A.F. Pollard.

The History of England - a Study in Political Evolution online

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55 B.C. - A.D. 1066

"Ah, well," an American visitor is said to have soliloquized on the
site of the battle of Hastings, "it is but a little island, and it has
often been conquered." We have in these few pages to trace the
evolution of a great empire, which has often conquered others, out of
the little island which was often conquered itself. The mere incidents
of this growth, which satisfied the childlike curiosity of earlier
generations, hardly appeal to a public which is learning to look upon
historical narrative not as a simple story, but as an interpretation of
human development, and upon historical fact as the complex resultant of
character and conditions; and introspective readers will look less for
a list of facts and dates marking the milestones on this national march
than for suggestions to explain the formation of the army, the spirit
of its leaders and its men, the progress made, and the obstacles
overcome. No solution of the problems presented by history will be
complete until the knowledge of man is perfect; but we cannot approach
the threshold of understanding without realizing that our national
achievement has been the outcome of singular powers of assimilation, of
adaptation to changing circumstances, and of elasticity of system.
Change has been, and is, the breath of our existence and the condition
of our growth.

Change began with the Creation, and ages of momentous development are
shrouded from our eyes. The land and the people are the two foundations
of English history; but before history began, the land had received the
insular configuration which has largely determined its fortune; and the
various peoples, who were to mould and be moulded by the land, had
differentiated from the other races of the world. Several of these
peoples had occupied the land before its conquest by the Anglo-Saxons,
some before it was even Britain. Whether neolithic man superseded
palaeolithic man in these islands by invasion or by domestic evolution,
we do not know; but centuries before the Christian era the Britons
overran the country and superimposed themselves upon its swarthy, squat
inhabitants. They mounted comparatively high in the scale of
civilization; they tilled the soil, worked mines, cultivated various
forms of art, and even built towns. But their loose tribal organization
left them at the mercy of the Romans; and though Julius Caesar's two
raids in 55 B.C. and 54 B.C. left no permanent results, the conquest
was soon completed when the Romans came in earnest in A.D. 43.

The extent to which the Romans during the three and a half centuries of
their rule in Britain civilized its inhabitants is a matter of doubtful
inference. The remains of Roman roads, Roman walls, and Roman villas
still bear witness to their material activity; and an occupation of the
land by Roman troops and Roman officials, spread over three hundred and
fifty years, must have impressed upon the upper classes of the Britons
at least some acquaintance with the language, religion, administration,
and social and economic arrangements of the conquerors. But, on the
whole, the evidence points rather to military occupation than to
colonization; and the Roman province resembled more nearly a German
than a British colony of to-day. Rome had then no surplus population
with which to fill new territory; the only emigrants were the soldiers,
the officials, and a few traders or prospectors; and of these most were
partially Romanized provincials from other parts of the empire, for a
Roman soldier of the third century A.D. was not generally a Roman or
even an Italian. The imperial government, moreover, considered the
interests of Britain not in themselves but only as subordinate to the
empire, which any sort of distinctive national organization would have
threatened. This distinguishes Roman rule in Britain from British rule
in India; and if the army in Britain gradually grew more British, it
was due to the weakness and not to the policy of the imperial
government. There was no attempt to form a British constitution, or
weld British tribes into a nation; for Rome brought to birth no
daughter states, lest she should dismember her all-embracing unity. So
the nascent nations warred within and rent her; and when, enfeebled and
distracted by the struggle, she relaxed her hold on Britain, she left
it more cultivated, perhaps, but more enervated and hardly stronger or
more united than before.

