England in miniature

Michael Wood's new BBC TV series explores English history from the perspective of a Leicestershire village. Here he explains the reasons for his innovative approach

Modern day Kibworth, Leicestershire. (Alamy)

This article was first published in the October 2010 edition of BBC History Magazine

This article was first published in the October 2010 edition of BBC History Magazine

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“Kibworth?!! But why Kibworth?” said the perplexed voice down the line from BBC Radio Leicester. An ordinary place on the A6 with takeaways, a Co-op, and housing estates, you’d drive through it without a second look. But perhaps that is the point. Story of England is based on a very simple idea: to tell the story of one place through the whole of English history, with the people, not the rulers, as the focus. Of course rulers play their part, but the important action takes place not in the palaces of the rich and powerful, but in the houses and fields – and in the minds – of the ordinary people. And we attempt to chart the slow organic process through which all our communities have grown over time; how our rights and duties have developed and how waves of newcomers have shaped us and changed us. That’s the key to the series.

And why Kibworth? Well, Ambridge (the fictional setting for The Archers) it isn’t. Split by the A6, on the fringe of the multiracial city of Leicester, Kibworth is emphatically a microcosm of today’s England. It is where most of us live now: in a sense its history is the story of us all.

We were led to Kibworth first by its documents. For the northern part of the parish, Kibworth Harcourt, astonishing records survive in the archive of the landlord, Merton College, Oxford. These cover 750 years in the life of one community and the material is so good that individual peasant families can be traced over a dozen generations through the court rolls, rent books, building accounts, maps and surveys. There is even a letter from the village butcher to the college in 1447!

But the A6 is unphotogenic and noisy and not an obvious choice for filmmakers. While thinking about this project, we did research places elsewhere, but we always came back to Kibworth. And as we looked at the southern part of the parish, Kibworth Beauchamp, it soon became clear that here was an equally fascinating if different history, an industrial history with the coming of the canals, railways and factories. It had also been a centre of the framework knitting industry which so strongly features, for example, in EP Thompson’s classic The Making of the English Working Class. And both villages, together with Smeeton Westerby, the third village to make up the old parish of Kibworth, were thriving communities. That clinched it.

Hunting for clues

The subject of the series is England not Britain. The narratives of Scotland, Wales and Ireland have rightly attracted much attention from historians in recent years. Their own rich histories of course have very different trajectories, even though their destinies have long been bound together with that of England.

Just the same kind of project might be attempted in their lands too. But this is about England, and there need be no apology for that. It is often forgotten these days, but England is the core state in the British Isles, and its role in history is huge. For a small country on the far western shore of the Eurasian landmass, its influence on the world in literature, language, politics and law has been out of all proportion to its size. Why that should have been is an interesting question in itself.

So Kibworth – in the heart of England, just inside the Viking Danelaw in what was once Mercia, and before that the land of the Corieltauvi tribe – turned out to be an ideal place to focus the tale. The series has ended up having a strong community involvement. But that wasn’t the initial intention: it was the people of Kibworth themselves who, through their interest in the project, determined the way the films should go. Our first co-operative venture was the ‘Big Dig’.

Kibworth was already a community by 1066, but no documents survive from before then. So, hoping to find clues to the pre-Norman period, we advertised on Radio Leicester for volunteers to dig test pits in their own gardens, supervised by Carenza Lewis from Cambridge, a Leicester University team and pottery expert Paul Blinkhorn. We expected 30 or 40 people and would have been very grateful if ten test pits had been dug and recorded. In the event 250 locals took part and dug 55 test pits (the most ever done in a single place).

It was a huge success, yielding evidence from prehistoric Beaker people; pottery from the Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods all the way through the medieval era; as well as the debris of Georgian coaching inns, frame knitters’ workshops and railway navvies camps. Even before we had taken stock of this unforeseen wealth of evidence, we struck gold with a magnetometry survey by the Hallaton Field Work Group (who close by in 2000 had discovered Britain’s greatest Iron Age treasure). We asked them to survey a field just outside the village where there had been a number of chance finds since the 1860s, and amazingly on the first day they came up with Iron Age enclosures and the complete plan of a Roman villa.

A flood of data

This find was amplified by field walking led by historians Chris Dyer and Peter Liddle. No sooner had it all been digested than a flood of data came in from local metal detectorists, courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, including Roman and Anglo-Saxon brooches, Dark Age coins, two silver pennies of Ethelred the Unready, a papal bull, and pewter pilgrim badges.

By now the project involved a huge number of local people – and the many experts who had unstintingly given their time. And very soon there was too much evidence to process for a mere TV series. To take the documents alone: Merton College holds 750 years of material just for Kibworth Harcourt; the Leicestershire Record Office holds tax lists beginning in the 12th century and many unpublished early wills from the village; the National Archive has a spread of documents from 1320s poll taxes through Tudor and Stuart military musters and hearth taxes down to modern censuses and poor law records. All for one parish. The truth is that we could have easily done 20 films.

