In her work on the battle of Hastings in 1066, the historian Harriet Harvey Wood writes that the battle “wiped out overnight a civilisation that, for its wealth, its political arrangements, its arts, its literature and its longevity, was unique in Dark Age Europe, and deserves celebration. In the general instability, lawlessness and savagery of the times, Anglo-Saxon England stood out as a beacon.”1 This work proposes to examine the “political arrangements” of this great and still little-known civilization, and in particular the Anglo-Saxon, or English Orthodox autocracy.
Why “Orthodox”, and why “autocracy”? The answer to these questions will become clearer in the course of this book, but here we can say briefly the following. First, Anglo- Saxon England was “Orthodox”, because her faith differed in no way from the faith of Eastern Orthodoxy, while the fall of Anglo-Saxon England in 1066 coincided with the introduction of the new faith of Roman Catholicism. For in 1054 the Roman papacy and Eastern Orthodoxy had anathematized each other, creating the schism that persists to this day. And when he conquered England, William the Conqueror showed, by his violence to the old faith and faithfulness to the new “reformed” papacy, that he was Roman Catholic rather than Orthodox.
Secondly, Anglo-Saxon England’s governmental structure was “autocratic”, by which we mean that it was neither despotic, nor constitutional, but was of the type found in Orthodox Eastern Europe, being based on the idea of the “symphony of powers” formulated by the Emperor Justinian.
The ideal of a harmony, or “symphony”, between the religious and political leadership of a people, and with the people itself, has been rarely realized in history. Still rarer has been the realization of a Christian symphony of powers, in which the people and its religious and political leaders have been united with each other and with the true God, Jesus Christ, through a common confession of the true faith and an agreement on how to confess that faith in the world. We can count such rare moments on the fingers of one hand: the Byzantine Macedonian dynasty from the ninth to the eleventh centuries; the Georgian Bagratid dynasty from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries; the Serbian Nemanja dynasty from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries; the Kievan Riurik dynasty from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries, resurrected from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries; and the Muscovite Romanov dynasty in the seventeenth century. All of these dynasties belonged to the Eastern Orthodox tradition. But perhaps the most perfect – and certainly the least well-known – example of the attainment of “symphony” comes from Western Orthodoxy: the English Orthodox kingdom founded by King Alfred the Great in the ninth century and brought to a bloody end by William the Conqueror two hundred years later, in 1066.
This book studies the rise and fall of this kingdom, beginning with the Romano- Celtic beginnings of British statehood, and with the seven forerunners of the All-English kingdom formed at the coming of the Roman missionaries to England in the year 597. We shall trace the struggle to attain symphony first on a provincial level, that of the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in different parts of England in the seventh century; then the failed attempts to attain national unity under this or that provincial king in the eighth and the first half of the ninth centuries, culminating in the near-destruction of the whole of English Orthodox civilization by the Vikings; then the attainment of national unity under King Alfred, and the partial inclusion of the non-English races of Britain, the Celts and the Danes, into this unity by Alfred’s successors, especially Athelstan, up to the time of King Edgar the Peaceable; then the destruction of this unity by the second wave of Viking invasions, and its resurrection under the Anglo-Danish monarchy of King Cnut; and finally the fall of the English Orthodox kingdom to what we may call the third Viking wave, that of the Normans, in 1066, with the consequences of the Norman-Papist Conquest for the English people and Western Christian civilization in general.
It is hoped that this study of the origins, rise and fall of the English Orthodox kingdom will be of interest and profit not only to those Englishmen who seek to rediscover their country’s heritage before it was torn away from the One, Holy, Orthodox-Catholic and Apostolic Church in the eleventh century. May it also help Orthodox Christians of other nations to rediscover the ideal of Romanitas (in Latin) or Romeiosyne (in Greek) – that is, the ideal of symphonic harmony between all the spiritual, political and cultural forces of a nation, or family of nations, under the banner of the Orthodox Christian Faith. For “without a vision the people fails” – and the people has never been in greater need of this wonderful vision, so wonderfully realized in the English Orthodox kingdom of early medieval times, in order to reignite its faith in the twenty-first century.
My debts are very many, and will be enumerated as fully as possible in the footnotes.
I should like to make particular mention of E.A. Freeman, the nineteenth-century historian who in his massive work on the Norman Conquest first began – dimly, but truly – to see the full significance of 1066 for the English national consciousness; Sir Frank Stenton, whose Anglo-Saxon England, is still the best one-volume introduction to the subject; and Fr. Andrew Phillips, whose pioneering work on the relationship between Anglo-Saxon England and Eastern Orthodoxy has been an inspiration to me. It goes without saying that I, and I alone, am responsible for any mistakes or misconceptions in the text.
Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, and especially of all the saints of the British Isles, Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us! May 19 / June 1, 2016.
St. Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury.
1.Wood, The Battle of Hastings: the Fall of Anglo-Saxon England, London: Atlantic, 2008, p. 2.