Category Archives: Anglo-Saxons

Anglo-Saxon and Normans

Anglo-Saxon Sword

How different were the Anglo-Saxons and Norman societies on the eve of the conquest? Each having the same ancestral heritage.  Each were Scandinavian immigrants who had chosen to settle in a new land and take over from its ruling aristocracy. English and Norman social structures were very similar.  Both societies, believed land was the defining currency. The Lord owned the land, and he parcelled it out amongst his followers in return for service. They in turn settled upon the land as minor lords in their own right, surrounded by a retinue of warriors to whom they would grant gifts as rewards for good service and as tokens of their own good work they would receive the greatest gift; land.

Success in war generated more land which could be passed around. If a lord wasn’t successful in battle or not generous enough, it wouldn’t be long before his followers would desert him and seek out a ‘better’ lord. The warrior fought for his lord; they were both serviced by non-fighting tenant farmers who owed their livelihoods to the lord; and below them came the unfree slaves.

The basic building block of the system was the Hearth. On his land, the Lord owned a hearth-hall, which he housed his retinue of warriors. His tenants would bring their produce to this hall, feeding and maintaining the retinue. In return, the Lord provided all on his land with security. It was when he was unable to provide that security that the lord got worried: lack of security defined a ‘bad’ lordship.

10th Century Anglo-Saxon England had been complicated by a highly chequered history. Which had seen pre-Norman Britain become the most organised state in Western Europe. The king controlled land divided into shires, on which taxation was assessed and levied. These taxes were collected in coin from the burhs and fresh coin was minted 3 times a year in 60 royal mints arranged throughout the country. It was a very Roman system.

According to Anglo-Saxons, the Normans be second or third generation immigrants of Northern France, and according to their history, the land of Normandy was granted to their founder, Rollo in 911. His successors ruled the frontier on behalf of the Frankish king. So it was the Norman system was coloured by Frankish practice, each had their own way of who owned and looked after the land, and supplied warriors for battle.

On one hand the Norman Duke had the power to call out men who would down tools and join him in battle, he usually relied on his military, which was a complex set of family ties and loyalties he had established with the great magnates who occupied his land. By the time of William the Conqueror, this relationship had hardened which saw Norman nobles; his faithful men join him in battle.

Though Norman dukes controlled the coinage in their own domain, no coins had been minted since the time of William’s grandfather. The duke still called upon his nobles to provide an army when he wanted to go to war, and they obliged in the expectation of a share in the spoils of conquest.

In the crucial months leading up to the Battle of Hastings, Harold was faced with limitations when he called for warriors to defend Britain from the likes of these Norman warriors.

With both Britain’s Anglo-Saxons and France’s Normans both using similar hearth systems, when Britain lost the Battle of Hastings to William’s Norman knights, both systems could be integrated quite smoothly.

William introduced the Domesday Book, which illustrated that little had changed just name of the landlord. Villages remained much the same as they had for hundreds of years: woodland measured in the number of pigs it could support and mills and minor industries.  Some villages were transformed with the addition of a Norman castle.

Normans introduced a major change into English law. Prior to the Conquest, cases were tried in front of juries selected from the hundred on the basis of Trial by Ordeal, or Trial by Oath Taking.

Oath Taking, a Saxon process whereby a man would rely on the oaths of his lord and peers to vouch for his innocence and good name – the higher the status of your oath-helper, the better your chances of success.

These were complemented by the Norman practice of Trial by Battle, in which the judgement of God was determined not by the speed it took you to heal from the Ordeal, but by the success of your champion in battle.

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The Humble English Parish Church

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One of the few sights left that evoke our love of England has to be the decaying parish church, a record of centuries of history and social change within the area.

The humble parish church is an integral part of English social life and culture, covering a period in history of 1400 years.

Churches were often located on pre-Christian sites of spiritual significance, taking advantage of people’s existing devotion to a particular place.  Churches are nearly always oriented so that the main altar is at the east end of the church, facing Jerusalem, and the rising sun.  Even if the altar end of the church is not literally in the east, it is still referred to as the East End.

