A quick history of English castles

The world–which doesn’t include you and me, of course, since we’re way too smart for this–thinks it knows about English castles. They have big walls, lots of stones, men in tight pants, women in pointy hats, and Walt Disney off to one side saying, “Make the tower higher. And narrower. No narrower. And the moat–make that wider.”

Then you go stomping around England, you get your shoes muddy, and you follow some little sign that points toward a castle and find not a building with a high tower and a moat clean enough for ducks (and possibly a wandering hero) to paddle in, but a big mound of earth encircled by a dry ditch, and maybe a bit of wall but maybe not. You slog back to the sign and read it again just to be sure.

Yup, it said castle.

Welcome to castles before the Norman invasion.

Relevant photo: A bit of ruin from Corfe Castle, complete with tourists.

For centuries, whoever the British were at the moment (layers of invasion and migration meant the British weren’t always the same people and didn’t always call themselves British, but let’s keep things simple and pretend they did) had been using fortified hills to defend themselves against the enemy of the moment. They’re sometimes called hill forts and sometimes called castles.

Take Maiden Castle (from the Celtic Mai Dun, Great Hill), in Dorset, by way of example. It dates from 3000 BCE–the late Stone Age–and was extended and enlarged during the Iron Age.

An article on the BBC’s history website says that Bronze Age and early Iron Age hill forts don’t show much sign of having been permanent settlements. It speculates that they might have been used for gatherings, for trade, or for (the archeologist’s fallback explanation for anything that doesn’t make some other kind of sense) religious rituals.

By 450 BCE, many hill forts were going out of use but the ones that weren’t got rebuilt with multiple banks and ditches and complex entrances to make them harder to attack. And–big change here–the  settlements inside them became permanent. Around 100 BCE, in parts southern England, more hill forts were abandoned. The reasons aren’t clear but one possibility is that the tribal states has become more stable.

And then the Romans came and all the cards were shuffled and dealt out again, only this time the Romans got to make up the rules. I haven’t been able to find any information on whether the hill forts were any of any military use in fighting the Romans. One source tells a tale of Roman troops fighting a bloody battle against the Britons at Maiden Castle, but another source says it’s complete bullshit, although it’s maybe a little more diplomatic than that. What seems clear is that the Romans destroyed some hill forts (presumably because they still had a military value) and recycled others. At Maiden Castle, they built a temple. To the goddess of outdated military strategies.

In more or less 60 CE, when Boudicca led a rebellion, she took the battle to the Romans instead of plonking herself down on a hill fort and yelling. “I double dare you to come get me.” Not Boudicca. She burned London, Colchester, and Verulamium before they defeated her. She went down in history as a hero to Britons, to women who like a kick-ass heroine, and to people who admire names with multiple spellings. A short chat with Lord Google yielded not just Boudicca but also Boudica, Boudicea, and Boadicea. You almost can’t spell it wrong.

A few hundred years later, the Romans toddled off back to Rome and someone struck a gong to mark the beginning of the medieval era. Lord Google tells me that by 410 the last Romans had left England. He also says the medieval period started in the fifth century, neatly coinciding with the last Roman splashing his or her sandals through the surf to board the last ship, and ended in the fifteenth.

Thank you, Lord Google. I have left the usual offering of data at your door.

Would anyone living through the shift have known that the era had changed? Of course they would. Not only was there that gong, Walt was off to the side calling for costume changes. Shuck off those togas and the feathery helmets. I know, they do suit you, but they’ve got to go. Put on some chain mail and–oh, hell, it’s still early in the medieval period so throw in a bearskin or two. With the Romans gone, these people are half barbarians anyway.

The women? Oh, if tf they’re young, give them something floaty and long with about a six-inch waist. If they’re old, it doesn’t matter. Got any bearskins left?

So yes, the costumes changed and so did the military situation. The Celts, Angles, and Saxons looked at those hill forts and thought, Hmm, we could do something with those. For the Celts, they became a place to defend themselves against Anglo-Saxon invaders, For the Anglo-Saxons, they became a place to defend themselves against Viking invaders. For the Vikings, they became a damn nuisance.

The Anglo-Saxons also built walls around their towns, but they still weren’t anything Walt would recognize as a castle.

In the eleventh century, before the Norman invasion and when the Anglo-Saxon king Edward the Confessor was still on the throne, a French-style castle, or possibly two, was built. A chronicler wrote in 1051, “The foreigners had built a castle in Herefordshire, and had inflicted every possible injury and insult upon the king’s men in those parts.”

What the insulting foreigners built was new enough that the Anglo-Saxon chronicler had to borrow a French word for it.

You wouldn’t think an eleventh-century chronicler, writing with a quill, would have a website, would you? Follow the link above, though, and you’ll see how wrong you were.

Then the Normans invaded and built castles all over England. Or if you want to think of it this way, they introduced a new, French technology: the castle as those of us who saw too many Disney movies know it.

Sort of. Because these places weren’t the elegant palaces of Disney dreams. They were heavy on military might and short on romance, especially at first. William granted land and lordships to his followers and the new lords built castles to solidify their hold on their land and to keep their subjects subjected.

Their subjects? They were at the very least grumbly about the change and in places were armed and dangerous.

A lot of the earliest castles were no more than wooden stockades on earthen mounds, and the mounds were sometimes borrowed from an existing hill fort. The Normans were a few thousand fighters in a country of 2 million conquered people and they faced multiple rebellions. They didn’t have time to build anything elaborate. 

Within a couple of generations, the Normans had built between five hundred and a thousand of castles. And within roughly the same amount of time, the rebellions were over.

When time allowed, the wooden castles were rebuilt in stone.

Much later, when England conquered Wales, it followed the same pattern: Conquer, plant a castle, water it with fighting men, and when the inevitable rebellions grow, cut them down.

But let’s go back to the ways the new castles on English soil were different from what came before. HIll forts covered a large piece of land and were meant to defend a whole community. The French castle was smaller and taller and was meant to filled with fighters. Not only didn’t they defend the community, initially at least they defended against the community.

They were often built on important roads and rivers, where they could protect trade as well and, just incidentally, allow the lord to control and profit from it.

They were also symbolic, saying, I can build big and I can tower over everything and who do you think you are, you ant? That symbolism was meant to be taken in not only by the Britons but also by other Norman lords–the castle builder’s rivals for power–and by the king. A lord wouldn’t convince anyone he was powerful unless he had a powerful castle, and to prove that his was bigger than everyone else’s he had people pile rock on top of rock to create a cold, giant shell where he could dispense what passed for justice to the lower orders and entertain (which is to say, impress) his near-equals.

That is as depressing as it is predictable. It reminds me of high school. If you didn’t have the right clothes, you were no one. Fortunately, no one in my school had a castle. Or a sword. Those of us who were of the female pursuasion did have tights, using either the British or the American definition. 

What’s the difference? What the British call tights, Americans call pantyhose. They’re sheer things that you wear over your feet and legs and they get runs (which the British call ladders) when you most want them not to. And they go up to the waist. Also (at least as I remember from a hundred or so years ago, when I last wore them) they’re a perfect match for the world’s least comfortable clothes.

What Americans call tights the British also call tights. They’re the same thing but not sheer, and they’re heavier an usually black. They don’t run. Because they’re more practical, they’re less acceptable in formal situations, because formality demands misery. If you don’t want to wear them but sill need to impress someone, just build a very high stone wall around a patch of land the king’s given you.

Nobody who lived in a castle ever wore tights because the fabrics that makes them possible and technology to do something with it hadn’t been invented.

If you’re interested in castles April Munday, of A Writer’s Perspective, has a series of posts on the various elements of the castle–the gate, the hall, the tower, and so forth–covering not only what they looked like but what role they played. They’re well worth your time. The link is to one of them. From there, you’ll have to wander around and find the others. I don’t think she has a separate post on tights, but she did once tell me, in answer to a comment I left, that men of the period wore tight–I think they called them hose. Tight trousery things over their legs, which Americans would call pants-y things. And yes, movies aside, they would’ve bagged at the knee.  

How English is England? a quick lesson in geology

England’s creation story as we once knew it went like this: In the beginning, whatever god(s) you like to give credit to, along with all the ones you don’t, separated England from France because they thought it would be better that way, and all the humans with an interest in either country agreed that, yea, this was wise.

It wasn’t easy for the humans to do this, because humans only joined the planet some 2.8 million years ago and the separation of England and France took place 400 million years ago. But the tension between the English and the French is pronounced enough that it could have easily predated the human race by some 397 million years, give or take a few months.  

Gods, as it turns out, can be vain–it’s an occupational hazard–and they were so pleased with all that human praise that many million years later they poured the English Channel into the space between the two countries to mark their accomplishment. And lo, the humans lavished them with more praise.

Endangered species: This is a relevant photo–see below for a comment about
stone monuments, although in keeping with tradition this isn’t quite the kind of monument I was talking about.

To be marginally more scientific about this, until very recently the belief was that Britain–that’s England, Scotland, and Wales–was formed when two ancient landmasses, Laurentia and Avalonia, met and married. France had nothing to do with it–it was on a landmass called Armorica–and a marriage can only take place between two landmasses. The third could have been, at most, a witness.

It’s true that this was before marriage had been invented, and possibly even before sex had been invented, but for richer and for poorer, for better and for worser, the two landmasses became one and everyone was happy with the arrangement, especially the English, because there’s something about being English that compels even the most broad-minded people to get sniffy about the French.

We’re going to assume that the French were just as happy, because (at least in my limited experience) they can be sniffy about the English as well. I’m basing that on the number of people my partner and I met in France who asked, “Are you English?” and when we said we were American said (more or less, and in French), “Oh, wonderful. We like Americans.”

That was back when it was easy to tell people what nationality we were. These days it’s complicated. Are we American? Yes. Are we British? Yes. So are we British-Americans? Americo-Britoids? Passport-hopping cosmopolitan nuisances?

Never mind. Let’s go back to our origin story. Here was an arrangement that suited both parties. The English were from Laurentia-Avalonia and the French were from Armorica and never the twain would meet. They didn’t have to trace their geological histories back to a common point.  

It turns out, however, that it didn’t happen that way. Some wiseacres from the University of Plymouth have spoiled it all by taking rock samples from southwestern Britain and Brittany (in western France), playing geologist games with them, and announcing that the deposits left from volcanic explosions in part of Cornwall and Devon match those in France.

This explains why the mineral deposits in the southwest (primarily tin, but also copper, antimony, arsenic, a bit of silver, plus in case you’re still interested, tungsten, uranium, zinc, and occasional supermarkets cart–called a trolleys–that show up when they drain canals) match what’s found in Brittany (with the possible exception of the supermarket cart) but not what’s found in the rest of Britain (again with the exception of the supermarket cart).

