A Point of View: Taking England back to the Dark Ages

Man dressed up as Saxon

What would happen if England started to break up into its seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms? Tom Shakespeare lets his imagination run riot.

Thirty years ago this autumn, I began a degree in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at Cambridge University. We ASNaCs, as we were known, were a happy band, who understood that Vikings had no horns on their helmets, who yearned to yomp across Iceland, and who venerated Bede above all the saints. In more recent times, I've often been reminded of those student days by the debates over Scottish independence, not least because I love to point out to SNP stalwarts that Edinburgh started out as Edwin's burgh, founded by Edwin, King of Northumbria. It never seems to go down well.

Anyway, bear with me, because a serious point is going to emerge from these memories of the mead hall. You see, for me, the issue of Scottish independence is not about what happens to what might become "the nation again" of Scotland, but about how those of us who are left behind, manage to cope in our new disunited kingdom.

Find out more

Tom Shakespeare
  • A Point of View is usually broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays 08:50 BST
  • Tom Shakespeare is a sociologist, writer and performer who researches disability studies, bioethics and medical sociology
  • He was born with restricted growth and leads research into the condition

Scotland would end up a nice size, about five and a quarter million people. As Mr Salmond wishfully dreams, that's about the same population as those prosperous egalitarian Nordic countries across the North Sea which once ravaged our shores with swords and axes, rather than sombre detective stories and traditional knit pullovers.

Meanwhile, setting Wales aside, England would be left with a cumbersome 53 million plus. Which represents a bit of a problem.

Start Quote

What happens if we put away again the swords and spears, and think in terms of England as heptarchy? ”

End Quote

Because size does matter. It seems to me that progressive, reasonable, pacific and prosperous states - like the Nordic countries, or Switzerland or New Zealand - tend to be less than 10 million people. That's almost intimate, for a nation. Citizens of smaller countries feel pride and connection. The population is small enough to have deliberative public policy, which takes account of local needs. The health service and the education service seem less distant from everyday lives. Folk feel more involved and valued. I can imagine how Scotland might achieve that, with only five million. But what about the rest of us?

Here's where those years of studying Anglo-Saxon history come in. Before Alfred the Great unified the English in resistance to the Danes, England was not one country. Between about 500 and 850 AD, it was a heptarchy, meaning seven kingdoms, although in truth the number tended to fluctuate. If memory serves, the leading members of the heptarchy comprised Northumbria, Wessex, Mercia, and East Anglia. The others were Sussex, Kent and Essex, although there was quite a bit of boundary change happening for the three centuries or so that this era lasted - all very much Game of Thrones.

Alfred the Great Alfred the Great united the English in resistance to the Danes

What happens if we put away again the swords and spears, and think in terms of England as heptarchy? Divide 50 million by seven, and you would get a neat set of seven countries, each at seven million souls. Wessex gets the West country and Bristol and the Thames Valley and the South Coast. Cornwall has just been recognised as a distinct region, and this way the whole South West gets to control its own destiny.

The Anglo-Saxons

Sutton Hoo helmet

From barbarian invaders to devout Christian missionaries, the Anglo-Saxons brought 400 years of religious evolution and shifting political power to the British Isles.

Mercia would be the Midlands and up as far as Manchester, home of manufacturing, with heavy metal and indie music as important exports. Northumbria has the rest of the North. East Anglia could take over Leicestershire, Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire as well as Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. That leaves Kent and Sussex to fight over the South East, with London as a new statelet on its own. I haven't done the maths yet, but I imagine you could do something neat to balance it all out. So then you would have Scotland, Wales and seven English territories on the island of Britain, all of approximately the same scale, and all with a chance of building a sense of identity for themselves. It's no coincidence, that these statelets would be about the same size as the average American state or a Nordic country.

There would be plenty of advantages. Rationalisation of the 30 or so British police forces is long overdue, and this way there would be seven obvious territories for separate police forces. Sport would become very interesting, as the seven home nations battled it out with each other, and with Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland at cricket and rugby and football. The new dispensation would suit the traditionalists, because it would be rooted in a history going back to the Dark Ages, and it would suit progressive types, because it's all about devolution and bringing power closer to the citizen.

Newcastle upon Tyne at night Newcastle - "Northumbrians already fly their flag with pride"

For most of my adult life, I have lived in regions that were proud of their identity, and keen to throw off the shackles of central government. Twenty years ago, I moved up to Newcastle, and in my experience, most Geordies are itching for their bit of home rule. Northumbrians already fly their flag with pride. After that, I lived for five years in Switzerland, which has been a confederation of small independent republics since the medieval period. Geneva and the other 25 cantons all rule themselves very happily, with a strong sense of local pride and distinctiveness. And now I live in Norwich, where Norfolk patriotism has a rural fervour of its own. So all this makes perfect sense to me.

More from the Magazine

A woman with Union Jack face paint and a man with a Scotland flag

In September voters in Scotland will go to the polls to decide whether or not to become independent. Campaigners and commentators have made much of the implications for people north of the border - but how would an independent Scotland impact on the rest of the UK and Europe?

