The north-south divide in English history

If you’re in the mood to break England into bite-size chunks, look no further than the handy north-south divide. It’s scored so deeply into the body of the country that you can treat the place like one of those candy bars you’re meant to share with a friend.

You want north or south? Choose carefully, because your fortune will rise or fall depending on which you take.

The north-south divide is not only recognized by Lord Google, it’s the organizing thesis of The Shortest History of England, by James Hawes, which I’ll be leaning on heavily here. Focusing a history so heavily on a single thesis damn near guarantees oversimplification, but it also gives the story coherence, which makes for a readable book. If you’re looking for a manageable, memorable history of England, this one works well.

And in favor of focusing on the north-south divide, it does tangle itself into England’s history, economics, culture, language, and geography, and it influences Britain’s politics to this date.

Irrelevant photo: St. John’s wort, or rose-of-sharon.


What am I talking about? 

The difference between richer southern England and the poorer north, although when we’re talking about southern England, what we really mean is the southeast, which is in turn heavily weighted toward London and the area that surrounds it. 

Where does the country divide? Draw a line along the River Trent, if you can find it, then extend it to the west coast. Next draw a line along the River Tamar to keep Cornwall out of the discussion and another one down the Welsh border to do the same for Wales. The part of Britain on the lower right is southern England. The part at the top is northern England until you get to Scotland, then it’s not England at all. 

I’d have told you to draw a line along the Scottish border, but it moved around over the centuries and I don’t want you starting any wars. 

Let’s trace the divide through a series of colonizers:

The Romans: The Romans held the island’s richest agricultural land, a.k.a. the south. The division may have been a factor before the Roman invasion, but the thing about people without a written language is that they don’t write, so the pre-Roman Britons didn’t leave us much in the way of detailed history. We’ll skip them.

The Anglo-Saxons: In the 8th century, the chronicler Bede, who may be more recognizable if I call him the Venerable Bede, mentions a division between the north Saxons and the south Saxons. I can’t do much more than nod at that, unfortunately, and acknowledge that the division struck him as worth mentioning. The difference could trace back to the island’s geography or to the Romanization of the south or to both. Or it could just seep out of the rocks. 

The Vikings: When the Vikings shifted from raiding to colonizing, the part of England they colonized was the north, both reinforcing the differences and adding layers of cultural and political spice to the sauce. 

The Normans: When Hawes asks why the Normans, with a small fighting force, were able to not just conquer but hold England, one of the reasons he cites is that the English couldn’t mobilize the whole country against them. There was resistance, but it wasn’t the sort of coordinated uprising that might have succeeded. And so the Normans made themselves lords of both northern and southern England, and they kept their own language, Norman French, which not only separated them from the conquered English but at least for a while united the conquerors. 



What about the common people–the English? Some small segment of the Anglo-Saxon upper class became Normanized, and the key to that was adopting the French language. Below that level, commoners spoke English, but by the fourteenth century, northern and southern English speakers could barely understand each other. Hawes quotes John of Trevisa on the subject, and we’ll get to the quote in a minute, but first, John of Who? 

John of Trevisa, a contemporary of Chaucer’s and not to be confused with John of Travolta, although Lord Google would be happy to take you down that rabbit hole if you’re interested. The J of T we’re interested in came from Cornwall and was a native speaker of Cornish, but his legacy is a body of scholarly work in English–not in Cornish but more to the point not in Latin and not in French. Choosing English over those last two was a radical act.

Are we ready to go on? Let’s do the quote: “It seemeth a great wonder how English, that is the birth-tongue of English men, and their own language and tongue, is so diverse of sound in this island. . . . All the longage of the Northumbres, and specially at York, ys so sharp, slytting, and frotyng, and vynschape, that we southern men may that longage scarcely understonde.”

Please appreciate that comment, because it hospitalized my spell check program.  

The things I sacrifice for this blog.

Lord Google and I are at a loss over what vynschape means, and we’re not doing any better with frotyng, although for no clear reason I have the illusion that I could understand it if I’d just give it another moment’s thought.

The linguistic divide was still holding in 1490, when a northern merchant was becalmed off the Kent coast, in the south. He went ashore to buy supplies, asking in northern English for meat and eggs, “And the good wife answered that she could speak no French.”