So geologically speaking, a fair chunk of southwest England is French, including most of Cornwall, which culturally and historically may not be part of England at all, but let’s not argue about that, I only brought it up to complicate things. And because people I know bring it up regularly, so I feel a kind of duty to toss it into my posts.

What can we learn from this discovery? That marriage is more complicated than anyone imagined and can indeed involve three landmasses. That everyone should settle down and stop being sniffy about whole swathes of people because if we go back far enough we’re all related, as is the land we live on. That we should all save our spikiness for deserving individuals. And for the people we’re closely closely related to and have to play nice with on holidays.

We can also learn that it’s good to have our brain molecules rearranged periodically. That’s the lovely thing about the sciences. They start with a theory, they test it, and when they find information that contradicts it they either update it or throw it out altogether.  

*

But the French-Southwest England connection is more than just geological. The cultural links go back to the Neolithic age–that’s the late stone age–when the people of southwest Britain traded with the people of what’s now France. It couldn’t have been easy sailing stone boats back and forth across the channel, never mind hollowing them out, so they must’ve wanted to see each other really badly.

If anyone decides to link to this, please, please note: that’s a joke about stone boats. I had another joke go wrong again recently and I’m feeling just the slightest bit sheepish. If sheep can giggle (sorry, I can’t help myself), which I’ve never seen them do but can’t rule out.

The two groups would’ve shared shared overlapping cultures, because both spent their free time setting huge stones in place to mark we’ll never really know what. Their presence, maybe. It’s too weird an activity not to mark an overlap.

English Heritage (the name doesn’t play universally well in Cornwall) says that “by the later Iron Age, southern England’s principal trading partners were northern Gaul (France) and Armorica (Brittany).” 

If we slip forward to the years after the Romans left Britain, we’ll  find Celtic refugees fleeing the invading Angles, Saxons, and Jutes–or so it’s said. Archeologists are challenging that belief, but we’ll get to that some other time. If the Celts did indeed flee, they left with their language folded neatly into their suitcases. And where did they land? Armorica, which they renamed Brittany.

Then in the eleventh century, the Norman French invaded England, changing the language to French and completing the circle on influence, connection, resentment, and bizarre spelling. They didn’t care about landmasses, they just wanted the land. And its people.

We, of course, live in an enlightened age and do care about landmasses. Please take a few minutes to feel smug.

The Clameur de Haro and the legacy of feudalism

In August, Rosie Henderson, a douzainer in Guernsey–that’s an elected official–invoked a medieval law, the Clameur de Haro, to stop a roadwork project that she felt would “endanger pedestrians and motorists alike.” Invoking the law involved going down on one knee on the roadworks site, clasping her hands, and in the presence of two witnesses saying, “ ‘Haro! Haro! Haro! A l’aide mon Prince, on me fait tort.”

Then the claim had to be registered in court, which (this being Guernsey) is called the Greffe.

The words of the clameur translate to “Haro! Haro! Haro! [That doesn’t seem to translate.] Come to my aid, my prince, I have been wronged.” The prince in question is thought to be Rollo, the first Viking ruler of Normandy (roughly 860 to 930 C.E., or A.D. if you prefer). He was also called Rolf and as an adult became too heavy for any horse to carry. So what with him being long since dead and all, even if he was likely to help anyone he couldn’t be expected to get there in a hurry.

Semi-relevant photo: A wild pony on the cliffs in Cornwall. This is one of the many horses Rolf (or Rollo, if you like) couldn’t ride. Not just because he was too heavy but because by the time this horse was born he was too dead.

I’m tempted to explain this business of calling on a long-dead, horseless prince (or duke–there’s no record of him using either title, or any at all) by saying that tradition’s a powerful force in Britain, but we’re talking about Guernsey, which isn’t Britain. We’ll dive down the rabbit hole of the island’s relationship with Britain about midway through the post, but for now knowing that Guernsey isn’t Britain is enough and we’ll skitter on before anyone has a chance to ask questions.  

In one version of the way clameur works, the complainant, known as the criant, also has to invoke the Lord’s Prayer. Other explanations don’t mention that. If you plan on clameur-ing, you might want to do the Lord’s Prayer part just to be safe, although what invoke means in this context isn’t clear–or at least it isn’t clear to me. Do you recite it? Do you mention it? Do you remind the people around you of its existence? Whatever you do, I recommend doing it once in English and once in French, because I’m not sure which language you’re supposed to be working in. Or in ‎Guernésiais, the regional language, which 2% of the population speaks fluently and 3% understands. (That could be 3% on top of 2% or it might include it. Does it really matter?)

Citizen’s Advice recommends getting legal advice before messing around with the clameur, so if you’re wise (not to mention well funded) you’ll have someone who can lead you through the details.

As soon as the amateur dramatics are out of the way, building work has to stop until the court decides whether you’ve been wronged. Assuming, of course, that the people on the building site understand what you’re doing and don’t just shrug you off as some random nutburger.

If the work doesn’t stop, the person being asked to stop it risks a fine. The person invoking the clameur also risks a fine if they’re found to have raised it incorrectly. The injunction lasts a year and a day, just like the curses and assorted other spells that we find in fairy tales.

The clameur dates back to the tenth century and works only in Guernsey and Jersey, a.k.a. the Channel Islands. It was meant to work as an injunction when someone’s possession of a piece of land was interfered with, which is why the Greff threw out Henderson’s plea the next day: The land is owned by the state and the clameur is only applicable to land (or as the court put it, an immovable object) in the criant’s posssession.

Henderson argued that the state holds the land for the people. She is, inarguably, a person, so it’s a fair argument even if it didn’t win. 

New as the clameur is to me, it seems to be old news in Guernsey and Jersey. It even has its own website, which comes with its own warning, “Content researched from historic texts. May contain errors or opinions contrary to legal practice of judgment and case law. . . . For research only. Seek legal advice from advocates.”

It may also contain peanuts. People with allergies to either nuts or the law should consult a physician before opening.

While they’re doing that, why don’t the rest of us trace this bit of weirdness back in time? Because some things can’t be understood any other way. Or to rephrase that, it’s time to dive down the rabbit hole I mentioned earlier.

We’ll start in medieval times. The Channel Islands are a part of Normandy, which makes a kind of geographical sense. They’re 20 miles off the French coast, so if they’re going to belong to anyone other than themselves, they might as well be assigned there.

Then 1066 rolls around and the TV flashes a reminder to William the Conqueror (a.k.a. William the Bastard) that the show he’s been waiting for is about to begin: It’s time to invade England. He invades and becomes King of England, and since (as Duke of Normandy) he already owns Guernsey and Jersey, they’re now possessions of the English crown. And of the Norman duke, who’s the same person.

It takes some work for a modern brain to accommodate the idea that a person and a state aren’t separate things at this point, and that the English king and the Norman duke are the same guy. In case you’re having trouble with this, allow me to make it worse: The current queen reigns over the Channel Islands as the queen but is also their duke. Channel Islands royalists will toast her as “the queen our duke.”

Only they’ll capitalize both queen and duke.

They may or may not be sober when they do that. I don’t know much about toasts.

Between 1204 and 1214, King John (that’s of England) lost control of his lands in northern France but kept control of the Channel Islands. In 1259, this was formalized in the Treaty of Paris: England gave up its claim to any land in France and France gave up its claim to the Channel Islands. The Islands, however, continued to be feudal possessions of the English king and were never absorbed into England–or into its successor kingdoms, Great Britain and the United Kingdom.

The treaty didn’t keep England and France from continuing to fight over them, but let’s not get into that level of detail.

Because the islands weren’t absorbed into England, they kept some of their customary Norman law while both England and France moved on (although for all I know England  has other thousand-year-old laws, unrepealed and unused, on its books).

The islands have their own parliaments and responsibility for their own finances, although they’re not constitutionally independent. What, you ask (or probably should ask), does that mean? It’s a good question, to which you’re not likely to find get a good answer because the government(s) admit(s) that it’s murky.

According to the Ministry of Justice,” the Guardian writes in a desperate effort to make sense of the situation, “ ‘the constitutional relationship between the Islands and the UK is the outcome of historical processes, and accepted practice. . . . The most recent statement of the relationship between the UK and the islands is found in the Kilbrandon Report. It acknowledged that there were areas of uncertainty in the existing relationship and that the relationship was complex. It did not try to draw up a fully authoritative statement.’ “

In other words, after almost a thousand years, we’re still trying to figure it out.

The U.K. is responsible for the islands’ defense and for international relations.  The islands have their own flags and print their own version of the pound. Scotland prints its own pound as well, and you meet various degrees of disapproval when you spend them in England, although they’re legal tender. All Scottish pounds spent south of the border are sent back to Scotland by way of a fleet of carts pulled by rottweilers, and all English notes spent in Scotland are sent south by return dog, so that the only notes given as change in either nation are the geographically correct ones. It’s anyone’s guess how much it costs, in both cash and dog food, to do this.

I shouldn’t be allowed out in public. Someone’s going to believe that bit about the dogs. Anyway, we weren’t talking about Scotland. Could we please stay on track here?

When Britain joined the European Union, the Channel Islands didn’t, but they did join the E.U. customs territory. Any citizen of the islands is a British citizen and, since Britain is (at the moment and for at least the next twenty minutes) part of the E.U., is also a European citizen. But only citizens with close family ties to the U.K. have the right of free movement within the European Union.

If you’re not confused yet, you’re not following this. And it gets worse:

Under the UK Interpretation Act 1978, the Channel Islands are deemed to be part of the British Islands, not to be confused with the British Isles. For the purposes of the British Nationality Act 1981, the ‘British Islands’ include the United Kingdom (Great Britain and Northern Ireland), the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, taken together, unless the context otherwise requires.”

In other words, the British Isles and the British Islands are two different things. Unless the context demands that they all get up and run around the chairs until the music stops, at which point the one who doesn’t find a chair is out. If, however, it speaks Norman French it can call on a long-dead prince, who may actually be a duke, to bring an extra chair and the game stops until he does. Which takes a while, because he can’t ride a horse.

What’s the economy of the Channel Islands based on? Tourism’s a major industry, but in the 1960s the islands reinvented themselves as an offshore financial center, which both are and aren’t regulated by Britain but aren’t regulated by the E.U. We’ll skip lightly over the claims that they’re money laundering centers–goodness gracious, who could believe such a thing anyway?–and say that after some maneuvering a 2018  anti-money laundering bill that required British overseas territories to publish a list of company owners registered there managed, at the last minute, to exclude the Channel Islands. Much (I have to assume) to the relief of the Channel Islands, or at least those with money planted there invisibly. 

