The Story of England: The End of the Saxon Kingdom
Arthur Bryant looks at how “The Bones of Shire and State” were formed before the Normans came.
During the century that followed Alfred’s defeat of the Danes the process of rebuilding Christian society went on faster in England than in any other country. Elsewhere the storm the English had stilled raged unabated; the Vikings, driven from their prey on one side of the Channel, fell with equal fury on the other. A few years after the great king had been laid in his grave at Winchester, one of their leaders, Rollo, secured from Charles the Simple — ruler of all that remained of Western Francia — a permanent settlement in the lower Seine basin which was called after them Normandy. Other heathens attacked a divided Christendom from the east. At the end of the ninth century a nomad race of mounted archers from the Asian steppes overran the Pannonian plain between the Carpathians and Danube. These plundering Magyars, or Hungarians as they were called, swept through East Francia or Germany and at one time reached Aquitaine and the Tuscan plain. Meanwhile Saracen pirates, having driven the Byzantine fleets from the Mediterranean, harried Europe’s southern coasts. Two years before Athelstan’s victory at Brunanburgh they sacked Genoa. Other bands of Moslem fanatics, camped in the hills of northern Italy, raided the Alpine passes.
England was more fortunate. A great king had taught her people to defend their island home and had endowed it with a realm which was not for ever being partitioned among its princes. His descendants, the fair-haired athelings of the House of Wessex, produced in little more than half a century three other great rulers — Alfred’s son, Edward the Elder, his grandson Athelstan, and his great-grandson Edgar. Had their lives been longer all Britain might have become united under them. Edgar, who was called its Caesar, was rowed up the Dee at Chester in 973 by eight vassal kings, who between them did fealty for almost the entire island. Once a year he sent a great fleet round it; every winter he travelled its highways to hear causes and pronounce judgments. True to Alfred’s policy of trust, he is said to have granted the king of the Scots and Picts the Lothian plain between Tweed and Forth in return for his allegiance. His uncle, Athelstan, was the patron of the Welsh prince, Hywel the Good, who attended meetings of the English Witan and gave Wales her first code of law.
It was at Edgar’s coronation that the earliest form of the service still used at the crowning of England’s kings was read by its author, the mystic saint and musician, Archbishop Dunstan. Behind the solemn rites — the royal prostration and oath, the archbishop’s consecration and anointing, the anthem, “Zadoc the Priest,” linking the kings of the Angles and Saxons with those of the ancient Hebrews, the investiture with sword, sceptre and rod of justice, the shout of recognition by the assembled lords —lay the idea that an anointed king and his people were a partnership under God. After that sacramental act loyalty to the Crown became a Christian obligation. The ideal of patriotism first began to take vague shape in men’s minds, superseding the older conception of tribal kinship.
It was this that helped to give England in the tenth century institutions stronger than those of any western land. Her system of taxation, of currency and coinage, of local government, of the issue of laws and charters were all in advance of those prevailing in the half-anarchical kingdoms and dukedoms of the former Frankish empire. As a result, though a country of little account at the world’s edge, her wealth rapidly increased. It was part of her kings’ policy to establish in every shire at least one town with a market-place and mint where contracts could be witnessed and reliable money coined. By the eleventh century there were more than seventy towns in the country. A dozen — Winchester, the royal capital, York, Norwich and Lincoln, Gloucester, Chester, Canterbury, Thetford, Worcester, Oxford, Ipswich and Hereford — had perhaps three or four thousand inhabitants, and one, the self-governing port of London, four or five times as many. Though most of them were ramparted, and a few walled, their real security and the source of their wealth was the king’s peace and the confidence it inspired.
So, at least in the south, was that of the countryside. The overwhelming majority of the English were countrymen — a hearty and ruddy-faced race, much given to feasting, drinking and sport. They were lovers of hunting, hawking and horse-racing, cock-fighting and bull-baiting, glee-singing, buffooning and tumbling. Their land was famous for beef, bacon and wheaten cakes, for ale, mead and perry, and for plentiful butter and cheese; a writer recorded that, while Italians cooked with oil, the English cooked with butter. By the eleventh century almost every village possessed a water-mill, and, in the rich eastern counties of Norfolk and Lincoln, often more than one. The Danish town of Derby had fourteen. The rivers swarmed with fish, and many places had eel-traps; the little Fenland town of Wisbech paid the Abbot of Ely an annual rent of fourteen thousand eels. Chester sent its earldorman a thousand salmon a year, and Petersham in Surrey a thousand lampreys.
