What Are England’s Home Counties?

If you spend much time reading about England, sooner or later you’ll stub your toe on the phrase Home Counties. That’s what you get for reading in the dark.

But what are they?

No one’s sure. Or lots of people are sure, but they don’t agree with each other, which is what makes the question interesting. A lot of the sources I’ve found say they’re the counties around London, and that’s safe enough but doesn’t tell us which ones, so whatever consensus we pretended to have falls apart.

 

The boundless wisdom of public opinion

A polling company, YouGov, tried to shed light on the issue (someone must’ve paid them to do that) and succeeded mainly in highlighting how dark it is out there. Because although it’s easy to come up with wrong answers (Wales not only is in the wrong part of Britain, it’s not a county), no one can say what the right answer is. So let’s look for the most common candidates. 

Irrelevant photo: wild sweet peas.

The most widely recognized in the poll were Buckinghamshire, Surrey, and Berkshire. For whatever that’s worth, which I suspect is not much, especially since none of them gathered any impressive amount of support. 

Historically, YouGov says, Sussex is usually included, but only 30% of the people in their sample included West Sussex, and only 29% included East Sussex. (East and West Sussex were divided into separate counties in 1974, although no one told me until today. Which is unforgivably rude.) 

By other definitions,  the Home Counties include Bedfordshire, Hampshire, Oxfordshire, and Cambridgeshire, although only a third to a quarter of YouGov’s sample were convinced of it. You could also make a case for Hertfordshire, Kent, and Essex, which got 36%. 

 

Forget polling. What else do we know?

The simplest definition of the Home Counties is that they’re the six counties surrounding London: Buckinghamshire, Surrey, Berkshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, and Kent. (I’m taking someone else’s word for that, but I have verified that the list has six entries. You can check for yourself if you need more certainty than that.) But you could also toss in Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Hampshire, Oxfordshire, and Sussex (or the two halves of Sussex) and not be wrong. 

And although London’s the reference point for all of this, London isn’t one of the Home Counties. It’s–well, it’s London. 

 

Does any of this matter?

No. And also yes. The Home Counties aren’t an administrative entity. They’re not a governmental division. No one runs for office to represent them or sets out parking regulations for them and only them, although the phrase does show up sometimes in official usage. Or so says WikiWhatsia, which I fall back on only in desperation. That I’m leaning on it now tells you how little information I could find anywhere else.

That covers the no, it doesn’t matter part of the answer. What about the yes, it does part? It matters as a reflection of reality and as a cultural reference reinforcing that reality.

London is Britain’s economic and cultural heavyweight. It’s where the wealth and the power and the glitz come together–along with a lot of the grit and the poverty and the problems, although in fairness those last three are pretty widely distributed. But let’s stay with the wealth and the et cetera. When you concentrate enough of that stuff in a small space, it forms a gravity well, drawing everything nearby into its orbit. So whatever the hell they are, the Home Countries matter because London’s sitting there in their middle.

In fact, London’s not just sitting there, it’s been nibbling away at the  surrounding counties and by now has swallowed MIddlesex almost completely.

The broad-brush image of the Home Counties (that’s a nice way of saying “the stereotype”) is that they’re comfortable, conformist,conservative, and consumerist. Also suburban and expensive to live in, but those don’t start with C.

 

History

According to WikiWhatsia (at the moment; you never know when it’ll change), the origin of the phrase Home Counties can be traced–unreliably–back to several periods. One is Tudor times, when they were the counties close enough for a London-based functionary to have a country home and still rush back to London when needed. Another is the 18th century (more or less), which  had the “Home Counties Circuit of courts.”

A third is the Anglo-Saxon period, although the entry doesn’t offer anything to justify that, but it’s true that many English counties were originally Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, so what the hell, we’re close. Let’s move on before anyone notices how little we know about this.

Again, according to WikiWhatsia, the first mention of the phrase is from 1695, when Charles Davenant wrote “An essay upon ways and means of supplying the war,” arguing that the Home Counties were thought to pay a disproportionate amount in land taxes. 

Davenant included eleven counties. 

 

Yeah, but what about the shires

As long as we’re wandering around with an edgeless topic, and as long as counties with the word -shire in their names have come up, let’s talk about what the shires are:

They’re English counties that end in -shire. 

I  took the romance out of that, didn’t I?

The word’s roots are Anglo-Saxon–that language we call Old English and that modern English speakers couldn’t understand even if someone offered them a chocolate pie as a reward for deciphering a single sentence. Shire’s basically the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the French-based county. 

Talking about the shires will set off some cultural resonances, although I’m not the best-placed person to tell you what they are. What I can do is tell you that the Collins Dictionary says they’re in the Midlands and famous for hunting. 

Do what you can with that.

So the Normans invaded England in 1066. What happened next?

Most people who know any English history know about the Norman invasion, that moment when Anglo-Saxon (and, um,yeah, somewhat Norse) England was taken over by French-speaking colonizers, guaranteeing that Frideswide and Aelfgifu no longer top the English list of popular baby names. But what happened after the conquest to make the country cohere?

More than I have space for, but let’s snatch a few stray bits of paper from history’s gale-force winds and see what we can do with them.

And by we, of course, I mean me, since you’re not actually here as I type this.

 

Obviously relevant photo: This is Li’l Red Cat, not William the Conqueror, but you can see why a person might get confused.

The replacement of the ruling class

Ten minutes before the Norman invasion, England’s old ruling class was Anglo-Saxon with a bit of Norse embroidery. By the time the conquerors solidified their hold, most of it had been replaced with Normans. William the Conqueror had followers to reward, and the thing about followers is that if you don’t keep them happy, they’ll turn on you. They’re big, they’re armed, and they can get nasty. And there are always more of them than there are of you. So he needed to hand them goodies, and we all know where goodies come from after a war: the people who lost. 

The land belonging to most of the Anglo-Saxon ruling class was confiscated and given to William’s followers. And since land and wealth were pretty much the same thing, we’re not talking about a new, Norman ruling class.

I’ll come back to that in a minute.

 

The non-replacement of the ruling class

But no story’s ever simple. William made efforts to keep the old ruling class on his side and pretty much limited his confiscations to the nobles who rose against him. So there was an Anglo-Saxon elite that collaborated with the Normans, kept their lands, and adopted the French language and culture. They became Frenchified and separated from the commoners. English was now the language of the peasants and French of the landlords.

 

Why didn’t England rise against the Normans?

The English outnumbered the Normans a hundred to one. So why didn’t they resist?

People who haven’t a clue what’s involved always seem to ask this about the conquered, and if you listen carefully you’ll hear a hint that it might be the conquered people’s own damn fault. They didn’t fight back, did they? They didn’t have the old warrior spirit. Or their weapons were too primitive. Or–well, you know, something.

The thing is, the Anglo-Saxons did rise against the Normans. Multiple times, and some of the uprisings presented serious threats. The thing is, they lost, and for multiple reasons. 

The leaders of all or most of the rebellions were the old aristocracy. At the time, there was an inevitability about that. The aristocrats weren’t just the governing class, they were also the warrior class. We’re still hundreds of years away from ordinary people leading their own rebellions. This was a hierarchical society. Soldiers fought. Peasants peasanted. Maybe their lords drafted them in to carry agricultural tools onto the battlefield and shout threatening slogans in front of the cameras, but they weren’t trained soldiers. So for the time being, the aristocrats are the people to keep your eye on. 

But after the Battle of Hastings, where the native English government was defeated, a big chunk of the aristocracy died. That was inconvenient, not just for them individually but for the chances of a successful rebellion, because there went its leadership. 

According to one theory, so many of them died because the Anglo-Saxons were behind the times militarily. The Normans swept into the Battle of Hastings using a new European tactic, the heavy cavalry charge, with the lances used for charging, not throwing. 

So although people did rise against the Normans, the rebellions were crushed. The leaders who didn’t die fled the country. 

Which was convenient for William, who handed their lands to Normans.

Another factor weighing against the rebels was that England was a country with a history not just of division but of outright warfare between the Anglo-Saxons and the Norse

Okay, not just warfare. They threw in a fair few massacres just to demonstrate how serious everyone was about this. So they wouldn’t have been an easy bunch to unite. And for many ordinary people, peace under a brutal leader who spoke a language no one understood might have looked better than more warfare.

The church would’ve been another place ordinary people looked for leadership, but it took the Normans’ side. So no help there.

Landscape may or may not have worked against the rebels. In some accounts,they melted into the woods, Robin Hood-like, emerging to fight a guerrilla war. In other accounts, southern England had no natural hiding places where a rebel army could base itself. I’m not sure how to reconcile those two accounts. It’s possible that the land could hide small bands, but not whole armies, but I wouldn’t take my word for that. It’s a reckless guess. I’ll leave it to you to resolve the contradiction.

Or not.

 

And those defeats led to what?

According to David Horspool, in The English Rebel, the risings against the Normans were persistent and serious, and one outcome was that William the Conqueror abandoned his early efforts to enlist the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy in a Norman government. 

“The top of England’s post-Conquest society, both lay and ecclesiastical, became almost entirely Norman,” he writes.

They also led to a longstanding mythology of English rebellions, which holds that before the Conquest England was a free land. Then the Normans came and all that freedom died. 

That the Normans brought extensive suffering is unquestionable. That Anglo-Saxon England was a land of freedom, though, is at best open to argument. Especially since slavery was deeply woven into the structure.

 

A note on sources and theories

I’m drawing from two books here: The English Rebel, by David Horspool, and The Shortest History of England, by James Hawes. It may not really be the shortest–I found one with a lighter page count, but it may have more words. I confess that I haven’t counted them. They’re both well worth reading. 

Hawes’ argues that intermarriage meant the English elite was more open to new members than any other elite in Europe. All you had to be was rich, fluent in French, and willing to speak it at all social and political occasions. 

Of course, you also had to start as part of an almost-parallel elite. Entry wasn’t open to a serf. Or even, say, a free glove maker.

In the long run, this relative openness had important ramifications, one of which was that the Anglo-Saxon elite separated itself from the Anglo-Saxon commoners, leaving them leaderless. Another was that culture became synonymous with Norman culture. The Anglo-Saxon culture and language were left to people who–in the eyes of their rulers–had no culture.

Hawes says this it was an unusual pattern in Europe until England grew up and visited it on its neighbors when it became their colonizers.

Hawes is the only historian I’ve found who talks about the Normans having a technological edge in battle. Everyone else talks about Harold–the king who lost at Hastings–having just marched from the  north, where he fought off one invasion, to the south coast to fight with exhausted troops. They talk about his decision not to rest before this second fight. 

I have no idea if Hawes is onto something there. Again, I’ll leave it to you to figure out who’s right.

Medieval justice in England: trial by ordeal, by jury, and by combat

England’s medieval system of justice has a bad reputation, and it came by it honestly. Come, let’s be horrified together.

