Robert Barrett's book is an exercise in topographical literary and historical criticism. Topography is essential to his discussion of places within Chester and Cheshire, but Barrett also wishes to challenge theories of the growth of an English nation from the center outward, that is, from the south, particularly London. His principal objection is that these narratives of nationalism do not take into account local identities and the way these entities situate themselves within their communities but also against pressure from the center to incorporate distinctive regions into a southern expansionist move that creates an "England."
Barrett's title Against All England suggests that Chester and Cheshire are opposed to "England" in some way at the same time that it notes Cheshire's contiguity with England, both "next to" and "separate from." The subtitle Regional Identity cues us to Chester/Cheshire's sense of itself as a unique culture that is represented in local writings from 1195-1656. The book is divided into two parts: the first three chapters are devoted to Chester's writing of itself and the last two to the broader area of Cheshire.
Part 1 traces a trajectory from Lucian, a Benedictine monk, who wrote an encomium of Chester, through the early sixteenth-century change from Corpus Christi Play to Whitsun Plays and ending with the 1610 Triumph in Honor of Her Prince and the establishment of the annual St. George's Day horse race. These three texts, respectively, mark the dominance of the Abbey of St. Werburg over all of Chester, the reversal of its fortunes as a consequence of the granting of the Great Charter (1506-09) which shifted power to lay governors of the city, and Chester's intrusion into the national recognition of Prince Henry's elevation to the titles of Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester.
Barrett's topographical analysis places a "surveying subject" in a particular space within the city of Chester, a space that defines how the subject or subjects understand the text of the city before them. The surveying subject creates a symbolic topography; what he sees often is an imaginary construct of the city, its streets, walls, and entry gates, that cannot be seen in their entirety from the space the subject occupies. For example, antiquarians from Lucian on describe Chester as a cruciform city because its four major streets cross one another at the center of the city. But this is not literally true because Bridge Street from the south does not run directly into Northgate. There is a dog-leg so that Northgate actually arises near the end of Eastgate but a bit away from the center at High Cross.
Lucian reads Chester's topography through biblical exegesis. Barrett says "the city's streets and buildings become scripture made manifest." Lucian's "surveying subjects" see four watchmen over the city, the latter of which is understood to be a New Jerusalem: St. John's to the east, signifying John the Baptist, Christ's precursor; St. Peter's to the west, standing for the apostolic period; St. Werburg's to the North, for the post-apostolic church; and St. Michael's in the south, which is associated with the Archangel's battle against the Devil. Beyond the fact that these locations do not correspond to the cardinal points associated with them, the spectator would not be able to see all four from one vantage point, they are not fortifications on the walls of Chester, and St. John's is not even within the walls. Moreover, Lucian's Chester consists only of the northern quadrant of the city where the Abbey is and about half of the quadrant below. Approximately 3/4s of the city is outside Lucian's larger scheme. However, he does later expand his view to the four gates of the city.
St. Werburg claimed control of the city even though another power, represented by the Earl's castle, was situated diagonally from the Abbey at the lower corner of the city. The period of monastic dominance came to an end in the early sixteenth century when the lay governors were granted a royal charter that essentially transferred power to the secular city. This shift is lamented, Barrett says, in Henry Bradshaw's Life of St. Werburg of 1521 in which he reminds Cestrians of the protections that St. Werburg accorded them in the past and implies that these will be withdrawn when the citizens no longer honor the saint appropriately.
With the transferal of power to the lay governors, there were also topographical shifts. The Cornmarket outside Abbey Gates, in which the Abbey owned a fair, came under the jurisdiction of trade guilds, and the center of power moved to the Pentice where the mayor and aldermen sat to conduct the business of the city. The Pentice is at the top of Bridge street, where Eastgate and Watergare cross, and before the High Cross, symbolically the center of the city. This shift occurs not long before the Corpus Christi play at St. John's was moved to a three-day performance at Whitsontide. Instead of a procession from St. Mary's-on-the-Hill, the Earl's parish church, out the walls to St. John's where the play was staged, the Whitsun plays were performed in the four principal streets of Chester, in effect marking out the lay government's boundaries.
Barrett then turns to the plays themselves in order to talk about how the meaning of the plays shifts as they are performed at different stations, specifically Abbey Gates with a clerical focus and the Pentice with that of the city's governors. The most effective readings of individual pageants are of those performed before the mayor and council.
In the Balaack and Balaam play, King Balaack attempts to get Balaam to curse the Israelites. Instead the prophet praises their "Cittye, castle, and ryvere," all of which are present in Chester. Balaack leads Balaam to three different compass points to curse the enemy. These three directions correspond to those of the three streets that the mayor could see from his seat at the Pentice; the action thereby imposes the topography of Canaan on that of Chester with the result that Balaam blesses not just the Israelites but the citizens of Chester.
