Public School History of England and Canada/England/Chapter 2
THE ENGLISH CONQUEST.
1. The Coming of the English.—We have seen that the Britons were much troubled, after the Romans left, by the Picts and Scots, tribes who spoke much the same language as the Britons themselves. Besides these enemies they had others of a different race, who came from the shores of the North Sea, especially from the low-lying lands about the mouths of the Elbe and Weser. These were the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons, who before the Romans left Britain had often landed on the coast, and plundered the people, carrying off men, women, and children, and such booty as they could get. They were a fierce, strong, freedom-loving people, with blue eyes and long fair hair, and spoke a language we call Teutonic, somewhat like the Dutch language of to-day. In their own land they lived in tribes, with chiefs at the head who led in times of war, and helped to govern in times of peace. As their own country could not well support them, they took to the sea, and became skilled and hardy sailors. In their little vessels they crossed the North Sea, and plundered the coasts of Britain, Gaul, and Ireland. The poor Britons were so distressed by attacks from their various enemies that they called in two chiefs of the Jutes to help them against the Picts and Scots, hoping in this way to make one enemy fight the other. But Hengist and Horsa, after landing on the Isle of Thanet, A.D., 449, and defeating the Picts and Scots, began to slay and drive away the Britons and to take their lands for themselves.The Jutes were soon followed by the Saxons, and last of all came the Angles, who gave the name of England to the southern part of the Island. But whether Jutes, Angles, or Saxons, they treated the Britons much in the same fashion. Unlike the Romans, who spared the conquered, they either killed the Britons or drove them westward into what is now Wales, Devon, and Cornwall. It took many years for these German tribes to get possession of Southern Britain, for the Britons at times fought desperately for their homes; but their resistance was of no avail. The Britons were either killed or driven out, and the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons
settled down in families and tribes in their place. The new-comers did not like walled towns and cities—but preferred to live in open villages and till the soil, either destroying the towns of the Britons or allowing them to fall into ruins.
2. Social and Political Condition of the English.—The English, as these tribes came to be called, were not a nation as we understand the word; but were a number of free and independent tribes that under their chiefs had come over to Britain to conquer and plunder. After the Britons were expelled, they settled down from their roving sea-life in separate village communities, and began to till the soil. There were three kinds of people in these communities. First of all, we have the Eorl, a man of higher birth and greater wealth than the rest. Then came the Ceorl or churl, a freeman of lower birth, who nevertheless had his own house and tilled his own piece of land. Last of all we have the slaves, either Britons or men who had sold or lost their freedom, and who might be sold out of the country by their masters. Only freemen were allowed to take part in the village moot or meeting, where all questions in dispute were settled. A man found guilty by his fellows of a crime usually could escape by paying a fine. He could prove his innocence by getting his neighbours to swear he was an honest man. This was called “compurgation.” Otherwise he had to undergo the ‘‘ordeal,” which consisted in walking blindfold with bare feet over hot ploughshares, or in dipping the hand into boiling hot water. If unhurt after this ‘‘ordeal” he was declared innocent.
The villages were some distance from each other; but when any important matter of peace or war had to be considered, men from several villages met in what was called the “Folkmoot,” or meeting of the tribe. Here they chose their aldermen from the Eorls, to lead them to battle, or to speak and act for them in the great meeting of the wise men of the tribes known as the “Witangemot.” After a time the Witangemot began to choose one man from the aldermen to lead—and he was the “king.” He was always elected, and could not appoint his successor; but the custom was to choose the king from the same family on account of its supposed descent from Woden, their god of war.
3. The English become Christians.—When the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes came to England they were heathens, and believed in gods, water-spirits, and wood-demons. Their chief god was Woden, who rewarded them after death for their bravery and for the number of enemies they killed. Heaven was to them a place where they could fights and carouse, for these German tribes were very fond of eating and drinking. From the names of their gods we get our names from the days of the week, such as Wednesday or Wodensday, from the god Woden.
It took some time to get the English to accept Christianity, for being a steadfast race they clung to their own customs and religion. At last, as the story goes, some English slaves were taken to Rome to be sold, and Bishop Gregory the Great, Bishop of Rome, when a young man, seeing how fair and beautiful they were, asked whence they came, and was told they were Angles. “Not Angles,” said he, “but Angels,” and when he became bishop he sent, in 596, a missionary named Augustine, with forty monks to convert the English. Augustine landed in Kent, and his first convert was Ethelbert, King of Kent, whose wife was a Christian from France. Afterwards, many of Ethelbert’s people were baptized as Christians and Augustine became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. From Kent the Roman missionaries carried the new religion to Northumbria, where King Edwin ruled. Edwin called his Witan together and, after listening to the missionaries, they also accepted Christianity.
But other Christian missionaries had been busy in the north of England before Augustine came to the country. These same from the small rocky island of Iona, on the west coast of Scotland, where a mission statement had been planted by Columba, an Irish monk. For the Irish had become Christians under the teaching of St. Patrick more than a hundred years before, and Irish missionaries made their way to the north and middle of England and did much to introduce Christianity among the fierce and heathen English. After a time, in 664, the Irish and Roman missionaries disputed about some trifling matters relating to church services, and as the King of Northumbria took the part of the Roman missionaries, the Irish monks went back to their own land, and the work went on under bishops in sympathy with Roman practices. The effect of their teaching was soon seen, for the rude and restless English settled down to steady work, began to learn trades, and to build up small towns around the monasteries which now sprang up in the land. The English also lost much of their fierceness and love of plunder and fighting, and began to love learning as taught them by the monks.
4. Supremacy of Wessex. For a long time after the English came they remained divided under their several kings. In the north there was a powerful kingdom called Northumbria, in the inland another called Mercia, while in the south and west we find another called Wessex. Indeed at one time there were seven of these little kingdoms, known as the “Heptarchy;” but their boundaries were continually changing through the wars waged by one against the other. When one king became stronger than the others he held a kind of supremacy over them, and was known as the “Bretwalds.” At first the King of Northumbria was “Bretwalds”, then the King of Mercia, and finally in 827, Egbert, King of Wessex, got the supremacy and was Bretwalda from the south to the Fifth of Forth. He was alto the king of all the English south of the Thanes. In these days, a king was not called King of England, but King of the English. So, for over 200 years the kings of Wessex held the chief power over the English people.