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Rus in urbe, unpacked: on countryside running through the heart of English cities

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From burhs, through abbey-monasteries, universities, garden squares to garden cities and new towns, England’s urban evolution has deep and complex roots which still shape society

Rus in urbe, the illusion – generally created by design – of countryside running through the heart of a city, is one of the most pervasive characteristics of English urbanism. From pre-modern cities, with cathedrals that almost uniquely in Europe incorporated monasteries with their rural paraphernalia of food production, to the enclaves of Oxbridge colleges, to London’s heaths, commons, parks and squares, and onwards to garden cities and new towns in their various iterations from 1947 to the present, all are urbs with an awful lot of rus in them.

‘Rus in urbe, the illusion – generally created by design – of countryside running through the heart of a city, is one of the most pervasive characteristics of English urbanism’

The reasons behind this common characteristic are many and varied; they do not spring from a single source or follow a simple linear progression. They do, however, belong to a complex pattern of political imperatives and contingent historical circumstances that have interacted over centuries to make not just, in Steen Eiler Rasmussen’s words, the ‘unique city’ of London, but the particular character of English cities in general. This essay is a brief and preliminary attempt to disentangle  those imperatives and circumstances, to indicate how they may have come about, and how they continue to shape English thinking about urbanism. 

Ever since the earliest civilisations (in the literal sense of societies where cities were present), controlling the interface between country and city has been a principal root of power. One provides resources in the form of food and other raw materials, the other offers the advantages of anthropocentric innovation. Jane Jacobs pinpointed this in The Economy of Cities, where she argued that agriculture followed from cities, counterintuitively and against received wisdom that agricultural surpluses made urban settlements possible. Cities became then collection and cross-fertilisation points for grains and animals, leading to selective breeding with improved yields and taste of both arable crops and domestic livestock.

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Norwich Cathedral, founded in 1090 to replace the older and more rural see at Elmham, was one of eight English medieval cathedrals to have a Benedictine abbey attached to it. Photograph courtesy of Jim Laws/Alamy

In post-Roman England, the task of forging a relationship between country and town fell to the Saxons, and in particular the kingdom of Wessex as it rose to pre-eminence in the face of Viking invasions during the ninth century. The Danes were opportunistic raiders, raping and pillaging their way rapidly through small, scattered and undefended settlements. Wessex’s greatest king, Alfred (r871-99), devised a strategy for holding the Danes at bay which had far-reaching effects in the evolution of English urbanism. Alfred’s answer was simple and logical, but given the rarity of towns of any size, not necessarily obvious. It was to move all forms of habitation into a series of ‘burhs’, settlements which were fortified for security and concentrated for administrative efficiency. Generally within a day’s march of each other (roughly 30 kilometres) and connected by a network of roads, these towns brought civic, commercial and religious activities together. Making them responsible for the administration of their immediate hinterlands, and those hinterlands responsible for providing manpower for defence, ensured rus and urbs were dependent on each other even though at this stage they were physically distinct. 

‘Ever since the earliest civilisations (in the literal sense of societies where cities were present), controlling the interface between country and city has been a principal root of power’

How that changed introduces another thread to the story. Alfred’s reforms coincided with new stirrings in monasticism on the European continent. Western Christianity was facing a crisis: early Christians expected the imminent return of Christ. The failure of their hopes meant that Christianity would have to forge a place for itself in the secular world. They had to cosy up to lay authorities, initially the Roman Empire and then its Eastern and Western successors. By the late ninth century the eastern, Byzantine Empire was too remote and too preoccupied to have any real influence in Western Europe, while the collapse into chaos of the Carolingian empire within a generation of its founder’s death in 814 created a power vacuum.

The Church’s response to this crisis was in essence to define its own practices, purposes and beliefs with some rigour. That included regularising canon law, which spawned institutions to teach it that gradually became universities, and ultimately the parallel concept of civil law, which became the wellspring of secular constitutions. Tied up with that was a revival of interest in monasticism as a way of protecting Christian virtue, purity and belief within a tightly defined lifestyle that subordinated physical needs to religious practice without ignoring them completely. The guiding spirit was the Rule of St Benedict, which underpins all Western monasticism and specifically includes farming and other rural activities in its regulations (though most Benedictine monasteries are not in towns).

