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A New History of England
By Jeremy Black
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Jeremy Black
All rights reserved.
A Transformed Environment
Popular and artistic images of England relate largely to the countryside. The Downland of South-East England has played a particularly important role, but is far from alone in providing or encapsulating senses of place, not only of England but also of parts of the country. Yet this is very much a changed country, a transformed environment. This transformation is true both of the physical environment and of the plants and animals that also live in England.
The pace of change is obvious today. To travel in England is to see the impact of human activity, not only the ever-spreading roads and towns, the asphalt, brick and concrete, but also a countryside that has been transformed. Prior to the arrival of humans, much of England was woodland, but the virgin woodland had been cleared by the end of the Middle Ages in the fifteenth century, and in lowland England in large part by the beginning of the Iron Age (c. 700 BC) and, even more so, before the start of the Middle Ages. Much of England was swamp or marsh, but that has been drained from the Roman period and, more intensively, especially in the case of the East Anglian Fens, from the seventeenth century. Human impact on the environment is apparent even in areas that are not cultivated. Some have been deforested or, like the Suffolk and Norfolk Breckland, subsequently, afforested. In Hampshire, the Waltham and Bere Forests have been destroyed and the Forestry Commission's Micheldever Forest created to the north. Mining, quarrying, gravel extraction, and animal rearing have affected most of the terrain of England that has not been cultivated. The fall of the water table due to extraction by drilling and pumping, has been a particularly marked feature of the last century. It has led to considerable changes in surface conditions, including the intermittent flow of formerly constant streams. More generally, human light and noise have come to dominate the environment: two developments which rapid technological change has accentuated.
Aside from land-use, the terrain has also been organized by human beings. Territory has been delimited, controlled by fences or stone walls, surveyed, named, and mapped, all processes that mark human control. These processes have been largely directed against possible rival human claimants, and, where the enclosure of common land was concerned, elicited violent human reactions. Yet, for much of history, animals had also to be kept out. Thus, dwellings and farms were organized to keep away animals, such as wolves and foxes. Much of this activity was designed to protect not so much humans as the animals they reared and the plants they grew. Human control of the environment was in a way a partnership: oxen, horses, cattle, sheep, pigs and chicken were important, but it was a partnership controlled by humans. The dominance of the environment was an aspect of this control. The bulk of this book will concentrate on history 'between' humans, but it is worth remembering that at every stage there is another history, that of the relationship with the environment.
In this relationship, other animals have been wiped out, controlled or domesticated. This process is a continuing one. It has affected well-known and more obscure species. Some, such as the bear and the wolf, were wiped out, the former by the end of the Roman period, the latter, it is alleged, by Peter Corbet in 1281 on the orders of Edward I. Other species, for example the corncrake, became far less common. The corncrake was traditionally a bird of flower-rich meadows and damp grasslands. It declined from the time of the First World War (1914–18) when cooperative hand-cutting by neighbouring farmers who cut their fields in rotation declined. Mechanization led to earlier cutting, which destroyed nests and broods of young. The decline was exacerbated after the Second World War (1939–45) by early cut silage which reduced the success of nesting. Other causes included the drainage and reseeding of damp pastures, and increased staking which led to the loss of essential tall vegetation at the start of the breeding season.
As conservationism gathered pace in the twentieth century, there were efforts to reintroduce animals. Thus, from 1989 red kites were introduced. These birds of prey had, like the golden eagle, been nearly wiped out by gamekeepers. The last kite in Middlesex disappeared about 1777, and in northern England about 1850. By 1989, they were restricted to Wales, although they have since been reintroduced to parts of England, for example Yorkshire. Signs of recovery are also now evident in the case of the bittern, one of England's rarest and shyest birds. Numbers fell from about seventy booming males in the 1960s to fifteen or sixteen by 1994: population levels are calculated by counting the number of males calling or booming. Large-scale restoration work of the reed beds where they live is now taking place.
It would be misleading to neglect the extent to which the natural environment also played a role in the human story. The geography of the country is important. First, and most importantly, England is the major, most fertile and most populous portion of an island. The natural resources and economic and military power which a unified England possessed enabled her to extend her control to Wales and Ireland, and to become the undisputed predominant partner in the resulting United Kingdom. It was not easy, however, to conquer the entire island and indeed only once, under the Interregnum 'Commonwealth' government of 1650–2, was Scotland conquered, in large part thanks to the victories of Oliver Cromwell over Scottish armies. Yet, although inroads were at times made into northern England, states based in Scotland were not able to conquer England which, therefore, enjoyed security in its home base. Despite this security, control of Ireland was often justified in terms of the strategic threat which an independent Ireland would pose.
