A Brief History of Anglo-Saxon England.
The Anglo-Saxon settlement of England was no overnight affair. The late-Roman army had many Germanic elements and from the fourth century they and their families had settled in Britain. It is, therefore, not surprising that after the withdrawal of the legions at the beginning of the fifth century individual towns looked to Germanic mercenaries to maintain their security. Vortigern, the post-Roman Kentish king, is often left to take the blame, but he was no doubt only one of several leaders who took this course. The fifth and sixth centuries saw increased Germanic settlement although the balance of local power fluctuated between Britons and Saxons. Ultimately, even in areas such as Northumbria, where Germanic settlement was sparse, the English language became the predominant one and the celtic language and lifestyles became marginalised to Wales, Cornwall and northern Scotland.
The end of the sixth century saw another major new influence on the Germanic invaders - Christianity. Although the Romano-British Church survived and the Anglo-Saxons would have had contact with indigenous Christians, the Church initially existed only on the fringes of English settlement, as paganism remained strong. In 597 a Christian mission sent by Pope Gregory the Great and led by Augustine landed in Kent. Its initial success was dramatic. The prompt conversion of King Aethelberht of Kent (?560-616) and the kings of Essex and East Anglia, then the baptism of Aethelberht's son-in-law King Edwin of Northumbria (617-33) by his bride’s Roman chaplain Paulinus established Christianity within the highest eschelons of English society. Sees were established at Canterbury, Rochester, London and York.
The four kingdoms soon relapsed into paganism, and initially only Kent was reconverted. The evangelistic initiative passed to the Scottish church based on Iona, founded by the Irishman, Columba, in 563. King Oswald of Northumbria (634-42) was converted while in exile among the Scots and invited Iona to send him a mission: the result was Aidan's foundation of Lindisfarne in 635. The Irish bishops of Lindisfarne consolidated Christianity in Northumbria; their fellow countrymen Duima and Ceollach, and their English pupils, Cedd and Trumhere, re-established the religion in Essex and introduced it to Mercia and the Middle Angles, whose king, Penda (?610-55), was the last great pagan ruler. In none of these kingdoms was there any significant relapse but Iona was out of line with Rome on the methods of calculating the date of Easter. In 663 Bishop Colman was defeated on the issue at the Synod of Whitby and withdrew to Iona, leaving the way clear for the organisation of the English Church by Theodore of Canterbury (669-90). Although the Church of Iona found favour with some of the later kings it was generally the Roman church that was dominant.
Of the seven Saxon Kingdoms (the Heptarchy), the first one to achieve supremacy was Northumbria, whose high culture during the seventh century is reflected in such works as the Lindisfarne Gospels. They ruled the whole area between Derby and Edinburgh and their central territories of Yorkshire and Northumberland remained independent until the Vikings took York in 866, whilst the lordship of Bamburgh continued as an Anglian enclave throughout the tenth century.
The eighth century saw the rise of Mercia who pushed back the Northumbrians and West Saxons and took control of East Anglia and Kent. The peak of Mercian domination came under Offa (died 796), though it remained a potent force until the abdication of Burgred in 874.
The year 793 marked a major change for England with the first major raid by Vikings on the Northumbrian monastery at Lindisfarne (although there is evidence of a small raid four years earlier in Devon). The next decade saw major raids along most of the southern and eastern coasts of England. Most of the raiders were Danes, but the common tongue of the Scandinavians enabled them all to work together. Remember, specific references to Danes and Norsemen are to be treated with caution.
The first part of the ninth century saw the Vikings concentrating on Ireland and the north and west of England and Scotland, until 835 when the Danes began a series of major raids on the whole of England. These culminated in the ‘Great Army’ of 865 which wintered on the Isle of Thanet before commencing on a twelve year campaign ranging from Exeter to Dumbarton. This finally ended in an agreement with the West Saxon king which left them in control of half of the country.
