HumanitiesWeb HumanitiesWeb
WelcomeHistoryLiteratureArtMusicPhilosophyResourcesHelp
Sort By Author Sort By Title
pixel

Resources
Sort By Author
Sort By Title

Search

Get Your Degree!

Find schools and get information on the program that’s right for you.

Powered by Campus Explorer

& etc
FEEDBACK

(C)1998-2012
All Rights Reserved.

Site last updated
28 October, 2012
Real Time Analytics
History of the English People - Book I Early England, 449-1071
The English Kingdoms - 577-796
by Green, John Richard (M.A.)


Britain becomes England Withdrawal of the Britons
The English settlement The King
The Thegn The Bernicians
Kent Christian England
Æthelfrith Eadwine
Conversion of Northumbria       Penda
Oswald Aidan
Oswiu Cuthbert
Cædmon Synod of Whitby
Theodore Wulfhere
Ecgfrith Mercian greatness
Bæda Fall of Æthelbald


Britain becomes England

With the victory of Deorham the conquest of the bulk of Britain was complete. Eastward of a line which may be roughly drawn along the moorlands of Northumberland and Yorkshire through Derbyshire and the Forest of Arden to the Lower Severn, and thence by Mendip to the sea, the island had passed into English hands. Britain had in the main become England. And within this new England a Teutonic society was settled on the wreck of Rome. So far as the conquest had yet gone it had been complete. Not a Briton remained as subject or slave on English ground. Sullenly, inch by inch, the beaten men drew back from the land which their conquerors had won; and eastward of the border line which the English sword had drawn all was now purely English.

It is this which distinguishes the conquest of Britain from that of other provinces of Rome. The conquest of Gaul by the Franks or that of Italy by the Lombards proved little more than a forcible settlement of the one or the other among tributary subjects who were destined in a long course of ages to absorb their conquerors. French is the tongue, not of the Frank, but of the Gaul whom he overcame; and the fair hair of the Lombard is all but unknown in Lombardy. But the English conquest of Britain up to the point which we have reached was a sheer dispossession of the people whom the English conquered. It was not that Englishmen, fierce and cruel as at times they seem to have been, were more fierce or more cruel than other Germans who attacked the Empire; nor have we any ground for saying that they, unlike the Burgundian or the Frank, were utterly strange to the Roman civilization. Saxon mercenaries are found as well as Frank mercenaries in the pay of Rome; and the presence of Saxon vessels in the Channel for a century before the descent on Britain must have familiarized its invaders with what civilization was to be found in the Imperial provinces of the West. What really made the difference between the fate of Britain and that of the rest of the Roman world was the stubborn courage of the British themselves. In all the world-wide struggle between Rome and the German peoples no land was so stubbornly fought for or so hardly won. In Gaul no native resistance met Frank or Visigoth save from the brave peasants of Britanny and Auvergne. No popular revolt broke out against the rule of Odoacer or Theodoric in Italy. But in Britain the invader was met by a courage almost equal to his own. Instead of quartering themselves quietly, like their fellows abroad, on subjects who were glad to buy peace by obedience and tribute, the English had to make every inch of Britain their own by hard fighting.

This stubborn resistance was backed too by natural obstacles of the gravest kind. Elsewhere in the Roman world the work of the conquerors was aided by the very civilization of Rome. Vandal and Frank marched along Roman highways over ground cleared by the Roman axe and crossed river or ravine on the Roman bridge. It was so doubtless with the English conquerors of Britain. But though Britain had long been Roman, her distance from the seat of Empire left her less Romanized than any other province of the West. Socially the Roman civilization had made little impression on any but the townsfolk, and the material civilization of the island was yet more backward than its social. Its natural defences threw obstacles in its invaders' way. In the forest belts which stretched over vast spaces of country they found barriers which in all cases checked their advance and in some cases finally stopped it. The Kentishmen and the South-Saxons were brought utterly to a standstill by the Andredsweald. The East-Saxons could never pierce the woods of their western border. The Fens proved impassable to the Northfolk and the Southfolk of East-Anglia. It was only after a long and terrible struggle that the West-Saxons could hew their way through the forests which sheltered the "Gwent" of the southern coast. Their attempt to break out of the circle of woodland which girt in the downs was in fact fruitless for thirty years; and in the height of their later power they were thrown back from the forests of Cheshire.

Top

Withdrawal of the Britons

It is only by realizing in this way the physical as well as the moral circumstances of Britain that we can understand the character of its earlier conquest. Field by field, town by town, forest by forest, the land was won. And as each bit of ground was torn away by the stranger, the Briton sullenly withdrew from it only to turn doggedly and fight for the next. There is no need to believe that the clearing of the land meant so impossible a thing as the general slaughter of the men who held it. Slaughter there was, no doubt, on the battle-field or in towns like Anderida whose long resistance woke wrath in their besiegers. But for the most part the Britons were not slaughtered; they were defeated and drew back. Such a withdrawal was only made possible by the slowness of the conquest. For it is not only the stoutness of its defence which distinguishes the conquest of Britain from that of the other provinces of the Empire, but the weakness of attack. As the resistance of the Britons was greater than that of the other provincials of Rome so the forces of their assailants were less. Attack by sea was less easy than attack by land, and the numbers who were brought across by the boats of Hengest or Cerdic cannot have rivalled those which followed Theodoric or Chlodewig across the Alps or the Rhine. Landing in small parties, and but gradually reinforced by after-comers, the English invaders could only slowly and fitfully push the Britons back. The absence of any joint action among the assailants told in the same way. Though all spoke the same language and used the same laws, they had no such bond of political union as the Franks; and though all were bent on winning the same land, each band and each leader preferred their own separate course of action to any collective enterprise.

Top

The English settlement

Under such conditions the overrunning of Britain could not fail to be a very different matter from the rapid and easy overrunning of such countries as Gaul. How slow the work of English conquest was may be seen from the fact that it took nearly thirty years to win Kent alone, and sixty to complete the conquest of Southern Britain, and that the conquest of the bulk of the island was only wrought out after two centuries of bitter warfare. But it was just through the length of the struggle that of all the German conquests this proved the most thorough and complete. So far as the English sword in these earlier days had reached, Britain had become England, a land, that is, not of Britons but of Englishmen. Even if a few of the vanquished people lingered as slaves round the homesteads of their English conquerors, or a few of their household words mingled with the English tongue, doubtful exceptions such as these leave the main facts untouched. The keynote of the conquest was firmly struck. When the English invasion was stayed for a while by the civil wars of the invaders, the Briton had disappeared from the greater part of the land which had been his own; and the tongue, the religion, the laws of his English conquerors reigned without a break from Essex to Staffordshire and from the British Channel to the Firth of Forth.

For the driving out of the Briton was, as we have seen, but a prelude to the settlement of his conqueror. What strikes us at once in the new England is this, that it was the one purely German nation that rose upon the wreck of Rome. In other lands, in Spain or Gaul or Italy, though they were equally conquered by German peoples, religion, social life, administrative order, still remained Roman. Britain was almost the only province of the Empire where Rome died into a vague tradition of the past. The whole organization of government and society disappeared with the people who used it. Roman roads indeed still led to desolate cities. Roman camps still crowned hill and down. The old divisions of the land remained to furnish bounds of field and farm for the new settlers. The Roman church, the Roman country-house, was left standing, though reft of priest and lord. But Rome was gone. The mosaics, the coins which we dig up in our fields are no relics of our English fathers, but of a world which our fathers' sword swept utterly away. Its law, its literature, its manners, its faith, went with it. Nothing was a stronger proof of the completeness of this destruction of all Roman life than the religious change which passed over the land. Alone among the German assailants of Rome the English stood aloof from the faith of the Empire they helped to overthrow. The new England was a heathen country. Homestead and boundary, the very days of the week, bore the names of new gods who displaced Christ.

