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Part 4: The Anglo Saxon Period by Peter N. Williams, Ph. D.

Commonly ascribed to the monk Gildas, the "De Excidio Britanniae" (the loss of Britain), was written about 540. As previously mentioned, it is not a good history, for it is most mere polemic. Closely followed by Bede, the account is the first to narrate what has traditionally been regarded as the story of the coming of the Saxons to Britain. Their success, regarded by Gildas as God's vengeance against the Britons for their sins, was a theme repeated by Bede isolated in his monastery in the north. We note, however, that Gildas made the statement that, in his own day, the Saxons were not warring against the Britons. We can be certain that the greater part of the pre-English inhabitants of England survived, and that a great proportion of present-day England is made up of their descendants.

To answer the question how did the small number of invaders come to master the larger part of Britain? John Davies gives us part of the answer: the regions seized by the newcomers were mainly those that had been most thoroughly Romanized, regions where traditions of political and military self-help were at their weakest. Those who chafed at the administration of Rome could only have welcomed the arrival of the English in such areas as Kent and Sussex, in the southeast.

Another compelling reason cited by Davies is the emergence in Britain of the great plague of the sixth century from Egypt that was particularly devastating to the Britons who had been in close contact with peoples of the Mediterranean. Be that as it may, the emergence of England as a nation did not begin as a result of a quick, decisive victory over the native Britons, but a result of hundreds of years of settlement and growth, more settlement and growth, sometimes peaceful, sometimes not. If it is pointed out that the native Celts were constantly warring among themselves, it should also be noted that so were the tribes we now collectively term the English, for different kingdoms developed in England that constantly sought domination through conquest. Even Bede could pick out half a dozen rulers able to impose some kind of authority upon their contemporaries.

So we see the rise and fall of successive English kingdoms during the seventh and eighth centuries: Kent, Northumbria, Mercia, and Wessex. Before looking at political developments, however, it is important to notice the religious conversion of the people we commonly call Anglo-Saxons. It began in the late sixth century and created an institution that not only transcended political boundaries, but created a new concept of unity among the various tribal regions that overrode individual loyalties.

In 597, St. Augustine was sent to convert the pagan English by Pope Gregory, who was anxious to spread the Gospel, and enhance papal prestige by reclaiming former territories of Rome. Augustine received a favorable reception in the kingdom of Ethelbert, who had married Bertha, daughter of the Merovingian King and a practicing Christian. Again, it is to Bede that we owe the story of the conversion of England to the new faith (the older Roman Christian Church remained in parts of Britain, notably Wales and Scotland as the Celtic Church). Augustine's success in converting a large number of people led to his consecration as bishop by the end of the year.

Pope Gregory had drawn up a detailed plan for the administration of the Church in England. There were to be two archbishops, London and York (each to have 12 bishops). As the city of London was not under the control of Ethelbert, however, a new See was chosen at Canterbury, in Kent. It was there that Augustine, promoted to archbishop, laid down the beginnings of the ecclesiastical organization of the Church in Britain. It was Gregory's guiding hand, however, that influenced all Augustine's decisions; both Pope and Bishop seemed to know little of the Celtic Church, and made no accommodations with it.

The establishment of the Church at York was not possible until 625; the immense task of converting and then organizing the converted was mostly beyond the limited powers of Augustine, well-trained in monastic rule, but little trained in law and administration. Edwin of Northumbria's wife chose Paulinus as Bishop and the See of York was established, though later attacks from Penda of Mercia meant that only a limited kind of Christian worship took place in the North until around the middle of the eighth century.

In 668 when a vacancy arose at Canterbury, the monk Theodore of Tarsus was appointed as archbishop. His background as a Greek scholar meant that he had to take new vows and be ordained in custom with the Church in the West. He then attacked his work with vigor. Assisted by another Greek scholar Hadrian, he set up the basis of diocesan organization throughout England and carried out the decisions made at Whitby.

When Theodore arrived at Canterbury, there was one bishop south of the River Humber and two in the North: Cedda, a Celtic bishop and Wilfred of Ripon, who had argued successfully for the adoption of the Roman Church at Whitby. Theodore consecrated new bishops at Dulwich, Winchester and Rochester, and set up the Sees of Worcester, Hereford, Oxford and Leicester. Wilfred of Ripon reigned supreme in Northumbria as the exponent of ecclesiastical authority, but when he quarreled with King Ecgfrith, he was sent into exile. Theodore seized his opportunity to break up the North into smaller and more controllable dioceses. Over the next twenty years bishoprics were established at York, Hexham, Ripon and Lindsey. Theodore also re-established the system of ecclesiastical synods that disregarded political boundaries.

