Recently I spoke in a sermon about how, as I grew up, I saw the devastation of the English landscape in Lincolnshire, as industrialised ideas of agriculture ripped out hedgerows in the search of short-term profit (see here). A fellow member of Milton Anglicans then shared with me a recent book by her brother, historian and writer, James Boyce. Writing of their ancestral lands, this is entitled Imperial Mud: the Fight for the Fens (Icon Books, London, 2020). It tells of the thousands of years of resistance by the fen peoples of eastern England to the seizing, enclosing, draining, and 'improving' of their lands. It is another part of English history which has buried for too long, a 'home-grown' example of the growth of imperial attitudes and policies which were exported overseas...
In a lively informed account, James Boyce traces the way in which the fen peoples sought to preserve their lands, and their own particular cultures which were intimately connected to them. For they resisted the Roman and Norman invasions, worked out a modus vivendi with the coming of Christianity and medieval monastic developments, and then faced the huge pressures of change arising in the period between the English Civil War and mid-Victorian age. Ultimately, those colonialising forces were to prevail, radically transforming community and culture, and destroying England's last lowland wilderness and its extraordinary ecological richness and diversity. Yet the story of resistance is both moving and important to read.
As James Boyce affirms, indigenous resistance to oppression has often been dismissed, even by historians of the left, as insignificant and futile, almost wherever it has occurred. Yet this is to underestimate both its character and depth, and also its continuing importance to identity and change. The story of the fen lands helps us see English history more whole, placing its own struggles in the context of wider English radical history, notably that of the Levellers, and enriching it with new life and creativity. Thus one striking element of resistance was the use of popular games of fen 'football', under the cover of which the fences and buildings and other works of enclosure were ripped up. Vitally, for English relationships to the wider world, this uncovers another element of the way in which the same 'imperial mindset' which ravaged other cultures began with ravaging its own native peoples and their lands. Justice and freedom for all becomes indivisible when such solidarity is better recognised. If the Battle of Axholme were to have been as well known and treasured in history as the Battle of Agincourt, both England and the wider world might have much happier places. Today the ecological consequences of such ignorance are apparent. Seeing the past afresh may yet provide heart and understanding for renewal,
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Jo Inkpin is an Anglican priest serving as Minister of Pitt St Uniting Church in Sydney, a trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.