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


If any trust at all can be placed in the legends, a lull in the conquest followed the first settlement, and for some fifty years the English—or at least the West Saxons—were engaged in consolidating their own dominions, without making any further attack upon those of the Welsh. It may be well, therefore, to enquire what changes of manners had come over them in consequence of their change of place from the shores of the Baltic and the North Sea to those of the Channel and the German Ocean.

As a whole, English society remained much the same in Britain as it had been in Sleswick and North Holland. The English came over in a body, with their women and children, their flocks and herds, their goods and chattels. The peculiar breed of cattle which they brought with them may still be distinguished in their remains from the earlier Celtic short-horn associated with Roman ruins and pre-historic barrows. They came as settlers, not as mere marauders; and they remained banded together in their original tribes and families after they had occupied the soil of Britain.

From the moment of their landing in Britain the savage corsairs of the Sleswick flats seem wholly to have laid aside their seafaring habits. They built no more ships, apparently; for many years after Bishop Wilfrith had to teach the South Saxons how to catch sea-fish; while during the early Danish incursions we hear distinctly that the English had no vessels; nor is there much incidental mention of shipping between the age of the settlement and that of Ælfred. The new-comers took up their abode at once on the richest parts of Roman Britain, and came into full enjoyment of orchards which they had not planted and fields which they had not sown. The state of cultivation in which they found the vale of York and the Kentish glens must have been widely different from that to which they were accustomed in their old heath-clad home. Accordingly, they settled down at once into farmers and landowners on a far larger scale than of yore; and they were not anxious to move away from the rich lands which they had so easily acquired. From being sailors and graziers they took to be agriculturists and landmen. In the towns, indeed, they did not settle; and most of these continued to bear their old Roman or Celtic titles. A few may have been destroyed, especially in the first onset, like Anderida, and, at a later date, Chester; but the greater number seem to have been still scantily inhabited, under English protection, by a mixed urban population, mainly Celtic in blood, and known by the name of Loegrians. It was in the country, however, that the English conquerers took up their abode. They were tillers of the soil, not merchants or skippers, and it was long before they acquired a taste for urban life. The whole eastern half of England is filled with villages bearing the characteristic English clan names, and marking each the home of a distinct family of early settlers. As soon as the new-comers had burnt the villa of the old Roman proprietor, and killed, driven out, or enslaved his abandoned serfs, they took the land to themselves and divided it out on their national system. Hence the whole government and social organisation of England is purely Teutonic, and the country even lost its old name of Britain for its new one of England.

In England, as of old in Sleswick, the village community formed the unit of English society. Each such township was still bounded by its mark of forest, mere, or fen, which divided it from its nearest neighbours. In each lived a single clan, supposed to be of kindred blood and bearing a common name. The marksmen and their serfs, the latter being conquered Welshmen, cultivated the soil under cereals for bread, and also for an unnecessarily large supply of beer, as we learn at a later date from numerous charters. Cattle and horses grazed in the pastures, while large herds of pigs were kept in the forest which formed the mark. Thus the early English settled down at once from a nation of pirates into one of agriculturists. Here and there, among the woods and fens which still covered a large part of the country, their little separate communities rose in small fenced clearings or on low islets, now joined by drainage to the mainland; while in the wider valleys, tilled in Roman times, the wealthier chieftains formed their settlements and allotted lands to their Welsh tributaries. Many family names appear in different parts of England, for a reason which will hereafter be explained. Thus we find the Bassingas at Bassingbourn, in Cambridgeshire; at Bassingfield, in Notts; at Bassingham and Bassingthorpe, in Lincolnshire; and at Bassington, in Northumberland. The Billings have left their stamp at Billing, in Northampton; Billingford, in Norfolk; Billingham, in Durham; Billingley, in Yorkshire; Billinghurst, in Sussex; and five other places in various other counties. Birmingham, Nottingham, Wellington, Faringdon, Warrington, and Wallingford are well-known names formed on the same analogy. How thickly these clan settlements lie scattered over Teutonic England may be judged from the number which occur in the London district alone—Kensington, Paddington, Notting-hill, Billingsgate, Islington, Newington, Kennington, Wapping, and Teddington. There are altogether 1,400 names of this type in England. Their value as a test of Teutonic colonisation is shown by the fact that while 48 occur in Northumberland, 127 in Yorkshire, 76 in Lincolnshire, 153 in Norfolk and Suffolk, 48 in Essex, 60 in Kent, and 86 in Sussex and Surrey, only 2 are found in Cornwall, 6 in Cumberland, 24 in Devon, 13 in Worcester, 2 in Westmoreland, and none in Monmouth. Speaking generally, these clan names are thickest along the original English coast, from Forth to Portland; they decrease rapidly as we move inland; and they die away altogether as we approach the purely Celtic west.