Historians speculated that parish boundaries were originally those of Saxon manors.  Prior to the Norman invasion, early churches built with towers, was a defensive measure against the threat of invasion.

The chancel of the church was the domain of the priest, and the nave belonged to the parishioners. Each was responsible for the upkeep of their domain.  This may go towards explaining the unusual architecture of some early parish churches, where the chancel is built of carefully squared stone, and the nave of a cheaper flint.

The distinction between chancel and nave led to the development of rood screens to mark the division between the domain of the priest and his parishioners.  These screens were usually made of wood, and became very elaborate in their design.  Sadly many were destroyed under the Reformation and the later Puritan influence.

One point to remember is that there was no seating in churches at that time.  People attending a service stood in the nave.

The floor plan of the southern Anglo Saxon Churches was based on the traditional Roman basilica, with an eastern apse, no transepts, western entrances and aisles.

In the north the Celtic influence led to churches that were narrow, tall, and rectangular, with doors on the side.

The Norman’s rebuilt many of the earlier Saxon churches, in the process destroying much of the regional differences in favour of a more unified Norman look.

Early Norman churches were without aisles, with a central tower, and built to a cruciform plan, shaped like a cross with a small t.

Medieval parish churches were usually plastered inside and out.  Vivid pictures were painted on the interior plaster to illustrate Biblical scenes for the illiterate population.

Before the Great Plague of 1348-50 the growing population necessitated more space inside parish churches, and it was at this time, many churches added aisles.

The most notable parish churches of the late medieval period are the so-called wool churches, common to East Anglia.  These are churches endowed by the newly rich class of local merchants thriving on England’s wool trade.

The Tudor era saw one important change, under the influence of Elizabeth the first; sermons became much longer, leading to the installation of pews in the nave.  The preacher needed a pulpit and lectern which was added to the nave.  Most of the pulpits seen in parish churches date from the Tudor period.

The Tudor period saw the end of the great church building era.  Far fewer churches were built from that time to the present day, the most prominent being the classical motif of the Stuart and Georgian period, and the Gothic revival of the mid-Victorian time.

Most new parish churches were built in the ever growing cities.  Most notably in London, where the Great Fire of 1666 destroyed most of the Medieval Churches and gave a young architect – Christopher Wren an opportunity to design a new classical style of church.

Many of the old parish churches that once served prosperous villages have fallen into disuse and been abandoned as populations have shifted.

Anglo-Saxon King: Alfred the Great

King Alfred the Great
King Alfred the Great

Alfred was born in Wantage, Berkshire in AD849, into an England which was unstable and a violent society, a country consisting of kingdoms, a land threatened by invaders.  He was the youngest son of King Ethelwulf of Wessex, and his wife Osburh, daughter of Oslac, the royal cupbearer of South Hampshire.

In 853 the young Prince Alfred rode a thousand miles, taking his first steps into public affairs and diplomacy at the papal court in Rome.  He would present himself to Pope Leo IV on behalf of his father; King Ethelwulf of Wessex.  He was anointed royally by the Pope.

In 871, King Ethelred, the West Saxon King and elder brother of Alfred dies in battle.  On the 23rd April, Alfred becomes King of Wessex, a land beset with Viking invaders.

Alfred builds an English fleet of ships, to take on these Viking invaders on land and sea.  The English learnt quickly, for in 875 they claim their first sea victory, capturing one of the Viking ships.

In 878, Alfred is pushed west into the Somerset marshes by Danish forces.  From Athelney Fort and surrounding areas he creates a force to come out fighting, beating the Danes.

In 878 the “Treaty of Wedmore” is born, dividing England in two, with Alfred overlord of both halves.  Anglo-Saxons in the south and west, with Danes in the north and east.

As the Danes invade Kent in 885, Alfred drives Danish forces out of London in 886, and recognised by its people, as King of all England.

During the 890’s Alfred compiled the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, which were written in the language of the Anglo-Saxons.  It described England’s political, social and economic events through time, and was continually updated until the 12th century.

Alfred the Great, King of England, died in 899 and was succeeded by Edmund the Elder.

Anglo-Saxon Legend: Beowulf

beowulf

We know not who wrote the epic 3,182 line Anglo-Saxon poem; Beowulf, written in Old English.

