Rutland (or Rutlandshire) is something of an anomaly. It is the smallest historic county in England – a mere 17 miles wide by 18 miles high at its corners, perched between Leicester and Peterborough – and has sometimes been sidelined or, indeed, entirely abolished. It is so small that it only has two towns – Oakham and Uppingham – and even the Discover Rutland website ( www. discover-rutland.co.uk) devotes much of its space to the joys of Stamford, which is in fact just over the border in Lincolnshire. The county has also been gently satirised in the form of Neil Innes and Eric Idle’s 1970s comedy show Rutland Weekend Television and the spinoff parody band The Rutles.
However, Rutland has fought its small corner – and rightly so. Back in 1949, in his Shell Guide to the county, the father of local history studies WG Hoskins wrote: ‘Rutland is a small part of England as she used to be before the Industrial Revolution.’ He praised its ‘unspoiled quiet charm’ and ‘compact richness’, traits which are very much evident nearly 70 years later.
Rutland was already a quiet, agricultural area when the Romans arrived in 45AD. It was home to the Celtic tribe of the Corieltauvi, who quickly integrated with Roman ways of life. The Roman road Ermine Street passes across the northeastern edge of the area. After the Romans left, the region remained focused around small settlements – the ‘ham’ ending of many local places such as Empingham and the
two towns reflects the Saxon name for a homestead. The oldest house found in Oakham is a sunken-floored Saxon ‘grubenhaus’ dating to the 5th century.
The origins of the name Rutland, and indeed its original status as a region, remain open to debate. Theories for the origin of ‘Rut’ include the Corieltauvi’s word ‘ratae’ for a fortified settlement and a 10th century Mercian official called Aethelstan Rota. One folktale suggests that someone called Rut was granted whatever land he could ride around in a single day; and another theory still relates the area’s name etymologically to its red soil.
The first written reference, to ‘Rotelante’, dates from 1002, and the area was also mentioned in Edward the Confessor’s will and the Domesday book – but not as a full shire, rather a ‘soke’ (a smaller area with the right to hold its own court) of Nottinghamshire. The first reference to Rutland as a separate county was in 1159, although it was still referred to as a soke in some documents 200 years later.
Henry I created a royal forest in Rutland in the 12th century, covering most of the county now south of Rutland Water. However, by the 15th century almost all of this had been replaced by farmland.
The Norman era has left one remarkable legacy in the county in the form of Oakham Castle (see ‘top three’ box) – completed in 1190, this is one of the finest surviving pieces of Norman domestic architecture in England. The building was also home to forest courts and, in later centuries, to hold the county’s Assize Courts and Quarter Sessions. Oakham has had two other gaols, the last closing in 1878.
The county’s villages are notable for their attractive stone, with a similar feel to Cotswold architecture but in a slightly more toffee- coloured hue. Royal grants for quarrying stone were bestowed in the late 13th century, and from the early 7th century Ketton, in particular, became known for its stone. Much of this was used in building colleges at Cambridge University.
Another key trade in the county in medieval times was wool, with local wool magnates William Dalby and Roger Flore exporting to Calais via King’s Lynn, and supporting charitable causes in the Oakham area. Oakham suffered when Calais was captured by France in 1558, but its fortunes later recovered.
The 16th century saw the foundation of two notable independent schools in the county, at Oakham and Uppingham, both created by the Archdeacon Robert Johnson and with a close rivalry ever since.
Rutland has mostly been a peaceful place, although
it played a part in the 15th century Wars of the Roses, albeit between two factions of Yorkists. In 1470, Edward IV escaped from prison and fought the Battle of Empingham in the county, although it was an easy fight with the 30,000 Yorkist rebels fleeing after a single volley of cannonballs.