For the sake of simplicity (you have no idea how much more complicated this could get) and because they’re the political subdivisions, I’ve been talking about the Channel Islands as Guernsey (population 63,026) and Jersey (population 100,080), but a few other inhabited islands and some uninhabited ones are part of the package: Alderney (population 2,000), Sark (population 600), Herm (population 60), Jethou (population 3), and Brecqhou (population not given).

The absence of population numbers for Brecqhou may or may not have something to do with it being privately owned (you want to talk about feudal) by twin brothers, and our tour of the rabbit hole isn’t complete without a quick glimpse of the place.

Since 1993 . . .  Brecqhou has been owned by the Barclay brothers, the co-owners of The Daily Telegraph newspaper and former co-owners of The Scotsman. The brothers bought the island for £2.3 million in September 1993. . . . Since the purchase the Barclays have been in several legal disputes with the government of Sark, and have expressed a desire to make Brecqhou politically independent from Sark. They drive cars on the island, and have a helicopter, both of which are banned under Sark law.”

The argument about Brecqhou’s independence or otherwise from Sark has to be based on feudal law and precedent–things like seigneurial rights and fiefdoms and letters of patent.

In 2008, the island held its first election after 400 years of feudal rule, and the Independent describes the brothers’ relationship with the island’s elected representatives as one of simmering tensions.

The brothers complained that there was no true democracy on Sark. Their opponents claimed the brothers wanted to “turn the island into a personal tax haven through propaganda and coercion.” The whole thing ended up in (a U.K.) court and in 2014 the twins lost. A House of Commons committee reported, that same year, that the tension between the brothers and the elected government “threatened to blight” the island’s future.

Our tour ends here. It’s already gone on longer than I meant it to. You leave the rabbit hole by way of the gift shop–a joke that’s gone stale in Britain but that the National Trust reminds us regularly hasn’t yet gone out of date. Apologies for not coming up with something fresher. 

The Tolpuddle Martyrs

We’re going back to the England of the 1830s, with all its romance, not to meniton its mud and its misery. But first, a health and safety warning, because England—or Britain, really—of the twenty-first century just loves its health and safety warnings: Our trip will be heavy on mud and misery and light on romance. We’ll be in a rural area. If you’re not familiar with farm animals, please understand that they are not pets. Above all, do not pet the bull. He has no sense of humor, even if you borrow the U from bll and move in into humour. Please stay with the group. Waterproof shoes are not required but are recommended. Above all, don’t do anything stupid.

Good, with that out of the way, here we are in the 1830s and, as a newspaper article from the British Library archive puts it, the life of an English farmworker is “dismal. Rent and a basic diet of tea, bread and potatoes would cost a typical family 13 shillings a week. But exploitative landowners, given land by the Enclosures, paid their workers as little as 9, 8, even 7 shillings.”

Screamingly irrelevant photo: a geranium.

Enclosures? You can catch up on that by going to an earlier post about hedges, which were used to enclose the fields. Scroll down to the section on history, then scroll another few paragraphs below the subhead and you’ll find a bit about enclosure. I’ve been on a history binge lately.

Or you can skip the background and simply understand that farmworkers weren’t getting paid enough to keep their families fed a very minimal diet of starch and caffeine.
Helping produce this general misery were the Corn Laws, which were in force from 1815 to 1846. They taxed and restricted the import of grain, keeping prices high. That was great if you were selling the stuff and a disaster if you were trying to buy it on 9 shillings a week. Or on 7. (Corn, just so this makes sense to everyone–or as to many people as I can manage, anyway–is British for grain.)

Not many years before the time we’re visiting, the Swing Rebellion had swept through southern and southwestern England. Rebellious farm workers and craftsmen demanded higher pay, lower tithes, an end to rural unemployment, and a few other things along those lines. Barns were burned. Farmers were threatened. The well-fed (to generalize) were frightened. The rebellion ended with 19 executions, 500 people transported, and none of the rebels’ demands met.

It was a perfect set-up for another uprising.

But that’s not what happened. What took place in Tolpuddle isn’t the sort of tale that makes a good action movie. No barns were burned. No one went to a Shao Lin temple to meditate for six years and emerge able to do flying kicks and avenge the evil landowner who murdered their mother/father/entire family/pet bull.

There weren’t even any drunken fistfights. The central people involved were Methodists, which meant they didn’t drink.

What happened was that in 1833, in Tolpuddle—a village in Dorset—a handful of men founded the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers, whose goal was to stop the lowering of agricultural wages. It wasn’t an uprising, it was an attempt to organize.

What’s a friendly society? A mutual aid group. I haven’t been able to date the first ones in Britain, but one website dates them, with criminal vagueness, to the Industrial Revolution. Most were very local, although a few started out that way and then expanded. Some involved no more than a few families. Members paid in a small amount each month and could count on help if someone got sick or died—or sometimes even if a cow died, which when a family’s livelihood hung by so thin a thread could be almost as catastrophic as a wage-earner dying.

This was a time when most people had somewhere between very little and nothing at all to fall back on. If things went wrong, they could become vagrants—homeless beggars. And if that doesn’t sound bad enough, vagrancy was illegal. So, as far as I can tell, was compassion except in small and humiliating doses. What help was offered came from the parish, which translates to local government, and it was miserly, punitive, and given at the discretion of the local gentry.

To modern ears, the Tolpuddle group sounds more like a union than a friendly society, but the categories were still fluid. And the organizers may well have thought that putting together a friendly society was safer than organizing a union. Unions had been illegal as recently as 1824 and were still considered reckless, revolutionary, dangerous, and several other scary adjectives.

Modern writers tend to talk about the group as a union. It’s always simpler in retrospect.

The group’s members took an oath that if any master reduced wages, all members of the society would walk out. They also swore not to tell anyone the group’s secrets and agreed that anyone who did would be hunted out of the society, not just locally but throughout the country.  As far as I can tell, the group was strictly local, but that’s the wording they used. They had ambitions, I guess.

Initiates also had to wish that their souls would be “plunged into eternity” if they broke their oath. Within three months, some 40 people had sworn, and at least one of them must have plunged his soul into eternity, because a local landowner and magistrate, Squire Frampton, heard whispers about the group and wrote to the home secretary for advice about how to respond. The home secretary recommended prosecuting the leaders under the Unlawful Oaths Act of 1797, an obscure law that outlawed secret oaths.

To understand the squire and the home secretary’s reaction, remember that not only was the Swing Rebellion in the very recent past, the French Revolution was also still alive in their minds. I have no idea if it was alive in the minds of Tolpuddle’s farmworkers, but the people who considered themselves the farmworkers’ betters were haunted by the fear that something similar could happen in England’s green and hungry land.

In February 1834, three months after its founding, six members of the friendly society were arrested. As far as I can establish, the group had done nothing more dangerous than gather members, swear oaths, and exist. But swear a secret oath they had, and all six were convicted and transported to Australia. The jury, the BBC notes, was made up of “farmers and the employers of the labourers under trial.”

It was all very efficient, and it backfired. After the conviction, the six became popular heroes, known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs. A huge meeting and a march were held in their defense (one site calls it the first mass trade union protest) and a petition for their pardon gathered 800,000 signatures. And not on the internet. Remember paper? Copies of the petition had to be passed from hand to hand and then delivered physically to whoever it was addressed to in government. And since quills–or even birds–hadn’t been invented yet, it had to be signed with sharpened dinosaur bones.

The most imaginative part of the campaign involved a call to prosecute the Duke of Cumberland—who just happened to be the King’s brother—under the Unlawful Oaths Act, since as head of the Orange Lodges of Freemasons he’d also taken a secret oath. Hey, if one secret oath was illegal, weren’t they all?

In the meantime, the families of the transported men were destitute and applied to the parish for relief. The people deciding whether they were worthy of it included none other than the man who’d set the prosecution in motion, Squire Frampton. To no one’s surprise, they were turned down. Unions across the country raised money to sustain them.

In 1836, the six were pardoned and returned to England. Only one, James Hammett, re-settled in Tolpuddle. The other five eventually emigrated to Canada, which must have promised a kind of freedom they couldn’t imagine in Dorset, and in one of those little ironies that history’s so good at, they settled on land which would have been snatched from its original settlers, the Indians.

So who were the Tolpuddle Martyrs? Five of the six were Methodists, and their leader, George Loveless, wasn’t just a Methodist but a preacher. Methodism had begun in the previous century and had become a powerful force among working people. It preached the priesthood of all believers, and that led some of those believers to decide that if god valued them, so should their employers.

The sixth, Hammett, wasn’t a Methodist, hadn’t been at the initiation ceremony, didn’t move to Canada, and had been arrested once before, for theft. He may (or may not–who can tell at this point?) have allowed himself to be convicted to protect his brother. He seems to have been an outsider in an otherwise tight-knit group.

After the Tolpuddle prosecution, the National Archive says, “the harsh sentences discouraged other workers from joining trade unions, and many of the nationwide organisations, including the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, collapsed.” But in spite of that, union memebership continued to grow and by the 1850s and 1860s trade unionism was again on the rise.

Today, the Tolpuddle Martyrs are commemorated by a museum and a yearly festival. I haven’t gone, but judging from the festival posters it encompasses sober political discussion, open mics, and concerts by groups that this year included the Barstool Preachers.

I just had to work their name in. I doubt the five Tolpuddle Methodists would have approved.

But we’ve been serious long enough, so let’s talk about place names: Before we’d heard of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, my partner and I drove through the area reading the signs that pointed to nearby towns and villages and laughing hard enough to make ourselves a hazard on the road. In addition to Tolpuddle, we found Affpuddle, Briantspuddle, Piddlehinton, Piddletrenthide, Puddletown, the River Piddle, Tincleton, and Throop.

Throop didn’t fit the theme, but somehow that only made it funnier.

My friend Deb swears that Little Piddle, Upper Piddle, and Lower Piddle are around there somewhere. I don’t doubt that she’s right but we, sadly, missed them.

*
My thanks to Emma Cownie for mentioning the impact of the Corn Laws on food prices in this period. And to Richard for dropping me a line about Lord Byron’s speech about frame breakers. I haven’t gotten my claws into that yet, but if you have no idea what I’m talking about (and why would you?), it’ll all make sense eventually.

England’s lost patron saint

The world of patron saints is a murky one. Job descriptions are hazy, the hiring process is opaque, job security’s nonexistent, and conflicts of interest are so much a part of the system that it’ll take a revolution to get rid of them. Take England’s patron saint, George–or St. George as he prefers to be known. As well as being the patron saint of England, he’s also the patron saint of  Aragon, Catalonia, Ethiopia, Georgia (which is named after him), Greece, Lithuania, Palestine, Portugal, and Russia. And Genoa. England more or less rented him from Genoa.

