by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the May 1988, A.S. XXIII issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.
Anglo-Saxon England is best remembered from the disaster it suffered at the hands of the Normans in 1066. The image of the Saxons as a powerless, defeated underclass is enhanced by the legends of Robin Hood. But Robin Hood is an anachronism of the fourteenth century, and the glories of Norman and Plantagenet England rest on the foundations laid by the Anglo-Saxons. This essay explores those foundations.
Anglo-Saxon England almost died aborning. It survived only by the military and political genius of Alfred the Great. Before Alfred, England was broken up into seven kingdoms: the Heptarchy (Kent, Sussex, Wessex, Essex, Northumbria, and East Anglia, Mercia). But as Alfred’s reign began, England was being overrun with yet another invasion, this time out of Denmark and Norway. By sheer determination Alfred was able to stem this tide and preserve Anglo-Saxon culture.
Alfred achieved this by a series of innovations and revisions of past practices. He organized the first English fleet to counter the sea mobility of the Vikings. On land he reorganized the thegns and fyrd into two sections. While one would be attending to the defense of Wessex, the other would be at home seeing to the ordinary domestic duties. After a set period they would switch off. This allowed Alfred a longer campaigning period against the Danes. To counter their raiding tactics, he had fortifications or burghs built throughout the land to serve as points of resistance and safety. Most of these were not much more then earthworks on open ground, but many became the sites of future towns.
But Alfred’s contributions were not solely restricted to things military. He called into being the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, unique by the fact it was written in English. He also had the laws codified and written down. He encouraged the learning of Latin and the translation of works of literature into English. While Alfred’s direct contributions to culture are a matter of debate, he succeeded in fostering the climate to allow it to flourish.
With the exception of the taking of London in 886, Alfred spent most of his career holding back the successes of the Danes and then reversing them. It was his offspring Edward (who succeeded him as king) and Ethelfleda of Mercia who began the reconquest of the Danelaw, the lands under the rule of the Danes. The conquest was finished by his grandson Ethelstan in 937 at the battle of Brunanburh, though it would be another twenty years before this victory could be solidified.
The next forty years were relatively peaceful. As the descendants of Alfred consolidated their rule, and the Anglo-Saxon culture was at its height. But it was not to last. Starting around 980, a new wave of Viking raiders began, this time out of Norway. In 991 the Vikings under Olaf Tryggvesson defeated the English forces at the Battle of Maldon, complete defeat was avoided by the payment of large sums of money. Twice more that decade England was subject to large raids, which were paid off. The large Scandinavian silver hordes came from these English bribes.
These events and those that followed were due in large to the weaknesses of the king, Ethelred Unraed (the Unready); the literal translation being Noble-Counsel No-Counsel. Under the pretense that his subject Danes were plotting to kill him, Ethelred had them slaughtered in 1002, including the sister of the King of Denmark, Swein. Vowing revenge, Swein invaded the following year, and then again in 1013. This time to conquer, as Ethelred’s forces deserted him. Swein died the next year. His son Cnut, unprepared, withdrew from England, but was back for good two years later. The fortunes of England were about to change.
One of the more remarkable aspects of this period was the lack of rancor between the Danes and the English. As the Danelaw was reconquered, the Danish population which had settled there were simply assimilated into the general population and life of the English kingdom. In 942 Oda, a full-blooded Dane, was made Archbishop of Canterbury. More over, the English army slowly took on a Danish cast as the Anglo-Saxon farmer became more inclined to let the fighting to the more militant Danish thegns. It should be pointed out that Ethelred’s problems were due to his failures as leader not the make up of his forces.
This accommodation with the Danes left its marks on many aspects of Anglo-Saxon life. The most significant was that England was broken into three cultural regions. There was the Danelaw, where the Vikings had permanently settled down; Wessex, which was never under Viking control; and Mercia, which was transitional between the two. These differences manifested themselves in the names of people and places, and in the local customs and laws they followed. But in the ways they lived day to day, the differences were not so pronounced, as both groups came from the same roots and similar environments.
One of the unifying factors was the Christian Church. In fact, Edward would often send priests ahead of his conquering armies to convert the pagan Danes to Christianity. The original Viking invasions had all but wiped out the native clergy, to the extent that Alfred had to send to France for teachers and ordinary brothers to found communities. By 950, the Danes had all been converted to Christianity, though many pagan practices continued. During the last half of the tenth century, under Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, England participated in the great Benedictine reform that swept the continent.
The best description of Anglo-Saxon life is in the poem Beowulf. While set on the Danish peninsula, the life it paints spans the early Germanic culture, of which the Anglo-Saxons were a part. Among the aspects it portrays is the importance of kin, as each individual looked their kin to obtain justice, or to seek vengeance if killed. The concept of wergild was instituted to cut down on the blood-feuds that this engendered. The king leads by example and is expected to be generous to his followers. And the true measure of a man was his performance in battle, particularly in the face of his own death. These themes also occur in the poem, "The Battle of Maldon".
Ethelred was no the last Anglo-Saxon king. His son Edward the Confessor was. But it was Ethelred who nevertheless set up the final fall. To secure support against Swein, he had married Emma, the daughter of the Duke of Normandy; their son was Edward. This connection is what allowed William of Normandy to lay claim to the crown of England.
When William conquered England in 1066, he replaced wholesale the upper aristocracy, but left intact, and used, the basic institutions of the Anglo-Saxons. Thus it was the Anglo-Saxon financial organization, first set to collect the Danegild, that financed the Avgevin Empire of Henry II, and the Crusade of Richard the Lionhearted. It was the Anglo-Saxon fyrd, that formed the backbone of the English armies, which had so much success on the medieval battlefields. It was the Anglo-Saxon system of moots evolving into various courts, which encouraged the concepts of local self-rule. Which, in time, put a brake on the powers of the monarchy, leading to democratic government. And it was the laws first formulated in those moots that became the basis of English common law, which governs us yet today. Thus the Anglo-Saxon civilization lives on today.
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