Was the aristocracy as divided as the commoners? By the end of the fourteenth century, court life was shifting from French to English, so the power of French to unite the Normans might–and I’m speculating here–have been on the wane. Either way, heraldry divided the aristocracy into Norroy (the northern realm) and Surroy (the southern one), and the aristocratic families built alliances and power blocs based at least in part on geography.



Hawes presents the War of the Roses as a particularly bloody outbreak of the north-south divide and sees Elizabeth I as consolidating the south’s rule over the country. One result of this consolidation was that the southern version of English became the dominant one. The first handbook for English-language writers, from 1589, advised writers not to use “the termes of Northern-men . . . nor in effect any speech used beyond the river of Trent.” (George Puttenham, The Art of English Poesie

England’s class structure did allow people to move up the ladder, but to do that they needed to speak southern English. Economic, cultural, and political power all wrapped around each other, and around language and geography. 

Let’s fast forward to James I of England, who was also James VI of Scotland, since after Liz’s death England imported him from Scotland in a desperate effort to keep England Protestant. This meant that, awkwardly, he was ruling two kingdoms, one stacked (at least on a map) on top of the other. He proposed to unite them and make himself the “King of Great Britaine.”

The English elite–for which you can read England’s southern elite–blocked the move. Parliament was by now a force in English politics and inviting Scotland to the party would’ve diluted southern power. 

From there we hit Fast Forward again and stop at the English Civil War, where Hawes sees the geographical divide still at work: The north was resisting rule from the south, and it was ready to make an alliance with the Celts–Cornwall and Wales (I’m leaving Scotland out of the discussion since it pops up on both sides of the war). In this reading, the king and Parliament, along with religious beliefs and demands for equality, aren’t incidental but they were being driven by underlying forces that generally go unacknowledged.



When England and Scotland did finally become one country and Daniel Defoe traveled “the whole island of Great Britain,” he treated northern England and Scotland as more or less the same place. England, for him, was effectively the south. 

For a time, the Industrial Revolution changed the calculations. The south still had the richest agricultural land, but the north had coal, and it now fueled industries of all sorts. The northern elite got rich and northern cities got big. The drive to expand the vote was fueled in part by the northern elite’s drive to gain political power that would match to its economic strength. 

The north’s power lasted until finance outweighed manufacturing. 

Hawes talks about the country having two middle classes during at least part of the Industrial Revolution, one in the north and one in the south–and it’s worth mentioning here that the British middle class, especially at the time we’re talking about, sits higher up the social ladder than the American one. The southern middle class made its money in finance and commerce and the northern one in manufacturing. The southern middle class belonged to the Church of England and the northern one tended toward dissenting religions–and since that meant their children wouldn’t be accepted by the elite universities they started their own. 

By the 1850s, though, boarding schools for the middle class were opening. They were modeled on the elite boarding schools and their explicit purpose was to educate the sons of the northern elite to become like the sons of the southern. And it worked. Northern boys picked up the southern accent, learned what clothes would mark them as part of the in crowd, and played all the right sports. Basically, money and the fairy dust of southern culture allowed northerners to move upward. Not to the top rungs of the elite, of course–you had to be born into the right families for that–but to the bottom rungs of the upper rungs.

What the hell, upward is upward, and a lot of people were scrambling for those rungs.

Starting in the 1870s, the southern elite’s accent started to be called Received Pronunciation, or RP, and if you had any sort of ambitions, you damn well needed to sound like it was your natural accent. 



In the 1920s, the BBC began broadcasting, and if you couldn’t reproduce RP convincingly, you weren’t one of its broadcasters . At roughly the same time, a report on teaching English in England insisted that all children should learn RP–as a foreign language if necessary.

RP was considered standard English and everything else was a dialect. And in case it’s not clear, dialect was bad. If you wanted to move up the ranks in the armed forces, you needed the right accent. If you wanted to be taken seriously in finance, in business, in education, you needed the right accent. Although as Hawes says, the ordinary English didn’t give a damn, they just wanted to sound like Americans. BBC English was no match for Hollywood films. 



When Ireland became independent, the arithmetic of north-south power shifted. The Conservative Party’s base was southern England, and although it had opposed Irish independence, once Ireland left the party discovered that it was now easier for it to dominate the House of Commons. Reducing the number of MPs had made its southern base more powerful.

