Homing in – review of The Story of England by Michael Wood

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HOMING IN ON ENGLAND

The Story of England – A Village and Its People Through the Whole of English History

Michael Wood, London: Penguin, 2011, 440 pp.

Michael Wood begins with a quotation from Blake: “To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit.” This summarises his aim, which is to zero in on one small English place and use its specific saga to tell the tale of all England from prehistory to present.

The place is Kibworth, an outwardly unremarkable assemblage of three settlements – Kibworth Beauchamp, Kibworth Harcourt, and Smeeton Westbury – nine miles southeast of Leicester. It was chosen because it is close to the geographic centre of England and because, since 1270, parts of the township have been owned by Merton College, Oxford. Centuries of busy bursars have therefore kept voluminous records on their every transaction with their outlying asset. Such completeness is rare and, when combined with other evidence, BBC money, the author’s imaginativeness, and the interested involvement of residents, allows an unusually intimate glimpse into the private life of a place inhabited continuously for at least 2,000 years. Kibworth is “emphatically England in miniature” – a representative locus whose triumphs and travails mirror those of the rest of the country, and which will share England’s fate, for better or worse.

Even in today’s swollen settlements bestriding the busy A6, the alert chorographer can find trace elements of dizzyingly distant times – the spoor of ancient Britons, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, and Normans somehow surviving into the pedestrian present, persisting in road routes, hedge lines, field names, and local lore.  Prehistoric people gravitated to Kibworth because of its good soil and its location straddling the watersheds of two major rivers. The Stone Age became Bronze, and the Bronze Agers elided into Iron, almost unnoticed except for the mounds that mark the graves of their important. A huge hoard of Iron Age gold and copper coins bearing “the resonant names of shadowy Corieltauvian kings” was found nearby in 2000. Romans and Romanized Kibworthians living at this “outermost edge of the known world” in their turn mislaid coins, potsherds, and tesseræ. After the Eagles were recalled to deal with sudden home emergencies, Jute and Angle ‘barbarians’ quit their stemlands and breached the Saxon Shore in earnest, turning Rome’s most peripheral province into an outpost of the Germanosphere.

Wood clearly relishes the ‘Dark Ages’ combination of imperial overthrow, natural disasters, and English national nascence. He cites The Ruin, a fragmentary eighth century poem, to indicate with what wonder more imaginative newcomers must have regarded the Roman remains they found:

Wrætlic is þes wealstan; wyrde gebræcon

burgatede burston; brosna enta geweorc

Hrofas Sind gehrorene, hreorge torras,

hrungeat berofen, hrim on lime

(“Wondrous wallstones, broken by fate; the courtyard pavements smashed, the work of giants; their roofs fallen, the cement on their gates split by frost”)

Britannia’s new “plunder-lords, deed-doers, ring-givers, leaders of men”,  who fought one another and fell on long-forgotten fields, were Germans but they incidentally invented England. One arriver, an otherwise obscure homesteader called Cybba, bequeathed his name to his worth (an Old English word meaning ‘enclosure’) and what would become the Leicestershire landscape. These pocket potentates also ensured that England would one day become a Christian country, with enormous consequences. Wood notes,

The Christian narrative is so wedded to the English story, to English culture and, till only recently, to the English sense of identity that we have tended to think it was both inevitable and a good thing . . . from the eighth century until the twentieth English history to a greater or lesser degree will be Christian.

He alludes to the apocryphal Frisian monarch

…who at the last moment stepped away from the baptismal font saying he would rather spend the next life with his brave pagan ancestors, even though in hell, than with the pallid Christians in their heaven

to make us ponder what might have been, had other rulers rejected rather than accepted the teachings of Augustine, Chad, and others. There is an amusing anecdote of Archbishop Tarsus, who was so disgusted by the understated evangelizing of Saint Chad that he lifted him onto a horse and “told him brusquely to get on with it”. (Quotations in this book are too often unattributed.)

Scandinavians in search of plunder or pasture faced off against the Britons of Wessex along this shifting ethnocultural frontline. Kibworth was just inside the Danelaw, and the numbers of the newcomers were smaller than was long imagined; recent DNA studies suggest that even in the East Midlands epicentre of Viking visitations, only around ten percent of the population were of Danish or Norwegian stock. (Elsewhere, it was between one and five percent.) The region long remained “poised on the cusp of history, between the no longer and the not yet.”

Then came other Northmen from Normandy, in small but significant numbers, to plant chivalry and feudalism largely against the wishes of the English – the latter collective noun increasingly incorporating Britons, Irish, and Scots as well as Saxons and Vikings. There commenced contumacious centuries – dynastic struggles, barons’ wars against monarchs, peasants’ revolts against barons, local risings against London, and intra-Christian disputes. Wood illustrates all these complexities through shrewdly chosen anecdotes, like those surrounding the highly symbolic figure of Simon de Montfort – a French-speaking Norman who became an exemplar of English liberties for presiding over the first English parliament. His early trajectory was full of promise, his very name hinting at a great fate. There was a Frenglish chant:

Comment hom le nome?

WHAT’S HIS NAME?

He’s called MON-FORT!

He’s in the monde and he’s big and strong;

He loves what’s right and he hates what’s wrong;

And he’ll always come out on top!

Wood juxtaposes Montfortmania neatly with the post-Evesham reality, the ex-hero’s head daintily dispatched to Lady Mortimer, his testicles affixed to his nose, while his tarred limbs were placed above Gloucester’s city gates.

