The Shortest History of England by James Hawes reviewed

Recreation of Danny Dorling’s North South Divide map by the Kent Bylines Team
Map from d-maps.com which is free to use

The Shortest History of England by James Hawes

Review by Charlotte Lebon

The Shortest History of England” is composed around a key idea that England has always been divided along the Severn-Trent border. This sheds light on many historic events from the Romans to the Brexit vote. The North-South divide explains “the Red Wall” and “levelling-up”, and political tensions within England.

South East richer 

Even before the Romans, the tribes who lived in Southeastern England were the richest and most prosperous, judging by the coins that they minted.

Once the Romans invaded, the inhabitants there in the south east adopted Roman civilised norms (as in the villas and towns that archaeology has revealed) while the Romans colonised the North, mainly by military settlements along the roads, via the garrisons at York and Chester, up to Hadrian’s Wall. 

Germanic immigration

Once the Roman legions withdrew, the Britons (Celts) invited German mercenaries to guard the coast

 “King Vortigern gave them land in the South East of this land withal that they should fight the Picts”

AD 449, says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

These mercenaries assimilated with the local population, according to modern DNA studies. This contradicts, according to Hawes, Victorian assumptions of colonial invaders, quoting a children’s history:

“Those who fought against our forefathers were killed and those who submitted were made slaves.”

Borderlands in the West

Hawes also explains the retreat of the Celtic languages towards the west by the supposition that these Anglo-Saxons also brought over their women, so that their German mother tongue eventually prevailed. Ethelbert, the first Christian Anglo-Saxon King of Kent, wrote his laws in English.

Further west, by AD 700 the King of Wessex ruled a bi-ethnic kingdom with English and Welsh separately defined in the bloodprice laws. Three generations laters, Offa, King of the Mercians, built Offa’s Dyke along what is now the border with Wales.

Viking invasions, and then the Normans

In the next century, a new threat came with the Viking invasions from the East. By this time, the kingdom of Wessex under King Alfred had taken over Mercia and also all the Channel coast including Kent. He created the first English royal navy, and retook London from the Danes.

He ruled over all England except the part that was under Danelaw (Yorkshire and East Anglia where Scandinavian place names still survive). His successor, Athelstan, even defeated the King of Scotland and minted a coin that declared him King over all Britain.

But then, by the next century, the Anglo-Saxon king, increasingly under threat from Viking raids, made a political link to the Normans through a dynastic marriage. However, some Anglo-Saxon earls allied with the Danes, including the powerful Earl Godwin who married a relative of King Cnut, then King of most of England by 1016.

After his reign, the Norman royal descendants (always called Frenchmen by the Anglo-Saxon chronicle) and the half-Danish son of Earl Godwin, Harold disputed the crown. At the Battle of Hastings, the Frenchmen won. But the men of the North resisted the Normans and tried the summon Danish help. They were crushed by William in the “harrying of the north” that laid waste much of the land.

So ends part 1 of this history of divided England.

England ruled by French-speaking elite

Part 2 of The Shortest History covers the nearly five centuries when the French-speaking Normans ruled England, sometimes intermarrying with acceptable native familes:

“The result was a relatively open colonial elite lording it over a leaderless peasantry whose ancient national culture had been abandoned. No other major Western European people experienced anything like this..until England visited it upon its neighbours.”

This part of The Shortest History has a strong theme of language oppression;

“Uplandish men will liken themselves to gentilmen and try for to speke Freynsch, for to be better thought of.”

English rebellion with leader from Kent

At last an English rebellion came under the leadership of Wat Tyler with “his fote folk” from Kent rebelling against the poll tax and destroying legal title deeds. The King, Richard II, addressed the rebels in English, but had Wat killed, and then turned to the North to recruit a royal army.

The next King, Henry IV, who usurped him, suffered a rebellion of war-lords, Mortimers in the south, Owain in Wales and the Percys in the North (Harry Hotspur). The boundaries of the Percys’ domain coincide with the old Viking boundaries of the north and east of England.

The book tells the Wars of the Roses as a North v South conflict, only stopped when a half-Welsh leader of the Lancastrians (Henry Tudor) married a Yorkist heiress, Elizabeth.

Tudor times – resistance in the North

Part 3 entitled The English and Empire 1509-1763 covers the period from Henry VIII to the end of the seven years war. On p100 there is a map, derived from the revenue survey instigated by Wolsey. It shows that the North-South divide was almost exactly the same as in 300AD. The areas most heavily Romanised then were still in Tudor times the richest in England: the North more impoverished.

In the dissolution of the monastries, some quarter of the lands in England changed hands, sold off to ambitious loyal families to refill the royal coffers. When the North, with a ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’ resisted, retribution was brutal with hundreds, including some Northern aristocrats, executed. 

