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Early Britain - Anglo-Saxon Britain
Anglo-Saxon Influences In Modern Britain
by Allen, Grant (B.A.)


Perhaps the best way of summing up the results of the present inquiry will be by considering briefly the main elements of our existing life and our actual empire which we owe to the Anglo-Saxon nationality. We may most easily glance at them under the five separate heads of blood, character, language, civilisation, and institutions.

In blood, it is probable that the importance of the Anglo-Saxon element has been generally over-estimated. It has been too usual to speak of England as though it were synonymous with Britain, and to overlook the numerical strength of the Celtic population in Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, and Ireland. It has been too usual, also, to neglect the considerable Danish, Norwegian, and Norman element, which, though belonging to the same Low German and Scandinavian stock, yet differs in some important particulars from the Anglo-Saxon. But we have seen reason to conclude that even in the most purely Teutonic region of Britain, the district between Forth and Southampton Water, a considerable proportion of the people were of Celtic or pre-Celtic descent, from the very first age of English settlement. This conclusion is borne out both by the physical traits of the peasantry and the nature of the early remains. In the western half of South Britain, from Clyde to Cornwall, the proportion of Anglo-Saxon blood has probably always been far smaller. The Norman conquerors themselves were of mixed Scandinavian, Gaulish, and Breton descent. Throughout the middle ages, the more Teutonic half of Britain—the southern and eastern tract—was undoubtedly the most important: and the English, mixed with Scandinavians from Denmark or Normandy, formed the ruling caste. Up to the days of Elizabeth, Teutonic Britain led the van in civilisation, population, and commerce. But since the age of the Tudors, it seems probable, as Dr. Rolleston and others have shown, that the Celtic element has largely reasserted itself. A return wave of Celts has inundated the Teutonic region. Scottish Highlanders have poured into Glasgow, Edinburgh, and London: Welshmen have poured into Liverpool, Manchester, and all the great towns of England: Irishmen have poured into every part of the British dominions. During the middle ages, the Teutonic portion of Britain was by far the most densely populated; but at the present day, the almost complete restriction of coal to the Celtic or semi-Celtic area has aggregated the greatest masses of population in the west and north. If we take into consideration the probable large substratum of Celts or earlier races in the Teutonic counties, the wide area of the undoubted Celtic region which pours forth a constant stream of emigrants towards the Teutonic tract, the change of importance between south-east and north-west, since the industrial development of the coal country, and the more rapid rate of increase among the Celts, it becomes highly probable that not one-half the population of the British Isles is really of Teutonic descent. Moreover, it must be remembered that, whatever may have been the case in the primitive Anglo-Saxon period, intermarriages between Celts and Teutons have been common for at least four centuries past; and that therefore almost all Englishmen at the present day possess at least a fraction of Celtic blood.

"The people," says Professor Huxley, "are vastly less Teutonic than their language." It is not likely that any absolutely pure-blooded Anglo-Saxons now exist in our midst at all, except perhaps among the farmer class in the most Teutonic and agricultural shires: and even this exception is extremely doubtful. Persons bearing the most obviously Celtic names—Welsh, Cornish, Irish, or Highland Scots—are to be found in all our large towns, and scattered up and down through the country districts. Hence we may conclude with great probability that the Anglo-Saxon blood has long since been everywhere diluted by a strong Celtic intermixture. Even in the earliest times and in the most Teutonic counties, many serfs of non-Teutonic race existed from the very beginning: their masters have ere now mixed with other non-Teutonic families elsewhere, till even the restricted English people at the present day can hardly claim to be much more than half Anglo-Saxon. Nor do the Teutons now even retain their position as a ruling caste. Mixed Celts in England itself have long since risen to many high places. Leading families of Welsh, Cornish, Scotch, and Irish blood have also been admitted into the peerage of the United Kingdom, and form a large proportion of the House of Commons, of the official world, and of the governing class in India, the Colonies, and the empire generally. These families have again intermarried with the nobility and gentry of English, Danish, or Norman extraction, and thus have added their part to the intricate intermixture of the two races. At the present day, we can only speak of the British people as Anglo-Saxons in a conventional sense: so far as blood goes, we need hardly hesitate to set them down as a pretty equal admixture of Teutonic and Celtic elements.

In character, the Anglo-Saxons have bequeathed to us much of the German solidity, industry, and patience, traits which have been largely amalgamated with the intellectual quickness and emotional nature of the Celt, and have thus produced the prevailing English temperament as we actually know it. To the Anglo-Saxon blood we may doubtless attribute our general sobriety, steadiness, and persistence; our scientific patience and thoroughness; our political moderation and endurance; our marked love of individual freedom and impatience of arbitrary restraint. The Anglo-Saxon was slow to learn, but retentive of what he learnt. On the other hand, he was unimaginative; and this want of imagination may be traced in the more Teutonic counties to the present day. But when these qualities have been counteracted by the Celtic wealth of fancy, the race has produced the great English literature,—a literature whose form is wholly Roman, while in matter, its more solid parts doubtless owe much to the Teuton, and its lighter portions, especially its poetry and romance, can be definitely traced in great measure to known Celtic elements. While the Teutonic blood differentiates our somewhat slow and steady character from the more logical but volatile and unstable Gaul, the Celtic blood differentiates it from the far slower, heavier, and less quick or less imaginative Teutons of Germany and Scandinavia.

