Amongst British social studies there is a phenomenon that is often referred to as ‘The North/South Divide,’ a theoretical boundary that supposedly highlights the extensive cultural, social, economic and political differences between the north and the south. Some people think that this is a recent phenomenon, brought about by the Industrial Revolution (where most of the more industrialised cities were in the north) and that it has been perpetuated by the decline in industry over the last century or so. But that isn’t actually true. Although the Industrial Revolution didn’t help matters, this divide has existed for a very long time.
The North/South divide, as far as I can tell, goes back to the later Roman period when the rulers of that time decided to split what was then the province of Britannia into four regions: Britannia Prima (The South West, West Midlands and Wales), Britannia Secunda (Everything between the River Humber/Mersey and Hadrian’s Wall), Flavia Caesariensis (Lincolnshire, The East Midlands and Norfolk) and Maxima Caesariensis (The South East.)
Most of Britain’s Roman remains are to be found in the areas of Britannia Prima and Maxima Caesariensis- The West and the South east. In these areas you can find sites such as Fishbourne Palace, The Mithraeum, the fort of Segontium, Wroxeter, the majority of the villas and most of the major Roman cities/forts such as Chester, Colchester, Bath and London. Meanwhile the region of Britannia Secunda is almost barren in comparison with the major sites all located around York and along Hadrian’s Wall. In particular, it becomes clear when looking at a map of Roman Britain. Here you can see that the South of Britain is littered with villas, towns and other major sites whilst the North is comparatively empty, comprising mainly of military sites.
The Romans were snobs when it came to the islands of Britain. It’s almost about as far removed from a Mediterranean climate as you can possibly get. Most of the time it rains and it can get really cold, even during the summer, especially in the North. To the Romans Britain was a soggy backwater hardly worth dealing with and so where possible they kept to the warmest, least wet part- The South. Therefore, the North was much less ‘Romanised’ than the south with the extent of Romanisation in the north mainly centring around Hadrian’s Wall and York, military sites. It’s even been argued that the total extent of Romanisation in the North of England was as a military occupation and not a socio-economic one. As shown on maps of Roman Britain, this is supported by the archaeological record. What this ‘snubbing’ did was to form the foundations for the North/South Divide and this division continued into the period following the collapse of the Roman empire, ‘The Dark Ages.’
Following the Roman period Britain divides into much smaller kingdoms- Mercia, Northumbria, Wessex, Kent and East Anglia being the main ones. The two biggest Kingdoms are Mercia and Northumberland which occupied much of the Midlands and the North. It is interesting to note here that the boundary between the two kingdoms was once again the Rivers Humber and Mersey, which effectively means that Northumbria occupied more or less the same territory as Britannia Secunda did during Roman era. However, unlike the latter, Northumbria maintained a much more important status in contemporary dark age society. In fact, quite the reverse is true. The area of Northumbria has much more of an archaeological presence than other regions. There are Dark Age sites in other areas, such as Sutton Hoo as well as the Welsh Dykes (the most famous being Offa’s Dyke,) but in Northumbria you’ve got much more extensive sites such as Bamburgh Castle. Later on in the period the area becomes the ‘Viking heartlands’ with their capital at York (Jorvik). As a matter of fact the most important Viking artefacts in the country come from there. It’s home to the most significant remains of Viking settlement outside Scandinavia: Coppergate. You’ve got some of the most important places and artefacts of Early Christian Britain. Northumbria is where you’ll also find the monastery of Jarrow where Bede wrote the first History of England, as well as Lindisfarne and its famous gospels as well as many more extensive religious remains.
Northumbria, in the early to mid Dark Ages at least, is perhaps the most culturally and religiously significant region in all of Britain, more significant than any of the southern kingdoms. Besides the odd bit of feuding, these kingdoms were quite happy to get along and co-exist most of the time and even help each other out, on occasion. It’s only when you reach the later Dark Ages and the founding of the English State under the Anglo-Saxons that the divide between North and South becomes highlighted once again, although this time as a conflict between two different cultures rather than as an act of land division.
