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- The History of England - 1/23 -








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 Whether neolithic man superseded palaeolithic man in these islands by invasion or by domestic evolution, we do not know; but centuries before the Christian era the Britons overran the country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 Welsh.

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 denied.

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

The History of England - 1/23

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