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The Influence of Language on England’s Landward Borders: 1558 to 1639

With the outcome of Brexit impending, the question of border law in the UK is deeply concerning, as both British and Irish governments are seeking to sustain the peace of recent years. Yet negations of border law in the Atlantic archipelago, the isles of Britain, Ireland and their surrounding islands, stem back to the thirteenth century. In 1249 the Anglo-Scottish border implemented the first March Law; a march being the edges of two places. Nearly three hundred years later, in 1536 and 1542/3, the Acts of Union saw the Anglo-Welsh frontier diminish, as Wales became part of the English kingdom and under English law. Likewise, in 1603, the Union of the Crowns united the kingdoms of Scotland and England under one monarch, James VI and I. This period saw the lines of separation challenged, as borders were renamed, old laws were abandoned, and peace was pursued. Language played a vital role in the assimilation of culture and the sustainability of peace in these former frontiers. The intersection of language created noticeable shared identities on England’s landward borders, with people often referring to themselves as ‘borderers’.

Today, the Atlantic archipelago is still home to a collection of languages, but compared to earlier times, their prevalence is limited. English, Welsh, Scots, Scots Gaelic, Irish, and even Cornish, were spoken across the islands in the early modern period, with 90% of Welsh people only speaking Welsh. After the Acts of Union, 1536 and 1542/3, the Council of Wales and the Marches was created, which encompassed the bordering English counties. Additionally, English became the language of law, meaning all Welsh people were tried in a language they could not understand. It was soon evident that to maintain a harmonious border the Welsh must be allowed to speak their own language. A key element of the relatively smooth, peaceful, transition into English jurisdiction was allowing Welsh to be spoken in church. This was cemented by Welsh scholar, William Salesbury’s, translation of the New Testament, and the Book of Common Prayer, into Welsh in 1567. Alongside publishing Welsh books, Salesbury also wrote a guide to teach English people how to pronounce Welsh. [i] Bilingualism on the Anglo-Welsh border was commonplace. The duality of language was seen in places of exchange, e.g. markets, where news and information were shared between the two communities. Likewise, both Welsh and English were spoken by many drovers – men who herded livestock across long distances on foot – as well as labours seasonal workers, soldiers and sailors. These professions required regular border crossing and the ability to speak other languages was imperative. The Anglo-Welsh border gentry and clergy often spoke both languages, so they could communicate with their foreign workers or congregation.

Similarly, the Anglo-Scottish border’s language hailed its own duality. Scottish borderers spoke Scots, a variety of English, with evident similarities between the two languages. Indeed, before the sixteenth century, the Scots called their own language ‘Inglis’. However, Scots English sounded more like northern English than southern English. The two dialects were so similar that often the southern English were unable to tell them apart. Therefore, language on the Anglo-Scottish border permitted a transnational, shared identity, separating the northern English from the rest of England. This frontier identity was also enhanced by the communal Anglo-Scottish March law and border surnames. The Anglo-Scottish border was divided into three marches on both sides; West, Middle and East. Each nation’s march was managed by a warden and contained specific clans, known as border surnames. Clans had different branches of the family and some border surnames transcended the frontier, as they had branches on both sides. Likewise, many surnames were notorious border reivers, bands of men on horseback who raided the opposing march, who disregarded national identity and raided both sides of the border. Their raiding ways led for the creation of certain words, unique to the border, such as blackmail, originally referred to as ‘blackmeale’. Frequently, both nation’s surnames would demand money off their borderers for protection against raids of land and property. Often tenants were unable to pay this in money, so they paid in meal corn instead, deemed to be taken dishonourably, hence ‘black’ ‘meale’. [ii] (Fig. 1 [iii])

Nonetheless, despite this shared frontier identity, during the early modern period, northern English and Scots borderers were from separate kingdoms, with a long history as enemies. With the Union of the Crown in 1603, James VI of Scotland ascended to the English throne. The kingdoms of Scotland and England were to continue to be ruled separately and people from both nations wanted to maintain this divide. However, James had a prophetical view that his two kingdoms should be united and used the Anglo-Scottish border to demonstrate how a union could be achieved. In his first parliamentary speech, James VI and I stated: [iv]

Indeed, James was so determined to create a united kingdom that he renamed the Anglo-Scottish border, the ‘Middle Shires’, eradicating the frontier’s border. At the end of his reign it seemed that James had succeeded in pacifying the Anglo-Scottish border, echoing the pacification of the Anglo-Welsh border.

Unfortunately, Charles I’s quest to follow his father’s dream of a united kingdom resulted in a breakdown of peace. Charles tried to impose Episcopacy, church governed by bishops, on the staunchly Presbyterian Scottish Kirk. This led to the Bishops’ Wars of 1639 and 1640, where the Scottish and English armies rallied to the border at Berwick. The Scottish army crossed the border into northern England, sparking the Civil Wars. Thus demonstrating how a peaceful border can quickly reverse to a fighting frontier when a nation feels threatened. Ironically, James VI and I’s dream of a united kingdom was achieved during the reign of Queen Anne, the final Stuart monarch, with the Act of Union 1707.

Today language in the Atlantic archipelago is just as varied, but perhaps not as prominent. Welsh, Scots, Scots Gaelic and Irish are still spoken, but ultimately English is used by all. The pacification of the Anglo-Welsh and Anglo-Scottish borders has been longstanding, but they serve as a stark reminder of what can happen if there is a communication breakdown.

[i] William Salesbury, A briefe and a playne introduction, teachyng how to pronounce the letters of the British tong, (now co[m]menly called Walsh) wherby an English man shal not only w[ith] ease read the said tong rightly: but markyng ye same wel, it shal be a meane for him with one labour and diligence to attaine to the true and natural pronuncation of other expediente and most excellente langauges Set forth by W. Salesburye. (London: R. Grafton, 1550).

[ii] The Border Papers. Calendar of Letters and Papers relating to the affairs of the Borders of England and Scotland, vol. II 1595-1603, ed. by J. Bain (Edinburgh: H. M. General Register House, 1896), pp. 163-164.

[iii] Border surnames. George MacDonald Fraser, The Steel Bonnets: The Story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2008), p. iii. Reproduced with permission from Skyhorse Publishing.

[iv] Wording taken from James VI and I, ‘A Speech, as It Was Delivered in the Vpper Hovse of the Parliament (19 March 1604)’, in Political Writings, ed. by Johann P. Sommerville. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) pp. 132-146. (p.135). Rendered as an image by the author.

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