You can read about St. George, rent, and Genoa here

But as happens so often on this cloudy island, the story isn’t that simple, because England had an earlier patron saint, Edmund.

Edmund started his career as the king of East Anglia at a time when England didn’t exist yet. The space it now fills was occupied by a collection of small and usually warring kingdoms. If you’re used to kingdoms being the size of–oh, let’s randomly choose England as an example, then you can think of him as a kinglet, but he wouldn’t have appreciated the description. He was a king, thanks, and we can all just take that seriously.

Irrelevant photo: Yes, it’s a dandelion (or possibly one of a few thousand flowers in Britain that look like dandelions but aren’t), doing its bit to help its species take over the world.

Edmund was born in 841 C.E. (in old-school reckoning, that’s 841 A.D.) and became king in 856 when he would’ve been–oh, good lord–all of fifteen. He was a Christian and fought with King Alfred of Wessex against the non-Christian Vikings and Norse–or as the Historic UK website puts it, “against the pagan Viking and Norse invaders (the Great Heathen Army).”

Thanks, guys. I appreciate an even-handed approach to history.

What am I complaining about? They were invaders–I can’t argue that, although the Angles themselves had invaded Celtic land not long before. It’s the “pagan” and “heathen” that make me want to tip the sentence into the recycling bin. Both are Christian words meaning, give or take a shred of exaggeration on my part, ignorant savages who don’t share our religion and who we don’t have to think of as fully human.

Even my description of them as non-Christian uses Christian as the default setting, which is both biased and historically inaccurate, but I’m not sure what else to call them and I’ve already spent two paragraphs on it, so let’s leave the word where it is. I’m not sure what else would work.

Before we turn to another source for balance, I just have to quote the interfering pop-up box that appears on Historic UK’s website, inviting the world at large to “get to know us a little better by following our occasionally entertaining musings on Facebook.”

Thanks, guys, but I’ll pass. Back when I worked as an editor, I read enough letters introducing unsolicited articles to know that when someone tells you their writing is amusing, it isn’t. If anyone had said it was occasionally amusing, I’d have slit my wrists. The people whose work is genuinely funny? They write something funny. Then they get out of the way.

But back to our search for balance: A Wikipedia entry says that very little is known about Edmund’s life, because the Vikings devastated his kingdom and few records survived. His date of birth is guesswork, and so is the identity of his father, who may have been an East Anglian king and may have been a Germanic one.

So take your pick on any of the detail, because chroniclers of his life wrote with a free hand and a fair bit of imagination. Some have him born on December 25. Others have him crowned on December 25. Both were happy coincidences, no doubt. He was, of course, a model king in all possible ways, except for the minor problem of him having been defeated by the Vikings. 

His ally King Alfred was, presumably, also defeated, but the focus is on Ed, who was captured and told he’d have to renounce his religion and share power with the Vikings. When he refused, he was killed. Which is why he’s also called Edmund the Martyr.

As the story was told some hundred years later, he was beaten and tied to a tree and shot full of arrows and then (just to make sure) beheaded, but his head was reunited with his body with the help of a talking wolf, who called out to Edmund’s followers, saying, “Hic, hic, hic,” which is Latin for here, here, here.

Why did the wolf speak Latin, not whatever the Angles called their language? (A brief interruption: We call their language Old English, but they wouldn’t have called it that any more than the Vikings would’ve called themselves heathens and pagans. It’s not loaded, like heathen and pagan, just a bit later-day hindsighted. End of interruption and back to our question, which was why the wolf spoke Latin.)

Because Latin was the language of the church and this was a Christian wolf.

Or else it was a wolf with hiccups.

I can’t confirm this, but I seem to remember that being buried whole was important in the Christian belief system of the time: On Judgment Day, Christians would rise from their graves and be physically resurrected. Being resurrected headless could be awkward.

Tradition holds that Edmund was killed by Ivar the Boneless and his brother Ubba (or Ubbe; you can take your pick here too; this was long before anyone fussed over spelling).

No, I did not invent Ivar the Boneless. I wish I had the kind of mind that could. Ivar the Boneless was a real person, a Viking (or Norse, or Danish–I’m not sure how different those were at the time) warrior who led the invading army that Christian chroniclers called the Great Heathen Army. He was reported to be tall enough to dwarf his contemporaries and to be both powerful and ruthless.

Why was he called the boneless? There’s lots of speculation about this and no agreement. Contemporary theories run the spectrum from great flexibility to impotence.

In the 1980s, Martin and Birthe Biddle discovered the skeleton of a Viking warrior who they believe was Ivar the Boneless. This was in Repton and the Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok does say that Ivar was buried in England, so it’s not out of the question. If the Biddles are right, it would lead us to believe that Ivar the Boneless did have bones.

A seventeenth-century excavation of the same site claims to have discovered the body of a nine-foot-tall Viking warrior. Or, depending on which source you like, the Biddles found the skeleton of a nine-foot-tall Viking warrior. I’m a little skeptical that nine-foot-tall humans ever lumbered across the earth, but at five foot not very much, what do I know about being very tall? I’m just glad I didn’t have to dig the hole big enough to bury him in.

Are you getting the sense yet that some of the sources we’re working with here are less than entirely reliable?

Let’s leave Ivar’s body in peace and talk about Edmund’s, which was not left in peace. What was left of it after a few hundred years (and let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they got the right set of bones) was moved in 902 and reburied in, handily, Bury St. Edmunds, which was then known as Bedricsworth. King Athelstan founded a religious community on the site, which became a popular pilgrimage destination. English kings patronized the abbey, the cult of St. Edmund grew, and everyone involved became wealthy.

Or some did, anyway, the abbey among them.

Bury St. Edmunds is named after Edmund but, to my disappointment, the bury part of the name doesn’t come from him having been buried there. It comes from the same root word as burg, by way of the Angles, who were a Germanic tribe before they became a British one, and who brought their language with them, as people do. It means city, fortress, castle, that kind of thing.

I haven’t found a date for when Ed became England’s patron saint. In fact, I can’t find an exact date for when England became England, so let’s dance away from that and hope no one notices. What I can tell you is that his cult continued after the Normans conquered England in 1066, adding a bit of weight to my belief that when you conquer a place, in one way or another it also conquers you. As that reputable site Historic UK tells the tale, “Such was the influence of St Edmund that on St Edmund’s Day in 1214 rebel English barons held a secret meeting here before going to confront King John with the Charter of Liberties, the forerunner to Magna Carta which he signed a year later. This event is reflected in the motto of Bury St. Edmunds: ‘Shrine of a King, Cradle of the Law.’ ”

When Henry VIII dissolved the English monasteries, Edmund’s remains–and by then there couldn’t have been much left–were moved to France.

Or possibly not. The BBC says simply that they disappeared. It also says that one version of Edmund’s death has him hiding under a bridge when the Vikings found him. Which sort of lacks glory. The other sites don’t mention it.

Then in 1199, Richard I got bored with Edmund. He visited a shrine to St. George during the Third Crusade, went on to win a battle, and adopted George as his patron saint, renting his banner from Genoa.

Genoa got consulted about this. George and Edmund did not. Saints don’t get any say about who adopts them. They just get stuck with these annoying little beings, always wheedling: Can I have a victory, or rain, or sun, or a trip to the movies? Pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease. And just when it looks like the saints have gotten their humans settled down to watch the show, they start whining for candy, popcorn, ice cream, fizzy drinks. It’s endless.

And after all that, the humans abandon their original saint and dedicate themselves to some new one who just happens to sashay past at the right time, loaded down with goodies. What ungrateful wretches humans are.

And what does the ex-patron saint do? I’m no religious scholar, but If I believed in saints, patron or otherwise, I’d think long and hard before I worked up the nerve to abandon one. 

In 2006, a petition asked the government to reinstate Edmund as England’s patron saint. (England’s government and the Anglican Church are still intertwined, so that would be a governmental decision.) The campaign failed and in 2013 another campaign asked for the same thing. You’ll understand how deeply religious the impulse was when I tell you that the second campaign was backed by a brewery based in Bury St. Edmund.

It also failed, but Edmund did become the patron saint of the Suffolk County Council.

How are the mighty fallen. I’m not sure who I’m quoting–or misquoting–there, but it’s somebody famous. When in doubt, claim it was Shakespeare.

The Swing Rebellion

Let’s visit the England of more or less 1830. William IV is the king–or to put it officially, King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and King of Hanover–and in his portrait he looks kingly enough, wearing a blue sash and multiple medals that were given to him for having been clever and brave enough to be born into the right family.

But that’s not the England we’re going to visit. We’re headed for rural England, where people are hungry and farm workers and craftspeople are setting haystacks and farm machinery on fire. We’re dropping in on the Swing Rebellion.

I’d never heard the Swing Rebellion, so I’m going to assume you haven’t either. It’s also called the Swing Riots, and you could make a good argument for calling it either a rebellion or a set of riots. It doesn’t seem to be as well organized as a full-on rebellion but had more focus than the scattered fury of riots. Think of it as a peasant revolt, if that helps–an uprising by people whose living conditions pushed them toward revolt or riot or violence or something, but who, structurally, didn’t have a chance in hell of seizing and holding power.

Irrelevant photo: Sweet William

What was pushing them toward riot or rebellion? Let’s say it’s the 1830s and you’re a farm worker. Not all that long ago, when you found work it lasted all year. As a result, you and your family developed the habit of eating all year.

That was a bad move, it turns out, because times have changed. More and more land has been enclosed (you’ll find a bit about enclosure in my last post), and that involved evicting tenants and smallholders and throwing laborers out of work. According to some sources, this is important background to the Swing Rebellion, but one source claims the rebellion happened in areas where enclosure had been relatively light, making it a less important factor. Flip a coin to decide who you believe. Either way, farm work has stopped being year-round. It’s casual work, paid by the day or the week, and you can’t count on it to keep you and your family fed. When the job you were hired for is done, you’re out of work. Again. And again and yet again.

You can think of it, if you like, as the nineteenth-century equivalent of the zero-hours contract, only you don’t have a phone, so you don’t get that call saying, “Drop everything, put the kids in the freezer, we need you this morning.”

And if work being unreliable isn’t enough, wages are falling. In 1830, a farm worker’s weekly pay is nine shillings. By 1834 it’s down to six shillings.

What’s a shilling? A out-of-date unit of money. Try not to think about it, because understanding it won’t make you happy.

You’re thinking about it, aren’t you? Fine, we’ll stop and do shillings: There were 12 pence in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound. There were also 2 shillings in a florin, 5 shillings in a crown, and 21 shillings in a guinea.

I told you it wouldn’t make you happy.