Hardier peoples were already hovering over the prey. The Romans had
themselves established a "count of the Saxon shore" to defend the
eastern coasts of Britain against the pirates of the German Ocean; and
it was not long after its revolt from Rome in 410, that the Angles and
Saxons and Jutes discovered a chance to meddle in Britain, torn as it
was by domestic anarchy, and threatened with inroads by the Picts and
Scots in the north. Neither this temptation nor the alleged invitation
from the British chief Vortigern to come over and help, supplied the
original impulse which drove the Angles and Saxons across the sea.
Whatever its origin - whether pressure from other tribes behind,
internal dissensions, or the economic necessities of a population
growing too fast for the produce of primitive farming - the restlessness
was general; but while the Goths and the Franks poured south over the
Roman frontiers on land, the Angles and Saxons obeyed a prophetic call
to the sea and the setting sun.

This migration by sea is a strange phenomenon. That nations should
wander by land was no new thing; but how in those days whole tribes
transported themselves, their wives and their chattels, from the mouths
of the Elbe and the Weser to those of the Thames and the Humber, we are
at a loss to understand. Yet come they did, and the name of the Angles
at least, which clung to the land they reached, was blotted out from
the home they left. It is clear that they came in detachments, as their
descendants went, centuries later, to a land still further west; and
the process was spread over a hundred years or more. They conquered
Britain blindly and piecemeal; and the traditional three years which
are said to have elapsed between the occupation of Sheppey and the
landing in Kent prove not that the puny arm of the intervening sea
deterred those who had crossed the ocean, but that Sheppey was as much
as these petrels of the storm could manage. The failure to dislodge
them, and the absence of centralized government and national
consciousness among the Britons encouraged further invaders; and Kent,
east of the Medway, and the Isle of Wight may have been the next
morsels they swallowed. These early comers were Jutes, but their easy
success led to imitation by their more numerous southern neighbours,
the Angles and Saxons; and the torrent of conquest grew in volume and
rapidity. Invaders by sea naturally sailed or rowed up the rivers, and
all conquerors master the plains before the hills, which are the home
of lost causes and the refuge of native states. Their progress may be
traced in the names of English kingdoms and shires: in the south the
Saxons founded the kingdoms of Sussex, Essex, Middlesex, and Wessex; in
the east the Anglians founded East Anglia, though in the north they
retained the Celtic names, Bernicia and Deira. The districts in which
they met and mingled have less distinctive names; Surrey was perhaps
disputed between all the Saxon kingdoms, Hampshire between West Saxons,
South Saxons, and Jutes; while in the centre Mercia was a mixed march
or borderland of Angles and Saxons against the retiring Britons or

It used to be almost a point of honour with champions of the
superiority of Anglo-Saxon virtues to maintain that the invaders, like
the Israelites of old, massacred their enemies to a man, if not also to
a woman and child. Massacre there certainly was at Anderida and other
places taken by storm, and no doubt whole British villages fled at the
approach of their bloodthirsty foes; but as the wave of conquest rolled
from east to west, and the concentration of the Britons grew while that
of the invader relaxed, there was less and less extermination. The
English hordes cannot have been as numerous in women as in men; and in
that case some of the British women would be spared. It no more
required wholesale slaughter of the Britons to establish English
language and institutions in Britain than it required wholesale
slaughter of the Irish to produce the same results in Ireland; and a
large admixture of Celtic blood in the English race can hardly be

Moreover, the Anglo-Saxons began to fight one another before they
ceased to fight their common enemy, who must have profited by this
internecine strife. Of the process by which the migrating clans and
families were blended into tribal kingdoms, we learn nothing; but the
blending favoured expansion, and expansion brought the tribal kingdoms
into hostile contact with tougher rivals than the Britons. The
expansion of Sussex and Kent was checked by Saxons who had landed in
Essex or advanced up the Thames and the Itchen; East Anglia was hemmed
in by tribes who had sailed up the Wash, the Humber, and their
tributaries; and the three great kingdoms which emerged out of the
anarchy - Northumbria, Mercia, and Wessex - seem to have owed the
supremacy, which they wielded in turn, to the circumstance that each
possessed a British hinterland into which it could expand. For
Northumbria there was Strathclyde on the west and Scotland on the
north; for Mercia there was Wales; and for Wessex there were the
British remnants in Devon and in Cornwall.

