The Impact of Farming on land use: Britain

In the Neolithic Era, (name for New Stone Age which occurred around 4000 – 2000 BC) ancestral farmers of Britons, established farming here which has transformed land usage. When those farmers from southern Europe arrived here 6000 years ago, they must have felt very keen to begin settling in and exploring the landscapes.  

Since tribal humans began farming, they have expanded, often having to fight for territory, and if they lost against others or were victims of some environmental catastrophe, they had to move on in the nomadic style but hoping to find a new place to settle and build a community once more.

Eyeing new land which had not yet been settled has excited the heart of humans since they first understood the possibilities of building communities, then civilisations.

Farming was already advanced in Near Eastern countries and spread to Europe, with the domestication and breeding of animals. Keeping food to hand meant settled communities had food to hand in the form of fresh meat and cultivated crops.

When the first farmers arrived in what is now southern Britain, there were many forested areas. When farming began some trees were cleared to form plots of land to grow the seeds carried by the farmers from their previous homelands.

Fisher-hunter-gatherers had travelled from East to West for thousands of years. They moved along coastlines and major rivers, such as the Danube, along the Mediterranean to the Iberian (Spain and Portugal today) Peninsula and France.

These same routes were used by the Neolithic farmers who arrived in southern Britain around 6000 years ago, and their genetics have been traced back to the Aegean Neolithic peoples. Migrations of farmers were also arriving in the Danish and Swedish areas, having originated in Anatolia.

Since generations of farmers moved toward this land over 6000 years, farming had become increasingly more sophisticated with Europe populated increasingly by farmers who were culturally diversified, but often had language attributes in common. They had domesticated wild animals and bred them into dependent creatures, so they had cattle, pigs, goats ,sheep and poultry. They brought their domesticated animals with them to Britain. Sailing in well built boats enabled them to arrive here and utilise the land most suitable for agrarian activities.

These farmers carried seeds so they could plant crops once the land was cleared wherever they chose to settle. They knew what fertile land consisted of, and understood the importance of seasons, and chose areas close to fresh running rivers..

Creating dwellings to house themselves and their animals required skills honed over centuries, and they must have begun that work immediately along the coasts, rivers and streams.

As human brains grew, we acquired skills of alchemy and worked in Bronze (a combination of tin and copper). The Bell Beaker culture began at the very beginning of the European Bronze Age. Arising from around 2800 BC, these people had originated in the Eurasian Steppe. In their migration their popular culture lasted in Britain until as late as 1800 BC. They were known for creating bell shaped pots, but were also experts in metallurgy and the making of weapons. This was an early example of mass production with an obvious supply and demand ethos.

Bell Beaker pot making, artist’s impression

Farmers then became aware of iron ore and added it to strengthen tools in Iron. The Iron Age in Britain was from 800BC to the arrival of the Romans in 44AD. Just as the farming culture originated in the Mediterranean region, so did the Iron Age developing out of the Bronze Age. It began 400 years before it reached Britain.

The Roman Empire covered 1062 sq miles (275,056.73 hectares). It formed in the years before Christianity, then grew in strength, incorporating Christianity eventually as a useful uniting tool for trade and commerce. It was backed by military strength and Roman warfare became the pinnacle of power during its time conquering tribes of Europe. Successive Popes, when coffers were low, would call on Christians in its realm to fight, for example, the 9 Crusades, and accrued vast wealth in so doing. When the Empire collapsed, there was a void of leadership which caused turmoil throughout Europe. But Christianity continued to spread with the leader of the Church being the Pope in Rome. Most Christian Monarchs in Europe deferred to whoever was the Pope during their reign.

With the Romans gone, the population of Britain would undergo massive change.

The Romans named the Pagan people in the very North of Scotland, The Picts. These people were converted to Christianity around the 6th century, but their Pagan symbols are found throughout Christian literature and icons. “Many of today’s customs used in the Church can be traced back to the 4th century, when Constantine permitted the process of converting the official religion of the Roman Empire from Paganism to Christianity.

