‘Late Anglo-Saxon England was a nation state.’ So wrote a leading historian some ten years back. The words were controversial then and they are controversial now. Yet Professor Campbell was quite explicit as to his meaning. ‘It was an entity with an effective central authority, uniformly organized institutions, a national language, a national church, defined frontiers . . . and, above all, a strong sense of national identity.’1 It is, perhaps, hardly a view that squares with the received wisdom outside the world of Anglo-Saxon studies. But England was certainly a nation state at a very early era of European history.

In this book I claim no originality of research, but want to tell the story of the first centuries of the English in Britain and in Europe and show how the historical reality of an English identity grew out of traditions of loyalty and lordship from the epic heritage of a pagan past embodied in the poem of Beowulf in a common vernacular language, and how the notion of a warrior church produced an expatriate community that made pioneering contributions to the shaping of the European experience. In the process we should see how, while there was ‘a nation of the English centuries before there was a kingdom of the English’,2 that kingdom, based on a shared vernacular language and literature, at the time of its overthrow in 1066 had achieved a substantially uniform system of government that, for good or ill, was in advance of any contemporary European polity of a comparable area.3 It was the culmination of a gradual coming together of separate political entities. As a result, the story comprises overlapping narratives of rival kingships – Kentish, Northumbrian, Mercian and so forth – up to the mid-tenth century, so that the reader will sometimes find the chronology running ahead of itself. Above all, this main account is of necessity interrupted by chapters not set in England at all but on the Continent of Europe, where three generations of expatriate English men and women made formative contributions to the birth of a European identity.

In the early 700s Wynfrith ‘of Crediton’ in Devon, otherwise known as St Boniface, patron saint of Germany, where he worked for most of his life, was in the habit of referring to his home country as ’transmarina Saxonia’ (‘Saxony overseas’). He described himself as of the race of the Angles. His younger contemporary, the Langobard churchman Paul the Deacon, noted the unusual garments that ‘Angli Saxones were accustomed to wear’ and in the next century Prudentius, bishop of the French city of Troyes, writes of: ‘The island of Britain, the greater part of which Angle Saxons inhabit’ (Brittaniam insulam, ea quam maxime parte, quam Angli Saxones incolunt).4 Wilhelm Levison, the great authority on the English presence on the Continent in the early Middle Ages, actually suggested that the term Anglo-Saxon may have originated on the Continent to distinguish them from the German or ‘Old’ Saxons. However, most scholars now tend to accept that the name of the ‘Angles’ had earlier origins.

We have here a cluster of terms – Germany, Saxony, Langobard, French – that are not what they seem. The geographical identity of the island of Britain is still, give or take a coastline indentation or two, what it was twelve hundred years ago, but ‘France’ was part of the region known as ‘Francia’, the land of the western Franks. Gaul was the Roman term for the province and the term ‘Neustria’ is sometimes used for territories in southern Francia. The Langobards were a Germanic people who had established a kingdom in northern Italy remembered in the word Lombardy. What today we might call ‘Germany’ then comprised parts of the wesern regions of the modern state, mostly the lands of the East Franks – Francken (Franconia), Hessen, Lothringen, Schwaben (Swabia) and Bayern (Bavaria). The pagan Germanic-speaking tribes of Saxony (those ‘Old’ Saxons) had yet to be brought into the Christian domains of the eastern Franks, though they too were Germans.

This leaves us with the Anglo-Saxons. They were at first a mixed collection of Germanic raiders who had crossed over to the island Britain and would eventually become subsumed under the name of ‘English’. Some may have settled as early as the 370s, following a great incursion of Scotti (from Ireland), Picts (from Scotland) and Saxons described by the Roman writer Ammianus Marcellinus for the year 367. In much the same way, the Germanic tribes on the east bank of the lower Rhine, known collectively as ‘the Franks’, who began to disturb that part of the Roman imperial frontier in the third century, were made up of three main groups: the Salian, the Ripuarian and the Chatti or Hessian Franks. As for the original inhabitants of Britannia, whose descendants still maintain their identity in Wales, they considered the English quite simply as Germans and continued to call them that as late as the eighth century.5

About the year 400, apart from the officers and men of the Roman military, a small group of colonial officials and possibly a few Christian clerics, the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants of Britain south of Hadrian’s Wall could have been divided into two broad ethnic groups. The larger of these could claim descent from the original Iron Age peoples who occupied the islands before the Roman invasion of AD 43 and who still, some four centuries later, constituted the bulk of the population. The smaller group, a native establishment and ruling class, was of mixed Romano-British ancestry, the result of intermarriage. Most of them called themselves ‘Roman’. Many could have spoken or written Latin, the rest spoke one of the languages of the British territories that were formerly client kingdoms to Rome. (‘Roman’, of course, was a civic rather than ethnic designation. The legionaries came from such provinces as Dacia (modern Romania), Iberia and Gaul, a few perhaps from Latium in Italy, and many from Syria.

