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Narrative History of England The Anglo Saxon Period

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Narrative History of England The Anglo Saxon Period by Peter N. Williams, Ph. D.

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ommonly 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 presentday 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. The Narrative History of England

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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 AngloSaxons. 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.



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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 The Narrative History of England

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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 673735. 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 AngloSaxon England. There were separate kingdoms in England, settled by Angles, Saxons and Jutes whose areas, bit by bit, extended into the Celtic



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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. 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 Narrative History of England

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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



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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 The Narrative History of England

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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,

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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. The Narrative History of England

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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. Though much of Alfred’s collection of laws came from earlier codes, there were some that were not derived from any known source and may thus be considered original. Showing the religious nature of one who had once depended upon the loyalty of his men for survival, the laws include

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provisions protecting the weaker members of society against oppression, limiting the ancient custom of the blood-feud and emphasizing the duty of a man to his lord. It is now time to turn back to the Danish (Viking or Norsemen) invasion of England, and the part Alfred was to play in his country’s defense and eventual survival. The West Saxon Annals (utilized as part of the “AngloSaxon Chronicle” that Alfred began around 890), tell us that the Vikings (also known as Norsemen or Danes) came as hostile raiders to the shores of Britain. Their invasions were thus different from those of the earlier Saxons who had originally come to defend the British people and then to settle. Though they did settle eventually in their newly conquered lands, the Vikings were more intent on looting and pillaging; their armies marched inland destroying and burning until half of England had been taken, and it seemed as if there was noone strong enough to stop them. However, just as an earlier British leader, perhaps the one known in legend as Arthur had stopped the Saxon advance into the Western regions at Mount Badon in 496, so a later leader stopped the advance of the Norsemen at Edington in 878. This time, our main source is more reliable; the leader was Alfred of Wessex. Much of what we know about King Alfred, the only English monarch in all history to have received the appellation “the Great,” comes from Life of Alfred by his Bishop Asser. It is a work of incomparable worth in its account of English history. During the reign of Elizabeth I, it was also decided that the Annals of St. Neots were also the work of Asser, and thus an authoritative source was given to many legends concerning the English king that appeared in the Annals. The strength of his Wessex Kingdom made it the ideal center for the resistance of Alfred to the Danish plans of conquest. Before Alfred, the Danes had been relatively unopposed. They came in a huge fleet to London in 851 to destroy the army of Mercia and capture Canterbury, only to receive their first check at the hands of Aethelstan of Wessex. But this time, instead of sailing home with their booty, the Danish seamen and soldiers stayed the winter on the Isle of Thanet on the Thames where the men of Hengist had come ashore centuries earlier. Like their Saxon predecessors, the Danes showed that they had come to stay. It was not too long before the Danes had become firmly entrenched seemingly everywhere they chose in England (many of the invaders came The Narrative History of England

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from Norway and Sweden as well as Denmark). They had begun their deprivations with the devastation of Lindisfarne in 793, and the next hundred years saw army after army crossing the North Sea, first to find treasure, and then to take over good, productive farm lands upon which to raise their families. Outside Wessex, their ships were able to penetrate far inland; they sailed with impunity up the Dee, Humber, Ribble, Tyne, Medway and Thames, and founded their communities wherever the rivers met the sea. In the West, Aethelwulf succeeded Egbert continuing his father’s role as protector of the English people. He was succeeded by Aethelred, who continued to hold his lands against the ever-increasing host of the Danes, now firmly in control of Northumbria, including York. In 867, the Danes also made incursions into Mercia and had conquered all of East Anglia. Of all the English kingdoms, Wessex now stood almost alone. Armies under Aethelred and the young Alfred fought the Danes to a standstill, neither side claiming complete victory, but the borders of Wessex remained secure. Alfred was born in 849. He became King of Wessex in 871 the year the Danes defeated a large English force at Reading. The invaders had already shown their strength by splitting their forces in two: one remaining in the North under Halfdene, where they settled down as farmers and the lords of large estates; and the other moving southwards under King Guthrum, anxious to add Wessex to his territories. Before Alfred, the results of battles against the Danes often depended upon chance; there was no standing army in England and response to threats without meant the calling up of the “fyrd” or the local levies. The Danes marched westward without opposition. Not strong enough to offer total resistance, Alfred was forced to pay tribute to buy off the Danish army until he could build up his supporters. Taking refuge on the Isle of Athelney, he conducted a campaign of guerilla warfare against the foreign occupiers of his kingdom; it wasn’t long before the men of Wessex were ready to reassert themselves. The turning point took place in 878. From the Chronicle, we learn of the decisive event that took place at Edington (Ethandune), when Alfred “fought with the whole force of the Danes and put them to flight, and rode after them to their fortifications and besieged them a fortnight. Then the Danes gave him hostages as security, and swore great oaths that they would leave his kingdom; and they promised him that their king should receive baptism. And they carried out their promises...” Wessex had been saved.

