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May 312017

The title is not meant to be taken seriously except as a poke of fun at the notion that border between England and Scotland is set in stone and has always been there. It is essentially an excuse to counteract some of the anti-English propaganda found in films like Braveheart or TV series such as Outlander.  For example, the Battle of Culloden involved Scottish regiments fighting for the British side, and the Jacobite side had several regiments that suffered severely from desertion, plus a small English contingent; it was actually very little to do with England and Scotland, being rather more about religion and restoring the ousted House of Stuart.

But back to the borders …

The map above does not show Edinburgh, but it is on the northern edge of what is shown as Northumbria. The modern border is of course different; very roughly imagine a diagonal between the “Y” of Strathclyde, and a bit north of Bamburgh. The modern border was pretty much defined by the battle of Carham (or Coldstream) in 1018 when two Scottish kings (technically one was the king of Strathclyde) defeated an Earl of Northumbria. Later significant border changes worked out to be more or less temporary in nature.

This defeat (and loss of territory) was accepted by the kings of England partially because it has been alleged that the defacto border reflected the new border – England would have been quite weak in enforcing the “king’s peace” given it’s struggle to survive (essentially it didn’t being eventually conquered by the Normans which were essentially Danes or Norwegians with a French accent).

It is also the case that Northumbria would have seemed a remote part of the kingdom to both the Anglo-Saxon kings (most of whom were originally based in Wessex in the south), and to the Normans who were also distracted with “issues” in France. A case of not bothering when there were bigger issues at stake.

Which may very well have been a contributing factor to the North being somewhat grumpy and inclined towards rebellion; so much so that when Charles I raised his banner in the north to defeat parliament he was seen as a rebel.

So did those Northumbrians see themselves as Scottish after 1018? Almost certainly not, but they may very well not seen themselves as English or even Northumbrian either. The common people were far more likely to put more importance to their pre-medieval clan allegiances, and their medieval feudal lords. And those classified as clan chiefs or feudal lords would have pled allegiance to any overlord or king who was in a position to assist them.

To make things more complicated, the kings of Scotland often held the Earldom of Northumbria (thus were in theory required to swear allegiance to the English king) or Cumbria. Of course as an alternative to paying homage, the Scottish kings were just as happy to invade England – on at least one occasion reaching as far south as Dover.

And no medieval army behaved well on campaign – rape and pillage were considered standard forms of warfare at the time – so it is worth remembering that the English invasion in 1296 did not come in a vacuum. Yes the English behaved terribly in Scotland, but it was standard behaviour for armies at the time – soldiers expected to make money through plunder.

Trying to determine who invaded whom first is pointless not just because the conflict disappears into murkier periods of history, and because smaller scale “wars” (raids) probably occurred nearly constantly. The Scottish borders were a place of nearly constant raiding back and forth until at least the 17th century – there was even a special legal system in force in the borders (not that it helped much), and “real wars” were often raids on a larger scale.

So yes it is possible to argue that Edinburgh is English (and a great way to start an argument), but more importantly this all illustrates that nations are created and not natural. Someone from Berwick-Upon-Tweed could reasonably claim to be English, Scottish, Northumbrian, or even Bernician. If you look closely at history, you can actually see that nation-building happening with kings re-enforcing the notion of nation in order to protect their centralised power against magnates with ambition to replace them.

Just because nations are artificially created does not mean that they are meaningless, but it doesn’t do any harm to remember that they are artificial and that people on the “wrong” side of the border are different only in that some ruler from the distant past declared that they were different. Most national borders get fuzzier as you look closer at the people living near those borders.

May 082017

Many of us know about the story of King Canute (or probably Cnut) and his attempt to hold back the tides. Although we English typically only give one king the suffix “the Great” (Alfred), Cnut himself is also known as “the Great” (perhaps more for his non-English endeavours). So it seems a touch unlikely that such a king would imagine he could control the waves by verbal command; if anything he might want to make fun of his courtiers by trying the impossible to indicate he was human.

It is a popular tale with the Church too – it’s a great example of over-weaning pride which is one of the seven deadly sins. And Cnut as a Dane, probably was not the most popular king with the church, as Danes had only recently given up going viking and pillaging churches and monasteries (in the words of a fictional viking: “they gather all their gold and silver into one building. And then so conveniently mark those buildings with crosses.¨).

But there is a far more prosaic explanation for the tale in which the Church uses a human disaster to laugh at people’s efforts to improve themselves.

