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



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?


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

My latest article for Chronicles

Identity and Appearances, my latest article for the marvellous Chronicles, is now on-line – although I believe not for very long, unless you are a subscriber (which if you aren’t you ought to be).


Leicester – the arrhythmic heart of England

Leicester – the arrhythmic heart of England

The city of Leicester is about as far from the sea as one can get in England. But one sweltering August day, when everyone else was heading down to the beaches, we were driving in the opposite direction so that I could fill in a long-troubling gap on my mental map of England. I had wanted to go to Leicester not just because I had never been there, but for a much more important reason – because it is projected to be the first city in England that will become majority-ethnic minority.

As we progressed west, the land got warmer, as if we were driving into a moderate oven. Marshland became wolds, wolds fens, and fens the gently rolling Vale of Belvoir, Stilton-making and fox-hunting country, dominated by its neo-Gothic castle. We skirted the untidy edge of Melton Mowbray, the official home of the pork pie, and so on along increasingly congested roads into an unprepossessing Leicester city centre.

We disembarked in a multistory car- park on Abbey Street, which commemorates the vanished Augustinian foundation of St. Mary of the Meadows, where Cardinal Wolsey arrived on the morning of November 26, 1530, telling the no doubt flustered abbot, “I am come to leave my bones among you”—which was astute of him, because he died that night. The abbey itself would not outlast him long.

John Wycliffe had previously left his bones in the county, George Fox would be born in Leicestershire some time later, and the industrious local Baptist missionary William Carey (1760-1834) translated the Bible into 40 Indian dialects. Leicestershire has an unusual concentration of former religious sites – and retained a reputation for religiosity up to the 19th century, when Leicester was “the metropolis of dissent.” It may be not just the centre of England but the centre of Christian England.

The map machine digested a pound coin without disgorging the map. So far, very unpromising – but a helpful woman showed us where we needed to go, and the city started to reveal its character.

A hideous but handy Victorian clock tower marks the city’s center, from which wide, pedestrianized streets hosting the usual brands radiate in all directions. But one can discern handsome frontages above the 60s to 80s plate glass and plastic brand-name signage – the legacy of architects informed by taste, who had designed and built to last. Looking along the streets we saw glints of arts and crafts, Tudorbethan, and neoclassical, and a couple of spires to make the feet fidget. I had to keep telling myself I was here on a kind of mission, to see what effects immigration was having on the city, and what might be at stake as the city’s indigenous population voluntarily relinquished control over its ancient territory.

This significant event is scheduled for as early as this year, according to figures from the former Commission for Racial Equality based on ethnic minority growth between the censuses of 1991 and 2001. These figures have been disputed by academics at the University of Manchester, who point out that minority members also leave the city. One may disagree with the schedule, but no one disputes the general direction of travel.

There had been a little immigration into Leicester before the war – it was the second-richest city in Europe in 1936 – but it became a major destination for Asians from the 1960s onward, to fill actual vacancies and projected “skills shortages” in the factories turning out hosiery, footwear, and engine components. Soon afterward, many of these factories became outmoded and closed or moved overseas, leaving behind not just workless indigenes but thousands of unassimilated immigrants with high birthrates, high levels of welfare dependency, and low levels of academic achievement. In Leicester, as in so many other places in England, evanescent economic considerations won out over long- term thinking—and the demographic die was cast. The city’s motto of Semper Eadem(“Always the same”) was destined to become an historical irony. One can only speculate what the factory owners and local politicians of the 1950s would think of the present and future they inadvertently shaped.

In recent years, Asian immigration has slowed and been partially counterbalanced by Eastern European immigration, but Leicester is still an exotic island in the otherwise mostly English East Midlands. The latest available figures are from the 2001 census, but 2006 extrapolations by the Office of National Statistics suggest that, of the urban-area population of approximately 293,000 persons, white Britons make up 58.3 percent; other whites, 3.7 percent; Asian British, 29.4 percent; black or black British, 4.6 percent; mixed race, 2.6 percent; and Chinese or other, 1.5 percent. Gujurati is spoken by around 16 percent of city residents, and Punjabi, Somali, and Urdu, by between 2 and 4 percent each. English is “not the preferred language” of 45 percent of primary-school pupils.

On first impression, the city seemed much less subcontinental than I had expected, with even the traders in the city’s famous outdoor market being almost completely white British, bawling out their special offers cheerfully from below chalked signs carrying English names – even if a few of the stalls offered such exotica as lemongrass, okra, sweet potatoes, and yams. Upstairs in the indoor part of the market, surprisingly well-stocked fishmongers carried red grouper from the Caribbean and rubbery-looking beasts from the Bay of Bengal among the more usual fare, while the butchers (including the unappetizing-sounding “Leicestershire’s Oldest Tripe Stall”) stocked goat meat between the bacon and sausages. There were Rastafarian market stalls and people selling Polish specialities, but the overall impression was one of unchallenged Englishness.

A sense of continuity was also evident in Leicester Cathedral, an externally plain, internally intimate former parish church that was only granted cathedral status in 1927, adjacent to a half-timbered 14th- century guildhall. This is the smallest cathedral I have ever seen (1), almost square, and was much “restored” (to put it politely) by the Victorians. But it is highly attractive, despite a temporary exhibition that had blocked the south aisle with several large lumps of wood collectively called “Humanity. Inhumanity.” These interfered with inspection of the humorous medieval carvings called “The Ailments” – near- life-sized, pained-looking figures with ear trumpets and empty eye sockets.

