hymns in 1844. He then revised it for his Poetical Works (1865) and his Year of Praise (1867). The writers of Hymns Ancient and Modern included it with their anthology first in 1861, but changed Alford’s simple, rustic words of the second verse, from:

… First the blade and then the ear,

Then the full corn shall appear:

Lord of harvest, grant that we

Wholesome grain and pure may be;

 To:

… Ripening with a wondrous power

Till the final harvest hour

Grant, O Lord of life, that we

Holy grain and pure may be.

Although these changes were firmly repudiated by the author, they have persisted to this day, reappearing in the New Standard version of the Anglican hymn book. This shows that, although Alford may have been a stickler for correct grammar, he was also in favour of the movement to bring the folk language and culture of the countryside into church worship, connecting it with the simplicity of the gospel texts.

Image

His other famous hymn was, however, very different in both content and style. Ten thousand times ten thousand, a stirring hymn about the Church Triumphant, it is full of imagery drawn from the Book of Revelation, and the opening lines are suggested by the reference in chapter 5, verse 11 to St John the Divine’s vision of a mighty throng of angels around the throne of God, and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand. The rush of hallelujahs and the ringing of a thousand harps are also taken from the book (19. 1-6 and 14.2):

Ten thousand times ten thousand,

In sparkling labour bright,

The armies of the ransomed saints

Throng up the steeps of light;

’Tis finished, all is finished,

Their fight with death and sin;

Fling open wide the golden gates,

And let the victors in.

 

What rush of hallelujahs

Fills all the earth and sky!

What ringing of a thousand harps

Bespeaks the triumph nigh!

O day for which creation

And all its tribes were made!

O joy, for all its former woes

A thousandfold repaid.          

The first three verses of which first appeared in his Year of Praise in 1867. The fourth was added in 1870 in The Lord’s Prayer. The complete hymn was sung at Alford’s funeral in January of the following year. Hymns, unlike other forms of writing, were written to be sung by all classes of society together, in church, so that Alford was well aware of the need to keep their language simple and direct if they were to become popular with the masses in Victorian society who were the object of his evangelical ministry. At the time he was writing his hymns, the Chartists were also launching their equally ’evangelical’ campaign among the working classes, and they too wrote hymns to popularise their cause of Political Reform. A copy of The National Chartist Hymn Book of 1845 has recently been discovered in Todmorden Public Library, in fact what is believed to be the only surviving copy. Michael Sanders of Manchester University believes that it was almost certainly complied by the South Lancashire Delegate Meeting. It is interesting to see how the desire for social justice is expressed in biblical language, and in the form of a hymn like God of the Poor!:

God of the poor! Shall labour eat

Or drones alone find labour sweet?

Lo, they who call thy earth their own,

Take all we have – and give a stone.

God of the poor! Shall labour eat

Or drones alone find labour sweet?

 

Yet not in vain thy children call

On thee, if thou art Lord of all;

And by thy work, and by thy word,

Hark! Millions cry for justice, Lord.

Yet not in vain thy children call

On thee, if thou art Lord of all.

 

The last verses of Great God are equally rousing in their call to martyrdom in the cause of freedom and justice:

Tho’ freedom mourns her murdered son,

And weeping friends surround his bier,

Tho’ tears like mountain torrents run,

Our cause is watered by each tear.

 

O May his fate cement the bond,

That binds us to our glorious cause!

Raise! Raise the cry! Let all respond;

’Justice, and pure and equal laws.’

002

The hymn form was further popularised by the Methodist preachers who formed the early agricultural workers’ unions in the 1860s and ’70s. They came together in their thousands in pouring rain and muddy fields to sing folk anthems such as When Arch Beneath the Wellesbourne Tree, defying both squire and parson in its words. This poor man’s choral tradition passed into the Clarion Movement (see pictures below) which ‘evangelised’ for socialism in town and countryside in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods.

The invention of sound recording, and especially of the portable recorders, has made it possible for us to study the spoken language in a way that students of English were unable to fifty years ago. Through such recordings, we are able to produce transcripts of modern Standard English, enabling us to compare it with surviving dialects. However, the only way of comparing contemporary Standard English with that which was in use 150 years ago or more, is to return to the texts of the King James Bible and compare the Revised Version made by teams from Oxford and Cambridge Universities between 1870 and 1880, with the New English Bible of 1961:

St Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 26 verses 69-75:

Revised Version:

Now Peter was sitting without in the Court: and a maid came unto him, saying, Thou also wast with Jesus the Galilean. But he denied before them all, saying, I know not what thou sayest. And when he was gone out into the porch, another maid saw him, and saith unto them that were there, This man also was with Jesus the Nazarene. And again he denied with an oath, I know not the man. And after a little while they that stood by came and said to Peter, Of a truth thou also art one of them; for thy speech betrayeth thee. Then began he to curse and to swear, I know not the man. And straightway the cock crew. And Peter remembered the word which Jesus had said, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And he went out, and wept bitterly.

New English Bible:

Meanwhile Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard when a serving-maid accosted him and said, ‘You were there too with Jesus the Galilean.’ Peter denied it in the face of them all. ‘I do not know what you mean’, he said. He then went out to the gateway, where another girl, seeing him, said to the people there, ‘This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.’ Once again he denied it, saying with an oath, ‘I do not know the man.’ Shortly afterwards the bystanders came up and said to Peter, ‘Surely, you are another of them; your accent gives you away!’ At this he broke into curses and declared with an oath… ‘I do not know the man.’ At that moment a cock crew; and Peter remembered how Jesus had said, ‘Before the cock crows you will disown me three times.’ He went outside, and wept bitterly.

 Although the revisers of the King James Version were given a brief of making a more intelligible version than the 1611 original, they also kept as close to its wording as they could. In this way the Revised Version represents both the transitional elements of Early Modern English and the forms of dialogue in use in mid-Victorian England, just as the New English version reflects the contemporary speech of the early 1960s, whilst at the same time trying to remain true to the original meaning.

The Deterioration of English?

By the last quarter of the twentieth century, fears for the future of the language had once again become the staples of newspaper columns, and were also joined in discussion of these by the new media of television news items and chat shows. They were even, in the Britain of 1978, the subject of a special debate in the House of Lords. The record of the debate, The English Language: Deterioration in Usage, makes very interesting reading. All but one of the speakers accepted the proposition that the language was deteriorating, and together they made a series of complaints about, for example, the misapplication of words such as parameter and hopefully. The language was cluttered with monstrosities like ongoing, relevant and viable. In addition, ‘good’ old words were acquiring ‘bad’ new meanings, as far as their Lordships were concerned. It was, remarked one of them, virtually impossible… for a modern poet to write ‘the choir of gay companions’. The use of the word for propaganda purposes… had destroyed its useful meaning…

Pronunciation, another familiar bugbear, was also considered to be slipping in words like controversy and formidable. In this context, as in many, the BBC came in for a substantial amount of criticism for failing in its clear duty to uphold the standards of English. There were laments also about the latest revisions of the Bible translations and the Book of Common Prayer. In addition, there were the usual condemnations of the way in which American usages, such as location for place which were creeping into our language. Lord Somers expressed the view that if there is a more hideous language on the face of the earth than the American form of English, I should like to know what it is!

Besides the BBC, the Anglican hierarchy and the Americans, the peers also blamed schools, the universities and the mass media for the state of the language. Children and students, it was claimed, were no longer educated in grammar and classics. Newspapers, radio and television were familiarising the public with a language that depends on generalisations which are usually imprecise and often deliberately ambiguous… a language that makes unblushing use of jargon whenever that can assist evasion… A major cause of deterioration, noted one peer, exhibiting more than a touch of xenophobia, was very simply the enormous increase in the number of people using it. Perhaps the most revealing comment came from Lord Davies of Leek:

Am I right in assuming that in an age of uncertainty with respect to religion, God, family, self, money and prosperity, there is a worldwide collapse of not only the values of the past but of our language which, more and more, tends to be vague, indecisive, careless and often callous?

In one sense, Lord Davies was probably right. The relativism of the twentieth century probably did encourage a more permissive approach to language. In a deeper sense though, it was the decline of respect for God, the family and property that really concerned Lord Davies and his fellow peers, and he used Language-change or deterioration as the means for complaining about society. When all is said and done, language is only the medium of discourse, not the matter itself; the messenger, rather than the message. Language is, as it always has been, the mirror to society, not to be confused with society itself. In Britain, where English developed, it has become standardised and centralised in the South, apparently cautious of change. In the British Commonwealth, the independent traditions of Australia, New Zealand and Canada have breathed new life into the English that was exported from Britain more than two hundred years ago. In the Caribbean, it is the focus of an emergent nationalism. In Africa, it is the continent-wide means of communication and in South Africa it is the medium of Black consciousness. In India and South-East Asia, it is associated with aspiration, development and growing self-confidence, taking on distinctive forms. Therefore it is not neutral: it is a vehicle of both change and continuity, rather than a victim of social degradation.

Sources:

Dennis Freeborn (1992), From Old English to Standard English. Basingstoke: MacMillan.

Ian Bradley (2005), The Daily Telegraph Book of Hymns. London: Continuum Books.

Robert McCrum, William Cran, Robert MacNeil (1987), The Story of English. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

What and when was ‘Old English’?   Leave a comment

004

Above: The Heptarchy, or seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Northumberland, given here, was more often known as Northumbria before the Norman Conquest.

We call the language of the Anglo-Saxon period up to about 1150, following the Norman Conquest, Old English (OE). Our knowledge of OE is based on a number of manuscripts that have survived from those times, from which the grammar and vocabulary have been reconstructed by scholars, working from the sixteenth century onwards, but especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.   They have provided us with the dictionaries and grammars of OE, and the editions of OE texts on which we can rely.

