As we have seen, reliable sources about early Anglo-Saxon history, not to mention identity, are virtually unavailable. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to try to trace the origins of English identity and to examine the nature of the earliest perceptions of English identity.
However, we know that in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed at the beginning of the eighth century, the English monk Bede created a single English people on the basis of the common faith, Christianity, and a united church with close connections to Rome. He also distinguished the English from their neighbours by the language they spoke.
His History being primarily focused on the history of the English church, Bede describes the English as a “chosen people” sent to Britain to punish the wickedness of the Britons. Here, they are gradually converted to Christianity. The high point of the English Church comes when Theodore becomes the archbishop of the whole English people. This is also the period of the greatest prosperity of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
Some scholars argue that, as Bede speaks of an English people united on the basis of religion and mentions the overlords of England, suggesting a possible political unity of the English, his History proves that a sense of English identity had already existed by the eighth century among the English. Others, however, refuse this view, and object that we cannot draw any conclusions about English identity from Bede’s History.
A century later, when justifying his educational programme and promoting the unity of the English people under West Saxon rule, King Alfred the Great took up Bede’s ideas and further developed them by claiming a common past for the English. In the preface to the Pastoral Care, he claimed that he was only restoring a once existing kingdom of the English where learning had flourished. What distinguished the English from the Danish was their language, English. Though political unification of England was achieved only under his successors, Alfred the Great is therefore considered by some scholars the inventor of England as a political community.
On the basis of what has been argued above, we may conclude that, though assessing English identity in the Anglo-Saxon period is extremely difficult, a certain concept of a separate English identity was born already in this period, even though it may have originated from the elites with specific aims on mind and may not have been shared by the entire population. Moreover, in the ninth century, Alfred the Great, drawing on a glorious past of the English, attempted to create a common English identity based on the English language.
The idea of the English as one united people also persisted during the tenth and eleventh centuries. First, under West Saxon kings, it referred exclusively to the Germanic peoples; then, under Cnut (1016–35), it included both the Danish and the English; and, finally, under William the Conqueror, it encompassed the Normans as well as the Germanic inhabitants of Britain (Lapidge et al. 171).
2The Conquered England (1066–1204)
By the eleventh century, England had become one of the most integrated and centralized states in Europe (Kumar 42). When the Normans invaded England, it was a “well-ordered state with a uniform system of administration, a highly developed structure of royal law, a centralized coinage and an effective system of taxation” (Kumar 42). Therefore, “the Norman Conquest cannot have been the making, even if it was the saving, of England. England, as its name implies, was made already” (Wormald, “Engla Lond” 10).
Moreover, the English had succeeded in forging some kind of territorial and possibly even proto-national identity. However, it was mainly thanks to their social, political and cultural elites. When they were replaced by the Norman elite, it had significant consequences: socially, the social hierarchy was tightened by a greater emphasis on the obligations of the subjects towards their lords; politically, in the domestic scene the control from the king’s court and government increased, and internationally, close relations in Scandinavia gave way to a growing involvement with the Continent; and culturally, Norman French replaced Anglo-Saxon as the language of the ruling class (Kramer 34). Therefore, we may suppose that the Norman Conquest must have had an impact on English identity (at least on that of the elites) and how the English perceived of themselves.
Edward the Confessor was the last English king descended directly from Cerdic, King of Wessex in the sixth century (Barlow 99). When he died in 1066 without leaving any obvious heir, Harold, a member of the most powerful family of Wessex, the Godwinsons, and Edward’s brother-in-law, was appointed king by the Witan2. Nevertheless, his right to the throne was challenged by William, Duke of Normandy, who claimed that King Edward had promised it to him and that Harold, during his visit to Normandy in 1064 or 1065, swore an oath that he would not try to take hold of the throne. Harold retorted that he had been forced to swear so and the oath therefore was not valid. Before William could assert his claims by force, a third claimant to the throne, Harold Hardrada, King of Norway, invaded in Yorkshire. But as soon as Harold Godwinson defeated the Viking pretender, he had to move his army to the south of England where William had landed. Harold Godwinson was killed and his tired troops were defeated in the battle near Hastings on 14 October 1066 (McDowall 17).
Having captured London, William was crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey on 25 December 1066 and became the first Norman king of the English. Nevertheless, the disturbances that his reign would bring about were already suggested at his coronation. The nervous Norman guards afraid that the people cheering the king would attack him set fire to nearby houses and the ceremony ended in disorder. In fact, there would be an Anglo-Saxon rebellion against the Normans every year until 1070 (McDowall 23).