As we stand amidst the ruins of town or country-house which recall to us the wealth and culture of Roman Britain, it is hard to believe that a conquest which left them heaps of crumbling stones was other than a curse to the land over which it passed. But if the new England which sprang from the wreck of Britain seemed for the moment a waste from which the arts, the letters, the refinement of the world had fled hopelessly away, it contained within itself germs of a nobler life than that which had been destroyed. The base of Roman society here as everywhere throughout the Roman world was the slave, the peasant who had been crushed by tyranny, political and social, into serfdom. The base of the new English society was the freeman whom we have seen tilling, judging, or fighting for himself by the Northern Sea. However roughly he dealt with the material civilization of Britain while the struggle went on, it was impossible that such a man could be a mere destroyer. War in fact was no sooner over than the warrior settled down into the farmer, and the home of the ceorl rose beside the heap of goblin-haunted stones that marked the site of the villa he had burned. The settlement of the English in the conquered land was nothing less than an absolute transfer of English society in its completest form to the soil of Britain. The slowness of their advance, the small numbers of each separate band in its descent upon the coast, made it possible for the invaders to bring with them, or to call to them when their work was done, the wives and children, the læt and slave, even the cattle they had left behind them. The first wave of conquest was but the prelude to the gradual migration of a whole people. It was England which settled down on British soil, England with its own language, its own laws, its complete social fabric, its system of village life and village culture, its township and its hundred, its principle of kinship, its principle of representation. It was not as mere pirates or stray war-bands, but as peoples already made, and fitted by a common temper and common customs to draw together into our English nation in the days to come, that our fathers left their German home-land for the land in which we live. Their social and political organization remained radically unchanged. In each of the little kingdoms which rose on the wreck of Britain, the host camped on the land it had won, and the divisions of the host supplied here as in its older home the rough groundwork of local distribution. The land occupied by the hundred warriors who formed the unit of military organization became perhaps the local hundred; but it is needless to attach any notion of precise uniformity, either in the number of settlers or in the area of their settlement, to such a process as this, any more than to the army organization which the process of distribution reflected. From the large amount of public land which we find existing afterwards it has been conjectured with some probability that the number of settlers was far too small to occupy the whole of the country at their disposal, and this unoccupied ground became "folk-land," the common property of the tribe as at a later time of the nation. What ground was actually occupied may have been assigned to each group and each family in the group by lot, and Eorl and Ceorl gathered round them their læt and slave as in their homeland by the Rhine or the Elbe. And with the English people passed to the shores of Britain all that was to make Englishmen what they are. For distant and dim as their life in that older England may have seemed to us, the whole after-life of Englishmen was there. In its village-moots lay our Parliament; in the gleeman of its village-feasts our Chaucer and our Shakspere; in the pirate-bark stealing from creek to creek our Drakes and our Nelsons. Even the national temper was fully formed. Civilization, letters, science, religion itself, have done little to change the inner mood of Englishmen. That love of venture and of toil, of the sea and the fight, that trust in manhood and the might of man, that silent awe of the mysteries of life and death which lay deep in English souls then as now, passed with Englishmen to the land which Englishmen had won.

Top

The King

But though English society passed thus in its completeness to the soil of Britain, its primitive organization was affected in more ways than one by the transfer. In the first place conquest begat the King. It seems probable that the English had hitherto known nothing of kings in their own fatherland, where each tribe was satisfied in peace time with the customary government of village-reeve and hundred-reeve and ealdonnan, while it gathered at fighting times under war leaders whom it chose for each campaign. But in the long and obstinate warfare which they waged against the Britons it was needful to find a common leader whom the various tribes engaged in conquests such as those of Wessex or Mercia might follow; and the ceaseless character of a struggle which left few intervals of rest or peace raised these leaders into a higher position than that of temporary chieftains. It was no doubt from this cause that we find Hengest and his son Æsc raised to the kingdom in Kent, or Ælle in Sussex, or Cerdic and Cynric among the West Saxons. The association of son with father in this new kingship marked the hereditary character which distinguished it from the temporary office of an ealdorman. The change was undoubtedly a great one, but it was less than the modern conception of kingship would lead us to imagine. Hereditary as the succession was within a single house, each successive king was still the free choice of his people, and for centuries to come it was held within a people's right to pass over a claimant too weak or too wicked for the throne. In war indeed the king was supreme. But in peace his power was narrowly bounded by the customs of his people and the rede of his wise men. Justice was not as yet the king's justice, it was the justice of village and hundred and folk in town-moot and hundred-moot and folk-moot. It was only with the assent of the wise men that the king could make laws and declare war and assign public lands and name public officers. Above all, should his will be to break through the free customs of his people, he was without the means of putting his will into action, for the one force he could call on was the host, and the host was the people itself in arms.

Top

The Thegn

With the new English king rose a new order of English nobles. The social distinction of the eorl was founded on the peculiar purity of his blood, on his long descent from the original settler around whom township and thorpe grew up. A new distinction was now to be found in service done to the king. From the earliest times of German society it had been the wont of young men greedy of honour or seeking training in arms to bind themselves as "comrades" to king or chief. The leader whom they chose gave them horses, arms, a seat in his mead hall, and gifts from his hoard. The "comrade" on the other hand--the gesith or thegn, as he was called--bound himself to follow and fight for his lord. The principle of personal dependence as distinguished from the warrior's general duty to the folk at large was embodied in the thegn. "Chieftains fight for victory," says Tacitus; "comrades for their chieftain." When one of Beowulf's "comrades" saw his lord hard bested "he minded him of the homestead he had given him, of the folk right he gave him as his father had it; nor might he hold back then." Snatching up sword and shield he called on his fellow-thegns to follow him to the fight. "I mind me of the day," he cried, "when we drank the mead, the day we gave pledge to our lord in the beer hall as he gave us these rings, our pledge that we would pay him back our war-gear, our helms and our hard swords, if need befel him. Unmeet is it, methinks, that we should bear back our shields to our home unless we guard our lord's life." The larger the band of such "comrades," the more power and repute it gave their lord. It was from among the chiefs whose war-band was strongest that the leaders of the host were commonly chosen; and as these leaders grew into kings, the number of their thegns naturally increased. The rank of the "comrades" too rose with the rise of their lord. The king's thegns were his body-guard, the one force ever ready to carry out his will. They were his nearest and most constant counsellors. As the gathering of petty tribes into larger kingdoms swelled the number of eorls in each realm, and in a corresponding degree diminished their social importance, it raised in equal measure the rank of the king's thegns. A post among them was soon coveted and won by the greatest and noblest in the land. Their service was rewarded by exemption from the general jurisdiction of hundred-court or shire-court, for it was part of a thegn's meed for his service that he should be judged only by the lord he served. Other meed was found in grants of public land which made them a local nobility, no longer bound to actual service in the king's household or the king's war-band, but still bound to him by personal ties of allegiance far closer than those which bound an eorl to the chosen war-leader of his tribe. In a word, thegnhood contained within itself the germ of that later feudalism which was to battle so fiercely with the Teutonic freedom out of which it grew.

Top

The Bernicians

But the strife between the conquering tribes which at once followed on their conquest of Britain was to bring about changes even more momentous in the development of the English people. While Jute and Saxon and Engle were making themselves masters of central and southern Britain, the English who had landed on its northernmost shores had been slowly winning for themselves the coast district between the Forth and the Tyne which bore the name of Bernicia. Their progress seems to have been small till they were gathered into a kingdom in 547 by Ida the "Flame-bearer," who found a site for his King's town on the impregnable rock of Bamborough; nor was it till the reign of his fourth son Æthelric that they gained full mastery over the Britons along their western border. But once masters of the Britons the Bernician Englishmen turned to conquer their English neighbours to the south, the men of Deira, whose first King Ælla was now sinking to the grave. The struggle filled the foreign markets with English slaves, and one of the most memorable stories in our history shows us a group of such captives as they stood in the market-place at Rome, it may be in the great Forum of Trajan, which still in its decay recalled the glories of the Imperial City. Their white bodies, their fair faces, their golden hair was noted by a deacon who passed by. "From what country do these slaves come?" Gregory asked the trader who brought them. The slave-dealer answered "They are English," or as the word ran in the Latin form it would bear at Rome, "they are Angles." The deacon's pity veiled itself in poetic humour. "Not Angles but Angels," he said, "with faces so angel-like! From what country come they?" "They come," said the merchant, "from Deira." "De irâ!" was the untranslatable wordplay of the vivacious Roman--"aye, plucked from God's ire and called to Christ's mercy! And what is the name of their king?" They told him "Ælla," and Gregory seized on the word as of good omen. "Alleluia shall be sung in Ælla's land," he said, and passed on, musing how the angel-faces should be brought to sing it.