One of Theodore's great accomplishments was to create the machinery through which the wealth of the Celtic Church was transferred to the Anglo-Saxon Church. This wealth was particularly responsible for the late seventh century flowering of culture in Northumbria, which benefitted from both Celtic and Roman influences. In that northern outpost of the Catholic Church, a tradition of scholarship began that was to have a profound influence on the literature of Western Europe. It constituted a remarkable outbreak with equally remarkable consequences.

It all began with a Northumbrian nobleman, associated with monastic life, Benedict Biscop, who founded two monasteries, Wearmouth (674) and Jarrow (681). Both were to play important parts in this cultural phenomenon. Biscop made six journeys to Rome, acquiring many valuable manuscripts and beginning what can be termed a golden age in Northumbria. Its greatest scholar was Bede.

Known to posterity as "the Venerable Bede," the monk lived from 673-735. He entered Jarrow at the age of seven. Never traveling further than York, he became the most learned scholar of his time. Working in the library with the manuscripts acquired by Benedict Biscop, he added greatly to its store of knowledge through his voluminous correspondence. His contemporary reputation rested on his biblical writings and commentaries on the Scriptures as well as his chronological works that established a firm system of calculating the date of Easter. Bede's greatest work was his Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation.

Bede's audience was a newly-forged nation; the English were anxious to hear of their past accomplishments and of the lives of their great people; Bede provided them with both. His history shows the stages by which the Anglo-Saxon people became Christian. He sifted his evidence carefully, preserving oral traditions where they complemented his written material, and he often indicated his sources. Abounding in anecdotes, guides for memory, his concept of history set a new standard for future writers, though as noted earlier, his prejudices against the Britons (Welsh) mar his work.

Before leaving the Anglo-Saxon religious scene, we must mention the enormous influence the English Church had on the continent. Rulers such as Charles Martel and Pepin III were pursuing aggressive policies against the Germanic tribes, and missionaries from the highly advanced English Church were extensively recruited. Wilfred of Ripon found a new calling after his expulsion from Northumbria, and he and others such as Willibrod carried out their conversions with approval from Rome. The greatest of the missionaries was Boniface, who established many German Sees from his archbishopric at Mainz. From York came Alcuin, one of the period's greatest scholars. All in all, we can say that the Anglo-Saxon Church provided an important impetus for the civilizing of much of the Continent. In particular, it provided the agent for the fusing of Celtic and Roman ideas, and its work in Europe produced events that had repercussions of profound importance.

In the meantime, events were rapidly changing the political face of Anglo-Saxon England. There were separate kingdoms in England, settled by Angles, Saxons and Jutes whose areas, bit by bit, extended into the Celtic regions: Northumbria in the north; Mercia westwards to the River Severn and Wessex into Devon and Cornwall. In the southeast, the kingdoms of Sussex and Kent had achieved early prominence.

Hengist and Horsa had arrived in Kent with a small fleet of ships in around 446 AD to aid the Britons in the defense of their lands. They had been invited by British chief Vortigern to fight the northern barbarians in return for pay and supplies, but more importantly, for land. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle dates Hengist's assumption of the kingdom of Kent to 455 AD; and though it also records the flight of the Britons from that kingdom to London, it probably refers to an army, not a people. The invaders, who were Jutes, named the capital of their new kingdom Canterbury, the borough of the people of the Cantii. Only nine years after their arrival, they were in revolt against Vortigern, who awarded them the whole kingdom of the Cantii with Hengist as king to be succeeded by his son Oisc.

Thus the first Anglo-Saxon kingdom in Britain was an Anglo-Celtic kingdom, peopled by Anglo-Celts. The dynasty founded there by Hengist lasted for three centuries. However, with the death of joint kings Aethelbert and Eadberht, it was time for other kingdoms to rise to prominence. Only thirty years after the arrival of Hengist to Britain, another chieftain named Aelle came to settle. The leader of the South Saxons; Aella ruled the kingdom that became Sussex. Other kingdoms were those of the East Saxons (Essex); the Middle Saxons (Middlesex), and the West Saxons, (Wessex) destined to become the most powerful of all and one that eventually brought together all the diverse people of England (named for the Angles) into one single nation.

When Bede was writing his History, he was residing in what had been for over a century the most powerful kingdom in England, for rulers such as Edwin, Oswald and Oswy had made Northumbria politically stable as well as Christian. Edwin, the first Christian king of Northumbria, was defeated by Cadwallon, the only British King to overthrow a Saxon dynasty, who had allied himself to Penda of Mercia, the Middle Kingdom. Oswald restored the Saxon monarchy in 633, and during his reign, missionaries under Aidan completed the conversion of Northumbria (an account of the early Christian Church in the North can be found in my "Brief History of Scotland," Chap. 2).