The Book describes the Reformation as a language conflict:

“Cranmer’s travelling preachers and Cromwell’s printing presses told the ordinary English that attacking the foreign-language elite culture of England was not only allowed: it was the King’s will.” 

The Lord Cromwell’s players, with Shakespeare as lead script-writer, interpreted the Wars of the Roses for English (southern) nationalist sentiment. But the Privy Council still warned Elizabeth “north of the Trent mean know no other Prince but only a Neville or a Percy.” England was “dragooned” into unity, which in effect meant rule from the south.

An “Empire of Great Britain”

But when the Virgin Queen died, her successor came from – Scotland. James I wanted to form an “Empire of Great Britain” which united his two kingdoms, but there in his reign was also the beginning of colonies overseas when the Mayflower docked in North America.

The map that depicts the Civil War shows it as a conflict of what the author calls “outer Britain” (includes Scotland, Ireland, Wales, the South West and the North) as royalist supporters against Parliament from the South East (and East Anglia where Oliver Cromwell came from). Through Cromwell’s rule, then the Restoration, and then the connived invasion of England by a Dutch monarch, the book traces the foundations of Parliamentary sovereignty.

This government did not have problems raising money by taxation because the richer classes were happy to lend money, so much money that rich England was able to buy out the debts of the Scots and form, in 1707, the Union of Great Britain. When Daniel Defoe wrote the first guidebook of this island, he ignored the Anglo-Scottish border, and referred to “that part of Britain which the Scots and Northumberlanders, and others on that side call North by Trent” so again that old North-South border through England!

The Industrial Revolution

Part IV of the book (1763-1914) covers the industrial revolution which, the author points out, is the only period when wealth in the North began to approach that of the south, with cities in both heaving with the population increase from rural migration. But the wealth of the middle classes differed: in the north based on mining and factories, and in the south on commerce and finance.

In the North, despite some Catholic landowning families persisting from recusant days, the population in the big cities was mainly non-conformist, and liberal supporting (for free trade). In the South, the Church of England predominated, linked to Tory squires in the country and Empire-enriched merchants in the cities. The cultural divide was depicted in the novel North-South by Elizabeth Gaskell.

Part V (1914 –present) of this book covers both world wars and the end of the British Empire. Again it restates the theme of cultural divide in England;

“At the 1924 election, former southern liberal voters went Tory, and stayed there, former Northern liberal voters went with Labour and stayed there. This finally locked down the North-South political divide… the opposition was the Party of Outer Britain (Northern English + Celts) aka Labour… the battlelines were the same as in 1461 (Wars of the Roses), 1642 (Marston Moor in the Civil War) or 1848 (Chartists).”

In 1933, JB Priestley in An English Journey again divided England along the same lines, finding the North and Midlands “sootier grim fortress-like cities” contrasted to the areas nearer London, “arterial and by-pass roads,… with dance-halls and cafes.. bungalows with tiny garages”. Similarly, George Orwell described as he travelled northwards “entering a strange country.” The Ministry of Labour had two zones: the South and the North (which included the Celts).


History since WW II

History since WW II,  as recounted in this book, also shows recurrence of the North-South divide, for instance in the Thatcher-Scargill struggles. Even in 1997, on the eve of Labour victory, a journalist could write: “There remains an embarassing obstacle to national oneness: the North-South divide.” 

Blair’s government funnelled some southern wealth towards the North, and also hugely expanded access to Universities so that now the upwardly aspiring youth got their higher education in cosmopolitan campuses away from their home towns. This period also saw the huge influx of immigration from Eastern Europe.

Shouldn’t all this have changed the electoral map?

There are some sharp comments on how the Brexit leaders utilised English ethnic identity (even harking back to those Anglo-Saxons oppressed by French-speaking overlords) “All their ills were due to Europe and its collaborators.” There are electoral maps which show the “blue” South and the Red Wall of the North.

The Conservatives became the English National party in all but name, Northerners were asked to vote for it “to get Brexit done.” “Soon the UK will end… the English will emerge… as divided as they were when the North-South split was first noted by Bede 1300 years ago.”

But it is not only a North-South split: the English are also divided from their elite by language, ordinary English (Anglo-Saxon words) and educated English full of polysyllables from French and Latin. This can be seen in a culture class war between ordinary people and the “woke” of metropolitan areas (who also voted to remain in the EU). 

The closing lines of this book are:

“The wars of Great Britain are almost done. The battle for England begins.”

I can highly recommend this book as a romp through familiar history but now re-jigged through the lens of the current culture wars.


You can purchase The Shortest History of England by James Hawes HERE