But a kingdom may have too much hinterland. Scotland taxed for
centuries the assimilative capacity of united England; it was too much
for Northumbria to digest. Northumbria's supremacy was distinguished by
the religious labours of Aidan and Cuthbert and Wilfrid in England, by
the missions of Willibrord on the Continent, and by the revival of
literature and learning under Caedmon and Bede; but it spent its
substance in efforts to conquer Scotland, and then fell a victim to the
barbaric strength of Mercia and to civil strife between its component
parts, Bernicia and Deira. Mercia was even less homogeneous than
Northumbria; it had no frontiers worth mention; and in spite of its
military prowess it could not absorb a hinterland treble the size of
the Wales which troubled Edward I. Wessex, with serviceable frontiers
consisting of the Thames, the Cotswolds, the Severn, and the sea, and
with a hinterland narrowing down to the Cornish peninsula, developed a
slower but more lasting strength. Political organization seems to have
been its forte, and it had set its own house in some sort of order
before it was summoned by Ecgberht to assume the lead in English
politics. From that day to this the sceptre has remained in his house
without a permanent break.

Some slight semblance of political unity was thus achieved, but it was
already threatened by the Northmen and Danes, who were harrying England
in much the same way as the English, three centuries earlier, had
harried Britain. The invaders were invaded because they had forsaken
the sea to fight one another on land; and then Christianity had come to
tame their turbulent vigour. A wave of missionary zeal from Rome and a
backwash from unconquered Ireland had met at the synod of Whitby in
664, and Roman priests recovered what Roman soldiers had lost. But the
church had not yet armed itself with the weapons of the world, and
Christian England was no more a match than Christian Britain had been
for a heathen foe. Ecgberht's feeble successors in Wessex, and their
feebler rivals in the subordinate kingdoms, gave way step by step
before the Danes, until in 879 Ecgberht's grandson Alfred the Great
was, like a second King Arthur, a fugitive lurking in the recesses of
his disappearing realm.

Wessex, however, was more closely knit than any Celtic realm had been;
the Danes were fewer than their Anglo-Saxon predecessors; and Alfred
was made of sterner stuff than early British princes. He was typical of
Wessex; moral strength and all-round capacity rather than supreme
ability in any one direction are his title-deeds to greatness. After
hard fighting he imposed terms of peace upon the Danish leader Guthrum.
England south-west of Watling Street, which ran from London to Chester,
was to be Alfred's, the rest to be Danish; and Guthrum succumbed to the
pacifying influence of Christianity. Not the least of Alfred's gains
was the destruction of Mercia's unity; its royal house had disappeared
in the struggle, and the kingdom was now divided; while Alfred lost his
nominal suzerainty over north-east England, he gained a real
sovereignty over south-west Mercia. His children, Edward the Elder and
Ethelfleda, the Lady of the Mercians, and his grandson Athelstan,
pushed on the expansion of Wessex thus begun, dividing the land as they
won it into shires, each with a burh (borough) or fortified centre for
its military organization; and Anglo-Saxon monarchy reached its zenith
under Edgar, who ruled over the whole of England and asserted a
suzerainty over most of Britain.

