How I Found the Whole History of England Hidden in One Village; Rampaging Romans, the Black Death, a Civil War Bloodbath ... the Man Behind a Brilliant New TV Series Reveals How a Tiny Parish Was Shaped by These Great Events

Article excerpt

Byline: by Michael Wood

AS SNOWFLAKES swirled around the peasants' houses in the depths of January 1414, a travelweary horseman galloped up the muddy lanes of the Leicestershire village of Kibworth Harcourt. After a frantic two-day ride from London, the messenger was cold and exhausted.

But he lost no time in leaping from his horse and rushing straight across the cattle yard and into one of the timber-framed farms on Main Street. For he had terrible news to impart to the woman of the house.

Emma Gilbert, a widowed merchant's wife, hailed from one of the oldest and most respected families in Kibworth. She had a daughter, Alice, and a number of grandchildren. Perhaps they were at Emma's side when the messenger delivered his blow: her sons, Walter and Nicholas, had been executed in London.

Their deaths would have been an appalling shock for the family, residents of Kibworth for more than a century and pillars of the community.

Earlier that year, the two brothers had left the village to take part in an extraordinarily dangerous rebellion against the new English King, Henry V, and against the whole edifice of the Catholic Church. But it had failed disastrously.

Soon to be hailed as the victor of Agincourt, young Henry was far too skilled a soldier to be caught unawares by such a poorly hatched plan. The rebels had raised nowhere near the hoped-for 20,000 men and had been easily crushed.

The King was merciful to most of the defeated -- after a few months in Newgate Prison, many were pardoned and sent home -- but a terrible fate awaited Walter and Nicholas.

For Walter was an itinerant heretic preacher who had been spreading the virulently anti-clerical teachings of the so-called Lollard movement -- who believed the Pope was an anti-Christ -- in the villages of Leicestershire and Derbyshire.

Both brothers were condemned as heretics. Taken to St Giles Fields in London, they were first hanged and then burned while still alive.

Not for the first time (and certainly not for the last) in its already long history, tragedy had come to the very ordinary village of Kibworth.

I tell you this story because it gets to the very heart of what I'm attempting to convey with my new television series, The Story Of England. Namely, tell history from the bottom up, through the eyes of the ordinary people of England. Rather than giving another broadbrush history lesson -- reciting a familiar succession of kings and queens, prime ministers and generals, battles and rebellions -- I wanted to show how history not only leaves its mark on one particular place, but is also shaped by the people who lived there. History happens because they were busy living it, or, in the case of poor Walter and Nicholas, dying it.

That's one of the reasons I chose the old parish of Kibworth in Leicestershire, which today comprises the three closely linked villages of Kibworth Harcourt, Kibworth Beauchamp and Smeeton Westerby. You see, Kibworth is an utterly ordinary place. It could be any village, in any part of the English Midlands, indeed in almost any part of England.

Parts of it are pretty, parts of it are not. It has 20th-century housing estates, Chinese and Indian takeaways, a busy A-road and a mainline railway running straight through it. But it also has some gorgeous 16thcentury cottages, a 14th-century church and a Roman burial mound that became the motte for a Norman castle. All these things make Kibworth interesting but also totally ordinary.

Having travelled the globe as a historian for the past 25 years -- to tell the stories of Troy, Alexander the Great and the Conquistadors among many others -- I wanted to come home and tell another great tale: the story of England.

It's a story that sometimes feels as if it's in danger of being lost, hijacked by the jingoists. But it provides not only one of the cornerstones of British history but -- for a century or three -- of world history, too. …