A guinea? It was considered “a more gentlemanly amount than [a pound]. You paid tradesmen, such as a carpenter, in pounds but gentlemen, such as an artist, in guineas.”

Forgive me for saying so, but Britain is a very weird country.

Guineas don’t matter to you, though. You’re a farm worker. You’re not likely to catch sight of a pound, and never mind a guinea. Not only are wages falling, the labor market’s flooded, so you have a lot of competition for whatever work is available. Your shillings will fly out of your hand as soon as you earn them, frivolled away on silly things like food. You won’t hold them long enough for them to condense into a pound.

Not unconnected to all this, the crime rate is rising, and most of the rise is accounted for by crimes like poaching (illegal hunting or fishing) and the theft of food. People are hungry. 

But all that is background. What sparks the rebellion is the introduction of a horse-drawn threshing machine. You and your fellow zero-hours farm workers are now looking at a world with even less work, even lower pay.

Predictably enough, you’re not happy, so let’s rescue you from your plight by abandoning the present tense and returning to this best of all possible centuries, the twenty-first, which we’re toddling into with such–well, I don’t know about you, but what I’ve seen of it so far scares the shit out of me. Most of us eat more and better than our equivalents did in 1830, but I’m still worried.

But that isn’t today’s topic, so let’s check back with the people who we left stuck in the 1830s, and let’s do it (somewhat joltingly) by shifting into the past tense: Some of them hit their limit and farmers began receiving notes signed by Captain Swing, saying that unless they destroyed their threshing machines, their  “barns, haystacks and house[s] would be burned down, probably while [they and their families] were asleep.

“Night after night fires started by roving mobs lit up the countryside. For many farmers, danger and destruction was a matter of when, not if.” 

That’s the more lurid version of the tale (with a was where a were should be but there’s no need to be snotty about it, Ellen), from WestSussex.info. In other versions, arson tended to happen (as opposed to being threatened) only when local people had a grudge against a farmer. Since I rescued you before you had a chance to witness the events, we can only guess at which version’s more accurate.

If you’re inclined to criticize the rebels’ methods, keep in mind that these were people with no vote and no political power. Their choices were limited.

If an actual Captain Swing existed, no one knows anymore who he was, but hundreds of thousands of demobilized soldiers had poured into the workforce fairly recently. Maybe an actual captain was involved and maybe not, but farm workers (who were about as likely to be captains as I would’ve been) weren’t the only people involved in the rebellion. Craftspeople (who weren’t likely to have been captains either) took part, and former soldiers may have as well. Rural England wasn’t a happy place.

As time went on, the rebels got bolder. They demanded not just the destruction of the machines but higher wages, an end to rural unemployment, lower rents, and lower tithes.

A tithe? That was the part of people’s income or produce that the church demanded–and rest assured that the church was in a position to enforce its demands. The tithes were often more than poor people could afford, and they weighed heavily even on those who could afford them. Anyone who thinks countries should be run along religious lines should read up on the history of established churches. It doesn’t make happy reading.

According to History Home, farmers supported the demands for lower tithes–and, to my surprise, lower rent. That probably means they were themselves the tenants of large landowners. Compared to farm workers, they were well-to-do, but they too were struggling–or considered themselves to be.

It wasn’t a simple picture.

Poor houses were another target of the rebellion. For a quick picture of poor houses, let’s look at the Dorset Page: “Vestry minute books tell of the ‘misery and degradation’ caused by the old (Elizabethan) Poor Law. The Stalbridge poorhouse stood under the Ring tree, and the yard at the back was surrounded by hovels in which paupers were lodged. As late as 1826, 3 women (and 1 child) had 1/- a week for their support, and only one bed between them. A coroner’s jury found the parish officers guilty of causing Mary Cole’s death by neglect. The curate declared dogs were better off, as they had clean straw to lie on.”

That 1/ is, I think, a shilling.

As the rebellion grew, according the the West Sussex site, “Excited and now-experienced rebels travelled by night across the countryside to strike at farms who would not comply with local farm workers’ demands. . . . Often people were forced to join up with the rebels against their will.”

It’s hard to run a rebellion and stay pure.

Hell, it’s hard to run anything and stay pure.

The counties involved included Sussex, Hampshire, Suffolk, Norfolk, Berkshire, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire, Devon, Dorset, Huntingdonshire, Gloucestershire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, and Kent–counties “where enclosure had taken place on a grand scale.” (Or not, depending on who you want to believe.) According to History Home, “Most of the rioters were of good character–not the criminal element. Their conduct usually was fairly civilised.”

Wikipedia said, when I last checked, that “despite the prevalence of the slogan ‘Bread or Blood’, only one person is recorded as having been killed during the riots, and that was one of the rioters by the action of a soldier or farmer. The rioters’ only intent was to damage property. Similar patterns of disturbances, and their rapid spread across the country, were often blamed on agitators or on ‘agents’ sent from France, where the revolution of July 1830 had broken out a month before the Swing Riots began in Kent.

“Many people advocated political reform as the only solution to the unrest. . . . The Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, replied the existing constitution was so perfect that he could not imagine any possible alternative that would be an improvement. When that was reported, a mob attacked Wellington’s home in London. The unrest had been confined to Kent, but during the following two weeks of November it escalated massively, crossing East and West Sussex into Hampshire, with Swing letters appearing in other nearby counties.

The sources I’ve found disagree on whether the riots wound down on their own or ended because they were suppressed, but suppression there was. Nineteen people were executed and more than five hundred transported.

For the participants, it must have felt like a defeat. Hell, it was a defeat–nineteen people executed, five hundred transported, and none of their demands met. Agricultural workers, according to History Home, “continued to be the worst paid, worst fed and worst housed of all the working communities.”

But change did come. At my age (I’m 103, and on bad days 203), I’m not particularly given to quoting my parents, but I will here: They were union organizers during the Depression and World War II, and they used to say that no strike is ever lost. I spent a lot of time when I was younger thinking that one over.

The Wikipedia entry I quoted above catalogs the rebellion’s impact on political reform. I’ll let you chase that if you’re interested. Less respectably, its influence was felt in Tolpuddle, Dorset, where equally desperate farm workers tried a different approach to forcing change, and eventually I’ll do a post about that. In fact, this post was supposed to be about Tolpuddle, but the background took over and here we are, some 1800 words later and I’ve only just mentioned the place.

A quick history of English hedges

Every country has a mythology about itself, and the countryside figures heavily in England’s. Never mind that three-quarter of the population (give or take a few percentage points) lives in cities–or urban areas if we’re trying to sound impressive about this. When England looks in the mirror, it sees countryside: green fields, shiny clean lambs, and hedges.

I’m limiting this to England, leaving out the rest of Britain, whose history and laws are different. And against my better judgment, I’m counting Cornwall as part of England. That’s not a statement about whether it should be part of England or culturally is part of England. The law treats it as part of England and I know enough about its hedges that I don’t want to leave it out. So all you Cornish nationalists, grab a cup of salt and sprinkle it over your computer screen. I’m talking about hedges here and nothing else.

A rare relevant photo: Cornish fields divided by hedges.

If you’re new to hedgeology, you can think of the hedges (at least the ones that aren’t made of bare stone) as long, narrow woodlands. They grow crops and they shelter and feed wildlife and provide them with safe travel routes. They also define field boundaries, look gorgeous, and embody both history and tradition. Back when rural life was all about staying alive from one harvest to the next, they were an important source of fruit, nuts, wood, and medicine. They were valued for that as much as for their ability to define and divide territory.

And the stone ones? They do most of that but for the bare ones you can forget the long, narrow woodland part.

Why am I mentioning stone walls when this is about hedges? Because the Cornish hedge is made of stone. Some are so heavily covered in plants that you can’t see the stone undernearth and some grow nothing more than a few volunteer wildflowers and small plants. You can find stoneless hedges here, but stone ones (according to my small and unscientific survey) outnumber them. Cornwall’s rich in stone. It’s not a great way to get rich in either money or food, but stone comes with the territory so people put it to use.

[A late addition to the post. In a comment, Bill Roberts added some information about the Cornish hedge that’s worth including here:

[“There is a unique distinction between a Cornish hedge and a dry stone wall. Where the dry stone wall is as it says, a wall made of a single course of stones without mortar, usually seen in the northern counties of England, a Cornish hedge is completely different. It is built in two halves, with an earth core. It is wide at the base tapering as it rises to about 1.2 metres with a concave profile each side called a batter. It supports the structure like an arch supports a bridge. The stones are laid sloping into the centre. The top of the structure is usually covered in earth and planted with hedging plants like blackthorn, or hawthorn to increase the height, which are ‘laid’ like a conventional hedge. There are examples still in use that date back to the bronze age, and Cornish hedges are supposedly the oldest man made structures in the world still being used for their original purpose.”

[For more information about Cornish hedges, see the Guild of Cornish Hedgers website.]

Making hedges

The hedges we’re talking about here aren’t the simple lines of bushes you find around a city or suburban yard–or garden if you’re British. Traditionally, you start by planting some trees or bushes in a line, but then you cut the trunks part of the way through and bend everything above the cut to one side. After that I’m out of my depth and have to refer you to a video.

As the plants grow, all sorts of vining plants work their way through–blackberries, honeysuckle, and whatever else grows locally. By the time the hedge is established, sheep and cattle won’t be wandering through it, and neither will people. Years ago, my partner and I managed to lose our way on a walk and ended up crawling through a hole in a hedge that wasn’t well maintained (the hole wouldn’t have been there if it was well maintained). Crawling through made sense at the time, or seemed to. I came out the other side with a powerful understanding what it means when someone says “you look like you’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards.” 

A well-maintained hedge is an effective border, and hedging’s a skilled job.

In the Cornish hedge, the stones are traditionally laid without mortar. That means you have to pile the damned stones up so that they don’t wander off. A good stone wall can last for hundreds of years. A bad one? Well, I built a bad one and I have to put the stones back in place several times a year. Not all of them, but enough to remind me of the difference between a good Cornish hedge and a bad one. So that’s a skilled job as well.

History

One source I found traces the English hedge back to the Roman occupation of (much but not all of) Britain. Another, which I suspect is more accurate, traces them back to around 1500 BCE, when hedges would’ve been used to mark the boundaries of fields, to enclose clusters of houses, and to fence animals either in or out. By 300 BCE they might have taken on a symbolic value, announcing, “We’re powerful enough to build a bigger hedge than we need, so don’t mess with us. And by the way, this is ours.”

Pre-Roman Britain was tribal and its hedges wouldn’t have indicated individual ownership so much as use, or possibly group ownership, although I’m not sure how well the modern idea  of ownership translates to that period. It wasn’t until the Roman occupation that hedges began to mark individual ownership.