It was transitory glory and superficial unity; for there was no real
possibility of a national state in Anglo-Saxon-Celtic-Danish England,
and the whole meaning of English history is missed in antedating that
achievement by several hundred years. Edgar could do no more than evade
difficulties and temporize with problems which imperceptible growth
alone could solve; and the idealistic pictures of early England are not
drawn from life, but inspired by a belief in good old days and an
unconscious appreciation of the polemical value of such a theory in
political controversy. Tacitus, a splenetic Roman aristocrat, had
satirized the degeneracy of the empire under the guise of a description
of the primitive virtues of a Utopian Germany; and modern theorists
have found in his _Germania_ an armoury of democratic weapons
against aristocracy and despotism. From this golden age the Angles and
Saxons are supposed to have derived a political system in which most
men were free and equal, owning their land in common, debating and
deciding in folkmoots the issues of peace and war, electing their kings
(if any), and obeying them only so far as they inspired respect. These
idyllic arrangements, if they ever existed, did not survive the stress
of the migration and the struggle with the Celts. War begat the king,
and soon the church baptized him and confirmed his power with unction
and biblical precedents. The moot of the folk became the moot of the
Wise (Witan), and only those were wise whose wisdom was apparent to the
king. Community of goods and equality of property broke down in the
vast appropriation involved in the conquest of Britain; and when, after
their conversion to Christianity, the barbarians learnt to write and
left authentic records, they reveal a state of society which bears some
resemblance to that of medieval England but little to that of the
mythical golden age.

Upon a nation of freemen in arms had been superimposed a class of
military specialists, of whom the king was head. Specialization had
broken down the system by which all men did an equal amount of
everything. The few, who were called thegns, served the king, generally
by fighting his enemies, while the many worked for themselves and for
those who served the king. All holders of land, however, had to serve
in the national levy and to help in maintaining the bridges and
primitive fortifications. But there were endless degrees of inequality
in wealth; some now owned but a fraction of what had been the normal
share of a household in the land; others held many shares, and the
possession of five shares became the dividing line between the class
from which the servants of the king were chosen and the rest of the
community. While this inequality increased, the tenure of land grew
more and more important as the basis of social position and political
influence. Land has little value for nomads, but so soon as they settle
its worth begins to grow; and the more labour they put into the land,
the higher rises its value and the less they want to leave it; in a
purely agricultural community land is the great source of everything
worth having, and therefore the main object of desire.

But it became increasingly difficult for the small man to retain his
holding. He needed protection, especially during the civil wars of the
Heptarchy and the Danish inroads which followed. There was, however, no
government strong enough to afford protection, and he had to seek it
from the nearest magnate, who might possess armed servants to defend
him, and perhaps a rudimentary stronghold within which he might shelter
himself and his belongings till the storm was past. The magnate
naturally wanted his price for these commodities, and the only price
that would satisfy him was the poor man's land. So many poor men
surrendered the ownership of their land, receiving it back to be held
by them as tenants on condition of rendering various services to the
landlord, such as ploughing his land, reaping his crops, and other
work. Generally, too, the tenant became the landlord's "man," and did
him homage; and, thirdly, he would be bound to attend the court in
which the lord or his steward exercised jurisdiction.

This growth of private jurisdiction was another sign of the times.
Justice had once been administered in the popular moots, though from
very early times there had been social distinctions. Each village had
its "best" men, generally four in number, who attended the moots of the
larger districts called the Hundreds; and the "best" were probably
those who had inherited or acquired the best homesteads. This
aristocracy sometimes shrank to one, and the magnate, to whom the poor
surrendered their land in return for protection, often acquired also
rights of jurisdiction, receiving the fines and forfeits imposed for
breaches of the law. He was made responsible, too, for the conduct of
his poorer neighbours. Originally the family had been made to answer
for the offences of its members; but the tie of blood-relationship
weakened as the bond of neighbourhood grew stronger with attachment to
the soil; and instead of the natural unit of the family, an artificial
unit was created for the purpose of responsibility to the law by
associating neighbours together in groups of ten, called peace-pledges
or frith-borhs. It is at least possible that the "Hundred" was a
further association of ten frith-borhs as a higher and more responsible
unit for the administration of justice. But the landless man was
worthless as a member of a frith-borh, for the law had little hold over
a man who had no land to forfeit and no fixed habitation. So the
landless man was compelled by law to submit to a lord, who was held
responsible for the behaviour of all his "men"; his estate became, so
to speak, a private frith-borh, consisting of dependents instead of the
freemen of the public frith-borhs. These two systems, with many
variations, existed side by side; but there was a general tendency for
the freemen to get fewer and for the lords to grow more powerful.

