THE EVOLUTION OF BRITAIN

A Power Shift (One View)

No modern European is of pure unmingled race; yet in all cases one element has maintained a decided predominance. In the English people this predominant element is Germanic, not Celtic, Roman, Danish, nor Norman. The Teutonic conquest of Britain was something more than a mere conquest; it was in all senses a national occupation, a sustained immigration of a new race, whose numbers augmented for a hundred and fifty years.

"Before the end of the sixth century, the Teutonic invaders had established a dominion in Britain, extending from the German Ocean to the Severn and from the English Channel to the Firth of Forth. The Britons were soon driven into the western parts of the island, where they maintained themselves for a time in several small states."

Tacitus' Agricola

At first the Britons retained modern Wales, the kingdom of Strathclyde from Dumbarton to Chester, Cornwall, Devon, and part of Somerset. As Anglo-Saxon pressure in the east gained control, it was only in the mountains of Wales and Cumbria that the Britons preserved for any length of time their ever-decreasing independence. During the German conquest British casualties increased and many Britons sought refuge on the continent. Some Celts remained in Britain as slaves, and some intermarried, but the Germanic element constituted the main stream, absorbing and assimilating the other elements.The later Danes were cousins, allied in race, language, and institutions; and the Normans, were descended from the same ethnic stock.[1]

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

One of the most useful tools in learning history is the timeline. A chronological list of significant events gives the reader a quick, lucid view of the subject, as well as serving as a framework in which to place deeper studies. An unknown chronicler in ninth-century Wessex evidently felt the same way: He compiled a list of significant events in British history from the year 1 to 891 AD The earliest portion of the document jumps over many years and even decades, but by the seventh century the anonymous writer provided an entry for almost every year. The result was a timeline that we now know as The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.[1A]

It is believed that King Alfred the Great (d. 899) ordered the compilation of this significant historical document, although there is no direct evidence. But whether or not he issued a directive instigating the project, the Chronicle was very likely influenced by the king and the scholarly works he encouraged. Alfred himself translated The Consolation of Philosophy, by Boethius; and Pastoral Care, by Pope Gregory I into English. Scholars of the time had an opportunity to pursue their research and write their histories thanks in large part to the king's patronage.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is important, because it was written by an Anglo-Saxon in his own language: Old English, as opposed to the Latin used by most scholars of the day. Though by no means exhaustive, it is a comprehensive survey of a nation's past by a native of that nation. And while its accuracy is certainly not indisputable, it provides an enormous amount of information we would not otherwise have about Britain's history.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle did not stop with the year 891 or with a single Wessex chronicler. But we can thank the anonymous scribe for the timeline format. For the first six hundred years of history, most entries consist of only one or two sentences:

AD 482. This year the blessed Abbot Benedict shone in this world, by the splendour of those virtues which the blessed Gregory records in the book of Dialogues.

AD 485. This year Ella fought with the Welsh nigh Mecred's-Burnsted.

AD 488. This year Esc succeeded to the kingdom; and was king of the men of Kent twenty-four winters.

AD 490. This year Ella and Cissa besieged the city of Andred, and slew all that were therein; nor was one Briten left there afterwards.

The format may be simple, but the story of how The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle evolved is a little more complex. From the content of the Chronicle, it is clear that the original author used the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, by Bede, which includes a similar chronological list, as a primary source of information. Other sources include some annals from Northumbria and Mercia, regnal lists, episcopal lists and genealogies. Our unknown author or authors may also have had access to a set of Frankish records for the late ninth century. It has been suggested that the chronicler had an earlier set of West Saxon annals to work from. This would account for the frequency of references to events in Wessex up to about 754, but there is no way to verify this as the earlier annals are now lost.

The original chronicler ceased writing in 891 or 892, and by 893 several copies of the manuscript had been circulated throughout England. One of them came into the possession of Bishop Asser, who used it in his biography of Alfred the Great. Since clerics were the people most likely to have the skills of reading and writing, the manuscripts were primarily in the hands of ecclesiastics.

In most cases, the copies were expanded almost every year, becoming less of a history and more a record of contemporary events. In at least one instance, additional information on past events was added. Each copy was unique in what it had to offer, as what the new chroniclers considered significant enough to include in the record varied according to the individual and the circumstances.