While Gregory was thus playing with Ælla's name the old king passed away, and with his death in 588 the resistance of his kingdom seems to have ceased. His children fled over the western border to find refuge among the Welsh, and Æthelric of Bernicia entered Deira in triumph. A new age of our history opens in this submission of one English people to another. When the two kingdoms were united under a common lord the period of national formation began. If a new England sprang out of the mass of English states which covered Britain after its conquest, we owe it to the gradual submission of the smaller peoples to the supremacy of a common political head. The difference in power between state and state which inevitably led to this process of union was due to the character which the conquest of Britain was now assuming. Up to this time all the kingdoms which had been established by the invaders had stood in the main on a footing of equality. All had taken an independent share in the work of conquest. Though the oneness of a common blood and a common speech was recognized by all we find no traces of any common action or common rule. Even in the two groups of kingdoms, the five English and the five Saxon kingdoms, which occupied Britain south of the Humber, the relations of each member of the group to its fellows seem to have been merely local. It was only locally that East and West and South and North English were grouped round the Middle English of Leicester, or East and West and South and North Saxons round the Middle Saxons about London. In neither instance do we find any real trace of a confederacy, or of the rule of one member of the group over the others; while north of the Humber the feeling between the Englishmen of Yorkshire and the Englishmen who had settled towards the Firth of Forth was one of hostility rather than of friendship. But this age of isolation, of equality, of independence, had now come to an end. The progress of the conquest had drawn a sharp line between the kingdoms of the conquerors. The work of half of them was done. In the south of the island not only Kent but Sussex, Essex, and Middlesex were surrounded by English territory, and hindered by that single fact from all further growth. The same fate had befallen the East Engle, the South Engle, the Middle and the North Engle. The West Saxons, on the other hand, and the West Engle, or Mercians, still remained free to conquer and expand on the south of the Humber, as the Englishmen of Deira and Bernicia remained free to the north of that river. It was plain, therefore, that from this moment the growth of these powers would throw their fellow kingdoms into the background, and that with an ever-growing inequality of strength must come a new arrangement of political forces. The greater kingdoms would in the end be drawn to subject and absorb the lesser ones, and to the war between Englishman and Briton would be added a struggle between Englishman and Englishman.

Top

Kent

It was through this struggle and the establishment of a lordship on the part of the stronger and growing states over their weaker and stationary fellows that the English kingdoms were to make their first step towards union in a single England. Such an overlordship seemed destined but a few years before to fall to the lot of Wessex. The victories of Ceawlin and Cuthwulf left it the most powerful of the English kingdoms. None of its fellow states seemed able to hold their own against a power which stretched from the Chilterns to the Severn and from the Channel to the Ouse. But after its defeat in the march upon Chester Wessex suddenly broke down into a chaos of warring tribes; and her place was taken by two powers whose rise to greatness was as sudden as her fall. The first of these was Kent. The Kentish king Æthelberht found himself hemmed in on every side by English territory; and since conquest over Britons was denied him he sought a new sphere of action in setting his kingdom at the head of the conquerors of the south. The break up of Wessex no doubt aided his attempt; but we know little of the causes or events which brought about his success. We know only that the supremacy of the Kentish king was owned at last by the English peoples of the east and centre of Britain. But it was not by her political action that Kent was in the end to further the creation of a single England; for the lordship which Æthelberht built up was doomed to fall for ever with his death, and yet his death left Kent the centre of a national union far wider as it was far more enduring than the petty lordship which stretched over Eastern Britain. Only three or four years after Gregory had pitied the English slaves in the market-place of Rome, he found himself as Bishop of the Imperial City in a position to carry out his dream of winning Britain to the faith; and an opening was given him by Æthelberht's marriage with Bertha, a daughter of the Frankish king Charibert of Paris. Bertha like her Frankish kindred was a Christian; a Christian bishop accompanied her from Gaul; and a ruined Christian church, the church of St. Martin beside the royal city of Canterbury, was given them for their worship. The king himself remained true to the gods of his fathers; but his marriage no doubt encouraged Gregory to send a Roman abbot, Augustine, at the head of a band of monks to preach the Gospel to the English people. The missionaries landed in 597 in the Isle of Thanet, at the spot where Hengest had landed more than a century before; and Æthelberht received them sitting in the open air on the chalk-down above Minster, where the eye nowadays catches miles away over the marshes the dim tower of Canterbury. The king listened patiently to the long sermon of Augustine as the interpreters the abbot had brought with him from Gaul rendered it in the English tongue. "Your words are fair," Æthelberht replied at last with English good sense, "but they are new and of doubtful meaning." For himself, he said, he refused to forsake the gods of his fathers, but with the usual religious tolerance of the German race he promised shelter and protection to the strangers. The band of monks entered Canterbury bearing before them a silver cross with a picture of Christ, and singing in concert the strains of the litany of their Church. "Turn from this city, O Lord," they sang, "Thine anger and wrath, and turn it from Thy holy house, for we have sinned." And then in strange contrast came the jubilant cry of the older Hebrew worship, the cry which Gregory had wrested in prophetic earnestness from the name of the Yorkshire king in the Roman market-place, "Alleluia!"

Top

Christian England

It was thus that the spot which witnessed the landing of Hengest became yet better known as the landing-place of Augustine. But the second landing at Ebbsfleet was in no small measure a reversal and undoing of the first. "Strangers from Rome" was the title with which the missionaries first fronted the English king. The march of the monks as they chaunted their solemn litany was in one sense a return of the Roman legions who withdrew at the trumpet-call of Alaric. It was to the tongue and the thought not of Gregory only but of the men whom his Jutish fathers had slaughtered or driven out that Æthelberht listened in the preaching of Augustine. Canterbury, the earliest royal city of German England, became a centre of Latin influence. The Roman tongue became again one of the tongues of Britain, the language of its worship, its correspondence, its literature. But more than the tongue of Rome returned with Augustine. Practically his landing renewed that union with the Western world which the landing of Hengest had destroyed. The new England was admitted into the older commonwealth of nations. The civilization, art, letters, which had fled before the sword of the English conquerors returned with the Christian faith. The fabric of the Roman law indeed never took root in England, but it is impossible not to recognize the result of the influence of the Roman missionaries in the fact that codes of the customary English law began to be put in writing soon after their arrival.

Top

Æthelfrith

A year passed before Æthelberht yielded to the preaching of Augustine. But from the moment of his conversion the new faith advanced rapidly and the Kentish men crowded to baptism in the train of their king. The new religion was carried beyond the bounds of Kent by the supremacy which Æthelberht wielded over the neighbouring kingdoms. Sæberht, King of the East-Saxons, received a bishop sent in 604 from Kent, and suffered him to build up again a Christian church in what was now his subject city of London, while soon after the East-Anglian king Rædwald resolved to serve Christ and the older gods together. But while Æthelberht was thus furnishing a future centre of spiritual unity in Canterbury, the see to which Augustine was consecrated, the growth of Northumbria was pointing it out as the coming political centre of the new England. In 593, four years before the landing of the missionaries in Kent, Æthelric was succeeded by his son Æthelfrith, and the new king took up the work of conquest with a vigour greater than had yet been shown by any English leader. For ten years he waged war with the Britons of Strathclyde, a tract which stretched along his western border from Dumbarton to Carlisle. The contest ended in a great battle at Dægsastan, perhaps Dawston in Liddesdale; and Æthelfrith turned to deliver a yet more crushing blow on his southern border. British kingdoms still stretched from Clyde-mouth to the mouth of Severn; and had their line remained unbroken the British resistance might yet have withstood the English advance. It was with a sound political instinct therefore that Æthelfrith marched in 613 upon Chester, the point where the kingdom of Cumbria, a kingdom which stretched from the Lune to the Dee, linked itself to the British states of what we now call Wales. Hard by the city two thousand monks were gathered in one of those vast religious settlements which were characteristic of Celtic Christianity, and after a three days' fast a crowd of these ascetics followed the British army to the field. Æthelfrith watched the wild gestures of the monks as they stood apart from the host with arms outstretched in prayer, and bade his men slay them in the coming fight. "Bear they arms or no," said the King, "they war against us when they cry against us to their God," and in the surprise and rout which followed the monks were the first to fall.

With the battle of Chester Britain as a country ceased to exist. By their victory at Deorham the West-Saxons had cut off the Britons of Dyvnaint, of our Devon, Dorset, Somerset, and Cornwall, from the general body of their race. By Æthelfrith's victory at Chester and the reduction of southern Lancashire which followed it what remained of Britain was broken into two several parts. From this time therefore the character of the English conquest of Britain changes. The warfare of Briton and Englishman died down into a warfare of separate English kingdoms against separate British kingdoms, of Northumbria against the Cumbrians and Strathclyde, of Mercia against the Welsh between Anglesea and the British Channel, of Wessex against the tract of country from Mendip to the Land's End. But great as was the importance of the battle of Chester to the fortunes of Britain, it was of still greater importance to the fortunes of England itself. The drift towards national unity had already begun, but from the moment of Æthelfrith's victory this drift became the main current of our history. Masters of the larger and richer part of the land, its conquerors were no longer drawn greedily westward by the hope of plunder; while the severance of the British kingdoms took from their enemies the pressure of a common danger. The conquests of Æthelfrith left him without a rival in military power, and he turned from victories over the Welsh, as their English foes called the Britons, to the building up of a lordship over his own countrymen.