Boundaries and Dialects:

The English were not a particularly unified nation until late OE times, from about the time of Alfred the Great in the late ninth century. The Anglo-Saxons came from different parts of Western Europe and spoke different dialects of West Germanic. Different tribes settled in different parts of Britain, but were able to communicate with each other in an increasingly common tongue, though retaining differences in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. The ‘country’ which existed during the seventh and eighth centuries is sometimes referred to as the heptarchy, the seven kingdoms: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex and Wessex. There were frequent wars between these kingdoms, in which one tried to dominate the others, first Northumbria, then East Anglia, then Mercia and finally Wessex, until it was overthrown by the Danes under Cnut in 1016. The fact that there were seven kingdoms does not mean, however, that there were seven different dialects. The evidence from the manuscripts suggests that there were four: Northumbrian, Mercian and Anglian, in the North, East Anglia and Mercian, or Midland, from the West Germanic settlers, and a dialect which mixed Jutish with West Saxon across the south. It is usual to use the late West Saxon dialect of the tenth and eleventh centuries to describe OE in its written form, because Wessex was by then the dominant kingdom, and most of the legal manuscripts were written in it, although Mercian remained the most widely spoken dialect north of the Thames throughout the Middle Ages.

005 Above: A chart of runic symbols with their equivalent phonemes in modern English.

The writing system of the earliest English was based on the use of signs called runes, which were devised for carving in wood or stone. One of the few examples to survive in Britain is the eighteen-foot cross in the church in Ruthwell, Dumfriesshire. On it are some runic inscriptions in the Northumbrian dialect, part of a famous OE poem called The Dream of the Rood (from the OE for ‘cross’, relating the events of the Crucifixion). The Ruthwell Cross probably dates from the eighth century. Written English as we know it had to wait for the establishment of the Church and the building of monasteries, at which time the monks wrote in Latin. This began to happen in the seventh century when much of Northumbria and East Anglia was converted to Christianity by monks from Ireland, while Augustine had been sent by the Pope to convert the southern English, beginning in Kent. The monks adapted the Latin alphabet to write in English, which means that OE gives us a good idea of its pronunciation. The variations in spelling provide evidence of the different dialects which existed in English.

For example, the earliest known poem in English is Caedmon’s hymn, found in the OE translation of Bede’s History of the English Church and People, written in Latin and finished in 731. Bede’s history was translated into English in the late ninth century as part of the great revival of learning under King Alfred the Great of Wessex. The poem, a hymn to God the Creator, is all that survives of the devotional poet, Caedmon, who lived in Bede’s time. Here are the first lines from it in, first, the West Saxon and then the Northumbrian dialects, followed by a word-for-word translation into modern English:

 

Nu we sculan herian heofonrices Weard

Metodes mihte and his modgethonk

weorc Wulfdorfaeder; swa he wundra gehwaes

ece Dryhten, ord onstealde.

 

Nu scylan hergan hefaenricaes Uard

Metudaes maecti end his mogdidanc

uerc uuldurfadur; sue he uundra gihuaes

eci Dryctin, or aestelidae.

 

(Now we must praise heaven-kingdom’s Guardian

Creator’s might and his mind-thought

work Glory-father’s; as he of-wonders each

evelasting Lord, beginning established.)

 

Runes and Early Writing:

 

In printing and writing Old English today, present day shapes of Roman letters are used, with three additional non-Roman letters, or phonic symbols, because there was no equivalent sound or letter in Latin. These are the short ‘ae’ vowel sound, known as ‘ash’ in runes, as in the modern word ‘cat’, and two symbols used interchangeably for the voiced and unvoiced ‘th’ sound in modern English. These runes are called ‘thorn’ and ‘eth’. A complete list of the vowels and consonants and their corresponding sounds in modern Received Pronunciation (RP) is given below:

001002

A small book called a Testimonie of Antiquietie was printed in 1567. Its purpose was to provide evidence in a contemporary religious controversy about the Church sacraments. It reproduced, with a translation, a sermon ‘in the Saxon tongue’ by Aelfric, Archbishop of Canterbury in 995. He was not only a famous preacher in English, but also a grammarian. The book is of interest to linguists because the translation provides an example of Early Modern English (EME) both in style and spelling and printing as well as a copy of the OE manuscript forms. The beginning of Aelfric’s sermon is given below, together with its sixteenth century translation and the list of the Saxon characters or letters that be moste straunge. The word-for-word translation of the OE in the facsimile is:

Aelfric abbot greets Sigeferth

friendily; to me is said that

thou saidest about me that I other

taught in English writings,

than your anchorite*

at home with you teaches,

because he clearly says that is

permitted, that mass priests

well may wive, and my

writings against speak this.

 

* = religious hermit

 003

The Incursions and Immigrations of the Norsemen:

 

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records an event in 787 which proved to be an ominous portent of things to come (in word-for-word translation):

Here took breohtric king offa’s daughter eadburh… in his days came first three ships of-northmen from hortha land… and then the reeve thereto rode… he wished drive to the king’s manor because he knew-not what they were… him one slew there. That were the first ships danish men’s that Angle-people’s land sought.

 

By the end of the eighth century the Angles, Saxons and Jutes had finally occupied almost the whole of what we know of England today, as well as modern-day Scotland as far as the Firth of Forth. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle continued to record battles for supremacy between the kings of the seven kingdoms, as in the following example of the annal dated 827:

In this year there was an eclipse of the moon on Christmas morning. And the same year Egbert conquered Mercia, and all that was south of the Humber, and he was the eighth king to be ‘Ruler of Britain’: the first to rule so great a kingdom was Aelle, king of Sussex; the second was Caewlin, king of Wessex; the third was Aethelbert, king of Kent; the fourth was Raedwald, king of East Anglia; the fifth was Edwin, king of Northumbria; the sixth was Oswald who reigned after him; the seventh was Oswy, Oswald’s brother; the eighth was Egbert, king of Wessex.

 

But by this time the three ships that the king’s reeve had ridden to meet forty years earlier had been followed by greater numbers of ships and Norsemen, making annual raids for plunder along the coasts and up the rivers of northern France and England. The Peterborough Chronicle annal for 793 records the first Norwegian Viking attack on the monasteries of Lindisfarne and Jarrow:

793, and a little after that in the same year on 8th January* God’s church on the island of Lindisfarne was miserably plundered and destroyed by the heathen, with great slaughter.

 

(*794 in the Gregorian calendar)

 027

The Norwegian Vikings soon began to raid around the northern and western coasts and islands of Scotland, the north-west coasts of Cumbria, Northumbria, Mercia, Wales and the north of Ireland, and the Isle of Man. Danes began raiding the eastern coasts of the Anglian and Saxon kingdoms in 835, and by the mid-ninth century larger raiding parties regularly ravaged the hinterlands and began to occupy and settle major tracts of these. The most famous of the Saxon kings, Alfred, King of Wessex, after years of continual defeat, negotiated treaties with the Danes. By the time of his death in 899, only Wessex remained intact and independent. The rest of Engaland, north and east of the old Roman road called Watling Street, from London to Chester, was in the hands of the Danish settlers and became known as the Danelaw. The Scandinavian attacks and incursions continued throughout the first half of the tenth century. One of them, dated 937 in the annal, is celebrated in poetry as the Battle of Brunanburh in modern-day Scotland (the exact site is unknown), where Aethelstan, King of Wessex, defeated the Norwegian Vikings attacking from Ireland.

 001Above: The Battle of Brunanburh, Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Parker) for AD 937.

(In OE manuscripts, poetry was set out like prose, not in separate lines. Lines and half-lines were often clearly marked with a dot like a full-stop.)

 

A period of twenty-five years of peace after 955 was once again broken when more attacks by Norsemen began in the 980’s. Some came from Normandy across the Channel, where they had also settled, as well as from Denmark and Norway. In 1017, the Danish king, Cnut, became ‘King of All England’; Danish rule was not ended until 1042, when the Edward the Confessor became the King of England.

004 (2)

The settlement of the Danelaw had important effects on the English Language. Old Norse (ON) is the name now given to the language spoken by the Danish and Norwegian Vikings. It was ‘cognate’ with Old English (OE); that is, they both came from the same antecedent West Germanic group of languages. It seems that the two languages were similar enough in vocabulary for OE-speakers to understand common ON words and phrases, and vice-versa, so that the English and the Norsemen could communicate. Many OE words therefore have a cognate ON word, and we cannot always be sure whether a Modern English reflex is derived from OE, ON or from both. An Icelandic saga says of the eleventh century that there was at that time the same tongue in England as in Norway and Denmark, but speakers of their own tongue simplified it when making transactions with the other, so that OE dialects in the Danelaw became modified in ways which were different from the west Mercian, East Anglian and Wessex dialects. These variations are detectable in present-day northern and East Anglian dialects, which reveal ON features, especially in vocabulary.

Main Published Source:

Dennis Freeborn (1992), From Old English to Standard English, Basingstoke: Macmillan.

The Legacy of Tudor and Jacobean England: Part Two: Poets, Ports and Puritans.   Leave a comment

001
002

Above: pages from Spot the Style: A Mini Guide to architecture in Britain, by David Pearce. London: P Murray.

Below: Seckford Street in Woodbridge, Suffolk, named after the Tudor lawyer, parliamentarian and benefactor. In 1587 he decided to donate a large measure of his wealth to endowing ‘certain almshouses’ in the town. He died the same year, and his tomb can be seen in St.Mary’s Parish Church.

              DSC09854

Elizabethan and Jacobean England: The Languages of Anglicanism and Puritanism; East Anglia and New England

017As Anglicanism became established, parish churches continued to hear the celebration of the eucharist (holy communion) in the form set out in Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer and readings from the translations of the Bible later consolidated in the Authorised Version of 1612. The repetition of prayers and readings, noble in expression, brought linguistic unity to England. The adoption by the Scottish Kirk of English translations of the Bible may have thwarted the separate development of Lallans (lowland Scots) and a different cultural tradition, which made the transition to the unity of the kingdoms much easier. Those devising the new services had a long tradition of devotional literature to draw on. Tyndale and Cranmer had a language ready for expression and translation of the complex Judaeo-Christian tradition  in new forms. This was due to the creation of English as a language of intellect and the higher emotions by authors of vernacular works by poets and writers who drew their themes and inspirations from shrines, pilgrimages, visions and the telling of legends of saints and Arthurian heroes.