Medieval courts came in two flavors: Local courts were presided over by the lord or his steward, and we’ll skip those for now. The King’s Court was initially presided over by the king personally but the work was eventually hived off to people whose clothing wasn’t quite as fancy. Even so, this was for the serious cases.

We’re not going to do a full roundup of medieval justice. It shifted over time. It’s complicated and I don’t have enough space in a single post. I’m tired. Let’s focus on a few high–or low–points involving serious crimes.

Irrelevant photo: hydrangea

 

Trial by ordeal

I had a sneaking suspicion that trial by ordeal might turn out to be an urban myth or a tale told to kids to demonstrate that the past was brutal and ignorant but the present was enlightened and moving toward perfection. But no, trial by ordeal was a real way to resolve important cases. So yes, the past was brutal, but you could make a good case that the present is too, and that perfection thing is still eluding us.

Here’s how trial by ordeal worked: Let’s say you’re in medieval England and you’re accused of a felony-level crime–murder, maybe, or theft, arson, or witchcraft. A priest holds a religious service and invokes god, who has nothing better to do than prove your innocence or guilt. 

In ordeal A, you’re tied up and tossed in the water to see if you sink (look, you’re innocent: the water accepts you) or float (oh, bad choice, you’re guilty: the water doesn’t want you). 

Opinion is divided on whether you’ll be fished out if you sink. One website says people are tied in a way that traps air and makes it impossible to sink. But basically, the information that’s come down to us is thin. 

In ordeal B, the priest heats a piece of metal, you take hold of it and carry it some set number of paces before you’re allowed to let it go. Then your hand’s bandaged. If three days later the hand’s getting infected, god doesn’t like you: You’re guilty. If it’s healing, god’s happy with you: You’re innocent. 

At the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, though, the Catholic Church pulled its priests out of the trial by ordeal business, which pretty much put an end to it. (It also banned them from acting as barbers and surgeons, thereby eliminating the holy haircut, Batman.)  

One reason for the shift was that big-name theologians had stopped trusting the process. Peter the Chanter (no, I never heard of him either, but then I theologians aren’t one of my interests in life) told the tale of an Englishman who’d gone on pilgrimage with a companion but returned alone. He was accused of murder, failed his ordeal, and was executed.

Then his companion came wandering back to town. 

It was embarrassing.

Other theologians opposed it because, basically, it was wrong to bother god with this stuff.

So England shifted to a jury system and god, if he existed, got time to sit back with a cup of coffee and a jelly donut. Neither of which was available within the reach of the Catholic Church at the time, but surely that’s one of the perks of being god–or a god. If there turn out to be such things.

Another website tells us that even before the Lateran Council William II had banned trial by ordeal, supposedly because fifty men had been accused of killing his deer but passed the test. 

We weren’t there, the information’s thin, and we don’t know. At this point, I wouldn’t put a lot of money on our odds of untangling the true story. Either way, trial by ordeal dropped out of use.

 

The jury system

England’s jury system overlapped with trial by ordeal: Initially, it was the job of twelve men to decide whether the accused should undergo the trial, so when trial by ordeal ended it was simple enough to look at them and say, “Hey, you’ll play god here, okay?”

Records from earliest trials present them as pretty bare bones. The defendant had no lawyer. In fact, the word lawyer didn’t come into the language until the 14th century, so let’s say the defendant had no counsel.  

The members of the jury might know the defendant. They might also know the victim. They came fully stocked with all the loves, hates, loyalties, and prejudices that a relatively small community can harbor.

No one seem to have had a problem with that.

Defendants faced one punishment, death, usually by hanging, so people were playing for keeps here. On the other hand, most people who were tried were found innocent. And of the people who were found guilty, many were pardoned. 

For all that we’re talking about the royal courts here, justice seems to have been a highly localized affair, because several sources say that an accused person could flee: Leave town and you could consider yourself (fairly) safe. Or they could take sanctuary in a church, which gave them the possibility of confessing then leaving the country for good. 

Finally, anyone who could read could claim benefit of clergy and if the church claimed them as one of its own that moved their case to the church courts, where if nothing else the death penalty wasn’t a possiblity. 

But no defendant could face a jury trial unless they agreed to it. For a few decades, it someone refused, a jury might meet anyway, and if the defendant was found guilty a second jury would meet to confirm the verdict of the first jury. 

Then the royal courts introduced the enlightened system of peine forte et dure. Let’s say you won’t agree to a jury trial. Fine, that’s your right, only they slam you in prison on a diet of bread and water. Then they put weights on you until you either agree to a jury trial or die. Which makes the bread and water diet somewhat irrelevant.

Why would you let yourself die that way when a faster (and less certain) death was available? Because if you were convicted your property would be forfeit and your heirs would be skunked. But if you died without a trial or a conviction, your family inherited your property.

 

Trial by combat

The theory behind trial by combat is that the winner wasn’t just stronger or a better fighter but that god had put his heavenly thumb on one side of the scales, tipping them toward the good and upright and against the slimy, evil, and, um, any other adjective you’d like to pile onto the losing side. Adjectives, in spite of the noise they make, don’t carry much weight, so pile them on if you like, because they won’t tip the balance.

From 1066 (the date of the Norman invasion) to 1179, this was the primary way of settling land disputes, although it wasn’t limited to land disputes. The process not only settled messy cases, it provided the neighborhood with entertainment. There’s nothing like seeing two people fight until one of them yields or dies. 

The courts did expect some minimal documentation of a claim before a case proceeded to combat, but once they’d filtered out a few screamingly bogus ones, the battle was on.

If you want a rational underpinning for this–and who doesn’t?–look at it this way: Documentation in land claims was in short supply. Witnesses could be gathered up for either side. It looks bad when judges flounce off saying, “This is pointless. Settle it yourselves, will you?” But if you have a system of trial by combat, you may be thinking that but you ask god to settle it, which sounds a lot better.

A person could either fight their own battle or choose a champion, and you could argue (as one paper does) that the system was economically efficient. Better fighters cost more money, so the battle went to the side that valued the land more. 

And, although the writer does say this, the one that had deeper pockets.

The champion who lost paid a £3 fine (that was a shitload of money back then) for perjury and was declared infamous. He couldn’t bear witness in any future cases. As far as I can tell, that was the fighter, not the person on either side of the case, but take that with several grains of salt. And I £3 fine if I’m wrong.

Trial by battle had its absurdities, some of them unpredictable ones. If a combatant died before the combat, his corpse had to be carried to the fight, and one corpse managed to win because his body was too heavy for his opponent to carry to the fight, so the corpse was declared the winner. 

Trial by battle fizzled out gradually.. Isolated cases surfaced in the reigns of Elizabeth I and Charles I, although the actual battles never took place. It’s not clear when the last battle to the death happened, but the last fully documented was in 1597 (Liz took the throne in 1558–I just checked, and if you see the comment below about me getting the date wrong, I originally changed it to 1598; don’t listen to me, ever). One of the combatants was accused of murder and was killed in the fight. So we can safely assume he was guilty. Because like trial by ordeal, trial by combat gave the appearance of certainty. And we all like certainty.

Parliament tried and failed to abolish trial by combat in 1641, 1770, and 1774. During one of those attempts, someone–no doubt with a straight face–defended it as a “great pillar of the constitution.” In 1817, when the brother of a murder victim appealed the  accused’s acquittal, the accused offered to settle it by combat. No one had suggested that for a couple of hundred years, but the law was still on the books and the judges had to allow it.

The accused was a big sumbitch and the brother was young, scrawny, and sensible enough to say no. The accused walked free. 

In 1819, Parliament finally abolished trial by combat.

Which didn’t stop a man from challenging the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency to pick a champion who’d fight him to the death over a £25 fine. He offered a choice of samurai swords, heavy hammers, or gurkha knives. I’d love to have been around when someone opened that email.

The court ordered him to pay £200 plus £100 in costs.

*

This started out as a post about contemporary magistrates’ courts, which are at interesting corner of the English legal system, but I got lost in the history. I expect to come back to a few more odd corners of the system and its history in the coming weeks.

*

Finally, a note about the bizarre pop-up that I added to the blog a little while back. It invites/asks/wheedles you to sign up to my email list, and a friend tells me that if you sign up it promises that I’ll send recipes. (It takes a good friend to tell you that.) 

It lies. I will not send you recipes. I will not send you anything except an announcement–or maybe two if I can’t stop myself–when my forthcoming novel forthcomes. 

Why am I doing this? The theory is that email lists sell books. I haven’t a clue if they do, but I’m being a good girl and following the advice. It’s an interesting experience but I doubt I’ll do it often. 

So do sign up. It’s safe. It’s free. I won’t bury your inbox in trivia. Or recipes. I have a novel coming out in March or April and I’d love to let you know about it–although I’ll post something on the blog as well.

As soon as I figure out how, I’m going to fix that damn pop-up. In the meantime, have a laugh at my expense. 

How England became Christian–twice

England converted to Christianity twice. Or if you want to put that in modern terms, you could probably say it was born again again.

You’ll want to keep in mind that England wasn’t England yet. It was the place that would become England when it grew up. 

Pre-England’s first brush with Christianity came when the place was still Roman, and you won’t find a clear event or date to mark its beginning. Sometime in the fourth century, though, Christianity became the trendy thing among the British elite. 

We know that in part because they built churches and started decorating their villas with Christian images, and bits of both have survived. 

The part about decorating the villas makes the shole thing sound frivolous, and some of it surely was–people are bound to be as silly in one century as they are in another, on any given topic and in roughly the same proportions. At a wild guess, I’d say it was probably your usual mix of belief, fashion, and politics. 

Irrelevant photo: nasturtiums

Non-Christian beliefs continued, though. People worshiped both Roman and Celtic gods, and their shrines went right on being used. The tradition of writing curses on lead and nailing them to walls or dropping them into springs and (I think) wells also continued. From our point of view, it was a useful tradition because it lets us drop in on the everyday stories of everyday people.

 

But first, a word or ten about paganism

Before we go on, let’s talk about how we’re going to describe the beliefs of the people who weren’t Christian, because if you do any reading about religion in Britain, you’ll find the word pagan getting tossed around as if it describes a set of beliefs. It doesn’t. Pagan’s a Christian word dating to about the fourteenth century, when it was first used to describe someone who wasn’t Christian. Basically, it means people who aren’t like us. But since an awful lot of religions in the course of human history have been other than Christian, that covers a lot of territory.

It doesn’t include Jews and sometimes it doesn’t include Muslims, although that depends on who’s using the word and what they think it means. But even when it doesn’t include them, neither Jews or Muslims are likely to use the word. It comes out of the wrong box of words. 

As far as I can tell, whether Muslims are in or out of the category rests on the question of whether pagan was being used as an all-purpose term of abuse or whether it was meant to describe people who worshiped more than one god. 