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Alfred’s successes were partly due to his building up the West Saxon navy into a fleet that could not only meet the Danes on equal terms, but defeat them in battle. According to the Chronicle of 896, when the enemy attacked the south coast of Wessex “with the warships which they had built many years before,” Alfred “bade build long ships against the Danish warships: they were nearly twice as long as the others: some had sixty oars, some more: they were both swifter and steadier and higher than the others. They were built neither on the Frisian pattern nor on the Danish, but as it seemed to the king that they might be most serviceable.” The Chronicle also records one of his victories in 882, though he was later defeated by a large Danish force of the mouth of the River Stour. Alfred also fortified the key English towns. East Anglia and Southern Mercia remained in Danish hands. In 896, however, Alfred occupied London, giving the first indication that the lands which had lately passed under Danish control might be reclaimed. His success 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.” Furthermore, the city of London, on the southeastern edge of Mercia became a national symbol of English defiance. Its capture made Alfred truly the first king of England. Alfred’s greatness lay not so much in his defeat of the Danes but in his other major accomplishments, of which historians write glowingly and are generally listed as four: his uniform code of laws for the good order of the kingdom; his restoration of the monastic life of the Church, which had been severely disrupted by the arrival of the Norsemen; his enthusiastic patronage of the arts and learning; and the respect that he gained on the Continent of Europe for himself and his kingdom. Alfred’s strenuous efforts to rebuild the fabric of the Church also met with great success, as recorded by his biographer, Welsh monk Asser. He filled Church positions with men of intelligence and learning; he increased the number of monasteries and made personal efforts to restore learning to the English nation that are recorded in his own words in a prose preface to the new edition of Pope Gregory’s Pastoral Care, which he translated into English. King, warrior, law-giver and scholar, Alfred was also responsible (with other learned men) for the translation of Bede’s The Narrative History of England

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Ecclesiastical History, Orosius’ History of the Ancient World, as well as De Consolatione Philosophiae of Boethius. Outside Wessex, however, most of England remained under Dane Law, ruled by Scandinavian kings. Had Alfred been defeated, all of England would have passed under the rule of the Danish kings; the future identity of the English people as a separate island nation would have been very much in question. As it was, however, the occupation of London by the King of Wessex marked a new stage in the advancement of the English people towards political unity, the acceptance of his overlordship expressed a feeling that he stood for interests common to the whole English race. The treaty with King Guthrum that followed Alfred’s capture of London delineated a frontier between England and Danes, a frontier that even today is reflected in a North-South divide. The phrase “except those who were under the power of the Danes” is very significant, however, for it includes all of England outside Wessex and much of Mercia. Much of the task of winning back these lands passed to Alfred’s son Edward the Elder, who became King of Wessex in 899. Before the end of his reign, every Danish colony south of the River Humber had become annexed to Wessex. The Chronicle reports that the Scottish King and people, all the people of Wales, all the people in Mercia and all those who dwelt in Northumbria submitted to him “whether English, or Danish, or Northmen, or others, the king of the Strathclyde Welsh, and all the Strathclyde Welsh.” They all recognized Edward’s authority and agreed to respect his territories and to attack his enemies. The creation of this simple bond between Edward and the rulers of every established state in the Island of Britain thus gave to the West Saxon monarchy a new range and dignity which greatly strengthened its claim to sovereignty in England. During Edward’s reign, there were advances made in the administration of law, some of these in the king’s favor. For example, some of his measures strengthened royal authority; the Kings’ Writ, dating back to the time of Ine, was enforced to punish attacks on the king’s dignity and privilege. Wherever the king had enjoined or prohibited a certain course by express orders, failure to obey made the offender liable to pay the heavy fines proscribed. Use of the Writ was responsible for an unparalleled growth of the King’s official responsibility for the enforcement of law and order.

