The Settlement of the English

The Settlement of the English


  1. The Teutonic Invaders
  2. The Conquest of Britain by the English
  3. The Settlement of the English
  4. The Unification of England & the Struggle with the Northmen
  5. Alfred’s Forts
  6. The Unification of England
  7. Town & Village

The Teutonic Invaders

This chapter deals with the origins and social conditions of our Teutonic forefathers in the years when they were leaving their homes in Germany and conquering fresh ones in Britain. In the year 731 A.D. Bede, an English monk, who spent almost all his life of sixty-two years in the monastery of Jarrow, near the mouth of the Tyne, completed his “Ecclesiastical History of the English People.” In it he tells us whence the invaders came, He says –

“The invaders belonged to three of the most powerful nations of Germany, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. From the Jutes are descended the people of Kent and the Isle of Wight. From the Saxons, that is, from the land now called Old Saxony, came the East Saxons, the South Saxons and the West Saxons. From the Angles, that is, from the country called Angeln, which is said from that time to this to have remained uninhabited, and lies between the territories of the Jutes and the Saxons, came the East Angles, the Middle Angles and the Mercians, and all the races of the Northumbrians, that is, the tribes that dwelt on the north side of the River Humber, and the other nations of the English.”

On the east coast of Schleswig Holstein there is a district still called Angeln lying between the Flensburg and Schlie Fiords. This is only a small part of the district which Bede mentions. The land which our Angle forefathers abandoned was one of marked contrasts. it stretched across the peninsula from the North Sea to the Baltic. On the east coast were softly undulating hills of no great height ; off the shore lay islands. In the poem Beowulf, the scenes of which are laid partly on the Danish island of Zealand, we read how the hero and his companions, as they sailed among the islands, beheld “sea cliffs gleaming, hills towering, headlands stretching out to sea.” Thus an Angle standing on the hills of his east coast must have viewed fine scenery. On the west or North Sea coast it was different. There low-lying shores sloped so gently to the sea, that land and water passed into one another imperceptibly. Tides rolled up over vast stretches of sand and mud to make islands at high water of outstanding hummocks, which rejoined the mainland at the ebb.

To the north of the Angles lay the Jutes, who occupied a country similar to that already described, and endowed the peninsula with its name Jutland.

“According to Bede the Jutes lay in Jutland to the north of the Angles. Archaeologists question this. The have dug into the English graves of Angles, Saxons and Jutes, and have examined the jewellery and pottery contained in them. The jewellery and pottery of the Jutes differ very much from those of the other two tribes. If Bede is correct, then similar pottery and jewellery should be found in northern Jutland ; but they are not. Contents of Jutish graves in England resemble the contents of graves which have been excavated in the Rhine valley between Coblenz and Dussedorf, and to the east of this. It seems possible, therefore, that here, on the Rhine, and not in north Jutland, lay the early homes of the Jutes. Bede tells us one thing, and the Jutish warrior, speaking from his grave, seems to tell another. At present we know not which is right. See E. Thurlow Leeds, “The Archaeology of the Anglo-Saxons Settlement.”

settlements, however, seem to have been thickest between the Weser and the Elbe, on the edge of the moorlands and heaths, which rise above these rivers.

Evidence for the political and social conditions of these Teutonic peoples is to be found in the Germania of the Roman historian Tacitus and in Anglo-Saxon poems like Beowulf and Widsith. The Germania is a general description of Teutonic tribes. it does not mention the Saxons or Jutes, and has little to say directly  about these Angles. It was written in 97 or 98 A.D., and as the Teutonic conquest of Britain did not commence until about 450 A.D., what its author has to say of Teutonic tribes is by that time three and half centuries out of date for our purpose. In this chapter we shall make little use of it.

Beowulf, on the other hand, describes Teutonic deeds and personages of the late fifth and early sixth centuries, when conquerors were still pouring into Britain. It was composed by a pagan Teuton, and sung in many a pagan banqueting hall. It takes its name from a heroic chieftain, Beowulf, a prince of the Geatas, a tribe who lived in southern Sweden. Its scenes are are laid  in that country and also in the Danish island of Zealand, which lies between Sweden and Angeln, the old name of the Angles. The description which it gives of the manners and customs of the Geatas and of the Danes is probably true of the manners and customs of the Angles also, for all these peoples were Teutons and dwelt hard by each other. The Angles learned the poem, and carried it with them to Britain, when they migrated thither. At some time after the conversion of the English to Christianity, perhaps in the time of Bede, it was written down by some Angle scholar who loved old tales. Since its writing down it may have been revised several times by forgotten English editors before it took the shape in which we know it. Consequently it may give us rather a blurred picture of pagan society in the days when the Angles lived in Anglia, and had not yet conquered England.