For a brief visit with the mindset of one set of people who took the word seriously–and I promise we won’t stay long–allow me to introduce you to a quote from an 1897 dictionary. This comes with a full-out racism warning:

Pagan and heathen are primarily the same in meaning; but pagan is sometimes distinctively applied to those nations that, although worshiping false gods, are more cultivated, as the Greeks and Romans, and heathen to uncivilized idolaters, as the tribes of Africa. A Mohammedan is not counted a pagan much less a heathen.”

If you’re going to heave, I’d appreciate it if you’d miss the rug. 

Thank you and let’s move on.

Sometime in the last century or so, Britons wanting to connect with earlier religions–at least as they understood them–began describing themselves as pagans. It drives me mildly nuts, since the original followers of those religions would never have called themselves that and I doubt we know enough about their beliefs to follow them, but never mind, the neo-pagans seem happy with it all.

This long meander is to tell you that I’ll do my damnedest to avoid the word pagan. I often use pre-Christian, but that has its own problems, among which is that it makes Christianity sound like history’s central reference point, which–well, history doesn’t work like that. 

It also doesn’t work when in the period we’re talking about a non-Christian king followed a Christian one. That would make the post-Christian king pre-Christian, at which point we’re talking complete nonsense.

If anyone knows a short, recognizable phrase that works better than anything I tossed out, do let me know.

 

Enough of that

Before I so rudely interrupted myself, Christianity was trending among the Romano-Celtic elite. Then the Romano-Romans left, leaving the Romano-Celtic elite to find their own way home from the party. 

There were no cabs. And since this was a party, not a meeting, no one was taking notes. That’s why it’s called the Dark Ages: We don’t know what they got up to after their Roman chaperones left. 

We have two theories to choose from: 

1. Anglo-Saxon tribes invaded what we now call England, slaughtering lots of Romano-Celts and pushing the others to the margins of Britain so they could seize the central part.

2. The Anglo-Saxons who had already settled in eastern England expanded westward, absorbing the existing population. 

Or since we had two choices: 3. Some combination of 1 and 2.

However it worked, Christianity was not trending in early Anglo-Saxon England, and not much is known about the religion the Anglo-Saxons followed. The writings that survive come from Christian sources, and what they describe sounds suspiciously Greco-Roman and probably wasn’t based on anything they actually knew. 

The internet, I remind you, had yet to be invented, which is a shame because they could have consulted Lord Google, who leads people to entirely reliable information 100% of the time. 

So we don’t know much, but perfectly respectable sources like the British Library are happy to tell us that the Anglo-Saxons were pagans.

Thanks, guys. I can’t begin to tell you how helpful that is.

 

The Celtic saints

While the middle of the island became “pagan,” with an emphasis on the quotation marks, Christianity kept its hold at the Celtic margins–Cornwall, Wales, Scotland. And Ireland, which is (you may have noticed) an entirely different island but played a big part in all this. 

Celtic Christianity wasn’t the Roman variety of Christianity. It was decentralized, it wasn’t impressed with the pope, and it was a good fit for cultures organized along  tribal lines, without big urban centers. It leaned heavily toward monasticism, and its monasteries were often isolated and austere, heavy on fasting, broken sleep, standing in cold water, and monks and nuns who generally made themselves uncomfortable.

Ireland and Wales in particular pumped out saints by the hundred. Or maybe that’s by the dozen. They’re hard to count. They wandered, they preached, they set up monastic communities. Some set themselves up as hermits. And although they’re called saints, what that meant was mainly that they were members of Christian orders. Or that they were literate. (Those two things might not have been so different.) Or simply that they were evangelists. 

The Celtic saints were, according to one source, happy to preach to ordinary people, but the key conversions were of the Anglo-Saxon kings, of whom there were still a fair number. Convert yourself a king and before you knew it you’d converted a kingdom. 

For kings, the attraction of Christianity wasn’t entirely (or maybe at all) religious. It brought access to Latin, the common language of Europe, and to writing itself. And once you had writing, you could have law codes, charters, traceable property rights. 

Conversion didn’t move in a straight line, though. A Christian king might be followed by a non-Christian king. A king might build a church but use it to honor both the Christian and a non-Christian god. I’ve heard an archeologist talk about finding a grave in Cornwall that showed evidence of both Christian and pre-Christian burial traditions. 

“They were hedging their bets,” he said.

But for all that, the Celtic Christian church was gradually building an organizational structure in Anglo-Saxon England, consisting of monasteries, bishops, and archbishops. 

Interestingly if somewhat irrelevantly, monasteries at this stage sometimes housed monks, sometimes nuns, and sometimes both. 

 

The Roman strand of Christianity

But the Anglo-Saxons were also evangelized by Roman Catholic missionaries, whose strand of Christianity was hierarchical and recognized the pope as head of the church. The two strands differed on crucial points, including what part of their heads monks should shave and the correct date for Easter–did it have to fall on a Sunday, and would it be a disaster if it fell on the same day as Passover?

The pope made efforts to reconcile the two strands by setting up a couple of meetings. One broke down when the British clerics approached the pope’s representative and he didn’t stand.

So yes, everything was handled in an admirably adult manner. 

Predictably, the doctrinal differences tangled themselves in kingly politics. Consider the Northumbrian King, Oswy, who followed the Celtic traditions but married Eafled, who’d been brought up in the Roman ones. He celebrated Easter on his date. She celebrated it on hers.

They might have lived unhappily ever after, never knowing when to give each other the chocolate rabbits or hide the Easter eggs, but at the Synod of Whitby, he decided his kingdom, Northumbria, would follow the Roman tradition. By one account, it was to foil someone’s political machinations with a few of his own. By others, it was because St. Peter held the keys to heaven. Either way, it was the beginning of the end–or possibly the middle of the end–for the Celtic strand of Christianity. By the 700s the Celtic strand of Christianity was in retreat.

The eventual dominance of the Roman strand explains why Cornwall and Wales have an endless string of saints that the Catholic Church never recognized. The histories of some are well documented, but all that’s left of others is a name, some guesswork, and a bit of befuddlement.

As for King Oswy, ask Lord Google about him up and you’ll find the King Oswy Fish Bar, the King Oswy Tandoori Restaurant, and the King Oswy Spar (that’s a convenience store). So yes, his name lives on.

Who were the Anglo-Saxons?

Until recently, if you asked who the Anglo-Saxons were the answer would’ve been that they were people from two northern European tribes who invaded England during the fifth and sixth centuries and then put down roots and stayed. They pushed the Britons (mostly Celts who’d been Romanized) to the corners of the island and formed a shifting set of small kingdoms in the island’s middle. 

The kingdomlets eventually became one full-size kingdom, which was in turn overthrown by the Norman invasion in 1066. 

Sic transit gloria mundi, which is Latin from Do whatever you like, in the end it all goes wrong anyway. It’s a run-on sentence, but you can blame the ancient Romans.

 

The Jutes and the complications

To complicate the picture (I can never resist a complication), you can also tell the traditional story so that there were three tribes, the Angles and the Saxons plus the Jutes. But the Jutes are always getting dropped from the discussion because they wouldn’t spend money on a publicity agent. So the Anglo-Saxons are the folks we know about. If you care what posterity thinks of you,  you’ll find a lesson in there somewhere. 

On the other hand, by the time posterity either remembers or forgets you, you won’t be around to care, so the Jutes may have been wise to spend their money on other things. 

Irrelevant photo: I can’t remember the name of this, but if you have one you suddenly find you have a thousand and you’re pulling them up everywhere.

What evidence we have says the Jutes came from Scandinavia–probably from what’s now Jutland–and that the tribal members who didn’t migrate got absorbed by the Danes. 

 

Where does the traditional story come from?

Two of the main sources of information about the period are Gildas and the Venerable Bede, and both wrote about battles between the Britons and the Anglo-Saxons. But Bede lived in the seventh and eight centuries, so he’s not a contemporary source. And Gildas lived in the sixth century, so although he’s earlier than Bede he’s not a contemporary either. Gildas also considered the Anglo-Saxons God’s punishment for the British leaders’ depravity, and sorry, no, I don’t have any details, but that does kind of mark him as something less than an unbiased narrator.

So grain of salt, please, with both of those. Some archeologists have begun to notice that no one has yet found evidence of those battles, and that calls their version of the story into question.

In addition, the dividing lines between Angles, Saxons, and Jutes may not have been as clear in real life as they were in Bede’s history. Still, their names have been preserved in assorted place names, showing that they were used. The English counties that end in -sex (settle down there in back; we’ve all heard the word sex before or we wouldn’t recognize it) were Saxon. Wessex is from West Saxons; Essex from East Saxons, Middlesex from Middle Saxons. The North Saxons, as was pointed out by someone who has a better grasp of British geography and history than I do, did not leave behind a place called Nosex. 

The Angles, however, left us East Anglia and England. Not to mention the word English

The Jutes (probably) left us Jutland, and it’s in the wrong country. See why they keep getting dropped from the conversation?

The Anglo-Saxons, somewhat irrelevantly, didn’t call themselves Anglo-Saxons. The word turns up for the first time in the eighth century. 

 

The unknowns and the new interpretations

One of the things we don’t know about the period is whether the Anglo-Saxons invaded in hordes or trickled in in small numbers and settled among the existing population. Bede and Gildas make the incomers sound like invading hordes who replaced the Romano-Celts, either killing them or driving them to the corners of the island. Until recently that’s been accepted as fact.

Then–

You’ve heard the complaints that Black Lives Matter protesters are rewriting history? Well, here’s history being rewritten with no political agenda at all. Because history’s constantly getting rewritten. New ideas crop up, and new ways of looking at things, and new technologies (social history, for example, or women’s history), and new information. They change the picture. So here’s how it’s changing at the moment:

Archeologists from Sydney and Vancouver have been rummaging through Anglo-Saxon bones from the fifth through eleventh centuries and they say the Anglo-Saxons weren’t from a genetically unified group of people. They were (much like the inhabitants of modern Britain) a mix of migrants and local people.

What sort of a mix are we talking about? Between 66% and 75% of the early Anglo-Saxons had ancestors from continental Europe. The remainder had local ancestors. And Anglo-Saxon here means people who lived in what archeologists identify as Anglo-Saxon settlements–people who lived a certain way, buried their dead a certain way, and had identifiable types of jewelry or goods buried with them.

For the middle Anglo-Saxon period (that’s several hundred years after the original migrants arrived), 50% to 70% percent had local ancestors and the rest had ancestors from continental Europe. That may mean local people adopted the Anglo-Saxon culture, that the rate of migration changed, or both.“Instead of wholesale population replacement,” they say, “a process of acculturation resulted in Anglo-Saxon language and culture being adopted wholesale by the local population. . . . It could be this new cultural package was attractive, filling a vacuum left at the end of the Roman occupation of Britain. “

The archeologists speculate that “being Anglo-Saxon was more likely a matter of language and culture, not genetics.”

Separate studies of DNA and of tooth enamel back up their findings, with incomers being identifiable only by high-tech scientific study. They were buried the same way as local people and in the same places. 