The heart of England’s culture was no longer Northumbria —now a wasted and depopulated province — but Wessex. Here, too, as in the great northern kingdom that had welcomed Aidan and bred Cuthbert, Celtic blood and tradition mingled with Saxon. Even its early kings had borne names which were not Teuton, like Cerdic, Cynric, Caelwyn, and Celtic place- names were intertwined mysteriously in its western shires with English: Axe and Exe, avon for river, coombe for valley. “In Avons of the heart,” Rupert Brooke wrote a thousand years later, “her rivers run.” The greatest Wessex figure of the age was Archbishop Dunstan, who, like his earlier countryman, St. Aldhelm. had been partly nursed in the tradition of Celtic Christianity. At Glastonbury, where his first work was done, legend went back far beyond the English conquest to the tiny wattle church which St. Joseph of Arimathea was supposed to have built among the water meadows for the conversion of Roman Britain. Dunstan was a mystic, feeling his way to wisdom through visions and trances; he wrestled with fiends and monsters and heard mysterious, heavenly voices.
Wessex was now a settled land of villages, farms and fields whose names still figure on our maps. Its main outlines —church and parish boundary, mill, ford and footpath — were already what they were to remain for a thousand years. “See you our litle mill,” wrote a twentieth-century poet,
So busy by the brook ?
She has ground her corn and paid her tax
Ever since Domesday Book.”
He might have added, earlier. Puttock’s End, Cow Common, Crab’s Green, Woolard’s Ash, Doodle Oak — names of Essex fields and hamlets in the reign of Elizabeth II — were given them when the athelings of Wessex sat on the English throne. So were the boundaries of shire and hundred, and the customs — themselves far older than their new Christian forms — with which men celebrated the changes of the year. Such were Plough Monday, when the village lads, with ribbons and cracking whips, resumed work after the twelve days of Christmas; May Day when they marched to the woods to gather greenery and danced round the May-pole; Rogationtide when the parish bounds were perambulated by wand-bearers led by the priest, and small boys were beaten over boundary-stones; Whitsun when the Morris dancers leapt through the villages with bells, hobby-horses and waving scarves; Lammas when the first bread was blessed, and the Harvest Home when the Corn Dolly — effigy of a heathen goddess — was borne to the barns with reapers singing and piping behind it. At Christmas the houses were decked with evergreen and the candles of yule were lit.
With its fine craftsmen and the rule of its strong kings, England was beginning once more to accumulate treasures: to become a rich land worth plundering as she was before the Danes attacked her. Ivories and jewelled crucifixes, golden and silver candelabra, onyx vases and elaborate wood-carvings, superbly embroidered vestments, stoles and altar cloths adorned the churches and the halls and hunting lodges of the great. As they sat, in mantles of brightly coloured silks fastened with golden collars and garnet-inlaid brooches, listening to song, harp and minstrelsy, the princes and earldormen of Wessex were served from polished drinking - horns chased with silver and wooden goblets with gold. The century of Athelstan and Edgar saw a new flowering of Anglo-Saxon art. Archbishop Dunstan himself was a craftsman and loved to fashion jewellery and cast church-bells. He loved to work, too, in the scriptoria, as he had done as a young monk; in his day the illuminators of the monastic renaissance, with their gorgeous colouring and boldly flowing margins, reached new heights of achievement. So did the sculptors of the Winchester School who carved the angel at Bradford-on-Avon, the Virgin and Child at Inglesham, and the wonderful Harrowing of Hell in Bristol cathedral. The richer parish churches helped to house such treasures: small barnlike buildings, with primitive rounded arches, high walls and narrow windows, and bell-towers crowned with weather-cocks — an English invention. A few survive, like the log church at Greenstead in Essex, flint and rubble Breamore in the Avon valley with its Anglo-Saxon text which no living parishioner can read, stone Barnack, and broad-towered Earl’s Barton in Northamptonshire.