Top

Eadwine

The power of Æthelberht seems to have declined with old age, and though the Essex men still owned his supremacy, the English tribes of Mid-Britain shook it off. So strong however had the instinct of union now become, that we hear nothing of any return to their old isolation. Mercians and Southumbrians, Middle-English and South-English now owned the lordship of the East-English King Rædwald. The shelter given by Rædwald to Ælla's son Eadwine served as a pretext for a Northumbrian attack. Fortune however deserted Æthelfrith, and a snatch of northern song still tells of the day when the river Idle by Retford saw his defeat and fall. But the greatness of Northumbria survived its king. In 617 Eadwine was welcomed back by his own men of Deira; and his conquest of Bernicia maintained that union of the two realms which the Bernician conquest of Deira had first brought about. The greatness of Northumbria now reached its height. Within his own dominions, Eadwine displayed a genius for civil government which shows how utterly the mere age of conquest had passed away. With him began the English proverb so often applied to after kings: "A woman with her babe might walk scatheless from sea to sea in Eadwine's day." Peaceful communication revived along the deserted highways; the springs by the roadside were marked with stakes, and a cup of brass set beside each for the traveller's refreshment. Some faint traditions of the Roman past may have flung their glory round this new "Empire of the English"; a royal standard of purple and gold floated before Eadwine as he rode through the villages; a feather tuft attached to a spear, the Roman tufa, preceded him as he walked through the streets. The Northumbrian king became in fact supreme over Britain as no king of English blood had been before. Northward his frontier reached to the Firth of Forth, and here, if we trust tradition, Eadwine founded a city which bore his name, Edinburgh, Eadwine's burgh. To the west his arms crushed the long resistance of Elmet, the district about Leeds; he was master of Chester, and the fleet he equipped there subdued the isles of Anglesea and Man. South of the Humber he was owned as overlord by the five English states of Mid-Britain. The West-Saxons remained awhile independent. But revolt and slaughter had fatally broken their power when Eadwine attacked them. A story preserved by Bæda tells something of the fierceness of the struggle which ended in the subjection of the south to the overlordship of Northumbria. In an Easter-court which he held in his royal city by the river Derwent, Eadwine gave audience to Eumer, an envoy of Wessex, who brought a message from its king. In the midst of the conference Eumer started to his feet, drew a dagger from his robe, and rushed on the Northumbrian sovereign. Lilla, one of the king's war-band, threw himself between Eadwine and his assassin; but so furious was the stroke that even through Lilla's body the dagger still reached its aim. The king however recovered from his wound to march on the West-Saxons; he slew or subdued all who had conspired against him, and returned victorious to his own country.

Top

Conversion of Northumbria

Kent had bound itself to him by giving him its King's daughter as a wife, a step which probably marked political subordination; and with the Kentish queen had come Paulinus, one of Augustine's followers, whose tall stooping form, slender aquiline nose, and black hair falling round a thin worn face, were long remembered in the North. Moved by his queen's prayers Eadwine promised to become Christian if he returned successful from Wessex; and the wise men of Northumbria gathered to deliberate on the new faith to which he bowed. To finer minds its charm lay then as now in the light it threw on the darkness which encompassed men's lives, the darkness of the future as of the past. "So seems the life of man, O king," burst forth an aged ealdorman, "as a sparrow's flight through the hall when one is sitting at meat in winter-tide with the warm fire lighted on the hearth but the icy rain-storm without. The sparrow flies in at one door and tarries for a moment in the light and heat of the hearth-fire, and then flying forth from the other vanishes into the darkness whence it came. So tarries for a moment the life of man in our sight, but what is before it, what after it, we know not. If this new teaching tell us aught certainly of these, let us follow it." Coarser argument told on the crowd. "None of your people, Eadwine, have worshipped the gods more busily than I," said Coifi the priest, "yet there are many more favoured and more fortunate. Were these gods good for anything they would help their worshippers." Then leaping on horseback, he hurled his spear into the sacred temple at Godmanham, and with the rest of the Witan embraced the religion of the king.

Top

Penda

But the faith of Woden and Thunder was not to fall without a struggle. Even in Kent a reaction against the new creed began with the death of Æthelberht. The young kings of the East-Saxons burst into the church where the Bishop of London was administering the Eucharist to the people, crying, "Give us that white bread you gave to our father Saba," and on the bishop's refusal drove him from their realm. This earlier tide of reaction was checked by Eadwine's conversion; but Mercia, which had as yet owned the supremacy of Northumbria, sprang into a sudden greatness as the champion of the heathen gods. Its king, Penda, saw in the rally of the old religion a chance of winning back his people's freedom and giving it the lead among the tribes about it. Originally mere settlers along the Upper Trent, the position of the Mercians on the Welsh border invited them to widen their possessions by conquest while the rest of their Anglian neighbours were shut off from any chance of expansion. Their fights along the frontier too kept their warlike energy at its height. Penda must have already asserted his superiority over the four other English tribes of Mid-Britain before he could have ventured to attack Wessex and tear from it in 628 the country of the Hwiccas and Magesætas on the Severn. Even with this accession of strength however he was still no match for Northumbria. But the war of the English people with the Britons seems at this moment to have died down for a season, and the Mercian ruler boldly broke through the barrier which had parted the two races till now by allying himself with a Welsh King, Cadwallon, for a joint attack on Eadwine. The armies met in 633 at a place called the Heathfield, and in the fight which followed Eadwine was defeated and slain.

Top

Oswald

Bernicia seized on the fall of Eadwine to recall the line of Æthelfrith to its throne; and after a year of anarchy his second son, Oswald, became its king. The Welsh had remained encamped in the heart of the north, and Oswald's first fight was with Cadwallon. A small Northumbrian force gathered in 635 near the Roman Wall, and pledged itself at the new King's bidding to become Christian if it conquered in the fight. Cadwallon fell fighting on the "Heaven's Field," as after times called the field of battle; the submission of Deira to the conqueror restored the kingdom of Northumbria; and for seven years the power of Oswald equalled that of Eadwine. It was not the Church of Paulinus which nerved Oswald to this struggle for the Cross, or which carried out in Bernicia the work of conversion which his victory began. Paulinus fled from Northumbria at Eadwine's fall; and the Roman Church, though established in Kent, did little in contending elsewhere against the heathen reaction. Its place in the conversion of northern England was taken by missionaries from Ireland. To understand the true meaning of this change we must remember how greatly the Christian Church in the west had been affected by the German invasion. Before the landing of the English in Britain the Christian Church stretched in an unbroken line across Western Europe to the furthest coasts of Ireland. The conquest of Britain by the pagan English thrust a wedge of heathendom into the heart of this great communion and broke it into two unequal parts. On one side lay Italy, Spain, and Gaul, whose churches owned obedience to and remained in direct contact with the See of Rome, on the other, practically cut off from the general body of Christendom, lay the Church of Ireland. But the condition of the two portions of Western Christendom was very different. While the vigour of Christianity in Italy and Gaul and Spain was exhausted in a bare struggle for life, Ireland, which remained unscourged by invaders, drew from its conversion an energy such as it has never known since. Christianity was received there with a burst of popular enthusiasm, and letters and arts sprang up rapidly in its train. The science and Biblical knowledge which fled from the Continent took refuge in its schools. The new Christian life soon beat too strongly to brook confinement within the bounds of Ireland itself. Patrick, the first missionary of the island, had not been half a century dead when Irish Christianity flung itself with a fiery zeal into battle with the mass of heathenism which was rolling in upon the Christian world. Irish missionaries laboured among the Picts of the Highlands and among the Frisians of the northern seas. An Irish missionary, Columban, founded monasteries in Burgundy and the Apennines. The canton of St. Gall still commemorates in its name another Irish missionary before whom the spirits of flood and fell fled wailing over the waters of the Lake of Constance. For a time it seemed as if the course of the world's history was to be changed, as if the older Celtic race that Roman and German had swept before them had turned to the moral conquest of their conquerors, as if Celtic and not Latin Christianity was to mould the destinies of the Churches of the West.