What Professor Geoffrey Elton in his book The English (1994) termed ‘the marauding bands of barbarians from the regions around Friesland and the mouth of the Elbe’ were also diverse in origin. Elton believed that their languages over time ‘turned into dialects of one Anglo-Saxon or Old English’ language. As he observed, in its various forms this earliest form of English ‘preserved extraordinarily few words’ borrowed from the languages of the British peoples whom the newcomers displaced.6 These newcomers introduced the ancestor of what is, at the moment, the dominant language of the world. In the centuries before its temporary eclipse by French and Latin after the Norman Conquest, they had fashioned something unique in the Europe of its day: a linguistic culture which, though it made use of Latin, used the vernacular in all fields from social intercourse to government and from law to learning and literature.

It appears to have evolved as a new language. In the opinion of John Hines of Cardiff University, it was an amalgam of Germanic dialects spoken in the Continental homelands of the Saxons, Angles, Jutes, Frisians and the rest. There, a divergence had set in within the North Sea Germanic linguistic community. In Britain, apparently, these language varieties converged, particularly in the matter of pronunciation. In England dialects developed in this new language without any identifiable correspondence to the homeland origins of the dialect groups.

In the 490s, when, we are told, the Saxon invader Aelle had carved out a kingdom for himself in the region now called the county of Sussex and extended his influence over neighbouring territories, the bulk of the population of southern Britain still displayed the same ethnic mix as a century before. Now, however, the small Romano-British upper class was being displaced, or subjected. Latin, one can assume, had disappeared as a language of social intercourse as well as of administration – though the sixth-century British scholar Gildas wrote in Latin for readers among the elite, and remnants of the British Christian Church kept the language in ritual use and for letters. (In AD 461 we find mention of ‘Mansuetus, bishop of the Britons’ at the Council of Tours.) The majority of the native inhabitants no doubt for a time kept to their British dialects; but by the late 600s the dominant linguist community from Hadrian’s Wall in the north to the Channel coast in the south, and from the River Severn in the west to the east coast, was that of the Germanic incomers, already evolving their own literary culture.

Scholars are generally agreed that by the ninth century the concept of an ‘English people’ (in Latin, ‘gens anglorum,’ Anglo-Saxon, ‘Anglecynn’) was commonly used to denote all people of Germanic origin in Britain. The emerging English language itself, adopted by the native British inhabitants, helped the evolution of a shared sense of nationhood. At the beginning of this particular story stands the venerable figure of St Bede, whose great book Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum has the words in its title and who was to be one of the most widely read Latin scholars in Continental Europe as well as in England.

The Venerable Bede: England’s first historian

Bede died in 735 about the age of sixty-five, having completed his Ecclesiastical History of the English People just three years before. It was a respectable though not an excessive age for a monk of his time. The pattern of monastic life, if seriously observed, is conducive to health. True, it is demanding. The daily singing of the office on a 24/7 roster makes for broken nights but also for a regular bodily regime. The healthful benefits of singing, long ago praised by England’s great Tudor composer William Byrd, had been known for centuries before that. (Bede and his fellows were instructed by John the Cantor – from Rome – in Roman, presumably ‘Gregorian’, chant. This John may also have kept an eye open for heresy in the cloister.)

Food might be sparse in a well-run house but dietetically sound. Alcohol taken in moderation has known medicinal properties and the herb garden presided over by the monk apothecary provided the foundation of sound health provision. Reading for mental exercise, prayer for spiritual exercise, and meditation and physical activity are the three components of a monk’s waking hours. Against the frustration of sexual abstinence can be set the strong psychological motivation of a belief system where bodily chastity is considered a high virtue rather than a tiresome anti-social idiosyncrasy and where the dedicated service of God is held to be not only deeply beneficial to the individual soul but also a prime community service.

Of course, all this was part of an ideal monastic observance. Like the modern political class, medieval churchmen were often ‘only human’. But their ideal, if only they could manage it, was to help their society transcend the weaknesses of human nature – not to pander to them. People saw a fully functioning monastery as a barracks for God’s cohorts in battle against the principalities and powers of Evil, and missionary monks as the church’s field army against the devils infesting Europe’s forests of heathendom.