The Beowulf story is set within a warrior society, a blood-curdling tale of gore and brutality, about a hero governed by duty, honour and bravery.  It tells the story of Beowulf, a young warrior and his victories.

Grendel, the semi-human monster, repeatedly attacks the Great Hall of Herat, by dragging away his prey, one victim after another.

Beowulf is summoned to the court of the Danish King; Hrothgar.  Whose castle has been under siege these past twelve years.  His knights are being constantly slaughtered night after night, by the monster; Grendel.

Beowulf and Grendel come face to face in battle.  Beowulf, rips Grendel’s arm from its socket, and Grendel hobbles back to his lair where he bleeds to death.

Grendel’s mother seeks revenge the following night, from the likes of Beowulf.  A great under water fight takes place between Beowulf and the monstrous matriarch, with Beowulf emerging as the victor.

Beowulf returns home to Sweden a hero of his people.  He rules for many years, and his people believe he is a wise ruler.  According to legend, a dragon guarded the city’s treasure, and all was quiet for some 300 years, then things changed the dragon is disturbed and he goes on the rampage; burning Beowulf’s hall to cinders.

Beowulf summons up all his courage, and makes a pledge to his people, that he and his follower’s will kill the dragon.  Beowulf’s follower’s gazed upon their leader and the dragon, and fear seeped through their bodies, as they fled in fear.

Wiglaf a young kinsman stands by Beowulf, prepared to fight side by side in battle.  As Beowulf prepares to vanquish the dragon, his sword shatters and the creature inflicts a deadly poison venom upon him.  Wiglaf and Beowulf kill the beast as the venom seeps through Beowulf’s body, as life is slowly taken from him.

Wiglaf proved himself in battle, and loyal to his King, earning the trust of Beowulf, who passes his throne to him… a worthy successor and King.

The poem concludes with a gloomy prediction which talks about catastrophes which will strike down Beowulf’s people, now their hero had died.

Beowulf’s people lament, that he had been a gracious and fair minded King, with kindness of heart.

Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Wessex

Anglo-Saxon Wessex

Wessex; the kingdom of the West Saxons, started from humble beginnings, becoming the most powerful kingdom in the land.

Cerdic, founder of Wessex the first Anglo-Saxon King, had ventured from Saxony in AD495 landing on England’s Hampshire coastline, with his son Cynric and five warrior ships.

In AD519, Cerdic was victorious at the “Battle of Cerdic’s Ford” (Cerdicesleag) and claimed the title “King of Wessex” (520-540).

Cynric son of Cerdic, succeeded him upon his death and reigned from 540-560.  Cynric spent the early years of his reign, expanding the kingdom of Wessex into Wiltshire.  He faced much opposition from native Briton’s, but managed minor gains; “Battle of Sarum” and “Beranbury,” known as Barbury Castle.  In 560 Cynric died and was succeeded by his son Ceawlin.

When Ceawlin stepped forward as the next Anglo-Saxon King of Wessex, much of southern England was under Anglo-Saxon control.

The “Battle of Wibbandun” took place in 568, between the forces of the Saxons of Wessex and the Jutes of Kent.  In 571 Ceawlin captured Aylesbury and Linbury, and by 577 he had taken Gloucester and Bath, reaching the Severn Estuary.

Ceawlin ordered the construction of a defensive earthwork, stretching between Wiltshire and Bristol.

Ceawlin King of Wessex achieved much fame among his people, as they crossed England as victorious warriors.  All this would change in 584, when Ceawlin fought the Britons at Fethanleag; “Battle of Stoke Lyne” followed by a period of taking towns and countless spoils of war, from the local area.

Then he retreated to his own lands… questions remain unanswered, why?  Did he lose the battle, and attack local towns in response.

As written in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles:  This year Ceawlin… fought with the Britons on the spot that is called Fretherne… And Ceawlin took many towns, as well as immense booty and wealth.  He then retreated to his people.

In 591 Ceawlin’s nephew; Ceol is believed to have led an uprising against his King, at the “Battle of Woden’s Burg.”  Ceol became King of Wessex after deposing his uncle; Ceawlin.