From about 865/66 the Vikings stop raiding Britain and instead they began to settle. There’s not much evidence to suggest that it was a violent settlement- Early on there appeared to have been a bit of a skirmish at York but that appears to have been the Northumbrians being deliberately antagonistic towards the Vikings and raising a massive army to repel them. In fact. all of those early skirmishes in the Danish wars appear to be the Saxons attacking the Vikings and not the other way around. In much of the early years of the war (Around 865-870) there is only one reference to the Vikings actually being the attackers (in 870) and even then it’s a little bit dubious as to who started it- Although the Vikings did loot a monastery afterwards which probably didn’t help.
The major historical source for this period (and The Danish Wars as a whole) is The Anglo Saxon Chronicle. As the name implies, it was Anglo Saxon and so we can expect some bias against the Vikings when it comes to what is written down. What it makes all the more untrustworthy is that the Saxons seemed to have a particular distaste for Vikings. The Saxons hated the Vikings with a severe passion and it’s likely that what was seen as an ‘invading force’ were actually peaceful settlers who were provoked into battle with the Saxons. Throughout most of the early years the chronicle refers to both sides ‘making peace,’ which suggests to me that it wasn’t supposed to be a violent settlement and it only becames that way later on.
Just from reading the chronicle you can see the antipathy the Saxons had for the Vikings straight away as it continually refers to them as ‘heathen men’ which, to me at least, suggests a great degree of intolerance on the part of the Saxons. Let’s not forget, the Saxons hadn’t been long in Britain either… Only about 400 years (maybe less)… And for most of that period they hadn’t been Christian themselves. They’d only been predominantly Christian for about 150 years. Not long at all in historical terms. So we can also say that there is a great amount of hypocrisy going on. But then again, history isn’t always a case of black and white and I suppose the Vikings weren’t entirely blameless. They have to take some responsibility for the war at least and they did partake in some looting and pillaging along the way. They also did attack the Saxons and start a few major fights during the period.
To cut a long story short the Danish Wars end up as a very long and bloody series of conflicts between Saxons and Vikings that lasted nearly two hundred years. By 886 you have an uneasy peace brokered between the King of Wessex, the only Saxon Kingdom that hadn’t been swamped by Vikings during the war, Alfred The Great and Viking leader Guthrum. This treaty of peace establishes a Viking kingdom within England: The Danelaw. The boundary runs in a rough diagonal between the Thames and the Mersey with a northern border running across the country somewhere to the south of Durham. Once again we can see a divide being drawn between North and South. Unlike earlier divisions, this is the first where we can perhaps see something of an influence in the way in which North and South are portrayed today. Northerners are often stereotyped at tough, rough fighting sorts, almost brutish and almost ‘Viking like’ in their behaviour. Meanwhile, Southerners are sometimes stereotyped as being pansy, weedy pushovers, a bit like the Saxons as it happens (who managed to lose most of the battles in the Danish Wars by running away.)
The ‘Danelaw’ did not last for long and both sides can’t keep to the treaty. There are only a few years peace before both sides start attacking each other again. It’s a little unclear who started this one but once again both sides are to blame. This even happens before Alfred’s death in 899. There is however a relative peace that only seems to last until the death of Viking leader Guthrum in c.890. However… This peace only serves to strengthen the North/South Divide by creating a strong cultural variation. Viking and Anglo Saxon societies were completely opposed to each other and radically different when all things are considered, and so it’s no surprise that the North ended up being predominantly Viking influenced whilst the south ended up being Saxon influenced. Even after the triumph of the Saxons and the creation of the ‘Kingdom of England’ under Athelstan in 927 the cultural differences continue and the north retains many of its Viking influences. Even though England was unified under the Anglo Saxons it doesn’t become one big Anglo-Saxon kingdom… The Vikings stay and they continue to live as they always have done, quite distinctly from the Saxons. Even the language becomes a barrier. The Southerners and the Northerners end up virtually speaking two separate languages- Saxon English and Danish English. (This may be where the strong difference in Northern and Southern accents comes from.) As an indirect result of all these differences, the Danish Wars continue for the next 150 years or so because neither side can tolerate the other.
