Michael Wood’s The Story of England

Story of EnglandToday I’ve been to the AGM of the Council for British Archaeology, held in the offices of the Royal College of Pathologists in Carlton House Terrace, just down from the Royal Society; the main business was an interesting discussion of what the CBA’s strategy for the next ten years should be, with the current financial squeezing of the heritage sector focussing minds. Historian Michael Wood was the entertainment that followed.

I’d been feeling unwell over the weekend, and spent most of my waking hours reading. I started off continuing with The Female Quixote, but can only read so much of that at a time, and so turned to a different book.

I’ve admired Michael Wood’s work since In Search of the Dark Ages (was that really thirty years ago?); I was therefore pleased to be able to savour his new book, The Story of England, in a sustained reading session. It’s an idea he had been formulating for some time – the history of England as seen through the lens of one English settlement.

Kibworth in Leicestershire was the chosen place – in fact, it was the place that produced the idea, but being an Anglo-Saxonist Michael Wood was keen to find somewhere with a good Anglo-Saxon charter and looked elsewhere; Kibworth doesn’t have any documentary evidence prior to Domesday, but its subsequent rich documentary heritage meant he returned to his first choice.

Somehow he managed to sell the idea to the BBC, and the television series that is currently being broadcast is the result. It was originally shown on BBC4, a channel about which I have mixed feelings: it has some excellent programmes and series, but I can see it becoming a cultural ghetto with its small viewing figures. In this case, The Story of England is currently being repeated on BBC2, but annoyingly is being shunted round the schedules; if there’s one thing a series needs for success it is consistency in its broadcast schedule.

Be that as it may, I must admit to not having seen the series at all, so I guess I’m going to have to catch up with it on DVD. Better than the series though, today I was lucky enough to see Michael talk about the project, although his hour seemed to last but a few minutes. This post is about the project and the resulting book.

Kibworth is actually more than one settlement: Kibworth Harcourt, Kibworth Beauchamp, and Smeeton Westerby. Kibworth = Cybba’s Worth, Cybba being an Anglo-Saxon name, and second element meaning ‘enclosure’, and in Mercia often appended to a high status settlement (Tamworth, the capital of Mercia; Brixworth, with it’s enormous Saxon church); the suffixes are the names of the twelfth-century Norman landlords. Smeeton is the ‘smith’s tun’, a settlement of metalworkers; Westerby was an adjacent hamlet, to the west, the ‘-by’ denoting a Scandinavian origin.

To try to fill in the pre-Norman lack of knowledge, the villagers were heavily involved in a village-wide programme of archaeological test pits. Documentary evidence is provided by John Nichols’s History and Antiquities of the County of Leicester, published in the 1790s, and also by his voluminous unpublished notes. Kibworth Harcourt has been continuously owned since 1270 by Merton College, Oxford, and the estate records are still held in the library there.

The length of continuity in the village’s history is surprising: Harcourt ‘posh’ (freemen and smallholders in 1086, ‘county’ and hunting until well into the twentieth century), compared to Beauchamp’s ‘working class’ (serfs and villeins in 1086, C19 frame-knitters and then factory workers); and there’s been a current of nonconformism throughout – Lollards and Luddites, as well as radical and dissenting religions.

The book follows the village through the Roman, Anglo Saxon, Viking and Norman invasions, several bouts of plague (the Black Death killed two-thirds of Kibworth’s tenants), the Reformation, Civil War, the main road’s turnpiking (now the A6), the coming of the Grand Union Canal, the railway, right through to modern times.

It is written with such enthusiasm and has such momentum that I found it ‘unputdownable’, and, like a good novel, I found myself wanting to know more about these characters from centuries past. Some of the events described are quite affecting – which is as it should be. It’s very easy to forget that historical events can have major impacts on individuals and families; this book doesn’t let you. It’s one of those books which is deceptively easy reading: easy to read, but packed with information, and if you’re wanting an overview of English history which gives a good idea of how the normal people went about their business, then this book will not only inform you, it will also entertain and surprise you.

I’m looking forward to watching the DVD (although apparently the finished product is only 6 hours instead of the planned 10) to see more of the community project.

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