Before the raw sewage pollution in the 19th century put an end to it, the South coast was home to a massive oyster fishing industry that existed in the region for at least two thousand years. Indeed, oysters were one of the staple food sources for the poor until the 19th century.

One of the ways that shallow water oyster fisheries can be improved is by building dyke-like structures that allow the high tide in, but keep some of the tide from escaping at low tide. As it happens, a place in West Sussex called Bosham happens to be ideal for this, and there is supposedly much archaeological evidence to show that these “dykes” had been built there repeatedly over the centuries.

As anyone who lives by the sea knows, to build sea structures, you have to over-build and even then, exceptional storms will cause damage, and there is also archaeological evidence to show that the “dykes” at Bosham were washed away in exceptional storms every few hundred years.

As it happens, Bosham was a royal estate in the time of Cnut (one of his daughters is supposedly buried at the pictured church), and it is all too likely that an exceptional storm would have destroyed the oyster beds whilst Cnut was holding Bosham. Thus the Church had an opportunity to use an economic disaster to poke fun at king they were probably not too fond of.

May 072017

I have been reading a book on chivalry and knights recently, and every so often wanted to shout at the historian writing it, but as he isn’t listening to me I guess I’ll just have to shout at you instead.

The main irritating claim was that the equipment of knights put entry out of the reach of ordinary ‘soldiers’. It is true that the need to provide a highly trained and specially bred horse or two, did significantly increase the cost of entry into the ranks.  But this is an overly simplistic analysis.

For a start, if we look at the fighting men of the Anglo-Saxon forces facing the Normans in 1066, many (perhaps even most) would have been equipped with just a spear and shield. But a wealthy core would have been much better equipped with costly mail armour, swords, etc. Many within this core would have quite easily afforded the additional cost of a destrier or two.

In addition, many of those ‘core’ soldiers would have been members of the royal household guards, or similar groups for other magnates. And it is likely that some or all of their equipment would have been provided by their lord. For example, look at William Marshall who whilst he was born into a privileged family certainly did not have the resources to pay for his own equipment; whilst his climb to become regent was exceptional and he was undoubtedly both exceptionally talented and exceptionally lucky, he would have almost certainly had to rely on being gifted his first destrier.

Yes this is after the Anglo-Saxon era (although right at the beginning of the chivalric era), although there is no reason to suppose that similar arrangements could not also take place in the Anglo-Saxon period. It is simply common-sense – an earl would want to impress his king with the number of followers he could provide, and a well-equipped follower is better than a poorly equipped one.

Onto chivalry itself: It’s a bit of a myth. Knights were generally expected to behave in a certain way with other knights and others of similar or higher rank, but lower ranks? The ordinary people? They were not so lucky; the standard way of making war consisted of sieges of fortified towns (resistance would usually result in extensive looting, killing, and raping of the inhabitants), open battles, and ravaging the landscape – burning crops, buildings, and generally making a nuisance – this later was intended to have an effect on the wealth of the lords of the territory, but the effect on the common people is predictable – death, rape, and impoverishment.

And impoverishment generally led to famine. As an example, during the Thirty Years War, overall 25-40% of the population of German fell victim to famine.  Whilst other wars and battles may not have caused such widespread famines, there was undoubtedly a huge death toll in payment for the entertainment of kings and knights.

And knights did not always act “knightly” towards their high-born prisoners either. Once a king (or other leader in battle) raised the dragon banner, no prisoners were taken including prisoners who would otherwise be worth a considerable amount in ransom.

So the much vaunted “chivalry” was a conditional code of honour that could be discarded according to circumstances.

On the other hand, the myth of chivalry did have some use – it fed the inclination leading to the laws of war and conventions on warfare such as the Geneva Convention(s). If anything the myth was more real than the reality of chivalry.

Apr 162017

I am a racist.

I am prejudiced in favour of the human race.

Of course it is more common to find people who use the word race in reference to sub-divisions of humans, but you usually find that that as you look closer at each sub-division, it has less and less meaning. For instance, “white” in Europe is sub-divided into French, German, Italian, Scandinavian, Birtish, English, Irish, Welsh, … And as you look closer at those sub-sub-divisions, they are also divided up. At the lowest level, there is “family” and “not family”.

The imperative to categorise people into “races” comes from a useful trait for problem solving, but if it doesn’t tell you anything useful, why categorise “race”? There are plenty of more useful categories to put people into.

