England - Made In The Middle

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0120160523

Historian Helen Castor examines the role of Mercia in the creation of England.

There's something reassuringly eternal and inevitable-sounding about 'this England', as John of Gaunt famously describes it in Shakespeare's Richard II. He says it was, 'Built by Nature'. And of course England does have a landscape that was shaped by nature, but 'this realm' - the kingdom, England as a political entity - is, and already was in Gaunt's time, a human construction.

That being the case, Helen Castor asks where was England made, and who made it? And the answers come back - in its undersung middle parts, by Midlanders. Though we tend to think of it in terms of North and South, England was in significant part dreamt into being in the imaginations of the men and women of the country's heartland, harvested in its intensively laboured enclosures, forged in the fiery industrial furnaces of the Midlands.

In this first programme, Helen examines the conventional idea that England's history as a single, indivisible unit began in Wessex, precursor of the modern English South, under King Alfred. Major sources for early English history - including the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written in the South - underscore this notion. But actually much of the work essential to unification happened in the kingdom of Mercia, precursor of the modern Midlands. It's just as well that the Staffordshire Hoard recently dug itself out of the earth after a millennium and more, in order to refocus historical attention. The Hoard, consisting of over 1,500 items, was discovered in a field a few miles south-west of Lichfield in Staffordshire in 2009 and offers irrefutable proof of the power and influence of the Midlands in the medieval world.

Produced by Robert Shore and Ashley Byrne

A Made in Manchester production for BBC Radio 4.

0220160524

Many people think of the Industrial Revolution as a Northern phenomenon - but historian Helen Castor argues it was actually dreamt up and devised in the English Midlands. If Britain left the eighteenth century the world's foremost industrial power, it was almost entirely thanks to Midlanders.

In this programme, Helen tells the story of the Lunar Society - a group of Midland entrepreneurs, enthusiasts and inventors who met up at a location in or near Birmingham once a month, on the Monday nearest the full moon. There they discussed ideas that would revolutionise societies across the world, from Boulton and Watt's steam engine to Erasmus Darwin's early intuitions of evolutionary theory, which he wrote up in rhyming couplets.

The Lunar Society counted among its members many of the most innovative thinkers of a particularly innovative age - major figures of the wider Enlightenment whose individual contributions were at least as significant as those of Voltaire in France, Goethe in Germany, and Benjamin Franklin in the United States.

Distance from saltwater is a defining feature of the landlocked Midlands, but if the entrepreneurs of the Lunar Society lacked a natural waterway to carry their wares to market, they didn't despair about their natural disadvantages. Instead they set about creating an artificial sea. Josiah Wedgwood got Parliament to approve a new canal from the East Midlands to Liverpool.

Without the new canal network, Birmingham could never have emerged as the leader of the Industrial Revolution.

Produced by Robert Shore and Ashley Byrne.

A Made in Manchester production for BBC Radio 4.

0320160525

Where do you think of when you hear the words 'quintessential English countryside'? Probably somewhere in the sublime North or the beautiful South. Rarely - despite the odd exclamation over the splendours of Warwickshire or Shropshire - does anyone speak up for the magnificence of the Midlands generally. But historian Helen Castor claims it is the Midlands, rather than Kent, deserves the title The Garden of England.

For many, the Midlands consists of little more than service stations on the M1 or nodes on the rail network. But the middle band of the country has actually given birth to many of the myths associated with England's green and pleasant land.

Why don't more people know this? Helen argues the answer is bound up with the Industrial Revolution, and Midlanders' commitment to innovation. In order to serve as the nation's testing ground for new technologies, Midlanders have consistently sacrificed their surroundings. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Industrial and Agricultural Revolutions reconfigured the Midland landscape and brought passionate responses from the region's greatest writers, including the great Northants 'peasant poet', John Clare, outraged by the enclosure movement, and the Notts radical D H Lawrence, who scorned the ruination of his native woods and fields by the coal mines.

The Midland landscape has continued to cast a spell on the nation's greatest writers and composers all the same. Edward Elgar took his musical cue from the West Midlands, while in the imagination of JRR Tolkien the same landscapes gave rise to the notion of Hobbits and Middle-earth.

Produced by Robert Shore and Ashley Byrne

A Made in Manchester production for BBC Radio 4.