Some of those writers were women, such as the turbulent visionary Margery Kempe, who wrote the first autobiography in English, and the gentle, reclusive Julian of Norwich. The poets and writers included, most notably, Geoffrey Chaucer, who set his greatest poem in the framework of a pilgrimage to Canterbury. William Langland’s Piers Ploughman arose from a vision on the Malvern Hills. Thomas Malory gave new life to the common British tradition in his Morte D’Arthur. The holy place that most fully commemorates the English literary tradition is Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, where the names of those buried among kings and knights make it a resting place of genius unrivalled in Europe. The only name missing is that of England’s national bard, William Shakespeare, but it is perhaps appropriate that he lies by the altar of his parish church, Holy Trinity in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he was also baptised and grew up listening to the language of Cranmer’s English Bible and Prayer Book.

 

003Looking back on the achievements of Elizabeth’s reign, historians have referred to it as an age, one in which England survived national and international crises to be recognised as a centre of artistic splendour. During her reign and that of James I, a total period of seventy years, or one full lifespan, the English language achieved a richness and vitality of expression that even contemporaries marvelled at. However, contemporaries at the beginning of this period had recognised that their native tongue was barely ready, after centuries of Latin and French dominance, for serious literary and scholarly purposes. England, not even yet united with the Tudor homeland of Wales, was a small nation, just beginning to flex its international muscles. Its statesmen tended to indulge in hyperbole, like the poet, courtier and soldier, Sir Philip Sidney, who claimed that English hath it equally with any other tongue in the world. It was the confluence of three historical developments, at least two of which were common to much of Europe, and occurred earlier in many countries, the Renaissance and the Reformation, which really propelled England forward during these years. The third, most dynamic factor, was its emergence as the leading maritime power.

 

The Renaissance had different effects in each European country. In England it had coincided with a communications revolution following Caxton’s setting up of his printing press at Westminster. This revolution has only recently been surpassed by the present age of computer and internet technology. The printing press transformed society. Before 1500 there were only about thirty-five thousand printed books in Europe as a whole, mostly in Latin. Between 1500 and 1640, some twenty thousand items were printed in English alone, ranging from pamphlets and broadsheets to folios and Bibles. The result was to accelerate the education of the middling sort and even some of the lower orders of society, so that by 1600, it has been estimated, as much as half the population had some kind of minimal literacy, and a much higher proportion in the cities and towns. In a growing free market in the printed word, the demand for books in English outstripped the demand for the old classical media of the universities, and booksellers and printers were keen to meet this new market. Lexicographers were keen to introduce new words, like maturity, from Latin, as part of the necessary augmentation of our language.

001English could not escape the influence of the classical languages in the age of the Renaissance, as the revival of learning produced a new group of scholar-writers from Thomas More to Francis Bacon who devoted themselves to the cultivation of style in Latin. Although they wrote their scholarly works in Latin, when they wrote their letters in English, they embellished their prose with Latinate words. They ransacked the classical past for words like agile, capsule, absurdity, contradictory, exaggerate, indifference (Latin) and monopoly, paradox, catastrophe, lexicon, thermometer (Greek). The scientific revolution of the time also prompted new borrowings, such as atmosphere, pneumonia, skeleton. An encyclopedia would now be required to explain the idea of gravity. Vesalius’ transformation of anatomy meant that English would need descriptions like excrement and strenuous. In physics, the work of scientists like William Gilbert were introducing words such as external and chronology. There were also further borrowings from French, like bigot and detail. Besides some specific architectural words from Italian, and some bellicose Spanish words, there were also important nautical words from the Low Countries like smuggler and reef. Sailors also brought Low Dutch into English at this time, words which are sometimes falsely attributed to the Anglo-Saxons, like fokkinge, kunte and bugger.  These words are not what we would normally associate with the Renaissance, but they form part of the same desire to make English a communicative, everyday language with a broad vocabulary. Altogether, the Renaissance added as many as twelve thousand words to the English lexicon.

002

These innovations and inventions were typical of the kind of adventurousness we associate with the Elizabethans, especially in their brave explorations of the New World. Francis Drake traveled well beyond the bounds of Christendom, circumnavigating the globe, plundering Spanish ships in the Caribbean and exploring the Americas. It was the guidance and inspiration of Drake’s fellow Devonian, Sir Walter Ralegh (pronounced Rawley), which led to the first English-speaking communities in North America. A lesser-known adventurer was Thomas Cavendish of Trimley St Martin in Suffolk. He was one of the many sea dogs who served Queen Bess and his own pocket by harassing Spanish shipping and settlements in the Americas. In 1586 he decided to emulate Drake’s great exploit of sailing around the globe. Setting out with three ships, he completed the incredible journey in a little over two years. In 1591 he set out to repeat the venture in order to open up commercial relations with the Orient, but was worn down by storms and disease, dying off the coast of Brazil, where he was buried at sea.

 

The story of what was to become the first North American settlement starts in the late 1570s when Sir Humphrey Gilbert, under charter from Elizabeth, claimed Newfoundland for England. (One of his fellow explorers was a Hungarian, about whom I have written elsewhere.) Heading South, Gilbert was then drowned in a storm with the famous last words, We are as neer to heaven by sea as by land. Sir Walter Ralegh then took up the cause of founding a new colony, temporarily establishing the Cittie of Ralegh in Virginea, on today’s coast of North Carolina. The story of The Lost Colony, as it became known, exemplifies the adventurous mariners of the Elizabethan era, but also shows how hazardous and difficult the settlement of the New World was. Ralegh, now out of favour with the Crown, continued to express his undying faith in an English empire overseas. With hindsight, the colonisation of the new huge land-mass of North America by English-speaking settlers seems inevitable and Ralegh’s boast to Sir Robert Cecil in 1602, that he would yet live to see it an English Nation might not seem so idle, had he been allowed to live on. However, at the time neither Ralegh nor the prospective settlers could envisage what they were taking on, let alone confront the harsh realities of the new frontier on the other side of the ocean. In the meantime, raiding and trading was continuing to prove far more lucrative. 

In contrast to the internationalism of scholarship and commerce,  Tudor politics – the Reformation and its creation of a distinctly English Church, emphasised the age-old desire of the English, and to a lesser extent the Welsh and the Scots, to establish their independence from French and other continental influences. The breach with Rome, followed by the almost continual wars with France and Spain, the superpowers of the age, culminating in the defeat of the Armada, with the small island nation beating off the huge invasion fleet of a transatlantic Empire, was matched by the declaration to Parliament of an independent-minded Queen:

 I thank God I am endowed with such qualities that if I were turned out of the realm in my petticoat, I were able to live in any place in Christendom. 

002In reality, the threat of 1588 failed to strike much of a patriotic fire in the coastal towns of Suffolk. The decayed coastal defenses had to be rapidly repaired and when the eastern ports were required to provide a quota of ships for the royal fleet they all pleaded poverty. The Spanish wars had already caused them severe loss of trade, they argued, and they could only afford a fraction of the ships needed. When the time came for the county levies to assemble before their Queen at Tilbury, the men of Suffolk had to be cajoled once more, for they were reluctant to leave their farms at harvest time and even more reluctant to leave their county. In the event, they were not really needed, as Drake’s fireships scattered the heavy Spanish galleons, laden down with heavy cannon and balls which disintegrated on impact, and God’s wind did the rest.

The long war with Spain disrupted the cloth trade with the Spanish Netherlands, an important cause of its decline, or rather of transition, with old draperies giving way to new ones. The old system had been badly hit not just by wars and market changes, but by the introduction of new techniques and the growth of monopolies. The planting of European colonies in Africa and the Americas provided new and often captive markets for the goods of the Old World, but the requirements of these new consumers were not the same as those of England’s old trading partners. The inhabitants of tropical and sub-tropical lands did not want to drape themselves in heavy Suffolk broadcloth. The county’s clothiers could probably have risen to this challenge as they had to previous market changes, but powerful mercantile groups saw regional specialisation as the solution to the problems.

Fulling could be carried out more efficiently and cheaply in counties like Yorkshire with its abundant supply of fast-flowing tributaries running off the Pennine moors into its great, navigable rivers, flowing into the North Sea. Within a few years, Suffolk’s small-scale yet integral fulling industry dwindled and many craftsmen had to take to the Great North Road to find work.

DSC09762Growing control over the East Anglian industry was being exercised by London merchants, most of whom belonged to trading companies which had official or unofficial monopolies in large trading areas overseas. These merchants could therefore combine to outbid the local clothiers for yarn and to pay more for unfinished cloth than the exporters of Ipswich and Colchester. Suffolk clothiers who tried to break these monopolies were frequently prosecuted through a growing volume of legislation. The erosion of free trade by sharp mercantile practices led to prohibitions and restraints of trade which, in 1588, left the merchants of Ipswich unable to transport Suffolk cloths even to the continent, and especially to Spain. By the second decade of the seventeenth century, this stranglehold on trade had left the cloth industry in Suffolk extremely exposed to the sharp practices of some unscrupulous London merchants. In 1619, one Gerrard Reade refused settle payment with eighty Suffolk clothiers for the cloths he had already sold for twenty thousand pounds. The Suffolk magistrates complained that the work of at least five thousand weavers was at stake. The clothiers did not have the funds to pay them, having not been paid themselves for the cloth, and were they to be thrown on the parish for relief, there would not be enough funds to relieve them.

DSC09679The Elizabethan Poor Law, which reached its final form in 1601, made the parishes responsible for all their inhabitants unable to care for themselves. Throughout the country the number of those in need of relief rose and the poor rate with it. The magistrates heard frequent pleas for leniency from overseers and churchwardens who simply could not collect the necessary money. Three years later the same justices reported to the Privy Council that bankruptcies were continuing among the Suffolk clothiers, unable to sell the 4,453 broadcloths they had left on their hands, distributed across twenty different towns, worth more than thirty-nine thousand pounds. Poor houses and alms houses were built in many places, including inside the castle walls in Framlingham (pictured left)

DSC09737

The clothiers reacted to these pressures by banding together themselves into local organisations capable of resisting them. A company of cloth-workers was formed at Ipswich in 1590, with the avowed intention that the said mysteries and sciences may be better ordered, the town better maintained, and the country near about it more preferred… A similar trade organisation was formed at Bury in 1607. However, they failed in protecting local trade from the tycoons in London. What they did achieve was to help the clothiers to restrict the wages and impose strict conditions upon the craftsmen who worked for them and who were already experiencing severe hardship. They also tried to restrict to check the import of new, lightweight cloths from the Low Countries, but the Flemish weavers were producing a fabric which, while warm, was easier to work and lighter to wear, and whose popularity was therefore irresistible. Many Suffolk craftsmen, especially the persecuted puritans among them, decided to practice both their trade and their religion in the Netherlands, before some later emigrated with the Pilgrim Fathers to New England. At the same time, some cloth-makers had been copying the skills of earlier Flemish immigrants, turning their attention to spinning yarn and weaving new draperies. These new cloths included fustian, bay, say and stuff. The Suffolk centre for these was Sudbury, but the kembing (spinning) of yarn was more widespread. At first the spinners were independent and made their own arrangements for selling the yarn in London or Norwich, but before long merecantile capitalists took over the organisation of the industry.