From boyhood Bede, placed by his parents at the recently founded monastery of Jarrow on Tyneside, devoted his full strength of mind and purpose to the service of God and to the life of scholarship, where, being a creative genius, he achieved success in heaping measure, often working through the cramping cold of a Northumbrian winter in his unheated monastic cell. In his last year we know he dictated his books to a scribe. As a younger man he would have worked up the actual copy himself.

Besides the prepared parchment or vellum, and the horn well charged with ink (produced from a compound of lampblack and gum), a writer’s tool kit comprised: a variety of pens made from birds’ feathers (stiff pens, for example, were preferred for certain styles of script); a razor; and two types of knife – the penknife for cutting and trimming the pen, another for scraping the parchment or erasing mistakes. (It was the pleasure of Wulfstan II (c. 1008–95), the last Anglo-Saxon bishop of Worcester, who always carried such an implement about his person, to use it to trim any excessively luxuriant or well-perfumed locks of ‘decadent’ young courtiers respectfully bowing their heads to him. The young scoundrels lost the Battle of Hastings, nevertheless.) In addition the diligent penman required a whetstone block for sharpening the cutting edges; a stylus and wax tablets for making notes or inscribing exemplars to be copied by apprentice penmen; and parchment scraps. A veteran like Bede could expect to have his pens cut and sharpened for him by a novice, one of his team.

Bede tells us that he got some material by word of mouth. Jarrow and its brother house, like any other large and busy monasteries, were open to travellers, often distinguished guests visiting from long distance. We know of a monk who, preparing the biography of the English nun Lioba, would pump her friends ‘being careful to make notes of anything he heard . . . jotting them down on odd pieces of parchment.’7 One can imagine Bede perhaps at the refectory table of the guest house at Jarrow making the occasional jotting as he listened to the news of a visiting nobleman or distinguished traveller from abroad, perhaps like Lioba’s biographer using a kind of shorthand. But we can be sure that his notes were more carefully archived. Lioba’s biographer seems to have been a muddler and died before he could get his jottings in order; they were written up by a fellow monk.

It was probably from some traveller from afar that Bede came to learn of the havoc wrought by the Muslim armies from North Africa upon the Christian kingdoms of the Iberian peninsula. For English news he depended on a wide circle of correspondents in Mercia and Canterbury and other centres, possibly as far afield as Egypt. Bishop Daniel of Winchester wrote to him with news of events in the church of the kingdom of Wessex, in Sussex and the Isle of Wight. A correspondent at Rome even copied documents in the papal libraries for him.

For the early sections of the History he drew on a wide range of books that demonstrated the riches of his monastery’s library. His account of the life and death of St Alban, the great martyr of the British Church, is taken from a Continental manuscript, the Passio Albanis. Chapter 2 of the History, dedicated to Julius Caesar, ‘the first Roman to reach Britain’, comes almost verbatim from Historiarum adversus paganos Libri VII (Seven Books of Histories against the Pagans) by the Spanish priest Paulus Orosius.

A (probably younger) contemporary of St Augustine of Hippo, Orosius had lived through historic times. In 410 the barbarian Alaric the Visigoth sacked Rome. The impact on the Christian Roman empire was immense. In 391 Emperor Theodosius had banned pagan sacrifices and the visiting of the old Roman temples; now, barely twenty years later, the ‘eternal’ walls were breached by a pagan army. To old-fashioned Romans it must have seemed a just vengeance by the old gods, to Christians, a punishment for their sins. The catastrophe prompted St Augustine of Hippo to write his monumental work De civitate dei contra paganos (Concerning the City of God against the Pagans). It set the fall of Rome in the eternal context of God’s purpose and confronted the challenge of pagan religions and pre-Christian classical philosophy. Its ideas would reverberate throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. It was Augustine who suggested that Orosius produce a work to complement it.8

The result was a history of the world with the central argument that, even during times of pagan barbarity, humanity was guided by divine providence. Little wonder if it too became a textbook for scholars in Europe’s new barbarian, but post-pagan, regimes. Little wonder also that it survives in more than 200 manuscripts, among them a number by Anglo-Saxon copyists. Like Bede’s history itself, it was translated into Old English during the reign of King Alfred the Great of Wessex.

As to Bede himself, it is so unexpected to find a sophisticated methodology in a historian of the eighth century that it is easy to forget that he very definitely had an agenda. Writing in 1995, N. J. Higham observed that Bede wrote, as

a committed exponent of Roman Christianity . . . at a time when that branch of the Faith was battling for the hearts and minds of the Anglo-Saxons and their distant cousins in Germany against paganism and other branches of Christianity.

Bede may have had the Continental Saxons in mind as part of his audience, but it seems that St Boniface, ‘the Apostle of Germany’, had no knowledge of the History more than a decade after its completion, though he did write to England asking for other works by the great scholar of Jarrow to be sent to him.

Nevertheless, in the English context Bede downplayed, when he did not distort, the doings of great pagan kings. We shall see that Æthelfrith of Bernicia, terror of the Christian British, is treated quite leniently. But Bede himself was almost certainly of Bernician descent and, in any case, the king was the founding father of the glories of Christian Northumbria as Bede saw them. In so far as he prepared the way for the triumph of the ‘true faith’, Æthelfrith was to be seen as an unwitting agent of the providential purposes of God. In much the same way there are still Marxist historians prepared to overlook the murderous tyranny of Stalin as an agent of historical progress.

Before he set pen to parchment Bede faced a quite basic problem: how was he to date the events he described. He was writing in Northumbria but his ‘history of the English people’ described events in many other kingdoms of Britain, events before the coming of the Saxons, events in Europe and even beyond. His source documents used differing dating systems; in Britain itself the various kings tended to date events by their own regnal years. Other systems involved some combination of the months of the Roman calendar, the regnal year of the pope, or the emperor, plus the year of the indiction. For example, when Pope Gregory II drew up a letter commissioning the Anglo-Saxon monk Boniface to preach on the Continent, it was dated by the papal chancery as follows: ‘Given on the Ides of May, in the third year of our most august Lord, Leo, by God crowned emperor, in the third year of his consulship, in the second indiction.’9 It was a cumbersome and paradoxical formula, in that the pope, who claimed the headship of Christ’s church, honoured his lord the (Byzantine) emperor, Leo, but had nothing to say about his Lord Jesus.

There was just one simple and universal system available to a Christian historian; it was based on calculations about the birth and crucifixion of Jesus Christ made by the sixth-century church lawyer Dionysius Exiguus (i.e. Denis the Little) to help determine the date of Easter, the commemoration of that crucifixion. Bede decided to give all his dates as from ‘the year of Our Lord’ – (anno domini, now AD for short) or ‘the year of the Incarnation’.

It was to prove an epoch-making decision in the literal sense of the term. According to Bede that papal letter was given on ‘15 May AD 719’. The system was becoming generally adopted in western Europe within a century of his death, thanks to the wide diffusion of his writings and to the English missions on the Continent. When Boniface himself came to promulgate the decrees of the Synod of the German Church of 742, the Concilium Germanicum, he dated them in Latin, ‘anno ab incarnatione Christi septingentesimo XLII’ (‘the year from the birth of Christ 700th 42’).10The fact that today’s international dating system, the Common Era, is the Christian era calculated from the supposed date of Christ’s birth, is largely due to Bede. No historian could boast a more lasting memorial to his work.

From Beowulf to bureaucracy

Pioneer of the modern world’s dating convention, a historian in the sense that we understand the word as one who endeavours to weigh evidence on its merits of probability, a good son of the church, Bede was also a member of the establishment of his own day and surely familiar with bardic traditions and epics of the warriors’ mead hall. Scholars still debate the date of the manuscript of Beowulf, but most seem to agree that some form of the epic itself had long been part of the oral tradition. The ideals of loyalty to king or lord, courage in the face of monstrous danger, the warrior worthy of the gifts of the arm-ring giving lord were assumptions that formed a social fabric. It was a fabric where over all and behind all looms the undefinable presence of ‘wyrd’. It is associated with the ideas of fate (Latin fortuna), the destiny that shapes and informs human affairs, a space–time warp to which in the ancient Greek world even the gods were ultimately subject. In the pre-Christian world of northern Europe it was the continuum in which the ‘Norns’, the three Fates of Norse legend, cradle and determine human affairs. The word, but not the presence, survives in modern nursery English as ‘weird’. As late as Shakespeare it still held something of its dread: not for nothing did he dub the three witches in Macbeth the ‘Weird Sisters.’

Be that as it may, for both cleric and lay this Anglo-Saxon world of rival kings and conflicting ecclesiastical jurisdictions, where Canterbury and York would first try conclusions and where Christ the King of Heaven triumphed over the heathen gods and their attendant ‘devils’, ‘lordship’ was the core value. As John Blair notes in The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society (2005), the monk’s obligation of obedience to his abbot chimed with the secular value of imperative loyalty to lord or kin. This loyalty to the lord could even override obligations to the king. A man who remained at home, rather than accompany a lord condemned by the king to exile, could expect disrespect from his peers. In 675 King Ecgfrith of Northumbria ordered Bishop Wilfrid of Ripon into exile, but the cathedral’s clergy refused to follow him to ‘realms across the sea’. When news reached St Aldhelm, bishop of Sherborne in Wessex, he wrote a contemptuous letter. If even laymen, ignorant of the divine knowledge, despise men who abandon a good lord when he falls on hard times and is exiled, what was one to say of clerics who protested love of their bishop when he fostered them in the good times but let him go into exile alone?

But a puzzling paradox will emerge in the course of this book: this world of Beowulf, heroism and legend also produced a state structure of closely organized authority. So that in that area east of Wales and south of the rivers Tees and Ribble (the area surveyed by the Domesday Book commissioners) England’s pre-Conquest kings exercised a system of government more substantially uniform and extensive than any other European ruler. ‘There is no question of there having been anything comparable to the English state in France.’11

And yet, equally, we can say that England did have a political society that had many points in common with Continental ‘feudalism’. In England, as in Europe, men knew ‘a form of lordship in which a tenant could owe “rent” in many forms’, and had ‘obligations to provide all sorts of service, including military service.’ With the Norman Conquest, the elimination of the Old English social elite and its replacement by a new, alien landowning class resulted ‘in a tightening of the bonds of lordship to a degree which was even more foreign to France (including Normandy) than it was to England.’12 In other words, the essential elements of ‘the feudal system’ were present in England prior to 1066, and the Battle of Hastings merely intensified them.

But there was the English dimension – the courts of the shire and its subdivisions, all part of a system of royal justice that was in a significant sense popular, attended by and presided over by men residing in the locality. A principal key to the long success of the English state, it has been said, was ‘the development of [local] loyalties to local units which had been created for the purposes of the central authority’.13

Living as we do in times when the encroachment of the state upon the liberty of the individual is increasing, and that state is becoming at the same time ever more remote and less accountable, it may seem somewhat perverse to laud the efficiency of the Anglo-Saxons’ government apparatus. But at that time the idea of local loyalties in counterbalance to the central authority provided a useful buttress against autocracy. And there could be practical advantages. On his long forced march north to confront and defeat Harald Hardrada of Norway at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in September 1066, King Harold II of England, writes Emma Mason, was ‘joined on the way by contingents from the regions through which they passed, which in itself indicates both the efficiency of his courier and also the national respect for Harold’s authority’.14 It is an example of a centralized state able to work for the benefit of its people. But that state would seem to have been ahead of its time; M.K. Lawson has commented on ‘the slow decline under William [the Conqueror] and his successors of the powerful system of government developed by the late Anglo-Saxon state’.15

In the 400s the former Roman province of Britannia, that is the southern half of the island of Britain, was a zone of authority in disintegration; a century later the hazy idea of an Imperium (Bede’s term), wielded by a ‘high king’ or ‘bretwalda’ (the term used in the Anglo-Saxon Chonicle to translate Bede’s ‘Imperium’) had emerged. Such an idea was known also in Ireland but no Irish ‘high king’ (and there might be more than one at any one time) ever achieved full recognition, so that even after Brian Boru’s victory over the Norsemen at Clontarf in 1014 successive high kings continued to rule only ‘with opposition’: that is, contested by minor ‘under kings’.

In England, by contrast, the notion of a single ‘over king’, present from the very early days of the Anglo-Saxon settlement, evolved into reality. In 1065, the last full year of the Old English State, rebel leaders in Northumbria, discontented with the earl appointed by the southern-based court of Edward the Confessor, did not set up their own candidate but asked the king to appoint as their new earl a man with close links in the south. In years gone by Northumbria had had its own king but now its great men were content to accept as lord an appointee chosen by the king of all Engla lond, as the country had become known.

At the time of its conquest by William of Normandy, Anglo-Saxon England, including the increasingly integrated eastern regions known as the Danelaw, was subject to a fairly uniform administration that was unmatched in France, Spain or Italy; it was a government that wielded more effective central power than even the mighty German emperor, Henry IV. Overrun and plundered by its Norman conquerors though it was, this English state provided them with the wealth for a building programme of churches and castles unmatched in scale in any other comparable area, and the means to consolidate their power and build the foundations of dominance in the islands of Britain and beyond. I hope to suggest how it all started.

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