On its island, England was also difficult to conquer. There were successful invasions, notably in 1066 and 1688, but it was much harder to invade a country by sea than by land. As a result, throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and part of the twentieth, Britain prided itself upon its possession of the most powerful navy in the world.
As a result of its military geography, England tended not to have a permanent land military establishment comparable to that of other European states, who relied upon conscript armies to greater or lesser degrees. This had an impact on the government, society and politics of the country, although it is necessary to avoid the assumption of an automatic correlation. Indeed, the determination of numerous rulers to campaign outside the country and England's frequent membership in larger states with external commitments lessened the importance of this factor.
Britain's island existence engendered an insularity which made for suspicious minds when it comes to relationships with Continental Europe, not that these suspicions were necessarily inappropriate. The nineteenth-century tradition of 'splendid isolation' in foreign policy could be regarded as the precursor of Britain's present status as the 'awkward partner' within the European Union.
England's position on an island also helped ensure that fishing and foreign trade played a major role in its history. The expansion of England was in no small part due to the economic power which the importing and exporting of goods made possible. Indeed, England's dependence upon the importation of foreign foodstuffs for the sustenance of her people has made the country vulnerable during wartime. Like Japan, but unlike say Australia, England was not only an island, but also one in which the bulk of the country was readily accessible from the coast. This access was improved through the construction of canals in the eighteenth century, and railways in the nineteenth. In addition, like Japan, but unlike Madagascar or Ceylon (Sri Lanka), the centre of government was not in the interior. The role of the sea was fostered by the nature of the offshore waters and the role of oceanic currents. Both ensured a rich fish life.
The most important of the offshore currents was/is the Gulf Stream. This brought warm waters from the Caribbean to British shores and helped ensure that the climate was far more temperate than other areas at the same latitude, such as Sakhalin, Kamchatka, and Labrador, a position that would be gravely threatened by any movement of the Gulf Stream. The relatively mild climate contributed to a longer growing season that permitted the cultivation of a range of cereal crops. Furthermore, farm animals were able to live out of doors. Rainfall was such that England avoided drought and did not require expensive and burdensome irrigation systems. The agricultural base is important, as food imports did not become significant until the late eighteenth century, and only came to meet a large portion of English food needs in the late nineteenth. Until then, population figures were, in part, related to the quantity of food that could be produced in England.
Alongside these general characteristics there was/is remarkable geological diversity that ensured a great variety in terrains and soil types within relatively small areas. The geological inheritance was mineral rich, and mineral resources, ranging from plentiful coal and iron-ore to limited gold deposits, were exploited from early on. England was the first country in the world that developed large-scale production of coal, and that was to be important both in its industrialization from the late eighteenth century and to the development of a north–south divide, as the most important coal deposits were found in the North and in the north Midlands, rather than in the South, although there was coal mining in Kent and Somerset.
The diversity of the geological inheritance and related variety in landforms was linked by some commentators to the country's history. Indeed, the notion of environmentalism as a key to history was developed in the nineteenth century and proved very influential in the early twentieth. This idea was extensively applied to English history. In his Historical Maps of England during the First Thirteen Centuries (1869), Charles Pearson stated, 'Our geography is in the fact the history of the land'. In A New Student's Atlas of English History (1903), Emil Reich claimed that 'History is largely the make of geography'. Environmental influences appeared the best way to explain why nations and states developed with particular characteristics and interests. Environmentalism could make the process seem natural and necessary. It played a crucial role in the organic theory of the state, and in the treatment of culture as defined by the integration of nature and society. Pearson presented geography as playing a direct role in English history. He argued for example that the extensive woodlands near the south coast 'explain why England was settled from east and west', and suggested that, although 'man triumphs over the elements', this triumph was essentially a matter only of the previous half-century. Certainly the railway construction of the mid-nineteenth century, with the use of explosives to assist tunnelling and the construction of mighty bridges and viaducts, was a major development in the ability of humans to determine lines of communication. The telegraph lines built along railways were also crucial to the new victory over distance.