Somewhere between not much and nothing at all is left of those early hedges. Hedges need upkeep, and what needs to be fenced in or out changes, so some wouldn’t have been worth the bother of maintaining. And although rock may last more or less forever, if you build a wall out of it, the wall itself will need maintenance. Still, even if they’d all disappeared completely, they set the pattern. Hedges had become part of the landscape and they were a tool farmers could reach for.

According to the North Wales Wildlife Trust, “Two thirds of England has been continuously hedged for over a thousand years, so many of our older hedgerows are a window into our past. They can range in date from medieval boundaries to the results of the 19th century Enclosures Act when many of the open fields and commons were divided up into smaller pockets.”

We’ll get to enclosure in a minute. We won’t get around to why a North Wales organization is writing about England’s hedges because I don’t have an explanation to offer.

I read somewhere–it’s lost now, so forget finding a link–that you can tell the age of a hedgerow by the variety of blackberry plants in it. The greater the variety, the older the hedge. This is useful if you can tell one variety of blackberry from another, but I can’t. What I can tell you is that blackberries not only grow wild in England, they do it enthusiastically. The fruit’s nice but they’re thorny and they build tiny engines to spread their seeds to new places (these are called birds), and one night they’ll reach through every bedroom window in the country and strangle us all in our beds. They’re only waiting for the signal.

You can also tell the age of a hedge by the variety of species in it. They add roughly one every hundged years. I think that’s in a thirty-meter stretch. It all has to do with Hooper’s Hedgerow Hypothesis.

I can’t can’t put Hooper’s hypothesis to work, but I can tell you that some hedges are old.

The 13th century marks the start of the Enclosure Movement, and hedging more common. Enclosure meant that large landowners, and occasionally smaller ones, enclosed–used a hedge to fence off–what had until then been common land. That allowed the landowner to claim it as his own, and in this period the landowner would almost invariably have been a his.

Common land was recognized in feudal law, which gave the juiciest rights to the lords but granted some to the peasants, and the use of a common–a piece of land owned by the landlord but set aside for the tenants–was an important one. And yes, the common is, at least in part, the origin of the word commoner. Even today a commoner is still someone with the right to use one of the few surviving pieces of common land.

The commoners’ rights were clearly defined. They might be able to graze animals, gather wood or reeds, fish, dig peat, or take sand or coal. The specific rights varied from common to common. Even though the commoners didn’t own the common, their rights were clear and protected by law and tradition.

Until suddenly they weren’t and commoners found the common pulled out from under them. We think of feudalism as oppressive, and it was, but as feudalism broke down former serfs found themselves personally free but also homeless and starving, which didn’t count as an improvement.

As an anonymous 17th-century poem put it:

          The law locks up the man or woman

          Who steals the goose from off the common

          But lets the greater felon loose

          Who steals the common from the goose.

The first enclosures were relatively limited and mostly, or so I’ve read, about a landowner using the land for something like a deer park, but enclosure became more widespread during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Wool prices had gone up and raising sheep was more profitable than growing grain. By now, the commons were no longer the only land being enclosed. Entire villages were destroyed and their people turned out, becoming vagrants at a time when vagrancy was illegal. According to WikipediaIn the sixteenth century, lack of income made one a pauper. If one lost one’s home as well, one became a vagrant; and vagrants were regarded (and treated) as criminals.”

This was a time of impoverishment, eviction, unemployment, uprooted people. The wool trade became the base of the English economy, but the shift left it dependant on foreign grain and prone to famine.

Hedges became a greater and greater part of the English landscape.

Starting in 1489, Parliament passed eleven acts over 150 years to stop enclosure, to limit its effects, or to fine the people responsible for it, all without managing to stop the process, although it may slowed it down and prevented even greater social havoc.

By the time the Civil War began (that’s 1642, according to Lord Google), Parliament’s leaders supported the rights of landlords. The king had been serving as a brake on enclosure, but with the overthrow of the monarchy, the brakes were off.

By about 1650, wool prices had settled down and wool was no longer driving enclosure, but changes in farming practices continued to. Large-scale farming was more profitable than small scale.  

The Wikipedia entry I quoted above says, “The enclosure movement probably peaked from 1760 to 1832; by the latter date it had essentially completed the destruction of the medieval peasant community.”

The effects of enclosure are hard to overestimate. Riots and rebellions are sprinkled throughout the period, beginning in the 16th century. People destroyed hedges and tried to reclaim pastures. The most organized and ambitious of these were the Diggers. Around 1650, they formed communities and declared the earth a common treasury, cultivating common and unused land in the hope of restoring all land to its “rightful owners, the common people, rather than the king, nobility and gentry who had usurped it.” 

Basing their beliefs on the bible, they called for the overthrow of the nobility, an equalization of wealth, and the abolition of property rights. As the radical priest John Ball had asked in the 1380s, “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?”

The movement spread rapidly, provoking “a fierce reaction. The Surrey Diggers were persecuted by local gentry with legal action, economic boycott and violence. In April 1650, just one year after the original settlement was founded, the Diggers’ shelters were burned down and their crops destroyed. Other communities met a similar fate to the Surrey group and the movement was effectively suppressed by the end of 1650.”

Their legacy echoes on, though. Wigan has a yearly festival commemorating them. This year’s features a list of musicians that includes Attila the Stockbroker, whose website describes his group’s latest album as “early music meets punk.” I can’t claim to love his voice but his name? Why didn’t I think of it first?

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, parliament passed laws promoting enclosure. As WikiWhatsia puts it, “These parliamentary enclosures consolidated strips in the open fields into more compact units, and enclosed much of the remaining pasture commons or wastes [uninhabited or unused land]. Parliamentary enclosures usually provided commoners with some other land in compensation for the loss of common rights, although often of poor quality and limited extent. Enclosure consisted of exchange in land, and an extinguishing of common rights.”

Fast forward, then, to modern times. With the introduction of tractors, farmers fell out of love with hedges. A bigger field’s easier to plow, and this may well have been true back when they still plowed with horses. This led to some hedges being torn down and others being allowed to decay, but depending on their length, location, and importance, it can be illegal to tear out a hedge. Some are protected by a law from the 1990s and others, in a nice piece of irony, by ancient enclosure laws.

Conservationists watch over them carefully, because they’ve become an important part of the ecosystem.

The modern role of hedges

The North Wales Wildlife Trust says, “Older hedgerows support an amazing diversity of plants and animals and often have archaeologically important old banks and ditches associated with them.”

I was going to list the animals, insects, birds, and plants that hedgerows protect and are made up of, but the quotes lean heavily and unsuccessfully toward poetry, so maybe we’d do just as well to skip them. Hedges keep long lists of wildlife and plantlife alive. For our purposes, that’s enough.

They also slow field runoff, keeping soil and fertilizer in the fields and out of the rivers. They capture carbon and pesticides. They embody a part of England’s history and self-image. They’re also incredibly beautiful.

So here we are, protecting the hedges that once destroyed a way of life.

England, St. George, and the flag

The mayor of Genoa wrote to the queen recently, demanding the back rent on England’s flag, the St. George cross.

I’ll come back to that, but first let’s talk about the flag itself. It’s a red cross on a white field and if you’re not British you may be thinking of the wrong flag. This isn’t the red, white and blue one with crosses and Xs running every which way. That’s Britain’s flag. We’re talking about England’s.

Here’s how it works. England is a nation. Britain, however, is the country that the English nation’s part of. Think of England as a ping-pong ball. Now think of Britain as the fish tank someone threw the ball into at a fair. Someone who had good aim and won a stuffed goldfish and walked away happy, leaving England inside the British fish tank.

Irrelevant photo: Yeah, any serious blogger would show you a picture of the English flag. This isn’t a flag. It isn’t even England. It’s a stone circle in Scotland.

A week later, the someone looked at the goldfish, wondered why they thought it was worth winning, and dropped it off at a second-hand store (or since this is about Britain, a charity shop).

But the ping-pong ball stayed inside the fish tank. And it brought a flag with it. Also (the metaphor’s breaking down quickly) some of its own laws. The fish tank has a different flag, which incorporates the ping-pong ball’s flag, along with the flags of some of the other ping-pong balls that were thrown in. So the English ping-pong ball has two flags, its own and the fish tank’s.

Like the English ping-pong ball, the tank has a set laws, and they apply to all the ping-pong balls.

The point is not to confuse the ping-pong balls with the fish tank.

Did that clarify things?

I didn’t think it would, but I had to try because–and I have no excuse for this–I often read questions on Quora, and I’ve come to understand that a lot of people can’t tell the difference between a ping-pong ball and a fish tank. Or between England and Britain. Or between a hole in the ground and a part of their anatomy that you’d think they’d have familiarized themselves with by the time they’re old enough to leave questions on a public website.

I used to not just read questions on Quora but answer them. I’ve pretty much stopped now because it was bringing out the worst in me. That’s not hard, but I don’t much like myself when I make fun of people publicly. At least, not after the first rush of damn-that-was-fun.

I’m not being snotty about people not knowing Britain from England, by the way. That’s just a lack of information. It’s the deeper ignorance that I’m talking about. But I am, as usual, off topic.

So, briefly, repetitiously, and more sensibly: Britain has a flag. That’s not the one we’re talking about. England also has a flag. So do Wales, Scotland, and Cornwall (which isn’t recognized as a ping-pong ball but has its own flag anyway; take that, England). Northern Ireland’s also part of Britain and it’s recognized as a nation but it doesn’t have its own flag because all hell would break loose if it tried to choose one. This symbolism stuff can turn ugly pretty easily.

To read a Greek immigrant’s explanation of the Northern Ireland flag situation, follow the link.

With that out of the way, let’s move on:

Genoa adoped St. George as its patron saint in 1190, during the Crusades, and with the saint came his flag. Why was that particular design his flag? Haven’t a clue and by now I doubt anyone else does either, although I expect it was clear at the time. Milan uses the same design but calls it St. Ambrose’s cross. If there really are saints, they’re probably up there arm wrestling over who owns the design.

Or laughing their immaterial asses off.

In the thirteenth century, the English (who weren’t yet British; the fish tank hadn’t been invented yet, never mind the ping-pong ball) adopted the flag from Genoa and, according to an article in the Week, agreed to pay for the privilege. It was “to be flown by its navy to deter enemies from attacking.”

The article doesn’t say why that particular design would deter enemies. Maybe because Genoa was a scarier naval power, but I’m guessing.

Wikipedia (when I last checked) called the Genoa connection a common belief in Victorian times but says it can’t be substantiated. It adds that Richard the Lionheart was supposed to be responsible for adopting the saint and his flag.