 

The Anglo-Saxon economy

The established belief has been that when the Romans left the economy went into a sharp decline. Basically, Britain fell apart. But enthusiasts waving metal detectors have added new evidence about the period, and in Building Anglo-Saxon England, John Blair uses it (and other evidence) to argue that the economy was just fine, thanks. It produced goods. It traded with other countries. It didn’t collapse.

Susan Oosthuizen’s The Anglo-Saxon Fenland and The Emergence of the English make a different version of the same argument. The early Anglo-Saxon years weren’t the gang warfare we’ve come to think they were. She looks at the way the land was used and sees continuity. The Roman withdrawal from Britain, she thinks, created stability, not chaos.  

Both households using privately held land and communities using common land continued very much the way they had. A violent transformation, she argues, would’ve overwritten field layouts. A conquering horde wouldn’t have settled into the boundaries, property rights, and land management patterns of the people they’d dispossessed.

Instead, she sees incomers and local people living beside each other, with no evidence that the earlier people became subject to the incomers. She goes as far as arguing that the period shouldn’t be called Anglo-Saxon, because that overlooks both the Britons and the immigrants from North Africa, the Mediterranean, Ireland, and parts of Europe other than where the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes came from. They  formed, she says, a common culture with a common language. 

The number of non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants was small but may have been culturally or economically significant. But (unsubstantiated theory warning) everything from “may have” is just me speculating.

 

But didn’t Britain collapse when the Romans left?

When the Romans left, Rome’s constant demand for taxes left with them, which may have taken pressure off the local economy. In places, arable land was converted to pasture. That can be taken as a sign of collapse or a sign that, without the need to shovel surpluses to Rome, people could afford to do this.

In 429, the bishop of Auxerre visited Britain and described it as “this very opulent island.” It “enjoyed peace with security on several fronts,” he said. And St. Patrick’s reminiscences apparently also paint a picture of a stable country, not one torn by wars and invasion.

Even Gildas–remember him? one of the sources of the war and chaos tale?–describes early sixth-century Britain as a country with  a functioning legal system, a church hierarchy, monastic houses, and a military command structure and administration that were still organised along Roman lines. 

A review of Oosthuizen’s book says, “What Gildas most disliked was the evidence he saw for new administrative, legal, social, religious, and political structures emerging and diverging from Roman norms, not the lack of such structures.”

The idea that historians should be neutral–or at least try to look neutral–was still centuries away.

 

Yeah, but the language–

But wasn’t Old English brought by the Anglo-Saxons and imposed on the country?

Not necessarily. There’s no evidence that it arrived in Britain as a fully formed language–it would’ve been, at the least, a variety of dialects– or that it was imposed. In eighth-century Britain–that’s well after the Anglo-Saxons first arrived–Bede says people spoke Old English, British Celtic, Irish, Pictish, Church Latin, and vernacular (meaning everyday spoken) Latin. A lot of them would have known two or three languages, and he says almost everyone could speak vernacular Latin.

English might have gobbled down several of those, using both a Germanic and British base for its syntax and a vocabulary that was stolen from everyone within hearing range. 

Linguists–at least some of them–are now calling English a contact language, meaning not that flies stick to it but that it grew out of the interaction of various languages. That’s in contrast to a language that’s imposed by a dominant class, as English was (by way of an example) in Britain’s colonies.

 

The Ikea hypothesis

I can’t leave you without talking about the map of Ikea stores in Oosthuizen’s book. (It’s reproduced in the review. The link’s above.) She argues that future archeologists could mark a map with all the Ikea stores that are close to rivers leading to the North Sea, and from that theorize that Sweden colonized Britain in the late twentieth century. 

They could back up the theory by pointing to the amount of Ikea furniture in people’s homes and decide that the 100,000 Swedes who lived in London in 2018 had moved there to work for Ikea. 

Which is entirely possible.

A quick history of town criers

The pandemic dictated that this year’s Town Crier Championships had to be held in silence, so this might be a reasonable time to stop and ask about town criers’ history in England.  

 

The Normans. Doesn’t everything trace back to the Normans?

In England, we can trace town criers at least back to 1066, when the Normans invaded the country and put themselves in charge, adding an overlay of the Old French they spoke to the Old English that everyone else did.

While they were at it, they also took over the land, the government, and anything that was left after that was parceled out.

The reason I mention their language, though, is that roughly a thousand years later town criers still start their cries with “Oyez, oyez,” which is French for “Listen up, you peasants.” 

Okay, it’s French for “Hear ye, hear ye,” which is English for “Listen up, you peasants.” And it’s pronounced, “Oh yay,” for whatever that information may be worth. 

Whatever they say after that, they’re supposed to end with “God save the queen.” Or king. Or whatever. 

Screamingly irrelevant photo: primroses.

The reason we can trace town criers back to the Norman invasion is that two of them were woven into the Bayeux Tapestry, which tells the tale of the invasion in–um, yeah–tapestry. You can pick out the town criers because they’re carrying hand bells, which they rang to gather people around them. Because, loud as they were, a bell was even louder. 

They were sometimes called bellmen. 

Even today, town criers open their cries by ringing a hand bell, although historically some used drums or horns. 

But in spite of their Frenchified call,  it wasn’t the Normans who introduced the town criers–at least not according to the website maintained by the Loyal Company of Town Criers, which says the town criers in the tapestry were Anglo-Saxons carrying King Harold’s news about the Norman invasion to the populace.

Harold? He’s the guy who not long after sending out news of an invasion lost the battle, the war, and his life. 

If the loyal company is right and the town criers in the tapestry were Anglo-Saxon, then the tradition predated the Normans.

And who am I to question a loyal company? 

Well, I’m the person who stumbled into the Windsor and Maidenhead Town Crier site, which also mentions the tapestry but says its town criers came into the country with the Normans. 

That’s the trouble with drawing your history from visual art. A lot of interpretation is involved.

A third site ducks the issue by saying the town criers’ position was formalized after the Norman invasion. 

So we’re going to be cagey about this. Go eat a cookie or something and I’ll move us along while you’re distracted.

 

The town crier’s role

With the medieval period we can pick up more verifiable information about town criers. At a time when most people were illiterate, word of mouth was the social media of its day. Also the newspaper, the radio station, and the TV set. As Historic UK explains,  “most folk were illiterate and could not read.” 

Well, holy shit. As if being illiterate wasn’t bad enough, they couldn’t read either. Talk about multiple handicaps.

So the town crier would ring their bell or blow their horn or pound their drum, gather people around, and bellow out the news, proclamations, bylaws, thou-shalt-nots, thou-shalts, and whatever else the person pulling their strings felt was important. 

They had strings? Who pulled them? 

I haven’t found a direct answer, so I’m patching this together as best I can. Sprinkle a bit of salt over it, would you? 

The string puller(s) would probably have varied with the period we’re talking about. At at least some times and in some places, town criers were paid by the proclamation. Some sites talk about a city or town having a town crier, which makes it sound less like a casual job, and one site talks about town criers proclaiming ads. You know, “Oyez, oyez. Lidl is selling three lettuces for the price of two, but hurry or they’ll all be gone. God save the salad dressing.” 

But local government would also have come into the picture, wanting its announcements cried out, wanting the reason for a hanging made public, passing on announcements it received from the king or queen, which gives me a nifty excuse to mention that town criers were considered to be speaking in the name of the monarch, so attacking one was an act of treason.

Generally, once the crier had read out a proclamation, they’d nail it to the door post of the town pub. (Come on, where else are you going to gather the citizenry?) That gives us the word post in the sense of news and communication. 

Okay, they also made their proclamations at markets and town squares and anyplace else people could be counted on to gather. But an inn? If people gathered and listened, they might well step inside, buy a beer, and talk over what they’d heard. And a smart landlord might well offer the town crier a free beer after a well-placed announcement, although that’s the purest of speculation.

One site says town criers also patrolled the streets at night, looking for troublemakers (who else would be out after dark?) and making sure fires were damped down after the curfew bell rang. 

The origin of the word curfew lies in the Old French for covering a fire: cuvrir and feu. Fire was a constant threat in medieval towns. Having an old busybody with a bell making sure everyone really did cover theirs would be annoying but also useful. It’s believed (which is to say, it’s not exactly known) that one reason more people didn’t die in the Great Fire of London is that town criers warned people about the fire. It’s also believed that many more people died in the fire than were ever counted, so if you’ve still got some salt left, use a bit more of it here, because a good part of what I’ve found on the topic was written by nonhistorians. And speaking as a nonhistorian myself, we screw up more often than we like to admit.

Towns did organize unpaid overnight patrols (you’ll find a bit about that here), and the watchmen were sometimes called bellmen, but all men were expected to volunteer or to pay someone else to take their shift. They could all have been town criers, in spite of sometimes being called bellmen. I’m going to crawl out on a thin branch and say that some nonhistorian got fooled by the word bellman being used for two different jobs.

So who got to be a town crier? Someone with a loud voice who could sound authoritative. And someone who could read, because proclamations would come in written form and needed to be read out accurately. 

Town criers haven’t, historically, all been men. Some were husband-and-wife teams, and some were women. The Northwich 1790s records mention a woman who’d been carrying out the role “audably and laudably” for more than twenty years.

The collective noun for a group of town criers–of course you need to know this–is a bellow of criers. 

As literacy spread, town criers became less important, and where they continued, more decorative. These days, if you find them at all you’ll find them dressing in three-cornered hats (or other gloriously outdated headgear) and all the clothes that go with them. They’re most likely to show up to open local events or at contests.

 

And that brings us back to the silent championships

And so we return to this year’s silent championships: If the contestants couldn’t make a noise, what were they judged on?

Organizer Carole Williams said it was “a return to the bare bones of crying. . . .It’s a real skill to write a cry that sticks to the theme, that enlightens people, and doesn’t bore the audience. And it all has to be done in 140 words.”

That makes it sound like a shouted tweet, doesn’t it?

Williams, by the way is a crier from Bishops Stortford, which I include that because place names don’t get any more English than that, and a member of the Loyal Company of Town Criers, which I include because it hosts the competition and because organization names don’t get any more English than that. Even if you make them up.

Normally, the contest is judged on sustained volume and clarity, on diction and inflection, and on content, but this year’s entries had to be recorded and since not everyone could be expected to get their hands–or their cries–on good recording equipment, the organization decided to make sure everyone had an even chance.

The contest raised money for a mental health organization called–appropriately enough–Shout. 

*

Thanks to Bear Humphreys at Scribblans for sending me a link to the silent crier championships. 

Britain’s Corn Laws: that bit of history you slept through turns out to be fascinating

Britain’s Corn Laws are a bit of long-repealed legislation whose history is wrapped around the Napoleonic Wars, the Industrial Revolution, Ireland’s potato famine, and the struggle for workers’ rights and universal suffrage. So if (as I assume) you slept through them in some half-forgotten history class, it’s time to catch up.

