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Part IV - The Anglo-Saxon Period

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Part V - Medieval Britain

Page 1 of 3

Commonly ascribed to the monk Gildas, the "De Excidio Britanniae" (the loss of Britain), was written about 540. As previously mentioned, it is not a good history, for it is most mere polemic. Closely followed by Bede, the account is the first to narrate what has traditionally been regarded as the story of the coming of the Saxons to Britain. Their success, regarded by Gildas as God's vengeance against the Britons for their sins, was a theme repeated by Bede isolated in his monastery in the north. We note, however, that Gildas made the statement that, in his own day, the Saxons were not warring against the Britons. We can be certain that the greater part of the pre-English inhabitants of England survived, and that a great proportion of present-day England is made up of their descendants.

To answer the question how did the small number of invaders come to master the larger part of Britain? John Davies gives us part of the answer: the regions seized by the newcomers were mainly those that had been most thoroughly Romanized, regions where traditions of political and military self-help were at their weakest. Those who chafed at the administration of Rome could only have welcomed the arrival of the English in such areas as Kent and Sussex, in the southeast.

Another compelling reason cited by Davies is the emergence in Britain of the great plague of the sixth century from Egypt that was particularly devastating to the Britons who had been in close contact with peoples of the Mediterranean. Be that as it may, the emergence of England as a nation did not begin as a result of a quick, decisive victory over the native Britons, but a result of hundreds of years of settlement and growth, more settlement and growth, sometimes peaceful, sometimes not. If it is pointed out that the native Celts were constantly warring among themselves, it should also be noted that so were the tribes we now collectively term the English, for different kingdoms developed in England that constantly sought domination through conquest. Even Bede could pick out half a dozen rulers able to impose some kind of authority upon their contemporaries.

So we see the rise and fall of successive English kingdoms during the seventh and eighth centuries: Kent, Northumbria, Mercia, and Wessex. Before looking at political developments, however, it is important to notice the religious conversion of the people we commonly call Anglo-Saxons. It began in the late sixth century and created an institution that not only transcended political boundaries, but created a new concept of unity among the various tribal regions that overrode individual loyalties.

In 597, St. Augustine was sent to convert the pagan English by Pope Gregory, who was anxious to spread the Gospel, and enhance papal prestige by reclaiming former territories of Rome. Augustine received a favorable reception in the kingdom of Ethelbert, who had married Bertha, daughter of the Merovingian King and a practicing Christian. Again, it is to Bede that we owe the story of the conversion of England to the new faith (the older Roman Christian Church remained in parts of Britain, notably Wales and Scotland as the Celtic Church). Augustine's success in converting a large number of people led to his consecration as bishop by the end of the year.

Pope Gregory had drawn up a detailed plan for the administration of the Church in England. There were to be two archbishops, London and York (each to have 12 bishops). As the city of London was not under the control of Ethelbert, however, a new See was chosen at Canterbury, in Kent. It was there that Augustine, promoted to archbishop, laid down the beginnings of the ecclesiastical organization of the Church in Britain. It was Gregory's guiding hand, however, that influenced all Augustine's decisions; both Pope and Bishop seemed to know little of the Celtic Church, and made no accommodations with it.

The establishment of the Church at York was not possible until 625; the immense task of converting and then organizing the converted was mostly beyond the limited powers of Augustine, well-trained in monastic rule, but little trained in law and administration. Edwin of Northumbria's wife chose Paulinus as Bishop and the See of York was established, though later attacks from Penda of Mercia meant that only a limited kind of Christian worship took place in the North until around the middle of the eighth century.

In 668 when a vacancy arose at Canterbury, the monk Theodore of Tarsus was appointed as archbishop. His background as a Greek scholar meant that he had to take new vows and be ordained in custom with the Church in the West. He then attacked his work with vigor. Assisted by another Greek scholar Hadrian, he set up the basis of diocesan organization throughout England and carried out the decisions made at Whitby.

When Theodore arrived at Canterbury, there was one bishop south of the River Humber and two in the North: Cedda, a Celtic bishop and Wilfred of Ripon, who had argued successfully for the adoption of the Roman Church at Whitby. Theodore consecrated new bishops at Dulwich, Winchester and Rochester, and set up the Sees of Worcester, Hereford, Oxford and Leicester. Wilfred of Ripon reigned supreme in Northumbria as the exponent of ecclesiastical authority, but when he quarreled with King Ecgfrith, he was sent into exile. Theodore seized his opportunity to break up the North into smaller and more controllable dioceses. Over the next twenty years bishoprics were established at York, Hexham, Ripon and Lindsey. Theodore also re-established the system of ecclesiastical synods that disregarded political boundaries.

One of Theodore's great accomplishments was to create the machinery through which the wealth of the Celtic Church was transferred to the Anglo-Saxon Church. This wealth was particularly responsible for the late seventh century flowering of culture in Northumbria, which benefitted from both Celtic and Roman influences. In that northern outpost of the Catholic Church, a tradition of scholarship began that was to have a profound influence on the literature of Western Europe. It constituted a remarkable outbreak with equally remarkable consequences.

It all began with a Northumbrian nobleman, associated with monastic life, Benedict Biscop, who founded two monasteries, Wearmouth (674) and Jarrow (681). Both were to play important parts in this cultural phenomenon. Biscop made six journeys to Rome, acquiring many valuable manuscripts and beginning what can be termed a golden age in Northumbria. Its greatest scholar was Bede.

Known to posterity as "the Venerable Bede," the monk lived from 673-735. He entered Jarrow at the age of seven. Never traveling further than York, he became the most learned scholar of his time. Working in the library with the manuscripts acquired by Benedict Biscop, he added greatly to its store of knowledge through his voluminous correspondence. His contemporary reputation rested on his biblical writings and commentaries on the Scriptures as well as his chronological works that established a firm system of calculating the date of Easter. Bede's greatest work was his Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation.

Bede's audience was a newly-forged nation; the English were anxious to hear of their past accomplishments and of the lives of their great people; Bede provided them with both. His history shows the stages by which the Anglo-Saxon people became Christian. He sifted his evidence carefully, preserving oral traditions where they complemented his written material, and he often indicated his sources. Abounding in anecdotes, guides for memory, his concept of history set a new standard for future writers, though as noted earlier, his prejudices against the Britons (Welsh) mar his work.


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