ENGLAND: 2nd – 4th century AD

Hadrian’s Wall, established from the 2nd century AD as the frontier of Roman rule in the British Isles, enables and Wales (as they will later become) to settle down together as Britannia, the most northerly Roman province.

On the whole the Celtic chieftains of Britain adapt willingly to Roman customs and comforts. They learn to live in villas, they speak Latin, they benefit from trading links with the empire (British wheat and wool are much in demand), and they become Roman citizens. The tribal centres develop into thriving Roman towns, around the forum (market place) and basilica (town hall).

Towns of this kind, serving as the capitals of British tribal rulers enjoying Roman support, include Winchester, Dorchester, Cirencester and Canterbury. London develops at the same period, but as a centre of trade at the focal point of the network of Roman roads. Bath, with its hot springs, becomes Britain’s first resort.

Different in kind are the essentially Roman headquarters of Chester, Caerleon and York (where Constantine is proclaimed emperor in 306). These are the permanent bases of the Roman legions in Britain. Other modern cities, including Lincoln, Colchester and St Albans, derive from Roman municipalities – founded for new settlers, such as men retiring from the legions.

Roman Britain never achieves the prosperity or sophistication of Roman Gaul, and it has the disadvantage of being cut off from the centre whenever Gaul is controlled by rebellious Roman armies or invading barbarians. Even so, Britain has much in common with other provinces of the empire. It has its great villas (a palace at Fishbourne, discovered in 1960, is one of the grandest, with superb mosaic floors). And it has its choice of the empire’s rival religions.

By the late 3rd century Mithras and Jesus Christ compete for attention. In 314 the winning side, the Christians, are sufficiently well organized to send three bishops from Britain to a council in Gaul.

Britannia in decline: 5th – 6th century AD

The decline of Roman Britain is like the withering of a limb at the extremity of an ailing body. In unsettled times, in the late 4th century, western emperors withdraw legions from Britain for their own local purposes. Once Gaul is in the hands of barbarian rulers in the 5th century, blocking the route from Rome, no new replacements arrive.

The Roman British find themselves extremely vulnerable. They have defences in the north, but none in the southeast – the direction of Rome, and supposedly secure. It is from this undefended side that danger comes. German tribes moving south and west into Gaul have Britain in their sights.

The main threat is from two tribal groups pressing southwest from the Baltic coast. They are the Angles and the Saxons. The subsequent basis of England, and of the English language, speaks for their success.

The Romanized Celts, deprived of their Roman legions, prove unable to resist these more primitive and ferocious intruders – though their struggle is personified in a legendary hero, King Arthur. By the 6th century the Celtic chieftains are confined to mountainous Wales. The fertile plains of England are occupied now by Angles, Saxons and other German tribes from roughly the same area, such as Jutes and Frisians. Their chieftains set about establishing themselves as regional kings.

Anglo-Saxon kingdoms: 5th – 9th century AD

The various Germanic tribal groups invading Britain from the 5th century, and either subduing or displacing the Celtic inhabitants, have their own leaders who fight between themselves for supremacy in this new territory. The first region to re-establish some degree of stability is southeast England, where kingdoms of Kent and Sussex are in existence before the end of the 5th century. Wessex, further west, becomes an identifiable kingdom not much later.

Gradually Anglo-Saxon kingdoms emerge over almost the whole of England. The exception is Cornwall, which like Wales remains a Celtic stronghold. In Anglo-Saxon times the people of Cornwall are known as the West Welsh.

Though frequently fighting among themselves, the Anglo-Saxons accept in principle the idea that one of their kings is the overlord of all the English with the title bretwalda, meaning ‘ruler of Britain’. According to Bede, the first such ruler is a king of West Sussex by the name of Aelli. In the late 5th century Aelli is accepted as the bretwalda of all the English south of the Humber. The wealth of such kings, by the 7th century, can be seen in the treasure found at Sutton Hoo.

By the usual processes of warfare, marriage and inheritance, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms gradually coalesce. By the 8th century the number has been reduced to seven – a group known as the Heptarchy (hepta ‘seven’ and arche ‘rule’ in Greek).

The Heptarchy includes four relatively small kingdoms round the southeast coast, roughly corresponding to the areas still known by the same names – Sussex (land of the South Saxons), Kent, Essex (the East Saxons) and East Anglia (the East Angles).

The three large kingdoms are great horizontal slices across England – Northumbria in the north, Mercia in the midlands and Wessex in the south. Each of these in turn is the dominant power within England – Northumbria in the 7th century, Mercia in the 8th and Wessex in the 9th century. At the end of this period a unified England at last begins to emerge – under the banner of Wessex, in the time of Alfred the Great.