Each of these new seven states, together with the other countries of the Disunited Kingdom, could set its own policies. People could decide which type of regime they wanted to be a citizen of, and move house to somewhere they felt they belonged. These new states would compete with each other economically, as well as in terms of sports and culture, and this competition would drive up standards for everyone. Forget the Dark Ages, it could be a new Golden Age, thanks to the re-thinking which Scottish independence would surely force on the rest of us who were left behind.

Of course, there would be disadvantages too, as I realized when a North American friend pointed out to me that my plan was reminiscent of the debate about state rights that often dominates US politics. The 50 US states average about five million citizens each, and they can often be resentful not just of federal dominance, but also of their neighbours. South Carolina once squabbled with Georgia about who could call itself the "peach state". As water becomes scarce, states argue about who is entitled to run hydro-electric or irrigation schemes on shared rivers. States have often tried to uphold more conservative legislation than the federal government, for example with regard to racial equality, gun control or more recently gay marriage.

South Carolina sign

Then I remembered that another drawback of localism might be nimby-ism (Not In My Back Yard). When citizens think at the level of their immediate community, they fail to see the common interest that they share with others in their wider society, so they reject that hostel for recovering drug addicts. They tend to be more short term than long term in their analysis, so they reject those wind turbines. They can end up being selfish and defensive and competitive with others. After all, the word parochial literally means "relating to a parish" but it has become a synonym for having a narrow outlook. I am not sure that it's just a coincidence that Switzerland is one of the more reactionary and anti-immigrant nations in Europe.

My view is that we need fewer borders, not more. That's why the European Union makes sense to me. I worry that if we were to go back to historical precedent for the basis of our political units, we would end up fighting medieval battles, not with bows and arrows, but with immigration rules and tax regimes. In the 21st Century, surely it's time to celebrate what unites us, not what divides us. If we are ever to overcome the problem of climate change, we think globally and act globally. I do love the idea of bringing back the heptarchy, both because I think smaller countries work better, but also because I love traditions. But, proud as I am to be an East Anglian, I think I am first and foremost a human being.

A Point of View is broadcast on Friday on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated on Sunday at 08:50 BST. Catch up on BBC iPlayer

Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.

Send us your comments and we'll publish a selection.

This article is arguing in favour of heptarchy. Heptarchy is what we had in the dark ages. So this article appears to be arguing that we must go back to the dark ages, in order to avoid going back to the dark ages. This is fundementally illogical. It is also calling for a disastrous divide and rule over the English. It is also calling for the English surrender to a foreign power, without being defeated in war, which is a legal definition of Treason. Sorry, I cannot possibly support such a cowardly, craven and supine surrender to pan-national overlords and the division of this country into "easier to rule" regions. This would inevitably cause much greater friction and the eventual resumption of a new English civil war. This whole article is a fine example of someone who is far too intelectual for their own good, without the common sense to understand how their intelligent solution could not possibly work in practice.

Ken Hall, Barrow in Furness, UK

I'd love to see Wessex rise again. It was a thriving evolving culture that gave rise to the english state. Defence was a bit of a weak spot in a fragmented state as we found out in 1066. Go down to the Wessex heartlands and you'll see a simmering passion for it still. Every other institution from businesses to local government institutions has Wessex in its name.

Robert , Basingstoke

John Prescott tried something along these lines with his Regional Assemblies. This failed as English people did not want to spend the extra money.

Rosemary Sabel, Taunton, England

When Labour held referendum to give regions of England devolved power, they were rejected. So I was surprised about the correspondent's experience of the people of Newcastle wanting self rule.

Jack Doyle, London

An interesting concept but... I live in North East Essex, here we have a lot in common with Suffolk and Norfolk, nothing in common with Metropolitan Essex. Even less in common with Leicestershire or Lincolnshire. The problems we have are similar to Kent and Sussex. We are neglected by Central Govt because we have no real Marginal Constituencies. In Essex we are neglected by County Hall as we have very little in common with Brentwood or Harlow. I believe and always have done, that Essex and Suffolk need breaking up and having the boundaries redrawn. We need a County lets call if Colchestershire centred on Colchester, covering the North of Essex and the Southern Eastern 1/3 of Suffolk to include Felixstowe and Harwich. Then we could set about sorting out our dire employment problems, fixing our dreadful road and railway links etc etc, which have not been improved or even touched for 2 generations. There is no rationale for our County borders to be based upon tribal Saxon Territories from 1400 years ago.

David Evans, Frinton on Sea

Having grown up in Northern Ireland, a suitable small unit but one that was riven by factions trying to pull it apart, this makes perfect sense to me but only if as the author puts it you follow the logic and get rid of all borders, as all EU countries (plus Norway, Switzerland and Iceland) have done. Any argument for the UK has to be an argument for the EU; to be against one is logically to be against the other. I wish our politicians (and populace) would realise that. The only reason the Republic of Ireland isn't in Schengen, which it would love to join, is the border with Britain, which we would try to close, thereby restarting the 'Troubles'.