This growth of over-mighty subjects was due to the fact that a
government which could not protect the poorest could not restrain the
local magnates to whom the poor were forced to turn; and the weakness
of the government was due ultimately to the lack of political education
and of material resources. The mass of Englishmen were locally minded;
there was nothing to suggest national unity to their imagination. They
could not read, they had no maps, nor pictures of crowned sovereigns,
not even a flag to wave; none, indeed, of those symbols which bring
home to the peasant or artisan a consciousness that he belongs to a
national entity. Their interests centred round the village green; the
"best" men travelled further afield to the hundred and shire-moot, but
anything beyond these limits was distant and unreal, the affair of an
outside world with which they had no concern. Anglo-Saxon patriotism
never transcended provincial boundaries.

The government, on the other hand, possessed no proper roads, no
regular means of communication, none of those nerves which enable it to
feel what goes on in distant parts. The king, indeed, was beginning to
supply the deficiencies of local and popular organization: a special
royal peace or protection, which meant specially severe penalties to
the offender, was being thrown over special places like highways,
markets, boroughs, and churches; over special times like Sundays, holy
days, and the meeting-days of moots; and over special persons like
priests and royal officials. The church, too, strove to set an example
of centralized administration; but its organization was still monastic
rather than parochial and episcopal, and even Dunstan failed to cleanse
it of sloth and simony. With no regular system of taxation, little
government machinery, and no police, standing army, or royal judges, it
was impossible to enforce royal protection adequately, or to check the
centrifugal tendency of England to break up into its component parts.
The monarchy was a man rather than a machine; a vigorous ruler could
make some impression, but whenever the crown passed to a feeble king,
the reign of anarchy recommenced.

Alfred's successors annexed the Danelaw which Alfred had left to
Guthrum, but their efforts to assimilate the Danes provoked in the
first place a reaction against West Saxon influence which threatened
more than once to separate England north of the Thames from Wessex,
and, secondly, a determination on the part of Danes across the sea to
save their fellow-countrymen in England from absorption. Other causes
no doubt assisted to bring about a renewal of Danish invasion; but the
Danes who came at the end of the tenth century, if they began as
haphazard bands of rovers, greedy of spoil and ransom, developed into
the emissaries of an organized government bent on political conquest.
Ethelred, who had to suffer from evils that were incurable as well as
for his predecessors' neglect, bought off the raiders with ever-
increasing bribes which tempted them to return; and by levying Danegeld
to stop invasion, set a precedent for direct taxation which the
invaders eventually used as the financial basis of efficient
government. At length a foolish massacre of the Danish "uitlanders" in
England precipitated the ruin of Anglo-Saxon monarchy; and after heroic
resistance by Edmund Ironside, England was absorbed in the empire of

Canute tried to put himself into the position, while avoiding the
mistakes, of his English predecessors. He adopted the Christian
religion and set up a force of hus-earls to terrify local magnates and
enforce obedience to the English laws which he re-enacted. His division
of England into four great earldoms seems to have been merely a casual
arrangement, but he does not appear to have checked the dangerous
practice by which under Edgar and Ethelred the ealdormen had begun to
concentrate in their hands the control of various shires. The greater
the sphere of a subject's jurisdiction, the more it menaced the
monarchy and national unity; and after Canute's empire had fallen to
pieces under his worthless sons, the restoration of Ecgberht's line in
the person of Edward the Confessor merely provided a figurehead under
whose nominal rule the great earls of Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria, and
East Anglia fought at first for control of the monarchy and at length
for the crown itself. The strife resolved itself into a faction fight
between the Mercian house of Leofric and the West Saxon house of
Godwine, whose dynastic policy has been magnified into patriotism by a
great West Saxon historian. The prize fell for the moment on Edward's
death to Godwine's son, Harold, whose ambition to sit on a throne cost
him his life and the glory, which otherwise might have been his, of

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