In the seventeenth century the Anglo-Saxons became mythologized. The lawyer Sir Edward Coke believed that there had been an unbroken period of English liberty dating from the Anglo-Saxons. On the other hand, the radicals of the Civil War and the Interregnum believed that there had been a sharp discontinuity as England lost its historic freedoms with the imposition of the ‘Norman Yoke’ after 1066. This is discussed in a BBC 'In Our Time' programme.
The idea of the Norman Yoke was popularised in hugely influential novels like Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1820) and Charles Kingsley’s Hereward the Wake: the Last of the English (1865). At the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it was fashionable to praise the Anglo-Saxons as the creator of English institutions and of ‘Englishness’ itself.
Laws they made in the Witan, the laws of flaying and fine,Note that this view is teleological- it sees the Anglo-Saxons not as they saw themselves, but as the precursors of later developments (‘the days to come’); the Witan, for example, is seen as a proto-Parliament rather than an institution existing in its own right.
Common, loppage and pannage, the theft and the track of kine,
Statutes of tun and of market for the fish and the malt and the meal,
The tax on the Bramber packhorse, and the tax on the Hastings keel.
Over the graves of the Druids and under the wreck of Rome,
Rudely but surely they bedded the plinth of the days to come.
Behind the feet of the Legions and before the Norseman's ire
Rudely but greatly begat they the framing of State and Shire.
Kipling, ‘The King’s Task’ (1902)
The coming of the Anglo-Saxons
With the withdrawal of the Roman armies c. 410, Germanic peoples from across the Channel began making their way to Britain, mostly in small family groups, and began to settle along the east coast. Most historians see it as a period of catastrophic decline as towns and villas were abandoned and industries collapsed.
The eight-century historian, the Venerable Bede, divided the invaders into Angles, Saxons and Jutes. This is a simplification. The invaders came from a wide area of north-west Europe, and the term Anglo-Saxon only became common in the eight century, when it was used on the Continent to distinguish the inhabitants of Britain from the Saxons who remained in Germany.
The invaders came to Britain by sea, mainly from Saxony, and spoke varieties of the Germanic languages of Saxony and the Frisian coast. The Anglo-Saxons were illiterate (written culture was not introduced until the turn of the seventh century), and we only have two written sources describing the invasions, both in Latin. One comes from the British monk, Gildas (c. 500-70)
The other is Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Church and People, written c. 731. It is Bede who gives the story of Hengist and Horsa, the putative founders of the Kentish royal dynasty.
The invasions began gradually in c. 420, but sometime between 470 and 520 the trickle became a flood (historians use this metaphor frequently!). But it is not clear how much of the original population was displaced. It is highly likely that many immigrant men had native wives and that there was a considerable amount of cultural adaptation and accommodation and even peaceful co-existence.
A new society
In continental Europe the basic Roman political and social structures survived. In the former province of Britannia they did not. The invaders imposed their own language, Old English. Most former places of habitation were abandoned and new ones established, with new English (or composite English/British) names. Eventually they renamed the country they had conquered: Britannia became the land of the Angles or Ængla land. This marked the decisive end of Roman civilization. Its law, language, literature, religion and politics all vanished.
|The seven kingdoms of the Heptarchy|
The conversion to Christianity
By the time the Romans left Britain, the Christian church was well established. The Anglo-Saxon invaders were pagan and the names of their gods survive in the days of the week (Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday), a few place-names (Wednesbury in Staffordshire means ‘Woden’s burgh’) and the names Yule and Easter. Christianity only survived in patches in what became England.
However, Ireland was converted by the Romano-British missionary, St Patrick (born c. 387). In 563 the Irish monk Columba founded his monastery on Iona. The Irish proved the most successful missionaries in England, as well as in western Scotland.
The kingdom of Kent was the part of England closest to the Continent, not merely geographically, but also culturally. Their closest neighbours were the Franks, the inheritors of Roman Gaul, now known as Francia. Their king Clovis (Louis) had been baptised at Reims in 496. Towards the end of the sixth century Clovis’s great-granddaughter, Bertha, married Æthelbert, King of Kent. She brought over clergy, including a Frankish bishop, and was given a little chapel outside the walls of Canterbury.
In 597 Augustine, who had been sent by Pope Gregory the Great, landed in Kent, and for this reason, Canterbury was to become the main centre for English Christianity. In 604 another episcopal church and bishop were established in Kent, this time at Rochester.
In 626/7 the Roman missionary Paulinus came to Northumbria with Æthelbert’s Christian daughter, who was to marry the king. As in Kent, the combination of Christian wife and Roman missionary proved irresistible. King Edwin was converted and baptised and he re-established the bishopric (later to be the archbishopric) of York. But in 633 he was killed and the newly established church was in danger. When his successor, Oswald regained the throne, he turned not to Rome but to the Irish monastery of Iona. Iona sent Aidan to Northumbria as its bishop. He founded his see at Lindisfarne rather than York and from there missionaries were sent south to covert the other Anglo-Saxons.
|The ruins of Hilda's abbey|
In 668 Pope Vitalian appointed Theodore of Tarsus (602-90) as the eighth archbishop of Canterbury.
He reorganised the English church, and from his time most archbishops of Canterbury received from Rome a linen band, the pallium, representing their office. When he sought to impose Roman rule on Northumbria as well, many of the Irish monks exiled themselves to the Continent.
The link with Rome was now established and England’s isolation from the Continent was ended.
The creation of England
England existed as an idea before it became a reality. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History popularised the idea of a single English people, ‘Angelcynn’. But England as a reality did not come into being until more than a century after Bede’s death in 735.
In the seventh century the balance of power swung away from the area of earlier settlement, the kingdoms of Kent and East Anglia, towards the north and west. Three new kingdoms emerged: Northumbria in the north, Mercia in the Midlands, and Wessex in the west. Each in turn was to dominate until the kingdom of Ængla Land (England) was created under the dynasty of the house of Wessex.
Offa of Mercia
The most considerable monarch of the eighth century was Offa of Mercia, who reigned from 757-96 and was the dominant ruler of southern Britain. Though his claim to be 'rex Suutanglorum' (King of the South English) was overblown, he ruled a considerable amount of territory from the 100-kilometre earthwork known as Offa’s Dyke in the west to Kent in the south.
In 787 he arranged a new ceremony to ensure the succession of his son, Ecgfrith, possibly in his cathedral at Lichfield. This is the first recorded consecration in English history. It combined the Judeo-Christian ritual of anointing with the older Anglo-Saxon tradition of investing him, not with a crown, but with the royal helmet (the cynehelm).
Offa reformed the coinage and issued a new style of coinage,
flatter and thinner, more in line with the silver coinage of the Franks. Millions of coins were struck, all stamped with his image and displaying his name and his title of Rex M[erciorum]. But Offa's kingdom was small and unstable and his vision of monarchy did not survive the premature death of his son, Ecgfrith.
In 793 raiders from Denmark landed in Northumbria and destroyed the monastic church on Lindisfarne. From the 830s the Viking raids became regular and increasingly ruthless. In 865 they grouped together in a Great Army, numbering thousands rather than hundreds, and the disunited Anglo-Saxons were no march for them. Northumbria fell in 867, East Anglia in 869, and most of Mercia in 874-7. Only Wessex was left.