A History of England – From the Anglo-Saxons to the Normans.

This is a History of England I’ve written using Robert Tomb’s The English and Their History as my primary source of reference. I’ve followed his narrative and included quotes from the work.

It’s a brilliant book, and I would recommend it to anybody.

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The ‘Idea’ of England

When Pope Gregory the Great noticed fair haired slaves for sale in Rome, he was told that they were Angles (Anglos). He famously responded ‘Not Angles but Angels’ and sent a mission in 596 to their island to convert ‘these angels…from their Germanic heathenism’.

The missionaries would successfully Christianise England, and in doing so achieved something more. They created the ‘idea’ of England.

The England of the late 500s was not a single Kingdom, but ‘highly diverse in language, in religion and in the origins of their inhabitants.’ As the above map shows, several kingdoms broke up the land. Northumbria, Mercia, Wessex, with smaller Kingdoms like Essex and Deira.

The peoples of England were a mix of the Brittonic populations that had existed in England for thousands of years (the genetic ‘ancestors of most who live there today’), and the Germanic Angles, Saxons and Jutes of Northern Germany and Southern Scandinavia who had arrived on the Island over several generations in the years following the collapse of the Roman Empire.

Identity was based on religion, family or local community, even war leaders, overriding any binding national identity. This plurality was unstable, ‘warfare and raiding a constant feature of politics and culture.’

The return of Christianity (it had practically disappeared following the Roman collapse and subsequent Germanic invasions) began to breakdown this fragmentation through the creation of a single church that transcended the borders of the different kingdoms. Two provinces were created in Canterbury and York. They remain as they are to this day.

The Church developed its own English distinction, venerating English saints no matter their Kingdom origins, while adopting Roman practices in dogma and liturgy. The church acquired much land, and importantly brought back literacy. The many different and fluid dialects of England were ‘crystallized’ into a stable language, what we today call ‘Old English’.

This religious conceptualisation of an ‘English’ identity was given form by the writings of the great historian and monk Bede. In 731, he published an authoritative history of the English people, giving them a religious purpose as instruments in God’s plan ‘to spread orthodox Roman Christianity.’  He was the first to define an English identity and that conception has survived the ages.  

So while the peoples of England lived in warring Kingdoms and spoke in different dialects, they were also a Christian people ‘watched over by their own saints’ and a ‘single people in the eyes of God’.

Tombs labels this the ‘idea’ of England, for while they may have been united by one Church, they were still divided politically. It would take an external threat to bring about political union: The Vikings.

The Kingdom of England.

From around the late 700s onwards, the Vikings menaced the coast of England, and much of Europe, in attempts to enrich themselves, through invasion but also through trade. Progressively they took over large swathes of England. Northumbria and East Anglia fell and Mercia was partitioned. The Anglo-Saxons referred to these lands as the ‘Danelaw’.

The only English Kingdom that would remain intact was Wessex. The Kingdom of the West Saxons would play a central role in the eventual unification of England, under the leadership of the only King in English History to have been given the epithet ‘Great’; Alfred.  He took the throne in 871 and set about shoring up Wessex’s defences against repeated Viking invasions from the north, by creating a sophisticated system of fortified settlements, known as ‘burhs’ that were garrisoned during times of war.

He then began to expand the territory of his Kingdom. In 880 Wessex took over the Anglo-Saxon remnants of Mercia. In 886 London was taken. ‘If we want a birth date for an English Kingdom’, Tombs declares, ‘this is as good as any’. Here we see evidence that contemporaries thought of it as the creation of an ‘English’ not Saxon Kingdom.  According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle ‘all the English race turned to him (Alfred), except what was in captivity to the Danish men.’ Alfred referred to his people not as Saxons but as ‘Angelcynn’ (Englishkind). The King, previously referred to in royal charters as ‘rex Saxonum’, came to be described as ‘rex Angul-Saxonum’ in ‘recognition of the union of Mercia and Wessex’.

A period of what Tombs calls ‘Nation Building’ began. ‘He sought to persuade (his subjects) that he was restoring the English, whereas, he was inventing them.’ A standardised Law-Code was created, coins printed, Christian piety increased. English became the language of government and court.

Yet England still was not a nation. Despite Alfred’s efforts of unification, a Lord with a grievance had ‘few qualms about allying with invaders’, and the Danes in the North continued to invade. A long struggle to break Viking power in England began, as the Anglo-Saxon Kings slowly conquered Danish ruled areas, and by the 920s this process was almost complete. In 937 a massive invasion force of Vikings and Scots was defeated and with this victory Aethelstan became the first to be titled ‘King of the English’, the first who ‘really ruled the whole people’. By the year 1000 this Kingdom came to be known as Englalond – The Land of the Angles.

During this period Tombs claims that England became ‘probably’ the richest and one of the most powerful Kingdoms in Europe. Trade in wool was established. Coinage was plentiful. Infrastructure maintained and expanded.