Widsith, like Beowulf, was first composed on the continent in pagan days. This poem tells of Widsith, a wandering minstrel, and of the many tribes and chieftains which he professed to have seen. It seems to cantina passages which date back to the fourth century. Like Beowulf, it may have been modified by its editors in such a way as to destroy to some extent its value as evidence for the migration times. None of our authorities can be absolutely relied on when we are searching out the customs of the Teutonic tribes at the time when Britain was becoming England.

There is, however, one outstanding feature of Teutonic society which is vouched for in all our authorities, Germania, Beowulf and Widsith, and that is the war band or Comitatus. Famous chiefs gathered round them from far and near bodies of young warriors, who were attracted by their wealth or prowess, and swore to do their bidding to the death. They were the chief’s “table-fellows,” his “warrior-band,” his “hearth-fellows,” his “gesiths,” or companions of the chase, or over the ale horn. for him they fought, not for their country ; patriotism, as meaning love for native land, was a virtue unknown to them. To take service with a foreign lord and fight on his behalf against the land of one’s birth was no disgrace. To find a lord, and, having found him, to serve him with passionate devotion in all causes, right or wrong alike, to emulate his deeds, to present to him the spoils of one’s prowess, and, in the event of his death in battle, to stand till the end across his body, was to fulfil a large chapter in the Teutonic code of honour. to fail him was to be branded in all lands with cowardice, almost the one fault which no Teuton could forgive. To lose him was to lose everything, but to serve him well was to win all that life had to give. The lord also had his part to do. He provided food and sleeping room in his hall, and for faithful service he gave meet reward. When a gesith or follower grew into well-set manhood he expected to receive an estate whereon to live.

If the poem Beowulf is a safe guide, gesiths received as equipment not merely bright shields, grey-tipped spears of ash, horses and saddlery, but also costly helmets inlaid with gold and surmounted with boar figures, shining corselets of hand-wrought links of steel, swords of famous names, and ornaments of gold and silver. But excavation in the burial mounds of pagan England points to the conclusion that only the greater chiefs and the highest of their gesiths can have had mail shirts or crested helmets. The armour of the rank and file is illustrated by the spoil of many a grave ; for the same instinct that caused mourners of mediaeval times to hang a knight’s armour above their tomb led our pagan ancestors to bury their dead in full war dress. Across the warrior’s legs they placed his shield if linden wood covered with leather, and strengthened at its centre with a boss of iron. Wood and leather have long since decayed, but the bosses have in many cases survived to find places on the shelves of our museums. The helmet was conical in shape. An iron band surrounded the head ; from this rose iron ribs, uniting at the summit. The spaces between were filled in with plates of iron or wood or horn. Of other defensive armour, such as breastplate or greaves of steel shirt, the commoner had none. By his side was placed his spear of ashen shaft 7 feet/2.1m long, tipped with an iron point, and shod with an iron ferrule. Much rarer is the sword from 3 to 3 1/2 feet/0.9m to 1.06m long, “broad, double-edged and acutely pointed.” To carry it was apparently a mark of honour. Instead of it the old English usually carried a two-edged dagger about 18 inches/0.45m long, called a “seax,” from which the Saxons are said to have derived their name. Javelin, bow and sling area all known, but are far from common.

it was bands of gesiths thus equipped that made the Saxon name a terror in the third  and fourth centuries. In the bog of Nydam in Schleswig remains have been found of boats which possibly resemble those in which they made their descents on the coasts of Britain and Gaul. It has been found possible to restore fully only one of these craft. Its timbers are of oak, bound together with rivets of iron. The breadth is 10 1/2 feet/3.2m, the length 75 feet/22.8m. There are 14 rowlocks on each side. The crew must have, therefore, totalled 30 men at fewest, and if the oars were double-banked, which is possible amidships, 50 men may have been carried as a full complement. No traces have been found of a mast. Only daring seamen would have attempted to cross the North Sea in such a craft, but the crossing once accomplished, the boat seems fitted for use on the slow-moving rivers of eastern Britain.