This was kicked off by a sudden surge in the number of YouTube videos on DNA results that show up for me. Which of course showed the entirely predictable result that almost everyone is a mixture of different ancestors. And people are shocked, distressed, or annoyed about the fact that that their perceived racial identity is smaller than expected.

A DNA test for me will show no shocking results – I know with certainty that all my ancestors for well over 10,000 years were human. As a rough guess, 75% of my ancestors were from somewhere in northwest Europe, with 25% from all sorts of surprising places. The proportions may change, and the higher the proportion of surprising places, the more interesting a story some of my ancestors have to tell.

Feb 122017

Now this blog posting is not intended to defend the wrongs of colonialism; we all now accept that territorial expansion by conquest (except apparently Russia) is wrong. In fact it could be argued that Britain conquered India for commercial and not colonial reasons – for example no penal transportation to India occurred. Yes, British people went to live in India, but chiefly to do specific jobs – colonial administration, soldiering, or commercial activities.

Not mass migration.

We need to be wary of judging the past with the moral standards of today; it was not until the 20th century that conquest for territorial expansion was universally condemned. And the evils of the British Raj (and earlier) because it successfully conquered India; earlier (and there were many) attempts failed, although some were close. The very presence of islam within the Indian sub-continent is indicative of attempts to conquer.

And as for the notion that only the British Empire acted in evil ways in India, just take a look through the list of massacres in India; many of those listed had nothing to do with the British.

Does that excuse the excesses of British colonial rule? No of course it doesn’t.

But even if Europeans had not become involved with India, the evils of attempted conquest would still have occurred as they did occur before.

Dec 092016

B84V1827t1-elderley-man-past-gravestonesGenealogy, and inspired by the TV programme: “Who Do You Think You Are?“.

Sometimes I feel that when we dive into family history, it is possible that we are distracted by the records we come across and ignore the records we do not find. Which is perfectly understandable – those who history does not record disappear.

And related to that is that we sometimes tend to concentrate on the more famous of our ancestors; it is noticeable that the programme “Who Do You Think You Are?” always seems to find an interesting ancestor. Some may be under the impression that it is because that the programme only researches the ancestry of the famous, but if you look back far enough into the ancestry of anyone you will find a famous ancestor and a good story.

Even me.

Yet in some ways the more interesting stories are those of the less famous – how the ordinary rank and file of our families survived day to day, because frankly the past was harsh and unforgiving.

The other thing is that family historian have an unrealistic belief in the historical record. That all marriages were happy, children were born in wedlock, and that there was no “hanky-panky” going on.

I recently scanned through the birth records of one person and was amused to see that of those with the same surname approximately a third had unmarried mothers (it showed the mother’s maiden name). Of course that was just one surname in one year, but there are other signs pointing the same way.

All of those concrete lines in our family tree are no more than the story that each of our families told the authorities which may or may not reflect reality. It is difficult to appreciate today, but there were perfectly reasonable reasons for concealing the true parentage of “illegitimate” children – a surprise legitimate sister is less of an embarrassment than a surprise “illegitimate” daughter.


Oct 272016

I have recently been ‘entertaining’ myself with watching some videos on the vim editor which to the uninitiated is an extremely powerful if somewhat ‘unusual’ editor that is popular amongst Linux power users. One of the surprising things that came up was that apparently there are experienced vim users who are not aware of why the ex mode exists.

Or probably why the ex command exists.

In the dim and distant past (and in fact even longer than I’ve used Unix!), one of the possible ways of interacting with computers was with a printing terminal :-

On such a terminal, using a visual editor like vim (or it’s predecessor vi) would have been painful. Redrawing the screen would take a couple of minutes or more; imaging moving the cursor across from the beginning of the line to the end!

So it was common to use an alternative kind of editor – the line editor. The process of creating a file is somewhat clumsy :-

$ ex ~/Foo
"~/Foo" 1L, 4C
Entering Ex mode.  Type "visual" to go to Normal mode.

Now for a quick explanation (although this is no tutorial on line editors!): The ex ~/Foo is the command given to start editing a pre-existing file called Foo in the ex editor. After the editor starts up, I enter the “p” command to print the current line. I then use the “a” command to append text after the first line, and enter a “.” on it’s own to finish adding lines. Again I use “p” to print the current line, and then “1” to print the first line.

Which is more than you’ll ever want to know about how to use ex, so why does it still exist?

The first reason is simply because it’s possible. It’s almost certainly fairly easy to support the ex mode with vim; after all the ex-mode is effectively the commands you get when you enter “:” within vim.

