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Early Britain - Anglo-Saxon Britain
The English Settle In Britain
by Allen, Grant (B.A.)


Proximity to the sea turns robbers into corsairs. When predatory tribes reach the seaboard they always take to piracy, provided they have attained the shipbuilding level of culture. In the ancient Ægean, in the Malay Archipelago, in the China seas, we see the same process always taking place. Probably from the first period of their severance from the main Aryan stock in Central Asia, the Low German race and their ancestors had been a predatory and conquering people, for ever engaged in raids and smouldering warfare with their neighbours. When they reached the Baltic and the islands of the Frisian coast, they grew naturally into a nation of pirates. Even during the bronze age, we find sculptured stones with representations of long row-boats, manned by several oarsmen, and in one or two cases actually bearing a rude sail. Their prows and sterns stand high out of the water, and are adorned with intricate carvings. They seem like the predecessors of the long ships—snakes and sea-dragons—which afterwards bore the northern corsairs into every river of Europe. Such boats, adapted for long sea-voyages, show a considerable intercourse, piratical or commercial, between the Anglo-Saxon or Scandinavian North and other distant countries. Certainly, from the earliest days of Roman rule on the German Ocean to the thirteenth century, the Low Dutch and Scandinavian tribes carried on an almost unbroken course of expeditions by sea, beginning in every case with mere descents upon the coast for the purposes of plunder, but ending, as a rule, with regular colonisation or political supremacy. In this manner the people of the Baltic and the North Sea ravaged or settled in every country on the sea-shore, from Orkney, Shetland, and the Faroes, to Normandy, Apulia, and Greece; from Boulogne and Kent, to Iceland, Greenland, and, perhaps, America. The colonisation of South-Eastern Britain was but the first chapter in this long history of predatory excursions on the part of the Low German peoples.

The piratical ships of the early English were row-boats of very simple construction. We actually possess one undoubted specimen at the present day, whose very date is fixed for us by the circumstances of its discovery. It was dug up, some years since, from a peat-bog in Sleswick, the old England of our forefathers, along with iron arms and implements, and in association with Roman coins ranging in date from A.D. 67 to A.D. 217. It may therefore be pretty confidently assigned to the first half of the third century. In this interesting relic, then, we have one of the identical boats in which the descents upon the British coast were first made. The craft is rudely built of oaken boards, and is seventy feet long by nine broad. The stem and stern are alike in shape, and the boat is fitted for being beached upon the foreshore. A sculptured stone at Häggeby, in Uplande, roughly represents for us such a ship under way, probably of about the same date. It is rowed with twelve pairs of oars, and has no sails; and it contains no other persons but the rowers and a coxswain, who acted doubtless as leader of the expedition. Such a boat might convey about 120 fighting men.

There are some grounds for believing that, even before the establishment of the Roman power in Britain, Teutonic pirates from the northern marshlands were already in the habit of plundering the Celtic inhabitants of the country between the Wash and the mouth of the Thames; and it is possible that an English colony may, even then, have established itself in the modern Lincolnshire. But, be this as it may, we know at least that during the period of the Roman occupation, Low German adventurers were constantly engaged in descending upon the exposed coasts of the English Channel and the North Sea. The Low German tribe nearest to the Roman provinces was that of the Saxons, and accordingly these Teutonic pirates, of whatever race, were known as Saxons by the provincials, and all Englishmen are still so called by the modern Celts, in Wales, Scotland, and Ireland.

The outlying Roman provinces were close at hand, easy to reach, rich, ill-defended, and a tempting prey for the barbaric tribesmen of the north. Setting out in their light open skiffs from the islands at the mouth of the Elbe, or off the shore afterwards submerged in what is now the Zuyder Zee, the English or Saxon pirates crossed the sea with the prevalent north-east wind, and landed all along the provincial coasts of Gaul and Britain. As the empire decayed under the assaults of the Goths, their ravages turned into regular settlements. One great body pillaged, age after age, the neighbourhood of Bayeux, where, before the middle of the fifth century, it established a flourishing colony, and where the towns and villages all still bear names of Saxon origin. Another horde first plundered and then took up its abode near Boulogne, where local names of the English patronymic type also abound to the present day. In Britain itself, at a date not later than the end of the fourth century, we find (in the "Notitia Imperil") an officer who bears the title of Count of the Saxon Shore, and whose jurisdiction extended from Lincolnshire to Southampton Water. The title probably indicates that piratical incursions had already set in on Britain, and the duty of the count was most likely that of repelling the English invaders.

