View Full Version : Liberty and the Anglo-Saxons

Thursday, October 21st, 2004, 11:02 AM
Has not every restitution of the ancient Saxon laws had happy effects? Is it not better now that we return at once into that happy system of our ancestors, the wisest and most perfect ever yet devised by the wit of man, as it stood before the 8th century?
-- Thomas Jefferson, August, 13, 1776

Although the concept of a distinct, superior Anglo-Saxon race, with innate endowments enabling it to achieve a perfection of governmental institutions and world dominance, was a product of the first half of the nineteenth century, the roots of these ideas stretch back at least to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Those Englishmen who settled in America at the beginning of the seventeenth century brought as part of their historical and religious heritage a clearly delineated religious myth of a pure Anglo-Saxon church, and in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries they shared with their fellow Englishmen an elaborately developed secular myth of the free nature of Anglo-Saxon political institutions. By the time of the American Revolution Americans were convinced that Anglo-Saxon England before the Norman Conquest had enjoyed freedoms unknown since that date. The emphasis was on institutions rather than race, but since the sixteenth century, both on the European continent and in England, the Anglo-Saxons had also been firmly linked to the Germanic tribes described by Tacitus.

The first enthusiastic English interest in Anglo-Saxon England was a product of the English Reformation. As early as the 1530s the Saxon church was studied to provide propaganda to justify Henry VIII's break with Rome. The main object of the research was to show that the English church was returning to the purer practices of the period before 1066. Supposed Anglo-Saxon precedents were used to support the argument that England had cleansed the Roman Catholic Church of the abuses introducted through the centuries of papal power.

The key figure in establishing a historical base for the new Anglican church that emerged under Elizabeth was Archbishop Matthew Parker. To justify the Elizabethan church settlement, Parker became a major patron of Anglo-Saxon scholarship, collecting manuscripts, encouraging the study of the Anglo-Saxon language, and publishing texts. Depending heavily on the help of his secretary, John Joscelyn, Parker effectively initiated the serious study of pre-Norman England. Although the object of Parker's group was to establish the antiquity of the customs of the new English church, his efforts also stimulated an interest and pride in general English history in the Anglo-Saxon period. John Foxe, in his Acts and Monuments (1563), emphasized the early development of English church practices, but he also stressed the uniqueness of the English and thier nature as "a chosen people," with a church lineage stretching back to Joseph of Arimathea and his supposed visit to England, and with John Wyclif as the true originator of the Reformation. The religious propagandists of the late sixteenth century defended a church that was particularly English in its inspiration. Whatever the errors of the rest of Europe, it was believed that the English had cleansed of corruption a church whose roots stretched back to shortly after the time of Christ.

The interest in Anglo-Saxon religious sources, which helped to justify the break with Rome, also eventually helped overturn the Arthurian legends, which had dominated medieval accounts of the origins of the English people. Rather than the traditional story of the settlement of England by Brutus, his Trojans, and Britons, which had been given its greatest elaboration by Geoffrey of Monmouth, emphasis now shifted to the Germanic tribes as colonizers of Anglo-Saxon England. In emphasizing the Germanic origins of the English, antiquarians of the early seventeenth century linked the English arguments to the general Germanic movement in Europe and ultimately to Tacitus.

Lauding the peculiar qualities of the Germanic people had been common on the Continent since the early years of the Reformation; German reformers drew an analogy between the earlier "Germanic" or "Gothic" destruction of the universal Roman Empire and the new destruction of the universal Roman Church. Theories were advanced which foreshadowed the ultra-Teutonism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In 1580 Goropius Becamus, a Flemish physician, argued that German was the first of all languages and had been spoken in the Garden of Eden by Adam. This argument was too outlandish even for most Teutons, but Goropius's emphasis on the great antiquity and excellence of the German language gained many followers in England as well as on the Continent. Throughout the seventeenth century Continental arguments in praise of the Germanic heritage were cited in English works on the origins and institutions of the Anglo-Saxons.

The linking of superior institutions to a particular people was given a major impetus in England by the writings of Richard Verstegen and William Camden. In 1605 Verstegen dedicated his Restitution of Decayed Intelligence to James I, "descended of the chiefest blood royall of our ancient English-Saxon Kings." Verstegen wrote with passion of England's Germanic and Anglo-Saxon past, the Germanic roots of the English language, and, surprisingly for this early date, the common racial origin of the Saxons, Danes, and Normans. Using Tacitus as his source, he described the courage and high principles of the Germanic tribes, and he emphasized that the English, like the Germans, were an unmixed race; the great invasions of England by the Danes and the Normans merely reunited old brethern. Discussions of the English as a perfect blend of the great northern peoples was not common until the nineteenth century, and Verstegen foreshadowed later racial interpretations of the German and Saxon past.

William Camden did not espouse the Germanic cause with the same vigour and consistency as Verstegen, but in his Britannia he helped to overturn medieval accounts of the English past by his attack on the theory of descent from Brutus and his Trojans. Later, in his Remaines concerning Britaine, he argued that the English were descended from a great German people, and he saw God's hand in the guiding of the Angles and Saxons to England. Both Verstegen and Camden were interested in the special characteristics of the English as a people as well as in the institutions of the Anglo-Saxon period.