The next reason is that line editors were sometimes used within shell scripts to batch edit files, and somewhere out there is a shell script from hell that relies on ex to keep running.

Sep 212016

In England and Wales, there is no such thing as Common-Law Marriage, except when there is.

Which basically comes down to the fact that courts accept informal marriages where there was no other choice – the example on the Wikipedia page is of prisoners held by the Japanese who could not marry according to the formal process.

So where did the notion of common-law marriage come from? That Wikipedia page claims that it was some sort of group-think mistake made in the 1970s … well perhaps.

In fact, Scotland (until 2006) had something that would in England be called ‘common-law marriage’, and England in all likelihood had something equivalent even if the lawyers claim there was no such thing as “common-law marriage”.  They are right to a certain extent, but the history of marriage law in England is byzantine and twisted.

Details of what happened in England regarding marriage before the christian church came to dominance is shrouded in mystery, but in all likelihood marriage was a legally binding contract initiated by oath (it should be noted that an old form of the marriage vow includes the phrase “I plight my troth” and the word “plight” is the Old English word for oath). For those who are suspicious of a simple sworn oath being the basis for a marriage should note that in Anglo-Saxon times, the sworn oath was a fundamental building block of society, and nobody was lower than an oath-breaker.

One indicator of this are the marriage vows; a pompous religious or civil official may pronounce “You are now married” or even “I declare you married”, but the important part of the ceremony are the vows that the two people swear to each other.

In the early medieval era, the state had no time for laws regarding marriage – it was still effectively a private contract between individuals. The church on the other hand took in interest in dealing with abuses – bigamy, fornication, prevented forced marriage (probably not entirely successfully), etc. But the church could not and did not perform marriages; marriages would often be “blessed” within the church, but marriages themselves took place outside.

One of the important principles established was that an illegal marriage was still a marriage.

The church took control of marriage after the Council of Trent, and declared that no marriage was legal unless it took place within a church and the ceremony was performed by a priest. Yet in all likelihood ‘irregular marriages’ still took place especially when extra-parochial areas, or remote under-served parishes were considered (some remote areas in the North could see a priest as little as once a decade or longer).

And of course getting married required money – the priest would insist on his cut as payment for his services. So the poor probably carried on doing what their ancestors had done, and simply declared they were married and got on with it.

The state took over marriage law in 1753, in an attempt to combat “clandestine marriages” (it didn’t entirely succeed; those in need of such marriages merely eloped to Scotland where the law on marriage was more relaxed), and it is often said that this act abolished common-law marriage.

It didn’t. There was no such thing.

A 15th century marriage was legally nothing more than a contract as in an agreement to supply certain goods in exchange for land. It looked like common-law marriage, and it would not be too surprising if rumours of how marriage used to be persists down to the present day. Especially when you consider that a significant number of non-conformists who avoided CoE churches would have been ‘married by consent’ rather than ‘married in law’.

So what does this matter? Well apart from being historically interesting, it is important to note that unless you are officially married then you do not have the legal rights of marriage. So those who believe in ‘common-law marriage’ are welcome to continue to do so, but should bear in mind that it has no legal status.




Jul 012016

It’s the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of the Somme this morning, and there are those commemorating the event by claiming they all died for our freedom. Well that may have been what they thought they were fighting for, but that’s arguably not what the war was about. At least for the British, there were no real risk of invasion at the beginning of the war.

There is still arguments to be had over the causes of World War 1, but a very high level view indicates military adventurism by the Austria-Hungary empire in the powder-keg of Europe (the Balkans), combined with interlocking defence treaties that amounted to the mutually-assured destruction of the 19th century. To a great extent, Britain was fighting because France was fighting, and they were fighting because Russia was fighting who were fighting because Austria-Hungary were invading their allies in the Balkans – Serbia. Germany was pulled into the mess because of it’s alliance with Austria-Hungary.

If that sounds like a confusing mess, you don’t know the half of it. Not least because I have not mentioned Belgium.

Why does this matter? Particularly since I am implying that the sacrifice of the WW1 casualties was not for a particularly noble cause.

The first reason for remembering, is that those who thought they were fighting for a noble cause deserve to be remembered.

Secondly we need to remember just how stupid war is, and particularly that people are still arguing over exactly how and why it started. There may be justifiable wars – even wars that are not strictly defensive. But if you are not entirely sure why the war is being fought, it is definitely a war you should not be in.


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