Classic History Books


The History of England by A. E. Pollard

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 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.

 

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