Top

Aidan

On a low island of barren gneiss-rock off the west coast of Scotland an Irish refugee, Columba, had raised the famous mission-station of Iona. It was within its walls that Oswald in youth found refuge, and on his accession to the throne of Northumbria he called for missionaries from among its monks. The first preacher sent in answer to his call obtained little success. He declared on his return that among a people so stubborn and barbarous as the Northumbrian folk success was impossible. "Was it their stubbornness or your severity?" asked Aidan, a brother sitting by; "did you forget God's word to give them the milk first and then the meat?" All eyes turned on the speaker as fittest to undertake the abandoned mission, and Aidan sailing at their bidding fixed his bishop's see in the island-peninsula of Lindisfarne. Thence, from a monastery which gave to the spot its after name of Holy Island, preachers poured forth over the heathen realms. Aidan himself wandered on foot, preaching among the peasants of Yorkshire and Northumbria. In his own court the King acted as interpreter to the Irish missionaries in their efforts to convert his thegns. A new conception of kingship indeed began to blend itself with that of the warlike glory of Æthelfrith or the wise administration of Eadwine, and the moral power which was to reach its height in Ælfred first dawns in the story of Oswald. For after times the memory of Oswald's greatness was lost in the memory of his piety. "By reason of his constant habit of praying or giving thanks to the Lord he was wont wherever he sat to hold his hands upturned on his knees." As he feasted with Bishop Aidan by his side, the thegn, or noble of his war-band, whom he had set to give alms to the poor at his gate told him of a multitude that still waited fasting without. The king at once bade the untasted meat before him be carried to the poor, and his silver dish be parted piecemeal among them. Aidan seized the royal hand and blessed it. "May this hand," he cried, "never grow old."

Oswald's lordship stretched as widely over Britain as that of his predecessor Eadwine. In him even more than in Eadwine men saw some faint likeness of the older Emperors; once indeed a writer from the land of the Picts calls Oswald "Emperor of the whole of Britain." His power was bent to carry forward the conversion of all England, but prisoned as it was to the central districts of the country heathendom fought desperately for life. Penda was still its rallying-point. His long reign was one continuous battle with the new religion; but it was a battle rather with the supremacy of Christian Northumbria than with the supremacy of the Cross. East-Anglia became at last the field of contest between the two powers; and in 642 Oswald marched to deliver it from the Mercian rule. But his doom was the doom of Eadwine, and in a battle called the battle of the Maserfeld he was overthrown and slain. For a few years after his victory at the Maserfeld, Penda stood supreme in Britain. Heathenism triumphed with him. If Wessex did not own his overlordship as it had owned that of Oswald, its king threw off the Christian faith which he had embraced but a few years back at the preaching of Birinus. Even Deira seems to have owned Penda's sway. Bernicia alone, though distracted by civil war between rival claimants for its throne, refused to yield. Year by year the Mercian king carried his ravages over the north; once he reached even the royal city, the impregnable rock-fortress of Bamborough. Despairing of success in an assault, he pulled down the cottages around, and piling their wood against its walls fired the mass in a fair wind that drove the flames on the town. "See, Lord, what ill Penda is doing," cried Aidan from his hermit cell in the islet of Farne, as he saw the smoke drifting over the city, and a change of wind--so ran the legend of Northumbria's agony--drove back the flames on those who kindled them. But burned and harried as it was, Bernicia still clung to the Cross. Oswiu, a third son of Æthelfrith, held his ground stoutly against Penda's inroads till their cessation enabled him to build up again the old Northumbrian kingdom by a march upon Deira. The union of the two realms was never henceforth to be dissolved; and its influence was at once seen in the renewal of Christianity throughout Britain. East-Anglia, conquered as it was, had clung to its faith. Wessex quietly became Christian again. Penda's own son, whom he had set over the Middle-English, received baptism and teachers from Lindisfarne. At last the missionaries of the new belief appeared fearlessly among the Mercians themselves. Penda gave them no hindrance. In words that mark the temper of a man of whom we would willingly know more, Bæda tells us that the old king only "hated and scorned those whom he saw not doing the works of the faith they had received." His attitude shows that Penda looked with the tolerance of his race on all questions of creed, and that he was fighting less for heathenism than for political independence. And now the growing power of Oswiu called him to the old struggle with Northumbria. In 655 he met Oswiu in the field of Winwæd by Leeds. It was in vain that the Northumbrian sought to avert Penda's attack by offers of ornaments and costly gifts. "If the pagans will not accept them," Oswiu cried at last, "let us offer them to One that will"; and he vowed that if successful he would dedicate his daughter to God, and endow twelve monasteries in his realm. Victory at last declared for the faith of Christ. Penda himself fell on the field. The river over which the Mercians fled was swollen with a great rain; it swept away the fragments of the heathen host, and the cause of the older gods was lost for ever.

Top

Oswiu

The terrible struggle between heathendom and Christianity was followed by a long and profound peace. For three years after the battle of Winwæd Mercia was governed by Northumbrian thegns in Oswiu's name. The winning of central England was a victory for Irish Christianity as well as for Oswiu. Even in Mercia itself heathendom was dead with Penda. "Being thus freed," Bæda tells us, "the Mercians with their King rejoiced to serve the true King, Christ." Its three provinces, the earlier Mercia, the Middle-English, and the Lindiswaras, were united in the bishopric of the missionary Ceadda, the St. Chad to whom Lichfield is still dedicated. Ceadda was a monk of Lindisfarne, so simple and lowly in temper that he travelled on foot on his long mission journeys till Archbishop Theodore with his own hands lifted him on horseback. The old Celtic poetry breaks out in his death-legend, as it tells us how voices of singers singing sweetly descended from heaven to the little cell beside St. Mary's Church where the bishop lay dying. Then "the same song ascended from the roof again, and returned heavenward by the way that it came." It was the soul of his brother, the missionary Cedd, come with a choir of angels to solace the last hours of Ceadda.

Top

Cuthbert

In Northumbria the work of his fellow missionaries has almost been lost in the glory of Cuthbert. No story better lights up for us the new religious life of the time than the story of this Apostle of the Lowlands. Born on the southern edge of the Lammermoor, Cuthbert found shelter at eight years old in a widow's house in the little village of Wrangholm. Already in youth his robust frame hid a poetic sensibility which caught even in the chance word of a game a call to higher things, and a passing attack of lameness deepened the religious impression. A traveller coming in his white mantle over the hillside and stopping his horse to tend Cuthbert's injured knee seemed to him an angel. The boy's shepherd life carried him to the bleak upland, still famous as a sheepwalk, though a scant herbage scarce veils the whinstone rock. There meteors plunging into the night became to him a company of angelic spirits carrying the soul of Bishop Aidan heavenward, and his longings slowly settled into a resolute will towards a religious life. In 651 he made his way to a group of straw-thatched log-huts, in the midst of an untilled solitude, where a few Irish monks from Lindisfarne had settled in the mission-station of Melrose. To-day the land is a land of poetry and romance. Cheviot and Lammermoor, Ettrick and Teviotdale, Yarrow and Annan-water, are musical with old ballads and border minstrelsy. Agriculture has chosen its valleys for her favourite seat, and drainage and steam-power have turned sedgy marshes into farm and meadow. But to see the Lowlands as they were in Cuthbert's day we must sweep meadow and farm away again, and replace them by vast solitudes, dotted here and there with clusters of wooden hovels and crossed by boggy tracks, over which travellers rode spear in hand and eye kept cautiously about them. The Northumbrian peasantry among whom he journeyed were for the most part Christians only in name. With Teutonic indifference they yielded to their thegns in nominally accepting the new Christianity as these had yielded to the king. But they retained their old superstitions side by side with the new worship; plague or mishap drove them back to a reliance on their heathen charms and amulets; and if trouble befell the Christian preachers who came settling among them, they took it as proof of the wrath of the older gods. When some log-rafts which were floating down the Tyne for the construction of an abbey at its mouth drifted with the monks who were at work on them out to sea, the rustic bystanders shouted, "Let nobody pray for them; let nobody pity these men; for they have taken away from us our old worship, and how their new-fangled customs are to be kept nobody knows." On foot, on horseback, Cuthbert wandered among listeners such as these, choosing above all the remoter mountain villages from whose roughness and poverty other teachers turned aside. Unlike his Irish comrades, he needed no interpreter as he passed from village to village; the frugal, long-headed Northumbrians listened willingly to one who was himself a peasant of the Lowlands, and who had caught the rough Northumbrian burr along the banks of the Tweed. His patience, his humorous good sense, the sweetness of his look, told for him, and not less the stout vigorous frame which fitted the peasant-preacher for the hard life he had chosen. "Never did man die of hunger who served God faithfully," he would say, when nightfall found them supperless in the waste. "Look at the eagle overhead! God can feed us through him if He will"--and once at least he owed his meal to a fish that the scared bird let fall. A snowstorm drove his boat on the coast of Fife. "The snow closes the road along the shore," mourned his comrades; "the storm bars our way over sea." "There is still the way of heaven that lies open," said Cuthbert.