They not only matter, they’re interesting.

Irrelevant photo: an azalea blossom

 

The Napoleonic Wars and the politics of wheat

Let’s start with the Napoleonic Wars. That’s 1803 to 1815, and I had to look them up too. I don’t actually know anything. I just ask Lord Google questions and arrange the information he gives me, usually in odd patterns and after filtering the sites he suggests, because he does try to slip me some losers. 

I also have a growing stash of books on British history. Some are more useful than others.

Where were we?

The Napoleonic Wars. Before going nose to nose with revolutionary France, Britain was in the habit of importing a lot of its wheat, which was its most important grain. It was also in the habit of using the word corn for any old kind of grain. It still is. What Britain calls corn, the US calls grain. And what the US calls corn, Britain calls maize.

How we understand each other at all is beyond me.

There’d been corn laws since as early as the twelfth century, but they didn’t become a political focus until the nineteenth, and that was because during the Napoleonic Wars Britain couldn’t import wheat from Europe, so British farmers patriotically planted more wheat and filled the gap as best they could. Then came the end of the war and British farming patriotically demanded that its price had to be protected from interloping foreign corn that spoke funny languages and, worse yet, cost less. 

Now that’s what I call patriotism.

In 1812, corn cost 126s. 6d. a quarter. Three years later, it cost 65s. 7d. Forget the complicated math it takes to understand that: What you need to know is that the price dropped. Drastically. 

Okay, okay, we’ll break the numbers down. Don’t blame me if we can’t get them back together: 

A quarter, an s. and a d. are long-dead measurements that everyone took seriously and knew how to work with at the time. An s. is a shilling and a d. is a penny, because shilling starts with S and penny doesn’t start with d.

You can see how much sense this is going to make, right?

There were 12 pence in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound, although for reasons I can’t begin to understand no one seems to have shifted from shillings to pounds here when they got to 21, they just kept adding up the shillings. It’s a mystery that only people who’ve lived with the system can explain–maybe–and if we stick around a while it’s possible that one of them will. Friends, I invite you to the comments box.

A quarter is eight bushels. Its full name is quarter-hundredweight and it’s a quarter of a hundredweight. Hang onto that, because it’s the only bit that’ll make sense. A hundredweight doesn’t weigh a hundred of anything: It’s 112 pounds, or 8 stone. In the US, a hundredweight used to mean 100 pounds, but then people stopped using the term. It was too confusing, having a hundredweight weigh a hundred of something.

Try not to think about it too long or your brain will turn to jelly. Which in the US is something you spread on toast but in Britain is a fruit-flavored dessert made with gelatine–that stuff Americans call by the brand name jello, minus the capital letter. We stole the word from the manufacturers.

And how much wheat is 8 bushels? Enough to cover your living room floor nicely, thanks. 

I know. Sometimes it seems like we’ll never get to the point, but here we are.

When wheat prices dropped, British landowners patriotically pushed Parliament to protect their prices (the alliteration’s accidental but fun), and I doubt it took much pushing because the country’s political structure was weighted heavily in favor of landowners. And that last sentence is why the Corn Laws are more than just some ancient bit of legislative history but an entry point to a long battle over the right to vote.

 

Money and power

At the opening of the nineteenth century, women couldn’t vote, the poor couldn’t vote, and most of the not-so-poor couldn’t vote. The richest industrialists could vote but that wasn’t enough to give them the political power that would’ve made such a fetching match for their money, and they weren’t happy about that. Because what good is one measly vote when you need Parliament to pass the laws that protect your interests and your business? For that, you want some serious clout. 

Parliament made no pretense of representing the country as a whole. The lords of many a constituency were able to appoint its Member of Parliament, who the few people allowed to vote would duly elect. In other constituencies, candidates openly bought votes. Big industrial cities often didn’t have their own Members of Parliament, although what were called rotten boroughs, with next to no population, did. To (atypically) get to the point, the House of Commons was safely under the control of landowners, as was the House of Lords.  

In 1815, to protect the price of wheat, Parliament passed the Corn Law, slapping a hefty import duty on foreign wheat unless the price of domestically grown wheat rose to 80s. per quarter. The duty was steep enough that wheat wasn’t worth importing. This protected not just the farmers producing the wheat but also the landlords who owned the land the farmers farmed. If the price of wheat dropped, farm rents would have to drop. And since landowners held the power–

You can see where I’m going with this, right?

Rioting broke out in London while the bill was being debated and soldiers surrounded Parliament to protect it. What with the war and several years of bad harvests, people had lived with high grain prices long enough. This was a time, remember, when you didn’t take it for granted that you could keep yourself and your family fed. Some huge percentage of the population lived on the edge. 

The bill passed anyway–who thought it wouldn’t?–and that focused a lot of people’s attention on getting the vote. In other words, it fed the demand for political reform.

The 1816 harvest was bad, pushing prices up, and that was followed by food riots and strikes for higher pay. 

Which brings us to our next point: If the Corn Laws were a disaster for people who were just scraping by, but they also pissed off industrialists–those rich people whose political power wasn’t a good match for their money. When the price of grain went up, their workers pushed for higher wages so they could afford to eat. People can be so picky about that. For industrialists, that meant either industrial unrest or less profit. 

They didn’t like either choice.

 

Who gets the profit?

From the 1820s through the 1840s, Conservative and Liberal governments tinkered with the Corn Laws but didn’t repeal them, and landowners argued that manufacturers opposed them only so they could drive down workers’ wages and increase their own profits. This was despicable, since the landowners preferred to have the profits in their own pockets. In an improbable convergence of opinion, the Chartist Movement, which was socialist, agreed, as did Karl Marx. 

From what I can see, there was some truth in the argument. A certain amount of profit was kicking around the country and the question was whose pocket was it going to end up in?

Of course, it could go into workers’ pockets through a combination of lower bread prices and stable or higher wages, but, yeah, that wasn’t going to happen.  

Marx seems (waffle word there; I’m working from second-hand sources instead of reading all 74 volumes of Capital plus his 6,739 assorted pamphlets, letters, and whatever’s left) to have gone a step further and seen the battle as one where the industrialists needed the workers’ help against the landowners, but as far as I can tell many of the struggles against the Corn Laws and for the vote came from the ground up, not the top down. Abolition of the Corn Laws was one of the demands at St. Peters Field, site of the Peterloo massacre, where people also demanded universal suffrage.

By which they meant, of course, universal suffrage for men. But that’s a different tale. You can find it here

The Anti-Corn Law League was founded in 1838 and advocated peacefully for repeal, and in 1844 the Duke of Richmond countered by founding the Central Agricultural Protection Society (called CAPS) to campaign in favor, which makes it sound like he felt that the pressure against the laws was serious. 

Then 1845 combined a bad harvest in Britain with the potato blight in Ireland, which was very much under British control. If Britain was facing scarcity–and it was–Ireland was facing starvation.

The combination convinced the prime minister, Robert Peel, that the Corn Laws had to end, and for a while it looked like Parliament would rescind them, but after some political jockeying, complete with prime ministers resigning, the laws were still in place. CAPS campaigned fiercely against abolishing them, in some places (according to the New World Encyclopedia) it practically supplanted the Conservative party.

One of the arguments offered in the parliamentary debate was that repeal would weaken landowners socially and politically, destroying the “territorial constitution” of Britain by empowering commercial interests.

In 1846, the Corn Laws were finally repealed, but the potato famine had moved well beyond the reach of half measures. It’s a separate story, and a bitter one. Estimates put the number of Irish people who died of hunger and disease at a million, all in the name of letting the problem work itself out through natural means. 

 

The effects of repeal

Repeal did keep the price of corn down in Britain. Between 1850 and 1870, it averaged 52 s. Britain became increasingly dependent on imported corn and British agriculture went into a depression notable enough to have its own name, complete with capital letters: the Great Depression of British Agriculture. Agricultural laborers left the land and migrated to the cities, feeding the Industrial Revolution.

You can chalk all that up to the repeal of the Corn Laws if you like, or you can chalk it up to railroads and steamships making North American grain easier to import. Britain and Belgium were the only corn-growing countries in Europe not put to a tariff on the stuff.

The Reform Acts of 1832, 1867, and 1884 gradually, under pressure and with much gnashing of teeth, expanded the vote. Repeal of the Corn Laws hadn’t destroyed Britain’s territorial constitution–whatever that is or was–but power was shifting.

The Corn Laws are often presented as a battle between free trade and restrictive tariffs, and that’s how my high school history textbook so forgettably explained them, after which it dropped the subject and my entire class sleepily murmured, “Did something just happen there??”

It wasn’t on the test, so the answer was no, nothing happened.

Free trade is, legitimately, a thread you can follow through the debates and battles over the Corn Laws, and it’ll carry you effectively enough into the next couple of centuries, but unless you’re a policy obsessive it may be the least interesting way to understand the story. I’m a fan of the way political power realigned itself to more nearly match economic power, and how people who had neither kind of power battered away at the system until they forced it to make a bit of space for them. 

English history: the yeoman

In the stratified world of medieval England, the yeoman was wedged into a slot between the gentry and the peasants. Then history came along and blurred the categories, leaving confusion in its wake.

History will do that if you let it. 

Irrelevant photo: foxglove leaves after a frost

The hazy definition of a yeoman 

One way to define both the medieval aristocracy (they had titles) and the gentry (the people just under them, who didn’t), is to say that they owned land but didn’t (god forbid!) get their hands dirty by working it. So we can define yeomen as people who owned some land and also worked it.  

There were more yeomen than either gentry or aristocrats, but nowhere near as many of them as of the people below them–the serfs and free but poor laborers. Above all, yeomen were free. In an age where most people who worked the land were serfs, that was hugely important.

If that all sounds clear, stay with me. I can get laundry muddy while it’s still in the machine.

Yes, thank you. It’s a gift.

A yeoman could hold a fairly wide range of land and still be a yeoman. In The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England (you might want to get your hands on a copy, because you never know when you’ll need it, do you?), Ian Mortimer tells us (or me, since you haven’t gotten your copy yet) that the most prosperous yeomen would have been well fed and comfortable, with servants to help with both the  housework and on the land. Some, in fact, rented whole estates from lords, ran the manor courts, and effectively functioned as lords. After the plague, this became relatively common, although some definitions will tell you that owning land was central to the definition. 

So some yeomen owned land and some rented it. Owning land was central to the definition of the yeoman and also wasn’t necessary.There’s your first bit of clarity breaking down, so let’s confuse the picture more.

They weren’t all in the same economic situation. Well below the most prosperous yeomen were others with some thirty acres of land, a third of which (like all land in this period) needed to lie fallow each year, leaving them with twenty acres that produced crops each year. In a good year, they’d be okay. In a bad year–in a series of bad years–they wouldn’t be. 