Note the word ‘converting‘. Changing the sign on the door is a lot easier, quicker and cheaper than changing the whole building. Christianity was modelled on many customs that were familiar and acceptable to Jews and Pagans at that time, when religion and belief were intertwined with superstition.”

The Picts were descendants of the Iron Age people of northern Scotland, believed to have originated in Iberia as hunter-gatherers, they moved through lower Britain and entered Scotland around 7000BC. Recent DNA tests have proven the Picts were closely related to the Basques of northern Spain. The connections between northern Britain and Celtic Spain are supported by many myths and legends. The dolmens, standing stones and the trail of “cup and ring” designs carved on stones by the prehistoric people of Iberia make their way from Spain and Portugal and northern France to Ireland and Scotland and represent the earliest evidence of the movement of prehistoric man from Iberia to Britain.

Those fisher-hunter-gatherers travelling up the Atlantic coasts of the Iberian Peninsula then along the coast of France, and up the Atlantic coast of Britain, C.15000 to 7500 YA (see Book, The Origins of the British by Stephen Oppenheimer,, 2007) were setting the route for these migrating farmers c.6000 years ago.

Early Stone Age people also came across from the continent of Europe when Doggerland land bridge enabled good hunting until the sea levels rose (c.4000 BC). As long as 900,000 YA, in Happisburgh, Norfolk coast, there is evidence of stone tools and footprints of a Homo antecessor.

It is the genetic information which is now becoming more refined and definitive which is helping us link the New Stone Age era of humans to the beginnings of British ancestry.

It took the advanced Roman culture to record the conditions they found on these islands when they established fortification and control 43BC to 442 AD. Plantations were introduced over 400 to 650 acres, centred upon stone villas. The remaining farmers cultivated their own plots, but also, as serfs, thos of their lord. The rich farmlands bordering the Fens provided grain for the Roman legions stationed in the North. The waterways of the Fen’s were used to transport the grain, but also the innovative Romans built canals to add to transportation routes.

Under Roman occupation, farmers continued to live in their existing villages, hamlets and isolated homesteads. Population density was very low, with only 2 to 5 people per square kilometer. The main obstacles to food production was loss of soil fertility, pests, diseases of plants and animals. Roman influence taught that fields must not be over cultivated and must be allowed to lay fallow for one or more years in order to recover fertility. New tools designed by the Romans were introduced, such as the Sarculum (Roman hoe) and the Roman plough. Romans had perfected the State of the Art farming techniques which they enthusiastically taught and implemented in their newly conquered territories.

During the Roman occupation of Britannia (43 – 410 AD) some people from beyond these shores were already living here as subjects of Rome. Once the Romans went home to Rome, Europe was in turmoil and there was a massive movement of people which historians have called The Great Migration. The best farmland was known to be in Britain, already cultivated under Roman instruction. Thus the vulnerable population of these islands became the target of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes.

Bede, a Northumbrian monk (who documented much of this period), wrote that Anglo-Saxons belonged to the three largest tribes in Northern Germany, the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes. Other smaller tribes include the Franks, Batavians and Frisians.

Anglo-Saxon Occupation of Britain

During the Anglo-Saxon occupation of Britain, the three invading tribes set about creating their own kingdoms. Pushing the earlier farmers found populating the islands further west into Wales, Cornwall and further north towards Scotland. These were the truly Celtic people from the Iberian Peninsula.

The Angles split up and founded the kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia. They gave their name to Angle-land, which eventually be England.

The Saxons settled in Essex (East Saxons), Sussex (South Saxons), Middlesex (Middle Saxons) and Wessex (West Saxons) which today is roughly Hampshire and Wiltshire. The large Saxon presence in the areas around Wessex, gradually drove out the existing Jutes who had settled there.

The Jutes settled in Kent, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. Although, probably because of the dominant presence of Saxons in the area, the Jutes did not remain long in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.

