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- The History of England - 2/23 -


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.

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


The History of England - 2/23

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