It was during the reign of Oswy (645-70) that Northumbria began to show signs of order. The growth of institutions guaranteed permanency, so that the continuation of royal government did not depend upon the outcome of a single battle or the death of a king. He also defeated pagan king Penda and brought Mercia under his control, opening up the whole middle kingdom to Celtic missionaries. Then, in 663 under his chairmanship, the great Synod of Whitby took place, at which the Roman Church was accepted as the official branch of the faith in England. It was Oswy's forceful backing that secured the decision for Rome.

Northumbria's dominance began to wane at the beginning of the eighth century. It was hastened by the defeat and death of Ecgfrid in 685. The kingdom had been threatened by the growing power of Mercia, whose king Penda had led the fiercest resistance to the imposition of Christianity. After Penda's defeat, his successor Wulfhere turned south to concentrate his efforts on fighting against Wessex where strong rulers prevented any Mercian domination. However, the situation began to change in the early eighth century with the accession of two strong rulers, Aethelbold and Offa.

Aethelbold (726-57) called himself "King of Britain." Bede tells us that "all these provinces [in the South of England] with their kings, are in subjection to Aethelbald, king of Mercia, even to Humber." Whatever his claims to sovereignty, however, it was his successor Offa (757-96) who could call himself "king of all the English," for though Wessex was growing powerful within itself, Offa seems to have been the senior partner and overlord of Southern Britain. His many letters to Charles the Great (Charlemagne) show that the Mercian king regarded himself as an equal to the Carolingian ruler (his son Ecfrith was the very first king in England to have an official coronation). Offa's correspondence with the Pope also shows roughly the same attitude. It was Offa who inaugurated what later became known as Peter's Pence (those financial contributions that became a bane to later rulers who wished to have more control over their finances and sources of revenue).

Both Aethelbold and Offa insisted on being called by their royal titles; they were very much aware of the concept of unity within the kingdom of Mercia. Offa was the first English ruler to draw a definite frontier with Wales (much of the earthen rampart and ditch created in the middle of the eighth century, still exists). The creation of a metropolitan archbishopric at Lichfield attested to his influence with Rome. Under his reign an effective administration was created (and a good quality distinctive coinage). The little kingdom of Mercia found itself a member of the community of European states. Though Offa's descendants tried to maintain the splendors (and the delusions) of his reign, Mercia's domination ended at the battle of Ellendun in 825 when Egbert of Wessex defeated Beornwulf.

It was time for Wessex to recover the greatness that had begun in the sixth century under Ceawlin. Wessex borders had expanded greatly and Ceawlin had was recognized as supreme ruler in Southern England. A series of insignificant kings followed Ceawlin, all subject to Mercian dominance. The second period of dominance began under kings Cadwalla and Ine. Cadwalla (685-88) was noted for his successful wars against Kent and his conquest of Sussex. Wessex also expanded westward into the Celtic strongholds of Devon and Cornwall. Both Cadwalla and Ine abdicated to go on religious pilgrimages, but their work was well done and they left behind a strong state able to withstand the might of Mercia.

A new phase began in 802 with the accession of Egbert and the establishment of his authority throughout Wessex. The dominance of Mercia was finally broken, the other kingdoms defeated in battle or voluntary submitted to his overlordship, and Egbert was recognized as Bretwalda, Lord of Britain, the first to give reality to the dream of a single government from the borders of Scotland to the English Channel. An ominous entry in the "West Saxon Annals" however, tells us that in the year 834 "The heathen men harried Sheppey." During the centuries of inter-tribal warfare, the Saxons had not thought of defending their coasts. The Norsemen, attracted by the wealth of the religious settlements, often placed near the sea, were free to embark upon their voyages of plunder.

The first recorded visit of the Vikings in the West Saxon Annals had stated that a small raiding party slew those who came to meet them at Dorchester in 789. It was the North, however, at such places as Lindisfarne, the holiest city in England, lavishly endowed with treasures at its monastery and religious settlement, that constituted the main target. Before dealing with the onslaught of the Norsemen, however, it is time to briefly review the accomplishments of the people collectively known as the Anglo-Saxons, especially in the rule of law.

From the Roman historian Tacitus we get a picture of the administration of Saxon law long before they came to settle in Britain. His "Germania" tells us of the deliberation of the chiefs in smaller matters and the deliberation of all in more important ones. "Yet even those matters which are reserved for the general opinion are thoroughly discussed by the chiefs... in the assembly, actions may be brought and capital crimes prosecuted. They make the punishment fit the crime."

It was not long after the conversion of the Saxon peoples to Christianity that written laws began to be enacted in England to provide appropriate penalties for offenses against the Church (and therefore against God). In Kent, King Aethelbert (601-04) was the first to set down the laws of his people in the English language; his laws constitute by far the earliest body of law expressed in any Germanic language. They show no sign of Roman influence but are more in common with the Lex Salica issued by Clovis for the Salian Franks.