The English families, however, probably tilled the soil by the aid of Welsh slaves; indeed, in Anglo-Saxon, the word serf and Welshman are used almost interchangeably as equivalent synonyms. But though many Welshmen were doubtless spared from the very first, nothing is more certain than the fact that they became thoroughly Anglicized. A few new words from Welsh or Latin were introduced into the English tongue, but they were far too few sensibly to affect its vocabulary. The language was and still is essentially Low German; and though it now contains numerous words of Latin or French origin, it does not and never did contain any but the very smallest Celtic element. The slight number of additions made from the Welsh consisted chiefly of words connected with the higher Roman civilisation—such as wall, street, and chester—or the new methods of agriculture which the Teuton learnt from his more civilised serfs. The Celt has always shown a great tendency to cast aside his native language in Gaul, in Spain, and in Ireland; and the isolation of the English townships must have had the effect of greatly accelerating the process. Within a few generations the Celtic slave had forgotten his tongue, his origin, and his religion, and had developed into a pagan English serf. Whatever else the Teutonic conquest did, it turned every man within the English pale into a thorough Englishman.

But the removal to Britain effected one immense change. "War begat the king." In Sleswick the English had lived within their little marks as free and independent communities. In Britain all the clans of each colony gradually came under the military command of a king. The ealdormen who led the various marauding bands assumed royal power in the new country. Such a change was indeed inevitable. For not only had the English to win the new England, but they had also to keep it and extend it. During four hundred years a constant smouldering warfare was carried on between the foreigners and the native Welsh on their western frontier. Thus the townships of each colony entered into a closer union with one another for military purposes, and so arose the separate chieftainships or petty kingdoms of early England. But the king's power was originally very small. He was merely the semi-hereditary general and representative of the people, of royal stock, but elected by the free suffrages of the freemen. Only as the kingdoms coalesced, and as the power of meeting became consequently less, did the king acquire his greater prerogatives. From the first, however, he seems to have possessed the right of granting public lands, with the consent of the freemen, to particular individuals; and such book-land, as the early English called it, after the introduction of Roman writing, became the origin of our system of private property in land.

Every township had its moot or assembly of freemen, which met around the sacred oak, or on some holy hill, or beside the great stone monument of some forgotten Celtic chieftain. Every hundred also had its moot, and many of these still survive in their original form to the present day, being held in the open air, near some sacred site or conspicuous landmark. And the colony as a whole had also its moot, at which all freemen might attend, and which settled the general affairs of the kingdom. At these last-named moots the kings were elected; and though the selection was practically confined to men of royal kin, the king nevertheless represented the free choice of the tribe. Before the conversion to Christianity, the royal families all traced their origin to Woden. Thus the pedigree of Ida, King of Northumbria, runs as follows:—"Ida was Eopping, Eoppa was Esing, Esa was Inguing, Ingui Angenwiting, Angenwit Alocing, Aloc Benocing, Benoc Branding, Brand Baldæging, Bældæg Wodening." But in later Christian times the chroniclers felt the necessity of reconciling these heathen genealogies with the Scriptural account in Genesis; so they affiliated Woden himself upon the Hebrew patriarchs. Thus the pedigree of the West Saxon kings, inserted in the Chronicle under the year 855, after conveying back the genealogy of Æthelwulf to Woden, continues to say, "Woden was Frealafing, Frealaf Finning," and so on till it reaches "Sceafing, id est filius Noe; he was born in Noe's Ark. Lamech, Mathusalem, Enoc, Jared, Malalehel, Camon, Enos, Seth, Adam, primus homo et pater noster."

The Anglo-Saxons, when they settled in Eastern and Southern Britain, were a horde of barbarous heathen pirates. They massacred or enslaved the civilised or half-civilised Celtic inhabitants with savage ruthlessness. They burnt or destroyed the monuments of Roman occupation. They let the roads and cities fall into utter disrepair. They stamped out Christianity with fire and sword from end to end of their new domain. They occupied a civilised and Christian land, and they restored it to its primitive barbarism. Nor was there any improvement until Christian teachers from Rome and Scotland once more introduced the forgotten culture which the English pirates had utterly destroyed. As Gildas phrases it, with true Celtic eloquence, the red tongue of flame licked up the whole land from end to end, till it slaked its horrid thirst in the western ocean. For 150 years the whole of English Britain, save, perhaps, Kent and London, was cut off from all intercourse with Christendom and the Roman world. The country consisted of several petty chieftainships, at constant feud with their Teutonic neighbours, and perpetually waging a border war with Welsh, Picts, and Scots. Within each colony, much of the land remained untilled, while the clan settlements appeared like little islands of cultivation in the midst of forest, waste, and common. The villages were mere groups of wooden homesteads, with barns and cattle-sheds, surrounded by rough stockades, and destitute of roads or communications. Even the palace of the king was a long wooden hall with numerous outhouses; for the English built no stone houses, and burnt down those of their Roman predecessors. Trade seems to have been confined to the south coast, and few manufactured articles of any sort were in use. The English degraded their Celtic serfs to their own barbaric level; and the very memory of Roman civilization almost died out of the land for a hundred and fifty years.

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