Classic History Books


The History of England by A. E. Pollard

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 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 saving his country from William the Norman. As regent

 

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