Ceol reigned from 591-597, his successor his son; Cynegils, was too young to inherit the throne.  Ceolwulf, brother of Ceol claimed the throne.  One could say he was keeping the seat warm for the future king.

Cynegils came to the throne in 611 after Coolwulf’s death and would reign till 643.  His reign commenced with a victory over Welsh forces in 614.

Cynegils granted the northern part of his kingdom to his son Cwichelm, at a time when the Northumbrian’s grew in power.  Cynegils forged an alliance with the King of Mercia.  This alliance was sealed through marriage; Cynegils youngest son Cenwalh married the sister of King Penda of Mercia.

In 626 Cwichelm launched a failed assassination against King Edwin of Northumbria.  Edwin laid siege to the Kingdom of Wessex, clashing against the Mercian and Wessex forces, in reply to the attempted assassination, and was victorious.

Cynegils and Cwichelm had suffered a humiliating defeat by a smaller army, and forced to retreat back, within their own borders.

In 628 the forces of Wessex and Mercia fought at the “Battle of Cirencester.”  With Mercian’s victorious, Wessex became a minor kingdom as control of the Severn Valley, parts of Worcestershire, Warwickshire and Gloucestershire were lost.

In 635, Cynegils of Wessex was baptised by Bishop Birinus in Dorchester.  In 636 Cwichelm was also baptised in Dorchester and died later that year.  In 643 Cynegils died…

In 643, Cenwalh the youngest son of Cynegils became King of Wessex, he who had been forced into a marriage with King Penda of Mercia’s sister, to seal an alliance of the kingdom’s.

One of his first duties was to discard his wife and marry Seaxburh, which annoyed King Penda, where upon a war was declared and Cenwalh was driven from his lands and into exile in 645.

Cenwalh converted to Christianity whilst exiled in East Anglia, and by 648 had reclaimed his throne; King of Wessex.  He went on to commission the construction of Winchester Cathedral, and built it in St.Peter’s name.

In 672 King Cenwalh died and Seaxburh his wife succeeded him as the first Queen of Wessex from 673-674.

In 674 Seaxburh died, and was succeeded by her son; Aescwine.  In 675 Aescwine’s forces defended his kingdom from the Mercian’s at the “Battle of Bedwyn” becoming victorious in battle.

In 676 Aescwine passed away and his uncle Centwine claimed the throne.  In the early part of hisd reign, he was a pagan king, and in the 680’s converted to Christianity.  In 685, King Centwine of the Wessex Kingdom, abdicated his position as king to become a monk.

Caedwalla descendant of Cerdic and from a noble house, who had been driven from Wessex by Cenwalh in the removal of sub-royal families.  Aged barely twenty-six had gathered support, as he invaded Sussex and built his own kingdom.

Caedwalla became the new King of Wessex following Centwine abdication.  He conquered the Kingdoms of Sussex, Kent and the Isle of Wight.  It is believed, he went on to commit acts of genocide and forced his people to renounce the Christian faith.

In 688 King Caedwalla travelled to Rome, and received holy baptism on the 13th April from Pope Sergius, who gave him the name Peter.  On the 20th April, he died dressed in his baptismal robes and was laid to restin St.Peter’s Church.

Ine, a nobleman claimed the throne of Wessex in 689, taking over a kingdom stretching from the Severn Estuary to Kent’s shorelines.  King Ine is remembered in his reforms; increasing trade, coinage throughout his realm.  The introduction of laws in 694, covering convicted murder’s rights, which would lead to the development of an English society.

In 728, King Ine of Wessex had become weak and feeble, opting to abdicate his post, travel to Rome and retire.  At that time it was one’s belief it would aid one’s ascension to heaven.

Aethelheard, brother-in-law to King Ine, claimed the Wessex throne in 726.  Nobleman Oswald contested his right to the throne, and a bitter struggle lasted for almost a year, until Aethelheard prevailed with assistance from the Mercians.

His fourteen year reign was a struggle as he fought with the Mercians to the north, and lost much land in the process.  They who had supported him in battle for the throne, demanded that the Kingdom of Wessex should fall under their control.