The house of Wessex also began its rise during the ninth century, commencing with Egbert who defeated the Mercians in 825 (it is ironic that the founder of the West Saxon fortunes actually ruled Sussex, Essex and Kent and based his mint at Canterbury!). It is noteworthy that his son, Æthelwold, was the first king of Wessex to inherit the throne from his father since the seventh century. Æthelwold’s four sons succeeded him in turn and the youngest, Alfred, eventually fought the Vikings to a standstill at Edington which produced the Treaty of Wedmore in 878. This led to an uneasy peace and the establishment of the Danelaw.
The early tenth century saw Norse encroachment from Ireland and the Western Isles into Cumbria, Lancashire and the Wirral peninsular. The rulers of Dublin were anxious to dominate York and the North, but the incoming Vikings were as much a threat to the now settled Danelaw as they were to Wessex. Athelstan achieved a decisive victory for Wessex at Brunanburgh in 937, when a coalition of Irish, Norse, Scots and Northumbrians were defeated. Dublin continued to try to exert influence, and fighting continued sporadically until, under Eadred, Eric Bloodaxe was driven out of York and killed at Stainmoor in 954. With external threats temporarily removed king Edgar, who came to the throne in 959, spent the next 18 years trying to weld the formerly disparate states of Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex into a single body.
The king’s chief agents in this process were the eoldermen. In the ninth century each eolderman had governed only a single shire, but in the tenth century a trusted eolderman could find himself in charge of several shires. Eventually unification was achieved to a strong enough degree that the House of Wessex was universally accepted as the rightful royal family. Weak though it was in some areas, the administration was strong enough to impose a uniform royal coinage on England, and to reap the financial advantage from the country's growing economic prosperity. At the end of the tenth century, when the Viking attacks came again, the prize at stake was nothing less than the ‘Kingdom of the English’.
During the reign of Æthelred (978-1016) the Viking attacks on England started again. In the 980’s Viking raids along the Welsh coast were extended to include south-west England. At the same time attacks on London and the south-east began from the North Sea and Scandinavia. The 990’s saw the operation of great armies under the leadership of Olaf, later king of Norway, and Swein, king of Denmark.
During this period of Viking attacks Æthelred’s response was to appoint eoldermen to take control of important military areas. An attack on Essex in 991 was met by the local eolderman, Bryhtnoth, in an infamous encounter at Maldon. In 992 an English fleet assembled at London had some success against the Vikings. However, the time honoured methods of ransom, Danegeld and baptism of Viking leaders continued to be more successful. It has been estimated that between 990 and 1014 around 250,000 pounds (over 102 tons) of silver were paid in Danegeld to the Viking raiders in addition to food, livestock, etc., and any other wealth gained from raiding.
The Viking onslaught came mainly from King Swein of Denmark. From 1003 to 1006, and again in 1013, Swein led devastating attacks on England, while Thorkell the Tall campaigned in the south and east between 1009 and 1013. In 1007 Æthelred ordered the burning of ships and recreated the large eoldermanry of Mercia for Eadric in an attempt to co-ordinate English defences. Unfortunately the fleet assembled at Sandwich in 1009 fell prey to bad weather and English efforts had little effect against Thorkell’s determined campaign. This culminated in the capture and murder of Ælfheah, Archbishop of Canterbury. Swein came to England in August 1013 secure in the expectation of conquest. At Gainsborough he received the submission of Northumbria, Lindsey and the Five Boroughs; Oxford, Winchester and south-west England soon followed. Finally, towards the end of the year, the last resistance collapsed, Swein was recognised as king of England and Æthelred fled to Normandy.
Swein died in 1014 after only a few months as king. The Viking fleet immediately proclaimed his son Cnut king, but the English councillors recalled Æthelred. In 1015 Æthelred’s eldest son Edmund revolted against his father in an attempt to usurp the throne. This, coupled with the King’s ill health and the enmity between Edmund and eolderman Eadric, divided the final stages of the English effort against the Danes.