In language we owe almost everything to the Anglo-Saxons. The Low German dialect which they brought with them from Sleswick and Hanover still remains in all essentials the identical speech employed by ourselves at the present day. It received a few grammatical forms from the cognate Scandinavian dialects; it borrowed a few score or so of words from the Welsh; it adopted a small Latin vocabulary of ecclesiastical terms from the early missionaries; it took in a considerable number of Romance elements after the Norman Conquest; it enriched itself with an immense variety of learned compounds from the Greek and Latin at the Renaissance period: but all these additions affected almost exclusively its stock of words, and did not in the least interfere with its structure or its place in the scientific classification of languages. The English which we now speak is not in any sense a Romance tongue. It is the lineal descendant of the English of Ælfred and of Bæda, enlarged in its vocabulary by many words which they did not use, impoverished by the loss of a few which they employed, yet still essentially identical in grammar and idiom with the language of the first Teutonic settlers. Gradually losing its inflexions from the days of Eadgar onward, it assumed its existing type before the thirteenth century, and continuously incorporated an immense number of French and Latin words, which greatly increased its value as an instrument of thought. But it is important to recollect that the English tongue has nothing at all to do in its origin with either Welsh or French. The Teutonic speech of the Anglo-Saxon settlers drove out the old Celtic speech throughout almost all England and the Scotch Lowlands before the end of the eleventh century; it drove out the Cornish in the eighteenth century; and it is now driving out the Welsh, the Erse, and the Gaelic, under our very eyes. In language at least the British empire (save of course India) is now almost entirely English, or in other words, Anglo-Saxon.

In civilisation, on the other hand, we owe comparatively little to the direct Teutonic influence. The native Anglo-Saxon culture was low, and even before its transplantation to Britain it had undergone some modification by mediate mercantile transactions with Rome and the Mediterranean states. The alphabet, coins, and even a few southern words, (such as "alms") had already filtered through to the shores of the Baltic. After the colonisation of Britain, the Anglo-Saxons learnt something of the higher agriculture from their Romanised serfs, and adopted, as early as the heathen period, some small portion of the Roman system, so far as regarded roads, fortifications, and, perhaps buildings. The Roman towns still stood in their midst, and a fragment, at least, of the Romanised population still carried on commerce with the half-Roman Frankish kingdom across the Channel. The re-introduction of Christianity was at the same time the re-introduction of Roman culture in its later form. The Latin language and the Mediterranean arts once more took their place in Britain. The Romanising prelates,—Wilfrith, Theodore, Dunstan,—were also the leaders of civilisation in their own times. The Norman Conquest brought England into yet closer connection with the Continent; and Roman law and Roman arts still more deeply affected our native culture. Norman artificers supplanted the rude English handicraftsmen in many cases, and became a dominant class in towns. The old English literature, and especially the old English poetry, died utterly out with Piers Plowman; while a new literature, based upon Romance models, took its origin with Chaucer and the other Court poets. Celtic-Latin rhyme ousted the genuine Teutonic alliteration. With the Renaissance, the triumph of the southern culture was complete. Greek philosophy and Greek science formed the starting-point for our modern developments. The ecclesiastical revolt from papal Rome was accompanied by a literary and artistic return to the models of pagan Rome. The Renaissance was, in fact, the throwing off of all that was Teutonic and mediæval, the resumption of progressive thought and scientific knowledge, at the point where it had been interrupted by the Germanic inroads of the fifth century. The unjaded vigour of the German races, indeed, counted for much; and Europe took up the lost thread of the dying empire with a youthful freshness very different from the effete listlessness of the Mediterranean culture in its last stage. Yet it is none the less true that our whole civilisation is even now the carrying out and completion of the Greek and Roman culture in new fields and with fresh intellects. We owe little here to the Anglo-Saxon; we owe everything to the great stream of western culture, which began in Egypt and Assyria, permeated Greece and the Archipelago, spread to Italy and the Roman empire, and, finally, now embraces the whole European and American world. The Teutonic intellect and the Teutonic character have largely modified the spirit of the Mediterranean civilisation; but the tools, the instruments, the processes themselves, are all legacies from a different race. Englishmen did not invent letters, money, metallurgy, glass, architecture, and science; they received them all ready-made, from Italy and the Ægean, or more remotely still from the Euphrates and the Nile. Nor is it necessary to add that in religion we have no debt to the Anglo-Saxon, our existing creed being entirely derived through Rome from the Semitic race.

In institutions, once more, the Anglo-Saxon has contributed almost everything. Our political government, our limited monarchy, our parliament, our shires, our hundreds, our townships, are considered by the dominant school of historians to be all Anglo-Saxon in origin. Our jury is derived from an Anglo-Saxon custom; our nobility and officials are representatives of Anglo-Saxon earls and reeves. The Teuton, when he settled in Britain, brought with him the Teutonic organisation in its entirety. He established it throughout the whole territory which he occupied or conquered. As the West Saxon over-lordship grew to be the English kingdom, and as the English kingdom gradually annexed or coalesced with the Welsh and Cornish principalities, the Scotch and Irish kingdoms,—the Teutonic system spread over the whole of Britain. It underwent some little modification at the hands of the Normans, and more still at those of the Angevins; but, on the whole, it is still a wide yet natural development of the old Germanic constitution.

Thus, to sum up in a single sentence, the Anglo-Saxons have contributed about one-half the blood of Britain, or rather less; but they have contributed the whole framework of the language, and the whole social and political organisation; while, on the other hand, they have contributed hardly any of the civilisation, and none of the religion. We are now a mixed race, almost equally Celtic and Teutonic by descent; we speak a purely Teutonic language, with a large admixture of Latin roots in its vocabulary; we live under Teutonic institutions; we enjoy the fruits of a Græco-Roman civilisation; and we possess a Christian Church, handed down to us directly through Roman sources from a Hebrew original. To the extent so indicated, and to that extent only, we may still be justly styled an Anglo-Saxon people.

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