Anglo-Saxons Send the Celts Fleeing

Around the middle of the 500s, waves of Germanic people -- Jutes and Angles from what is now Denmark and Saxons from northern Germany -- commonly known as Anglo-Saxons, again invaded England. They came under military leaders and settled on the eastern shore. They warred their way westward up the Thames River, looking for more land to cultivate, taking lowland and leaving less desirable lands in the hills to the Celtic Britons. And they moved inland at Britain's narrow neck in the north, along the Humber River and its tributaries. In the south the Britons managed to temporarily stop the Anglo-Saxon advance. The Britons counterattacked with cavalry, and in the open terrain of southern England cavalry was effective against the horseless Anglo-Saxons. Victories against the dreaded Anglo-Saxons made the cavalry commander a hero, and legend turned him into a king -- King Arthur.

With humanity's proclivity toward fantasy, in centuries to come poetic tales about Arthur would describe him as an emperor, then a god who rode through the sky and slew giants. A British monk, Geoffrey of Manmouth, pretending to write history, would describe Arthur as an emperor from a place called Camelot, and he would write of Arthur defeating the Irish and the Scots, conquering Norway and Denmark, marrying a noble woman named Quinevere and then conquering France.

Back in the real world, the Briton victories were temporary, and they suffered heavy losses in their war against the Anglo-Saxons. Entire communities of Britons were massacred. Britons again fled into the hills. They fled from England into North Wales, to Ireland and across the channel to what is now called Brittany. Some from England were sold into slavery, Pope Gregory finding boys from there on the slave market in Rome.

Below Hadrian's Wall on the eastern side of the island, most of the Romanized population disappeared, along with Roman institutions and Celtic names for places. On the western side of the island, the Britons survived in greater numbers, and the names of rivers there remained in the language of the Britons. Celts survived in West Wales (Cornwall) and in hilly Scotland, which was barely touched by the invasions, the Celts driving out those few Anglo-Saxons who had invaded there. And Celtic people survived in Ireland, which had remained safe behind what would be called St. George's Channel. And, with the Celts, Christianity survived, especially in Ireland, where Catholic scholarship continued to flourish.

Christianity Returns and Vikings Invade

What had been Roman ruled Britain was divided among Anglo-Saxon kings -- warlords surrounded by men who were preoccupied with fighting, valor and loyalty. The Anglo-Saxons were largely illiterate. They viewed the god of the Christian Britons with contempt for having failed his people, and they brought with them from the continent gods that were similar to the gods of other polytheistic societies: a god of battles, Tiw, whose name contributed to the word for the third day of the week, Tuesday; a war god named Woden, whose name became a part of the word Wednesday; a god of thunder called Thunor, which became Thursday; and a goddess of fertility named Frig, which was the source of the word Friday.

The Anglo-Saxons were still pagans -- as were other peoples around east of the Rhine in northern Europe. They saw the world as driven by spirits and magic and saw consciousness and spirit in just about everything that moved or existed. They worshiped trees, wells, rivers and mountains. They believed in good spirits and evil spirits -- gods and demons. They believed in hideous monster spirits called ogres, malicious ghost-like spirits called goblins, and they believed in mischievous elves. Among their myths was the story of Beowulf, a hero victor over a savage monster named Grendel and Grendel's dragon mother.

An Anglo-Saxon called Aethelberht, son of the warlord Eormenric, took power in 560 in a kingdom in southern England called Kent -- one of the older if not oldest Anglo-Saxon settlements in England, dating from the mid-400s or a couple of decades earlier. Contacts between the Anglo Saxons and the people on the continent had been maintained, and the young Aethelberht married the Catholic daughter of the king of Paris, Charibert, a descendant of Clovis. Aethelberht allowed his bride, Berta, to bring to Kent a Frankish bishop as her chaplain. More than thirty years later, Pope Gregory I was hoping to make England Christian again, and he sent a group of monks to Kent to evangelize. The aging Aethelberht overcame his fear that the leading monk of the group, Augustine, would do witchcraft against him and, in 597, he welcomed Augustine. Augustine converted Aethelberht, which gave Christianity prestige among Aethelberht's subjects. Aethelberht favored leaving his subjects to decide whether to adopt Christianity, and within one year, several thousand of Aethelberht's subjects asked to be baptized.