Peter Millar, London

Given your degree in Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic, you really should know that the legend of Edinburgh as "Edwin's Burgh" is simply wrong, deriving from a single Norman source (Simeon of Durham) some 500 years after Edwin's era, rather than any native British, Anglian or Gaelic source even remotely near the time. Edin+Burgh is just the accurate Anglian translation of the original Brittonic (very Old Welsh) placename, *Din Eidin* (Brittonic *din* and Anglian *burh* both mean "fortress/citadel"). The original Brittonic version of the placename is attested in several Old Welsh sources (particularly Aneirin's "Gododdin" poems, also some of the "Taliesin" corpus), some of which even predate the birth of Edwin, let alone his achievements. Furthermore, the best bet for when "Din Eidin" became "Edin Burh" is to be found in Irish annals (predating Simeon) that mention a notable "siege of Eidin" in 638, some 5 years after Edwin's death. Most sane historians take this as the best available date for the formal annexation of Edin and its territory from the native Britons by the Northumbrian Angles. All these points are the most basic data on the subject that all credible scholars work with. One way or another, they point to a rather more interesting irony for us modern Scots than the one you claim - our capital was actually founded and named by the ancestors of the modern Welsh.

Dr. Steve Sweeney-Turner, Edinburgh, Scotland

I agree with everything said in your article. I admire those smaller societies and acknowledge that European Union must be the way forward. However, we currently have an EU intent on self destruction. It is run by unaccountable politicians who for the most part appear parochial or self serving in outlook and a European parliament which refuses to submit to any meaningful audit. It is necessary to first bring some order to the system of government of Europe, a system that more closely connects the citizens to their representatives. It is necessary also to curtail the power of Europe to impose laws totally alien to sensitivities of many of its states. Such changes, if desirable at all, require acceptance by the population or they become the fuel for a groundswell of discontent as we now see with UKIP.

Tudor Goodman, Heswall, England (was once Wales)

Good idea, there has been too much overruling of public opinion in Britain with disastrous results since WWII which is largely responsible for current voter apathy (think Beeching axe, hunting ban, millennium dome, poll tax, Iraq war etc etc). Power needs returning to local levels across Britain, including London, which let's face it is now a global city and would be best running her own affairs as does Singapore and Hong Kong.

Toby Thatcher, Durham, England

There are some excellent points made here, but I feel the conclusion is missing the point. It's our responsibility as citizens of the 21st century to draw power away from centralised structures, to dissolve it, to bring it closer to the community. Ironically, it's the only way we'll ever achieve anything resembling a united, global citizenry. Democracy as it has been practiced until today has seen the consolidation of power as a necessary evil, in order to standardise and to act effectively. We now live in a world where information is ubiquitous and the desire to adopt a sustainable economic model is growing. It obvious to the informed that we need to work together for the betterment of all and the informed get more numerous by the day. Let people rule themselves, let them make decisions for their future. Let the EU and other centralised governments be guides, not rule-makers. Let us adopt a political model that treats citizens as adults, with responsibilities, rights AND the power to make correct decisions, and then let us see if we can start to solve some of the problems that face us all.

Chris Thomson, Lerwick, Shetland, Scotland

Here in New Zealand the national pride is huge but parochialism just as big. The Maori, the Europeans, the Asians, the north island, the south island, all would seek their own domain the glue that binds them is our remoteness and Rugby.

Leon de Graff, Waipara, New Zealand

"My view is that we need fewer borders, not more." Therein lies the flaw in your argument. Unless you can demonstrate a "Charter from Heaven" (to use John Locke's phrase) authorising you to make the decision, then your own individual preference is irrelevant. Applying that same principle to all people, the only way to answer such questions is to aggregate the preferences of all people using a "non-privileging device". It can readily be shown that such a device would need to have the characteristics of an indefinite-pass initiative and referendum system with compusory voting (until the device itself chose to abolish compulsion). Generally when people are given a direct vote, they vote AGAINST centralisation. Look at the Danish and Swedish Euro referendums. Look at the European "Constitution" (later forced through as the Lisbon Treaty). That is why megalomaniacal politicians and elitists writers loathe any such genuinely democratic processes.

Stephen Morris, Australia

More on This Story

Features

  • Nigel Farage (left) and Douglas CarswellWho's next?

    The Tory MPs being tipped to follow Carswell to UKIP


  • A painting of the White House on fire by Tom FreemanFinders keepers

    The odd objects looted by the British from Washington in 1814


  • President Barack Obama pauses during a press conference on 28 August.'No strategy'

    Obama's gaffe on Islamic State reveals political truth


  • Chris and Regina Catrambone with their daughter Maria LuisaSOS

    The millionaires who rescue people at sea


  • Plane7 days quiz

    What unusual offence got a Frenchman thrown off a plane?


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.