The basis of Kentish society in Aethelbert's time was the free-peasant landholder, without any claim to nobility, but subject to no lord below the king himself, an independent person with many rights. Throughout early English history, society seems to have rested on men of this type. As head of a family, he was entitled to compensation for the breaking of his household peace. If he were to be slain, the killer had to compensate his kinfolk and also pay the king. The king's food-rent was the heaviest of the public burdens. Early on, it had consisted of providing a quantity of provisions sufficient to maintain a king and his retinue for 24 hours, due once a year from a particular group of villages. Long after Aethelbert's reign, the king's servants of every degree were still being quartered on the country as they traveled from place to place to carry out their duties.

Other Kentish laws date from the reigns of Hlothhere and Eadric, brother and eldest son of Egbert. These were mainly enlargements of previous laws. They show a somewhat elaborate development of legal procedure, but they also recognized a title to nobility which is derived from birth and not from service to a king. More significant, however, is the fact that the men who direct the pleas in popular assemblies are not ministers of the king, but "the judges of the Kentish people." All in all, the laws show a form of society little affected by the growth of royal power or aristocratic privilege.

Under Wihtraed (695-96), laws were set down mainly to deal with ecclesiastical matters. They were primarily to provide penalties for unlawful marriages, heathen practices, neglect of holy days or fast days, and to define the process under which accused persons might establish their innocence. The Church and its leading ministers were given special privileges, including exemption from taxation. The oath of a bishop, like those of a king, is declared uncontrovertible, and the Church was to receive the same compensation as the king for violence done to dependents. Within 90 years, the Church which Aethelbert had taken under his protection had become a power all but equal with the king himself.

By the early part of the 10th century, the government had begun to regard the kin as legally responsible for the good behavior of its members, though respect for the kin did not mean that the ties of kindred dominated English law. There had been earlier passages which ignored or deliberately weakened this primitive function of kin. For example, a ceorl who wished to clear himself at the altar must produce not a group of his kinsmen, but three men who are merely of his own class. Mere oaths from his own family circle were looked upon with suspicion by the authorities, and thus encroachments upon the power of the kin to protect its own members constituted a rapid advancement of English law even before the end of the seventh century.

From the laws of Ine (688-95), the strongest king in Southern England during his long reign, it is clear that he was a statesman with ideas beyond the grasp of his predecessors. His code is a lengthy document, covering a wide range of human relationships, entering much more fully than any other early code into the details of the agrarian system on which society rested. They were also marked by the definite purpose of advancing Christianity. Not merely a tariff of offenses, it is the result of a serious attempt to bring together a body of rules governing the more complicated questions with which the king and his officers might have to deal. It stands for a new concept of kingship, destined in time to replace the simple motives which had satisfied the men of an earlier age.

Ine's laws point to a complicated social order in which the aristocratic ideal was already important. The free peasant was the independent master of a household. He filled a responsible position in the state and the law protected the honor and peace of his household. He owed personal service in the national militia (the fyrd); and unlawful entry through the hedge around his premises was a grave offense. In disputes concerning land rights, which he farmed in association with his fellows, it was necessasry for the King and his Council to provide settlement. The free peasant was thus responsible to no authority below the king for his breaches of local custom.

By the year 878 there was every possibility that before the end of the year Wessex would have been divided among the Danish army. That this turn of events did not come to pass was due to Alfred. Leaving aside the political events of the period, we can praise his laws as the first selective code of Anglo-Saxon England, though the fundamentals remained unchanged, those who didn't please him, were amended or discarded. They remain comments on the law, mere statements of established custom.

In 896, Alfred occupied London, giving the first indication that the lands which had lately passed under Danish control might be reclaimed. It made him the obvious leader of all those who, in any part of the country, wished for a reversal of the disasters, and it was immediately followed by a general recognition of his lordship. In the words of the Chronicle, "all the English people submitted to Alfred except those who were under the power of the Danes." The occassion marked the achievement of a new stage in the advancement of the English people towards political unity, the acceptance of Alfred's overlordship expressed a feeling that he stood for interests common to the whole English race. Earlier rulers had to rely on the armed forces at their disposal for any such claims.

The Code of Alfred has a significance in English history which is entirely independent of its subject matter, for he gives himself the title of King of the West Saxons, naming previous kings such as Ine, Offa and Aethelberth whose work had influenced his own. The implication is that his code was intended to cover not only the kingdom of Wessex, but also Kent and Mercia. It thus becomes important evidence of the new political unity forced upon the English people by the struggle against the Danes. In addition, it appeared at the end of a century during which no English king had issued any laws. Following Alfred's example, English kings, unlike their counterparts on the Continent, retained their right to exercise legislative powers. As a footnote, Alfred insisted that to clear himself, a man of lower rank than a kings' thegn must produce the oaths of 11 men of his own class and one of the Kings' thegns.

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Part 4: The Anglo Saxon Period, continued





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