Wanderings in Anglo-Saxon Britain

Wanderings in Anglo-Saxon Britain

Arthur Edward Pearse Brome Weigall (1880 – 3 January 1934)

This is a short story of the Anglo-Saxons/Englisc, covering the six centuries when they came here in numbers, till the day of 14th October 1066, when a new force took their place on our Isle, the trouble was they were brigands from the start and needed to be shown in time how to govern a country.

So why call this “Britain” not “England”? although this dealing with the epoch in which the Anglo-Saxons/Englisc came into full and permanent possession only of those parts of the island now called “England”; so following the early historians and chroniclers, such as Bede who wrote his famous history in 731 A.D., and these authors generally speak of “Britain” and of “the English nations in Britain,” not of “England” (Angle-land/Angelcynn). Moreover, Scotland and Wales are also written about here as well as England; although the title “Anglo-Saxon Britain” does not mean to suggest that these two countries, which were part of Britain, were ever Anglo-Saxon possessions, it is intended to indicate that they were at certain periods tributary to the Anglo-Saxon/Englisc, and that the Anglo-Saxon Englisc age in England constituted an epoch also in Scotland and Wales which cannot be better named.

“Britain” was then the general name for the three realms – England, Scotland and Wales, while we have the authority of Bede for speaking of the Irish/Scots also as Britons ; and in modern times when these nations are rapidly being welded by intercommunication and intermarriage into one people, and share alike in the worldwide heritage of the British Empire, it is well to remind ourselves of the high and ancient authority we have for applying the name to all four countries.

In the English veins of today there still flows the blood of the ancient British and the heterogenous Romans of which the English are themselves, with whom they had intermarried during the long period of 400 years in which our country was a permanent home of a great Roman army and a vast population of civilians and colonists from across the sea. The Roman soldiers stationed in Britain were drawn from such races as the Germans, Gauls, Belgians, Dutch, Spaniards, Portuguese, Greeks, Thracians, Rumanians, Hungarians, Dalmatians, North Africans, and so forth ; and these men freely intermarried with the British who were also Roman citizens, all being members of the wide confederacy of different races which comprised the Empire. Soldiers and civilians lived on in or near the towns where they were active life had been spent, and literally peopled whole areas with the descendants of their mixed marriages ; and thus, though in certain regions, especially in the west, the British blood remained fairly pure, in other parts it was astonishingly mixed and indeed could be described as an almost complete blend of all the white races. Also our Anglo-Saxon forefathers who invaded and took possession of a great part of the island, did not entirely exterminate or drive out the earlier stock, as sometimes thought, they enslaved a large portion of them and at length absorbed them by intermarriage, except in Wales and certain parts of the west, especially Cornwall which came into England late in the Anglo-Saxon period, so the Celtic blood remained relatively unblended.

Firstly the British / Roman-British people who were displaced by the Anglo-Saxons were no cowards, but went down fighting gloriously after putting up so sturdy a resistance to the invaders that the latter never conquered more than a certain part of Britain, and took 200 years and more to do even that. Indeed, as late as 633 A.D., our British forefathers very nearly succeeded in driving out our English forefathers; and, so far as a fighting spirit is concerned, we ought to be proud to have the blood of both nations in our veins. After all, the defeat of the British by the

Anglo-Saxon/Englisc was no more shameful than the defeat of the Anglo-Saxons by the Danes and Normans.

There was an idea that the earlier race was exterminated by the Anglo-Saxons was prevalent for a time, but this has now been abandoned by scholars, especially when R. Smith of the British Museum who was a great authority on this matter, when he wrote “the view now generally taken is that the Romanized Briton was suffered to remain in the occupied regions in a subordinate class.”

As a matter of fact the Eighth Century historian, Bede, makes this quite clear; for he states that in his time the island of Britain was inhabited by five nations, the Anglo-Saxons, the Picts and Scots in the north, the Britons and the Latins, by whom he must mean the descendants of the Romans rather than the Roman missionaries and other later settlers, for he says that the Latin tongue which they spoke was coming back in use by means of the reading of the Scriptures.  He says, also, that many of the British “submitted themselves to the enemy and passed into servitude,” and elsewhere he states that the invaders “either drove the British clean out or made them tributary,” while in the Seventh Century, he tells us, many of the Britons in the conquered areas “recovered their liberty.”