Top

Cædmon

While missionaries were thus labouring among its peasantry, Northumbria saw the rise of a number of monasteries, not bound indeed by the strict ties of the Benedictine rule, but gathered on the loose Celtic model of the family or the clan round some noble and wealthy person who sought devotional retirement. The most notable and wealthy of these houses was that of Streoneshealh, where Hild, a woman of royal race, reared her abbey on the cliffs of Whitby, looking out over the Northern Sea. Hild was a Northumbrian Deborah whose counsel was sought even by kings; and the double monastery over which she ruled became a seminary of bishops and priests. The sainted John of Beverley was among her scholars. But the name which really throws glory over Whitby is the name of a cowherd from whose lips during the reign of Oswiu flowed the first great English song. Though well advanced in years, Cædmon had learned nothing of the art of verse, the alliterative jingle so common among his fellows, "wherefore being sometimes at feasts, when all agreed for glee's sake to sing in turn, he no sooner saw the harp come towards him than he rose from the board and went homewards. Once when he had done thus, and gone from the feast to the stable where he had that night charge of the cattle, there appeared to him in his sleep One who said, greeting him by name, 'Sing, Cædmon, some song to Me.' 'I cannot sing,' he answered; 'for this cause left I the feast and came hither.' He who talked with him answered, 'However that be, you shall sing to Me.' 'What shall I sing?' rejoined Cædmon. 'The beginning of created things,' replied He. In the morning the cowherd stood before Hild and told his dream. Abbess and brethren alike concluded 'that heavenly grace had been conferred on him by the Lord.' They translated for Cædmon a passage in Holy Writ, 'bidding him, if he could, put the same into verse.' The next morning he gave it them composed in excellent verse, whereon the abbess, understanding the divine grace in the man, bade him quit the secular habit and take on him the monastic life." Piece by piece the sacred story was thus thrown into Cædmon's poem. "He sang of the creation of the world, of the origin of man, and of all the history of Israel; of their departure from Egypt and entering into the Promised Land; of the incarnation, passion, and resurrection of Christ, and of His ascension; of the terror of future judgement, the horror of hell-pangs, and the joys of heaven."

Top

Synod of Whitby

But even while Cædmon was singing the glories of Northumbria and of the Irish Church were passing away. The revival of Mercia was as rapid as its fall. Only a few years after Penda's defeat the Mercians threw off Oswin's yoke and set Wulfhere, a son of Penda, on their throne. They were aided in their revolt, no doubt, by a religious strife which was now rending the Northumbrian realm. The labour of Aidan, the victories of Oswald and Oswin, seemed to have annexed the north to the Irish Church. The monks of Lindisfarne, or of the new religious houses whose foundation followed that of Lindisfarne, looked for their ecclesiastical tradition, not to Rome but to Ireland; and quoted for their guidance the instructions, not of Gregory, but of Columba. Whatever claims of supremacy over the whole English Church might be pressed by the see of Canterbury, the real metropolitan of the Church as it existed in the North of England was the Abbot of Iona. But Oswiu's queen brought with her from Kent the loyalty of the Kentish Church to the Roman See; and the visit of two young thegns to the Imperial City raised their love of Rome into a passionate fanaticism. The elder of these, Benedict Biscop, returned to denounce the usages in which the Irish Church differed from the Roman as schismatic; and the vigour of his comrade Wilfrid stirred so hot a strife that Oswiu was prevailed upon to summon in 664 a great council at Whitby, where the future ecclesiastical allegiance of his realm should be decided. The points actually contested were trivial enough. Colman, Aidan's successor at Holy Island, pleaded for the Irish fashion of the tonsure, and for the Irish time of keeping Easter: Wilfrid pleaded for the Roman. The one disputant appealed to the authority of Columba, the other to that of St. Peter. "You own," cried the king at last to Colman, "that Christ gave to Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven--has He given such power to Columba?" The bishop could but answer "No." "Then will I rather obey the porter of heaven," said Oswiu, "lest when I reach its gates he who has the keys in his keeping turn his back on me, and there be none to open." The humorous tone of Oswiu's decision could not hide its importance, and the synod had no sooner broken up than Colman, followed by the whole of the Irish-born brethren and thirty of their English fellows, forsook the see of St. Aidan and sailed away to Iona. Trivial in fact as were the actual points of difference which severed the Roman Church from the Irish, the question to which communion Northumbria should belong was of immense moment to the after fortunes of England. Had the Church of Aidan finally won, the later ecclesiastical history of England would probably have resembled that of Ireland. Devoid of that power of organization which was the strength of the Roman Church, the Celtic Church in its own Irish home took the clan system of the country as the basis of its government. Tribal quarrels and ecclesiastical controversies became inextricably confounded; and the clergy, robbed of all really spiritual influence, contributed no element save that of disorder to the state. Hundreds of wandering bishops, a vast religious authority wielded by hereditary chieftains, the dissociation of piety from morality, the absence of those larger and more humanizing influences which contact with a wider world alone can give, this is a picture which the Irish Church of later times presents to us. It was from such a chaos as this that England was saved by the victory of Rome in the Synod of Whitby. But the success of Wilfrid dispelled a yet greater danger. Had England clung to the Irish Church it must have remained spiritually isolated from the bulk of the Western world. Fallen as Rome might be from its older greatness, it preserved the traditions of civilization, of letters and art and law. Its faith still served as a bond which held together the nations that sprang from the wreck of the Empire. To fight against Rome was, as Wilfrid said, "to fight against the world." To repulse Rome was to condemn England to isolation. Dimly as such thoughts may have presented themselves to Oswiu's mind, it was the instinct of a statesman that led him to set aside the love and gratitude of his youth and to link England to Rome in the Synod of Whitby.

Top

Theodore

Oswiu's assent to the vigorous measures of organization undertaken by a Greek monk, Theodore of Tarsus, whom Rome despatched in 668 to secure England to her sway as Archbishop of Canterbury, marked a yet more decisive step in the new policy. The work of Theodore lay mainly in the organization of the episcopate, and thus the Church of England, as we know it to-day, is the work, so far as its outer form is concerned, of Theodore. His work was determined in its main outlines by the previous history of the English people. The conquest of the Continent had been wrought either by races which were already Christian, or by heathens who bowed to the Christian faith of the nations they conquered. To this oneness of religion between the German invaders of the Empire and their Roman subjects was owing the preservation of all that survived of the Roman world. The Church everywhere remained untouched. The Christian bishop became the defender of the conquered Italian or Gaul against his Gothic and Lombard conqueror, the mediator between the German and his subjects, the one bulwark against barbaric violence and oppression. To the barbarian, on the other hand, he was the representative of all that was venerable in the past, the living record of law, of letters, and of art. But in Britain the priesthood and the people had been driven out together. When Theodore came to organize the Church of England, the very memory of the older Christian Church which existed in Roman Britain had passed away. The first missionaries to the Englishmen, strangers in a heathen land, attached themselves necessarily to the courts of the kings, who were their earliest converts, and whose conversion was generally followed by that of their people. The English bishops were thus at first royal chaplains, and their diocese was naturally nothing but the kingdom. In this way realms which are all but forgotten are commemorated in the limits of existing sees. That of Rochester represented till of late an obscure kingdom of West Kent, and the frontier of the original kingdom of Mercia may be recovered by following the map of the ancient bishopric of Lichfield. In adding many sees to those he found Theodore was careful to make their dioceses co-extensive with existing tribal demarcations. But he soon passed from this extension of the episcopate to its organization. In his arrangement of dioceses, and the way in which he grouped them round the see of Canterbury, in his national synods and ecclesiastical canons, Theodore did unconsciously a political work. The old divisions of kingdoms and tribes about him, divisions which had sprung for the most part from mere accidents of the conquest, were now fast breaking down. The smaller states were by this time practically absorbed by the three larger ones, and of these three Mercia and Wessex were compelled to bow to the superiority of Northumbria. The tendency to national unity which was to characterize the new England had thus already declared itself; but the policy of Theodore clothed with a sacred form and surrounded with divine sanctions a unity which as yet rested on no basis but the sword. The single throne of the one Primate at Canterbury accustomed men's minds to the thought of a single throne for their one temporal overlord. The regular subordination of priest to bishop, of bishop to primate, in the administration of the Church, supplied a mould on which the civil organization of the state quietly shaped itself. Above all, the councils gathered by Theodore were the first of our national gatherings for general legislation. It was at a much later time that the Wise Men of Wessex, or Northumbria, or Mercia learned to come together in the Witenagemot of all England. The synods which Theodore convened as religiously representative of the whole English nation led the way by their example to our national parliaments. The canons which these synods enacted led the way to a national system of law.

