1Anglo-Saxon Period (410–1066)
In the fifth and sixth centuries, significant political, economic and cultural changes took place in Britain. After the Roman legions withdrew, the structure of the Roman state rapidly disintegrated. The economy collapsed and the Latin language was gradually abandoned. The “Dark Ages” began (Brooks 21).
In such a state, Britain was “ripe for invasion” (Rodrick 16) and it did not take long before such an invasion took place. The territory was soon split between the Celts, who were driven to the west and highland areas, and the invading Germanic tribes which settled in the south and east, bringing with them their language and pagan culture (Brooks 21–23). Both formed a number of smaller kingdoms struggling to survive and, often, attacking their neighbours to expand their own control (Rodrick 17).
However, by the eleventh century, the members of these Germanic tribes which we usually call Anglo-Saxons had practically managed to “make England” (John 4): “the separate English kingdoms had gone, and the kingdom of England had been born” (Saul 5), as well as a certain sense of Englishness (Saul 1).
1.1Anglo-Saxon Settlement in Britain
During the four centuries of its existence, Roman Britain faced assaults from all directions. From the north and west, it was threatened by the Celtic peoples settled in Wales, northern England and Ireland; the Germanic peoples were attacking from the east and south. In the second half of the third century, fortifications had to be built along the eastern and southern shores to prevent the growing piracy in the Narrow Seas (Blair and Keynes 1-4). After the third-century stagnation, Britain enjoyed a revival in the first half of the fourth century. Nevertheless, from about 340, the prosperity of Britain declined again due to increasingly severe pressure on northern and seaward frontier and political troubles (Haigh 22).
In 398–399, the Roman General Flavius Stilicho repulsed the invasions of the Picts, the Saxons and the Irish into Britain. In 401 or 402, however, he withdrew troops to defend Italy against the Goths led by Alaric (Haigh 23). It was followed by the cessation of the payment of the remaining regular troops and civil officials from the central resources which provoked extreme discontent (Blair and Salway 56). Three emperors were elevated in a rapid succession by the army in Britain in the hope of better defence for Britain, of whom only Constantine III survived (Blair and Keynes 3). At the very end of 406, the attack of the barbarians on Gaul and the subsequent moving of the centre of the western government south from Trier to Arles only led to a greater isolation of Britain (Haigh 22–23). Constantine III left for Gaul with even more troops to justify his loyalty to the emperor (Blair and Keynes 3).
In 409, neglected by Constantine III and the whole empire and again attacked by barbarians, the disillusioned Romano-Britons expelled both Constantine’s administration and the invaders. In fact, they completely abandoned Roman rule (Haigh 22–23). Control was taken by “usurpers” (“tyranni”), local potentates of various background (Blair and Salway 58). From 409, in the absence of central government, groups of barbarians were probably employed as mercenaries. Some archaeological findings suggest that they may have been brought to Britain already under Stilicho or Constantine III. It was probably from the 430s onwards that Germanic settlers started to arrive in large numbers in Britain (Blair and Salway 57–61).
1.2A Brief History of the Anglo-Saxon Period
The Venerable Bede mentions three groups of the Germanic peoples who arrived in Britain: the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. According to him, the Angles settled in the north and east, while the Saxons settled in the south. The Jutes were to be found in Kent, the Isle of Wight and southern Hampshire. This pattern of settlement was roughly confirmed by archaeological findings though geographical boundaries were not clearly cut. Archaeological evidence and place names suggest that other Germanic peoples, though in smaller numbers, settled in Britain. Among them were Frisians, Franks and Norwegians. Nevertheless, the scale of the Germanic migration into Britain is still debated (Lapidge et al. 416).
However, it seems that the leaders of the invading warrior bands became kings over smaller territories. It is traditionally believed that, in the course of the sixth century, these territories were absorbed into seven larger kingdoms (the so-called Heptarchy): Kent (the Jutes), Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia (the Angles), Essex, Sussex, and Wessex (the Saxons) (Kramer 28; Nangonová 9). Nevertheless, as Richard Dargie suggests, “recent research has revealed a much more fluid pattern of power and identity during the first three centuries of the Anglo-Saxon period” (48). England was in fact a loose confederation of individual kingdoms, different kingdoms occasionally gaining greater power than others and their rulers functioning as overlords to the whole region (Rodrick 19).
One by one, the kingdoms were converted to Christianity, initially by missionaries under St. Augustine sent by Pope Gregory the Great to Kent in 597 (Scragg 2). The first archbishopric was established in Canterbury from where Roman Christianity spread over the island. Moreover, Irish Christianity, brought by Irish monks from Iona in western Scotland, reached Northumbria in the first half of the seventh century and started to spread to central England. The two branches of Christianity coexisted until 664, when, after the Synod of Whitby, the Irish Church had to submit to the Roman one (Nangonová 11; Scragg 2).
By the ninth century, the seven kingdoms were transformed into three even larger kingdoms, Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria, which had been the largest ones since the middle of the seventh century (Kramer 28; McDowall 12). From 793, England had been attacked by the Vikings, initially ravaging the coastal areas but later also settling down (Kramer 30). They were one of the causes of the unification of England undertaken by King Alfred the Great (r. 871-99) from the House of Wessex (Scragg 3). In 878, England was divided between the territories controlled by Alfred the Great and the Danelaw where the Danes were forced to retreat (Nangonová 12). Alfred’s work was continued by his son Edward the Elder (899–924) and his grandson Athelstan (924–39), resulting in most of the formerly independent (or semi-independent) Anglo-Saxon kingdoms gradually coming under a single rule. By the time of Athelstan’s death, modern boundaries of England were virtually set and the king, having also links through marriage into many influential European families, exercised a certain degree of power over much of the British Isle: “politically, England was born” (Scragg 3).
Despite some temporary losses of control over certain territories and divisions of the territory, Athelstan’s successors managed to maintain the unity and gradually reconquer the Danelaw. When Ethelred the Unready became king in 978, the Danes started attacking England again. Between 1016 and 1042, England was part of Scandinavian Empire. In 1042, Ethelred’s last surviving son, Edward the Confessor, was brought back from exile in Normandy. The disputes over the succession after his death in 1066 finally resulted in the Norman Conquest (Nangonová 12–14; Scragg 3–4).