In the year 693 A.D., the West Saxon King Ine drew up a code of laws in which provision is made for the considerable population of British blood living in his realms, some of whom were court officials and belonged to the royal circle; and in the code of the Kentish King Aethelbert there seems to be a reference to a similar British population; while in the Kingdom of Mercia, which in invaders founded in the Midlands, the relations between the newcomers and the old British stock were so friendly that the men of both races fought side by side against the Angles in the north. Indeed, as Isaac Taylor and others have pointed out, there is much evidence to show that the bulk of the population both of Mercia and Wessex remained Celtic.

As late as 626 A.D., we find an independent British state existing around Leeds, in the midst of the invaders` realms, and it is obvious that it could only have survived there on sufferance; and even in the time of the Danes we read of Ely and the Fens being infested with British robber bands. Ceadwalla, King of the West Saxons in 685 A.D., bears a British name, suggesting that he had British blood in his veins through the female line; and his brother`s name, Mul, is some confirmation of this, for it means “Half-breed” In then early Seventh Century we find the Angles and British on such good terms that Edwin, the future Anglian King, was able to live as a youth at the British court; while Oswald, his successor, and other English Kings, employed Celtic bishops who could not always speak English. William of Malmesbury tells us that as late as the reign of Aethelstan in the Tenth Century the British shared the possession of Exeter with the English, which can only mean that many another town of the south-west had a similar mixed population. In the reign on Ecgfrith, too, in 680 A.D., we read of Cartmel in Furness being given to the monastery of Lindisfarne  “with all the Britons thereon”; while in the case of the Lowlands of Scotland, although this area was part of the English kingdom of Northumbria, there are practically no Anglo-Saxon remains to be found, and no indication of the displacement of the earlier population.

Generally speaking it seems that whenever the Anglo-Saxons succeeded in defeating the British and capturing any area of territory from them, they enslaved those of the vanquished race who were not killed or had not escaped, and brought them back to work on the lands which they had been ousted. Here for some generations they lived in captivity, while many of the British women doubtless bore children to their Anglo-Saxon masters, as is implied by Gildas, who, speaking of the arrival of later hordes of the invaders, says that “they sailed over and joined themselves to their bastard-born comrades.” In the end, however, the distinction between the two races faded away, and long before the Norman conquest they had become one people, except in the northern half of Scotland, in Wales, and in the extreme south-west and north-west of England, where the old stock had remained unconquered and unmixed.

The word “Welsh,” by the way, simply means “foreigners.” “Wales” is the “land of the foreigners”; and Cornwall, originally Corn-Wales (as in the French Cornouailles) means the Corn, or horn, or promontory, inhabited by these foreigners.

In that part of our island now called England most of the villages have Anglo-Saxon and not British names, for the invaders had seized the agricultural lands and had settled their families upon them; but a great number of the cities retained their British or Roman names, for here there were large groups of the earlier population which survived the conquest. The Anglo-Saxon language at length replaced the British and Latin tongues spoken by the vanquished race in England; but, especially amongst the captive women, many of the old British speech, and in the vocabulary of husbandry a good number of British terms remain in use.

In this chapter is to lay stress upon the fact of the amalgamation of the two races in England, that many believe that the English have no relation to the British, and we have been credited with a purely Germanic ancestry, in fact the English covers much more than this and has had many tribes from all over Europe, who in times past have come under the term of English, so with the British, we have blended with them like before over time, and so thus our ancestry takes us back 1,500 years or so to the darkness of a rather stormy life in Denmark, Schleswig, and along the neighbouring German coast, our British blood, apart from the “Roman” strain, carries us right back into the four centuries of our connection with Rome, and thence back for at least another 1,500 years of more or less civilized life in Britain, and links  us at length with men who built Stonehenge, who themselves originated from the Germanic area of Europe, what is known as the Beaker people.

As descendants of the British (a name given to this land by the Romans `Brittania`) we have at least 3,500 years of civilization in our own land behind us, but though our English history covers less than half that period it, too, presents, even in its early phases, a  very credible tale. The conditions of life in England in early Anglo-Saxon times were at any rate far superior to those in France under the contemporary Merovingians.

Thus, as this story unfolds here, as we see the picture of our forefathers` history which, on the whole, will give us cause for much pride of race, and which, while justifying our faith in the genius of the English people, will not obscure the fact, too little known, that we today use by ancestral right as well as for political convenience that wider epithet – “British” – in describing ourselves and the men of our race throughout the world.