The modern records were simply too extensive to cope with. Fortunately the very active Kibworth History Society has published collections of early photos; Victorian censuses; a gazetteer of the 23 Kibworth coaching inns and pubs, which have existed since the 18th century; a history of local cricket; the study of one Victorian village shop and its receipts; and personal memoirs, including that of a land girl and farm worker Rose Holyoak who still lives in Kibworth and appears in the series. So by a huge collaborative effort, as if by magic, the history of a community at grass roots level began to unfold.

Our intention when we started was that the local story would weave in and out of the national narrative. Each place in Britain after all has its own distinctive local history, but has also played its role in national developments. In Kibworth this turned out to be true: we got Viking DNA from villagers, a likely Norman castle, and peasants in Simon de Montfort’s army (scintillatingly evoked in the films by Professor David Carpenter). Even house research came up trumps. Tree-ring dating in one village house gave us the 1320s with a rebuild in 1385! Some of the documents yielded great stories too: a 13th-century murder case and the court roll for the Black Death with its horrific toll (the highest recorded anywhere in Britain). One of the most dramatic (with the help of UCL’s Maureen Jurkowski) was Kibworth’s involvement in the Lollard heresy, when seven villagers joined the Oldcastle rising against Henry V.

In the Reformation the vicar was jailed for his opposition to Henry VIII. Later, in the Civil War, the royal army camped around the village before Naseby. During the Commonwealth the village was touched by radical movements – independents, dissenters, Quakers (George Fox was born nearby) that at times were violently suppressed. This long-lasting current of nonconformity led to the founding in the village of a famous nonconformist academy (with an extraordinary curriculum set up in answer to exclusion by Oxbridge) under whose roof the feminist, anti-war, and anti-slavery writer Anna Laetitia Aikin (later Barbauld) grew up.

The last two episodes move on to the enclosure of the open fields, the coming of the turnpike, the Grand Union Canal and the Midland Railway; with the arrival of industry the village became almost a small town. Here the material was incredibly rich. One exciting moment was when a group of villagers went to the National Archives to examine their poor law documents. They were met by archivist Paul Carter who showed them a couple of dozen telephone directory-sized volumes, containing telegrams, reports, and letters from ordinary people desperate for work. It was a tiny sample from over 16,700 poor law volumes – one of the biggest sources of 19th-century social history. “You are probably the first people to open these since they were bound in the 19th century,” Paul said in his introductory speech. “What will you find there? I don’t know!”

From a reconstructed 1880s village ‘Penny Concert’, to the school trip to the Somme battlefields, and even to memories of the first postwar housing estate, what I think emerges in the series is a sense of the growth of a community over time. This offers fascinating insights into work, religion, culture, and even charity – a thread that runs through the story from the 14th century. All of it is driven by the primary sources, and of these my favourite has to be the 1940s village Forces Journal, edited by Leslie Clarke, a veteran of the First World War, which was sent out to all serving villagers. A mix of letters, poems and memoirs and stories, plus all the births, deaths and marriages, the journal powerfully sums up the co-operative yet individualistic spirit that has kept village society together through all the ups and downs of our history. “During the course of the war,” Clarke wrote, “I have found where the heart of the village lies. To me Kibworth has always been friendly, but that friendly spirit has never been more generously displayed than it is today… our grumbling, friendly, warm-hearted gossip-loving village, truly represents with the thousand others of her kind, that free spirit which is, and will be, forever England.”

So the Story of England is the tale of one community over time, but as Clarke wrote, it could be any place. It could be yours.


Kibworth: The timeline of an English village

100 BC: Kibworth is a local centre for the Corieltauvi tribe. Coins and evidence of settlement from this period have been found

AD 100: A Roman villa is built in the area and Kibworth is the location of a Romano-British burial mound

410: The Roman legions go but their coins remain in use. The population is still Welsh-speaking

500: Anglo-Saxons from the region of Angeln in Schleswig settle in Kibworth. Anglo-Saxon burials have been found at nearby Foxton and Glen

700: Kibworth is part of the province of Middle Angles in the Kingdom of the Mercians

877–920: Vikings settle around Kibworth

1086: According to Domesday Book there are around 350 people living in Kibworth parish

1349: Two-thirds of the village are killed in the Black Death. There will be five further outbreaks until 1412

1605–6: Plague hits the village, resulting in 79 deaths

1779: Enclosure ends the system of open fields in the village

1871: The census records that 2,000 people are living in the parish. This is the highest population since the 14th century

1914–18: During the First World War 40 men of the village die

1939–45: Kibworth hosts a prisoner of war camp, a land girls hostel, a Home Guard unit and evacuees from London in the Second World War. Some 400 people from the parish serve in the conflict

2010: The population for Kibworth, including Smeeton Westerby, reaches 5,000 people

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Michael Wood is a historian, writer and broadcaster who has produced over 100 documentary films including Domesday and In Search of the Dark Ages