Pope Gregory urged Aethelberht to destroy the temples of rival religions. Then Gregory had second thoughts. He advised that the pagan temples be left standing if they were well built, that the idols in the temples be destroyed but that the temples be converted to Christian churches, leaving the local people with their customary places of worship. And Gregory thought that local people could be more easily converted if they were left with their customary sacrifices of oxen and their festivals. Thus in England the Saxon's spring festival of the goddess Eostre would become a Christian festival called Easter.

With Augustine's success in Kent he was consecrated as bishop, so that he could consecrate priests in England. In 601, Gregory appointed him archbishop of Canterbury, Aethelberht's capital, which gave Augustine authority over all of the churches in England, including the Celtic Christian churches. Augustine met with the Celtic Christians in West and North Wales and tried to persuade them to reconcile with the Anglo-Saxons and to return to the Roman Church, but the Celts would not forgive the Anglo-Saxons, and they chose to remain isolated from Kent and from Rome.

Augustine persuaded Aethelberht to create a code of laws based on Roman law. These laws had punishments that differed according to class. Killing a nobleman brought a fine of 300 shillings, a commoner 100 shillings, a freedman from 40 to 80 shillings, and the fine for killing a slave might be 50 shillings. The fine for copulating with a maiden belonging to the king was fifty shillings, with a nobleman's serving woman twenty shillings, with an earl's serving woman six shillings. If a freeman stole from another freeman he paid a fine three times the value of what he stole and a fine to the king. Under Aethelberht, family members were considered responsible for one another, and members of an extended family might be required to help pay the fine of any family member.

War and the Hegemony of Northumbria

Augustine died in 604, and Aethelberht, after fifty-six years of rule, died in 616. Many of Aethelberht's subject who had converted to Christianity relapsed, leaving little gained but the town of Canterbury as England's center of Christianity. Edwin, the Anglo-Saxon king of Northumbria from around 616 married a princess from Kent -- Aethelberg, the daughter of Aethelberht -- who was Catholic. He promised to respect her faith, and in 625 she brought with her to Edwin's capital, York, one of the Roman missionaries, Paulinus, who had arrived with Augustine from Rome twenty-four years before. Edwin and Aethelberg had a daughter, and Edwin agreed to his daughter being baptized a Christian and promised that if Christianity gave him a victory in a coming war that he too would convert to Christianity. Edwin returned from war triumphant, but he continued to hesitate. Finally in 627 he accepted Christianity for himself and his subjects, who apparently had little say in the matter.

As a result of his victory in various wars, Edwin was the most powerful king of England, and he was recognized as overlord by all England's kings except by the king of Kent. Resenting Edwin's power was the king of Mercia, Penda, a pagan. King Penda allied himself with his neighbor to the west, North Wales, a kingdom of Celts under a Christian king named Cadwallon. In 632, Celts and Anglo-Saxons fought alongside each other for the first time -- pagans alongside Christians. That year they defeated Edwin, and Edwin's head put on display in York.

Edwin's successor in Northumbria was a Christian named Oswald, under whom Northumbria, in 633, rallied and defeated Cadwallon of North Wales -- A Christian king against another Christian king, and the last of the great battles between Celts and Anglo-Saxons. Then Oswald warred against King Penda, and in 641 Oswald met the same fate as had Edwin: death and decapitation. But a few years later Oswald's younger brother, Oswui, rallied Northumbria again and defeated Penda, and Northumbria remained the greatest power in England.

The Church Triumphs and Wars for Hegemony Continue

In the mid 600s Christian missionaries from Ireland began evangelizing across England. Catholicism had won prestige with the victory of Northumbria, and monotheism suited monarchy better than did a religion with many gods and numerous local shrines. The kings in England were inclined to welcome a religion whose scriptures described and supported monarchy. The king of Essex, Sigebert, influenced by Northumbria, converted to Christianity in 653, and Christianity spread into Mercia. Much of England was on its way to learning from the missionaries a sense of organization, and, within the Church, order was enhanced in 669 with the appointment of Theodore of Tarsus as archbishop over the whole of England.