DSC09865In Tudor times, fishing, shipbuilding and coastal trade continued to be thriving activities along the coasts and estuaries. Two hundred or more ships out of ports of Lowestoft, Southwold, Walberswick, Dunwich, Aldeborough and Orford plied the North Sea herring grounds and Icelandic cod fields throughout most of the sixteenth century. In 1572 these ports, together with Ipswich and Woodbridge owned 146 coastal trade vessels, carrying cloth, oil, flax, hemp and wine across the Narrow Seas and plied along the coast with timber, fuller’s earth, hides and Newcastle coal. The growth of maritime enterprise in these times brought prosperity to the shipyards of Ipswich and Woodbridge. Ipswich was the principal supplier of large merchant ships to London, and thousands of Suffolk oaks went into a succession of fine vessels.

Woodbridge was always a close rival to its neighbouring port but Ipswich added to its prosperity by producing the cordage and sail canvas. By the turn of the century business was booming and a succession of fine ships were laid down, including the 320-ton Matthew in 1598.

However, coastal erosion posed a continual threat to the east coast ports, in particular, Dunwich. In 1573, The Queen’s majesty’s town was by the rages and surges of the sea, daily washed and devoured. The haven was so badly silted that no ships or boats could get either in or out, to the utter decay of the said town. Year after year more houses, churches and sometimes whole streets simply vanished. The inhabitants lacked the technical skill and resources necessary to construct sea defenses and, despite desperate pleas for help, there was none forthcoming from the government. Southwold was also fast silting up by 1620 and fishermen could no longer rely on access to the harbour at Walberswick. These ports were also plagued by piracy, which had become particularly virulent in the North Sea from the late sixteenth century. Operating out of Dunkirk, Ostend, Sluys and Nieuport, the privateers caused havoc to coastal and international shipping. In 1596 a small fleet of Dunkirkers blockaded Harwich and in 1602 east coast merchants were forced to adopt a convoy system. In 1619 a national subscription was raised to relieve the people of Dunwich, Southwold and Walberswick whose misfortunes were, in part, blamed on pirates. In 1626 a Dunkirk privateer sailed into Sole Bay at Southwold with guns blazing. While the townsfolk fled from the harbour the pirates cut out a merchant ship and made off with her. Between 1625 and 1627 no less than thirteen Aldeburgh ships of a total value of 6,800 pounds were lost to pirates.

DSC09763Despite these problems, many Suffolkers were as proud of their mother-tongue, in all its vernacular plainness, as they were of defying the pope and denying the might of Spain access to their island’s shores.  Some writers such as Ben Johnson and even Shakespeare himself wanted to defend the language against the incursions of Latinate terms, calling them inkhorn terms and showing a preference for plainnesse. When Berowne finally declares his love for Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost, he announces that he will shun taffeta phrases, silken terms precise, and instead express his wooing mind … in russet yeas and honest kersey noes.

The combination of these twin traditions, homespun and continental, led to the emergence of a language, to quote Logan Pearsall Smith of unsurpassed richness and beauty, which, however, defies all the rules. Almost any word could be used in any pat of speech, adverbs could be used for verbs, nouns for adjectives, and nouns and adjectives could take the place of verbs and adverbs. In Elizabethan English, you could happy your friend, malice or foot your enemy, or fall an axe on his neck. Shakespeare himself wrote of how he could out-Herod Herod, ask that ye uncle me no uncle and describe how she might tongue me.

When Shakespeare moved to London, he would have encountered the speech of the court, which was sufficently different from the standard speech of a market town like Stratford for a sharp-eared contemporary to note what he called a true kynde of pronunciation (what, today, we would call received pronunciation). We find some clues as to how this might have sounded in Shakespeare’s own plays, where he puns with minimal pairs like raising and reason, which would then have sounded much more like its French original, raison. Similarly, in All’s Well that Ends Well, a lot of the humour is conveyed in language rather than action, based on exchanges of puns as with the words grace and grass, much more similar among the courtiers then than they are now. Shakespeare would also rhyme tea with tay, and sea with say. Elizabethan English would have sounded much more like the English of Banburyshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire to twentieth-century ears than that of East Anglia, London and the South-East.

008However, it was the English of London and East Anglia which was first to take hold in Massachussets, the language of the rigorous Puritan mind. The text owed much to earlier translations, especially that of Tyndale, but also to the scholarship of John Bois in ensuring the faithfulness of the overall text to the original Hebrew and Greek. He was born in 1560 and grew up East Anglia, reading the Hebrew Bible at the age of six, and becoming a classics scholar at St John’s College at fourteen. He passed through the examinations at record speed, and soon became a Fellow of the College. When this expired he was given a rectorship at Boxworth, an isolated hamlet a few miles north of Cambridge, on condition that he married the deceased rector’s daughter. This he did, moving into the Fens, but still rising at four o’clock to ride into Cambridge to teach, reading a book on horseback. Bois continued  to live quietly in Boxworth, a man with a brilliant scholarly reputation. At the Hampton Court Conference in 1604, called by James I to discuss matters of religion, Dr John Reynolds of Oxford proposed a definitive translation of the Bible to ameliorate the developing friction between Anglicans and Puritans. The rex pacificus gladly assented to the idea of one uniforme translation, though he doubted whether he would see a Bible well translated in English.

By June 1604 it was settled that there would be six groups of translators, two in Westminster, two in Oxford and two in Cambridge, each made up of eight scholars. John Bois was recruited for one of the Cambridge committees, and he was put in charge of translating the Apocrypha from the Greek, but his level of scholarship soon made him indispensable to other committees. The six committees were instructed to base their Version upon the previous English versions, translating afresh, but also comparing their work with that of the previous translators, from Tyndale to Parker. At the end of six years, the six committees delivered their texts to Westminster for a final review by two scholars from each centre. John Bois went from Cambridge, together with his old tutor, Dr Anthony Downes. For the next nine months in 1610, the six scholars worked together on the final draft of the AV, refining and revising the texts. Their brief was to re-work the text not just in order to make it read well, but also sound better when read out loud. In their Preface to the finished text, the translators commented interestingly on this process, addressing their remarks to The Reader.

During these nine months, Bois kept a diary containing notes on the revisions which still survive, and through which we can see how the six translators honed the text to near perfection. In the First Epistle of Peter, chapter two, verse three, the key word is pleasant. Bois had several choices from previos versions; pleasaunt  (Tyndale), gracious (Great Bible), bountifull (Geneva), gracious (Bishop’s), sweete (Rheims), …if so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious… (KJV), …how gracious the Lord is… (Bois’ revision). Not only does he make the right choice with the word gracious (pleasant would sound like nice in today’s English, and have roughly the same far too general and everyday meaning), but by inserting the adjective before the proper noun, Lord, he also makes the sentence sing (compare it with the great hymn, How great Thou art.) If we also compare the King James’ Version with Henry VIII’s Great Bible in the translation from the Hebrew, we can also detect the work of a brilliant linguistic and literary scholar. In chapter twelve of Ecclesiastes, the preacher says:

Or ever the silver lace be taken away, or the gold band be broke, or the pot broke at the well and the wheel upon the cistern, then shall the dust be turned again unto earth from whence it came, and the spirit shall return to God which gave it. All is but vanity saith the preacher, all is but plain vanity. (Great Bible).

Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern: Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity. (KJV).

005The King James Version at once reads more clearly and sounds more poetic. It is an irony of the process by which the final text was created that only the king himself is credited with its creation. The version he only had to authorise came from the hard work of a scholarly committee, rather than a single writer. Compared with Tyndale and Cranmer, Bois is now almost forgotten. He returned to the Fens, where in 1628 the Bishop of Ely offered him a canonry at the cathedral, in which position he remained for the rest of his life, being buried in the cathedral in 1643.

The King James Bible was published in the same year as Shakespeare produced his last play, The Tempest, in 1611. Both the play and the Bible are masterpieces, but there is one crucial difference between them. While the playwright used more words than ever, inventing new ones as he wrote, the King James Version employed a mere eight thousand words, God’s English for Everyman. The people for whom the new, simplified yet poetic text became a weapon saw themselves as God’s Englishmen and Englishwomen. They became known to others as Puritans. Their heartland was East Anglia, birthplace of John Bunyan and Oliver Cromwell. Besides these very English revolutionaries, about two-thirds of the early settlers of Massachusetts Bay came from the eastern counties, from Lincolnshire in the north to Essex in the south, from Suffolk and Norfolk in the east to Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire in the west.

007Throughout the seventeenth century, the villages and towns of these counties supplied the New World with a ready and steady stream of immigrants, country people with country skills who were already well adapted for the hard life of the pioneer. The speech-features of East Anglia that were transplanted to the place the Pilgrim Fathers named New England are still to be heard in the rural parts of Norfolk and Suffolk. People there still say noo instead of new and don’t sound the r in words like bar, storm and yard, very different from the burr of western English counties from rural Oxfordshire and Worcestershire down to Dorset and Devon.