One by one the chroniclers ceased to keep the manuscripts updated, until the last entry was recorded in 1154. By this time England was no longer wholly Anglo-Saxon, since William the Conqueror had invaded in 1066 and a new aristocracy was in charge. While the chronicle had been written for centuries in Old English, the Norman rulers used Mediaeval French, and the language spoken by most people in England had begun to evolve into Middle English. The Anglo-Saxon language was fading, and Anglo-Saxon history was undergoing a metamorphosis into the history of the English.[2]

A MOSAIC (Another View)

In Teutonic England, the essence of this interpretation is that England became fundamentally Anglo-Saxon rather than British, or Celtic, in racial and linguistic makeup. Similarly, Scotland owes little to the Brythonic Celts, having been formed by a fusion of the Gaelic west and north (the mysterious Picts were absorbed) and the Anglo-Saxons of Lothian in the south-east. Acceptance of this approach means that the Romano-Britons, who after four centuries of Roman occupation numbered in millions, were simply overwhelmed by a few boatloads of invaders and fled to the west or died. Clearly, there is something wrong here! Martin Henig (see British Archaeology, December 2002) considers that:

'...the creation of this myth (all-powerful Teutons) can be laid at the doors of Gildas (the Briton) and Bede (the Anglo-Saxon). Both were Christians and took their lead from the Old Testament. For Gildas, God chastised his people, the Britons, for sexual backsliding. For Bede, the English were the new Israelites coming into the promised land.'

Ken Dark in Britain and the End of the Roman Empire, 2000, uses archaeological evidence to demonstrate a different pattern of cultural division and evolution. He concludes that '...the Britons were alive and well inside 'Anglo-Saxon' territory for several hundred years at least.' Similarly, Martin Henig casts doubt on the interpretation of 'dark age' evidence such as the assumptions that Anglo-Saxons were buried with grave goods and Britons were not (see British Archaeology, December 2002).

"It is not satisfactory to describe, for example, the warrior buried at Lowbury Hill in Oxfordshire as an Anglo-Saxon - as many have - simply because he possessed a shield and a spear. His iron spear was enamelled, most unusually, in a Celtic style, and he was buried with a hanging bowl also in Celtic style. It looks rather as if he wanted to make it clear that he was British."

Britons

 

Displacement or integration?

 

The Roman withdrawal began before 300 AD and was completed by Maximus in 410 AD. Pax Romana was replaced by the terror of the Germanic and Danish invasions starting in 367 AD. New Saxon and Angle kingdoms pushed in from the East. Opinion is divided as to whether the native Britons were all slaughtered by the barbarians (the thin evidence being a lack of Celtic place names); or were merely defeated and absorbed. Wales is not a Celtic name, but is derived from an Anglo-Saxon word for foreigner. Bernicia and Deira survived as vassal, Celt kingdoms.

Alternatively, if most people- occupied place names are not Celtic, the geographical names are. The majority of river names (increasing in numbers to the west), prominent hills, and geographical terms continue to be Celtic in origin.[3] The degree to which the invading Anglo-Saxons indulged in genocide seems quite unclear.

The Anglo-Saxon settlement of England was no overnight affair. The late-Roman army had many Germanic elements and from the fourth century they and their families had already settled in Britain. It is, therefore, not surprising that after the withdrawal of the legions at the beginning of the fifth century individual towns looked to Germanic mercenaries to maintain their security. Vortigern, the post-Roman Kentish king, is often left to take the blame, but he was probably only one of several leaders who took this course. The fifth and sixth centuries saw increased Saxon settlement although the balance of local power fluctuated between Britons and Saxons. Ultimately, even in areas such as Northumbria, where Angle settlement was sparse, the English language became predominant and the Celt language and lifestyles were marginalised to Wales, Cornwall and northern Scotland.[4]

The end of the sixth century saw another major new influence on the Germanic invaders - Christianity. Although the Romano-British Church survived and the Anglo-Saxons would have had contact with indigenous Christians, the Church initially existed only on the fringes of English settlement, as Teutonic paganism remained strong. In 597, a Christian mission, sent by Pope Gregory the Great and led by Augustine, landed in Kent: its initial success was dramatic. The prompt conversion of King Aethelberht of Kent (c560-616) and the kings of Essex and East Anglia, then the baptism of Aethelberht's son-in-law King Edwin of Northumbria (617-633) by his bride's Roman chaplain, Paulinus, established Christianity within the highest eschelons of the new English society. Christian Sees were soon established at Canterbury, Rochester, London and York.