The Anglo-Saxon society that would develop over this century was fairly sophisticated by the standards of the Middle Ages, requiring a high level of public participation in the services of government. Tombs tells us that ‘tens of thousands of men took part in levying taxes, enforcing the law, hearing royal commands and when necessary taking up arms.’ From the highest earl, to the lowliest peasant, Anglo-Saxon society required their involvement and consent.

The country was divided into Shires ‘scir’, and governed by an Earl (earldoman) and his deputy, the sheriff ‘scirgerefa’, on behalf of the King. The shires would retain their names for over a 1000 years, places like Devonshire (Devenescire) and Norfolk (Nordfulc), with no major changes taking place until 1974.  It’s one of the things I love most about English history; that sense of continuity.

An important feature of this period was the Witan, a representative body often summoned by the King to aid him in the governing of the realm. In Europe, there were ‘few if any national representative bodies like this’. It held an important enough position that King Aethelred’s Law Code of 1008 was issued ‘on the decree of the English Witan’.

This was a successful system that held together an embryonic nation, however Tombs identifies one major flaw. The system of Kingly succession. The system was based on a ‘dangerous mix of inheritance, bequest and election’. This often led to factional in fighting that weakened England to the point that it became susceptible to invasion. The Kingdom’s wealth a strong drawcard for poorer neighbours. The most famous, or infamous, of these succession crises was in 1066.

The Norman Conquest

The Battle of Hastings is a seminal moment in English History. King Harold, King of England was killed and the Duke of Normandy, William was now the King of England. William the First, the Conqueror.

The Normans were originally Vikings. After being repelled in an attempted invasion of England in 910 set up a colony in the north of France known as Normandy. They had abandoned most of their Scandinavian culture, but ‘were proud of the aggressive military ethos and the berserk violence in battle’ of the Vikings.

The seeds of the Norman conquest were sown in 991 when King Aethelred ‘the Unready’ signed a treaty with Richard, Duke of Normandy for support in England’s efforts to defeat renewed Viking attacks. Aethelred would also wed Richard’s daughter Emma, uniting the two realms further.  The alliance wasn’t enough to save England though, and as the Vikings drew closer and began to conquer more English territory, Aethelred and his family fled to Normandy. In 1016, the Danish Cnut became the new King of England, but as we have seen, once he passed, a murderous struggle ensued, resulting in Aethelred’s younger son Edward ‘The Confessor’ being crowned King.

He too would provide no heir, being a man of ‘unusual piety’. ‘In retrospect’ says Tombs ‘Edward’s twenty-three reign seemed a golden age, the last flowering of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom and its culture’.

Edward was close to the Normans. As King he would appoint Normans to Bishoprics and grant land to Norman nobles. In 1050 he decided to nominate William the Duke of Normandy as his successor. ‘A logical outcome to the problem of succession and perhaps the best available’.

Within England however, the powerful Earl Godwine was increasing his family’s power in the hope of claiming the crown of England for them. His sons soon came to control several Earldoms through England ‘effectively running the Kingdom on Edward’s behalf’.

It seems that towards the end of his life Edward changed his mind about the succession and instead bequeathed Harold Godwine the throne. Harold was crowned the day after Edward’s death. ‘He seems to have had popular support, and had been hastily elected by the Witan’.

William, the Duke of Normandy, decided to invade and claim a crown he believed was his own. It couldn’t have come at worse time for England, for as William was preparing to invade, the Norwegian King Harald was leading an invasion force to the North of England. In what Tombs calls Harold’s ‘short and bloody epic of ‘forty weeks and one day’’, the King defeated the Norwegians before hurriedly marching south to meet the Normans at Hastings and on the 14th October, 1066, the battle was fought. Harold was killed by an arrow to his eye and William was now the new King of England.

The Norman Conquest had a lasting impact on England’s culture, identity and politics. The English social contract was altered considerably; the realm was now to be ruled by Frenchmen and for the King, ‘every acre of England now belonged to him….to be given as he wished to reward his followers and make them his dependants.’

Reward them he did. By 1076 there was no longer a single English Earl. The English ruling class had been eliminated, either exiled, defeated in battle or executed. The Church was purged, within a generation there was only one English Bishop. William, despite an early attempt at learning English gave it up, and the language disappeared from the upper echelons of English society.  

‘We can dimly imagine’, Tombs laments, ‘the psychological effects of the sudden imposition of some 15,000 new masters…whom the English called ‘French’. The English went from being one of the wealthiest and most sophisticated peoples in Europe, in both their eyes and in the eyes of others, to becoming ‘a people of peasants using a crude vernacular, the butt of mockery.’
Behind all this change was also continuity. Fundamental aspects of Anglo-Saxon society were maintained. Edward the Confessor became a saint, linking the conquest to the beloved King as a legitimate form of succession.

Most importantly, the system of government was not changed. The high level of public participation in running the state remained. This aided the Normans in ruling the realm, helping keep it together and giving the English a point of difference with the rest of the continent, whose systems of government were significantly less participatory than England.  ‘This was the reality behind the myth of Anglo-Saxon liberty…..England under the Normans was still recognisably England.’