Classic History Books


The History of England by A. E. Pollard

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

 

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