The Teutonic invaders were equally at home on sea and land. They were sailors and soldiers both, and as handy with on oar as with a spear. They knew the North Sea and the Baltic in the gentlest and fiercest moods, and loved them in both. Fear of the sea seems to have been unknown among them. At any rate, it does not appear in their poetry. Sidonius Apollinaris, a bishop of Gaul in the days when the barbarians were breaking up the Roman Empire, wrote of the daring of the Saxons.

“They know the dangers of the ocean as men who are everyday in touch with them. In the midst of tempests, and skirting the sea-beaten rocks, they risk their attack with joy, hoping to make profit out of the very storm.”

Early English poetry of the migration time is steeped in seafaring experience. The poems without doubt were composed by seafarers for an audience of seafarers, and the bard who declaimed them in the warm hall at night time, while his friends passed round the beer mug by firelight and torchlight, was often a sailor himself. In the poem Seafarer he sang to them of the “gannet’s bath,” of the haunting cry of the seamew, of “strait watch kept at night upon the prow, when the vessels rushed along the rocks, and feet were pinched with cold, and fettered by the frost,” of “storms that smote on crags,” and of nights when it snowed from the north. But despite all he cried aloud the sailor’s longing to be afloat again.

“For the harp he has no heart, nor for having of the rings,

Nor in woman is his weal, in the world  he’s no delight,

Nor in anything whatever save the tossing o’er the waves!

O for ever he has longing, who is urged towards the sea.”

Even after death the ocean claimed these men. The poem Beowulf tells how the dead chieftain, Scyld, was placed upon his ship, which was allowed to carry him out to sea alone. And Beowulf’s own dying request was that his cremated ashes should be placed in a cairn upon the promontory of Hronesness, “that seafaers in time to come may call it Beowulf’s barrow, those who on distant voyages drive their foamy barks over the scowling flood.” His last thought was of the sae, and of the sea in the angry mood in which he loved most to sail upon it

The life on land of the fighting aristocracy is depicted in Beowulf. Young princes travelled to foreign courts to find friends and manners. They sought opportunities to win fame in battle either with their own kind or with savage monsters like the scaly Grendel, of which Beowulf tells. Their nights were up to feasting, to draining the ale-can, and to hearkening to songs of minstrels. A worthy performer with harp and voice found favour from kings. “Whose maketh songs of praise shall have everlasting praise under heaven,” says Widsith. When feast and song were over Beowulf tells how the hall was prepared for rest.

They cleared away the bench boards ; the hall were strewn throughout with beds and bolsters. At their heads they set the shields, the bright bucklers ; there on the bench over each prince plain to be seen was the towering helmet, the ringed mail coat, the shaft of awful power. Their custom was that they were constantly ready for war whether at home or in the field, whatever the occasion on which their liege lord had need of their services.”

The picture has its dark side. Fulsome compliments that no modern stomach could endure were openly passed in public, even when men were sober. Men boasted over the mead bowl of quite impossible deeds. When beer stirred their ruffian souls swords were drawn against kinsmen. When a pattern prince like Beowulf could boast in his dying hour that he had not sworn many false oaths we may be pardoned for supposing that faith were not over-well kept by the majority. “Knife-hatred” starting up between son-in-law and father-in-law, or between nephew and uncle, was no rare occurrence.

But this dark side is not the predominating one, neither is it the one which our forefathers loved. They worshipped passionately such qualities as honour, faithfulness, courage and generosity, and tales which illustrated these found an eager audience. Vices they certainly had, such as brutality, drunkenness and love of destruction, but they wreaked most of these upon their enemies ; they practiced virtues for their friends with a most reckless disregard for self. If the chief, Beowulf, was the ideal of many audiences, he was no ignoble one. When his king died his widow offered him the kingdom, not trusting that her young son, now that his father was dead, could hold the throne against his foreign foes. But no persuasion by queen or by her people could induce Beowulf to supplant his master’s helpless boy. “But he supported him among the people with friendly counsel, love and honour, till he grew older and ruled over them.” Here was chivalry. Most certainly it was loved by audiences in the mead hall, as heartily as the triumph of virtue over vice is loved by the galleries of our present day theatres. Place pagan Beowulf and his peers by the side of Christian Alfred, the highest type of English kingship, and they suffer little by comparison. The test is a severe one. Alfred had much that Beowulf lacked. But both had noble standards of conduct, and nobly followed them.