In the depopulated north a simpler polity prevailed. Here Christian missionaries from harried Ireland were busy turning the Scandinavian settlements along the coasts and dales into Christian parishes. The wheel-head crosses that marked their open-air sites of worship show the transitional nature of this conversion: the carved Odin cross at Kirk Andrea in the Isle of Man with ravens croaking on a heathen god’s shoulder, while on the other side Christ looks down in majesty; the Gosforth cross in Cumberland where the resurrected Saviour — Baldur the Beautiful of northern legend reborn — tramples the dragons and demons of Hell; Surt the fire-god, Fenris the wolf, and Loki the serpent. The word cross, derived from the Latin crux, was introduced by these Irish evangelists, gradually taking the place of the Anglo-Saxon “rood.” It first appeared in northern names like Crosby and Crossthwaite. Other Scandinavian words were being woven into the map of northern England; gate a street and thwaite a clearing; fell a hill and thorpe a settlement; foss a waterfall and by a village. Similar Norse names — Swansea, Caldey, Fishguard, Gresholm, Haverford — appeared on the coasts of Anglesea, Pembrokeshire, Gower and Glamorgan.
Like their kinsfolk in the old Danelaw and East Anglia, these northern dalesmen — pirate’s brood though they were —had a great respect for law, so long as they themselves made it. The very word entered England through their speech. So did the divisions or ridings into which they split the southern part of Northumbria, the juries of twelve leading men employed in the administration of their towns and wapenstakes, and their habit of majority decision. For it was a rule among these independent-minded men that, save in a boat or on the battlefield, they were all equal.
Yet all this growing polity and wealth depended in the last resort on the ability of English kings to keep the good order that Alfred had won. Not all the princes of the House of Wessex were great men or able to ride the tides of anarchy in an age still dominated by the Viking invasions. Edmund I, Athelstan’s successor, was murdered in a brawl with an outlaw in his own hall; his sickly brother, Eadred, lost York for a time to the murderous Norseman, Eric Bloodaxe. And though the lords of the Witan replaced Eadred’s feeble and petulant son by his able brother, Edgar, the latter died in 975 at the age of thirty-one. Three years later, following a dispute in the Witan over the succession, his eldest son was stabbed near Corfe by a thane of the Queen Mother’s household. The murder of the fifteen-year-old king “Edward the Martyr” made a deep impression; “worse deed,” wrote the chronicler, “was never done among the English.” In the sinister light of what happened afterwards it seemed even worse in retrospect than at the time.
For the long reign of the half-brother who succeeded him was one of the most disastrous in English history. Ethelred the Redeless — the unready or lacking in counsel — was a spoilt, petulant weakling. Incapable of running straight, his double-dealing set the great earldormen by the ears even before he reached manhood. Under his inconstant, passionate impulses, and those of his brutal favourites, England’s new-found unity dissolved.
Once more, scenting weakness as vultures carrion, the Norsemen returned. The European mainland was no longer the easy prey it had been; under the challenge of repeated invasion its divided peoples had learnt to defend them selves. The townsmen of Germany, Flanders, Francia, northern Spain and Italy were building walls round their cities; the feudal nobles of the countryside equipping companies of mounted and armoured knights. Even the Hungarians, routed by Athelstan’s brother-in-law, the Saxon Otto the Great, had discovered that raiding no longer paid. At the end of the century they gave up their vagrant life and settled down as Christians on the Pannonian plain—henceforward Hungary.
But the Norsemen, whose own land had so little to offer, were not yet prepared to settle down. The northern seas and islands were still full of them. Barred out of Europe, they turned once more to England. Finding from isolated raids on the coast that her people were no longer invincible, they struck in 991 at her south-eastern shires. After a hundred years of victory, the English were confident they could repel them. They received an unpleasant awakening.
Before they did so, there was one glorious episode. After sacking Ipswich the invaders were opposed on the banks of the Blackwater near Maldon by the earldorman of Essex the old, silver-haired, six-foot-nine giant, Britnoth. For an hour three of his retainers barred the only causeway. Then a Danish herald asked that the English should withdraw to allow his countrymen to cross and battle to be joined.
Disdaining any advantage and confident of victory, the chivalrous old earl agreed, and the Danes crossed the causeway. But soon afterwards, adventuring far into the Danish ranks, he was cut down and slain. His men, seeing their leader fall, started to fly. But a band of his followers closed round the corpse and, dying to the last man, gave the Danes such “grim war-play ” that they were unable to follow up their victory and scarcely, it was said, man their ships to sail home. The sacrifice was in vain — for nothing could save Ethelred’s England — but the flame of that day’s courage still burns in the Anglo-Saxon epic, The Battle of Maldon.