Anglo-Saxon Christianity: 6th – 8th century AD

Although Kent is one of the smaller Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, there is one field in which it retains a certain pre-eminence. The reason is the arrival in AD 597 in Canterbury, the Kentish capital, of a party of monks sent from Rome by Pope Gregory I and led by Augustine (subsequently St Augustine, the first archbishop of Canterbury). They are well received by Ethelbert, a pagan king of Kent, largely because his wife (daughter of a Merovingian king of the Franks) is already a Christian.

A generation later, in 625, a Kentish princess travels to York to marry a pagan king of Northumbria. Paulinus, another missionary from Rome, accompanies her. He becomes the first archbishop of York.

In Northumbria the Roman Catholics find themselves in conflict with a variation of the faith, brought to these regions by Celtic missionaries from Ireland. The differences are slight and procedural, rather than weighty matters of doctrine. They concern such details as how a monk’s head should be shaved for his tonsure, and the correct way of calculating the date of Easter. But underlying these concerns is the more important question of whether the English church should be subordinate to Rome.

The issue is decided at the synod of Whitby in 664. Oswiu, the king of Northumbria, listens to the arguments. He comes down on the side of Rome.

Other Anglo-Saxon kings follow Oswiu’s example in their territories. The result is a strengthened English church with an important role in Europe. In the 8th century missionaries such as Willibrord and Boniface play a major part in converting the pagans of northern Germany. Alcuin goes from York to establish Charlemagne’s palace school in Aachen.

At the same period Offa, the ruler of Mercia, acquires almost the status of a king of England. He makes a trade treaty with Charlemagne, negotiates directly with the pope, and builds the great embankment known by his name (Offa’s Dyke) which protects central England from the Welsh. But these unifying developments are soon under threat – from the Vikings.

Scandinavian incursions: 8th – 9th century AD

The earliest known Viking raid on the coast of Britain is in AD 793, at Lindisfarne. It is the first of many in eastern England and around the coastal areas of Scotland, Ireland and eventually Wales. The wild Norwegians arrive suddenly from the sea, often rowing their longships a considerable way up a river to plunder a monastery or town and then vanish again.

A few decades later other Vikings, from Denmark, begin raiding further south. They appear first in Kent in 835. Over the coming years they attack as far west as Devon and on occasion even succeed in damaging Winchester, Canterbury and London. But the year 865 brings intrusion on a different scale.

Danes in England: from AD 865

Thirty years of Danish raids on the east coast of England precede the arrival, in 865, of a ‘Great Army’ equipped for conquest rather than quick booty. The Danish invaders now consolidate each year’s gains by establishing a secure base from which they can continue a campaign of harassment – which invariably ends with the settled English buying peace from their footloose tormentors.

York is taken in 866 (and becomes, as Yorvik, the Danish capital in England). Nottingham falls in 867, Thetford in 869. By now the kings of Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia have made terms with the invaders. Next in line is Wessex.

In 870 the Danes advance into Wessex, capturing Reading where they meet the most determined opposition thus far. During the next year nine battles are fought in this district. In 871, at Ashdown on the Berkshire downs, the English win their first significant victory of the war; a Danish king and nine earls are killed on the field of battle. Even so, it proves impossible to recapture Reading. Wessex, like the other English kingdoms, makes peace with the Danes – who withdraw to winter in London.

But the victory at Ashdown has introduced a figure of significance in English . The Wessex men are commanded that day by a 23-year-old prince of their ruling family – Alfred, brother of the king of Wessex.

Alfred and the Danes: AD 871-899

In popular tradition the story of England, as opposed to Britain, begins with Alfred. And there is a valid basis for this heroic status. He is the first Anglo-Saxon ruler to be accepted as something akin to a national leader. The English see him as such in those regions resisting Danish domination. With good cause he is the only king of England to be accorded the title ‘the Great’.

His authority derives from his successes against the Danes. His kingly virtues can also be seen, with hindsight, in his encouragement of learning. But his central achievement is the quarter-century of struggle which follows his victory over the Danes at Ashdown in 871.

In that same year, 871, Alfred’s elder brother dies and he becomes the king of Wessex. One of his first acts is to establish the beginnings of an English fleet. The Danes draw much of their strength from their swift Viking longships. It makes sense for the Anglo-Saxon islanders to reply in kind. By 875 Alfred can claim a small naval victory which is nevertheless a significant beginning. Going to sea with his new fleet, he holds his own against seven Danish ships and even captures one of them.

On land he has similar successes, defeating Danish armies and forcing them to agree to leave Wessex in peace. But the Danes regularly break their word.