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The great French Gothic cathedrals, as can be seen at Chartres, were hemmed in by urban buildings. Photograph by Olvr/Wikimedia

England is the exception. Alfred was reputedly interested in these monastic reforms, but baptising Danes and founding burhs gave much to occupy him. His grandson Æthelstan (r924-27 as King of the Anglo-Saxons and 927-39 as King of the English) continued Alfred’s administrative reforms which under Saints Dunstan and Oswald, together with the uncanonised archbishop Æthelwold, set the ground for a flowering of monasticism in England during the second half of the 10th century – in a country where all major buildings and institutions were already concentrated in towns.

‘St Benedict’s emphasis on food supply through farming and cultivation meant that cities were penetrated by orchards, fishponds and fields right alongside their largest and most significant building, the cathedral’

Dunstan, principal author of the English coronation ceremony, introduced the Rule of Benedict to Glastonbury Abbey. Later as Bishop of Worcester and Archbishop of Canterbury, he introduced Benedictine monasticism to urban settlements. Æthelwold, Bishop of Winchester, founded numerous Benedictine abbeys and Oswald took over from Dunstan at Worcester while simultaneously holding the archbishopric of York. Of the 17 medieval cathedrals in England, eight were combined with Benedictine abbeys: Bath, Canterbury, Durham, Ely, Norwich, Rochester, Winchester and Worcester, while Carlisle was joined to an Augustinian priory.

Benedict’s emphasis on food supply through farming and cultivation meant that these cities – as they were by definition – were penetrated by orchards, fishponds and fields right alongside their largest and most significant building, the cathedral. By contrast, in continental cities, secular buildings and activities were directly adjacent to their cathedrals, for example Amiens or Chartres.

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Aerial photograph of old sarum site, on departure from old sarum airfield

Ancient fortified burh of Old Sarum, later superseded by Salisbury. Photograph courtesy of Mark Edwards/Wikimedia

The Norman Conquest reinforced this situation. Faced with the challenge of administering a new territory, significantly larger than the old and with a potentially restless populace, William I followed the logic of Alfred’s and Æthelstan’s reforms. He welcomed the combination of cathedrals and abbeys and used bishop-abbots as administrators. In 1090, shortly after his death, the bishopric of East Anglia with its associated monastery moved from the rural setting of Elmham to the growing city of Norwich, which became a principal settlement of medieval England. In the early 13th century, the ancient cathedral of Old Sarum moved to the new location of Salisbury, which might be described as a medieval garden city. 

‘By the High Middle Ages, English cities had created a generic balance between rus and urbs that did not exist elsewhere’

By the High Middle Ages, English cities had created a generic balance between rus and urbs that did not exist elsewhere. The cathedral-abbey combination may have been the most important factor, but it was not the only one. As Oxford and Cambridge grew and their universities formalised, the quasi-monastic foundations of their colleges brought urbs and rus into apposition with each other, for example the Cambridge Backs, or Christchurch water meadows. 

These physical relationships had their counterparts in constitutional and political arrangements. As Alfred’s burhs had foreshadowed, the great cathedral cities became administrative and social centres, interweaving secular, religious and economic power. When, during the 13th century, Parliament became a recognisable ancestor of its present form, the House of Commons in particular, with its combination of knights of the shires and burgesses, fostered alliances between lesser landowners and wealthy town dwellers that gave England a degree of social fluidity absent in the great continental monarchies, and which in a complicated trajectory introduced a degree of meritocracy to government and the military.

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The backs clare college

The Backs at Cambridge have sophisticated architecture (Clare College) on one side and green space of varying wildness on the other. Photograph courtesy of RXUYDC/Wikimedia

The ‘unique city’ of London introduces another element of ‘rus in urbe’. Its cathedral, St Paul’s, was surrounded by buildings and spaces accommodating all sorts of urban activities rather than orchards and meadows. But, as Reyner Banham pointed out in his 1964 BBC documentary, A City Crowned with Green, London grew after Tudor attempts to limit its size from the dense core of the Square Mile by grabbing its peripheral settlements. Some were shanty towns, others prosperous villages, monasteries or farms, but in many cases their land divisions and sometimes their buildings became part of the expanded urban fabric. The urban model of terraced houses and buildings of rural origin, on agricultural street patterns, became a familiar combination.