As soon as the Romans found themselves compelled to withdraw their garrison from Britain, leaving the provinces to defend themselves as best they might, the temptation to the English pirates became a thousand times stronger than before. Though the so-called history of the conquest, handed down to us by Bæda and the "English Chronicle,"[1] is now considered by many enquirers to be mythical in almost every particular, the facts themselves speak out for us with unhesitating certainty. We know that about the middle of the fifth century, shortly after the withdrawal of the regular Roman troops, several bodies of heathen Anglo-Saxons, belonging to the three tribes of Jutes, English, and Saxons, settled en masse on the south-eastern shores of Britain, from the Firth of Forth to the Isle of Wight. The age of mere plundering descents was decisively over, and the age of settlement and colonisation had set in. These heathen Anglo-Saxons drove away, exterminated, or enslaved the Romanised and Christianised Celts, broke down every vestige of Roman civilisation, destroyed the churches, burnt the villas, laid waste many of the towns, and re-introduced a long period of pagan barbarism. For a while Britain remains enveloped in an age of complete uncertainty, and heathen myths intervene between the Christian historical period of the Romans and the Christian historical period initiated by the conversion of Kent. Of South-Eastern Britain under the pagan Anglo-Saxons we know practically nothing, save by inference and analogy, or by the scanty evidence of archæology.

According to tradition the Jutes came first. In 449, says the Celtic legend (the date is quite untrustworthy), they landed in Kent, where they first settled in Ruim, which we English call Thanet—then really an island, and gradually spread themselves over the mainland, capturing the great Roman fortress of Rochester and coast land as far as London. Though the details of this story are full of mythical absurdities, the analogy of the later Danish colonies gives it an air of great probability, as the Danes always settled first in islands or peninsulas, and thence proceeded to overrun, and finally to annex, the adjacent district. A second Jutish horde established itself in the Isle of Wight and on the opposite shore of Hampshire. But the whole share borne by the Jutes in the settlement of Britain seems to have been but small.

The Saxons came second in time, if we may believe the legends. In 477, Ælle, with his three sons, is said to have landed on the south coast, where he founded the colony of the South Saxons, or Sussex. In 495, Cerdic and Cynric led another kindred horde to the south-western shore, and made the first settlement of the West Saxons, or Wessex. Of the beginnings of the East Saxon community in Essex, and of the Middle Saxons in Middlesex, we know little, even by tradition. The Saxons undoubtedly came over in large numbers; but a considerable body of their fellow-tribesmen still remained upon the Continent, where they were still independent and unconverted up to the time of Karl the Great.

The English, on the other hand, apparently migrated in a body. There is no trace of any Englishmen in Denmark or Germany after the exodus to Britain. Their language, of which a dialect still survives in Friesland, has utterly died out in Sleswick. The English took for their share of Britain the nearest east coast. We have little record of their arrival, even in the legendary story; we merely learn that in 547, Ida "succeeded to the kingdom" of the Northumbrians, whence we may possibly conclude that the colony was already established. The English settlement extended from the Forth to Essex, and was subdivided into Bernicia, Deira, and East Anglia.

Wherever the Anglo-Saxons came, their first work was to stamp out with fire and sword every trace of the Roman civilisation. Modern investigations amongst pagan Anglo-Saxon barrows in Britain show the Low German race as pure barbarians, great at destruction, but incapable of constructive work. Professor Rolleston, who has opened several of these early heathen tombs of our Teutonic ancestors, finds in them everywhere abundant evidence of "their great aptness at destroying, and their great slowness in elaborating, material civilisation." Until the Anglo-Saxon received from the Continent the Christian religion and the Roman culture, he was a mere average Aryan barbarian, with a strong taste for war and plunder, but with small love for any of the arts of peace. Wherever else, in Gaul, Spain, or Italy, the Teutonic barbarians came in contact with the Roman civilisation, they received the religion of Christ, and the arts of the conquered people, during or before their conquest of the country. But in Britain the Teutonic invaders remained pagans long after their settlement in the island; and they utterly destroyed, in the south-eastern tract, almost every relic of the Roman rule and of the Christian faith. Hence we have here the curious fact that, during the fifth and sixth centuries, a belt of intrusive and aggressive heathendom intervenes between the Christians of the Continent and the Christian Welsh and Irish of western Britain. The Church of the Celtic Welsh was cut off for more than a hundred years from the Churches of the Roman world by a hostile and impassable barrier of heathen English, Jutes, and Saxons. Their separation produced many momentous effects on the after history both of the Welsh themselves and of their English conquerors.
[1] For an account of these two main authorities see further on, Bæda in chapter xi., and the "Chronicle" in chapter xviii.


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