And if Scotland leaves the union–which the Conservatives oppose, at least publicly–they’re likely to find that Parliament becomes even easier to dominate–at least if they can hold onto their southern base. 

59 thoughts on “The north-south divide in English history

  1. We have now been having this debate about St Johns Wort and Rose of Sharon being the same plant. Conclusion is that they’re branches of one type. Going back to your actual topic, I have always found that watching a Shakespeare play when the actors have all got northern accents (shorter vowels) a lot easier to understand, so I reckon the way them posh folk talk is just something made up in the boarding schools over time. That’s changed too in the last few decades. RP moved into Estuary English from somewhere in the 1990s to be less elite sounding. So none of the Tory boys (unless you’re JRM) sound as they would have even 30 years ago. Doesn’t stop me thinking they’re still a self-serving bunch of w_____ though.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That last sentence I completely agree with. I haven’t been here long enough and my ear for the accents isn’t good enough for what you’re saying to connect with what I’ve observed, but I can give you a slightly panicky smile and nod as if I’d observed exactly the same thing. It is interesting, though. Genuinely.

      If I can remember, I’ll ask my gardener friends about rose of Sharon and St. John’s wort.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, and boil your computer for three minutes before you use it again.

      I used to know someone who could spout small bits of Early English and I can’t help thinking she might’ve been able to help out, but we lost touch years back. I’m not sure, really, how much she knew. It sounded impressive, but she could’ve been reciting the same three lines of Beowulf over and over again.

      Anyway, thanks.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Now I have to wonder what version of English the advertisers here are using to make their spokespeople sound more interesting- we’ll line up to buy stuff in great quantities if the spokesperson, especially men, (or small lizards) have an English accent.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Why of course people buy things from small lizards with English accents. Who wouldn’t?

      The funny thing is that Americans tend to think of an English accent, as if there was only one, but the country packs so many accents into a small nation that I worry about spontaneous combustion. The north/south thing goes some way toward explaining it, but not all the way.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Very interesting…There are plenty of American accents, and regionalisms…One day when I was in eighth grade (ca. 1958) we had a discussion in English class about what you called those paper things they put your grcoeries in…a sack..a bag..a poke..Not exactly in the curriculum guide, which may be why I remember it all these years later.
    Not to mention pronunciation. “Mar yetta” is a town near Atlanta while “Mary Etta” is a town on the Ohio (I mean Ahia) River. Not to mention Tegsis and MissHippy and Ahia, where big bidness is important.
    Probably many of us of a certain age still prefer The King James Version even if we still don’t know what many of the words mean.

    Liked by 1 person

    • True and interesting, and that sounds like a great subject to involve a bunch of eighth graders in. Funny how our minds know what’s in the curriculum guide and what isn’t–and light up when we get into isn’t territory.

      The King James version–and I can’t claim to have read or heard more than snippets–has an incantatory power that I doubt any of the other translations can match. They may be more accessible, and some of them are probably more accurate translations, but they don’t match the poetry. I haven’t read much about how it was put together, but I did see a brief comment that it was done, basically, by a committee that wasn’t given much time to work, which makes it even more amazing.


        • I agree, but you also make me realize how being used to hearing the St. James Bible gets us used to the idea that the Bible exists in some different time, in a different version of our language. If I were religious and Christian, I’d be torn between wanting to make it to feel contemporary–this lives in your everyday world–and wanting it to keep the majesty of the earlier version.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. This is fascinating and I love the brevity and span of it. I think I can help with that quote. Frotyng might be said in this context to be something that chafes the ear. Vynschape is a bit like terroir–land, earth, soil, so particular to the region. I’m flummoxed with the word that seems like slitting, though, as I can’t quite make it fit, unless he’s saying the northerners are cutting up the language…

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Chafes the ear” is convincing, and several comments have gone in that direction, although without coming up with anything quite that fitting. “Particular to that region” also makes sense. What are you drawing on here? I get the impression that you have a background in this.