According to the Flag Institute (yes, there is such a thing–or at least a website that makes it look like there is), during the Reformation “all religious flags and other saint’s banners, except for St. George’s, were abolished. St. George’s flag had first been used as a maritime flag seven years earlier.”

It was the Flag Insitute–she said defensively–that put the apostrophe in the wrong place. It’s a quote, so I left it. Three points if you spotted the problem.

Those dates don’t match up with the quote from the Week, but let’s not agonize over it. It won’t be on the test. It argues for what Wikiwhatsia said, that it can’t be substantiated.

But England didn’t just buy–or rent–the rights to St. George’s flag, it got George himself as a patron saint. So let’s talk about who he was.

Legend says George was a Roman soldier, born in what’s now Turkey. According to an article in the Independent, “In 303 [the Roman emperor] Diocletian, as part of a crackdown on the growing influence of the Christian community, ordered that all Christian soldiers in the army should be expelled and all Roman soldiers be forced to make the traditional pagan sacrifice.

“St George refused and denounced the edict in front of his fellow soldiers, declaring he was a Christian.

“Diocletian initially tried to convert him with offers of wealth and land but when he refused he was beheaded on 23 April 303.”

Legend has George slaying a dragon at some point–presumably before his death. It was feeding on townspeople. But freedom from dragons doesn’t come free: He’d only do it in if the entire town converted to Christianity.

Nothing in legend connects George to England, but in 1327 Edward III made him the country’s official saint anyway. The beliefs of the time didn’t demand that a patron saint have anything to do with the country that drafted him. He had to embody the country’s characteristics–or to be more accurate about it, the characteristics it wanted to think it had. Or wanted its enemies and possibly even friends to think it had.

There was no practical way for the saints to be consulted about this. They didn’t get to say, “No, I don’t like this country–its topography offends me, its language is too complicated for me to learn, and if that isn’t enough they eat fish and chips and back when I was alive I hated fish.”

They got drafted, and if people prayed to them in a language that was too complicated for them to learn, that was the people’s problem. They prayed for rain and their warts disappeared.

It explains a lot.

So St. George got landed with not just England but also Portugal, Venice, Beirut, Malta, Ethiopia, Georgia, the Palestinian territories, Serbia, and Lithuania. And, of course, Genoa. I don’t think any of the other countries thought they had to rent him from Genoa and why England started that arrangement I don’t know.

I haven’t been able to untangle what flags–if any–all those other places consider to be St. George’s, but I do know that if you google St. George, flag, and Lithuania (I chose Lithuania because it was at the end of the list, not knowing that my fingers don’t like the sequence of the letters), you come up with lots of flag images, the red cross on a white background being only one of them.

What was George expected to do if two of his countries or territories went to war with each other? Intervene on both sides? Pull the covers over his head and weep for humanity? I’m no a expert on religion. In fact, I’m not religious and my lack of religion doesn’t even from this particular religion, so I won’t try to answer. All I can do is raise awkward questions.  

But back to that agreement about the saint and the flag: For years, England paid Genoa for the use of the flag, but it stopped when Genoa was occupied by Austria in 1746. And now, after all those years, Genoa’s mayor is making a claim for unpaid rent, writing to the queen, “Your Majesty, I regret to inform you that from my books [it] looks like you didn’t pay for the last 247 years,” He is, apparently, digging through the archives to figure out how much that comes to.

“That means we are owed over 250 years of back payments,” he wrote, before admitting he was only “half serious”.

“Instead of cash, we could ask England to restore one of our old palaces or make a donation to charity.”

Why is he claiming both 247 years’ worth of payments and over 250 years’ worth? Especially when 1746 was neither 247 or 250 years ago? I can’t answer that. Maybe he sat, dazed, though the same math classes that I did, with roughly equivalent results. I’m in no position to criticize.

What happens if England doesn’t pay up? Genoa isn’t likely to declare war, and if some court has authority over a medieval agreement that can’t be verified, I’m not sure which one it would be. Some European Union court, maybe, but Genoa had better hurry.

How do people read the symbolism of a saint’s cross in the modern world? Most people, I suspect, don’t think about saints when they see it. England’s pretty relaxed about religion.

Personally, I find it a bit weird to live surrounded by flags with religious origins. I’m Jewish and I’m an atheist. I don’t think about either of those things daily, but they set me apart in both predictable and surprising ways. Cornwall’s flag is St. Piran’s cross–white on a black background. I tend to see a symbol of Cornwall, but it is a cross and I can’t not see it as a cross. British history’s bound up with Christianity, with all its symbols and its wars and its beliefs. I accept that. What else could I do with it? It’s not as if it would change if I didn’t. But it reminds me regularly that I’m an outsider here.

The St. George flag doesn’t get much official use these days. Sports fans backing an English team use it some but, awkwardly, the English ultra-right and neo-nazis have adopted it as their emblem, so when you see it displayed you can’t tell if you’re looking at a sports fan or a nazi.

There are, mercifully, more sports fans in the country than neo-nazis and unless the context is clear, I tend to assume sports fan. Still, it’s not something you–or at least I–can put out of your (or my) mind.

The queen may well decide to skip the payment.

English public schools and the old boys’ network

English public schools–now known as bastions of privilege–started out as philanthropic schools to educate the poor. Some of them date back to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

By “the poor,” of course, the schools and their founders meant poor boys, and the sons of the rich were specifically excluded from some. Excluding girls was such a given that I doubt anyone thought to mention it.

The term public school first appears in England in 1580 (or in the eighteenth century, depending on who you want to believe). The public part meant that they benefited the public, unlike the private school, whose profit went to the owner.

These were grammar schools. As far as I’ve been able to untangle this mess, that means they taught Latin and Greek, with a heavy emphasis on the classics. When Ben Jonson wrote about Shakespeare that he had “small Latin and less Greek,” he was using those as the measure of a well-educated man. And although the man part isn’t a quote, it’s very much what he was talking about.

Irrelevant photo: A boat on the beach on Iona. With a person who’s wandering off the other way because my every moment is so fascinating.

According the the Encyclopedia Britannica (you’ll find the link in the next paragraph), the emphasis on the Greek and Roman classics continued well into the 20th century. “Organized games, in contrast, were a late development, and, before their introduction, disorderly conduct was intermittently considerable, particularly in the early 19th century. When the demand for men to administer the British Empire led to scores of new foundations during the 19th century, however, the schools tended to adopt the more disciplined, duty-bound, and athletic model.”

But we’ve gotten ahead of our timeline. The schools were good–or at least people thought they were good–and as a result, the Encyclopedia Britannica says, “From about the 17th century the upper classes took increasing advantage of the tuition [meaning teaching, not the money parents paid for their darlings to be taught] afforded by these foundations. As pupils paying the market rate became more numerous, the schools were increasingly transformed into boarding establishments.”  

In other words, the rich muscled their way in and even before anyone had time to introduce standardized tests to prove that this was all wondrous, the sons of the rich outnumbered the sons of the poor.

Since the Britannica is impressive and high-end and its editors and contributors probably knows both Latin and Greek (ancient, of course, not modern), it manages to convince a tilted A to cozy up to the second E in the word encyclopedia, which makes it look (a) like a single letter and (b) much classier than a bare nekked E would, although it adds fuck all in the way of content. That’s very much in keeping with our topic today and we’re going to do without the A, thanks, partly because I don’t have the patience to go searching for a useless character in the depths of my word processing program and partly because I enjoy small and pointless exercises in the art of spite.

In case you’ve ever wondered (and I did), how you pronounce that combination of A and E, it’s pronounced the same way it would be if the A had not only broken up with the E but moved all its stuff out in the middle of the night and left no note and not even a forwarding address. All if does is make the person who uses it look like he or she knows something other people don’t.

Which may or may not be the reason for all that Latin and Greek.

Where were we? Charitable schools to educate people of “humble backgrounds” being taken over by the upper class because they were too good to waste on the humble: As time went on, the schools’ role became to prepare boys for Cambridge and Oxford universities–and also for public service, giving another meaning to the word public.

Ages ago, I read that they were also called public schools because that contrasted with the tradition of upper-class boys being educated at home, by a tutor, but I can’t find any confirmation of that online.

In the nineteenth century, a number of girls’ public schools were established. I haven’t found a date for the earliest ones.

Where did all this lead? As the Britannica so clunkily puts it, “The impact of the public schools in Britain was historically immense. Perhaps in no other post-Renaissance country did an ethos directly and concentratedly inculcated in so few citizens exercise such influence nationally—and internationally, given the crucial role of the public school ethos in helping Britain build its empire. The ethos in question was less an academic one than a class-conscious code of behaviour, speech, and appearance. It set the standard for conduct in the life of officialdom in Britain from the early 19th century to the mid-20th.”

I’ll try a very (very) loose translation of that since, many an eye will have bounced right over it without taking much in: The schools created a set of standards by which members of the upper class could recognize each other and judge each other–and then judge people from other classes and cultures to be less worthy of their spot on the earth, given that those others had so clearly failed to be like those glorious, conforming, upper-class English public-school graduates.

Charming.

Public schools fed their graduates into government and into the varied mechanisms that ran the British Empire. They were a small group and hugely influential, and who you knew mattered. So did who you were, meaning who your family was. 

The old boys’ network? This is where the phrase originated. The old boys were the graduates of these elite schools, and there’s something creepy–at least to my ear–about it when you really hear the word boys in the phrase. These are grown men who don’t seem to have ever quite gotten away from that stage of their lives.   

According to the BBC, by 2017, only 1% of the public schools’ students paid no tuition, which in 2015 averaged £13,194 a year. If a kid boards there, that goes up to £30,369.

The country’s average income in 2015 was in the neighborhood of £27,456. So yeah, she said with a vague gesture in the direction of British understatement, these schools are on the expensive side.  I’ll admit that averages are misleading, since they’re heavily influenced by extreme numbers, but never mind. An average is enough to give us a general idea of the contrast.

So public schools have ended up as places to educate the sons (and now also the daughters) of the rich, and they don’t need to exclude the poor because the poor, the average, and the considerably above average can’t afford them anyway. A token few are stirred through in roughly the proportion of salt to broth, but unlike salt they don’t seem to change the flavor much.

The schools are still treated as charitable institutions, which earns them millions of pounds a year in tax breaks. Or possibly billions. It depends whose statistics you like. I suspect the difference depends on what tax breaks you include in your calculations. Can we just say it’s a lot of money and consider that close enough?

For a while, the government made small, squeaky noises about taking away their tax breaks unless public schools made some gestures in the direction of helping state schools (which, just to confuse the issue, are what Americans would call public schools, since they’re paid for and used by the public, unlike English public schools, which are private; are you still with me here?). Then, oddly enough, they dropped the whole thing.