Barrett reads the Fall of Lucifer at the same location as reproducing "inter-elite conflict." God's "urbanized heaven" is made coterminous with Chester. After Lucifer seats himself as "governor" in God's empty throne, he is "disenfranchised" by the legitimate authority, God, who can also be read as the mayor and aldermen in this scenario. Barrett complicates the situation by describing what Alderman Aldersey may have felt about this spectacle since he had been disenfranchised and only recently reconciled with the city and restored to his position as alderman and who, therefore, sat with the others at the Pentice.
Barrett's reading of the scene with the blind beggar Caecus in Christ's Entry into Jerusalem is particularly effective in showing how a play might be meaningful for all sites in the city. Henry VIII's draconian measures with regard to the control of beggars was amplified by Mayor Gee who assigned one beggar to each precinct within the city and ordered the impeachment of citizens who gave to unauthorized beggars within their precincts. The Caecus scene is occasioned by the miracle that Christ performs in making Caecus see, but the more important part of this action is the cured man's subsequent interrogation by the Pharisees (a k a Chester's local authorities) on violations that recall Henry's statute and the city's ordinance against idle begging.
As I read the chapters on the Chester plays, I found the analyses provocative, yet I also had a nagging sense that sometimes Barrett was over-reading his texts. His insights suggested those that one might recollect in tranquility rather than at the dramatic moment. In addition, although I thought Barrett's reading of the Balaam and Balaack play at the Pentice very interesting, I wondered how it would work before Abbey Gates.
The least satisfactory of the readings in the first section of the book is the treatment of Amery's Triumph in Honor of Her Prince. Barrett first analyzes how the Triumph constitutes Amery's attempt at self-aggrandizement in his compliment to the Prince, but, given the absence of the honoree, Barrett also suggests ways the allegorical sections of the Triumph could be read as complimenting the local oligarchy. The second half of the chapter is less convincing. Barrett proposes an "admittedly hypothetic" concerning the consequences and meaning of the subsequent publication of the Triumph in London, but his analysis struck me as far too convoluted to be persuasive.
The title of the second part of the book, "Cheshire the County: Destabilizing National Identity in Regional Romance," addresses ways that Cheshire maintains its regional identity at the same time that it engages the Other, represented in Bertilak's non-Cheshire court, and imposes itself on national affairs via the Stanley family's romanced historical poems.
Barrett says that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a text that foregrounds its provinciality" and thus counters a nationalist reading. He approaches the text through the Grovsner-Scropes trial that arose when the Cheshireman Grovsner and the more broadly supported Scropes were found to bear shields with the same device. Since the issue was not just the duplication of the arms but who had the right to the device, Barrett is able to argue that the shield with arms identifies, indeed stands for the bearer. Similarly, Sir Gawain's shield with its pentangle represents who he is known to be in Arthur's court and on his journey through Cheshire. When SG arrives at Bertilak's court, Barrett argues, the alien residents there cannot read his arms and thus him, and they take away his identity when they disarm him. I found this an irksome point. Readers of SGGK recognize the symbolic significance of the disarming of SG, but from a realistic point of view, are we to suppose that it would be better for SG to sit around in his armor with his shield in order to maintain his identity? If he were to do so, it would be an insult to his host. Moreover, the Green Knight at the chapel does know who Gawain is and what his shield represents. Even at the court SG does not wholly lose his identity; it's just that the one the court and the Lady ascribe to SG differs from the chivalric one partially emblazoned on his shield. We should recall the complexity of the pentangle-device; it signifies SG's "courtaysye" as well as other courtly virtues ("fraunchyse" and "felaȝschyp") which the court and the Lady recognize and which they expect SG to exemplify.
The final chapter, "Celebrating Regional Affinities in the Stanley Family Romances," argues that when Thomas Stanley was made Earl of Derby--the first non-royal magnate in centuries in Cheshire--the honor "led to a renewed awareness of regional separation and difference" in which the "Stanley earls became focal points for regional aspirations (and, to be fair, regional anxieties)." The "romances" in question are the Bosworth Field poems, Bosworth Field, Lady Bessy, and The Rose of England, the Flodden Field poems, Flodden Field and Scottish Field, and the history of the family entitled The Stanley Poem. Barrett establishes that at first hesitantly but then becoming more emboldened the Stanleys created a history of themselves not just as a force within Cheshire but as the kingmakers of Henry VII. The poems impose regional on national identity. The analysis is quite good but I could not help but wonder what the pairing of the Stanley romances with Amery's Triumph might reveal--and perhaps how it might restrain some of the reading of the Triumph--since both texts are moves to assert a regional impact on "national" affairs.
Although I found myself resisting some of Barrett's analyses, I think the book quite interesting, particularly in the way that it positions Chester/Cheshire and its writings within the modern discourse of how England developed into a nation.