The main point I wish to make about this period is that the divide wasn’t about North or South at all. It was about these two separate cultures: The Vikings and The Saxons and their hatred of one another. Geographically, the Danish Wars did end up being a conflict between North and South and it’s this geographic happenstance and cultural difference created brought about by the wars that can still be seen today. The North can still be described as being a little bit viking whilst the Saxon influenced Southerners seem to have subconsciously retained this irrational hatred they once had of the North. The cultural divide created by the Danish Wars is still very evident in our society today. Just look at the differences between say the people of Manchester or Leeds when compared to a southern city such as Bath or Bristol. The Northerners are rougher and a little bit grizzlier, more intimidating, whilst the Southerners are a bit more prim and more in line with the ‘stereotypical English gentleman’ image presented in some cartoons. A good example would be to use would be to compare the characters of Shameless and Skins… or even Eastenders and Coronation street… You can instantly see what I’m talking about when looking at the programmes. One lot are quite gruff whilst the other is a little bit haughty.
In later history this ‘cultural’ divide has only been made worse by the inferences of British politics over the years and this has only served to widen the divide. It begins just after the end of the Danish Wars in 1069/70 when William the Conqueror decides to punish a northern ‘rebellion’ by committing genocide through an act that became known as the ‘Harrying of the North’ which resulted in the North being depopulated and much of the land being laid waste for many years to come. A huge number of people died of starvation and in the end were reduced to cannibalism as a result of William’s massacre. The massacre can be said to mark the start of Southern domination over the North and an almost wilful political neglect of the North on the part of the South, that could be said to stem from a distant sociocultural memory of this event. Many political decisions over the years have been enacted in the interests of the South whilst the North has been very much left to its own devices. As such, it’s often put North and South at odds with each other, particularly in times of national crisis and it is these oppositions that have helped to further define the divide as we see it today.
Take for instance the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. Supposedly he is ‘Primate of All England’ and today also the leader of the Anglican church. He’s the one who get’s to crown the King or Queen etc. and do all the ‘important’ national events. But in the early Norman period this ‘monopoly’ caused consternation as sometime around 1070 Archbishop Lanfranc tried to assert the power of Canterbury over the whole of the British Isles by using Bede’s history as a basis for his authority. The Archbishop of York, however, wasn’t going to allow this and argued against submission to Canterbury and jurisdiction of certain provinces. What followed was a long running dispute over which Archbishop ruled what territory. The dispute ended by making both York and Canterbury, supposedly, have equal jurisdiction over the North and South, which would theoretically mean that both Archbishops wield equal power. However, this is not and never has been the case. Looking through the histories, that the Archbishop of York is effectively sidelined and very much not treated as the equal of Canterbury. It is almost always The Archbishop of Canterbury who partakes in the major events. What involvement, if any, that was undertook by his ‘equal’ is often left out. As a further case in point, the Archbishop of York has only ever performed a coronation ceremony twice. (William the Conqueror and Henry the Young King respectively) Whereas Canterbury has performed many more. If these two Archbishops are ‘equal’ then it should surely alternate between the two where possible. But it does not.
Even today this division between the two is clear as the Archbishop of Canterbury get’s much more media attention than his northern counterpart. You never see the Archbishop of York’s Christmas message broadcast across the nation for instance. It’s very much not as ‘equal’ as their legal and ecumenical status would have us believe. Even the provinces controlled by each are not Equal. The province of Canterbury is far larger and far more populous than that of York, occupying as it does much of the South and Midlands. This is not, I am afraid to say, a matter I know much about, but what is clear is that despite their theoretical equality in practice it is a very different story. What it highlights is that the divide between North and South is not only economic and cultural, but also religious as well.
And then you have conflicts such as the Wars of the Roses. The Wars of the Roses were not a conflict between East and West as inaccurate Victorian histories would have us believe. but rather one that was more about North and South. What the conflict actually shows us is that there is also a large political difference dividing the North from the South and not merely a cultural one.