But unity was not achieved. Civilization continued much as before -- divided among kingdoms with no solid agreement as to who should rule where. Each of the Anglo-Saxon kings believed that his rule had origins in the god of his ancestors and that he, therefore, should not to be subordinate to any another king.

The Scholar Bede

While England remained politically divided, the English language was developing out of German. And an Anglo-Saxon named Bede, born in 673, became the foremost scholar of his time. He was educated in monasteries and ordained as a priest in 703. He devoted his life to teaching theology, Hebrew, Greek and Latin and to writing. He wrote forty works -- in Latin. These were biblical commentaries, homilies, treatises on grammar, math, science and theology. The most important of these was the Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, completed in 731. He specified his sources, sought firsthand evidence, and quoted pertinent and available documents. "I would not," he wrote, "that my children should read a lie." It was Bede who started dating from Jesus Christ rather than from the times that kings ruled.

Vikings Invade

Wars continued through Bede's century and into the next. The kingdom of Mercia had emerged as the dominant power in England. With more warring, in 825 supremacy passed to the kingdom of Wessex, at Winchester. By then, responding to an increase in their population, the Vikings were raiding England. They ventured out with swords and battle axes as pirates, and they found little or no resistance to their assaults, which encouraged more and bigger invasions. At places in England their raids turned into conquests. They struck in Scotland, and they overran Ireland. A great army of Vikings came in 865 and overthrew the kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia. Alfred the Great of Wessex (871-899) rallied England against the Viking attacks. Vikings settled in East Anglia and Northumbria, while remnants of the Viking "great army" sailed away to the continent. In the next two centuries Vikings would continue to make their way to England, and the English would send them away with a bribe.

William of Normandy Defeats the Anglo-Saxons

The king of Wessex remained the king of England, and England prospered. England was covered by as much farmland as it would have in the early years of the 20th century, and its population was as large -- the result of good nutrition and a lot of exercise. But in government the Anglo-Saxons remained poorly organized, their political backwardness contributing to military weakness.

In January 1066, King Edward "the Confessor" died. He was succeeded by the Earl of Wessex, Harold. This bothered a duke named William across the English Channel in Normandy. The royal family at Wessex had intermarried with royalty in Normandy. William had been the cousin of Edward the Confessor, and Edward had promised to make him his heir. William believed that he had a right to rule in England.

Norman aristocrats were having more surviving sons than they had land to divide among them. These Nor'man (northmen) aristocrats were descendants of Vikings who had settled in France, and they would try to solve their problem in the traditional way: conquest. William would lead an invasion of England, and the Normans would conquer in Sicily before the end of the century.

On October 13, 1066, with 5000 Norman knights, William landed in England, near Hastings, and there his army met Harold's Anglo-Saxon army. Harold was killed by an arrow at Hastings, leaving William as the most powerful force in England -- Scotland, Ireland and North Wales to remain independent of English kings for generations to come.

William divided England's lands into 180 parcels, each of which was put under the supervision of an overlord who, in turn, rented out lands to Norman warrior-barons. The Anglo-Saxon aristocracy was replaced by these Norman barons. Those nobles who had not died at Hastings were deposed from their lands and made serfs. Clergy from Gaul replaced Anglo-Saxon bishops and abbots. The Normans erected castles around England as a defensive measure. French words became a part of the English language, and Anglo-Saxon became a peasant dialect.

The Normans were amazed by the wealth of England, William the Conqueror describing England as more wealthy than Gaul. William found local government administration to his liking, and he maintained the Anglo-Saxon judicial system. He also found serfdom and slavery rampant. He allowed domestic slavery to continue, but he banned the sale of slaves for shipment overseas, with about nine percent England's population remaining in slavery. What William had no interest in was Anglo-Saxon art, which he and his fellow Normans treated with contempt and much of which they destroyed.