Æthelred died in 1016 and, in spite of Eadric’s defection to Cnut, Edmund held Cnut to a military stalemate. The division of England, giving Edmund Wessex and Cnut the North, was nullified by Edmund’s death in 1016 so the Viking Cnut was left to rule all England.
Cnut’s conquest of England laid the foundation of a Northern Empire. After his coronation in 1018 and his marriage to Emma, Æthelred’s widow (a marriage which ensured the goodwill of her brother, the Duke of Normandy) Cnut’s position as king was secured. About a year later he acquired the kingdom of Denmark after the death of his brother Harald.
During this period many Danes settled in England and Cnut gave some of them senior positions of authority. It was at this time the English title ‘eolderman’ was replaced by the Danish influenced ‘eorl’, although this change of name did not mean any change in the nature of the office or the powers of its holder.
Emma, Cnut’s English wife was made regent of Norway for their eldest son Swein. Her reign was unpopular and even before Cnut’s death she was driven out in favour of Magnus, Olaf’s son. On the English side of the North Sea few of Cnut’s Danish eorls outlasted the 1020’s. At the end of his reign the kingdom was dominated by three eorls - an Englishman of the old aristocracy, Leofric of Mercia; an English newcomer, Godwin of Wessex, married to a Dane; and a Dane, Siward of Northumbria, married to an Englishwoman.
Cnut’s empire collapsed after his death (1035). The rebellion of Magnus of Norway led to prolonged war between Norway and Denmark, and this prevented Hardacnut, Cnut’s chosen heir (and son of Emma), from crossing to England. In his absence his half-brother Harold was chosen, first as regent and later as king.
After Harold’s death in 1040 Hardacnut re-united the two kingdoms, but on his death in 1042 England reverted to the old West Saxon line. The short and troubled reigns of Cnut’s sons saw the rise of powerful dynasties in England, most notably the family of Eorl Godwin. From obscure origins in Sussex, this family rose in two generations to the pinnacle of power in England. A turning point in the family’s fortunes was the marriage in 1043 of Godwin’s daughter Edith to King Edward the Confessor. The advancement of her kinsmen immediately followed; an eorldom was specially created for her eldest brother Swein, her second brother, Harold, became Eorl of East Anglia, and her cousin Beorn Estrithson received an eorldom in the east Midlands, apparently as Harold’s subordinate.
Although powerful the Godwinsons were not the only powerful Eorls, and in 1045 half of the country was still not under their control. In the north Eorl Siward was strong and held the Scots at bay. When he died the Scots launched many attacks against the new eorl Tostig, and later against Morcar. Swein Godwinson was the black sheep of his family and his wilder exploits - including the rape and abduction of the Abbess of Leominster and the murder of his cousin Beorn - led to his banishment in 1049, although he was later pardoned. Edward obviously resented his dependence upon Godwin and in 1051 the Eorl and his family were deprived of their titles and exiled, but the king had over-reached himself. In 1052 Godwin’s family engineered a successful return, forcing the king to restore their land and titles.
Godwin died in 1053 and was succeeded by his son Harold who became Eorl of Wessex, yielding his East Anglian eorldom to Ælfgar, son of Leofric of Mercia. In 1055, on the death of Siward, Tostig Godwinson, the third brother, became Eorl of Northumbria. When, in 1057, both Leofric of Mercia and Eorl Ralph of Hereford died, Harold added Hereford to the Eorldom of Wessex, Gyrth Godwinson succeeded Aelfgar in East Anglia, and Leofwine Godwinson received an eorldom in the East Midlands. From this time Harold was the real ruler of England. His campaigns against the Welsh, culminating in the conquest of north Wales, added to his prestige and he was described by contemporaries as Subregulus (underking) and Dux Anglorum.
Edward was brought up in Normandy and during his reign many Normans came to England and gained important positions as advisors, church-men or military officers. In fact Edward seemed to favour foreigners unless they were Norse. During his reign much European culture was brought into the country. He was also responsible for a number of church reforms during this period.