The continuing influence of public school graduates wouldn’t have had anything to do with that.

A recent review of a book on the public schools mentions research showing that the standard of teaching is “not significantly higher than in the state sector: parents ‘are really paying for smaller classes . . . and a place in the privilege network.’ ”

The book comes with the perfectly neutral title of Posh Boys: How the English Public Schools Ruin Britain and sounds like a well-researched call for their abolition, covering everything from child abuse to money laundering (no, I don’t know any details, but I wish I did) to their role in educating the children of oligarchs.

According to the Times, the students of nine public schools are 94 times more likely to reach “the top” than anyone else. Analysis of the past 125 years of Who’s Who, which lists the most prominent politicians, lawyers, business leaders and civil servants in the UK, found that one in eight entrants in recent editions comes from one of the nine [elite public] schools. This compares with one in five in the 1892 edition.

Yes, friends, it’s another example of human progress, which as a child of the 50s I was taught to believe in. Not specifically. It was so much part of my teachers’ assumptions that no one thought to separate it out as something that needed teaching. Every day in every way, the world was becoming a better place.

Haven’t you noticed?

The houses of Parliament are falling down, falling down, falling down

Members of Britain’s Parliament have been arguing about whether to run away from home.

Why? Well, they come from a broken home. The Palace of Westminster, where they meet, is without too much exaggeration falling apart. To give a fairly random example, on April 22, a stone angel dropped a chunk of stone some 230 feet (that’s 70 meters, or in technical terms, a long damn way) to the ground. If this was the angel’s opinion of the government’s immigration policy (rough summary: we only want immigrants who are just like us, and we don’t really want them either), or on what it’s doing to the National Health Service or public services in general, I couldn’t agree more. Either one is enough to make the angels weep. Also enough to make the angels throw blocks of stone.

I don’t know how much the stone weighed. Enough to flatten a government, but angels have lousy aim, more’s the pity.

Irrelevant photo: a daffodil after the rain.

Westminster Palace isn’t–as the British measure these things–old, but it’s old enough to need £3.9 billion in repairs. Give or take a few hundred million, because the costs always escalate. But why should friends quibble about money, especially small amounts?

Let’s do a bit of history before we talk about what’s broken:

The first palace on the site was built in 1016,

Whether 1016 is a start date or a completion date, I haven’t a clue–construction slow back then–but it happened so long time ago that we don’t really need to know.

Then the Normans conquered the country. They looked the palace over and said, “Nice place. We’ll take it.”

Only they said it in French.

That building burned down in 1512, under Henry VIII. Fire is not a slow process, so one year more than covers it. It was rebuilt, but Henry’s eye had wandered–he had a short attention span–and he’d moved to a different palace. It stopped being a royal residence and was used by Parliament and the royal law courts.

It doesn’t sound like the place was a good fit for Parliament even then. The Lords met in what had been the queen’s chamber, then moved into a larger hall when the George III expanded the peerage and they couldn’t all stuff themselves in any longer. The Commons didn’t have a chamber of its own at first because they were, you know, commoners. They were supposed to feel lucky that they were allowed in at all.

The new building burned in 1834. The replacement incorporated what survived of the old palace (I think that’s medieval replacement; as far as I can figure out, nothing was left of the older old palace) into a gothic-style monster that spreads along the Thames.

“Monster” isn’t a comment on the architecture. I know zilch about architecture. It’s just big.

William IV (no, I don’t know anything about him either; ask me about commas; I’m pretty good with commas) didn’t like the new building and when it was almost completed he offered it to Parliament, which said thanks, Bill, but it really doesn’t work for us either.

But it turns out that nothing else worked for them either, and tradition exerts a powerful pull, so against its better judgment, Parliament moved in.

In 1835, the king opened parliament by assuring them that the fire had been accidental. Who said it hadn’t been? No one that I can find reference to, but there’s nothing like denying a crime to make the world wonder.

And there we’ll leave Parliament for a century or so, with its members following arcane traditions and running around in fancy robes and silly costumes.

During World War II, the building was bombed fourteen separate times. That was not by accident.

Which brings us to the present day, when it’s not London Bridge that’s falling down but Westminster Palace.

What’s wrong with the place? The roof leaks. Sorry, make that roofs, because it has loads of them. The gutters and downpipes are corroding. The stonework’s decaying. Angels are throwing things. It’s full of asbestos. The plumbing’s a disaster. Very few of the 4,000 windows close well. “The heating, ventilation, water, drainage and electrical systems are now extremely antiquated and improvements to fire safety are needed.”

What’s more, the building was made of Anston limestone, which was cheap and easy to carve but it decays quickly, and time’s caught up with it.

One source says the House of Commons only has room for one wheelchair. Another says wheelchair users have to sit in the middle of the chamber in both the Lords and the Commons. Take your choice. Either way, it’s a problem.

Other than that, everything’s fine. Except for the “vast quantities of combustible materials. This and the huge network of ventilation shafts and floor voids [the architects] created to aid ventilation, had the unintended effect of creating ideal conditions for fire and smoke to spread throughout the building.”

The wiring hasn’t been replaced since the 1870s. If the steam pipes blow (they’re older than all of us put together and the steam puts them under pressure), they’ll scatter asbestos in all directions. Grease from the kitchen is leaking onto pipes that carry the electrical wires.

Oh, and there aren’t enough seats for all the MPs. It’s infested with mice. And it caught fire forty times between 2008 and 2012. Four or five people are always on fire patrol. A former cabinet minister called it a death trap. And did I mention the plumbing? It smells bad. And backs up regularly.

It’s not that no one’s tried to maintain the palace, but maintenance can only be done when Parliament isn’t in session and the repairs have been slower than the decay. And, of course, not enough money was dedicated to it. To get the place in working order, they’ll need to pack the Members of Parliament and the Lords into separate boxes (the Lords’ box is lined with ermine; the Commons is just, you know, a very nice box) and move them out so some real work can go on.

In February, against the advice of government ministers, who wanted to form a committee to think about preparing to get ready to study the situation, MPs voted to move out so the work can start.

A decisive move, only they’re still there. Moving out will take a full Act of Parliament, which is “unlikely to happen before 2025.” I think that means the repairs starting, not the act, although you couldn’t prove it by me. An Act of Parliament has to be approved by both houses and then the queen has to wave her magic feather over it. It doesn’t take seven years unless the queen’s trapped in amber.

Some older MPs, primarily Conservatives, don’t want to move out during the work because–or so say the younger MPs who favor the move–they don’t want to serve out their final years in temporary quarters. But staying while the repair work goes on around them could boost the cost to £5.7 billion and stretch the work out so it takes forty years.

If the place doesn’t fall down first.

Some MPs and Lords worry (and others hope) that a move would kill off a few of the more arcane rituals associated with Westminster. Like what? Like the speaker of the Commons opening the day’s session by parading to their meeting room (sorry–it’s called a chamber but I can’t seem to call it that), together with the trainbearer, the chaplain, the secretary, and the serjeant (that’s how they spell it) at arms, with I’m not sure which of them calling out, “Hats off, strangers.” Like each newly appointed speaker being dragged up to the speaker’s chair. Like the doorkeeper calling, “Who goes home?” at the end of the day’s session. Like placing boxes of snuff outside the Commons’ and Lords’ meeting rooms, or MPs having to place a prayer card on a seat to reserve it because (and we’re back to that again) there aren’t enough seats for them all to cram in.

Ah, but there’s more: One  elevator can’t be used when the Lords are voting, and there’s a staircase that only MPs can set foot on. And a blue carpet that you can cross but not loiter on. Plus a room where you’re sometimes allowed to speak and sometimes not and little hooks for MPs to hang up their swords. The Lords have ribbons for theirs.

How do you hang a sword on a ribbon? You’re on your own there. I’ve never tried.

Politically, voting either to move out or to stay is enough to set a politician’s skin twitching. Inevitably, the people who elected them will ask, “You just voted to spend how many billion pounds to spruce up your workplace?” But every year they put off the work adds something like £100 million to the cost.

This is complicated by the government’s inaction on the many high-rise apartment buildings around the country (they’re called tower blocks here) whose siding (called cladding) turns out to be flammable. This came to light when one, Grenfell Tower, burned to a tall and horrifying cinder ini June 2017, killing many of the residents. Cue government handwringing, pious statements, and long-lasting inaction.

But yes, quick pious statement and we’ll go back to the important things: Should the palace be rebuilt exactly as it is, only updated and functional? Or should changes be made?

Like what changes? Well, women MPs complain that the seating’s built for male-size bodies, leaving short women with their legs dangling. (Speaking as a short woman, I can testify: Your back hates you when you sit way that for long.) Or the bars. Do they keep them all?

What bars? Parliament must be the country’s most alcohol-soaked workplace. Once Lords and MPs have hung up their swords (or possibly before, I wouldn’t know), they have a choice of almost thirty bas. Not everyone can drink at all of them. Some are only for lords. Some are for MPs. Journalists drink at a different one. The mice drink at another. The Lords at one point declined to merge their champagne order with the Commons’. It would’ve saved money but they were afraid the champagne wouldn’t be as good.

The public subsidy for all that is $8 million. Exactly why we’ve changed from pounds to dollars for this is beyond me, but it’s okay because we’re bilingual here.

Alcoholism and embarrassing incidents are–well, let’s not say they’re common, let’s say they’re not uncommon. I’m not sure how much of a difference there is between the two but the second one sounds better.

In addition to the bars and cafeteria(s?), there’s a hairdresser, a gym, a florist, another bar, a post office, a travel office, more bars. . . . You’d hardly have to set your well-shod foot in the real world except to convince your constituents that you think only of them.The palace was built at a time when a gentleman belonged to a gentleman’s club, and it seemed natural to recreate that atmosphere.

In spite of the building’s perks and symbolism, some MPs would rather start over someplace else and have proposed building something new instead of rescuing the palace. It could have enough office space, room in the House of Commons for all the MPs,  and functional plumbing. The current building could become a museum, they say.

There’s also been some suggestion that politics might be less adversarial if the Commons’ meeting room were shaped like, say, a horseshoe instead of having ranks of benches facing each other. On the evidence of American politics, I wouldn’t hold out a lot of hope for that.

In the meantime, Big Ben–the big honkin’ clock at the top of the building’s tower–is in the process of being repaired to the tune of £61 million, which is twice the original estimate. The clock’s expected to stay silent until 2021

Why does that need to be done? Cracks in the masonry, leaks, rusting metal, not keeping good time, the possibility that clock itself could hurl itself to the sidewalk in despair.

Is it more pressing than fixing the rest of the building? I’m not sure, but it can be done without decanting–as they put it–the entire parliament and all its support workers into something resembling the real world.