First, in order to see this, we must go back to the event that premeditated the war: The deposition of Richard II. There were a number of reasons why Henry Bolingbroke and his Lancastrian ilk decided they wanted him off the throne, most notably because they thought he was a tyrant, but there is also another lesser known reason. Richard was moving his power base northwards towards more Yorkist controlled lands, most specifically setting up CHESTER to be his de-facto Capital rather than London. In 1387 for instance he consolidated Chester as a military site, strengthening it and installing Aubrey De Vere as Earl. Unfortunately this was exactly at the same time as Bollingbroke was making his first move for power and so De Vere’s earlship didn’t last long. Perhaps more telling, however, is what happened ten years later and this event clearly shows the antipathy of southern based nobles- In 1398 Richard made Cheshire a principality and on his removal from the throne Henry immediately rescinded the principality status of Cheshire, making it an earldom once more.
Then we have the Glyndwr uprising. In King Richard’s day Baron Grey de Ruthyn tried to steal some land from Glyndwr but Glyndwr appealed to Parliament and got it back, quite fairly as well. Even in modern times it’s quite clear who was in the wrong and any modern court would instantly rule in Glyndwr’s favour. However, as soon as Henry becomes king he reverses the decision in favour of Grey, which then leads to the Glyndwr rising by way of Henry supposedly giving Lord Grey a message for Glyndwr to raise some troops to go to the Scottish border only for the message to arrive too late. Presumably this was the intention all along so that Henry had a ‘legitimate’ reason to do away with Glyndwr. However, it seriously backfired as Glyndwr was later declared the ruler of Wales and Henry had to spend most of his reign trying to suppress the revolt.
What is most interesting to note about the Glyndwr revolt is that it had support in Northern England and much of the Welsh Marches. Glyndwr’s most notable supporter was Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy, earl of Northumberland but there were others such as Richard Le Scrope, Archbishop of York who lead a revolt in 1405. There are even some suggestions that it was Le Scrope who encouraged the Percy rebellion in the first place. On the English side of the Welsh border it seems there was very much a split across the country between those who supported Henry and those who didn’t.
We can even see this further highlighted later on when the impact of Henry’s deposition of Richard later results in the Wars of the Roses, which, as I mentioned earlier were more a case of North vs South rather than east vs West. Most Northerners supported the house of York whilst southerners supported the Lancastrians. The actual ‘Wars of the Roses’ were a later construction and wouldn’t have even been considered as such at the time. It’s even possible that the term ‘Yorkist’ and ‘Lancastrian’ were much later constructions and didn’t really apply at the time.
But it is not just the Wars of the Roses where this North vs South mentality occurs. We can see it earlier on during ‘The Anarchy’ where the North were strong supporters of King Stephen and the south supporters of the Empress. (It might be the other way round in that case though.) Then again when Henry VIII broke with Rome the North stayed predominantly Catholic for many years afterwards whilst the South turned towards Protestantism. And even during the Civil Wars the North was a predominantly royalist stronghold right until the bitter end, whilst the South went republican and opted for Cromwell. And this occurs many, many more times across history. Even today the more industrialised North is more likely to vote for the Labour party whilst the South will more likely vote Conservative. (As interesting sidenote Wales and Northern Ireland are a more or less mixed whilst the Scots tend to go largely for the Liberal Democrats.) This shows that there is a strong political element to the North/South divide, not only echoed across history but also reflected in modern voting patterns.
This is not all there is to the divide though. Between Northern and Southern England there are huge economic and cultural divisions, different ways of living and different political ideals. As we have seen some of this stems from history, in particular the antipathy that underlines the relationship between two. The two have very often taken different sides on political matters and as a result a kind of mistrust has grown up. The divide, as I have shown, can be seen throughout history and there really is nothing we can do about it other than to try to make amends with each other and just accept that the North and South are different places, to live with it rather than constantly put each other down.
And curiously enough you can find North/south divides in many countries across the world… Italy, France, Korea, The US… So I guess, overall, it’s just something that’s entirely natural.