009Many, perhaps most, were Puritan dissenters, or separatists, who would not conform with the liturgy and practices of the Church of England, and their story became the story of American English. Their motives were a tangle of idealistic, colonising, self-interested and religious ambitions. The Pilgrim Fathers went to escape, in the words of Andrew Marvell, the Prelate’s Rage. They were also escaping from a monarch of Great Britain who hated both Scottish Presbyterians and English Independents among his subjects, vowing to harry them out of the land. Their impulse to migrate was both profoundly conservative and revolutionary in religious terms. They hoped to find an austere wilderness where they could establish an authentically English Christian community. They were not abandoning their East Anglian identity, but rather purifying and transplanting it. They did not see themselves as creating a new country, America, but recreating the old country, free from what they felt were the papist poisons prevalent in the national church. When the Mayflower set sail from Plymouth on 16 September 1620, the largest group on board came from East Anglia, but they represented thirty different communities from all over England. These can still be seen in the place-names of New England… Boston, Bedford, Braintree, Cambridge, Lincoln and Yarmouth. By the middle of the seventeenth century, there were some already a quarter of a million colonists on the North-Eastern seaboard of North America, mainly from London and the eastern counties.      

Today, it is claimed that over 360 million people speak English as their mother-tongue, many of these with a recent history in North America. However, their heritage as English-speaking peoples goes back for a millenium and a half. The role of churches and holy places in the creation of the language and literature, and therefore in its creation as a worldwide language, whether first, second, or as a foreign tongue, means that they form part of a much greater heritage. From the religious strife that followed the breach with Rome there remain many holy places, but they are sectarian in nature, such as the sites of the burning of the Protestant martyrs at Smithfield, Oxford, Canterbury and Hadleigh, or the hanging, drawing and quartering of the Catholic martyrs at Tyburn and the site of the beheading of Sir Thomas More in the Tower of London. There was, however, a wider spirit at work to reconcile these differences. The spirit in which the King James Version of the Bible was consolidated from earlier translations, mostly based on Tyndale, in the Jerusalem Chamber of Westminster Abbey, in a conscious effort to appeal to as wide a cross-section of beliefs as possible. The spirit of toleration in forgiveness and reconciliation which informs the last plays of Shakespeare, before he went back to rest in his parish church in Stratford. Perhaps Prospero’s speech from The Tempest (c 1611), often thought to be Shakespeare’s own valedictory speech, can be seen as the supreme antidote to the speech of the dying John of Gaunt in one of his earlier plays, Richard II (c 1595):

 

005This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,

This other Eden, demi-paradise,

This fortress built by Nature for herself

Against infection and the hand of war,

This happy breed of men, this little world,

This precious stone set in the silver sea,

Which serves it in the office of a wall,

Or as a moat defensive to a house,

Against the envy of less happier lands,

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,…
 

This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,

Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,

 Like to a tenement or pelting farm: (2.1.3) 

 Prospero, in The Tempest:

 And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve;

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on, and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep. (IV.i. 148158)

 

By the time The Tempest was written, England had been given a renewed identity by the first Elizabethan age, and, though the Essex Rebellion, late in 1601 and the Midland Rebellion of the Catholic gentry of 1605 threatened to disrupt this new vision, it became a vision of Great Britain. Under the dual monarchy of the Stuart kings, this was to become more than simply a geographical entity, Grande Bretagne as opposed to little Brittany, but a vision of an island and an independent people chosen by God for great deeds and heroic achievements. The expression of this is found not only in Shakespeare, but also in Spenser’s mythical history of Britain in The Fairie Queen and in the great antiquarian work, Camden’s Britannia. History, or rather national mythology, was to become a potent political force in the seventeenth century, with the myth of the Norman Yoke and the legends of Robin Hood finding their usage among counter-cultural nonconformists.

Legacy of the Tudors: The Island Myth in Word and Image

A later visionary portrayal of the unity of Britain appears in Blake’s prophetic poems, in which he sees the dawning of a new form of consciousness when sleeping Albion, the spiritual essence of Britain, will awake with the light of the Divine imagination and be joined to his female emanation, Jerusalem, a holy shrine re-built in England’s green and pleasant land. In one of the versions of the Glastonbury legends preserved among Cornish and Somerset miners, on which Blake based his poem, Jerusalem, now England’s alternative national anthem, Joseph of Arimathea had visited Avalon, Ynys yr Afal (Apple Island in the Cymric), bringing with him the young Jesus of Nazareth who, as a trained carpenter, built a shrine made of wattle and daub, dedicating it to his mother.  Even the coronation oath of both Elizabeth I and II refers back to the mythology of a Christianity dating back to the time of Joseph’s second visit, sent by the Apostle Philip in 63 A.D. with a band of missionaries, to establish the Christian faith in Britain. As the last Welsh-speaking monarch, Elizabeth, like the first,  her grandfather, was not averse to using popular British legends as propaganda, to point out to a Papacy about to excommunicate her that she owed her title as Defender of the Faith not to the Bishop of Rome, nor even to St Augustine, but to the ancient British saints and rulers who went into battle with pagans, like Arthur, carrying crosses and pictures of the Virgin Mary, as well as their dragon emblems. After Blake, the legends were again reinterpreted in the Gothic and Celtic revivals of the Victorian period, inspiring both Anglo-Catholics and Pre-Raphaelites, especially Edward Burne-Jones, who created so much of the stained glass for churches built in this period.

 004Any traces which may have remained of this most ancient shrine to Mary were destroyed by a great fire in 1181. All that survives to claim credence for the legend is The Glastonbury Thorn, marking the place called Wearyall, a hill on which Joseph thrust his hawthorn staff into the ground and it immediately burst into blossom, though it was winter. It still blooms around Christmas-time. The branch is on one of the several trees descending from the one, thought to be the original, which was cut down at the Dissolution. Originally surrounded by marsh and water, the four-hundred-foot Tor (which means rocky outcrop in the Cymric), with its fifteenth-century tower of the ruined St Michael’s Church, the site of the abbey and the town to its west, all formed an island until the Somerset levels were drained in Stuart times. The association of this island with Arthur’s resting place received a great boost when, a decade after the great fire, a monk apparently discovered the coffin of Arthur and Guenevere.

 The resulting flood of pilgrims must have helped to fund the abbey’s rebuilding, by the thirteenth century, but this early tourist industry was also what led to its ultimate destruction. Nevertheless, few of the ruins of the Dissolution bring about such a pang in the visitor as those of Glastonbury, whether because of the destruction of a great architectural work of an abbey rebuilt in the Transitional and Early English styles, or because of the psychological damage done to both England and to the British Isles as a whole by the sudden and violent denial of a contemplative tradition in the expulsion of the monks.

Excavations have shown traces of the original British monastic settlement, first recorded as existing in 658, and there are strong traditions that St Patrick, St Brigid and St David all visited the monastery. Re-founded by King Ine of Wessex in the eighth century, ravaged by Danes in the ninth, the abbey began its great period in 940 under Abbot Dunstan, who later became Archbishop of Canterbury. We know, from the chroniclers, that some of the Kings of Wessex were buried there, including Edmund Ironside, in 1016, but there no Anglo-Saxon remains have yet been discovered.

003Ascending to the summit of the Tor, the modern-day pilgrim stands on the place where in 1539 Richard Whiting, the last abbot of Glastonbury, was executed as a traitor on Henry VIII’s command. After the death of the previous abbot in February 1525, the community elected his successor per formam compromissi, which elevates the selection to a higher ranking personage, in this case Cardinal Wolsey, who obtained King Henry’s permission to act and chose Richard Whiting. The first ten years of Whiting’s rule were prosperous and peaceful. He was a sober and caring spiritual leader and a good manager of the abbey’s day-to-day life. Contemporary accounts show that Whiting was held in very high esteem.The abbey over which Whiting presided was one of the richest and most influential in England. Glastonbury Abbey was reviewed as having significant amounts of silver and gold as well as its attached lands. About one hundred monks lived in the enclosed monastery, where the sons of the nobility and gentry were educated before going on to university.

Whiting had signed his assent to the Act of Supremacy when it was first presented to him and his monks in 1534. Henry sent Richard Layton to examine Whiting and the other inhabitants of the abbey. He found all in good order, but suspended the abbot’s jurisdiction over the town. Small injunctions were given to him about the management of the abbey property.  Whiting was told a number of times over the years which followed that the abbey was safe from dissolution.

However, by January 1539, Glastonbury was the only monastery left in Somerset. Abbot Whiting refused to surrender the abbey, which did not fall under the Act for the suppression of the lesser houses. On 19 September of that year the royal commissioners, Layton, Richard Pollard and Thomas Moyle, arrived there without warning on the orders of Thomas Cromwell, presumably to find faults and thus facilitate the abbey’s closure. Whiting, by now feeble and advanced in years, was sent to the Tower of London so that Cromwell might examine him himself. The precise charge on which he was arrested, and subsequently executed, remains uncertain, though his case is usually referred to as one of treason. Cromwell’s manuscript Remembrances contains the following  entries:

Item, Certayn persons to be sent to the Tower for the further examenacyon of the Abbot, of Glaston… Item. The Abbot, of Glaston to (be) tryed at Glaston and also executyd there with his complycys… Item. Councillors to give evidence against the Abbot of Glaston, Rich. Pollard, Lewis Forstew (Forstell), Thos. Moyle.

 Marillac, the French Ambassador, wrote on 25 October that;

“The Abbot of Glastonbury. . . has lately, been put in the Tower, because, in taking the Abbey treasures, valued at 200,000 crowns, they found a written book of arguments in behalf of queen Katherine.” 

As a member of the House of Lords, Whiting should have been condemned of treason by an Act of Attainder, and beheaded, but his execution was an accomplished fact before Parliament met. Whiting was sent back to Glastonbury with Pollard and reached Wells on 14 November. There some sort of trial apparently took place, and he was convicted of robbing Glastonbury Church. The next day, Saturday, 15 November, he was taken to Glastonbury with two of his monks, John Thorn and Roger James, where all three were fastened upon hurdles and dragged by horses to the top of the Tor, overlooking the town. Here they were hung, drawn and quartered, with Whiting’s head being fastened over the west gate of the now deserted abbey and his limbs exposed at Wells, Bath, Ilchester and Bridgwater. His gruesome death at so peaceful a place was symbolic of how 1539-40, the year of the Pilgrimage of Grace, the dissolution of the great monasteries and the official publication of the Bible in English, marked the key point of transition to the development of a distinctively English form of Christianity, based on the word, rather than on the image.