In 740 King Aethelheard passed away and was succeeded by his brother Cuthred who received the West-Saxon Kingdom of Wessex, which he would hold for sixteen years.  He fought fiercly with Aethelbald, King of Mercia.

In the early years of Cuthred’s reign, Wessex was nothing more than a puppet state of Mercia.  When the Mercian’s fought the Welsh, the warriors of Wessex were expected to assist.

In 752 Cuthred was fed up of Mercian dominance and went to war against them, in a bid for Wessex independence.  Victory was theirs and Independence was theirs…  In 753 Cuthred took on the Welsh and passed away in 756.

Sigeberht succeeded his cousin as the new King of Wessex in 756.  His reign was short lived, for he had killed the Earl of Cumbra.  The council of nobles stripped of his title as King, and Cynewulf drove him into the weald, where he lived until a swineherd stabbed him to death at Privett stream, and so the death… the murder of the Earl had been avenged.

Cynewulf became King of Wessex in 757 and had the support of Aethelbald of Mercia in his claim for the throne.  In the first few months of his reign, Cynewulf felt more a sub-king of Wessex under Mercian rule.

Aethelbald of Mercia was assassinated in 757 at Seckington.  With Aethelwald out of the way, Cynewulf saw his opportunity to push for an independent Wessex, and the expansion of Wessex territories into the southern counties of Mercia.

Cynewulf lost the Mercian territories in 779, when he was defeated by King Offa, who had succeeded Aethelbald as King of Mercia at the “Battle of Bensington.”  A defeated Cynewulf army, were forced back, to the lands of Wessex.

In 786, Cynewulf of Wessex was murdered by the nobleman Cybeheard, whom he had exiled years earlier.

In 786 Beorhtric, distant descendant of Cerdic, founder of Wessex, succeeded to the throne with the backing of King Offa of Mercia.  Beorhtric married Lady Eadburh; daughter of King Offa.

Legend has it; Beorhtric was poisoned by his wife Eadburh, and exiled to Germany for her crime in 789.  Charlemagne and his son offered her the choice of husband, she chose the younger. Charlemagne replied you chose badly and as such, will have neither.

Embarassed by the affair chose to live out her remaining years in a German convent.  She was expelled after receiving her vows, for breaking the rules by having sex with a Saxon man.  She spent her remaining days, begging on the streets of Pavia in northern Italy.

Egbert exiled by Beorhtric in the 780’s returned to the Kingdom of Wessex in 802, upon the death of Beorhtric, to claim the throne.

The first twenty years of his reign, was spent keeping Wessex independant from Mercia.  In 825 they met in battle at Ellandun.  Egbert’s victorious forces pushed the Mercian’s to retreat to the north, Egbert’s army pushed south-east to Surrey, Sussex, Essex and Kent.

It took barely a year, and by 826 Anglo-Saxon England, had seen Wessex become the most powerful kingdom in the land.  In 829, Egbert was victorious against the Mercians, as he claimed all of southern Britain up to the River Humber, and the kingdom of Northumbria submitted to him.

Egbert had claimed Mercia, as the exiled King Wiglaf revolted, driving the Wessex army, back into their own lands.  The Mercians made no attempt to re-claim lost territories of Kent, Sussex, and Surrey.  Wessex was seen as the most powerful kingdom of southern England.

Aethelwulf, son of Egbert and King of Kent, became the next King of Wessex in 839, following his father’s death.  Aethelwulf’s kingdom of Kent, would be ruled by his son; Aethelstan, on his behalf.

Aethelwulf and his wife; Osburh bore six children one of whom was Alfred.  In 853 Alfred was sent to Rome on a pilgrimage.  Aethelwulf’s wife died in 855, and he joined his son in Rome.  On his return journey home, met his second wife, a twelve year old French princess named Judith.

When Aethelwulf landed on British shores in 856, his son Aethelbald had stolen his kingdom from him, in his absence.  His Christian attitudes led him to grant Aethelbald the western part of Wessex, an attempt to avoid civil war breaking out.

In 858 Aethelwulf died and was succeeded by his son Aethelbald. who took his father’s widow, Judith as his wife.