In the chancel, there is a large memorial slab to the still-divisive Richard III, who was killed at nearby Bosworth in 1485 and buried in the churchyard of the now-vanished city church of Greyfriars. There is an apocryphal story that his bones were disinterred and precipitated into the River Soar, but more likely they were just forgotten when the church was dissolved (2). A few remember and even seek to rehabilitate this subject of Shakespearean traducement; there was a fresh wreath on the slab from the Richard III Society.

St. George’s Chapel in the cathedral contains the faded fustian of The Tigers, the Royal Leicestershire Regiment, who earned their emblem and soubriquet, plus the superscription “Hindoostan,” by battling against the ancestors of those now colonizing Leicester in their historic turn. The regiment, which was originally founded in 1688, was subsumed into the Royal Anglian Regiment in 1964, whose uniform buttons retain the tiger but not the Hindoostan.

Back along fine streets and a busy inner ring road in quest of the so-called Jewry Wall, actually part of a third-century basilica. This is a 73-feet-long remembrance of the 400-year presence of the legions who left Leicester its name – although they had merely taken over the site from Celtic tribesmen, now almost forgotten, like their relict trackways leading to the ford over what they called the Legro or Leire (Leire-castra—the fort on the Leire).

That name Leire recalls an even more tenebrous past, during which legends became men, and men legends. According to agreeable tradition, the city was founded by a mythical king of the Britons called Leir. Leicester is still Caerlyr in Welsh, or “the fort of Leir.” According to that same folk- tale, his youngest daughter, yclept Cordelia, buried him in a chamber beneath the river – and from such Mercian archetypes the same Midlands dreamer who so disliked Richard III wove an equally famous story, of a mythical monarch hagridden by suspicion and madness.

All these tribal trackways became the Roman roads of the Fosse Way and the Via Devena, leading appropriately to and from this hub city devoted to Janus. It was curious to consider that some of the people walking around must be lineal descendants of those overlaid Celts – or their Italic overlords – or more recent blow-ins, like the Angles, first recorded in this area in the sixth century.

Beside the wall, inside the footprint of the fallen basilica, huddles Leicester’s oldest church, the Saxo-Norman St. Nicholas, with Saxon window openings and sturdy Romanesque arches carrying massy brown-grey stonework in a randomness of irregular angles and odd perspectives. The organist was glad to have company and played us an Elizabethan dance tune from Warlock’s Capriol Suite to demonstrate both the acoustics and his prowess—the product of five decades’ service to this church, abutting this invaders’ wall and ghostly masonry courses recalling hypocausts, the forum, the medieval ghetto, and the precinct of Holy Bones. He was concerned about the shrinking number of congregants and half smiled, half sighed, “I don’t know where all the years have gone,” as we said goodbye. Then he sat down again to play, this time the tune from The Dambusters, engrossed in the misplaced martial Englishness of the air as we heaved open the oaken door to admit briefly the hideous drum and bass of the ring road.

So we processed to Leicester Castle, originally a Norman motte-and-bailey later lived in by Simon de Montfort, one of several celebrated earls of Leicester, who in 1265 forced his brother-in-law Richard III to hold the first elected English parliament, which included two citizens from every borough in England, so introducing the “knights and burgesses” into British constitutional history. More parliaments followed in Leicester, some overly exciting affairs like the 1414 “Fire and Faggots Parliament,” so called because it passed the Suppression of Heresy Act against Wycliffe’s Lollards – or 1426’s “Parliament of Bats,” to which attendees were not allowed to bring their swords and had to rely on cudgels. As if that were not enough of a claim to a place in Holinshed or Bagehot, John of Gaunt lived in the castle, Lady Jane Grey visited, and here Robert Dudley feared and then desired the Virgin Queen.

A 17th-century earl of Leicester gave the castle’s riverside elevation a lamentable brick frontage. But on the land side, there is what feels like a cathedral close, as the road racket is muffled by the 12th-century bulk of the castle and the 14th-century crocketed spire of St. Mary de Castro (where Chaucer was supposedly married) and the high, silent, shuttered houses of the Newarke, or New Works. Beyond, there is a 15th-century gatehouse, and beyond that again yet more handsome houses, and finally a magazine of around 1410, this outpost marooned unhappily on a concrete plain above a confusion of charging cars – the mayhem oddly apposite for the hometown of the man who invented the Hansom cab. It was a picture-perfect juxtaposition of ancient and modern, stability and flux – of firmness surrounded by ferment.

Leaving the city at last, tired and uncharacteristically thoughtful, we headed eastward and home past a long, unlovely line of sari shops, halal butchers, and kebab establishments – the new Leicester, the new England springing up around the edges of the old, not to support but to supplant her. It is a revolutionary act – one not of violence but indifference, a mild metamorphosis effected by inoffensive newcomers, to resist which stampeding lambs seems to many too difficult.

And yet in some way it matters that one of England’s greatest cities, a history-haunted place central not just geographically but imaginatively, is passing permanently out of the English orbit. When and how exactly may be open to question, but what is certain is that this place which originated in such poetic obscurity is moving ineluctably toward an even more obscure tomorrow.

The essay first appeared in Chronicles in January 2011, and is reproduced with kind permission


  1. Britain’s smallest (and plainest) cathedral is actually that at St. Asaph’s (Llanelwy) in north Wales.
  2. Richard’s remains were of course sensationally discovered in 2013 under a car park on the site of the old Greyfriars church.