The north-south divide in English history

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

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

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

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

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


What am I talking about? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

The things I sacrifice for this blog.

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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



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

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

The north’s power lasted until finance outweighed manufacturing. 

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

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

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

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



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

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



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

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

A foreigner’s guide to class in Britain

No American who comes to Britain late in life will fully understand its class divisions. You have to be steeped from childhood in the toxic brew of British class snobbery to catch all the nuances and signals—the accents, the clothes, the first names, the last names, the words for meals.

Example: I was listening one of Radio 4’s strange radio dramas and one of the characters was a self-involved, snobbish, clueless upper-class twit named Lulu. My completely random and occasionally involuntary research into class in Britain has taught me that Lulu is the perfect name for an upper-class twit in Britain.


Yup. Lulu. A name to aspire to if you aspire to be an upper-class twit.

In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll admit that my research didn’t offer me the word twit. That’s my addition. Let’s take it as an interpretation.

Irrelevant photo: near Minions. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Irrelevant Photo: Bodmin Moor. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Where and when I come from, Lulu was the hapless central character in the Little Lulu comics. It was one of those names history had left behind and it would have taken the combined efforts of all the gods humanity ever believed in to protect the child whose parents named her that. To me at least, it still carries those overtones.

On the other hand, Trevor and Clive, which Americans think of as quintessential English upper-class-twit names, are just names in Britain, with nothing twittish about them: they’re just what some people are called.

I’ll  skip over the ways clothes signal class. I’m dyslexic in fashion, so you shouldn’t take my word for anything related to it. But the words for meals? Someone who knows the signals can tell your class from what you call the evening meal. But full understanding isn’t as simple as memorizing a list. You also need to know what part of the country a person comes from, because everything turns into its opposite when you cross some invisible north-south divide.

No, don’t ask me. And if I’m wrong about it, blame someone else. I’m American. I can’t be expected to understand the nuances. But that north-south divide also has something to do with class. I think.

Then there are the accents. This island (and that leaves out Northern Ireland, which is outside of my experience) compresses so many accents into a small space that spontaneous combustion is a real danger. All those accent molecules rubbing against each other can generate serious heat. Some of the accents are class or regional (which relates to class, but we’ll get to that in a minute), but others are national, as my writers group pointed out to me and as I had sort of known without really knowing it: Britain isn’t one nation, it’s four—England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales—all compressed into one country.

And if you’re a Cornish nationalist, you can make that five nations.

And each nation has at least one accent. Think there’s such a thing as a Scottish accent? You’d be wrong about it. The Edinburgh accent is different from the Glasgow accent, and your intrepid researcher recognizes the Glasgow accent only by her inability to understand it.

Will it surprise you to learn that a whole lot of call centers are based in Glasgow?

I’m sure Scotland has other accents as well, but I live a long way from all of them so I’ll quit before I expose any more ignorance.

Cornwall isn’t recognized as a nation yet, but it was once its own country, with its own language, and the Cornish have very recently been recognized as an official minority. All the signs are that the county will soon have some political power (or the illusion thereof, she said cynically) devolved to it. Whether that will lead to recognition as a nation I don’t know, but it certainly has its own accent.

Incomers and the children of incomers don’t tend to pick it up, though. They choose from a grab bag of other accents and how they fix on one rather than another is anyone’s guess. Presumably they pick the ones that mark their class or education or aspirations. Or maybe they don’t pick, they just acquire, without a clue about what they’re committing themselves to. That’s the way I acquired my own accent: with no idea what I’d be signaling for the rest of my lie.

The regional accents (and there are scads of them) are looked down on by the kind of people who think it’s important to look down on these things and on the people who have them. Some middle class people will swear they don’t have an accent because the culture approves of the way they talk, and that keeps them from hearing it as an accent–it’s too clearly right to be an accent. And some will have shed a regional or more working class accent to achieve a middle-class accent. In fact, some people will send their kids to private schools just so they can pick up a middle-class accent. This is called received pronunciation, or RP.

When an abbreviation goes into ordinary speech, you know it’s worked its roots deep into the culture.

Depending on the kind of work you do, you may need to lose your accent to pick up a job.

You want proof of how much RP matters? Type Received Pronunciation into the U.K. version of Google and the predictive feature will offer you Received Pronunciation Training before it bothers with Received Pronunciation Definition. Everyone knows what it is, what matters is how to get it.