Aethelberht, brother to Aethelbald and son of Aethelwulf became King of Wessex in 860.  He integrated the Kingdom of Kent into Wessex, and battled against Viking incursions seeing off the Danish invaders.  Around 865 these Vikings accepted money from men of Kent, in return for a truce, but it wasn’t long before it was broken, as these Vikings ravaged eastern Kent.

In 865 Aethelberht died with no successor, and so the throne of Wessex was passed to his brother; Aethelred.

Aethelred’s six year reign as King of Wessex was one battle after another with Viking invaders.

In 871, King Ethelred, the West Saxon King and elder brother of Alfred dies in battle.  On the 23rd April, Alfred becomes King of Wessex, a land beset with Viking invaders.

Alfred builds an English fleet of ships, to take on these Viking invaders on land and sea.  The English learnt quickly, for in 875 they claim their first sea victory, capturing one of the Viking ships.

In 878, Alfred is pushed west into the Somerset marshes by Danish forces.  From Athelney Fort and surrounding areas he creates a force to come out fighting, beating the Danes.

In 878 the “Treaty of Wedmore” is born, dividing England in two, with Alfred overlord of both halves.  Anglo-Saxons in the south and west, with Danes in the north and east.

As the Danes invade Kent in 885, Alfred drives Danish forces out of London in 886, and recognised by its people, as King of all England.

Alfred the Great, King of England, died in 899 and was succeeded by Edward, which was disputed by Edward’s cousin; Aethelwold, who sought assistance from the Danes, in claiming the crown.

Edward retaliated attacking the Danish Kingdom of East Anglia, culminating at the “Battle of Holme” where East Anglian Danes and Wessex warriors fought, and Aethelwold died in battle.

Edward the Elder’s reign was made up of constant clashes with the Danes.  By the end of his reign, Edward had almost quashed threats of Viking invasion.

Edward the Elder dies in 924 and is succeeded by his son, Aelfweard who reigns for a mere sixteen days.

Aethelstan becomes the next King of Wessex in 924 and the first King of England.  By the time of his coronation in 925, Anglo-Saxons had retaken much of England leaving an area around York in Danish control.

A truce was drawn up, preventing either side going to war.  When the Danish King; Sihtric died in 927, Aethelstan swiftly captured York and the Danes were forced into submission.

Aethelstan believed he be King of Britain, and called a gathering of the Kings including Scotland and Wales to acknowledge that he be the true King of England.  The welsh and Scots agreed, providing borders were placed between the three countries.

King Aethelstan died on the 27th October 940.  During his reign he had defeated the Vikings, created a united Anglo-Saxon Kingdom under a single banner, becoming the first King of England.

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Anglo-Saxon England

Anglo-Saxons

Fragmentary knowledge of England in the 5th and 6th centuries comes from the British writer Gildas (6th century), the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (q.v.; a history of the English people begun in the 9th century), saints’ lives, poetry, archaeological findings, and place-name studies. In the absence of Roman administrators, British warlords, nominally Christian, ruled small, unstable kingdoms and continued some Roman traditions of governance. In the mid-5th century, they revived the Roman policy of hiring Germanic mercenaries to help defend them against warlike peoples of the north (Picts and Scots). The Saxon mercenaries revolted against their British chiefs and began the process of invasion and settlement that destroyed the native ruling class and established Germanic kingdoms throughout the island by the 7th century. Later legends about a hero named Arthur were placed in this period of violence. The invaders were variously Angles, Saxons, Frisians, Jutes, and Franks in origin, but were similar in culture and eventually identified themselves indifferently as Angles or Saxons. Any man of noble birth and success in war could organize an army of warriors loyal to him personally and attempt to conquer and establish a kingdom. By the 7th century the Germanic kingdoms included Northumbria, Bernicia, Deira, Lindsay, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Wessex, Sussex, and Kent. They were turbulent states, but all Anglo-Saxon societies were characterized by strong kinship groups, feuds, customary law, and a system of money compensations (wergeld) for death, personal injury, and theft. They practiced their traditional polytheistic religions, lacked written language, and depended on mixed economies of agriculture, hunting, and animal husbandry.

