Rampaging Romans, the Black Death, and a Civil War - all in one village


Blackleaf
#1
Thanks to England's long and eventful history, it's amazing just what stories, stretching back centuries, can be unearthed even in the smallest of villages and hamlets.

And one of the most successful BBC documentaries of the year - a good example of how the corporation makes some of the best TV in the world - has attempted to tell history through the eyes of the ordinary people - not, as it so often is, through the eyes of kings and queens.

And all these people lived in one tiny Leicestershire village slap bang in the middle of England - Kibworth. The village is actually three villages linked together - Kibworth Harcourt, ­Kibworth Beauchamp (pronounced "Beecham") and Smeeton Westerby.

And it features in the riveting new BBC documentary series "Michael Wood's Story of England."

The series charts the history of the village through the eyes of its people from the Roman era, through to the Norman Conquest, Black Death and English Civil War, up to the present day.

And what a glorious history this one little village has to tell.

Men from Kibworth fought alongside Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, at the Battle of Lewes, during the Barons' Revolt of the 1260s.

The Black Death arrived in the village in 1349, killing 500 of its people, proportionally the highest loss known in any English ­village. By comparison, when ­Kibworth men marched off to the Great War in 1914, just 40 of them did not come back.

In the Reformation, Kibworth's vicar was jailed for opposition to Henry VIII; during the Civil War, the Royal army camped around the village before the Battle of Naseby (to much complaint from the locals).

And it's also interesting to see the legacy of Englishness, that began with the Normans, that the families of the village, past and present, have left.

Rampaging Romans, the Black Death, and a Civil war Bloodbath: How TV historian Michael Wood found the whole history of England in one village



By Michael Wood
2nd October 2010
Daily Mail

Michael Wood's Story Of England is on Wednesday nights on BBC4 and on Thursdays on BBC2.
The accompanying book is published by Viking at £20. To order a copy at £18 (p&p free), call 0845 155 0720.

As snowflakes swirled around the peasants' houses in the depths of January 1414, a travel-weary horseman galloped up the muddy lanes of the Leicestershire village of Kibworth ­Harcourt. After a frantic two-day ride from London, the messenger was cold and exhausted.

But he lost no time in leaping from his horse and rushing straight across the cattle yard and into one of the timber-framed farms on Main Street. For he had terrible news to impart to the woman of the house.

Emma Gilbert, a widowed merchant's wife, hailed from one of the oldest and most respected families in Kibworth. She had a daughter, Alice, and a number of grandchildren. Perhaps they were at Emma's side when the messenger delivered his blow: her sons, Walter and Nicholas, had been executed in London.


Michael Wood's TV series tells how Henry V killed two brothers who tried to over throw him

Their deaths would have been an appalling shock for the family, residents of Kibworth for more than a century and pillars of the community.

Earlier that year, the two brothers had left the village to take part in an extraordinarily dangerous rebellion against the new English King, Henry V, and against the whole ­edifice of the Catholic Church. But it had failed disastrously.

Soon to be hailed as the victor of Agincourt, young Henry was far too skilled a soldier to be caught ­unawares by such a poorly hatched plan. The rebels had raised nowhere near the hoped-for 20,000 men and had been easily crushed.

The King was merciful to most of the defeated — after a few months in Newgate Prison, many were ­pardoned and sent home — but a terrible fate awaited Walter and Nicholas.

For Walter was an itinerant heretic preacher who had been spreading the virulently anti-clerical teachings of the so-called Lollard movement — who believed the Pope was an anti-Christ — in the villages of Leicestershire and Derbyshire.

Both brothers were condemned as heretics. Taken to St Giles Fields in London, they were first hanged and then burned while still alive.

Not for the first time (and certainly not for the last) in its already long history, tragedy had come to the very ordinary village of Kibworth.

I tell you this story because it gets to the very heart of what I'm attempting to convey with my new television series, The Story Of ­England. Namely, tell history from the bottom up, through the eyes of the ordinary people of England.

Rather than giving another broad-brush history lesson — reciting a familiar succession of kings and queens, prime ministers and generals, battles and rebellions — I wanted to show how history not only leaves its mark on one particular place, but is also shaped by the people who lived there. History happens because they were busy living it, or, in the case of poor Walter and Nicholas, dying it.

