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.

Adventures with Words: Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson

Shakespeare by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson loves words. He loves all sorts of words: long ones, short ones and difficult ones (he wrote a whole book about these, called Troublesome Words, which makes ideal toilet reading as it’s full of short but interesting entries). As such, he’s a good man to write a book about someone who loved words even more: William Shakespeare. So the book is very good about Shakespeare’s language: a genius at phrase making so great that many have entered the language as figures of speech.

As a life of Shakespeare, Bryson however takes a minimalist approach when compared to Shakespeare’s language, emphasising again and again how little we know for sure about him. Mind you, it’s not just us. Apparently, Shakespeare himself was a little wobbly about how exactly his surname should be spelled (and in his surviving signatures, it’s never the way we write it now). So the book comes as a good antidote to the various studies that claim to have uncovered the secret of Shakespeare. According to Bryson, there are no secret keys to unlock the mystery surrounding the world’s playwright: Shakespeare himself either covered up his tracks or the simple loss of knowledge by the passage of time covered his tracks for him.

It’s a fairly basic book on Shakespeare, and a good place to start for those interested in finding out something about what we know, but I would recommend James Shapiro’s 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare as a better book on the Bard.

Adventures with Words: The Good Guy by Dean Koontz

The Good Guy by Dean Koontz

There’s lots of books and courses out there purporting to teach aspiring authors the craft of writing. And it’s true, they will. They’ll teach you to craft characters, write dialogue, embed themes, all the stuff that occupies most of we writers when we are at work. But in those how-to-write books, you won’t find any mention of Dean Koontz. Which is sort of strange, seeing as how he’s sold millions upon millions of books. Or if they do mention Koontz, it’s as an example of what not to do: don’t editorialise, don’t insert your own voice into the narration, don’t… well, don’t be Dean.

But the problem with all these books about writing is that they are missing out on the one thing that Koontz does exceptionally well and it’s the one thing that is really difficult, if not impossible, to teach: he has great ideas. Great ideas that immediately make you want to find out what happens next. The Good Guy is a good example. Ordinary guy, sitting in a bar, strikes up a conversation with a stranger only to find the stranger thinks he’s someone else. That someone else is a killer, and the stranger is hiring him to kill someone.

What would you do if a stranger hired you to kill someone? That’s the brilliant jumping off point for everything else, and it’s these sort of key ideas that Koontz, and many best-selling authors, are so good at, even if they won’t win any prizes for literary craft. But with a good enough idea, you don’t need to be an Evelyn Waugh when it comes to writing prose: the idea will piggyback the story to its conclusion.

So, writers, by all means learn your craft but also, spend time cultivating the instinct for the killer idea, and the patience to sift through the other ideas until you find the one that works. It’s the Dean Koontz method and he’s sold a lot more books than you (or I) have.

Adventures with Words: A Brief History of Slavery by Jeremy Black

A Brief History of Slavery by Jeremy Black

It’s not. 336 pages does not a brief book make. And they are 336 dense pages. But then, not only is it a brief history but it also attempts to be a new global history too. That’s a lot to pack into a book about one of the oldest and most widespread institutions in human history. And, you know, what: Jeremy Black succeeds much better than you might expect.

While today we might think slavery self-evidently evil and beyond the pale, almost all civilisations and places have regarded it as perfectly normal. What Black does very well in this book is show the ubiquity of slavery, demonstrate how in all its forms it required the help of local elites to facilitate the trade and how the British came to play a particularly schizophrenic role in its culmination, opening up the Atlantic slave trade while also then outlawing and finally policing, via the dominance of the Royal Navy, the slave trade to an ending.

To fit all this in, Black eschews emotionalism: it’s a fairly dry account, strong on economics and politics, weak on human interest. This is not a book seeking to outrage but to understand. If you want to learn, I recommend it. If you want to burnish your moral certainties, read something else.

Adventures with Words: Black Mischief by Evelyn Waugh

Black Mischief by Evelyn Waugh

Another entry in the they’d-never-publish-this-today stakes, Black Mischief is ostensibly about the fag-end of colonialism when exhausted British charges d’affaires and regional officers oversaw the dismantling of the Empire. However, the fictional African state of Azania (loosely modelled on Ethiopia) is independent, its new ruler, the Emperor Seth, an enthusiast for all things modern.

The first chapter is an absolute masterpiece of mordant wit, describing the panic and collapse in a capital and a regime when its functionaries see the rebel soldiers approaching to take the capital. Waugh is quite brilliant in the way he captures the fear and uncertainty, and the reactions of the men and women trying to buy their way to keeping their skins. Then, it turns out, the approaching army is made of victorious loyalist troops, the rebellion has been defeated, and Emperor Seth can get on with his plans to turn Azania into a modern, progressive nation. It does not work out as he wished, despite his employment of Basil Seal, the feckless English emigre.

It’s all too marvellous to convey anything but a tiny hint of the book’s glitter: so long as you’re willing to put aside modern prejudices – which are just as prejudicial as those on display in the book, only more contemporary – then you will thank me for recommending Black Mischief to you.

Adventures with Words: Flash for Freedom by George MacDonald Fraser

Flash for Freedom by George MacDonald Fraser

Well, put this on the list of books that wouldn’t get published today. Not because it’s bad – it’s one of the best of the Flashman novels – but because it doesn’t contain the ritual and required denunciation of slavery as the most evil institution in human history. The trouble is, slavery is also among the most ubiquitous and enduring of human institutions. It was only in the 18th and 19th centuries that a small group of campaigners – loonies the lot of them – got it into their minds that the enslaving of peoples was intolerable and set out to have it stopped. The greater surprise is that they succeeded.

In this story, our hero is unwittingly caught up in the slave trade and shipped off under the command of one of Fraser’s most memorable ‘villains’, the embittered classicist John Charity Spring, captain of a slave ship taking part in the Triangle Trade across the Atlantic. Flashman, with his usual policy of following the Yellow Rule, “I’ll never do harm to anyone if there’s a chance he may harm me in return,” is nevertheless somewhat taken aback at the workings of the slave trade but takes care to cross to the other side of the road. Arriving in America, further misadventures ensue, including a meeting with a young Abraham Lincoln (who is one of the few people to perceive the cad and the coward hiding behind Flashie’s bluff exterior), running a slave estate and the usual encounters with a wide variety of women.

Fraser’s great skill is presenting the worlds of the 19th century through the eyes and opinions of the people who actually lived then, rather than filtering it through modern sensibilities. A curious side effect of doing this is that reading Flashman always leaves me wondering what unconscious hyprocrisies of our own time our descendants will look back on and ask, “How could they have allowed this?”

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.