The dominant themes of the next two centuries were the success of Christianity and the political unification of England. Christianity came from two directions, Rome and Ireland. In 596 Pope Gregory I sent a group of missionaries under a monk named Augustine to Kent, where King Ethelbert had married Bertha (d. 612?), a Christian Frankish princess. Soon after, Ethelbert was baptized, Augustine became the first archbishop of Canterbury, and the southern kingdoms became Christian. In Northumbria the Christianity from Rome met Celtic Christianity, which had been brought from Ireland to Scotland by St. Columba and then to Northumbria by St. Aidan (d. 651), who founded the monastery of Lindisfarne in 635. Although not heretical, the Celtic church differed from Rome in the way the monks tonsured their heads, in its reckoning of the date of Easter, and, most important, in its organization, which reflected the clans of Ireland rather than the highly centralized Roman Empire. At the Synod of Whitby in 664, Northumbria’s King Oswy (c. 612- 71) chose to go with Rome, giving England a common religion and a vivid example of unification. Theodore of Tarsus (602-90), who became arch-bishop of Canterbury in 668, created dioceses and gave the English church its basic structure.

The meeting in Northumbria of Celtic and Mediterranean scholarship produced a flowering of letters unequaled in western Europe. The Venerable Bede, a Northumbrian monk, was the outstanding European scholar of his age. His Ecclesiastical History of the English People made popular the use of BC and AD to date historical events. It also treated England as a unit, even while it was still divided among several kingdoms. Charlemagne chose Alcuin of York, another Northumbrian, to head his palace school.

The Germanic kingdoms tended to coalesce by means of warfare. As early as the time of Ethelbert of Kent, one king could be recognized as Bretwalda, or ruler of Britain. Generally speaking, the title fell in the 7th century to the kings of Northumbria, in the 8th to those of Mercia, and finally, in the 9th, to Egbert of Wessex, who in 825 defeated the Mercians at Ellendun. In the next century his family came to rule all England.

Egbert’s grandson, Alfred, became king of Wessex in one of England’s darkest hours. The Danes, part of the Viking forces that had begun to raid the English coasts in the late 8th century, had given up their primary goal of plunder and were now set on conquering England. Wessex and Alfred were all that stood in their way. Alfred at first had to buy a respite, but after his victory at Edington in 878 he forced the Danish king Guthrum (fl. 865-90) to accept baptism and a division of England into two parts, Wessex and what historians later called the Danelaw (Essex, East Anglia, and Northumbria). By creating an English navy, by reorganizing the Anglo-Saxon fyrd, or militia, allowing his warriors to alternate between farming and fighting, and by building strategic forts, Alfred captured London and began to roll back the Danish tide.

Alfred also gave his attention to good government, issuing a set of dooms, or laws, and to scholarship, which had declined in the years since Bede and Alcuin. He promoted, and assisted in, the translation of Latin works into Old English and encouraged the compilation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. For his many accomplishments, Alfred was called The Great, the only English king so acclaimed. The conquest of the Danelaw was completed by Alfred’s son, Edward the Elder, and by his grandson Athelstan, who won a great victory at Brunanburh in 937. Most of the remainder of the century was peaceful. In this atmosphere, St. Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury from 960 to 988, was able to restore the English church to health and prosperity.

The conquest of the Danelaw meant the creation of a unified government for all England and the evolution of the territorial state, which was replacing the kinship structure of earlier times. The king ruled with the assistance of the witenagemot (q.v.) , a council of wise men, which participated in the issuing of dooms and oversaw the selection of kings. About 40 shires (counties) were created out of former kingdoms or from significant military or administrative units. Each had a shiremoot, or court, consisting of all free males and meeting twice a year, at first presided over by a royal official called an alderman (later an earl) and then by a shire reeve, or sheriff. Smaller administrative, tax, and military units, called hundreds, had courts roughly parallel to the older folk moots, which met every four weeks, handling most of the ordinary judicial business. England had the most advanced government in western Europe, especially at the local level and in the office of sheriff, the key link between the king and local administration. After 991 this government proved capable of collecting the Danegeld, a tax on land, initially used as tribute to the Danes but later as an ordinary source of royal revenue. No other country in western Europe had the ability to assess and collect such a tax.