And below them? A yeoman might have no more than eight acres, and a bad year might force him to sell it, leaving him and his family to find whatever way they could to support themselves.

In his sixteenth century Chronicles, Raphael Holinshed (don’t feel bad; I never heard of him before either) described yeomen as having free land worth £6 per year and as not being entitled to bear arms. 

Other sources will also tell you that yeomen kept arms and fought for whoever their lord was, with yeomen becoming a category of soldier. The contradiction might be explained by the passage of time: What century was it when you opened the shutters and looked out at this green and pleasant land? 

It’s also possible that it can’t be explained that way. A yeoman’s son left an account of his father fighting for the king against the Cornish rebels in 1497–before Holinshed– and being not just armed but on horseback.

Aren’t the gaps and contradictions in the historical record fun?

In English Society in the Later Middle Ages, Maurice Keen talks about the terms yeoman, husbandman, ploughman, and hind coming into use in the fifteenth century, replacing the earlier division of the rural population into villein, bondman, and cottar, whose point of reference is the manor. Do what you like with that.

 

Were yeomen a class?

That will depend, at least partly, on how you define class. In an age when land ownership was the measure of your social standing, a yeoman who rented his land from a lord might have gone against expectations by being materially better off than a yeoman who owned only a small piece. Their role in village life would have been very different and their economic interests might have been different. What united them as a category was that in a time when most people who worked the land were serfs, they were free. And, of course, that they weren’t gentry, even if at the top end they brushed up against the gentry.

So were they a class? 

Forget it. I’m staying out of this.

A village’s more prosperous yeoman families (yeo-families?) were likely to fill the local roles, becoming the ale tasters, the jurors, the haywards, the constables, the tithing men, the churchwardens. They might also have become the lords’ retainers and so part of the lords’ households, and at some point, the word came to mean retainer, attendant, guard, subordinate official. 

But you noticed the word man tucked inside yeoman, right? Landowners were entirely or overwhelmingly male, and power (and with it, the slant of thought and language) was overwhelmingly male, but this was an age when adults married and if they could, had kids. So what were the wives and daughters of yeomen called? Ask Lord Google about yeowomen and he’ll lead you to only the most marginal of dictionaries. The respectable ones blink their eyes hazily and say, “Yeo-what?” 

The absence of yeo-words for the yeoman’s family members weighs (as far as I can tell, and keep in mind that I have no expertise in this field whatsoever) on the side of them not being a class or definable group that’s expected to behave as a group and restock itself.  

On the side of seeing yeomen as a cohesive group, though, if not necessarily a self-perpetuating one, were the Sumptuary Laws of 1363, which forbid yeomen or their families from wearing silver, gold, jewels, enamelware, silk, embroidery, or any of the more expensive furs. Their clothing had to be made from fabric that cost no more than £2 for the whole cloth.

What does the whole cloth mean? My best wild guess is a full bolt, because £2 was a shitload of money at that point. 

Ditto an act of 1445 that prohibited anyone of yeoman status or below from sitting in Parliament.

On the side of not seeing them as a cohesive group, some of the more prosperous yeomen intermarried with the gentry. Some might apprentice their children to tradesmen–the more prosperous ones to the more lucrative trades and the less to the less. On either level, though, they moved into a different category within the medieval social structure.

The children of some yeomen might become servants in other households, and here we need to stop and look at the role of servants.

In How to Be a Tudor, Ruth Goodman says that servants were often in their teens and likely to work only a few years before marrying and setting up their own households. The divide between servant and master or mistress wasn’t huge, and it wasn’t just the rich who had servants. The servants of the non-rich, though, weren’t there to provide personal services. A small-scale husbandman–a category of farmers below the yeomen–might take on a servant to help with the housework or the land, and there was always plenty of that.

The servant’s work depended on the household they served, and being a servant was less a question of class than of age. The child of a prosperous yeoman might serve in a richer household, and a Tudor-era description of dinner at a viscount’s house (dinner being at 10 a.m.) involved the gentleman usher, the yeoman usher, the yeoman of the ewery (in charge of hand washing and towels), the gentlemen waiters, the yeoman of the cellar, and I have no idea how many other people running around and bowing (even to an empty room). 

For our purposes, what matters in all this silliness is yeoman seems to be a title here, not a distinct class of person. He’s not the top servant in the dining room, but he’s there and he has a job title, matching one of the definitions in the Collins Dictionary: a lesser official in a royal or noble household. They also toss in a subordinate to an official (a sheriff, for example) or to a craftsman or trader.

 

Yeomen and the military

Henry VII created the Body Guard of the Yeomen of the Guard, known to their friends and family as the Yeomen of the Guard. They’re the oldest military corps in Britain, having guarded not just the kings and queens but Charles II during the Commonwealth, when II was in exile in France and the king of nothing at all. 

Their job traditionally involved guarding the inside of the monarch’s palaces and tasting his (or occasionally her) meals in case someone was trying to poison him. Or her. One of them got the monarch’s bed ready and one slept outside the bedroom. In a very un-British defiance of tradition, that bit of rigamarole’s been abandoned, but the job titles–sorry, ranks–still exist: Yeoman Bed-Goer and Yeoman Bed-Hanger. 

If there was a title for the food taster, I haven’t found it. I suggest Yeoman I’m Not Sure That Tastes Right, Maybe I Should Have a Second Bite. Or Yeoman You Got Any Dessert to Go with That? 

Don’t confuse the Yeomen of the Guard with the Yeoman Warders. The Warders still guard the Tower of London and the two uniforms are similar but the Warders wear a red cross belt that runs diagonally across the front of their tunics.

A what? 

Damned if I know. Can we talk about something else?

Thanks. Let’s backtrack: 

In 1794, Britain eyeballed the threat from revolutionary France and then eyeballed its military, which was a combination of draftees (you only had to serve if you couldn’t afford to pay for a substitute) and volunteers, and it decided the structure was too shaky for the weight a war was likely to put on it.

Its solution was to form volunteer units that would be subject to military discipline. More radically, when they were called out, they’d be paid. The cavalry units were to be recruited–at least theoretically–from yeoman farmers. They owned horses, after all, so there were halfway there. You didn’t expect the government to provide them, did you? Recruits also provided their own uniforms, but the government supplied their arms and ammunition.

Their officers were from the aristocracy or the gentry, because that was the natural order of things.

Those units became the yeomanry, or yeomanry cavalry, and they continued as a volunteer military force that could be called out in case of an invasion or to put down revolts. Because they were less than fully trained, they played a disastrous role in the Peterloo Massacre

In 1907, they were merged into the Territorial Army. The Royal Yeomanry continues as a light cavalry force within the British Army Reserve.

The Royal Navy and Marines have the ranks yeoman of signals and chief yeoman of signals. They’re petty officers. None of that has much, if anything, to do with original meaning of the word except that they keep the sense of someone who’s not high up the ladder but who’s recognizably not on the bottom. 

And finally, let’s come back to yeo-women. Women are now members of the Yeoman Warders, and they’re called yeomen. Ditto–and more interestingly–in the U.S. women became yeomen during World War I. The military had no entry points for women except an accidental one. The Naval Act of 1916 said the reserve force would include “all persons who may be capable of performing special useful service for coastal defense.” 

Who’d have thought, when it was written, the a person might be a woman? So they left a loophole and women got through it. The military needed bodies,  and the secretary of the Navy and the Bureau of Navigation (which translates into the personnel department) decided that nothing in the language kept women from enlisting in the reserves. In 1917 they started actively recruiting. Women became radio operators, stenographers, nurses, messengers, and chauffeurs, truck drivers, cryptographers, and mechanics. 

Most of them were yeomen (F), meaning female yeomen.

Nobody had figured out what they were supposed to do for uniforms, though. Wearing anything other than a skirt or dress still lay outside the wildest official (and for the most part, unofficial) imagination, so they were given some money and some guidelines and told to find themselves something vaguely uniformish. 

They had to find their own places to live as well.

The Peterloo Massacre, or how the British got the vote

It’s 1819 and we’re in the north of England. At last count–that was in 1780–only 3% of the population of England and Wales was allowed to vote. But that’s guesswork. A later count, in 1831, will estimate it at 1.35%. Voter registration won’t start until 1832, which may be why the numbers are a little hazy.

Can we say that not many people have the right to vote and leave it at that?

With such a thin slice of the population having any semblance of political power, and with wealth highly concentrated, this is a time when you can talk about a ruling class and not have to explain who you mean or argue about whether you’re seeing the world through Marxist-inflected spectacles. So let’s be bold and say that some elements of the ruling class see the value of expanding the vote in order to release a bit of the political pressure that’s been building in the country. Or to put that another way, they think it might help avoid a revolution. 

Irrelevant photo: I have to toss in a photo of holly sometime before Christmas. It grows here. I can’t quite get over that. Whatever you celebrate at this time of year, have a good one.

But reform itself sometimes leads to revolution, and since we’re in the present tense here we–and more to the point, they–have no way of knowing what will happen next. Will reform avoid a revolution or set one off? 

Tough choice. The French Revolution is still too recent, and it was too bloody and too scary, for the ruling class as a whole to take risks. So reform–at least the kind that came from the top down–gets put on hold, leaving it in the hands of scary, bottom-up radicals. 

 

So who can’t vote? 

That’s an easier question than who can. The list includes:

  • The working class
  • The poor in general, in case category one left any of them out
  • Women
  • Catholics
  • All or most or–well, at least much of the middle class

I chased Lord Google all over the internet trying to find some solid explanation of who can vote, and the answer was always murky. I finally found a House of Commons Library paper called “The History of Parliamentary Franchise,” which doesn’t answer the question but does at least explain why Lord G. is so evasive. 

Sorry–using the present tense for the nineteenth century gets awkward when I drag the twenty-first century Lord Google into it, but a commitment’s a commitment. We’ll stay with it if for no better reason than that it’ll give you a chance to watch me tie myself in knots. 

First, who can vote depends on whether you’re talking about England, Wales, Ireland, or Scotland, because they all have their own rules. After that, it depends on where in those four nations you live. In England, at least, the boroughs–in other words, the towns–set their own rules. Or at least the ones that have the right to send an MP to Parliament do. They don’t all have that right. In the counties, the rules seem to be consistent, but I wouldn’t want to put money on that.

What’s important is that no matter where you live, the right to vote depends on wealth, property, and influence. And some MPs aren’t even elected, so even if you have the right to vote it doesn’t necessarily get you much. 

According to the House of Commons Library, “Uncontested elections were common and in some seats an election had not taken place for many years. Parliamentary seats were often considered as property and remained in the control of a family from one generation to the next. This persisted until the beginning of the twentieth century.” 

(Votes won’t be cast by secret ballot until 1872. That’s not strictly relevant, but it’s interesting.) 

If you’re getting a picture of an undemocratic country, let me add another detail to the picture: Voting is only for the House of Commons. The upper house, the Lords, is hereditary.

 

Why does anybody care about the vote?