      • No background to speak of, except reading old poetry, like Lament for a Maker or Beowulf. A lot of it is close or can be translated to modern English, but some of it winds up as technical terms for things like art (hence landscape) then history background makes me think…hmm, this isn’t landscape, it’s homeland, regional, etc. I actually got two of the words to come up in a search by appending old English and then teasing out based on context. No such luck with slitting, though…

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for the highly entertaining and fascinating lesson! It’s the only time I remember the “south” being the more developed of the south/north divide. You look at most countries’ history and the opposite seems to be true?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can’t get as far as most countries, but I’m from the US originally, so my assumptions about north and south have been reversed. And interestingly enough, my partner (who’s from Texas, so a southerner, even if of a very particular sort) has the impression that northerners in England are friendlier and more outgoing and looked down on by people from the other half of the country and so a lot like southerners in the US.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Indeed. That’s why I’m so curious what other countries have that “reversal”, other than the UK. Certainly Italy, Spain, US, etc. all have the “traditional” south/north stereotypes. UK, as you enlightened me, is different. One wonders what other countries are … different.

        Liked by 1 person

        • It’s an interesting question but not one I’m going to be much help with. My best guess is that although there can be a many historical reasons for a country to be geographically divided (in Germany, the divide is between the east and west), there’s no particular reason that, when it’s north-south, the south should be the less developed part.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. This reminds of me of when I was looking for free books for my Kindle. They have this horrible part of their site for those books. Titles, with no real descriptions. I found “North and South” which I knew as a trashy American novel by John Jakes. So I ordered it. Imagine my surprise when I opened the Elizabeth Gaskell novel of the same name. Much better book, and I learned a lot about the British divide.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Blimey, this is fascinating, Ellen. I’ll spend some time later really reading it and trying to understand it. My ignorance of England, let alone Europe, knows no bounds.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: The north-south divide in English history – Nelsapy

  9. I’ll probably throw you completely off the liguistics track and tell you that in some places Hibiscus mutabilis is also called a Rose of Sharon. Nothing like the others! An no, it was NOT named Sahron after a breeder’s girlfriend!
    Ee! Tha’ warnt figgerin’ that!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. As a Northerner who migrated to the South East about 25 years ago, I have the advantage of being able to understand accents from most areas of the country, which is a talent that I didn’t know was useful until I had to translate my yorkshire family for my kent born husband :-D

    I also seem to have managed to wipe out most traces of a regional accent from myself, to the point where most people say “I can sometimes tell you are northern but not exactly where you are from”
    I am quite proud of this, because a Hull accent is a terrible thing!

    Liked by 2 people

  11. “The great majority of the people can still be ‘placed’ in an instant by the manner of their clothes, and general appearance. Even the physical type differs considerably, the upper class being on average several inches tsller thsn the working class. But the most striking difference of all is the language and accent. The English working class, as Mr Wyndham Lewis has put it, are ‘branded on the tongue.’ And though class distinctions do not exactly coincide with economic distinctions, the contrast between wealth and poverty is very much more glaring, and more taken for granted, than in most countries.” – As I Please, page 5, by George Orwell.

    My girlfriend lives in Wimbledon, and ever since the first time I have visited her I’ve thought of this passage. We visited, by my request, Wigan and the contrast between the two areas is very pronounced.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That passage has stayed with me as well, although as an American (I moved to Cornwall 15 years ago) it was a long time before I understood what he was saying in any depth. Even now, distinctions that scream out at our British friends go right over my head and my partner’s. Which I have to say I kind of enjoy. If we were inclined toward snobbery, it would save us from ourselves, at least part way.

      Liked by 2 people

  12. What a brilliant ‘Note’ on the North/South divide. Of course up ‘ere in Yorkshire we feel the cold wind of division more than other areas, do, (at least we think so), and invasion plans are never far removed from our thoughts … after we’ve done the red rose lot !!
    Great writing, as ever Ellen. Lots of White Rose kisses xxx

    Liked by 1 person

  13. This is fascinating to me, and even made me imagine a strange scenario in the USA if the North ever tried to rule away the Southern dialect (outlawing the convenient y’all). I love how you wove your sense of humor into this, including mentioning near-hospitalization of your post by spell-check.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Laurie.

      The comparison to the US is both useful and misleading. I’ve been reading more history of Anglo-Saxon England lately and realizing how far back the divide goes–not only which A-S tribes formed which of the small, usually warring A-S kingdoms, but probably more importantly which parts of England were colonized by the Vikings, and for how long.


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