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449-800 Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

The century that followed the withdrawal of the legions from Britain saw great changes everywhere in Europe. The fifth century was the age of the migrations when Germans from the north and Huns from the east broke the Germanic frontier along the Rhine and the Danube and seized parts of the Roman Empire. During this period the Romanized Britons were also sorely afflicted by invading enemies, - Picts from the Highlands, Scots from Ireland, and Teutonic tribes from the Continent.

These Continental tribes were the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes, who lived in northern Germany along the Weser and the lower Elbe Angles and and in the Jutish peninsula. They were all apparently addicted to piracy: the Romans had felt the attacks of the Saxons on the British shores for several generations; and so bothersome had they become that a special officer, the Count of the Saxon Shore, had been given charge of the coast defenses from the Wash to Beachy Head. Now that this official and his forces were gone, the piratical Saxons doubtless came in greater numbers. About 450 there was great commotion in the German lands: Attila was on the march toward Gaul with a vast army, - according to tradition he had half a million men. His defeat came at Chalons the following year (451). It seems probable that Attila's movements were the cause of the removal of the Angles and Saxons to Britain, whose lands they had long known and whose shores were open to attack. The traditional date of the migration is 449 and seems to be approximately correct.

In the following decade, c.460-70 Ambrosius Aurelianus took control of the pro-Roman faction and the British resistance against the Saxons. Around 466 the Saxons defeated the Britons at the battle of Wippedesfleot, with great slaughter on both sides. Mutual "disgust and sorrow" led to a break in fighting "for a long time." For the next ten years, ancient hillforts were strengthened and the Wansdyke was probably constructed. around 470 at the battle of Wallop (Hampshire), Ambrosius Aurelianus defeated Vitalinus, the leader of an opposing faction to assume supreme power in Britain. In 473, however, Kentish forces, under Hengest, moved westward, driving the Britons before them "as one flees fire."

Following the ancient route along the German and Dutch coast to the Strait of Dover, the invaders first came to Kent, the home of a Celtic tribe in southeastern England. Thence they would sail north past the mouth of the Thames or westward along the shore of the Channel. Islands lying close to the shore, such as Thanet and Wight, were evidently first seized and used as places of refuge and bases for further operations. Rivers formed the highways into the country. Apparently there was no organized movement or united action, each invading chief proceeding on his own responsibility and initiative; but a Jutish leader by the name of Hengist, who probably founded the new kingdom of Kent, was regarded, it seems, as the most influential among the leaders.

The Anglo-Saxon invasion continued with interruptions for more than a century. The nature of the attacks favored the creation of a number of little kingdoms that lined the eastern and southern coasts from the Firth of Forth to Southampton Water and beyond. The interior limits of these kingdoms might be a range of hills, like the Pennine range in the north, which for a time proved a barrier to the expansion of Northumbria; a strip of broad swamp land, like the Fens that run southward from the Wash, which divided East Anglia from Mercia; broad, pathless oak forests like the Weald, a long strip of woodland between the Downs, which served to isolate the little kingdom of Sussex; or sometimes a wide river mouth like that of the Thames or of the Humber.

Of the kingdoms formed in the interior, only one, Mercia, was of any great importance: this was formed by Anglian tribes that moved up the valley of the Trent and took possession of the Midlands. The Britons gradually retired to the regions beyond the watershed, where they, too, organized petty kingdoms. In the sixth century perhaps as many as twenty little monarchies existed on the island south of the Highlands, of which about a dozen were Anglo-Saxon. In time the number was reduced by conquest and absorption, until in the eighth century four kingdoms controlled the territories of the Angles and Saxons: Wessex, ing kingdoms. East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria. Cut off from central England by the broad Fenlands, East Anglia had only small opportunities to expand and never played a great part in English history; but the other three kingdoms rose to successive leadership in order from north to south : first Northumbria, then Mercia, and finally Wessex.

The coming of the Germans completely transformed the civilization of the greater part of the island. The institutions and the mode of life among the Anglo-Saxons were essentially Germanic, though the invaders doubtless appropriated much of the Celtic civilization that they found in their new lands. The old Roman cities were left deserted and permitted to fall into ruins, as the conquerors were accustomed to rural life and settled in small villages where they carried on agriculture and stock farming on a basis of common ownership. In these villages each individual family of freemen seems to have had exclusive control and possession of the family homestead, the house and a parcel of ground about it, as well as of the live stock and other personal property that the household would need; but the plowland, the meadow, the woods, and the pasture lands were apparently owned by the community as a whole and distributed among the farmers so that each had his own ground to work. The plowland was divided up into strips, usually an acre in area, of system. which each family might have one hundred and twenty. These with certain undivided rights in the village forest and grass land formed the normal holding or farm of a household.

The agriculture that was practiced in the Old English village was not of a high order. The tools were primitive and clumsy; the plow was of such rude construction that a team of at least four oxen was necessary to draw it. As there was no market for a surplus, the farmers made no attempt to produce more than could be consumed in the village. To maintain the fertility of the soil, one-third of the plowland was allowed to lie fallow each year. In addition to raising the common varieties of grain, the Old English farmer kept cattle, hogs, sheep, and poultry. Butter and cheese were made, and beer was brewed from various grains, especially barley, which seems to have been a leading crop. Sweetened with honey the beer became mead, which was much used on festive occasions.

In general the society in these villages was of a democratic type: farmer and freeman Were synonymous terms. There was, however, also a class of slaves and bondmen, many of whom may have been of Celtic blood, as well as an important aristocratic class with certain recognized rights of leadership. At the head of each state was a king, whose chief business was to lead in warfare and to perform certain important rites at the great sacrificial festivals. He could also proclaim laws and revise the old "customs" of his people; but as an administrator he had very little authority. To assist him in what little government there was, he had a council of the chief nobles, a body that after several transformations developed into the English house of lords.

The Anglo-Saxon aristocracy served a useful and highly important purpose as the patrons of heathen culture. When the king or the chief called together his followers after a foray, or on some other joyous occasion, to feast with him in his rude wooden hall, the tale of the poet and the chant of the singer were regarded as indispensable features of the entertainment. Stories were told of superhuman valor and heroism, sagas that had come into England with the migration from Germany, some of which had a nucleus of historic fact. This was the beginning of English literature, which has had an almost continuous existence and growth for fifteen centuries.

The year 800 closes an epoch in Old English history. For more than three centuries the Angles and Saxons had occupied British soil. During the sixth century the prominent facts are conquest, colonization, gradual westward expansion, the formation of villages, and the building of states. In the seventh century the heathen worship disappeared, and an important province was added to the Roman church at a time when the Mohammedan advance was rooting out the Christian faith east and south of the Mediterranean. This century also saw the beginnings of Christian culture with its chief center in Northumbria, which was the leading English kingdom of the age. This culture found its highest development in the following century in the prose of Bede and the poems of Cynewulf. On the whole, however, the eighth century was a period of decline in the northern kingdom. Political leadership was lost early in the century and Mercia took the place of Northumbria as the kingdom of promise.

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Page last modified: 24-05-2012 19:25:38 ZULU