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Under Edward, the Crown was no longer seen as a remote providence, under which the moots (law courts) worked in independence, but as an institution which had come to intervene, to watch over the workings of the law, and to punish those who rebeled. Edward further ordered that the hundred courts were to meet every four weeks under a king’s reeve for the administration of customary law. Even during the long and protracted Danish Wars, and maybe because of them, trade in England prospered. The foundation of many new boroughs offered traders bases for their operations that were much more secure than the countryside. Towns allowed merchants the means to establish the validity of their transactions by the testimony of responsible persons of their own sort. On their part, rulers were anxious to keep trade restricted to a limited number of recognized centers. One of Edward’s laws prohibited trade outside a port, and ordered that all transactions be attested to by the portreeve or by other trusty men. The significance of the above is clear. By the end of Edward’s reign, it is probable that every place of trade which was more than a purely local market was surrounded by at least rudimentary fortifications. The normal “port” of the king’s time was also a borough, and the urgency with which Edward commanded traders to resort to it explained its military importance. A derelict “port” was a weak point in the national defenses and the era saw a rapid rise in boroughs that combined military and commercial factors. Edward the Elder died in 924, to be succeeded by his son Aethelstan, recognized as King in Wessex and probably in Mercia independently of his election in Wessex. He took the important and strategic city of York from the Danes, and thus, under conditions which no one could have foreseen, a king supreme in southern England came to rule in York. He soon extended his influence further, and the western and northern kings of Britain and the Welsh princes came to regard him as their lord. Though Alfred and Edward the Elder had been forced to watch the continental scene from the outside, Aethelstan won prestige and influence in contemporary Europe that resulted from his position as heir to the one western kingdom which had emerged in greater strength from the Danish wars. At the Battle of Brunanburgh in 937, the site of which has never been satisfactorily determined, Aethelstan won a great victory for his English The Narrative History of England

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army over a combined force of Danes, Scots and Irish. At his death, however, new threats faced the new King Edmund. Danish control of the five great boroughs of Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham, Derby and Stamford -- all in the Midlands -- created an effective barrier between Northumbria and Wessex. Edmund acted. Taking an army north, he retook the five boroughs for the English and drove out two Danish kings from Northumbria. In the truly Viking city of York, however, Eric Bloodaxe had set himself up as an independent king. Wessex remained the stronghold of the English during the next twenty years of increasing Viking attacks, but when King Edgar was slain by supporters of his brother Ethelred, disaster came to the whole country. Once again, the Danish fleets and armies seemed unstoppable. They were found in northeastern England, northwestern England, Wales, Devon and Cornwall. Ethelred could only achieve peace by buying off the Danes, a move that backfired for it only led to more raids, more slaughter and more Danish settlement. Following the example of Alfred, Ethelred then managed to get the Danish leader Anlaf baptized at Andover, but only at the enormous cost of the complete depletion of the treasury of England. Anlaf could only laugh at his good fortune. Ethelred’s weakness in dealing with the Danish leaders have earned him the title of “the unready,” (redeless) the one who lacked good counsel. In a sea battle in 1000 AD, Anlaf, now known as Olaf, King of Norway, was defeated by the Danish King Sweyn who continued his rivals raids on England, and who in turn, was offered huge sums by Ethelred. But the Danes refused to stop their raids. Giving command of a great army to his son Cnut, Sweyn marched on and conquered Winchester and Oxford and forced Ethelred to flee to France, only returning to England upon the death of Sweyn in the year 1003. More fighting continued under Edmund, who succeeded his father Ethelred by appointment of the citizens of London, anxious to be led by one who was called Edmund Ironside on account of his great strength. Edmund won many important victories, but the strength of the Danes forced him to make peace with Cnut, and at Alney, it was agreed that Edmund should be King of Wessex and Cnut of Mercia. Upon Edmund’s death, that same year, Cnut became king of all England. Formally taking the reins of power in 1017, he married Ethelred’s widow that same year. Meanwhile, there had been important developments in the administration of English law that would have profound effects upon the future legal