The emphasis on the Anglo-Saxons and a vigourous branch of the sturdy Germanic tree continued as one thread in the political arguments of the seventeenth century. As yet, not all agreed that political liberty had been brought to England by the Anglo-Saxons (Sir Edward Coke traced English liberties back long before that time), but the emphasis on Anglo-Saxons as particularly able Germans now became a commonplace in writings on English history. The primary source for Germanic characteristics was Tacitus's Germania, which was constantly used over the following centuries to defend the idea of the Germans as a freedom-loving, noble race. "In the peoples of Germany," wrote Tacitus, "there has been given to the wrold a race untainted by intermarriage with other races, a peculiar people and pure, like no one but themselves." This "pure" race, he argued, had a high moral code and profound love of freedom and individual rights; important decisions were made by the whole community. These ideas were woven into seventeenth-century discussions of Anglo-Saxon political institutions; "some have sent us to Tacitus and as far as Germany to learn our English constitution" was the comment of an English pamphleteer.

In the first half of the seventeenth century the political and legal history of the Anglo-Saxons became a central issue in the growing rift between Parliament and the Crown. Parliamentarians found in the supposed antiquity of Parliament and of English common law a rationale for opposition to royal pretensions. The scholarly basis for the opposition to the king was often provided by the research or men associated with the Society of Antiquaries. Deeply involved in the basic work of the society were Sir Robert Cotton, John Selden, and Sir Henry Spelman: Cotton blamed the loss of the legal privileges of the Saxon period on the Norman Conquest; Selden praised Anglo-Saxon law in contrast to the later developments of royal absolutism; and Spelman emphasized the oppression of post-Conquest feudal tenures and bcame and ardent advocate of the Anglo-Saxon language.

As royal pretensions increased in the first decades of the seventeenth century, the parliamentarians defended English rights as rooted in the immemorial law and custom. Anglo-Saxon history was corrupted to provide a defence for parliamentary arguments. Two famous documents -- the Modus Tenendi Parliamentum and the Mirror of Justices -- whose true origins were late medieval were used to bolster the claims that King Alfred had instituted annual sessions of Parliament and universal male suffrage, and that the House of Lords had been a part of the English Constitution since the time of Edward the Confessor.

The most famous of the parliamentarians who used and developed a historical myth to resist the king was Sir Edward Coke. Coke stressed the antiquity of the common law, the common law courts, and the House of Commons, but he was not in the tradition of those like Verstegen who saw a Germanic origin for much that was best in England. Coke was more peculiarly English in his arguments; he traced the history of the common law of England back before the coming of the Anglo-Saxons to time immemorial.

Ultimately, sharp differences developed among those who opposed royal power. Coke believed that the common law had survived unscathed from the most distant times and should at all costs be protected; but the Levellers thought that the common law had been corrupted by post-Conquest tyranny, and that it should be swept away. The arguments of the Levellers and their successors were ultimately to be of more importance to the American colonists than those of Coke, though Coke did much to popularise the idea of the supreme abilities of the Anglo-Saxons. Like the later colonial revolutionaries, the Levellers believed that the excellent government which had existed before the Norman Conquest had to be restored by abolishing all the abuses that had crept into English law and government since that time. But, whatever the arguments as to the state of England prior to the Anglo-Saxons and on the condition of England after the Norman Conquest, there was general agreement that the England of the Anglo-Saxons had been a country in which the citizens were protected by good laws and in which representative institutions and trial by jury flourished. The myth of a pure Anglo-Saxon church, developed in the sixteenth century, was in the seventeenth century joined by a more powerful myth of free Anglo-Saxon government.

When in England the violence and turmoil of a half century subsided in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, there emerged a classic "Whig" view of the past. In this view a golden age of good government had existed in England prior to the Norman Conquest. The Conquest had eroded English liberties, but had been followed by a long struggle for the restoration of good government, of which the foundation had been the Magna Carta and the capstone the seventeenth-century victories over the usurpations of the Stuarts. As a result of these victories England was a nation with a continuity of law and institutions stretching back more than a thousand years, a nation inhabited by Anglo-Saxons who had always been freedom-loving, and who had always exhibited an outstanding capacity for good government.

Not all Englishmen accepted the classic Whig view. There were anti-Whigs, like Thomas Hobbes, who saw Anglo-Saxon society in a truer light, and there were also the "Real Whigs" or "Commonwealthmen," who believed that the struggles of the seventeenth century had failed to restore to England the liberties that had existed before the Norman Conquest. The Real Whigs were often more enthusiastic about the Anglo-Saxons than those who accepted the more general Whig interpretation of the past, for they were anxious to contrast the Anglo-Saxon government with the government accepted by modern Englishmen. The Real Whigs also wrote of the Germanic peoples from whom the Anglo-Saxons had sprung. Particularly influential was Robert Molesworth's Account of Denmark, published in the 1690s, which praised "the northern nations" for introducing the arts of good government and foreshadowed the eighteenth century interest in the Scandinavian peoples as part of a dominant Germanic family.

Tuesday, May 2nd, 2006, 05:31 AM
This is a wonderful old thread, and I thought I'd bring it back to the top. This article is full of so many intriguing ideas that I can't begin to mention them all.

I have long been taught that the Framers of the United States' government were attempting to restore Anglo-Saxon governmental principles to that portion of the English nation living in America (including Canada — the offer was initially open to them as well). I think they did a good job, but it's obvious that we have strayed from their intent.

I have also been interested lately in the thought that the English are a mixture of various Continental Germanics, which is brought up here. The argument is mentioned that the English represent the best possible combination of the Germanic tribes. I certainly won't argue against that.

It's also fascinating that the early Anglican reformers studied the Anglo-Saxon church so deeply. I understand that the first Anglo-Saxon church was quite Irish in flavor, at least until the council at Jarrow. Of course, later on, it was the English (Alcuin of York, really) who reintroduced Latin into the rest of the Church for liturgical use. The only reason the Roman Church uses Latin today is because the English preserved it.

What do others think of this thread?

Tuesday, May 2nd, 2006, 11:05 AM
Excellent! My mother is anglo-saxon and looks like the anglos on that one site. :)