Nineteenth-century Britain is a country with multiple problems, and the people who suffer most from them don’t have a lot of ways to change their situation. Or if they’re risk-averse, any ways.

Britain’s busy turning itself from a rural country into an industrial one. Huge numbers of people who can’t make a living in the countryside are desperate enough to pour into the cities, hoping to make a living, but the cities aren’t prepared to house them. People are packed in on top of each other and sanitation verges on nonexistent. Wages, hours, and working conditions in the factories (and elsewhere) are terrible, and strikes are illegal: The Combination Acts mean you’re risking three months in prison if you and your co-workers walk off the job in any organized way, or prepare to, although you’re still welcome to quit your job individually and go starve somewhere.

No, I’m not being dramatic. People live close enough to the margin that we’re often talking about eating or not eating. Or ending up in the workhouse, which sets you only a small step above starvation.

The acts won’t be repealed until 1824 and 1825. Union organizing and what the National Archives call labor unrest–a term that takes in everything from riots to organizing a union –won’t break into the open until the 1830s. And here we are, stuck in 1819. 

You notice how subtly I reminded you of the date?

A few years ago, in 1815, the Napoleonic Wars ended. This means a lot of former soldiers are now out of work. 

Thanks, guys, you’ve been positively heroic. Hope you find jobs somewhere.

Wages fell in England’s textile towns, and the taxes that were introduced to support the war didn’t, they walked into the peacetime years like zombies. The country entered a postwar depression. 

And if that isn’t enough trouble, the Corn Laws were passed in 1815. During the Napoleonic Wars, the country couldn’t import wheat from Europe and British farmers grew more of it. Then the wars ended and since landowners dominated Parliament they passed laws to protect their wheat market. The Corn Laws banned imports unless the price of domestic wheat went from high to astronomical.

Then the 1816 harvest was bad, leading to a winter of food shortages and riots. 

 

Blanketeers

Several strands of discontent wove themselves together: low pay, the Corn Laws, a political political system that shut out the voices of anyone other than landowners. The north–the center of the industrial revolution–became a center of radicalism among working people.

In 1817, a hunger march was organized, to go from Manchester to London. That’s 209 miles if you take the M40, which hadn’t been built yet. Each marcher carried a petition to the Prince Regent and a blanket to sleep in at night (and to mark them all as textile workers). They were called Blanketeers, and 5,000 of them gathered to start the march on St. Peter’s Field, near Manchester, with a larger crowd to see them off. One estimate puts the crowd at 25,000. The gathering was broken up by the King’s Dragoon Guard, which arrested 27 people, including the leaders, and injured several. One–a bystander–was killed. Several hundred people set off anyway, but the group thinned out, with some dropping out and many getting arrested or being turned back under vagrancy laws. 

Legend has one lone marcher reaching London and handing in his petition, but since he’s named both as Abel Couldwell and as Jonathan Cowgill, he may be mythical. Or I may be doing him a disservice.

Also in 1817, two hundred Derbyshire labourers marched to Nottingham in order, their leader said, to take part in a general insurrection. Three of the leaders were executed for treason. This did not calm the nerves of people in power.

The Manchester and Salford Yeomanry was formed. Its purpose was to put down any insurrection that wandered into view.

 

Are we done with the background yet?

Yup.  Finally. It’s August 16, 1819, and the Manchester Patriotic Union Society has called a massive meeting calling for political reform, once again at St. Peter’s Field.

About 60,000 people turn up. A few years earlier, in 1802, Manchester’s population was 95,000, but people have come from other towns and cities. This is a big deal and a lot of preparation’s gone into it. Their banners call for an end to the Corn Laws, for universal suffrage, and for political reform.

What kind of political reform? 

Several kinds. Not only can’t most of the individuals here vote, the north as a whole is under-represented in the Commons. And in spite of its size, Manchester doesn’t have its own Member of Parliament. So this is about both class and region.

At this point, no one’s calling for women to have the vote. When they say “universal suffrage,” they’re talking about men.

Yeah, I know. History’s a real kick in the head, but we don’t get to rewrite it.

The organization involved is impressive. As Samuel Bamford, a handloom weaver who walks from Middleton, later wrote about the journey, every hundred men have a leader, who wears a sprig of laurel in his hat so you can spot him, and a bugler relays the orders given by the man at the head of the column. Everyone’s warned not to carry sticks or weapons. Only the very old and infirm are allowed walking sticks.

Together with marchers who join them from Rochdale, there are about 6,000 of them.

“At our head were a hundred or two of women, mostly young wives, and mine own was amongst them. A hundred of our handsomest girls, sweethearts to the lads who were with us, danced to the music. Thus accompanied by our friends and our dearest we went slowly towards Manchester.”

And in case you think the emphasis on looks only applies to women, Bamford will also write, “First were selected twelve of the most decent-looking youths, who were placed at the front, each with a branch of laurel held in his hand, as a token of peace; then the colours: a blue one of silk, with inscriptions in golden letters, ‘Unity and Strength’, ‘Liberty and Fraternity’; a green one of silk, with golden letters, ‘Parliaments Annual’, ‘Suffrage Universal.’” 

That “Liberty and Fraternity” is an echo of the French Revolution and may not have helped calm ruling class nerves either, in spite of the emphasis on peaceful, laurel-branched, weaponless demonstrating.

One eyewitness will later describe the gathering at St. Peter’s Field as “large bodies of men and women with bands playing and flags and banners. . . There were crowds of people in all directions, full of humour, laughing and shouting and making fun. It seemed to be a gala day with the country people, who were mostly dressed in their best and brought with them their wives.”

The local magistrates, though, are less poetic than Bamford and less happy with the gathering than the second witness. They’ve pulled together four squadrons of cavalry (that’s 600 men), several hundred infantrymen, the Cheshire Yeomanry Cavalry (another 400), a detachment of the Royal Horse Artillery (no numbers given), two six-pounder guns, all Manchester’s special constables (again, 400), and 120 men from the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry–a kind of amateur cavalry. In other words, a shitload of soldiers and cops and would-be soldiers are on standby.

And their weaponry.

The main speakers arrive and the magistrates decide that Manchester’s “in great danger,” so they order Manchester’s deputy constable to arrest the speakers.

“Can’t do it without the military,” the deputy constable says (although he doesn’t use those words).

“Right,” the magistrates say, “no problem,” although I’m still making up the dialog.

They order in some of the military, and the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry are closest and get the order first. Sixty of them ride into the crowd, which links arms to protect the speaker. Later on, eyewitnesses will claim the yeomen were drunk and the officer in charge will swear they moved erratically because the horses were spooked by the crush of people.

Either way, sabers are drawn. The Yeomanry knock down a woman and kill a two-year-old child. The speaker and a few leaders are arrested, along with some nearby newspaper reporters. 

Always go for the reporters.

Someone in authority decides that the Yeomanry need defending and sends in some of the professional soldiers.

Within minutes, the field is clear and 18 people are dead. Somewhere between 400 and 700 men and women are wounded.

One of the organizers (who’s also a publisher), Richard Carlile, avoids being arrested, is hidden by local radicals, and skedaddles on the first coach back to London, where he gets the story into print as fast as he can. By our standards, that’s none too fast but it’s fast enough to piss off the authorities, who raid his print shop and confiscate every bit of paper they can get their hands on.

The Manchester Observer also reports on what happened and is the first to call it the Peterloo Massacre, echoing the Battle of Waterloo. 

Carlile and the Observer’s editor, James Wroe, are arrested and sent to prison, Carlile for blasphemy and seditious libel and Wroe for producing a seditious publication. 

I have no idea where blasphemy comes into it.

 

The massacre’s legacy

The Peterloo Massacre is over, and thank all the gods I don’t believe in we can shift to the past tense to talk about its impact.

The government got busy and passed six acts–known, creatively, as the Six Acts–that were designed to keep anything like Peterloo from happening again. Not the massacre part, mind you. The radicalism. The mass meeting. That pesky damn press, or as Lord Castlereagh described it, “The treasonable, blasphemous, and seditious branch of the press.” 

Which branch was that? The branch that sold papers to “the lower orders.” 

It wasn’t just the ruling class you could talk about without argument back then. The class structure was clear, identifiable, and right in your face. To challenge it was to join the ranks of the treasonable and blasphemous et ceteras. 

It was “utterly impossible for the mind of man long to withstand the torrent of criminal and seductive reasoning which was now incessantly poured out to the lower orders.” Castlereagh said. 

Newspapers were already taxed, and that mattered because the higher the price, the less likely working people were to buy them. But the more radical papers had avoided the tax by, at least officially, publishing opinion instead of news. 

A tax was now slapped on them regardless of what they published. Game over.

The penalties for publishing blasphemous and seditious material and generally making the authorities mad went up. They now included transportation, which is another name for exile. 

Four other acts were aimed at suppressing mass meetings and protesters who used weapons. That makes five acts, so we’re missing one. Let’s say it outlawed pineapple on pizza, and like so many laws that overreach, it didn’t work. We’re still plagued by the stuff.

Of the six acts, Parliament’s website considers five to have been mostly ineffective. The one that had an impact was the newspaper tax, which stayed in place until 1836, when it was reduced from 4p to 1p, before being abolished in 1861. 

Even so, for a while there every significant leader in the parliamentary reform period was jailed and reformist meetings were effectively banned, which doesn’t make the acts sound insignificant to me. 

But that doesn’t mean the game went to the anti-reform forces. Either in spite of the repression or because of it (these things are as likely to backfire as the reforms that are meant to avoid revolution), the massacre fueled the anger that led to the Reform Act of 1832, which didn’t address the deeper issues but smoothed out a few of the worst political inequities and expanded the franchise by an inch or two. 

The deeper issues were left to the people who organized the trade unions, the Labour Party, and the movement for universal suffrage. 

Women’s involvement in the Peterloo gathering was significant. They helped organize it, they marched, and they were targeted by the soldiers. Women’s political groups were starting to form. You can legitimately draw a line from Peterloo to the later struggle for women’s rights in the workplace, within marriage, and in the voting booth.

 

And finally

Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote The Masque of Anarchy about Peterloo. The last stanza is:

   Rise like Lions after slumber

   In unvanquishable number,

   Shake your chains to earth like dew

   Which in sleep had fallen on you–

   Ye are many–they are few.

No publisher was brave enough to touch it and it didn’t come out until a decade after his death.

*

For a glimpse of today’s Tandle Hill, where marchers from Oldham and Saddleworth gathered to walk to St. Peter’s Field, see the Bloggler.

Many thanks to the assortment of people who’ve been pushing me in the direction of writing about this for some time now. The next chapter in the history of British voting rights is the Chartists, and I’ll get to that before too long. Really I will.

If you want to follow the story more or less from beginning to end–and with apologies for referring you to myself (especially when we already know I’m long winded), you can find more posts on the history of voting rights by following the links: The roots of the English parliament, The rotten borough and the history of British voting rights, Suffragists, Sufragettes, and votes for women.