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system. Changing social conditions led to Aethelstan issuing many new laws. He had to deal in legislation with lords who “maintained� their men in defiance of right and justice. Under Edgar, who became King in Wessex in 954, a semblance of order was restored, and England was made secure at least temporarily. It is recorded that eight kings in Britain came to him on a single day to acknowledge his supremacy. He was the first English King to recognize in legislation that the Danish east of England was no longer a conquered province, but an integral part of the English realm. Legal customs from the Scandinavian North were practiced throughout the eastern counties of England; villages were combined into local divisions for the administration of justice. These divisions were known as wapentakes. The word first appeared when Edgar refered in general terms to the buying and selling of goods in a borough or a wapentake. There seems to have been no essential difference of function between the courts of the wapentake and those of the more familiar hundred. Under Ethelred, the wapentake court appeared as the fundamental unit in the organization of justice throughout the territory of the five boroughs. The authority of a ruler universally regarded as king of England was placed over the local courts. The most interesting feature of the organization was the aristocratic jury of presentment which initiated the prosecution of suspected persons in the court of the wapentake. In what is known as the Wantage Code of Ethelred, one passage states that the twelve leading thegns in each wapentake were to go out from the court and swear that they would neither accuse the innocent nor protect the guilty. Thus the sworn jury, hitherto unknown to English law, came into being in a most important document in English legal history. The fate of the suspect, however, was still settled by ordeal, not by the judgment of the thegns who presented them. The strength of the Crown, with the king becoming arbiter of the law continued during the reign of Cnut, the first Viking leader to be admitted into the civilized fraternity of Christian Kings, and one who was determined to rule as the chosen king of the English people as well as King of Denmark, Norway, and part of Sweden. It is generally agreed that he turned the part of conquering Viking ruler into one of the best kings ever enjoyed by the English people. Ruler of a united land, he kept the peace, enforced the laws, became a generous patron of the Church and The Narrative History of England

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raised the prestige of England to unprecedented levels on the Continent of Europe. Upon his death, he had become part of the national heritage of England, his favorite realm. Cnut and his successors became heirs to the English laws and traditions of Wessex. At a great assembly in Oxford in 1018, he agreed to follow the laws of Edgar; his Danish compatriots were to adopt the laws of their English neighbors, be content as subjects of a Danish king in an English country. Cnut ruled England as it had long been ruled: he consulted his bishops and his subjects. He even traveled to Rome in 1027 to attend the coronation of the new Holy Roman Emperor but also to consult with the Pope on behalf of all his people, Englishmen and Danes. He made atonement for the atrocities of the past wrought by Danish invaders by visiting the site of the battle with Edmund Ironside at Ashingdon and dedicating a church to the fallen. His eighteen-year rule was indeed a golden one for England, even though it was part of a Scandinavian empire. Cnut died in 1035 and was buried in the traditional resting place of the Saxon Kings, at Winchester. Chaos and confusion were quick to return to England after Cnut’s death, and the ground was prepared for the coming of the Normans, a new set of invaders no less ruthless than those who had come before. Cnut had precipitated problems by leaving his youngest, bastard son Harold, unprovided for. He had intended to give Denmark and England to Hardacnut and Norway to Swein. In 1035, Hardacnut could not come to England from Denmark without leaving Magnus of Norway a free hand in Scandinavia. . A meeting of the Witan (King’s council) met to decide the successor to Cnut. One faction, including the men of London chose Harold Harefoot, but others, led by the powerful Godwin of Wessex chose Hardacnut, whose mother, Emma was to reside at Winchester holding Wessex in her son’s name. Emma was a sister to the Duke of Normandy; before marrying Cnut, she had been the wife of Ethelred. When Ethelred’s younger son Alfred came to Winchester, Godwin’s fears of losing his control of Wessex, had him captured and blinded. The unfortunate Alfred lived out his life as a monk at Ely, unable to claim the throne of Wessex. Hardacnut arrived in England in 1040 on the death of Harold; he brought a large army with him. He was welcomed in Wessex, where Godwin rained