It was not only war that would winnow England. The Gloucester gates that sported de Montfort’s disjecta membra in 1264 would be barred in 1348 in a forlorn attempt to keep out the Black Death – the rat-flea borne buboes that spread at almost a mile per day in that ill-starred year. The January 1349 entry in one Kibworthian’s “omen book” shows dark, hooded figures firing arrows and the inscription “The arrew smites thorow the cloth / That makus many men wel wroth.” About that time the plague announced itself, and Kibworth Harcourt suffered an estimated 70% fatality rate, the highest known in England. It left profound psychic scars; even now, the purported plague pit is unploughed.

Like all the East Midlands, Kibworth was prone to Protestantism. Wycliffe was a Leicestershire man, and some of the earliest Lollards came from Kibworth. “I smelle a Lollere in the wind,” wrote Chaucer disapprovingly. Chaucer was a courtier, and the anti-episcopal urge was always associated with political revolution, like the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt or Sir John Oldcastle’s abortive revolt of 1417. Wood demonstrates that rebellions against ecclesiastical and political authorities are a kind of national tradition. He pays tribute to the archetypal awkward Englishman who may be censorious, but knows his rights and is “eager . . . to lead his own spiritual life – and to help others find theirs”.

However, the author is susceptible to the magic of the highly colored Catholic universe, writing of

…the shrine of St Wistan with its little painted statue of the royal prince and martyr, whose golden hair, it was said, waved each year at the end of May in the long grass of the water meadows below Kibworth.

He is highly critical of some of the consequences of Protestantism – “[N]o sooner is Purgatory fading away than a possessive individualism is making itself felt”. Many felt cut adrift from their past and even their family history:

One of the more profound effects . . . was in the long term to sever the relationship between the dead and the living. . . . [D]ead Protestants were now beyond the reach of prayer. [T]he Reformation thus radically revised not only the rituals but the process of salvation itself; as one might say, its conceptual geography.

Then there were some of the flawed exemplars of the Reformed religion, for whom “helping others find their own spiritual lives” meant forcing them. The 1650 Act against “Atheistical, Blasphemous and execrable opinions” also forbade such horrors as “Whitson-Ales, Wakes, Morris Dances, May-poles, Stage-plays . . . or such like Licentious practices.”

One Protestant Pecksniff was the Civil War-era Puritan vicar of Kibworth, John Yaxley, described as

…a great disturber of the peace, by day and night, searching for cavaliers and making great havoc and spoil of people’s goods.. . . [H]e constantly preached and prayed.

Even as Charles Il arrived triumphantly in London in 1660, Yaxley, still desirous of destruction after nearly 20 years of bloodletting, was hyperventilating:

Hell is broke loose, the devil and his instruments are coming to persecute the godly.

Anglicanism eventually squared the circle, but nonconformist currents persisted in Kibworth as elsewhere and informed the eventual emergence of the English Left, which famously in England “owes more to Methodism than Marxism”. There are conceptual and temperamental connections between Lollards, Puritans, Quakers, Wesleyans, temperance campaigners, suffragettes and politically correct politicians. Wood is part of that generic Left, evincing admiration for Engels and E.P. Thompson and their “great works”. The Independent’s reviewer Nick Groom applauded the author’s “democratic zeal”. But he is a liberal rather than an authoritarian leftist. He may be guilty of wishful thinking – but if so it is caused by a quiet kind of patriotism.

Ancient associations entrance him as well as us. An atmospheric photograph shows the site of the “Spear Tree”, the former Bronze Age burial mound on the Roman road north of Kibworth, which became the place where Anglo-Saxons would gather in wapentake (their assent to decisions signified by brandishing their spears) and continued to be the meeting place of local juries until the 1720s. Wood’s passion for connections leads him to draw parallels between past and present, sometimes slightly forced. For example, it seems anachronistic to aver that “the genetic makeup of the early Anglo-Saxons was especially mixed”, and “that the England of the early eleventh century was ‘a diverse, multi-ethnic society’”. He may be trying to rationalise the recent immigration that has made Leicester England’s most diverse city. In so doing, he overstates the dissimilarity of the Anglo-Saxons, contradicts his own testimony that the Viking component of the English population was small, and understates the unifying effects of the English language and Christianity. He also omits to mention that there was virtually no immigration into England between the eleventh century and the docking of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury Docks in 1948. The Independent‘s Groom homed in on this, recommending that Wood should revisit too-white Kibworth soon

…to see how imaginatively a traditional English identity, already rooted in Roman-British, Anglo-Saxon and Viking settlement, has accommodated the Asian and Caribbean communities.

That should be if rather than how. Can Leicester’s sundry soup of nationalities ever imagine themselves into the English narrative? It seems unlikely. The “mysterious crystallization” that Wood says gave everyone England appears to be undoing itself. His “givenness of the past” has been taken away. Today, England probably seems more real at Kibworth than in Leicester, or London.

Wood also claims that, during World War Il,

Kibworth people . . . saw a higher purpose than Churchill’s narrow rhetoric about empire; namely a community of interest with the people of Europe to counteract Germany’s ‘New Europe’

Did they really? Were they not fighting mostly because Hitler had given no choice, plus British imperialism mixed (contradictorily) with what many would now see as ‘intolerant’ nationalism.

These imperfections registered, we are left with a lyrical and learned appreciation of one of the world’s most fascinating countries, seen through the eyes of a very few of the ‘ordinary’ people who carried England’s accumulating weight onward against extraordinary odds. Whether they can continue to do so is yet to be seen, but at any rate Wood’s exercise in particularization is a success story.

The review first appeared in Chronicles in January 2012, and is reproduced with permission

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