Top

Wulfhere

The organization of the episcopate was followed by the organization of the parish system. The mission-station or monastery from which priest or bishop went forth on journey after journey to preach and baptize naturally disappeared as the land became Christian. The missionaries turned into settled clergy. As the king's chaplain became a bishop and the kingdom his diocese, so the chaplain of an English noble became the priest and the manor his parish. But this parish system is probably later than Theodore, and the system of tithes which has been sometimes coupled with his name dates only from the close of the eighth century. What was really due to him was the organization of the episcopate, and the impulse which this gave to national unity. But the movement towards unity found a sudden check in the revived strength of Mercia. Wulfhere proved a vigorous and active ruler, and the peaceful reign of Oswiu left him free to build up again during fifteen years of rule (659-675) that Mercian overlordship over the tribes of Mid-England which had been lost at Penda's death. He had more than his father's success. Not only did Essex again own his supremacy, but even London fell into Mercian hands. The West-Saxons were driven across the Thames, and nearly all their settlements to the north of that river were annexed to the Mercian realm. Wulfhere's supremacy soon reached even south of the Thames, for Sussex in its dread of West-Saxons found protection in accepting his overlordship, and its king was rewarded by a gift of the two outlying settlements of the Jutes--the Isle of Wight and the lands of the Meonwaras along the Southampton water--which we must suppose had been reduced by Mercian arms. The industrial progress of the Mercian kingdom went hand in hand with its military advance. The forests of its western border, the marshes of its eastern coast, were being cleared and drained by monastic colonies, whose success shows the hold which Christianity had now gained over its people. Heathenism indeed still held its own in the wild western woodlands and in the yet wilder fen-country on the eastern border of the kingdom which stretched from the "Holland," the sunk, hollow land of Lincolnshire, to the channel of the Ouse, a wilderness of shallow waters and reedy islets wrapped in its own dark mist-veil and tenanted only by flocks of screaming wild-fowl. But in either quarter the new faith made its way. In the western woods Bishop Ecgwine found a site for an abbey round which gathered the town of Evesham, and the eastern fen-land was soon filled with religious houses. Here through the liberality of King Wulfhere rose the Abbey of Peterborough. Here too, Guthlac, a youth of the royal race of Mercia, sought a refuge from the world in the solitudes of Crowland, and so great was the reverence he won, that only two years had passed since his death when the stately Abbey of Crowland rose over his tomb. Earth was brought in boats to form a site; the buildings rested on oaken piles driven into the marsh; a great stone church replaced the hermit's cell; and the toil of the new brotherhood changed the pools around them into fertile meadow-land.

Top

Ecgfrith

In spite however of this rapid recovery of its strength by Mercia, Northumbria remained the dominant state in Britain: and Ecgfrith, who succeeded Oswiu in 670, so utterly defeated Wulfhere when war broke out between them that he was glad to purchase peace by the surrender of Lincolnshire. Peace would have been purchased more hardly had not Ecgfrith's ambition turned rather to conquests over the Briton than to victories over his fellow Englishmen. The war between Briton and Englishman which had languished since the battle of Chester had been revived some twelve years before by an advance of the West-Saxons to the south-west. Unable to save the possessions of Wessex north of the Thames from the grasp of Wulfhere, their king, Cenwealh, sought for compensation in an attack on his Welsh neighbours. A victory at Bradford on the Avon enabled him to overrun the country near Mendip which had till then been held by the Britons; and a second campaign in 658, which ended in a victory on the skirts of the great forest that covered Somerset to the east, settled the West-Saxons as conquerors round the sources of the Parret. It may have been the example of the West-Saxons which spurred Ecgfrith to a series of attacks upon his British neighbours in the west which widened the bounds of his kingdom. His reign marks the highest pitch of Northumbrian power. His armies chased the Britons from the kingdom of Cumbria, and made the district of Carlisle English ground. A large part of the conquered country was bestowed upon the see of Lindisfarne, which was at this time filled by one whom we have seen before labouring as the Apostle of the Lowlands. Cuthbert had found a new mission-station in Holy Island, and preached among the moors of Northumberland as he had preached beside the banks of Tweed. He remained there through the great secession which followed on the Synod of Whitby, and became prior of the dwindled company of brethren, now torn with endless disputes against which his patience and good humour struggled in vain. Worn out at last, he fled to a little island of basaltic rock, one of the Farne group not far from Ida's fortress of Bamborough, strewn for the most part with kelp and sea-weed, the home of the gull and the seal. In the midst of it rose his hut of rough stones and turf, dug down within deep into the rock, and roofed with logs and straw. But the reverence for his sanctity dragged Cuthbert back to fill the vacant see of Lindisfarne. He entered Carlisle, which the king had bestowed upon the bishopric, at a moment when all Northumbria was waiting for news of a fresh campaign of Ecgfrith's against the Britons in the north. The Firth of Forth had long been the limit of Northumbria, but the Picts to the north of it owned Ecgfrith's supremacy. In 685 however the king resolved on their actual subjection and marched across the Forth. A sense of coming ill weighed on Northumbria, and its dread was quickened by a memory of the curses which had been pronounced by the bishops of Ireland on its king, when his navy, setting out a year before from the newly-conquered western coast, swept the Irish shores in a raid which seemed like sacrilege to those who loved the home of Aidan and Columba. As Cuthbert bent over a Roman fountain which still stood unharmed amongst the ruins of Carlisle, the anxious bystanders thought they caught words of ill-omen falling from the old man's lips. "Perhaps," he seemed to murmur, "at this very hour the peril of the fight is over and done." "Watch and pray," he said, when they questioned him on the morrow; "watch and pray." In a few days more a solitary fugitive escaped from the slaughter told that the Picts had turned desperately to bay as the English army entered Fife; and that Ecgfrith and the flower of his nobles lay, a ghastly ring of corpses, on the far-off moorland of Nectansmere.

Top

Mercian greatness

The blow was a fatal one for Northumbrian greatness, for while the Picts pressed on the kingdom from the north Æthelred, Wulfhere's successor, attacked it on the Mercian border, and the war was only ended by a peace which left him master of Middle-England and free to attempt the direct conquest of the south. For the moment this attempt proved a fruitless one. Mercia was still too weak to grasp the lordship which was slipping from Northumbria's hands, while Wessex which seemed her destined prey rose at this moment into fresh power under the greatest of its early kings. Ine, the West-Saxon king whose reign covered the long period from 688 to 726, carried on during the whole of it the war which Cenwealh and Centwine had begun. He pushed his way southward round the marshes of the Parret to a more fertile territory, and guarded the frontier of his new conquests by a fort on the banks of the Tone which has grown into the present Taunton. The West-Saxons thus became masters of the whole district which now bears the name of Somerset. The conquest of Sussex and of Kent on his eastern border made Ine master of all Britain south of the Thames, and his repulse of a new Mercian king Ceolred in a bloody encounter at Wanborough in 715 seemed to establish the threefold division of the English race between three realms of almost equal power. But able as Ine was to hold Mercia at bay, he was unable to hush the civil strife that was the curse of Wessex, and a wild legend tells the story of the disgust which drove him from the world. He had feasted royally at one of his country houses, and on the morrow, as he rode from it, his queen bade him turn back thither. The king returned to find his house stripped of curtains and vessels, and foul with refuse and the dung of cattle, while in the royal bed where he had slept with Æthelburh rested a sow with her farrow of pigs. The scene had no need of the queen's comment: "See, my lord, how the fashion of this world passeth away!" In 726 he sought peace in a pilgrimage to Rome. The anarchy which had driven Ine from the throne broke out in civil strife which left Wessex an easy prey to Æthelbald, the successor of Ceolred in the Mercian realm. Æthelbald took up with better fortune the struggle of his people for supremacy over the south. He penetrated to the very heart of the West-Saxon kingdom, and his siege and capture of the royal town of Somerton in 733 ended the war. For twenty years the overlordship of Mercia was recognized by all Britain south of the Humber. It was at the head of the forces not of Mercia only but of East-Anglia and Kent, as well as of the West-Saxons, that Æthelbald marched against the Welsh on his western border.