The origins of England’s parliament

You can trace the origins of England’s parliament’s back as far back as the Anglo-Saxon witan if you have nothing better to do with your life. Clearly, I don’t. 

 

The Anglo-Saxon witan

The witan wasn’t an elected body, but then neither were the earliest English parliaments. It was a council of the country’s nobles and top clergy, and it advised the king on whatever topic he wanted to be advised on. It consented to the laws he proposed and did an assortment of other things that kept the wheels of government creaking onward. 

And since it was his council, he set its agenda, chose its membership, and summoned it when he wanted its help. If it sounds a bit like his collie, to an extent it was. The king whistled and it came. If he didn’t whistle, he could take action anyway. He didn’t need its approval. 

But the collie also had some power. The king needed the support of the nobles and clergy if he was going to govern. Or to stick with the image we’ve got, the collie could either round up all his sheep or miss a few, so it paid to keep it happy and working hard. 

If you’re in the mood, you can call the witan the Witenagemot, which means meeting of the wise men. 

Don’t you just love it when people offer you meaningless choices? 

Irrelevant photo: The last of the begonias, from October.

Lower down the governmental ladder, each shire held a regular meeting, the shire moot. (A moot was a meeting.) It would’ve involved the local lords, the bishops, the sheriff, and village representatives.  Think of it as a collision of a court session and an administrative meeting, because the two weren’t separate at this point. 

Lower down still, moots were also held at the town and village level, and the local freemen would’ve attended.

 

The Normans 

Then the Normans invaded and they established something very much like the witan (and not unlike a structure they were familiar with in Normandy). They called it the commune concilium–Latin for general council, because, hey, they were Normans, they spoke Normish. Or French, actually. And Latin–or enough Latin to get by. 

The concilium was made up of the king’s chief tenants–in other words, the top layer of the aristocracy. It was a smaller group than the witan, but it was a permanent one.

In case you’re in need of confusion, though, I’ll be happy to provide it, and this is as good a place as any to toss it in. The commune concilium also seems to have been called the curia regis (the king’s court), or the aula regis. Unless, of course, Lord Google and the entire damn internet are messing with me.

I asked Lord G. to translate aula for me. Court seems to be the best match, but it also means inner court, palace, courtyard, his (confusingly), and (even more confusingly) aula. So aula means aula. It’s hard to argue with that, even if it doesn’t tell us much.

Translation programs are strange beasts. But let’s stick with curia regis, since we have a reliable translation for it. To quote one of the sources I ran to in search of some elusive clarity, “It is difficult to define the curia regis with precision.” So I may be slurring together some things that aren’t exactly the same, but if I am it’s not just me who’s short on precision. Blame history. Blame the Normans. Blame Lord Google.

Hell, blame Boris Johnson. Blame Theresa May. She didn’t say aula means aula, but she did say Brexit means Brexit, which was just about as helpful.

I know. Brexit’s just about upon us. It makes it appealing to write about thousand-year-old chaos.

It seems safe to say that the concilium/curia/aula changed over time. So we’ll say that, then sneak out the door and pretend we were never here.

For the sake of more confusion, though, every so often the king would call together a larger circle, the magnum concilium, or great council, adding earls and abbots, bishops and barons to the smaller group. Also priors, but I can’t find a category that makes a neat a counterweight for them. If I said “priors and pigeons,” you’d understand that the Norman kings didn’t really seek advice from pigeons, wouldn’t you? 

The great council was called together when the king needed them to approve his decisions, especially when those decisions involved taxes, because money was  always a sore point and he’d need to get the nobles on his side if that was in any way possible.

In the time of Henry I (that’s 1100 to 1135), a smaller council began to serve, unofficially, as a committee of the larger council. It was made up of the royal household’s officials plus the king’s attendants along with all the king’s horses and all the king’s friends. Its authority was as vaguely defined as the king’s, but it took on some financial responsibilities and gradually grew into the court of exchequer. We’ll skip the Latin for that if it’s okay with you.

Its members were called justices, and when the king wasn’t around, the chief justiciar presided over the court. 

However vaguely defined, this was turning into a powerful body.

 

The non-Normans

Now let’s leave the Normans behind and skip to Henry II, who was a Plantagenet. In 1178, he took five members of the curia, stirred vigorously, sprinkled dried fruit over the top, and turned them into a special court of justice. Unlike the rest of the curia, they stayed in one place instead of traipsing around the country after him. 

Kings (in case you didn’t know this–and if you did, surely someone out there didn’t) traveled a lot of the time, which allowed them to saddle their nobles with the cost of feeding and entertaining their huge and kingly households. It also kept them in touch with their kingdoms at a time when the internet was down.

Other bits and pieces of the original council spun off at different times until the country had the court of king’s bench, the chancery, and the king’s secret council (which eventually became the privy council).

The larger and smaller versions of the curia became clearly separate bodies, and the larger one was first called a parliament in 1236. Parliament’s website (which has some odd and interesting corners) considers the great council the forerunner of the House of Lords.

In 1254, the king (by now we’re up to Henry III) added representatives of the counties to Parliament. You can call them knights of the shire if you like. One site I found does, and it gives you a sense of the layer of society the representatives were drawn from. 

Do you have any idea how hard it is not to type “knights of the shirt”? 

The next addition came in 1265 (it’s still Henry III who’s plonked on the throne): Representatives of the boroughs (called town burgesses) were poured into the mix.

What was a borough? A town with a charter from the king. The charter allowed it to govern itself and go to the candy store without supervision–sometimes without even asking permission. 

Okay, like most things, the charters varied, but that’ll get us close enough.

And what’s a burgess? An inhabitant of a town who had full citizenship rights. You’ll notice, if you peer into the cracks of that definition, that not everyone who lived in a town did have citizenship rights, and that those who did were citizens of the town, not the country. It would make an interesting post.

As usual, Henry needed the burgesses to consent to taxation. 

That was always the king’s weakness. Not just Henry’s. Any king’s. Kings needed money, especially if they wanted to fight a way, and to get it they needed–well, I was tempted to say the consent of the governed, but at this point we’re still talking about the consent, or at least semblance of cooperation, of a very thin but powerful layer of people just below the king. The rest of the governed had to either put up with things or rebel. In between those two choices, they didn’t have a lot of space to maneuver.

 

Voting comes into the picture

From 1290 onward, representatives of the counties were summoned to parliament regularly, and a bit later on borough representatives were as well. Each county and borough generally sent two members. And at this point, I suppose I have to break down and capitalize that: two Members, as in Members of Parliament.

In 1295, voting comes into clear focus with the Model Parliament summoned by Edward I. It included two knights from each country, two burgesses from (almost) each borough, and two citizens from each city–all of them elected instead of nominated. 

Why “(almost) each borough”? 

A House of Commons research paper says, “There was no single definition of or agreement on what constituted a borough in this period. The issuing of a writ was a royal prerogative and those boroughs that became Parliamentary boroughs were usually the county town of each ancient county and a number of other important boroughs. The actual number of Parliamentary boroughs in early Parliaments fluctuated.”

Did you follow that? 

Don’t worry about it.

So who got to vote?

Not everybody. In fact, not a whole lot of people. But, like most elements in this tale, it was hazy.

Everywhere, only men could vote, but that was by custom, not by law. This is a country with an unwritten constitution, remember, so that sort of haziness feels like home and family. In practice, women who met the qualifications sometimes transferred their right to vote to a male, who’d vote for them. 

In the counties, voters were people with a property freehold worth 40 shillings, and that wasn’t restricted to land. If you’re not sure what that means, it’s enough to know that if you didn’t have a fair chunk of property, you didn’t vote.

In the boroughs, though, it varied from one to the next but usually depended on residence, on owning property, on being a freeman, or on some combination of those. In some it was restricted to members of the corporation running the borough. Again, if the details are slipping through your fingers, don’t worry about it. Same as above: The vote was restricted by wealth and status.

Oxford and Cambridge universities each sent two Members to Parliament, and they were elected by the senates of each university. 

What about the other universities? 

Trick question. They didn’t exist yet.

In 1341 (Edward III’s on the throne by now), the Commons (knights, burgesses, and citizens) and the Lords (barons and clergy) began to meet separately. 

 

More about the vote

Who got to vote was one issue, but it wasn’t the only one. The king’s writ required sheriffs to hold free elections for county representatives, but sheriffs sometimes skipped the election part and declared themselves the winners.

It’s a system I’m sure some modern politicians would envy.

In 1406, a statute specified that county elections had to be held in full view of the participants. My largely useless high school classes taught me that the secret ballot was the standard by which you could measure a fair election. Ha. At this stage, having people cast their vote in public was an attempt to prevent corruption. If you held the election in public, everyone would at least know it happened.

Elections could be raucous, with feuds and factions, and in 1429, the Commons petitioned the king to restrict the vote further, saying elections involved “too great and excessive number of people . . . of whom the greater part are by people of little or no means” and that these people “pretend[ed] to have an equivalent voice . . . as the most worthy knights or esquires dwelling in the same counties.” 

In response, in 1430 leaseholders lost the right to vote, no matter how much the land they leased was worth. The franchise was now limited to what one paper calls “40 shilling resident freeholders,” and I’m quoting because if I mess around with the wording so that it sounds more accessible I’m afraid I’ll change the meaning. What they’re saying, I think, is that you had to own the property, not just rent it.

This was the first time the rules for who could vote in the counties was formalized, and they stayed fixed–more or less–until the Reform Act of 1832. For a bit about the Reform Act, allow me to refer you to that noted non-historian, me. If you follow the link, it’s toward the end of the post.

Under Oliver Cromwell (he was Lord Protector–which is to kingship as margarine is to butter–from 1653 to 1658, and for the time he was in power you can add a few years to allow for a Civil War and assorted chaos if you like)–

Can we start that over? Under Cromwell, they tinkered with the rules on who could vote, but the changes were reversed when he died and the monarchy was restored, so we’ll skip them.

In the seventeenth century, someone came up with a nifty way to game the system. They subdivided large landholdings into smaller ones worth 40 shillings each, creating groups of people who’d vote the way the primary landowners wanted them to. The smaller landowners were called faggot votes. 

No, I’m not sure either. It’s a word with an odd history, and in modern Britain it doesn’t have anything to do with insulting a gay man. A faggot’s a sausage. And no again: As far as I know any relationship is purely accidental.

At the end of the seventeenth century, Church of England clergymen got the vote. 

In 1831, just before the Reform Act of 1832, an estimated 1.35% of the English population could vote, although the percentage would have varied from county to county. In Herefordshire, it was an estimated 3.6%, but in Middlesex it was 0.22%.

And with that in place, next week we go to another post about the history of British voting rights, the Peterloo Massacre. I’ve been threatening to write about it for a while, and it’s now in the queue. Sorry this one ran so long, and if you got this far, thanks for your patience.