 

Printed Sources:

See Part One 

 

Out of the North they Came: Narratives of the Norsemen   Leave a comment

Introduction: Pirates or Merchant Adventurers?

021Out of the North they came, more warriors from the fringes of the Baltic. Norsemen, Vikings, Danes, many names, but one overriding characteristic – they came first to raid and plunder in tall-prowed sailing ships that had carried these sea-rovers to the Mediterranean and the coasts of a new world across the northern ocean. For fifty years their sporadic visits devastated small coastal areas as they probed the strengths and weaknesses of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. In 793, they attacked the monastery on Lindisfarne, burial-place of St Cuthbert (634-686).  Alcuin of York heard of the catastrophe in France, and wrote anguished letters home. never before has such terror arrived in Britain… the church of St Cuthbert splattered with the blood of the priests of God. He was clear that the reason for the visitation was the wickedness of the English, the explanation Gildas had given three centuries earlier, except that then it was the Englische who had been the instrument of God’s wrath upon the British, and now, according to Bede’s prediction, it was the peaceful, Christian English who had, within one generation, laid aside their weapons, preferring… to take monastic vows rather than study the arts of war and whose pacifism, or lack of preparedness, was to be rewarded by northern sea pirates assailing them in the next generation. With the benefit of hindsight, later chroniclers expressed a similar view, as the raids spread all around the coasts of Britain, Ireland and France. This was the beginning of what has been called the Viking Age, which lasted from the end of the eighth century until well into the eleventh century.

013The popular image of the Vikings has followed that of the Christian chroniclers in painting them as wholly savage pagan marauders and murderers, whose only aims were slaughter and pillage, and whose path could be tracked and traced by the burning churches and the blood of martyred saints. These warriors fought without fear, since death in battle was their desired end, rewarded by eternal feasting in Valhalla. The familiar picture (above right) used to be of a giant axe-wielding Scandinavian, complete with winged helmet, blood dripping from his fulsome blonde moustache, with captive women slung over his shoulder, appearing suddenly out of the sea mist, then disappearing with equal speed to his wild northern homeland. The bias of the monastic commentators were even more biased than they had been about previous incursions and invasions, since they were naturally especially appalled by the pagan raiders’ totally indiscriminate violence at holy places. Of course, in this respect, and in their own terms, they were very discriminating, since these places were full of wonderfully undefended heaps of loot for the taking. Accounts of numbers of ships and men were often also exaggerated by the chroniclers, especially when recounting defeats of the defenders, which they made seem less ignominious by laying stress on the overwhelming odds against their faithful few. In Anglo-Saxon law, the definition of an army was more than thirty men, so the Danish armies which later began to invade eastern England and France probably numbered only hundreds, not thousands or tens of thousands, such as those mustered by the French-Norsemen, or Normans, at the end of the eleventh century. There is also the question as to how many warriors could fit into a ship, particularly relevant to the period of invasion and settlement, rather than that of the early raids. A ship bearing wives and property, bags and baggage, would not have had room for many warriors and their weaponry. Excavations of various Scandinavian towns and settlements have focused attention on domestic life, and the achievements of craftsmen and artists, while their travels have been redefined in terms of merchant adventure rather than piracy.

Chronicles, Legends and Other Narratives

016

In 865, they came to stay in East Anglia. Ivan the Boneless and his brother Halfdene landed on the Suffolk coast at the head of the great heathen army. The terrified Anglo-Saxons fell back before the invaders. King Edmund sought peace and by the terms of the treaty the Danes were allowed to winter in Suffolk and given horses to carry their baggage. Edmund’s speedy capitulation may have lacked valour, but it saved his people much suffering. For several months the Norsemen consolidated their position and prepared for the next campaigning season. In the Spring, Edmund and his subjects watched as their unwanted guests went westwards to attack Northumbria and Mercia. However, in 869 they returned laden with spoil, flushed with triumph and heedless of their former treaty with the East Anglians. They wintered at Thetford and used it as a base from which to ravage the monasteries and countryside of the region. Now Edmund could not honourably allow this rampage to go unchecked. He came forth to do battle and thus an insignificant king became a martyr, saint and a legend, achieving greater fame in death than life. According to Roger of Wendover, a great battle was fought near Thetford, lasting from dawn till dusk, till the stricken field was red with blood of the countless number who perished. Edmund, seemingly, won the day, but not long afterwards he and his bodyguard found themselves besieged in the Saxon fort at Framlingham, on top of the mound where the Norman stone-built castle now stands. He escaped northwards, and the rest is the stuff of legend, much of it confused. Some accounts portray him as a deliberate martyr, surrendering himself to save his people further suffering. Others recount how he escaped his enemies by cunning, but before long was caught, tortured and executed. Historians seem to agree that the site of his martyrdom was Hellesdon near Norwich. However, the people of Hoxne claim that their village was the scene of the sainted king’s last days. Apparently, he was hiding beneath a bridge when a bridal party happened to cross it, and the bride noticed a golden gleam in the water below, the king’s spurs. She exclaimed, and the king was taken by the Danish warriors guarding the bridge.

The details of Edmund’s death are clearer. The King’s standard-bearer was with him to the end and related the events to Bishop Dunstan, so that they were then incorporated into the tenth-century Passion of St Edmund, according to which, Edmund was brought to a tree in the neighbourhood, tied to it, and for a long while tortured with terrible lashes. Despite this brutal treatment, the Bishop relates that his constancy was unbroken, while without ceasing he called on Christ with a broken voice. This offended the pagan sensitivities of the Danes still further, apparently, and they began shooting arrows at various parts of his body, demanding that he renounce his faith. Know you not that I have the power to kill you?, demanded the Danish warlord, to which Edmund replied, know you not that I know how to die? At last they silenced him by cutting off his head, at which point legend takes over again. When the body was moved to Beodericsworth, or Bury St Edmund’s, in the tenth century, it was claimed that the head and body had somehow perfectly reunited themselves, neither showing any signs of decomposition. By then, Edmund had become a folk hero for all the ‘oppressed’ Anglo-Saxons. Churches were dedicated to him and King Alfred issued memorial coins bearing his image. These stories surrounding Edmund reveal the apparent barbarism and ferocity which accompanied the Danish invasion, a savagery made worse by the clash of religious cultures. Certainly, the two decades after 865 were truly terrible for the Christian English of eastern Britain. Churches and monasteries were razed to the ground all along the east coast; holy books were burned and torn (the recently discovered Lindisfarne gospel of John survived in Cuthbert’s grave); wayside altars were broken; monks, nuns and priests became fugitives; the Anglo-Saxons either abandoned their Christian faith or met in secret to celebrate the holy mysteries in what could still be made to look like pagan shrines from their pre-Christian period.

004005003However, there is another side to the Viking story. Quite naturally, modern Scandinavians have preferred to stress the more constructive aspect of their ancestors’ lives, and many British scholars have followed suit, especially the archaeologists who excavated the Viking settlement of Jorvik in York’s Coppergate in the 1970s. The excavations produced a sequence of buildings dating from the time when York was under Viking rule, from 866 to 954 (with a gap from 927 to 939). After the excavation, the York Archaeological Trust managed to persuade the developers to incorporate the imaginative Jorvik Museum in the basement of their new buildings. Visitors can experience a literal journey back in time into a recreation of part of the tenth century city, with its authentic houses, shops, pots and pans, people and clothes, animals and even part of a ship. There are even attempts to replicate sounds, speech in Old Norse, and smells of all kinds of rubbish, even human excreta. In the 1980s this kind of museum was an entirely new experience, and a remarkable one too.

It certainly changed our view of the Vikings. It also demystified the work of archaeologists for the general public, showing the exact processes of excavation and scientific analysis of finds.

024It was followed by Viking exhibitions in the British Museum and elsewhere which have pursued the same theme of the domestic Viking life with accounts of Scandinavian towns and trade, craft, industry and art. Excavations in Scandinavia itself, like those in Britain, have begun to show a much clearer picture of what life was like in the ninth and tenth centuries. The small populations of Sweden and Norway mostly lived in farmsteads scattered along the shores of lakes or fjords, communicating by boat rather than overland. In Denmark there were larger villages, neatly laid out along streets. There were also some more extensive settlements, which might even be described as towns. It is possible, therefore, to write books about the Vikings which concentrate on such things as their hoses, art, and skill in woodcarving, with foreign travel thrown in as mostly peaceful trade or exploration. However, we know that whole families migrated and settled in Britain and Ireland and that armies of various size, marauded across Britain and Europe for generations. Why did this happen and what was their impact on the countries they invaded and settled in?

There is no clear, agreed answer to the first question. Medieval Norse sagas tell of oppression by kings which drove men from their homes, and centralisation of authority under stronger royal dynasties might well have led to conflicts as a result of which the unsuccessful contestants could well have decided to make their fortunes elsewhere. There may also have been pressure on land, caused either by rising populations or fluctuations in climate. The realisation that there were richer and more fertile lands of the British Isles and France which could not just be raided for wealth, but taken over altogether, would have been a powerful motivating factor for the younger sons of farmers scratching for a living on a narrow strip of land on a fjord.

This would have been less true of Denmark, where the pressure might be better seen in terms of political or population pressure. In many cases, as with later great migrations, there was probably a complex of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors at work. Eventually, the invasion of eastern Britain became part of an expansionist, imperial exercise on the part of the Danish kings.

026

In 878 the Danish host, led by Guthrum, came face to face with the armies of Alfred of Wessex, and the Anglo-Saxons realised for the first time that the Danes were not an irresistible force when matched with an immovable obstacle. They had overrun  the kingdoms of Mercia, Northumbria and East Anglia and were only prevented from engulfing the whole of England  by the heroics  of the west Saxon king.  Slowly the tide of battle turned. Alfred forced them into a truce in 880 by which the greater part of eastern and northern England was recognised as Viking land, the Danelaw. with an agreed frontier with Anglo-Saxon England along the Watling Street (see sources below). Then, a steady offensive under Alfred and his son, Edward, brought all England under one internal ruler for the first time, by 920.  Linguistic and place-name evidence suggests, nevertheless, that there was considerable Scandinavian settlement both in the north-east and, to a lesser extent, in the east Midlands/ East Anglia. However, this evidence is unclear, since even where Scandinavian place names survive, the numbers of settlers have been disputed and archaeological evidence is also inconclusive. During this period, those Danes who remained became settlers rather than raiders. Guthrum rewarded his followers with land, instead of booty, and the newcomers settled down beside the Anglo-Saxons to form common communities. Guthrum ruled from Hadleigh and kept for himself a territory which included most of Suffolk. Throughout the Danelaw the two cultures merged, with the Danish contribution to the English way of life stronger in some areas than in others. Place names like ‘Monks Kirkby’, just over the other side of the Danelaw in North Warwickshire suggest such a fusion in equal measure. In Suffolk, the Danish part seems to have been far less significant, despite Guthrum’s rule.

