The Story of England is a grown-up version of Rudyard Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill. In Kipling's exceedingly good book, English history is told through a series of interconnected songs and stories that reveal the successive layers of Roman, Anglo-Saxon, and Norman culture that make up "Old England". English identity, Kipling suggests, is intimately tied to the land because the land has borne witness to the island story and still resonates with its characters and episodes. It is all there, just below the surface, waiting to be excavated. All one needs is to find the right spot (the ancient Pook's Hill) and summon Puck, the "oldest Old Thing in England". Puck then works his magic by conjuring up the past.
Michael Wood has found the right spot too. Kibworth, the location for this book and his recent BBC TV series, is a village, or rather two villages – Kibworth Harcourt and Kibworth Beauchamp. Satellites of Leicester, they straddle the busy A6. Like Puck, Wood works his magic, but Wood's magic is archival and archaeological, the magic of manuscripts and magnetometry. It is no less powerful for that.
A huge collection of local documentary and cartographic records survives in Merton College, Oxford, dating back to the college's acquisition of the estate of Kibworth Harcourt in 1265. This is the core of Wood's account, the lens through which he reads his story of England.
It is history at ground level, giving literal voice to medieval villagers. And it is a remarkable achievement. The community is charted through the turbulent politics and theology of the Peasants' Revolt and Lollardism, through the domestic distress of failing harvests and plague, and the seismic social shifts of the Reformation, the Civil Wars, the Enclosure Acts, and industrialisation.
The voices of English peasantry are indeed heard – including perhaps the first letter written (or rather dictated) by an English peasant: the butcher John Pychard's address to the Warden of Merton, dated 1447. What characterises the England that Wood describes? He dismisses the current obsession with defining identity to argue that history is made by everyday people and affects them in everyday ways. He focuses on the resilience of the labouring classes, on their perseverance and hard-won freedoms, on social mobility and loyalty to the family and community, and on literacy and learning and the cultures of dissent and radicalism.
Wood's democratic zeal is certainly refreshing, and the book is at its best when he capitalises on the Merton records and identifies the activities of specific people at certain times – primarily from the beginning of the 14th to the end of the 17th centuries. A small village is the optimum size for such a 400-year survey. Before then, there are meagre records, although archaeological discoveries do offer some intriguing speculations; while after this period, there are overwhelming resources. For Wood, then, Englishness was decisively forged in the "early modern" period, and the 19th and 20th centuries are virtually skipped over.
Wood is also democratic in that he presents Kibworth as unexceptional, typically English, a microcosm of the country: "its history is the story of us all". Maybe, except that unlike many villages reduced to commuter dormitories or second-home investments, Kibworth is currently thriving. It has a cricket team and two brass bands, a pub and a village hall, Indian and Chinese takeaways, and dozens of clubs and societies. Kipling would have recognised Kibworth, Orwell too.
Kibworth is also (like much of provincial England) predominantly white. Doubtless this will gradually change, not least because nearby Leicester claims to be the most multicultural city in the country and has declared all groups – including "white English" – to be minorities. But Wood should revisit Kibworth in a few years' time to see how imaginatively a traditional English identity, already rooted in Roman-British, Anglo-Saxon, and Viking settlement, has accommodated theAsian and Caribbean communities of 21st-century Britain.
Nick Groom's 'The Union Jack: a biography' is publsihed by AtlanticReuse content