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Before leaving the Anglo-Saxon religious scene, we must
mention the enormous influence the English Church had on the continent. Rulers such as Charles Martel and Pepin III were pursuing
aggressive policies against the Germanic tribes, and missionaries from the highly advanced English Church were extensively
recruited. Wilfred of Ripon found a new calling after his expulsion from Northumbria, and he and others such as Willibrod
carried out their conversions with approval from Rome. The greatest of the missionaries was Boniface, who established many
German Sees from his archbishopric at Mainz. From York came Alcuin, one of the period's greatest scholars. All in all, we
can say that the Anglo-Saxon Church provided an important impetus for the civilizing of much of the Continent. In particular,
it provided the agent for the fusing of Celtic and Roman ideas, and its work in Europe produced events that had repercussions
of profound importance.
In the meantime, events were rapidly changing the political
face of Anglo-Saxon England. There were separate kingdoms in England, settled by Angles, Saxons and Jutes whose areas, bit
by bit, extended into the Celtic regions: Northumbria in the north; Mercia westwards to the River Severn and Wessex into Devon
and Cornwall. In the southeast, the kingdoms of Sussex and Kent had achieved early prominence.
Hengist and Horsa had arrived in Kent with a small fleet
of ships in around 446 AD to aid the Britons in the defense of their lands. They had been invited by British chief Vortigern
to fight the northern barbarians in return for pay and supplies, but more importantly, for land. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
dates Hengist's assumption of the kingdom of Kent to 455 AD; and though it also records the flight of the Britons from that
kingdom to London, it probably refers to an army, not a people. The invaders, who were Jutes, named the capital of their new
kingdom Canterbury, the borough of the people of the Cantii. Only nine years after their arrival, they were in revolt against
Vortigern, who awarded them the whole kingdom of the Cantii with Hengist as king to be succeeded by his son Oisc.
Thus the first Anglo-Saxon kingdom in Britain was an Anglo-Celtic
kingdom, peopled by Anglo-Celts. The dynasty founded there by Hengist lasted for three centuries. However, with the death
of joint kings Aethelbert and Eadberht, it was time for other kingdoms to rise to prominence. Only thirty years after the
arrival of Hengist to Britain, another chieftain named Aelle came to settle. The leader of the South Saxons; Aella ruled the
kingdom that became Sussex. Other kingdoms were those of the East Saxons (Essex); the Middle Saxons (Middlesex), and the West
Saxons, (Wessex) destined to become the most powerful of all and one that eventually brought together all the diverse people
of England (named for the Angles) into one single nation.
When Bede was writing his History, he was residing in what
had been for over a century the most powerful kingdom in England, for rulers such as Edwin, Oswald and Oswy had made Northumbria
politically stable as well as Christian. Edwin, the first Christian king of Northumbria, was defeated by Cadwallon, the only
British King to overthrow a Saxon dynasty, who had allied himself to Penda of Mercia, the Middle Kingdom. Oswald restored
the Saxon monarchy in 633, and during his reign, missionaries under Aidan completed the conversion of Northumbria (an account
of the early Christian Church in the North can be found in my "Brief History of Scotland," Chap. 2).
It was during the reign of Oswy (645-70) that Northumbria
began to show signs of order. The growth of institutions guaranteed permanency, so that the continuation of royal government
did not depend upon the outcome of a single battle or the death of a king. He also defeated pagan king Penda and brought Mercia
under his control, opening up the whole middle kingdom to Celtic missionaries. Then, in 663 under his chairmanship, the great
Synod of Whitby took place, at which the Roman Church was accepted as the official branch of the faith in England. It was
Oswy's forceful backing that secured the decision for Rome.
Northumbria's dominance began to wane at the beginning of
the eighth century. It was hastened by the defeat and death of Ecgfrid in 685. The kingdom had been threatened by the growing
power of Mercia, whose king Penda had led the fiercest resistance to the imposition of Christianity. After Penda's defeat,
his successor Wulfhere turned south to concentrate his efforts on fighting against Wessex where strong rulers prevented any
Mercian domination. However, the situation began to change in the early eighth century with the accession of two strong rulers,
Aethelbold and Offa.
Aethelbold (726-57) called himself "King of Britain." Bede
tells us that "all these provinces [in the South of England] with their kings, are in subjection to Aethelbald, king of Mercia,
even to Humber." Whatever his claims to sovereignty, however, it was his successor Offa (757-96) who could call himself "king
of all the English," for though Wessex was growing powerful within itself, Offa seems to have been the senior partner and
overlord of Southern Britain. His many letters to Charles the Great (Charlemagne) show that the Mercian king regarded himself
as an equal to the Carolingian ruler (his son Ecfrith was the very first king in England to have an official coronation).
Offa's correspondence with the Pope also shows roughly the same attitude. It was Offa who inaugurated what later became known
as Peter's Pence (those financial contributions that became a bane to later rulers who wished to have more control over their
finances and sources of revenue).
Both Aethelbold and Offa insisted on being called by their
royal titles; they were very much aware of the concept of unity within the kingdom of Mercia. Offa was the first English ruler
to draw a definite frontier with Wales (much of the earthen rampart and ditch created in the middle of the eighth century,
still exists). The creation of a metropolitan archbishopric at Lichfield attested to his influence with Rome. Under his reign
an effective administration was created (and a good quality distinctive coinage). The little kingdom of Mercia found itself
a member of the community of European states. Though Offa's descendants tried to maintain the splendors (and the delusions)
of his reign, Mercia's domination ended at the battle of Ellendun in 825 when Egbert of Wessex defeated Beornwulf.
It was time for Wessex to recover the greatness that had
begun in the sixth century under Ceawlin. Wessex borders had expanded greatly and Ceawlin had was recognized as supreme ruler
in Southern England. A series of insignificant kings followed Ceawlin, all subject to Mercian dominance. The second period
of dominance began under kings Cadwalla and Ine. Cadwalla (685-88) was noted for his successful wars against Kent and his
conquest of Sussex. Wessex also expanded westward into the Celtic strongholds of Devon and Cornwall. Both Cadwalla and Ine
abdicated to go on religious pilgrimages, but their work was well done and they left behind a strong state able to withstand
the might of Mercia.
A new phase began in 802 with the accession of Egbert and
the establishment of his authority throughout Wessex. The dominance of Mercia was finally broken, the other kingdoms defeated
in battle or voluntary submitted to his overlordship, and Egbert was recognized as Bretwalda, Lord of Britain, the first to
give reality to the dream of a single government from the borders of Scotland to the English Channel. An ominous entry in
the "West Saxon Annals" however, tells us that in the year 834 "The heathen men harried Sheppey." During the centuries of
inter-tribal warfare, the Saxons had not thought of defending their coasts. The Norsemen, attracted by the wealth of the religious
settlements, often placed near the sea, were free to embark upon their voyages of plunder.
The first recorded visit of the Vikings in the West Saxon
Annals had stated that a small raiding party slew those who came to meet them at Dorchester in 789. It was the North, however,
at such places as Lindisfarne, the holiest city in England, lavishly endowed with treasures at its monastery and religious
settlement, that constituted the main target. Before dealing with the onslaught of the Norsemen, however, it is time to briefly
review the accomplishments of the people collectively known as the Anglo-Saxons, especially in the rule of law.