Pearson also saw geography at work in the great political divisions of the country's history. He termed the mountains 'the conservative element ... in our history'; and observed that the Roman presence was limited in the upland regions – the south-west and Lancashire – and that 'it was precisely these parts where the nationality was unbroken, that afterwards sustained the struggle against the Saxon'. In the civil war of Stephen's reign (1135–54), Pearson noted 'the Empress Matilda, who represented the not infrequent combination of a legitimate title and an oppressive government', drew her support from the upland west, whereas Stephen was backed by London 'and the commercial towns of the east'. In the 1260s, 'London and the south and east were with the great constitutional leader De Montfort; the north and west sided with the King [Henry III]. In the Wars of the Roses the Yorkist party, which on the whole was that of good government, received partisans from the same district as De Montfort'. Similar comments were made about the Civil War (1642–6), and then, for Charles Edward Stuart and the Jacobite uprising in 1745 'nowhere but in the north-western counties, still only partially civilized, did he find recruits. Our country is so small, that in Cumberland and Westmorland at least, the hills are losing their old influence.'
This interpretation neatly linked a conventional nineteenth- century view of progress through a limitation of royal authority with a sense that upland areas were socially conservative and politically reactionary. Modern scholarship is more sceptical about De Montfort and the Yorkists, although the geographical basis of support for the two sides in the Civil War receives considerable attention and is often related to socio-economic criteria. Pearson's observation about the hills could be a throwback to the pre-nineteenth-century view that mountains were hideous and oppressive. As a result, when, as is commonly the case, you have 'history written by the victors', the defeated were associated with upland areas possibly at least in part as much from inherited prejudice as from acute observation.
Pearson's environmentalism and, in particular, his theme of the difference between upland and lowland was taken up in the Philips' New School Atlas of Universal History (1928), with the map 'The Two Halves of England', which showed land over 600 ft, navigable rivers, cathedral cities, universities, chief ports, centres of the wool trade and iron smelting, and was designed to display 'the distinction between the hilly north-western and the level south-eastern halves of England, which has profoundly influenced its history'. As if to indicate the timeless nature of this distinction, the map bore no date.
In the same period, O.G.S. Crawford stressed the geographical approach to history and prehistory in his Man and his Past (1921). He was responsible for a series of interwar historical maps produced by the Ordnance Survey that mapped locations and distributions against the background of physical geography.
Cyril Fox, an archaeologist who greatly influenced interwar British historical geography, produced, in his lengthy Archaeology of the Cambridge Region (1923), a scholarly account of a physically based cultural zone and its historical characteristics. Fox used distribution maps that were coloured to show the physiography of the region: rivers and meres, fen and marsh, and areas probably densely forested. Fox explained 'the cultural differentiation of the eastern plain' in a way that emphasized physical factors but left room for others:
At the commencement of this analysis the tendency to unity of cultural character in the Cambridge Region in any given age was held to be the natural consequence of the geographical unity which a river basin possesses. The peculiar configuration of the district – a narrow belt of open country bordered by fen and forest and forming a highway into Norfolk and North Suffolk – has, however, permitted this tendency at times to be modified by military or political action.
Fox went on to publish The Personality of Britain. Its Influence on Inhabitant and Invader in Prehistoric and Early Historic Times (1943). This emphasized the distinction between lowland and highland zones, but not in any deterministic fashion. Such a relationship is common in subsequent work, certainly on the crucial and long settlement period(s) of English history prior to 1200. It is indeed clear that there was causal interaction with the environment. For example, the lack of natural obstacles and the relatively small area of England encouraged Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Viking and Norman advances, but they also all benefited from the extent of the removal of woodland during the Bronze and Iron Ages.
The role of geography in England's history is not one that has been pushed to the fore, certainly for the history of the last millennium. Whereas the role of geographical factors in affecting settlement patterns in the centuries after the departure of the Romans is well known, this is far less the case for subsequent periods. Yet, geography is in many respects the factor that helps to explain the regional variations that are so important in England's history. These variations subvert any emphasis on uniformity, although, in turn, local circumstances also highlight the impact of national developments, for, given the great variety of geographical background, it is striking to note how much there is in the way of similarities. Reference to geographical influence does not, however, make clear how best to explain or assess this influence. It is all too easy to adopt a determinism akin to much of the discussion of socio-economic factors. This is inappropriate. It is more reasonable to stress influence without assuming any automatic response, a theory known as 'possibilism'. This allows for the vitality and variety of human responses, both of which emerge clearly in England's history.
Excerpted from A New History of England by Jeremy Black. Copyright © 2013 Jeremy Black. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1. A Transformed Environment,
2. Before the Romans,
3. The Roman Period,
4. Anglo-Saxon England,
5. The Old English Monarchy 899–1066,
6. Norman England 1066–1154,
7. Medieval England 1154–1485,
8. Tudor England 1485–1603,
9. Stuart and Interregnum England 1603–1714,
10. The Eighteenth Century 1714–1815,
11. The Nineteenth Century 1815–1914,
12. Towards the Present 1914–2008,
Selected Further Reading,