The Rutland Militia was first raised in 1759 and assisted forts along the south coast during the Napoleonic Wars; it was amalgamated with Northamptonshire in the mid-19th century. The Rutlandshire Regiment – the 58th Foot – was founded in 1782. Its darkest time was between 1816 and 1821, during which period 380 of 600 men died of disease in Jamaica. In 1881 it became the 2nd Battalion of the Northamptonshire Regiment. Meanwhile, Rutland Fencible Cavalry was formed in 1794 but only lasted five years. Other military groups have included the Rutland Corps of Gentlemen and Yeomanry Cavalry (1794-1828), the Rutland Volunteer Rifles (180314) and the Rutland Volunteer Infantry (1798-1809).
The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act created two unions in Rutland, in Oakham and Uppingham. Each had a workhouse, and together they could accommodate 325 people. Oakham Workhouse Infirmary later became the Vale of Catmose Hospital, then a boarding house for Oakham school; Uppingham Workhouse similarly served as a hospital in World War 1 and later became a boarding house for Uppingham School.
Rutland County Police was formed in 1848, with only a single police constable; a decade later there were seven sergeants and constables in addition to the chief constable.
In general, Rutland has always been a rural county and, as Hoskins observed, the Industrial Revolution mostly passed it by. The 1851 census for Oakham reveals that men typically worked as ‘ag labs’, and women as knitters and dressmakers. One of the few occupations the area was particularly notable for in the 19th century was sock knitting. Oakham, Ketton and Whissendine saw the foundation of several breweries in the 19th century, and Ruddle’s (now brewed in Suffolk) was founded in Langham in 1858. Horseshoes appropriately appear on the county’s crest – the 1871 census, for example, listed
3277 agricultural horses at work in Rutland, one for every seven people. Uppingham now has England’s oldest livestock market still to be held in the town marketplace.
Rutland’s first turnpike was created in 1739 along the Great North Road, which passes through the eastern side of the county. Around 70 miles of Rutland’s roads were operated by turnpike trusts by 1773 but a century later they had stopped taking tolls.
Canal mania reached Rutland briefly, and in 1793 an Act of Parliament gave royal assent for the creation of Oakham Canal. This was about 15 miles long, running to Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire, and opened in 1802. A proposed extension to Stamford was never built, and Oakham Canal lasted less than 50 years, bought up by the Midland Railway. The latter’s Syston and Peterborough Railway served five stations in the county, but only one survived Dr Beeching’s axe, at Oakham. Three other stations, also now closed, served the London and North Western Railway and Great Northern Railway. One impressive legacy of the railway era is the Welland Viaduct which spans 82 arches between Seaton in Rutland and Harringworth in Northamptonshire.
In modern times Rutland has seen two major changes. The first was the creation of Rutland Water (formerly Empingham Water) in 1971 by flooding the Gwash valley and much of the Vale of Catmose in order to provide water to the Midlands – this resulted in the largest man-made lake in Europe and a haven for watersports enthusiasts and birdwatchers, but it came at the price of the destruction of the village Nether Hambleton and much of its neighbour, Middle Hambleton. Upper Hambleton remains marooned on what is now the Hambleton Peninsula. It also created Rutland’s most iconic scene – the almost waterbound church of Normanton (formerly a private chapel modelled on St John’s, Smith Square in London). It was saved from destruction by the creation of a new floor at ground level, and has occasional use as an exhibition space and wedding venue.
The other big change was Rutland’s abolition as a county. It fought off various attempts to swallow it up in the 1940s and 1960s, but Edward Heath’s extensive county reforms of the 1970s finally won over and it became a district of Leicestershire in 1974. However, local resistance continued, and with the district council able to prove it could stand on its own, Rutland was restored again as an administrative county in 1997. The Royal Mail finally gave in and agreed to regard it as a postal county again in 2007.
Although Rutland is not strictly speaking one of the ancient Anglo-Saxon shires, it has a good nine centuries behind it, and hopefully many more ahead.
Rutland remains a firmly rural county
‘Roteland’ in the Domesday Book
Rutland in 1766
Oakham Castle, actually a fortified Norman great hall
A fight between two bare-knuckle boxers in 1811 attracted 20,000 spectators
Oakham High Street in 1910
A sock knitting machine