That's one of the reasons I chose the old parish of Kibworth in Leicestershire, which today comprises the three closely linked ­villages of Kibworth Harcourt, ­Kibworth Beauchamp and Smeeton Westerby. You see, Kibworth is an utterly ordinary place. It could be any village, in any part of the English Midlands, indeed in almost any part of England.

Parts of it are pretty, parts of it are not. It has 20th-century housing estates, Chinese and Indian takeaways, a busy A-road and a mainline railway running straight through it. But it also has some ­gorgeous 16th-century cottages, a 14th-century church and a Roman burial mound that became the motte for a Norman castle. All these things make ­Kibworth interesting but also totally ordinary.

Having travelled the globe as a ­historian for the past 25 years — to tell the stories of Troy, Alexander the Great and the Conquistadors among many others — I wanted to come home and tell another great tale: the story of England.


Tranquil: St Wilfrid's church in Kibworth, Leicestershire in the late 18th century around 300 hundred years after the Gilberts were executed

It's a story that sometimes feels as if it's in danger of being lost, hijacked by the jingoists. But it provides not only one of the cornerstones of British history but — for a century or three — of world history, too.

How is it that such a small nation could have such a vast influence on the world in literature, language, politics, law and ideas of freedom? Kibworth, which lies slap bang in the middle of England, is the perfect place to start finding out.

Villages like Kibworth (and there are thousands) have seen and ­participated in all the great events in English history: from the Norman Conquest to the Barons Revolt, from the Black Death to the Civil War, from the Enclosure Movement to the Industrial Revolution. Their individual histories are a mirror of the entire nation's.



Changes: A postcard from the same scene in Kibworth taken more recently

At a time when our politicians talk of the 'Big Society', it's more vital than ever to have some sort of historical framework. Some idea of how our freedoms, rights and duties — our ideas about society and identity — evolved over the centuries.

Ten miles down the road from ­Kibworth lies the city of Leicester, which after decades of 20th-century immigration has one of the most vibrant and cosmopolitan populations in England.

Unprecedented, you might think. But if you'd come to Kibworth in the 10th century, you'd have found something remarkably similar. The Vikings and Anglo-Saxons had finally made friends, swapping fighting for farming, and the village had a multi-­cultural population that spoke ­Danish alongside Old English.

But the course of integration did not always run smoothly. When ­Norman invaders arrived in 1066, they held the indigenous English — with their hard-drinking habits and guttural language — in such ­contempt, there was virtually no inter-marriage for 100 years.

They were eventually anglicised and one of the great English rebellions, the Barons' Revolt of 1263 (which aimed to limit the powers of King Henry III and create our first elected parliament), was led by a French-born aristocrat, Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester.

Men from Kibworth fought alongside de Montfort at the Battle of Lewes. And some of them may have died alongside him, too, at the bloody Battle of Evesham in 1265, when the King's army routed the rebels and de Montfort's body was hacked to pieces. Two hundred years after the Battle of Hastings, English and French men were now fighting and dying together for a common cause.


Michael Wood says his TV series tells history from the view of ordinary people

Henry would not be the only King to discover that the quiet-looking English shires concealed a strong rebellious, even radical, streak.

The slowly emerging concept of what it meant to be English was beginning to acquire a guiding set of principles.

Right from the start, I realised that if I wanted to tell the history of Kibworth properly, and support my contention that it is ordinary people who shape history, I knew I needed the support of the people who live in the villages now.

We announced our intentions — to delve into the archives of Kibworth and tell the story of England through its history — on local radio. Two hundred and fifty villagers turned up for the subsequent ­public meeting. Our plans for The Big Dig were on.And without these villagers, we simply couldn't have dug the 55 archeological pits over three ­villages from which our amazing finds emerged.

The discoveries were remarkable: prehistoric flints, Roman and Anglo-Saxon pottery, debris from Georgian coaching inns, frame knitters' workshops and, in one pit, household items from the 1960s.

We'd not only unearthed more than 2,000 years of history, but established a direct connection between the people of the past and the inhabitants of Kibworth today.

Suddenly, local people realised that the Italian restaurant on the High Street might not have been the first in the village's history. It's just that the previous one closed about 16 centuries ago, when the imperial legions were recalled to Rome in the final days of the Empire.

Catastrophes such as the Black Death were also put into perspective. The plague arrived in ­Kibworth early in 1349, despite the road blocks that had been set up to prevent its spread. It must have been a nightmare: sick villagers in agony with swellings and pustules, spewing blood everywhere, and the ­desperate vicar John Sybil struggling to comfort his flock while knowing he was dying himself.