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supreme as his representative. Prince Edward, Alfred’s older brother, sought protection at Winchester, and when Harthacnut died suddenly, after reigning for only one year, Edward, son of Ethelred, was acclaimed as king. Thus English kings came to rule in England once again. The uniting of the houses of Wessex and Mercia through marriage had produced an English ruler after a quarter of a century of Danish rule. The two peoples had blended to become a single nation. Although the two hundred years of Danish invasions and settlement had an enormous effect on Britain, bringing over from the continent as many people as had the Anglo-Saxon invasions, the effects on the language and customs of the English were not as catastrophic as the earlier invasions had been on the native British. The Anglo-Saxons were a Germanic race; their homelands had been in northern Europe, many of them coming, if not from Denmark itself, then from lands bordering that little country. They shared many common traditions and customs with the people of Scandinavia, and they spoke a related language. There are over 1040 place names in England of Scandinavian origin, most occurring in the north and east, the area of settlement known as the Danelaw. The evidence shows extensive peaceable settlement by farmers who intermarried their English cousins, adopted many of their customs and entered into the everyday life of the community. Though the Danes and Norwegians who came to England preserved many of their own customs, they readily adapted to the ways of the English whose language they could understand without too much difficulty. There are more than 600 place names that end with the Scandinavian -by, (farm or town); some three hundred contain the Scandinavian word thorp (village), and the same number with thwaite (an isolated piece of land). Thousands of words of Scandinavian origin remain in the everyday speech of people in the north and east of England. In administrative matters, too, there were great similarities between Saxon and Scandinavian. First, both were military societies. The Saxon chief’s immediate followers and bodyguards were the heorth-werode, the hearth-troop, who followed him in war, resided at his hall and were bound by ties of personal friendship and traditional loyalty. The Scandinavians had a similar system that employed the hus-carles or house-troop (the Danish word carl being close to the Saxon ceorl, a free man). The two people shared the tradition of government by consultation and the The Narrative History of England

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reinforcement of loyalty by close collaboration between the leader and his followers. It has been pointed out that though the separate identity and language of at least part of the Britons lives on in Wales, the identity of the Scandinavians is totally lost among the English: the merging of the two people was total. Under the Saxon kings, the man who held great power under the crown was the alderman, who assisted the king. The Danish leaders were the jarls, who became the English earls, mostly replacing the aldermen. In addition, the old Saxon system of taxation had been inefficient to say the least. The pressure of the Danish invasions, and the need to buy off the invaders in gold and silver meant that the kings’ subjects now had to be taxed in terms of real money, rather than the material goods supplied formerly to the King’s household. Under Ethelstan, and certainly under Cnut, we had the beginning of the civil service. Clerks and secretaries were employed by both rulers to strengthen and communicate authority and raise and collect taxes efficiently. There was another very important feature of the Scandinavian settlement which cannot be overlooked. The Saxon people had not maintained contact with their orginal homelands; in England they had become an island race. The Scandinavians, however, kept their contacts with their kinsman on the continent. Under Cnut, England was part of a Scandinavian empire; its people began to extend their outlook and become less insular. The process was hastened by the coming of another host of Norsemen: the Norman Conquest was about to begin.

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BA009 Narrative History of England  

The Anglo Saxon Period

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