023

The Danes settled almost exclusively in areas bordering the coast and river estuaries. Throughout the whole county there are only about fifty place names which derive from Old Norse, many in the north-east corner of the county, whereas Norfolk has four times this number, such as Lowestoft. As part of the treaty of 880 Guthrum had agreed to receive Christian baptism, so that even in those Anglians who found themselves under new Danish landlords were able to practice their faith freely.

025

Elsewhere in Britain, settlers of Norwegian origin colonised the northern islands, the Shetlands, Orkneys and Hebrides and also the Isle of Man. They founded towns in Ireland, including Dublin, and settled in parts of northwestern Britain, including Cumbria, and round the Welsh coast to Swansea (Swain’s Isle). In the Orkneys, the archaeological evidence shows that the Norwegians integrated with the native Picts, although on the Hebridean island of Uist, however, the evidence shows that the natives were displaced or suppressed. In the north of England there is surprisingly little direct evidence of Viking violence in the later Saxon period. There are signs of burning on the Bishop’s Chair from North Elmham, and an ingot mould from Whitby might have been used in melting down loot. There is a stone from Lindisfarne which seems to commemorate a raid, and the monasteries at Jarrow and Monkwearmouth seem to have been burnt down at some stage. At Repton in Derbyshire, archaeologists  found evidence of a fortified gatehouse and fort with a great bank and ditch, possibly dug by the Danes who wintered there in 879, according to The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, taking over the royal burial-place of the Mercian kings, including Wiglaf and Wystan. A Viking axe was also found in the churchyard, probably according to pagan burial-rite, and coins and other metal-work turned up nearby confirms the late-ninth century date for Danish occupation.

027There was little fighting on Suffolk soil for another century, though 884 witnessed the first major English naval victory, fought in the Stour estuary, when Alfred’s new fleet pursued homeward a party of Danish raiders. He caught up with them at the point where the Stour and the Orwell meet together to pour into the North Sea and captured sixteen long-ships. He slaughtered their crews while Guthrum’s men watched helplessly from the headland still known as Bloody Point. In 918, when the final confrontation between the two kingdoms began, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex surrendered to Edward without a battle. With peace came renewed prosperity and the chance to develop the economic potential of the county. Now that Suffolk was part of a unified kingdom it was no longer ruled by hereditary East Anglian kings but by viceroys or earldormen, who collected taxes and raised the local militia, the fyrd, when the king needed it. The shire was divided into hundreds, each with its own court. Each hundred was composed of approximately a hundred ‘carucates’, the equivalent to the unit of land called a ‘hide’ in other parts of the country, defined as the amount of land which could be cultivated with one plough in the course of the year. It was approximately 100-120 acres, enough land to keep a self-sufficient family, the number of which increased rapidly in the late Anglo-Saxon period.

All this was achieved at great cost in terms of population and prosperity, and it took a century until, in 973, Alfred’s grandson, Edgar, was crowned King of all England in Bath and received the submission of even the Welsh and Scottish kings. And even then, it was less than another forty years before his grandson, Edmund II (Ironside), was defeated in another battle, the final one, with the Danes, in 1016.  The Kingdom was then divided between Cnut and Edmund, but when he died the following winter, Cnut took over Wessex as well, sending Edmund’s two young sons into exile to the King of Sweden, to whom he sent a secret message asking for them to be killed. The King refused, and instead they were taken to Kiev, then a Viking settlement. From there they made they were taken to Hungary, where Edgar died (of natural causes), but Edward the Exile prospered, married Agatha, the daughter of the first Hungarian King, István and his Queen, Gizella. There he had a son and two daughters, Edgar, Margaret and Cristina. Returning to England following Edward the Confessor’s decision to receive him as heir in 1056 (The Confessor himself was childless and feared for the future of the Wessex dynasty), he was (probably) murdered almost as soon as he arrived. His son, Edgar Aetheling should have been proclaimed King after the Confessor’s death, but was too young to resist the power of Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex. He was proclaimed after Harold’s death at Senlac Hill, near Hastings, but was then forced into exile in Normandy by Duke William, to whom he was forced to do homage, not returning to England until 1086.

Edward the Exile’s daughter, (Saint) Margaret (of Scotland) married the Scottish King Malcolm III (Canmore), and their daughter, Matilda, married Henry I of England, becoming Queen in 1100, and ensuring the continuity of the Saxon (Wessex) line in the English monarchy (I have written in detail about this elsewhere on this website*)

028The church in Suffolk was a persecuted church for much of the ninth century, the ravages of which left it leaderless and put a permanent end to the Bishopric of Dunwich. Even after the treaty with Guthrum, the Christian faithful cannot have felt truly secure until they came under the control of the Christian kings of Wessex and the East Anglian diocese was recreated in 956. Even then, their troubles were far from over, as in 981 fresh Viking raids began. A decade later, ninety-three boat-loads of them landed in Suffolk, burned Ipswich to the ground and then marched to Maldon in Essex, where they metthe English forces in the most momentous battle  of the Anglo-Saxon period. In 1004 the invaders were back again and this time it was the turn of Thetford to be ruthlessly destroyed. However, before they could ravage further they were confronted by the Earldorman Ulfcytel and the East Anglian fyrd. After a bloody battle the Danes withdrew. Six years later they returned for a final encounter. Thorkell the Tall landed at Ipswich and marched across Suffolk to meet Ulfcytel’s force at Ringmere Heath near Thetford. The East Anglians stood little chance against Thorkell’s highly disciplined army. Both sides suffered heavy casualties in the battle, but during the following months Suffolk and the surrounding lands were totally devastated. Crops, herds and flocks were so ravaged that even the invaders couldn’t find food. They moved into Essex pursued by Ulfcytel. The last battle was fought at Ashingdown, at which the English were defeated and Ulfcytel was slain. East Anglia was then once more under Danish domination and was mercilessly harried by  the followers of King Swein Forkbeard. In 1016 the whole of England fell under the sway of his successor, Cnut, and was annexed to the Danish Kingdom. For a second time in a century and a half the Christian culture in East Anglia came under a determined Danish control, but this time not wholly pagan, as the following example shows.

Suffolk had England’s most important Christian shrine at this time, at Beodricsworth, or Bury St Edmunds. The remains of the saintly king were moved to the Abbey about 902 and remained there in a specially built shrine for many years. Thousands of pilgrims came to pray and make offerings at the tomb of the national martyr-hero. The community prospered and soon owned a great deal of land around the town. The cult of the saint had taken such a firm hold in the hearts of the English, that when Swein Forkbeard died suddenly, they believed that Edmund had struck him down. Cnut, who succeeded him and became the first Danish king of England, realised that he had to respect the feelings of his English subjects, and so lavished generosity he bestowed upon St. Edmund’s shrine. He contributed liberally to the construction of a new church and founded a new community of Benedictine monks to guard the shrine. He made reparation for the sins of his father at the altar when the new church was consecrated in 1032. Edward the Confessor also felt a great reverence for the Abbey. He exempted it from royal taxes and gave it eight hundreds of land, virtually the whole of western Suffolk.

018The one straightforward sign of Scandinavian settlers in the north of England is rather surprising. This is stone sculpture, usually in the form of crosses belonging to a Christian tradition dating back to Celtic times in Britain and Ireland. The form is Christian and derives from native traditions, but the crosses are decorated with Scandinavian animal figures from pagan mythology as well as Christian iconography. The armed warriors painted on some crosses, like the ones from Middleton in Teesdale, North Yorkshire, might be seen as a substitute for the deposition of weapons in a grave. Norse sagas of Odin and Thor may have been reinterpreted in terms of Christian beliefs. If the mythology of one culture could be explained as a symbolic representation of the religion of the other, this is a powerful indication of the integration of the two. In particular, the most characteristic monument of the Viking Age is perhaps the runic stone, a great stone boulder with a snake-like inscription running around it, written in the runic script Germanic peoples had devised for cutting messages in wood, all in straight lines. Some record the taking of Danegeld, the tribute paid to the Vikings. Ethelred the Unready is infamous for paying Danegeld, though he may have had little option but to pay up. The ornament, letters and language of the rune stones are Scandinavian, but some of their sentiments show Christian influence, and include references to the Christian God. The crosses of northern England lie firmly within the native traditions of both Denmark and the British Isles, but they also show signs of a relationship between the pagan Vikings and the Christian Saxons, a dynamic relationship which was able to breathe new life into old forms, and which must have been far more complicated than the simple overrunning of one people by another.

Interpreting the Evidence: Raiders into Traders?

014 (2)020In order to understand this more symbiotic relationship between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings, we need to take a step back into the gap we left in the history of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy which had emerged by the time Bede was writing at the beginning of the eighth century. The seven main kingdoms were Kent, Sussex, Wessex, Essex, East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria. Under the rule of King Offa, from 757 to 796, Mercia became very large, taking over the whole of East Anglia and Kent, and even threatening Wessex. According to Bishop Asser, writing his biography of Alfred a century later, Offa built a great dyke along the frontier between Mercia and Wales, from the Severn estuary to that of the Dee in the north.Offa was also important for the English economy. He issued coinage on a larger scale than his predecessors. The silver penny which he minted was to remain the standard unit of English currency for many centuries, until long after the Norman Conquest. Many of these coins have been found abroad, evidence of the increasing volume of trade with the continent.

