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Region and Frontier in the English State: the English Far North, 1296-1603
By Steven G. Ellis
Frontiers, regions and identities in Europe, edited by Steven G. Ellis and Raingard Eβer with Jean-François Berdah and Miloš Řezník (Pisa: Pisa university Press, 2009)
Abstract: This chapter assesses the far north of England as a frontier region and its relationship with the realm of England in the period between the beginning of the Scottish wars of independence and the Union of the Crowns. The thrust of much recent research on the far north has been to suggest that the region was far being from an impoverished and militarized borderland but a relatively peaceful and prosperous region which was fairly well integrated into the kingdom of England. This argument is here reviewed by means of a survey of the region’s social and administrative structures, agricultural practices, and patterns of landholding so as to determine how far these were influenced by the proximity of a frontier. The final section takes the form of a case study of the career of a Northumberland border baron, Lord Ogle. The chapter concludes that, while the region was recognizably English and while its military importance as a frontier declined in the later 16th century, for most of this period it lived up to its reputation as a violent and impoverished borderland.
The frontier dividing the kingdom of England from the kingdom of the Scots was remarkable for its stability over five centuries – from the integration of Northumbria and Cumbria into the respective kingdoms around 1100 to the frontier’s final demise following the Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland in 1603. Much has been written about it, but addressing only a limited range of questions. There are studies which look at social conditions along the frontier and its political development over a particular timeframe, and there are studies which, working within a national context, seek to compare the English or Scottish marches with developments elsewhere in the respective kingdoms. More recently, the question of frontier regions has been raised, but regions (as opposed to counties) are not an established unit of study in British historiography. Above all, there have been relatively few attempts to break out from the largely self-referential national contexts so as to study the Anglo-Scottish frontier in the context of frontiers elsewhere; and among those working along more traditional lines there has also been criticism of this type of comparative history. The purpose of this chapter is to address one line of argument which cuts across attempts to view the Anglo-Scottish frontier in wider perspective by marginalizing the frontier’s very character as a frontier.
What was the relationship between the English far north and England as a whole in the late middle ages? Was the far north a violent and impoverished borderland, with a turbulent marcher society which successive kings vainly attempted to reduce to the peace, good rule, and civility of southern parts? On the whole, historians have in recent years tended to underplay the region’s exceptional character as a militarized border zone, stressing instead its civility and its integration into national politics. There is also the question of whether the far north may fairly be described as one region. After all, its southern boundary in particular was fluctuating and indistinct; within the far north, conditions varied considerably between east and west marches; and even the border itself was much less than a Trennungsgrenze [frontier of separation]. Summarizing the conclusions of nearly 40 years of historical research on the topic, Professor Tony Pollard has suggested that “north-eastern England was not the lawless, ungovernable, backward, impoverished, dark corner of the land of received wisdom”. He also queried whether the “borders as a whole” were “such a marked international frontier during the period of the Anglo-Scottish wars”; he wondered “how deep national antagonisms really were for those who rubbed shoulders”; and he suggested that in “the thirteenth century and the later sixteenth, when there was peace between the kingdoms, the Border was not a barrier”.