May 14, 2021

Today if you visit Battle Abbey in Sussex, the great religious house built by William the Conqueror to atone for the bloodshed he caused, children get to re-enact the most famous event in English history by choosing to be either Saxons or Normans. What kind of monsters, I wondered when I lasted visited, would choose to be those shaven-headed grasping, quasi-French religious fanatics?

We’ve always sided with the defeated of 1066. Losing liberates you from the labours of history and allows the vast freedom of what-might-have-been and happy myth-making. And, indeed, Anglo-Saxon England has often been portrayed as a happy place of flowery meadows and rainbow skies and rivers made of chocolate.

The ideal of the Anglo-Saxons as freeborn lovers of liberty is one of the most persistent throughout English history, and long before Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. During the Peasant’s Revolt Hertfordshire villeins threatened the Abbey of St Albans with ransacking unless they handed over charters from the time of King Offa proving that serfdom had not existed in those halcyon days. In the Civil War, radicals such as John Lilburne and Gerard Winstanley railed against the Norman Yoke; Thomas Jefferson wanted Horsa and Hengist on the presidential seal, “the Saxon chiefs from whom we claim the honor of being descended, and whose political principles and form of government we have assumed”.

It is the oldest of class myths, trusty yeomen against an aristocracy who, even today, have a disproportionate amount of Norman blood. Yet a myth it was; the ancestors of the peasants of St Albans indeed weren’t serfs in Offa’s day — they were slaves. Among its many horrors, Anglo-Saxon England was rife with slavery, an institution effectively abolished by William the Conqueror.

Marc Morris is no naïve freeborn Saxon; his previous book, The Norman Conquest, brilliantly laid out the complexities of that fascinating and frightening people; rapacious, cruel and intolerant, yet often opposed to capital punishment and with a new form of politics called chivalry in which captured opponents were spared. The last decades of Anglo-Saxon England, in contrast, were like the depths of George R.R. Martin’s darkest nightmares, with numerous blindings, betrayals and brutal murders and a court culture devoid of any mercy.

Morris’s eagerly-awaited and equally enthralling The Anglo-Saxons covers the much longer preceding period, and throughout this epic narrative is the continual theme of England’s semi-detached relationship with the continent. The story begins with the destruction of one, Latin-speaking, continental empire, and ends with England’s absorption into another — this one dominated by speakers of a bastardised descendent of the Roman tongue.

In AD402 the last Roman coins appear and at some point the Romans depart, whether with the approval of the Romano-Britons we can’t entirely be sure. This Rexit proved rather unsuccessful, and here we enter the mythical origins of the Saxons, with three ships arriving from across the North Sea to Kent, led by the brothers Horsa and Hengest.

This is the traditional tale told by Gildas, a depressing sixth-century monk living in Brittany and a sort of proto-conservative newspaper columnist warning that the country was going to the dogs because of immigration (he happened to be right, though). Yet Gildas got some basic facts wrong (no change there) and Morris is confident that these are merely common tropes, three ships and brothers with alliterative names being a common theme in origin stories.

Little is known of this earlier period, but light emerges in 597 when Pope Gregory, who turned the ruined city of Rome into the beating heart of a new spiritual Roman empire, sent an emissary to convert the heathens. This began what was for a millennium a close and intense relationship between the English and the Church of Rome.

The Church brought the country back within the European mainstream, literacy re-emerged, and it proved strongest in the north. So begins that great moment in history, the Northumbrian Golden Age, where on the banks of the Tyne and Wear a new civilisation burst forth, producing some of the most beautiful artwork of the middle ages and early renaissance men such as Alcuin and, most importantly of all, the Venerable Bede.

Perhaps no one other than Shakespeare did as much to create the English narrative; this remarkable monk, who never left his native North-East and yet had a vast imagination encompassing every subject imaginable, largely wrote the first chapter in our national story, the Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

History, of course, is told by the winners, and Bede was a Christian. The greatest warrior of the time was Penda of Mercia, who killed no fewer than three kings of East Anglia in the endless tribal wars that marked the period. Yet even after pagan Mercia had defeated Christian Northumbria, the latter’s defeated king, Oswald, came to be immortalised, a saint with his image portrayed across churches as far as Germany.

Penda disappeared into historic nothingness and his son, the even more unfortunately name Peada, accepted the inevitable and became Christian. Morris suggests that Penda’s defeat in 655, at the hands of Oswald’s successor Oswiu, might be the origin story of the most exciting archaeological find of recent years, the Staffordshire Hoard, which dates to around the right time.

“If this wasn’t the war gear of Oswiu and his fellow warriors, it was exactly what their war gear would have looked like,” he suggests. As with all of this period, we have to let our imaginations do much of the work, but what a rich seam for the imagination! Perhaps, the author wonders, it was carried from the battlefield by a Mercian warlord surviving the massacre, or it was like the scene in Beowulf, when an unnamed individual, the last of a defeated race, buries their treasure in despair:

“Now, earth, hold what earls once held
And heroes can no more; it was mined from you first
By honourable men. My own people
Have been ruined in war; one by one
They went down to death, looked their last
On sweet life in the hall”.