The death of Edward in January 1066 left England without an adult male representative of the royal line. William ‘the Bastard’, Duke of Normandy, claimed that Edward had promised him the kingdom as early as 1051. Harold Godwinson, Eorl of Wessex and for many years the king’s right hand man, claimed that Edward had ‘committed the kingdom’ to him on his deathbed. The Scandinavian kings often fished in troubled waters such as this, as Harald Hardrada of Norway did in September 1066, followed by Swein Estrithson of Denmark after the Conquest. Another factor in the equation was Harold’s brother Tostig, exiled in 1065, who attempted to regain his eorldom by force of arms. When Edward died William started to build a fleet and gather an army in Normandy. In England, Harold and his nobles stationed an army along the south coast and a fleet off the Isle of Wight. But Tostig was first off the mark, raiding the south coast until frightened off by Harold, and the east coast until Eorl Edwin defeated him in Lindsey. Tostig fled to Scotland where he sheltered until joining with Harald of Norway.
Harold watched the Channel from May until September. If William had sailed when he had hoped to, he would have run into a warm reception and his invasion may well have been remembered as just another battle amongst the many that year. William was lucky; the direction of the prevailing wind kept his fleet bottled up in port until the provisions of the English forces had been exhausted. In September Harold disbanded the Fyrd and returned to London where he learned the Norwegians had landed in Yorkshire. Within two weeks he raised an army and force-marched it from London to York. Before he could arrive, Edwin and Morcar stood against Harald Hardrada at Gate Fulford, two miles south of York. Their defeat after a hard battle meant that the local Fyrd could play little part in the events that followed. This left the invaders free to march on York, where men of the shire agreed to help Harald in the conquest of England. Five days later King Harold attacked the Norwegians at their camp at Stamford Bridge, taking them by surprise. The battle raged all day, and by nightfall on the 25th September Harald Hardrada and Tostig lay dead and the shattered remains of their army were in full flight. Harold had defeated one of the foremost warriors of the age. Tradition has it that he was at a feast celebrating his victory when the news arrived that William had landed with his army at Pevensey on the morning of the 28th of September.
Once more Harold was all energy; within 13 days he had completed the settlement of the restless north, marched 190 miles back to London, raised another army, and marched a further 50 miles to a point within striking distance of Hastings where the Normans had established their base.
Harold has been accused of ‘reckless and impulsive haste’, and most chroniclers agree that he fought with an army smaller than it need have been. We cannot be certain why he chose to fight when he did. It is possible he was trying to fight before it became known amongst his men that William bore a papal banner and to fight against him could mean excommunication. Alternatively, he may have sought to take William by surprise, a tactic which had worked three weeks before. Whatever his reason, the Norman scouts warned of the English approach on the morning of the 14th of October, and it was the English who were taken by surprise.
It is generally said that each army numbered about 7,000 men, but the figures may have been lower. The English probably deployed about 4,000 Thegns and Huscarls, and 2-3,000 fyrdsmen recruited on the march through the home counties. The Normans fielded perhaps 5,000 infantry, including archers, and up to 2,000 knights.
The English took up position on a ridge near Hastings and waited for the Normans to make their move. The Huscarls probably formed the front rank with the lighter armed Fyrdsmen behind them. The Normans made several attacks all of which were repulsed. William tried to use his archers to break the shield wall but they were ineffective, and the battle became a war of attrition. The Norman’s lucky break came when their Breton cavalry were routed at the same time as a rumour that William had been killed spread amongst both sides. The Saxon right flank broke and gave chase thinking they had won. William was not dead and rallied his troops, cut off and slew the persuing Saxons. He was then able to manoeuver some of his cavalry on to the hilltop and fight the Saxons on level ground. The English shield wall managed to survive the repeated attacks of the Norman knights and the archers until the death of Harold, at dusk. The English survivors then fled into the forests of the Weald, and the day belonged to William. Thus ended the ‘Kingdom of the English’.
Ben Levick and Andrew Nicholson November 1991
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