St. Augustine founded the Abbey of Canterbury
Battle of Hastings
THE GREAT INVASIONS
500-900 AD THE ANGLO-SAXONS – The British isles were gradually conquered between the 5th and 6th centuries by different tribes that came from the shores of the Baltic Sea, areas that we identify today as Germany and Denmark. These Nordic tribes were the Jutes, the Angles and the Saxons, among others, and as they arrived they drove the Celts towards the mountains in the north and west of the island.
According to the legend, only one warrior tried to stop the Barbarians’ conquest for some time, that is probably the legendary king Arthur helped by the knights of the Round Table, but they eventually succeeded in conquering the island. The Anglo-Saxon tribes were often at war against one another fighting to gain supremacy for about three hundred years, until a new great invasion threatened their power, as we will see, in the mean time they divided the southern part of Britain, or Angleland (England) as they named it, into seven kingdoms, the most important were: MERCIA, NORTHUMBRIA, WESSEX.
The Futhorc, as respresented below, is the first attempt to writing developed by these ancient populations, the alphabet here displayed was mainly used for inscriptions on graves, warriors’ weapons or religious monuments.
As for their literary production the Anglo-Saxon tribes indeed had their own literature which was still spread by word of mouth and consisted in epic tales of heroic deeds performed in a somber atmosphere where war and death prevailed. Their language was Anglo-Saxon or “Old English”, as we refer to it today.
900 AD – THE VIKINGS’ INVASION
The first Saxon king was Egbert, he was the only one, along with his successor his son Alfred (better known as “Alfred the Great”), who fought against the Danes to protect and save his kingdom of Wessex. This second hoard of invasions which characterize the ninth century in Britain saw the arrival of the Vikings coming from Norway and Denmark. The war between the Danes and the Saxon kings, Egbert and Alfred, lasted several years, but it was Alfred who, after seven years of relentless battles and after building a great army, defeated and conquered the Danes at Edington in 878 confining them in an extensive territory of their own known as Danelaw south of York and Essex where they settled in peace. We can say that the Vikings’ invasion and Alfred’s strenuous resistance represent a turning point in Britain’s history, in fact these events changed the English people considerably. They had been a group of warring tribes till then and gradually developed, afterwards, into a nation.
ALFRED THE GREAT (871-899)
He is considered as the greatest of the early English kings because he was not only an excellent warrior but also a great king and leader. He built a fleet of ships, organized an army and fortified his territories, furthermore the Anglo-Saxon’s civilization developed most under his reign since he was wise enough to invite many educated men from other parts of Europe to settle in Old England where they founded schools and monasteries. He himself was the author of many translations from Latin to Old English, wrote many books and ordered the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to be written. Winchester was, at the time, England’s intellectual capital.
Alfred’s Successors and the Witan
A time of unrest followed when Alfred died. His two sons, Edward the Elder and Edgar, ruled England ensuring peace and unity, in fact during their reigns the English and the Danes sat together in the Witan which was a council of lords and bishops who advised the king. Yet, this time of peace was interrupted during the reign of Ethelred the Unready, for, as the name says, he was a weak man unable to contain the arising discontent between the English and the Danes who eventually attacked London. Peace and order were restored by a Danish king, Canute, who married Emma, Ethelred’s widow, reuniting the people again. Fighting broke out once more at Canute’s death. England was divided into two kingdoms by his two sons and the English chose an English king. He was Ethelred’s son who had been exiled in Normandy and was called back and crowned king of England in 1042 as Edward the Confessor, he is remembered as the one who had Westminster Abbey built. Unfortunately, once again this proved to be a poor choice since he was a very religious man lacking any aptitude at ruling thus allowing many nobles to gain more and more power, one of whom was Harold, the son of earl Godwin (he was the king’s father-in-law and ruled in his place for a long time, until the king had him and Harold exiled), who strongly coveted the throne.
The War for the Throne of Britain and the Battle of Hastings
Edward, who was childless, had chosen William, Duke of Normandy, as his heir to the throne of England. However, when he died Harold was elected to the throne of England by the Wintan. This triggered William’s ruthless reaction, he sailed from Normandy with a big fleet and a powerful cavalry, defeating Harold and his followers. Harold was killed at the battle of Hastings and William became king of England on Christmas day 1066, uniting under one throne Britain and Normandy. He is known as king William I “The Conqueror”.
THE CHRISTIANIZATION OF BRITAIN
The conversion of the English people to Catholicism wasn’t an easy process and it took a very long time to be accomplished. The tribes that populated Britain were all pagans, their main worry was to placate all those adverse natural forces that influenced negatively their daily routine, they venerated trees, stones and wells, believed that elves, dragons and monsters haunted the forest, the caves and lakes. Christianity was introduced first by the Romans only during the last years of their occupation, the conversion was barely at the beginning when they left and the people turned to their old customs, only the Welsh maintained the Christian traditions.
Eventually, though, the weak seeds that had been planted began to blossom, in fact, in 563 Columba, an exiled monk from Ireland, founded a monastery on one of the Hebrides’ islands, on Iona, and it is from there that Christianity actually spread to the rest of Scotland and the north of England. Some time later in the kingdom of Kent, the pagan king Ethelbert’s wife, Bertha, a Christian Merovingian princess, took along with her to Britain a chaplain and she restored a church in Canterbury dedicating it to St. Martin of Tours. Her husband also asked Pope Gregory I to send missionaries and Augustine, at the time only a monk, founded an abbey in Canterbury where he also became its first archbishop, giving thus a great contribution to the re-Christianization of Britain. After that other monasteries were founded and became important centres of culture and education. Another important clergy to mention is the Venerable Bede, unlike all the other monks he wrote in Anglo-Saxon as well as in Latin and in his schools he also taught his young students to read and write in Old English, great contributing to the development of the language of the Anglo-Saxons.
SOCIAL AND CULTURAL CONTEXT
Anglo-Saxon society was somewhat complex, there was a hierarchy in social groups, at the top of which there was the king or lord, beneath there were the eorls, noblemen who passed their title to their descendants, then came the thegns, dignified warriors who dedicated their life to hunting, war, collecting taxes and administering justice (Law was based on what had happened in the past, custom). Below them we find the farmers churls and at the bottom of society were the slaves.
Life at this time had plenty of hardships, the highest priority of these people was the safeguard and protection of their territories and their people, dangers where everywhere, they were menaced by other tribes, by wild animals, by lack of food, therefore physical courage and loyalty to one’s family, or ‘kin’, or leader were especially important, these qualities provided protection and a sense of belonging. If someone was killed it was the duty of the kin to avenge the victim, this practice could easily start a blood feud and threaten social order, that is why the Anglo-Saxons soon replaced the killing of the murder with a compensation in money or kind, called wergild, in time it came to symbolize what a man’s social status was during his lifetime. Loyalty to a lord was a matter of military discipline, a man was obliged to fight to death for his lord if necessary.
The Anglo-Saxons were fond of the arts in general, but especially in the art of speech, they were artistic and poetic in expressing their ideas in subtle ways, valued understatement, riddles and kennings. They also had great technical expertise in carving fine products on bone, ivory, stone, and in metalwork for weapons and jewellery.
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© L. R. Capuana