0420160526

Historian Helen Castor looks at the radical middle - the revolutionary political gestures that have emanated from England's Midlands and redefined the rest of the country.

When some people hear the word Midlands, they think of Middle England, a socio-political label applied to people of traditional, rather conservative views. But despite lying geographically in the middle of the country, Midlanders as a tribe are not at all middling in character. The middle of England is far from Middle England.

The West Midlands was the engine of parliamentary and civic reform in the 19th century. Birmingham, proclaimed the Congregational minister Dr Robert Dale, was capable of deeds "as great as were done by Pisa, by Florence, by Venice in their triumphant days". One of those great deeds was the 1832 Reform Act, which created our modern electoral system. The foremost public campaigner in securing the reform of the franchise was the visionary, Brum-based economist Thomas Attwood. "The country owed Reform to Birmingham," declared Lord Durham, "and its salvation from revolution."

The East Midlands, home to the nation's great individualists - from Robin Hood via Arthur Seaton, the anti-hero of Alan Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, to Margaret Thatcher - presents a different case. The beginnings of the USA can be traced to the East Midlands' tradition of gritty, cussed individualism, and the Separatists who later sailed to the untamed expanses of North America aboard the Mayflower. The Notts-led Pilgrim Fathers established a colony there in 1620 and bequeathed several defining legacies to the modern nation - not least the so-called 'Mayflower Compact', which laid the basis for the first democratically elective government in the New World.

Produced by Robert Shore and Ashley Byrne.

A Made in Manchester production for BBC Radio 4.

0520160527

Historian Helen Castor Helen Castor on why the action in Shakespeare's history plays takes place in the Midlands.

Generations of children have learned much English history from the great Midlander William Shakespeare. Much of the action in his history plays takes place in the Midlands. That's only to be expected, since much of our history has been made there.

Many of the decisive battles in English history were fought on Midland soil. In the Civil War, Charles I raised his standard at Nottingham and the conflict was settled to all military intents and purposes at Naseby in Northamptonshire. The climax of Shakespeare's Richard III - the culmination of the Wars of the Roses, fought between the Houses of York and Lancaster but which, geographically, had little to do with the North - famously takes place at Bosworth Field, in South Leicestershire.

Helen Castor puts the middle back in England's history by looking at figures such as Richard III, whose bones were recently discovered under a car park in Leicester. Newspapers were full of the arguments to have the bones of this 'vilified Yorkshireman' returned to 'God's own country'. But Richard was a Midlander. As one linguistic expert points out, evidence suggests that he spoke with a Brummie accent.

And then of course there's the foremost Midlander, Shakespeare, who from John of Gaunt's 'this England' speech in Richard II to King Harry's pre-Agincourt rallying cry in Henry V, has provided us with the most resonant language in which to express ourselves in times of both tragedy and delight. The Midland Bard, in all his variety, is England.

Produced by Robert Shore and Ashley Byrne

A Made in Manchester production for BBC Radio 4.

0520160527

Historian Helen Castor Helen Castor on why the action in Shakespeare's history plays takes place in the Midlands.

Generations of children have learned much English history from the great Midlander William Shakespeare. Much of the action in his history plays takes place in the Midlands. That's only to be expected, since much of our history has been made there.

Many of the decisive battles in English history were fought on Midland soil. In the Civil War, Charles I raised his standard at Nottingham and the conflict was settled to all military intents and purposes at Naseby in Northamptonshire. The climax of Shakespeare's Richard III - the culmination of the Wars of the Roses, fought between the Houses of York and Lancaster but which, geographically, had little to do with the North - famously takes place at Bosworth Field, in South Leicestershire.

Helen Castor puts the middle back in England's history by looking at figures such as Richard III, whose bones were recently discovered under a car park in Leicester. Newspapers were full of the arguments to have the bones of this 'vilified Yorkshireman' returned to 'God's own country'. But Richard was a Midlander. As one linguistic expert points out, evidence suggests that he spoke with a Brummie accent.

And then of course there's the foremost Midlander, Shakespeare, who from John of Gaunt's 'this England' speech in Richard II to King Harry's pre-Agincourt rallying cry in Henry V, has provided us with the most resonant language in which to express ourselves in times of both tragedy and delight. The Midland Bard, in all his variety, is England.

Produced by Robert Shore and Ashley Byrne

A Made in Manchester production for BBC Radio 4.