In total, about 500 people died in Kibworth, proportionally the highest loss known in any English ­village. By comparison, when ­Kibworth men marched off to the Great War in 1914, just 40 of them did not come back — a tragedy of course, but on a very different scale from that of the Black Death.

The village population would not recover fully from the plague until after 1700. It meant that the workforce was at a premium, leading to the introduction of England's first employment laws. The peasants who survived the Black Death still had obligations and responsibilities, but now they had some rights, too. That was at the heart of the emerging English ethos.

So how else did the village find itself intertwined with the great stories of English history?

In the Reformation, the vicar was jailed for opposition to Henry VIII; during the Civil War, the Royal army camped around the village before the Battle of Naseby (to much complaint from the locals). Afterwards, the village was swept by radical movements — Independents, dissenters, Quakers. This current of non-conformity led to the founding in the village of a famous Non-­conformist Academy, under whose roof the feminist and anti-slavery writer Anna Laetitia ­Barbauld grew up.

And while those radical movements were touching the lives of some villagers, others were simply going about their lives as we do now, safe in the knowledge that they were part of a community whose roots ran deep.

A gazetteer has been compiled of 23 Kibworth inns since the 18th century; a history of local cricket — strongly established by the 1840s — has been drawn up.

From the village 'Penny Concerts' in the 1880s, to the reminiscences of local Land Girls and even to memories of moving into the first post-war housing estate, what I think emerges in the series is that sense of the growth of a community over time, the development of our rights and duties and sense of identity, with fascinating insights into work, religion, education and culture.

All of it is driven by the primary sources: and my favourite has to be the 1940s village Forces Journal, edited by Leslie Clarke, a veteran of World War I, which was sent to all serving ­villagers. A mix of letters, poems, memoirs and stories, plus all the births, deaths and marriages, it powerfully sums up the individualistic yet co-operative spirit which has been the glue that's kept ­English society together for so long.

'To me Kibworth has always been friendly,' Clarke wrote in 1944, 'but that friendly spirit has never been more generously displayed than it is today. I walked through the three Parishes of Beauchamp, Harcourt and Smeeton the other evening. I looked upon them and thought of them. Yes, “Our Village”, with its houses tucked edgeways and sideways, looked to me very homelike and very beautiful.

'For our village — which fought in Flanders, in Greece and Crete, at El ­Alamein . . . fought on the sea and under the sea, in the Battle of Britain, in North Africa and Italy, in Normandy and France . . .

'Our grumbling, friendly, warm-hearted, gossip-loving village truly represents, with ten thousand others of her kind, that free spirit — true and precious — which is, and will be, forever England.'

Remarkably, we discovered ­modern Kibworth families whose ancestors would have experienced all this first-hand. The Colman and Iliffe families can trace their presence in the village back to the 15th century. And local caretaker Wayne Colman was delighted to discover, through DNA testing, that he could have Viking or Norse blood.

'I'm Wayne the Dane now; I'll never live it down,' he told me. Other families, such as the Polles, Gilberts and Browns, survived in the village for centuries but are now gone.

But what the families who remain or who have departed leave is a legacy of Englishness that began with the Normans, resurfaced with de Montfort, continued with the Lollards and endured with the radical and non-­conformist movements of the 17th and 18th centuries before it emerged as the national working-class culture in the 19th century.

It is an ethos founded on fairness, self-improvement and education. We've been amazed, for example, to discover how many of the supposedly illiterate peasant class were actually, to some extent, literate.

Englishness is based on the idea of mutual respect; that while we may not like every one of our neighbours, we should be able to respect them, work with them and live next to them. It's based on the idea that allegiance to the law of the land is important, as is loyalty to the local community. It's also based on a deep-seated mistrust of the excesses of power — once religious or royal, now political and economic — being wielded by too few.

And how will this play out in the future? Don't ask me, I'm a historian, not a politician or a fortune-teller. But what I do know is that the lessons of the past — drawn from places just like Kibworth — shouldn't be ignored as we confront the realities of England today.

dailymail.co.uk
Last edited by Blackleaf; Nov 4th, 2010 at 02:54 PM..
 
Bar Sinister
#2
Michael Wood is always great. My favourite series - In Search of the Trojan War.

In reference to the post it seems to me that something like this has been done in book form. I forget the author, but it seems to me the book was called Salem and followed the history of an English village for about 2000 years.
 

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