Christmas essay: Why East Anglia is shrinking

The ferry and historic fishing vessel Baden Powell on the river Ouse Picture: Ian Burt

The ferry and historic fishing vessel Baden Powell on the river Ouse Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Archant

It is a familiar concept, but where precisely do the borders of East Anglia lie? PETER TRUDGILL attempts to answer this question - and explains why the region is gradually getting smaller

Years ago, when the UEA was still a young institution, I met an American academic who supposed that the University of East Anglia must be somewhere in Africa.

Even today, we have to reckon with the probability that not everybody knows exactly where East Anglia is. And, to be honest, it’s interesting to wonder how far even those of us who are East Anglians ourselves can be totally sure of its precise location.

It has not always been so. In the 6th century AD, the native British Celtic population of our area had mostly been replaced or absorbed by Germanic Anglo-Saxon incomers, who had arrived from areas around the other side the North Sea. They were mostly Angles, and by about 550 AD they had established a kingdom of the East Angles.

The earliest rulers of the Kingdom of East Anglia were members of the Wuffingas dynasty. Rædwald, who became King of East Anglia in around 600, was converted to Christianity, and is widely thought to be the personage interred in the famous ship burial at Sutton Hoo, by the banks of the River Deben near Woodbridge.

The independent Kingdom of East Anglia did initially have rather indeterminate frontiers. According to UEA professor Tom Williamson, its boundaries fluctuated “with the fortunes of war and the vagaries of dynastic policy”. But it did then acquire rather clear boundaries topographically.

It was bounded on the east and north by the North Sea, and on the northwest by the Wash and the more or less impassable Fens. Elsewhere, the frontier consisted of rivers: the Ouse, the Lark and the Kennett to the west; and the Stour, which still forms the boundary between Suffolk and Essex, to the south.

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The kingdom later expanded to the west, where the Cam provided the boundary. Rivers were absent from the area between the Cam and the headwaters of the Stour, so here defensive dykes were constructed. The remains of one of these, near Newmarket, is now known as the 'Devil’s Dyke'.

In those days, then, everybody knew where East Anglia was. 

This kingdom thrived until 865, when the Great Viking Army of the Danes invaded the region. The forces of the East Angles were defeated in 869; the East Anglian king, Eadmund, was killed; and East Anglia became an Anglo-Danish polity.

Then, in 903, the Danes of East Anglia made the mistake of allying themselves with Æthelwold of Wessex in an uprising against the King of England, Edward the Elder. They were defeated, and by 917 East Anglia had come under the total control of the kings of England and ceased to exist as an independent state.

As part of the Kingdom of England, however, it did continue in existence as a separate Earldom. From 1016, during the reign of King Canute, himself also a Dane, the Earl of East Anglia was Thorkell the Tall, a Swedish-Danish noble. He was succeeded by a series of mostly Anglo-Saxon Earls of East Anglia, including Harold Godwinson, the later King Harold who was defeated at the Battle of Hastings.

Following the Norman Conquest, Ralph de Guader became the Earl. He was half Breton and half English, but had fought on the side of the Normans in 1066. William the Conqueror created him Earl of Norfolk and Suffolk, and he was also known as ‘the Earl of Norwich’, and ‘the Earl of the East Angles’. But then he was involved in the 'Revolt of the Earls' against William, and when the rebellion was crushed in 1075, Ralph retreated to Brittany, and the Earldom of East Anglia was abolished.

So, for five centuries, from the mid-500s until the late 11th century, East Anglia did exist as a political reality with established boundaries. But ever since, it has been a concept, rather than an area with any official status. Rather remarkably, though, the name of the region still survives, many centuries after its political demise. Like 'the Midlands' or 'the Midwest', the term 'East Anglia' is widely understood, but it stands for an area which has no clear boundaries and no legal status.

Most people today would agree that Norfolk and Suffolk are prototypically East Anglian, although the status of the Fens of western Norfolk and northwestern Suffolk is ambiguous. But the main issue has to do with the extent to which the neighbouring counties of Cambridgeshire and Essex form part of East Anglia or not.

My own preference as a way of responding to the question of 'Where is East Anglia?' is to turn to our accents and dialects. Where is that people sound like East Anglians when they speak? Where do we find East Anglian words? Where do speakers use East Anglian grammar?

Take, for instance, our typically East Anglian way of saying “she run, that go, he sing” rather than “she runs, it goes, he sings”.

The Norfolk poet John Kett wrote “Now Winter’s come, an’ that ole North wind blow”. And Charles Benham , from Colchester, wrote in his Essex Ballads, “She look jest wholly bewtiful, she do”.

The boundary between places which say “she run” and those which have “she runs” starts on the shores of the Wash, by the border between Norfolk and Lincolnshire, and then heads south. It leaves Wisbech, Emneth and Outwell to the west, but places like West Wickham, Burwell, Swaffham Prior and Little Downham in eastern Cambridgeshire do have the East Anglian dialect form.

The boundary then heads south through the middle of Cambridgeshire, crosses the Essex border, and then heads east across northeastern Essex to the south of Colchester and Harwich, hitting the North Sea coast in the area around Brightlingsea.

We could say, then, that Modern East Anglia consists of Norfolk except for the Fens, the whole of Suffolk, eastern Cambridgeshire, and northeastern Essex. But that was just one dialect feature. If we look at the geography of other East Anglian dialect forms, we find that they are each rather different in their geographical distribution.

In fact, if we drew a dialect map showing all the relevant features, we would see that there is a core East Anglian dialect area which has all of our features: all of Norfolk and Suffolk apart from the Fens, plus northeastern Essex. Then there is a kind of transitional corridor covering much of Cambridgeshire and Essex, where there are some East Anglian dialect features but not others.

So the fact is that East Anglia is not a matter of either-or, but of more-or-less. Some places are more East Anglian than others.

But wherever dialectal East Anglia is now, it is not as big as it used to be. East Anglian dialects were formerly found over most of Essex: Southend and Leigh-on-Sea used to speak East Anglian. And within living memory, the East Anglian accents of the older people in, say, Braintree have gradually been replaced by Home Counties vowels and consonants.

Hertfordshire, too, was at least partly East Anglian speaking, as were bits of Huntingdonshire and Northamptonshire.

Like the original foundation of East Anglia 1500 years ago, this ongoing diminution of East Anglia is due to in-migration. In the 1950s, the population of Norfolk was about 500,000. Now it is 900,000, a rise which is mostly not due to natural increase. But today the incomers are arriving, not from areas around the other side of the North Sea, but from areas around the other side of the M11.

Peter Trudgill is professor emeritus of English Linguistics at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland; honorary professor of sociolinguistics at UEA; and president of the Friends of Norfolk Dialect

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