Beowulf is a lament for an age of warriors already gone; by now it was the age of clerics, as the Church’s bureaucracy grew across the kingdoms. The most influential Saxons were now not the kings but the men and women of the church, such as Wilfrid, Hilda and Boniface. Again, England’s strange relationship with the continent would prove central; Kent had been converted by Italians, but Northumbria had been converted by the Irish, and the Celtic Church had developed its own rituals and rules, the biggest dispute being over the dating of Easter.

For two whole decades, King Oswiu and his wife Eanfled celebrated Easter at different times of year, and this situation obviously couldn’t last. The nationwide dispute was resolved at the Synod of Whitby where Bishop Wilfrid made a very Remainer-sounding argument for following Rome. “Do you think that a handful of people in a corner of the remotest island is to be preferred to the universal Church of Christ which is spread through the world?” The liberal elite won the day and England fell in with the continent.

The most influential priest was Theodore of Tarsus, a Greek from what is now Syria who had been appointed to this utterly distant, alien, barbaric land well into his sixties. As Archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore more than anyone established the hierarchy of the English Church, much of which still stands today, and cracked down on such strange local customs as mothers putting their daughters on rooftops to cure fevers. When one of his clerics, Bishop Chad, refused to get on a horse because he wanted to show (a rather impractical) humility by walking everywhere, the 69-year-old Greek cleric heaved him into the saddle. Bede said Theodore “was the first of the archbishops whom the whole Anglo-Saxon Church consented to obey”.

The mid 8th century saw an uptake in international trade around the coasts of northern Europe, an inkling of the North Sea area’s future economic takeoff. Yet the cities evacuated by the Romans had been left untouched by the Saxon invaders, who called them the enta geweorc – the work of the giants. Even the largest, Londonium remained empty, and yet a couple of miles to the west the Saxons had set up a trading post – a wic – which became Lundenwic. Bede in 731 described it as “an emporium for many nations, who come to it by land and sea”.

Trade flourished, as did the monastic economy, but the monasteries would also prove to be vulnerable to a darkening presence in the distance; in 793 horror came to northern Christendom when Lindisfarne was raided by “heathens” — Vikings.

Norse armies were able to attack coastal towns at will, and in 851 even stormed the old Roman walls of Canterbury. But the crisis became a catastrophe in 865 when the Great Heathen Army overran the kingdom of Northumbria, killing its king, and then doing likewise to East Anglia. When Mercia collapsed, the story of the Saxons may well have ended. The last kingdom was ruled by the old king’s youngest son, a man of 20 who had been destined for the Church, and even sent to Rome as a child. His three elder brothers had died in succession and the young man, plagued by — possibly psychosomatic — illness now faced terrible odds. His name was Alfred.

For all the propaganda involved — Alfred wisely employed his own biographer, Asser — his epitaph is certainly justified; he defeated the Vikings in battle, made literacy a national priority, built the burhs that would become many modern towns and in 886 re-founded the Roman city of London, where he was accepted as king by those Anglo-Saxons not under Danish rule, with the approval of “all the counsellors of the English race” — ealles Angelcynnes witan.

When Alfred’s children and grandchildren forced the submission of Viking rulers further north, the kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria would not return. Instead, after his grandson Athelstan united the country in 927 it was said that “this Saxon-land [was] made whole” — ista Saxonia perfecta. Athelstan, defeating a coalition of Scots, Welsh and Viking rulers at “The Great Battle” at Brunanburh, now went by the title “King of the English”.

And yet the glorious triumph of the House of Wessex was not fated to last forever, and a series of disasters in the following century led to foreign conquest — in 1016. Unlike the more famous invader of 50 years later, the Danish Canute did not decapitate the country’s elite, and ruled justly; chroniclers also observed approvingly that with his North Sea empire, Canute was able to remove tariffs for English traders on much of the continent.

The conquest of 1066 was, in contrast, catastrophic for the natives: of 1,000 major landowners recorded in William’s 1086 Domesday Book, only 13 were English. And yet the same record showed that the unfree population had already fallen by a quarter and by 1150 slavery was effectively gone. A chronicler of 1130s recalled that “In this respect the English found foreigners treated them better than they treated themselves”. Many such historical cases!

The Normans destroyed much of Anglo-Saxon culture although they conserved the works of Bede, Asser, Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and the lives of English saints like Oswald and Ethelwold. Yet they also brought England again into the continental mainstream; we all meet plenty of Williams and Henrys in our daily lives, but not many people called Ethelwold or Oswiu and certainly not Peada.

“And yet,” as Morris says: “although their buildings are mostly gone, and their myths have been dispelled, a great deal of the Anglo-Saxon inheritance remains. The head of the English Church is still based at Canterbury because it was the principal city of King Ethelbert when he welcomed St Augustine over 1,400 years ago. Westminster is the political heart of the kingdom because Edward the Confessor added a royal palace when he rebuilt its ancient abbey. The shires of England, although tinkered with in the late twentieth century, are essentially the same as they were at the time of their creation more than 1,000 years ago… Roman Britannia, despite the grandeur of its ruins, lasted barely 400 years, and was over by the mid-fifth century. England is still a work in progress.”