The Saxons came from the northern Germanic coast line of Old Saxony. The Saxons not only invaded and settled in Britain, but also pushed north over the North Sea, and south west down to the Franks.

The farmers best known for their dramatic raids were the Vikings. Again, they were farmers with warrior attitude. They were not genetically unique to Scandinavia. They not only fought on Scottish and English soils, but also French soils. It was in France that they secured, under Rollo, the area which is now known as Normandy. Viking means North Men, so the land was named Normandy. They were the precursors of William the Conqueror who arrived on Saxon land a couple of centuries later.

We do know that all of the groups of people who sailed from Scandinavia during the Viking Age descended from the people who lived there during the Iron Age (500 BCE to 800 CE). But the genetic data does suggest a few differences. For instance, Viking Age people from Sweden and Denmark have more ancestry in common with Neolithic farmers from Anatolia, who spread west across Europe around 6,000 years ago, than their predecessors did. That suggests the flow of people and their genes from the south and east, moving across the Baltic Sea and into Sweden and Denmark just before the Viking Age..

A couple of centuries later, another Normandy born person, namely William the Conqueror chose to take on the Anglo-Saxon King Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Harold was killed. William became King. But he had to deal with constant rebellions from northern forces. He chose to use religion to symbolically dominate the population, changing the structures of the existing wooden churches and replacing them with grand stone buildings and he used Norman priests to dominate the hierarchy.

The Normans built larger stone churches, and constructed basilicas in major towns, like London, Durham and York, which could hold hundreds of people worshipping at one time. One key feature of these large Norman basilicas was the rounded arch, and Norman churches would have been painted inside with religious art. This gave a clear message about the power of the church in people’s lives, and the leaders of the church were usually Norman.

William appointed Lanfranc to reorganise the Church after it had been under Anglo-Saxon rule.

Lanfranc was a very strict leader of the Church and introduced a lot of reforms in the English church. Two particular issues that he wanted to deal with were simony and celibacy.

As William’s new Archbishop, Lanfranc achievements included:

  • simony was challenged
  • stricter obedience from England’s priests to the rules of the Church
  • strong loyalty to both King William and to the Pope
  • substitution of most English bishops with Norman clergy
  • succession of William’s son, William Rufus, when the king died in 1087
  • supremacy of the Archbishop of Canterbury over York
Durham Castle and Cathedral

William the Conqueror, in 1086, ordered that all lands be surveyed in England and part of Wales, and every little detail of property be catalogued so as to assess the value of lands he oversaw as King. This survey became the ‘Domesday Book’. He died a year later, leaving his homeland of Normandy to his son Robert and England to William Rufus.

William used the ‘Domesday Book‘ to place taxes on all his subjects. Now he knew exactly who owned what. This changed the perspective of land and property forever in the country over which he rules, and for successive monarchs. He used these taxes to fund many successful battles against Scottish kings until his armies killed King Malcolm III of Scotland, and one of his sons, and took Cumberland and Westmorland off the Scots, building the Castle at Carlisle to defend against any further claims. Similarly he built castles in Wales to prevent further rebellion from the Welsh, all courtesy of the resented crippling taxes on the English population.

Farmers now worked their own family plot but also worked for the lord over them. All had to pay taxes and fight for the King whenever he bade them do so. Swearing allegiance to King and Country became the expected thing to do, and to also worship at the large churches which no longer took place in small communities, but attracted large numbers to be educated in the Norman Catholic belief system.

About borderslynn

Retired, living in the Scottish Borders after living most of my life in cities in England. I can now indulge my interest in all aspects of living close to nature in a wild landscape. I live on what was once the Iapetus Ocean which took millions of years to travel from the Southern Hemisphere to here in the Northern Hemisphere. That set me thinking and questioning and seeking answers. In 1998 I co-wrote Millennium Countdown (US)/ A Business Guide to the Year 2000 (UK) see https://www.abebooks.co.uk/products/isbn/9780749427917
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