‘These physical relationships had their counterparts in constitutional and political arrangements, and the great cathedral cities became administrative and social centres, interweaving secular, religious and economic power’

Terraced houses themselves are another important part in the ongoing story. They were the key to developing London’s Great Estates around their garden squares. If the squares are the seeds of London as ‘rus in urbe’, the Royal Parks are the apogee. In them, the highly stylised concept of rural scenery that we call the Picturesque gave the illusion of living in the country while enjoying the economic benefits and social opportunities of urban life.

But economic and political settlements prevented this lifestyle from trickling down to the urban poor. Ebenezer Howard published his vision of garden cities in 1898, which attempted to reverse this: a new economic system, based around land ownership, would in his view allow far more people to choose to enjoy the advantages of both urban and rural living – and in numbers that could be more or less self-sufficient in social and cultural as well as economic terms.

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Diagram that launched a thousand garden cities – Ebenezer Howard’s compelling Three Magnets, which showed the benefit of combining town and country

Howard’s ideas – coming at a time when mere industrial capital was proving woefully inadequate to deal with the challenges of modern cities – had an immediate impact. Letchworth, the first garden city, was founded in 1903 and Welwyn some years later. By the 1930s, when more of the country was covered in suburban development and more of its population owned their homes than ever before, the idealised image of rural living while benefiting from urban economies was a fixed element in the collective psyche – and the unquestionable need to evacuate children when war broke out in 1939 further tipped the balance in favour of the country.

‘In the Royal Parks the highly stylised concept of rural scenery that we call the Picturesque gave the illusion of living in the country while enjoying the economic benefits and social opportunities of urban life’

The Second World War brought a new swathe of challenges to the balance between country and city where personal safety and security of food supply joined the mix. Patrick Abercrombie’s London plans of 1943 and 1944 attempted to project rational use of land across the whole country, protecting part of the countryside as green belt while using some of it for new towns. Derived in many ways from Howard’s ideas, they took people out of dense, dirty and damaged cities to places where the misery of pre-war and wartime existence were entirely absent. But, as Banham also points out, within a decade or two of their founding they became just the next set of peripheral settlements for London to gobble up. Even Milton Keynes (founded in 1967) has not resisted the rise of commuter traffic to London. 

Although London’s population fell in the decades after the war, by the 1990s it was ticking up again. Having added a million people in the 20 years to 2013, it is set to grow by another million in the subsequent two decades, all of them needing to be fed and having a right to open space.

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Harlow was the first new town inaugurated in 1947 with a masterplan by Frederick Gibberd, a brave attempt to update the garden city for the age of the Welfare State. Photograph courtesy of Chronicle/Alamy

The failure of new towns to establish themselves as at least semi-self-sufficient centres, and to limit the lure of London, poses near existential questions for the prospect of a civilised and urbane future. But there are some hopeful signs. Harlow, which became the first new town in 1947, sits at the end of something called the M11 corridor – a contiguous strip of development from London to Cambridge with Stansted Airport as the meat in the sandwich – but it is developing ambitious plans to reinvent a concept of rus in urbe. There are also semi-rural settlements proposed for the corridor between Oxford and Cambridge. And between the innumerable ambitious and visionary student projects for urban agriculture, and the embryonic locally focused interest in allotments, signs are emerging that London could make a measurable contribution to feeding itself.

‘By the 1930s, when more of the country was covered in suburban development and more of its population owned their homes than ever before, the idealised image of rural living while benefiting from urban economies was a fixed element in the collective psyche’

Each of these initiatives offers some succour to policy-makers. If used imaginatively they could evolve into another iteration in the rich tradition of rus in urbe, joining the line from burhs, through abbey-monasteries, universities, garden squares to garden cities and new towns, not just as a way of housing the English population but extending a specifically English contribution to world civilisation.

Lead image: Primrose Hill, London. Photograph by Niels Kristian Photography/Getty

This piece is featured in the AR’s April 2018 issue on Rethinking the rural – click here to purchase a copy