Top

Bæda

In so complete a mastery of the south the Mercian King found grounds for a hope that Northern Britain would also yield to his sway. But the dream of a single England was again destined to be foiled. Fallen as Northumbria was from its old glory, it still remained a great power. Under the peaceful reigns of Ecgfrith's successors, Aldfrith and Ceolwulf, their kingdom became the literary centre of Western Europe. No schools were more famous than those of Jarrow and York. The whole learning of the age seemed to be summed up in a Northumbrian scholar. Bæda--the Venerable Bede as later times styled him--was born nine years after the Synod of Whitby on ground which passed a year later to Benedict Biscop as the site of the great abbey which he reared by the mouth of the Wear. His youth was trained and his long tranquil life was wholly spent in an offshoot of Benedict's house which was founded by his friend Ceolfrid. Bæda never stirred from Jarrow. "I spent my whole life in the same monastery," he says, "and while attentive to the rule of my order and the service of the Church, my constant pleasure lay in learning, or teaching, or writing." The words sketch for us a scholar's life, the more touching in its simplicity that it is the life of the first great English scholar. The quiet grandeur of a life consecrated to knowledge, the tranquil pleasure that lies in learning and teaching and writing, dawned for Englishmen in the story of Bæda. While still young he became a teacher, and six hundred monks besides strangers that flocked thither for instruction formed his school of Jarrow. It is hard to imagine how among the toils of the schoolmaster and the duties of the monk, Bæda could have found time for the composition of the numerous works that made his name famous in the West. But materials for study had accumulated in Northumbria through the journeys of Wilfrid and Benedict Biscop and the libraries which were forming at Wearmouth and York. The tradition of the older Irish teachers still lingered to direct the young scholar into that path of Scriptural interpretation to which he chiefly owed his fame. Greek, a rare accomplishment in the West, came to him from the school which the Greek Archbishop Theodore founded beneath the walls of Canterbury. His skill in the ecclesiastical chant was derived from a Roman cantor whom Pope Vitalian sent in the train of Benedict Biscop. Little by little the young scholar thus made himself master of the whole range of the science of his time; he became, as Burke rightly styled him, "the father of English learning." The tradition of the older classic culture was first revived for England in his quotations of Plato and Aristotle, of Seneca and Cicero, of Lucretius and Ovid. Virgil cast over him the same spell that he cast over Dante; verses from the Æneid break his narratives of martyrdoms, and the disciple ventures on the track of the great master in a little eclogue descriptive of the approach of spring. His work was done with small aid from others. "I am my own secretary," he writes; "I make my own notes. I am my own librarian." But forty-five works remained after his death to attest his prodigious industry. In his own eyes and those of his contemporaries the most important among these were the commentaries and homilies upon various books of the Bible which he had drawn from the writings of the Fathers. But he was far from confining himself to theology. In treatises compiled as textbooks for his scholars, Bæda threw together all that the world had then accumulated in astronomy and meteorology, in physics and music, in philosophy, grammar, rhetoric, arithmetic, medicine. But the encyclopædic character of his researches left him in heart a simple Englishman. He loved his own English tongue, he was skilled in English song, his last work was a translation into English of the Gospel of St. John, and almost the last words that broke from his lips were some English rimes upon death.

But the noblest proof of his love of England lies in the work which immortalizes his name. In his "Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation," Bæda was at once the founder of mediæval history and the first English historian. All that we really know of the century and a half that follows the landing of Augustine we know from him. Wherever his own personal observation extended, the story is told with admirable detail and force. He is hardly less full or accurate in the portions which he owed to his Kentish friends, Albinus and Nothelm. What he owed to no informant was his exquisite faculty of story-telling, and yet no story of his own telling is so touching as the story of his death. Two weeks before the Easter of 735 the old man was seized with an extreme weakness and loss of breath. He still preserved however his usual pleasantness and gay good-humour, and in spite of prolonged sleeplessness continued his lectures to the pupils about him. Verses of his own English tongue broke from time to time from the master's lip--rude rimes that told how before the "need-fare," Death's stern "must go," none can enough bethink him what is to be his doom for good or ill. The tears of Bæda's scholars mingled with his song. "We never read without weeping," writes one of them. So the days rolled on to Ascension-tide, and still master and pupils toiled at their work, for Based longed to bring to an end his version of St. John's Gospel into the English tongue and his extracts from Bishop Isidore. "I don't want my boys to read a lie," he answered those who would have had him rest, "or to work to no purpose after I am gone." A few days before Ascension-tide his sickness grew upon him, but he spent the whole day in teaching, only saying cheerfully to his scholars, "Learn with what speed you may; I know not how long I may last." The dawn broke on another sleepless night, and again the old man called his scholars round him and bade them write. "There is still a chapter wanting," said the scribe, as the morning drew on, "and it is hard for thee to question thyself any longer." "It is easily done," said Bæda; "take thy pen and write quickly." Amid tears and farewells the day wore on till eventide. "There is yet one sentence unwritten, dear master," said the boy. "Write it quickly," bade the dying man. "It is finished now," said the little scribe at last. "You speak truth," said the master; "all is finished now." Placed upon the pavement, his head supported in his scholar's arms, his face turned to the spot where he was wont to pray, Bæda chanted the solemn "Glory to God." As his voice reached the close of his song he passed quietly away.

Top

Fall of Æthelbald

First among English scholars, first among English theologians, first among English historians, it is in the monk of Jarrow that English literature strikes its roots. In the six hundred scholars who gathered round him for instruction he is the father of our national education. In his physical treatises he is the first figure to which our science looks back. But the quiet tenor of his scholar's life was broken by the growing anarchy of Northumbria, and by threats of war from its Mercian rival. At last Æthelbald marched on a state which seemed exhausted by civil discord and ready for submission to his arms. But its king Eadberht showed himself worthy of the kings that had gone before him, and in 740 he threw back Æthelbald's attack in a repulse which not only ruined the Mercian ruler's hopes of northern conquest but loosened his hold on the south. Already goaded to revolt by exactions, the West-Saxons were roused to a fresh struggle for independence, and after twelve years of continued outbreaks the whole people mustered at Burford under the golden dragon of their race. The fight was a desperate one, but a sudden panic seized the Mercian King. He fled from the field, and a decisive victory freed Wessex from the Mercian yoke. Æthelbald's own throne seems to have been shaken; for three years later, in 757, the Mercian king was surprised and slain in a night attack by his ealdormen, and a year of confusion passed ere his kinsman Offa could avenge him on his murderers and succeed to the realm.

But though Eadberht might beat back the inroads of the Mercians and even conquer Strathclyde, before the anarchy of his own kingdom he could only fling down his sceptre and seek a refuge in the cloister of Lindisfarne. From the death of Bæda the history of Northumbria became in fact little more than a wild story of lawlessness and bloodshed. King after king was swept away by treason and revolt, the country fell into the hands of its turbulent nobles, its very fields lay waste, and the land was scourged by famine and plague. An anarchy almost as complete fell on Wessex after the recovery of its freedom. Only in Mid-England was there any sign of order and settled rule. The crushing defeat at Burford, though it had brought about revolts which stripped Mercia of all the conquests it had made, was far from having broken the Mercian power. Under the long reign of Offa, which went on from 758 to 796, it rose again to all but its old dominion. Since the dissolution of the temporary alliance which Penda formed with the Welsh King Cadwallon the war with the Britons in the west had been the one great hindrance to the progress of Mercia. But under Offa Mercia braced herself to the completion of her British conquests. Pushing after 779 over the Severn, and carrying his ravages into the heart of Wales, Offa drove the King of Powys from his capital, which changed its old name of Pengwern for the significant English title of the Town in the Scrub or Bush, Scrobbesbyryg, Shrewsbury. Experience however had taught the Mercians the worthlessness of raids like these and Offa resolved to create a military border by planting a settlement of Englishmen between the Severn, which had till then served as the western boundary of the English race, and the huge "Offa's Dyke" which he drew from the mouth of Wye to that of Dee. Here, as in the later conquests of the West-Saxons, the old plan of extermination was definitely abandoned and the Welsh who chose to remain dwelled undisturbed among their English conquerors. From these conquests over the Britons Offa turned to build up again the realm which had been shattered at Burford. But his progress was slow. A reconquest of Kent in 775 woke anew the jealousy of the West-Saxons; and though Offa defeated their army at Bensington in 779 the victory was followed by several years of inaction. It was not till Wessex was again weakened by fresh anarchy that he was able in 794 to seize East-Anglia and restore his realm to its old bounds under Wulfhere. Further he could not go. A Kentish revolt occupied him till his death in 796, and his successor Cenwulf did little but preserve the realm he bequeathed him. At the close of the eighth century the drift of the English peoples towards a national unity was in fact utterly arrested. The work of Northumbria had been foiled by the resistance of Mercia; the effort of Mercia had broken down before the resistance of Wessex. A threefold division seemed to have stamped itself upon the land; and so complete was the balance of power between the three realms which parted it that no subjection of one to the other seemed likely to fuse the English tribes into an English people.

Personae

Terms Defined

Referenced Works