A new round of Danish invasions came in the reign of Ethelred II (the Redeless), often called The Unready, but better understood as being “without counsel,” or unwise. The Danegeld was his idea, as was the attempt to kill all the Danes from previous invasions, who were by this time becoming assimilated. In 1014 he was driven from the throne by King Sweyn I of Denmark, only to return a few months later when Sweyn died. When Ethelred died in 1016, Sweyn’s son Canute II won out over Edmund II, called Ironside, the son of Ethelred. Under Canute, England was part of an empire that also included Denmark and Norway. Following the short and unpopular reigns of Canute’s sons, Harold I Harefoot and Hardecanute, Edward the Confessor, another son of Ethelred, was recalled from Normandy, where he had lived in exile. Edward’s reign is noted for its dominance by the powerful earls of Wessex-Godwin (990?-1053) and then his son Harold (subsequently Harold II) and for the first influx of Norman-French influence. Edward was most interested in the building of Westminster Abbey, which was completed just in time for his burialin January 1066.

Edward’s death without an heir left the succession in doubt. The witenagemot chose Harold, earl of Wessex, although his only claim to the throne was his availability. Other aspirants were King Harold III (the Hard Ruler) of Norway and Duke William of Normandy. Harold II defeated the former at Stamford Bridge on Sept. 25, 1066, but lost to William at Hastings on Octo ber 14. William, who had more right to the throne than Harold, was crowned in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day.

Anglo-Saxon King: Edward the Confessor

Edward the Confessor
Edward the Confessor

Edward, the son of King Ethelred II and Emma of Normandy, was a direct descendant of King Alfred the Great.  Edward was educated at an English monastery, and when the Danes invaded, his mother Emma fled to Normandy with her children, and it was here Edward developed strong ties with Normans.

With the death of King Ethelred II in 1016, Emma returned to England and married the new Danish King: Cnut the Great.  The son of Emma and Cnut; Hardecnut succeeded his father as King and then proceeded to bring back his half-brother; Edward from Normandy to England in 1041.

Hardecnut, King of England died in 1042 and was succeeded by his half-brother Edward, who was crowned Edward the Confessor at Canterbury Cathedral on Easter Sunday.

Edward, King of England from 1042-1066, kept the kingdom in a state of relative peace.  However the latter years of his reign were plagued by who would be successor.

Edward, famous for his piety, was canonized in 1161.

His most lasting contribution to English history, was the building project that turned the Benedictine Abbey in Westminster into the great religious and political centre of the kingdom; Westminster Abbey.

Edward, may have been King, but he found it difficult to assert his own authority over the earls of his kingdom, especially one Godwin of Essex.  He who had been chief adviser to King Cnut, who had been rewarded with large expanses of land and much wealth.  Godwin’s influence across Edward’s kingdom, increased further when Godwin demanded that Edward marry his daughter; Edith.  Edward, needed Godwin’s military support and was forced into agreeing to this marriage.  Edith was the main pawn in Godwin’s game to rule England.

Edward appointed the Norman, Robert of Jumieges as the new Archbishop of Canterbury in 1051, and straight away this caused a rift with Godwin.

When Godwin failed to support Edward’s brother-in-law in a dispute with the citizens of Dover, Edward banished him, and promised William the Duke of Normandy, that he would be his heir, to the English throne.  In 1052 Godwin returned to England, and with support from the earls of Mercia and Northumbria, forced Edward to name Stigand as Archbishop of Canterbury instead of Robert of Jumieges.  Edward withdrew to concentrate on the building of Westminster Abbey.

Shortly before his death in 1066, he changed his successor to the English throne, from William, the Duke of Normandy, to Godwin’s son Harold.  As news reached William that Edward had died and the English throne had passed to Harold, William of Normandy invaded England, to claim what was rightfully his in the Battle of Hastings.

Edward’s death in 1066 precipitated the Norman Conquest that ended Anglo-Saxon rule and ushered in a new period of English history; The Dark Ages.