The four kingdoms soon relapsed into paganism, and initially only Kent was reconverted, but the evangelistic initiative passed to the Scottish church based on Iona, founded by the Irishman, Columba, in 563. King Oswald of Northumbria (634-642) was converted while in exile among the Scots and invited Iona to send him a mission: the result was Aidan's foundation of Lindisfarne in 635. The Irish bishops of Lindisfarne consolidated Christianity in Northumbria; their fellow countrymen Duima and Ceollach, and their English pupils, Cedd and Trumhere, re-established the religion in Essex and introduced it to Mercia and the Middle Angles, whose king, Penda (?610-655), was the last great pagan ruler. In none of these kingdoms was there any significant relapse but Iona was out of line with Rome on the methods of calculating the date of Easter. In 663, Bishop Colman was defeated on the issue at the Synod of Whitby and withdrew to Iona, leaving the way clear for the organisation of the English Church by Theodore of Canterbury (669-690). Although the Church of Iona found favour with some of the later kings it was generally the Roman church that was dominant.[5]

Of the seven Saxon Kingdoms (the Heptarchy), the first one to achieve supremacy was Northumbria, whose high culture during the seventh century is reflected in such works as the Lindisfarne Gospels. They ruled the whole area between Derby and Edinburgh and their central territories of Yorkshire and Northumberland remained independent until the Vikings took York in 866, whilst the lordship of Bamburgh continued as an Anglian enclave throughout the tenth century.

The eighth century saw the rise of Mercia who pushed back the Northumbrians and West Saxons and took control of East Anglia and Kent. The peak of Mercian domination came under Offa (died 796), though it remained a potent force until the abdication of Burgred in 874.

The year 793 marked a major change for England with the first major raid by Vikings on the Northumbrian monastery at Lindisfarne (although there is evidence of a small raid four years earlier in Devon). The next decade saw major raids along most of the southern and eastern coasts of England. Most of the raiders were Danes, but the common tongue of the Scandinavians enabled them all to work together. (Remember, specific references to Danes and Norsemen are to be treated with caution.)

The first part of the ninth century saw the Vikings concentrating on Ireland and the north and west of England and Scotland, until 835 when the Danes began a series of major raids on the whole of England. These culminated in the 'Great Army' of 865 which wintered on the Isle of Thanet before commencing on a twelve year campaign ranging from Exeter to Dumbarton. This finally ended in an agreement with the West Saxon king which left them in control of half of the country.

The house of Wessex also began its rise during the ninth century, commencing with Egbert who defeated the Mercians in 825. (It is ironic that the founder of the West Saxon fortunes actually ruled Sussex, Essex and Kent and based his mint at Canterbury!) It is noteworthy that his son, Æthelwulf, was the first king of Wessex to inherit the throne from his father since the seventh century. Æthelwulf's four sons succeeded him in turn and the youngest, Alfred, eventually fought the Vikings to a standstill at Edington which produced the Treaty of Wedmore in 878. This led to an uneasy peace and the establishment of the Danelaw.[6]

Britain

Whether one accepts the all-powerful-Germanic-tribal-conquerors view, or the Romano-Briton-evolution view, Britain was firmly established before the Vikings and Normans arrived. The latter two invasions changed, but did not fundamentally create, the Britain we know today. England is the Land of the Angles and Britons speak Englisc. The Normans brought French language and culture with them and built stone castles, but in the end they were absorbed a nation which was already English and which spoke English. No doubt the Germanic influence, which introduced the language, improved the farming methods, and settled the rural countryside, has had an enduring influence.

ENDNOTES

1             Adapted from T.P. Taswell-Langmead (1919), English Constitutional History: From the Teutonic Conquest to the Present Time, Eighth Edition (ed. C. Phillipson), Sweet and Maxwell, London, pp.1-3.

1A        See http://www.humanitiesweb.org/human.php?s=s&p=l&a=c&ID=1908&o=.

2             See http://historymedren.about.com/od/darkagesources/a/brit_timeline.htm.

3             See Peter Beresford Ellis, The Celtic Empire, 140.

4             Ben Levick and Andrew Nicholson, Regia Anglorum Publications 2002, "A Brief History of Anglo-Saxon England", http://www.regia.org/history.htm.

5             A rich Viking history in Britain is well documented, for example see BBC News Report ' Viking treasure hoard uncovered', http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/north_yorkshire/6906107.stm, dated 19 July 2007.

6            The Danelaw defined that portion of England under Danish control and therefore governed by Danish law. The Danelaw was a body of law defined by the Danish invaders and settlers in northeast England in c800-c1000.

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