In 878 a surprise Danish attack pushes Alfred west into the Somerset marshes. From a single fort at Athelney he organizes local resistance. This is the lowest ebb of the English cause, the nearest that the Danes come to conquering Wessex and establishing their rule over the whole of England.

Within a few months Alfred is strong enough to move east again and defeat the Danes at Edington in Wiltshire. The conclusion of this campaign is a two-week siege of Guthrum, the Danish king of East Anglia, who is encircled in his encampment. Guthrum secures his freedom by promising (once again) to leave Wessex. More significantly, he also agrees to be baptized a Christian.

The ceremony of baptism takes place on the river Parrett, with Alfred in the role of sponsor of the new convert. Then the two Christian kings go together to Wedmore (the year is still 878), where they spend twelve days in ceremony and feasting and in the agreement of a treaty which finally preserves Wessex from Danish intrusion.

A Danish invasion of Kent in 885 gives Alfred the pretext for expansion eastwards. He drives back the invaders, and in 886 occupies London. This success leads to a new treaty with Guthrum. He and Alfred agree a basis for coexistence between Anglo-Saxons in the south and west and Danes in the north and east of the country – the region which becomes known as Danelaw.

A king of Wessex ruling London has a new degree of authority. Alfred becomes accepted as the overlord of Mercia (his daughter is married to the king of Mercia), thus virtually uniting the two kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia. Together with Sussex and Kent they are now safeguarded by a system of local levies (capable of providing an army at short notice) and by a network of walled and garrisoned towns (the boroughs). In this way Alfred leaves in place the framework which makes possible the reconquest of Danelaw in the next generation (after his own death in 899).

Meanwhile the English king concerns himself with restoring the cultural as well as the military well-being of his country.

Alfred and the revival of learning: AD 886-899

Anglo-Saxon England, in the century of Bede and Alcuin, was in the forefront of European learning. Now, 100 years later, the incursions of Danes have brought damage in this field too. Books have been destroyed, knowledge has been lost. Alfred determines to redress the balance by providing his countrymen with translations into English of important Latin texts.

He even does some of the translation himself. An English version of Pope Gregory’s Cura Pastoralis (‘Pastoral Care’), sent to every bishopric in the kingdom during the 890s, is apparently the king’s own. So also, suggesting a studious nature, are texts of On the Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius and the Soliloquies of St Augustine.

In his own preface to Pastoral Care Alfred outlines an educational programme for the sons of free men. Those destined for the church must of course learn Latin, but all should be instructed in the reading and writing of English.

This emphasis on the vernacular is new and influential. The work of Bede, available until now only in Latin, is translated into English. And an Anglo-Saxon account of English history is compiled, based on various sources including Bede. Known now as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it survives in seven manuscripts. Each is updated with occasional information after Alfred’s reign, in one case up to 1154.

England unified: 10th century AD

After the death of Alfred the Great, in 899, the dominant figures in England are two of his children. Edward the Elder succeeds him as king of Wessex; Ethelfled, married to the king of Mercia and stronger than her husband, is the real power in the Midlands. Together brother and sister win back parts of the Danelaw, until eventually all the rulers in England – including the Danish chieftains of the eastern regions – accept Edward as their overlord.

The situation remains reasonably stable for the next two generations of what is now well established as England’s royal family. The five kings between 927 and 975 are three grandsons and two great-grandsons of Alfred the Great. But in 980 the island is brutally disturbed by new Danish raids from overseas.

The king on the throne in 980 is the 12-year-old Ethelred, a great-great-grandson of Alfred. Early historians judge him to have lacked raed (‘counsel’ in Anglo-Saxon), so he becomes known as Ethelred the Unready. Certainly his counsellors’ advice to bribe the marauding Danes proves unwise.

In 991 the English crown begins to buy peace by making the regular payment known as Danegeld. Events soon prove the truth of Kipling’s famous couplet on appeasement: ‘If once you pay him the Danegeld, You never get rid of the Dane.’

In 1013, as a century and a half earlier in 865, Danish raids suddenly escalate into invasion. Sweyn, king of Denmark, arrives in England with an army which is welcomed in Danelaw and which then rapidly subdues the rest of the country. Ethelred, still the king (his unfortunate reign is a long one), escapes to Normandy. The reason is not only its proximity. His wife Emma is the sister of the duke of Normandy – beginning an important link between England and the Normans.

Danes of various kinds occupy much of the European coast facing Britain – pure Danes in Denmark, Danes transformed into Normans in France. For the next half-century Danes and Normans contend for the Anglo-Saxon kingdom.

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