019The political and economic power exercised by Offa was so great that the Emperor Charlemagne, who ruled a territory in Europe larger than that seen since the days of the Roman Empire, wrote to Offa about such matters as the length of cloaks exported from the Mercian overlordship, and the protection of traders from both countries.

British historians have usually seen London and York as the important trading ports in the eighth century, but archaeological evidence has recently challenged this view. The Roman walled circuits which later became the nuclei for the medieval cities of London and York were not where the merchants that Bede records were carrying out their trade. Most of the middle Saxon objects found in London have come from the district of Aldwich, ‘wich’ meaning a port, and excavations in 1985 confirmed its importance in the Kingdom of the East Saxons (Essex). In the days of King Offa, who had gained the overlordship of Essex together with East Anglia, ships were tying up along the Strand, outside the walled city of London. Similarly, excavations conducted in the same year outside the walled city, near the confluence of the Ouse and Foss, turned up more eighth-century material in a few weeks than has been found in the whole city during two centuries of excavation (below right).

017Archaeologically, until quite recently, we knew more about both Southampton and Ipswich as ports than about London. At Southampton the large eighth-century trading settlement again lay to the east of the later medieval city centre, around the church of St. Mary. Extensive excavations of Saxon pits there revealed a great deal of datable pottery, much of it imported from northern France, and some of it high quality table-ware, suggesting that foreign merchants had lived in the settlement. Hamwith, as it was named by the archaeologists, was shown, by 700, to have covered at least a hundred acres, or forty hectares, populated by thousands of inhabitants. The people living there were carrying on the usual food-producing and manufacturing activities, working bronze and iron, making bone combs and leather objects, as well as making glass, which was previously thought to have been all imported from the continent during this period. The presence of traders, both local and foreign, at Hamwith, is shown not only by pottery but also by finds of hundreds of early Saxon coins; sceattas. 

010009006

At Ipswich, it has also been shown that a large area was occupied in the eighth century. Fewer wooden houses and streets have been found than in Southampton, though recently some later Saxon houses have been excavated. Many sites have produced finds of the local pottery, known as Ipswich ware, and kilns have been found where this was made. Although not elegant, Ipswich ware does mark a transition from earlier hand-made, idiosyncratic pots, many of which had been made, on a small-scale, for use in burial, to something closer to specialised industrial production for everyday use.  This pottery has been found all over Suffolk and Norfolk, but only very occasionally elsewhere, suggesting that production and distribution was limited to the Kingdom of East Anglia, perhaps by the kings of Mercia who were overlords of the East Anglians, but keen to protect their immediate sources of revenue within their own kingdoms. At the same time, foreign goods were coming into Ipswich from the Rhineland, rather than from France, as were barrels of wine. The cloaks Offa was asked to ship to Charlemagne were probably made from English wool. Evidence of spinning and weaving comes from every Anglo-Saxon site. Spindle-whorls must have hung from every woman’s belt or girdle, and when not doing anything else with her hands, she was probably twisting  yarn.  Wool is known as the basis of English wealth in later medieval centuries, but this was probably already the case in the second half of the eighth century.

001The story of the conversion of Anglo-Saxon England to Christianity has continued to be dominated by its skillful and diplomatic telling by Bede in 731. It may be that the coherence and persuasiveness of Bede’s account have led us to believe we have a complete picture of what happened than is in fact the case. Even though Cedd of Northumbria, whose biography he also wrote, baptised the King of the East Saxons at the Royal House of the East Anglian king, his sponsor, and went on to become Bishop of London, before returning to northern England, there are large gaps in our knowledge of a the continuity of Christianity in the east at a time when the Gregorian mission withdrew from London and Canterbury. Apart from the missions of the Celtic Northumbrian saints, neither was he interested in chronicling the survival of Christianity among the descendants of the Romano-British in other parts of England where the Anglo-Saxons came to predominate, such as Wessex. Perhaps he did not wish to admit that the Britons had any influence on the Anglo-Saxons before the mission of Augustine, since the relationship with Rome and Catholic Christendom seemed far more crucial to the survival of eighth-century Christianity in north-eastern England than it had in the middle of the previous century he was writing about. The detail of the conversion of ordinary people, as opposed to that of the ruling élite, is also not easy to establish from Bede. Either people followed their leaders with perfect docility into the new religion, or they remained very far from true believers, whatever their nominal faith. Or, as may well have been the case in large parts of Wessex, as well as Northumbria, the majority British population remained Christian in sympathy, if not in open worship and practice.

It is clear that by the end of the seventh century all of English Kingdoms had become officially and, as far as their kings could foresee, permanently Christian.  Odd pagan practices might have survived locally among ordinary people, as they still do in many rural parishes today, and in those places in the west where British culture remained strong, practices of the Celtic Rite may have survived, despite Bede’s representation of the Synod of Whitby as a complete capitulation by the British monks, or, in his terms, a victory for the Roman Church. The conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity was marked by changes in burial ritual, new styles of art, fusing with the revival of old Celtic ones, the appearance of types of object not seen before, and the reappearance of stone architecture. The jewellery which survives from the eighth century shows how continental styles, deriving from Byzantium, replaced many of the older Germanic brooch types.

004 (2)There are also specifically Christian artefacts, including cross-shaped pendants. In addition, there are the illuminated manuscripts produced in Britain and Ireland during the late seventh and eighth centuries. All the skills which had gone into creating a piece of convoluted animal ornament on something like the golden buckle from Sutton Hoo were redeployed in the creation of these iluminations.  Gold and enamel-working techniques were used for making the fittings for the covers of books, and the leather was probably also ornamented. Looking at a carpet page from one of the Lindisfarne Gospels, it can be seen that the overall pattern is made up from many tiny, intertwined animals. The manuscripts represent a fusion of Celtic, Germanic and classical styles, with ornaments of beasts and spirals. Similarly, the sculptured stone crosses carry ornament of vine-scrolls, clearly Mediterranean, with Germanic beasts sitting in their branches. Churches of this period may have been built of timber, much like ordinary houses: traces of post-holes under later stone-built churches are all that remain of these. A handful of stone buildings remain from the period, mostly in Canterbury or Northumbria, though it’s difficult to be sure which parts of these can really be eighth-century.

By the end of that century, England had become a united, prosperous country, with towns and major ports, literature and liturgy, churches and abbeys, kings and bishops. If we ‘fast-forward’ to the tenth century, following the Viking raids, invasions and settlements, given that it is not possible to date with certainty much of the archaeological evidence precisely, it is clear that the ninth century was a period in which much was destroyed and lost.  What had emerged by the tenth century, however, was a whole network of defensible towns, across the south of England, into the Midlands and extending northwards. In many cases, Roman city walls were rebuilt, as in York, Winchester and Canterbury, and new hill-top fortified towns were built, known as ‘burghs’, by King Alfred and his successors, such as Shaftesbury (Dorset).  Tenth-century towns were forts, first and foremost, whereas larger eighth-century settlements had been largely undefended ports and market-places.

The conversion Alfred forced on the Danish leader Guthrum and his followers must have been reasonably effective for burial practices to have changed so completely . We have two changes of burial rite which seem to suggest different things: on the one hand, in the seventh century the pagan Anglo-Saxons became Christian and ceased to bury grave-goods. On the other, we have newcomers taking over the native burial-rite and becoming archaeologically indistinguishable from the local people. In addition, there are tenth-century wooden houses which have been found in excavations in towns conventionally described as ‘Viking’: York and Dublin, so the temptation is to describe everything found in these sites as ‘Viking’, including the houses. In fact, these towns are not very similar.

In Dublin, the type of house construction shows strong signs of native Irish carpentry, while the sunken houses of York might owe something to Anglo-Saxon sunken buildings. It is possible that the tenth-century houses of York owed something to indigenous traditions. The houses and the population were probably of more mixed origin than the Norse speech of the Jorvik Museum sound-track might suggest. Perhaps they should have been speaking Old (Northumbrian) English as well as Old Norse.

002If Offa had had an equally vigorous son and grandson, Mercia might have swallowed up the whole of England earlier than Wessex actually did. In fact, the idea of fortifying towns may have begun in Mercia, with towns like Hereford and Tamworth predating Alfred’s burghs. Taken alone, the Anglo-Saxon evidence might be interpreted simply as a demonstration of the strong and weak points of the Wessex dynasty over its century and a half fighting for hegemony over All England with the Danes. However, put in the context of the North Sea Empire which the Danes eventually created, the Viking threat becomes much clearer. It is interesting that a stronger political unit should have appeared in Denmark as well as England. It is worth speculating as to whether the English and Danish states would have developed anyway, without the stimulus of the need to organise, whether for attack or defence. Taken altogether, however, the nature of the archaeological evidence for the North Sea region from the eighth to the tenth centuries does show that it was a time of great insecurity, and that that threat came from Scandinavia and was directed against the relatively peaceful and wealthy lands of Britain and the Carolingian empire. However, the lack of direct evidence for settlement reflects the fact that there was not very much, although the historical and linguistic evidence does point to a notable influx in certain localities.

We also know, from both written and archaeological evidence, that under the latter Kings of Wessex and England, the whole country used the same coinage for the first time. It was of a standard quality, regularly recalled and re-minted, despite the fact that there were mints in almost every burgh. However, it had been under Offa that the coinage was reorganised. At the turn of the tenth-eleventh centuries, many more churches were built, some in stone, and there was a renewal of the eighth-century art associated with the Church.

Cnut, already nominally Christian before his takeover, made peace with the British Church by having all the churches destroyed or damaged in the Vikings’ ravages, rebuilt  or repaired.  Again, it can be seen that the arrival of Christianity in Scandinavia and the appearance of Christian burials and churches were both the result and cause of a combination of foreign contacts and peaceful missions, like those which had converted other Germanic peoples, including some of the Anglo-Saxons. Perhaps, in becoming increasingly Christianised and controlled, the Vikings left less of a distinctive imprint upon the English landscape, at least until the next generation of Norsemen, or Normans, launched their successful invasion fifty years after that of Cnut.

Sources:

Derek Wilson (1977), A Short History of Suffolk. London: Batsford

Catherine Hills (1986), Blood of the British. London: Guild Publishing.

Jorvik Viking Centre (1992), Guide Book. York Archaeological Trust.

%d bloggers like this: