New God for Old 2: what happened when the Romans left

Grendel, the monster Beowulf has to destroy.

In the first part of New God for Old, we looked at the traditional story of how Christianity returned to England following its extirpation after the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons. At least, that’s how Bede tells it in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

We now know it wasn’t quite like that. But Bede was writing more than a century after these events took place. Without him, we would know almost nothing about what happened in Britain in the years after AD 410 and the withdrawal of the Roman legions. In the fifth and sixth centuries, the east and central regions of Britain had been settled by pagan peoples of Germanic origin, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes (with other tribes such as the Frisians also likely arriving). The culture and people they displaced were Romano/Celtic and Christian.

According to Bede, these Christian Britons were displaced by the incoming Anglo-Saxons. Also according to Bede, during the centuries of conflict between the ethnic groups, the Britons made no effort to share their Christianity with the Anglo-Saxons. It’s now clear that both of these are exaggerations.

While in some areas, particularly in the east, the native Britons were clearly displaced, in other areas there is evidence for settlements of Britons and Anglo-Saxons existing in close proximity, although with considerable barriers existing between the two communities and little mixing: think of Northern Ireland during the Troubles. In these cases, though, warbands of Anglo-Saxons often displaced the Britonnic rulers, thereby imposing their language and culture on the villages and hamlets under their rule.

Similarly, while there is some evidence that Britons under pagan Anglo-Saxon rule in some places retained their faith, there was little incentive for the new rulers to adopt the religion of the people whom they had defeated. This was an age when warriors were above all pragmatic in their religious choices: they worshipped the gods that could provide them with victory on the battlefield.

New God for Old 1: the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons

St Augustine preaching to King Æthelberht and Queen Bertha

It was 597 and a group of 40 Italians stood shivering on the Isle of Thanet, in the furthest south-east corner of Kent. They were waiting for the king of Kent, a barbarian with the uncouth name of Æthelberht, and they really didn’t want to be there. They had been dispatched from Rome the year before because the pope, Gregory, had developed the mad notion of sending a mission out beyond the ends of the world to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons to Christianity all because, so he said, he had seen a group of fair-haired Anglo-Saxon youths for sale in Rome’s market and, seeing them, had asked of what people they came from. On being told they were Angles, Gregory had remarked, “Non Angli, sed angeli” (“Not Angles but angels”) and promptly conceived the idea of sending a mission to bring them out of darkness.

And who better to make up the mission than monks from Gregory’s own monastery of St Andrew on the Coelian Hill in Rome? And who better to lead it than his own dear friend, Augustine? As Augustine wrapped his cloak more tightly against the wind and stood on the chalk uprising that formed the Isle of Thanet, looking down to the broad expanse of the Wantsum Channel and the boat making its way across the channel, he thought again that, with a friend like Gregory, what need had he of enemies?

To get to this benighted corner of the world that had been cut off from the light of civilization for nearly two centuries, he and his companions had had to risk their lives crossing the unruly waters of the Great Ocean, so different from the warm blue of the Mediterranean, only to be told to wait on this wind-blasted promontory until the king of what passed for a kingdom on this island could come to meet them. At least King Æthelberht, although a pagan, was married to a Christian. His wife, Bertha, was a Frank, great-granddaughter of Clovis, the first Merovingian king. Another barbarian, but at least a half-civilised one.

The royal boat drew up on the strand and the king got out with his entourage of warriors and, Augustine was glad to see, his queen too, with her chaplain Liudhard. A condition of the marriage contract had been that Bertha could continue to practice her religion after marrying Æthelberht and she had brought a Frankish priest to Kent as part of her household that she might continue to have access to the sacraments.

The king’s reeve, who had met them when they landed on the isle, had told them to wait on the king’s pleasure but they had learned, while waiting for Æthelberht to arrive, that the king feared meeting this group of monks from far away under a roof lest they cast a spell upon him. Apparently the open air was safer so far as magic was concerned. So, with his cloak wrapped tight round his shoulders – did the wind never stop in this country? – Augustine waited on the king’s arrival.

The Advent of the Anglo-Saxons 3: Blood Ties

So, did the Anglo-Saxons arrive en masse, conduct a programme of ethnic cleansing and occupy the land? Or was it a case of a top-level takeover that gradually imposed its language and culture on the lower levels of society? With two competing accounts of the origins of the Ango-Saxons, neither of which could be verified, some other method of deciding what actually happened in the centuries after the Romans left was needed.

The evidence was inconclusive and scholars were divided. Then along came DNA testing. Surely that would provide the answer?

There have been many studies attempting to establish the ethnic origins of the peoples of Britain but unfortunately the first wave of studies provided such wildly contradictory answers that no one was any the wiser. Turns out that genetic analysis for origins is a hugely complex business that also requires large and robust sample sizes.

However, further studies that take account of these difficulties seem to be gradually moving towards some likely conclusions. Firstly, that there is a very strong regional basis to genetic identity in Britain: the Cornish are different even from the Devonians, let alone with respect to the rest of the country, as are the north Welsh from the south Welsh, the Scots and the Cumbrians.

The native population of Britain derives from the settlers who first arrived as the Ice Age was waning and it was still possible to walk to Britain, before the land bridge was cut around 6,500 BC. But over that foundation population, the only significant influx of peoples, localized in the south and centre of England, has their roots in the Jutland peninsula and northern Saxony, the traditional homelands of the Anglo-Saxons. Assuming that in the 5th century the population of England was about a million, then somewhere between 250,000 and 400,000 people came from abroad. So it seems that the answer as to the origins of the English lies somewhere between the two opposing views: the native inhabitants were not completely pushed out, but this was not just an elite takeover. In comparison, the Normans have left very little genetic footprint on the peoples of Britain: the Conquest really was an elite takeover.

The most recent archaeological work backs up this genetic analysis, with evidence of Anglo-Saxon and Britonnic settlements continuing near to each other, but there being almost an apartheid like separation between the two communities in the first generations, with the barriers slowly coming down, until eventually, after a couple of centuries, they merge. So the question of the origin of the English depends in great part on the part of the country where the question is asked – which is probably what we would have said all along, comparing someone from the Broads to a native of Cornwall.

Adventures with Words: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Much has been written about this book and deservedly so: its examination of life and death in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany and how Frankl and others survived is extraordinary – and let us fervently pray that it remains extra – ordinary. But one of the things Frankl’s book does is remind usjust how much our circumstances and society determine how we behave. We would all like to think that if we had been born in the early 20th century in Germany we would have been one of the brave people who resisted Nazism and tried to smuggle the Jews to freedom. The events of the last two years have unfortunately shown that the vast majority of the population would happily go along with demonising a sub set of the population, particularly when encouraged to do so by those in power and those with loud media voices. A tiny, tiny percentage of the German population actively resisted the Nazis. We, you and I, would be no different today.

But Viktor Frankl, a German Jew, was in the part of the population that was demonised and destroyed. Frankl survived and his book is, in part, an exploration of why some men lived when others, faced with similar hardships, died. According to Frankl, the key factor in determining someone’s endurance in the face of unimaginable suffering is the ability to find some meaning in that suffering. While a devout Jew himself, Frankl was also a psychiatrist and, in examining the factors enabling survival, Frankl deliberately separated meaning from religious faith. While religious faith was very useful in providing a framework to understand and cope with the situation the concentration camp inmates were in, Frankl found that any meaning that could be found was helpful to the survival chances of the prisoners.

Frankl went on to found a school of psychiatry, called logotherapy, which argues that the search for a meaning to one’s life is the central human motivating force. He may well be right, once we take Maslow’s hierarchy of needs into account and the ordinary necessities for living are accounted for.

But by divorcing meaning from its usual historical anchor, religious faith, Frankl also described the peculiar situation we find in the modern world. Now, the desperate search for meaning in a consumer world has led to people passionately embracing a whole variety of causes, from veganism to climate change. In itself, this is no bad thing. But problems arise were these people, activists, attempt, just as passionately, to impose these meanings they have found for themselves upon their fellows.

So the peculiar paradox of the 21st century is that we find ourselves having to cope with the fervent beliefs of people searching for meaning in places which simply do not have the moral or intellectual gravity to sustain the importance they attach to them. Hence the increasingly hysterical attempts to force norms on other people. The hysteria ramps up because, underlying all this frantic fury, is the unconscious realisation that the causes so many people have dedicated themselves simply do not carry the import they have ascribed to them. Such levels of cognitive dissonance call forth greater and greater efforts to bring the world into line with their imaginings, in a futile attempt to quiet the strumming strings of dissonance.

Today, we suffer for other people’s meanings. And Frankl unwittingly ushered this in.

Adventures with Words: Defenders of the Faith by James Reston Jr

Defenders of the Faith by James Reston Jr

A lot happened between 1520 and 1536. James Reston Jr whizzes us around the world where it was happening, from Henry VIII’s attempts to extricate himself from his perfectly legitimate marriage to Catherine of Aragon, through to Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to a door and setting in train the Protestant Reformation. But the fact that the Reformation endured rather than being suppressed was in large part due to what was happening elsewhere, in particular the looming threat from the east: Suleiman the Magnificent and his Ottoman Empire.

The sixteen years covered in Reston’s fast paced, gossipy book, an excellent example of popular history, revolves in particular around the confrontation between Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and, by reason of canny Habsburg marriage diplomacy, ruler of most of Europe apart from France and England, and Suleiman, Emperor of the East. Where Charles was Holy Roman Emperor, Suleiman was Emperor of Constantinople. And while it is possible for there to be a plurality of kings, according to the lights of the time, there could be only one emperor. Both Suleiman and Charles considered themselves the one but Suleiman, with a realm that was less fissiparous, had the advantage. With the Turkish threat, Luther and the German princes who supported him had Charles and the Habsburg monarchy perpetually looking over their shoulders. Thus the Reformation was saved. But it’s clear that, had the weather been better, Suleiman might well have succeeded in his goal of taking Vienna and unlocking the gates of Europe. Then how differently might history have played out. But the spring and summer of 1529 were exceptionally cold and wet, bogging down the great Turkish supply train as it struggled westwards and forcing the Turks to abandon their heaviest cannons. Reaching Vienna, they put up a desultory attempt to storm the city but without the fine cannons that were their trump card, militarily, they could not breach the walls.

However, in an early example of spin, Suleiman and his advisors declared the expedition a victory and went back to Constantinople and celebrated it as such. One of the interesting facts we learn from this book is that propaganda is by no means a recent invention.

Overall, an engrossing and reader-friendly account of a crucial time, with Reston managing ably to delineate the various historical personages so that they each come across as distinctive personalities.

The Advent of the Anglo-Saxons 2: New Kings on the Block

The traditional view of our history was that the Anglo-Saxons invaded Britain, supplanting the native Britons and pushing them westwards until they became the Welsh. It was an early example of ethnic cleansing, although a long-winded one. The conquest of Britain was a slow-motion affair. It took centuries, with fortunes fluctuating hugely for the first two centuries. But in the end the Anglo-Saxons prevailed. The Britons became Welsh – a word derived from wealh in Old English, meaning ‘foreigner’ but with a secondary meaning of ‘slave’ – and the Germans became the English. Further north were the Picts while the Scots were still living in Ireland. It was all very mixed-up!

This was the story as told by Gildas. Since he was an eye witness, his testimony was acceptyed by scholars. But in the later decades of the 20th century, a new generation of researchers began to question this story. Archaeological analysis of tree pollen indicated that there had been very little change in tree-cover levels during this period. But this was when whole regions were supposedly depopulated, the native Britions fleeing before the Anglo-Saxons (some went overseas, founding Brittany in France). But if all the farmers had really fled, then land should have turned to scrub, wood and forest. However, there was no evidence for these changes in the pollen record: the land seemed to have stayed under the same levels of cultivation.

So maybe the farmers had stayed put throughout, ploughing and sowing and reaping, while bands of warriors fought their little wars, one elite – pagan and Anglo-Saxon – displacing another – Christian and Briton. Having replaced the men in charge, new Anglo-Saxon rulers imposed their language and culture on the peasant farmers who had remained, farming the land as they had always done. According to this view, there was no wholesale replacement of populations. Rather, warbands of Anglo-Saxons arrived, battled and defeated the native warrior elite, and installed themselves at the top of the social pyramid. The new Anglo-Saxon warrior elite took wives from the Britons but they insisted that their language and culture should dominate in their kingdoms.

Not all historians accepted this interpretation of the evidence. In particular, specialists in place names pointed out that there are very few place names in England that derive from the Celtic. The vast majority derive from Old English. But if a native peasantry had remained working the land for a new set of Anglo-Saxon masters, then we would expect there to be many more names of Celtic origin, for the simple reason that the new lord of the manor would ask his peasants, “Hey, that copse over there, what’s it called?” Hearing the answer, he’d then tell his compliant peasants, “Go chop down some trees from ‘coedlan’.” A new lord would use the names in place to order his peasants around rather than inventing a whole new set of names for the simple reason that then his peasants would know what he wanted them to do.

So, did the Anglo-Saxons arrive en masse, conduct a programme of ethnic cleansing and occupy the land, or was it a case of a top-level takeover that gradually imposed its language and culture on the lower levels of society? The evidence was inconclusive and scholars were divided. Some other way of answering the question was necessary.

The Advent of the Anglo-Saxons 1: Conquest

In the 6th century a British priest named Gildas wrote a jeremiad against the corrupt and decadent rulers of his people. According to Gildas the sins of the rulers of the Britons had borught God’s vengeance upon them and their realms. Vengeance came in the shape of blond-haired, moustachioed warriors. The book Gildas wrote was called De Excidio Britanniae (On the Ruin of Britain) and it’s the only contemporary source we have for what happened in Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries.

Those warriors were Angles and Saxons and Jutes. They were Germanic-speaking peoples who came from the flat, marshy regions of what are today northern Germany and southern Denmark. Gildas said they had been invited to the country as mercenaries and then had turned on their employer. In some manuscripts, that king was named Vortigern. The mercenaries began carving out their own kingdoms, dispelling the native Britons and replacing them with their own people, sailing the grey whale road over the storm-tossed waters of the North Sea.

The advent of the Anglo-Saxons was elaborated in later accounts. The anonymous leaders of the original band of mercenaries became the brothers Hengist and Horsa, who landed with their men at Ebbsfleet on the Isle of Thanet. There is archaeological evidence for a Germanic presence in Kent in the early 5th century. Excavated burials have found the bodies of men kirtled with the typical Germanic belt worn by mercenaries working for the Romans.

According to Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the German mercenaries were first recruited to fight the Picts. There had been Pictish incursions into Roman ruled Britain even in the days of the Empire. But when the mercenaries saw that the land they’d come to was rich while the Britons required others to fight for them, they sent messengers to their native lands, calling for reinforcements. Hengist and Horsa claimed that the country was ripe for the taking. In 455, battle was joined. Horsa died, but Vortigern was defeated and Hengist established himself as king of Kent. Later chroniclers embellished the story, telling how Vortigern became infatuated with Hengist’s daughter, Rowena, and how the girl, working with her father, manipulated Vortigern into giving Hengist and his men more territory in return for her hand in marriage. Thus Britain was lost to the Britons through the lust of one man.

For Gildas, the adventus Saxonum, the coming of the Saxons, was an unmitigated disaster, though one consequent upon the actions of the tyrants against whom he railed in his book. But if his account gives little detail as to what was actually happening in Britain at the time – there are no dates and only a handful of names – the account itself tells us a lot about what was still possible in Britain around 540, over a century after the Romans had left. It tells us that Britons could still benefit from a classical education, learning Latin and its associated literary culture, as well as being steeped in Biblical texts and exegesis. Gildas was a learned and cultured man, a civilized one in the fullest sense of the term, and for him the Anglo-Saxons were nothing but barbarians: pagan illiterates whose only use for a book was to turn it into kindling.

But Gildas was chiefly concerned with making a point about the immorality of contemporary rulers and the consequences that resulted from their immorality. While his account formed the basis for our early understanding of the advent of the Anglo-Saxons, how accurate was it really? We will look at that in the next feature.

Rebuilding Wessex 4: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

As a boy, Alfred loved reading and books.

All Early Medieval kings were acutely conscious of their image. Glory was the best advertising for a king: it deterred enemies and attracted followers.

Alfred was no less aware of that than his fellow kings, so he commissioned the compilation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. This tale of years, with its bald statements of battles and deaths, is a crucial historical document. Without it, and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, it would be impossible to write the history of England between the Romans leaving and the Normans arriving.

Despite the importance of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it must still be viewed carefully. The history of the time before Alfred’s reign was patched together from a variety of sources, notably Bede and a variety of existing chronicles detailing the histories of Mercian, Kentish, South Saxon and West Saxon kingdoms.

After the compilation of the first version of the Chronicle, copies were dispatched through the land which then formed the basis for ongoing chronicling. There are eight extant manuscripts, each different, and the disentangling of sources, influences and histories is an ongoing scholarly pursuit.

Although there is little comment in the Alfredian portion of the Chronicle, the choice and, in particular, the omissions were part of the image Alfred and his circle wanted to project of a West Saxon king as the culmination of Anglo-Saxon history and the bulwark against pagan invaders. Still, where it has been possible to check the Chronicle independently it has proved a reliable historical guide, so the previous notion that it is pure Alfredian propaganda has been quietly put to one side. It would be better regarded as an honest record, but one informed and formed by its point of view and time of composition.

Rebuilding Wessex 3: The Burhs

Alfred was the most scholarly of the Anglo-Saxon warrior kings.

Alfred’s reform of his army was only half the solution to the problem of enabling Wessex to withstand future Viking attacks. Even with a mounted army, the Viking mastery of amphibious operations meant they could still achieve first strike along the long coastline of Wessex, or along its navigable rivers. To protect against the sudden threat of the dragonships appearing on the horizon, Alfred had to improve the defences of his kingdom, and make them accessible to his people. To that end, he set about the most sustained programme of building since the Romans conquered Britain seven centuries earlier.

Alfred built fortresses, burhs (from which comes ‘borough’), right across his kingdom, each of them carefully placed in a strategic location. These were not simply defences, but rather fortified towns, able to function economically and independently, yet able to combine with each other to form a defensive screen across Wessex. The thirty burhs were placed so that no one and no where in Wessex was more than twenty miles – or a day’s march – away from a refuge.

The burhs defended harbours, rivers, Roman roads and the old trackways of Britain. Where Roman or Iron Age forts already existed, Alfred was perfectly happy to reuse and renovate what was on the ground. But where there was nothing he built from scratch. Although we don’t know for certain, it seems likely that Alfred made use of his new standing army in the construction of the burhs. As any commander knows, keeping bored men occupied and out of mischief is difficult. Digging ditches and raising palisades ensured that the army had work to do when it wasn’t fighting. Most of the new burhs were built near Alfred’s existing royal residences. These were already strongholds, but with essentially a fortified town near a royal estate, each helped to defend and support the other.

A burh was not just a fortress but a planned town. The people living in the town provided much of the manpower to defend the burh, and ensured that it would be defended and guarded. In some cases, such as at Winchester, Alfred was simply expanding what was already there but in others he created a town on a green-field site. For the burh to remain effective as a defensive bastion, it had to be a viable economic unit, and land was allocated to each for its supply and provision.

But the building of protected settlements with concentrations of population had the result of kickstarting towns, and their attendant trade and wealth creation, into existence. Although there’s very little left of Alfred’s original burhs, the street plan of somewhere like Wallingford, with its regular grid, probably dates from its foundation. If so, it shows just how ambitious Alfred’s building programme was, for Wallingford covered one hundred acres (forty hectares): the king had created, from scratch, the second biggest town in his kingdom.

In order to support each burh, Alfred created a system of administration that ensured sufficient land and resources were allocated to each burh for its maintenance and its defence. Now Wessex was ready. Let the Vikings come, if they dared.

Rebuilding Wessex 2: The Army

Alfred the Great turned his army into a mobile, horse-mounted reserve.

Alfred believed the Vikings had been allowed to ravage his kingdom because his people had given up their commitment to truth and learning. Having set about rebuilding education in Wessex, and having learned to read and write Latin himself, Alfred moved on to the second stage of his plan to protect the kingdom against further Viking incursions.

The Viking’s key strategic advantages were mobility and surprise. When faced with an organised defensive force, a Viking raiding party preferred discretion over valour. Despite their reputation for berserk fury, most Vikings were in it for the money. Given the choice, they would seek refuge behind fortifications or take to their boats than risk everything in a full-scale battle. But the time taken to assemble the fyrd, the free men of a district, meant that any half competent Viking commander could raid and depart before anything could be done to stop him. Even the Great Army that Alfred had defeated, which was set upon conquest rather than raiding, used the same tactics, picking the time and place to strike, often waiting for when its enemies were occupied with harvest or festivals.

Alfred dug deep into the problem he faced, working down to first principles. He saw that, to counter the mobility of a Viking army, he required forces that could be assembled quickly and moved fast: he needed a mounted, standing army. This was a radical change from Anglo-Saxon practice. What’s more, it would be far more costly to the magnates required to provide the mounted troops. But by 893, when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes in passing the results of the changes the king had inaugurated, Alfred had persuaded, cajoled, suborned and wheedled his nobility into line. Half the kingdom’s warriors were kept on duty, with the other half held in reserve.

We know this force was mounted because, in its description of the actions and campaigns of the 890s, the Chronicle repeatedly refers to Alfred’s forces riding after the Viking army. The horses were not the great war beasts of the high medieval period but smaller animals, not that much larger than ponies, but ideal for transporting the relatively lightly armoured warrior of the time.

By retaining half the warriors in reserve, that is, still living in their landholdings, Alfred also ensured the maintenance of the king’s peace. For these warriors fulfilled the function of a police force as well as an army, deterring bands of brigands from raiding the small farming communities and religious establishments that dotted the land. Having men in place on the ground also meant that those on service were less likely to go running back to their homes to look after hearth and family. But this mobile strike force was only half the solution. Alfred still needed to find a way to protect the ordinary folk of his kingdom, the ones whom the Vikings would seize and sell at the slave markets of Dublin.