There was little else to redeem the record of the next twenty years. Under their feckless king, who “let all the nation’s labour come to nought,” nothing went right for the English. “When the enemy is eastwards,” wrote the Anglo-Saxon chronicler, “then our forces are kept westward; and when they are southward, then our forces are northward. ... Anything that may be counselled never stands for a month.” The English were not only outmanoeuvred; they were betrayed. Some of the earldormen and the feeble king’s favourites threw in their lot with the enemy, shifting from side to side in selfish attempts to increase their dominions. England’s only respite was when Ethelred, bleeding her people white with taxes, bribed the Danes to withdraw. But as soon as they had spent the money they returned for more, harrying the countryside until a new ransom or danegeld was raised. They rode at will across Sussex and Hampshire, moored their fleet in Poole harbour, burnt Norwich and Thetford, beat the fyrd at Penselwood in the heart of Wessex, and rode past Winchester flaunting the plunder of Berkshire as they returned in triumph to their ships.
Lacking the strong hand they respected, the Danes of northern England turned to their plundering kinsmen. Indeed, Ethelred drove them to it, harrying their homesteads with the same barbarity as the invaders harried his own. “He went into Cumberland,” the chronicler wrote, “and ravaged it well nigh all.” His crowning act of folly occurred in 1002 when he gave orders for a massacre of the Danes living in York, among them the sister of the king of Denmark. The revenge taken by the bloodthirsty king, Sweyn Forkbeard, was as terrible as deserved.
For a generation the Danes feasted on the carcass of a rich, leaderless land. The monasteries again fell into decay, the farms were plundered, the peasants taxed into starvation and sold as slaves. The worst humiliation came in 1012 when, after a delay in the payment of a danegeld, the invaders pounced on Canterbury and carried off the primate, Alphege, and most of the monks and nuns. And when the brave archbishop refused to appeal for a ransom, he was pelted to death with ox-bones by a pack of drunken pirates.
Next year, after he had reigned for thirty-five years, Ethelred fled to Normandy, leaving his desolate country in the hands of Sweyn. Only London, its walls manned by its warrior gild, remained faithful to the royal cause and Alfred’s disgraced line. Then the king’s young son, Edmund “Ironside,” put up a fight worthy of Alfred himself against Sweyn’s son and successor, Canute. For three years the two great soldiers, Englishman and Dane, fought each other among the forests and marshes of southern England. On April 23rd, 1016 — St. George’s Day — Ethelred died and Edmund succeeded. Six month later, after five astonishing victories — at PenseRvood on the borders of Somerset and Wiltshire, at Sherston, on the road to London, at Brentford, and at Otford in Kent — he was himself defeated by Canute at Ashingdon in Essex through the treachery of one of his earls, a vile favourite of his father’s. A few weeks later he died at Oxford.
In that midwinter of disaster the great council or Witan met and made its terms with the conqueror. Preferring strength on the throne to weakness, and unity to division, it selected as king, not one of Edmund’s infant sons, but the young Dane, Canute. It proved a wise choice. For though Canute was almost as ruthless as his father, he ended the long Norse scourge. At a meeting of the Witan at Oxford he swore to govern his new realm by the laws of King Edgar. Henceforward he made no distinction between his new countrymen and his old. He followed Alfred.
For if Canute had conquered England, in a wider sense England conquered him. English missionaries, following Boniface’s great tradition, had long been at work in Scandinavia; though born a pagan, Canute had been baptised. With his acceptance of a Christian crown the ravaging of Christendom from the north ceased. While in many things still a heathen, revengeful and hard, he became a devout churchman, enforcing tithes, endowing monasteries, and even making a pilgrimage to Rome where he laid English tribute on the altar of St. Peter. A poem of the time describes his visit to a Fenland abbey:
“Merry sungen the monkes in Ely
When Cnut King rowed thereby.
‘Row, cnichts, near the land,
And hear we these monkes sing'.”
He rebuilt the shrine at Bury St. Edmund to the king his countrymen had martyred a century and a half before, and made amends for the murdered Alphege by the honours he paid his tomb at Canterbury.
Had this great, though harsh, man lived, the course of European history might have been different. Being king both of England and Denmark, he tried to make the North Sea an Anglo-Danish lake and England the head of a Nordic confederation stretching from Ireland to the Baltic. After his conquest of Norway he became virtual emperor of the North. But fate was against him. The story of his courtiers telling him he could stay the advancing tide at Lambeth may not have been true, but, like many legends, it enshrined a truth. He was not more powerful than death. He died at forty, his work incomplete and most of his mighty projects still a dream. He was buried at Winchester among the English kings, while his half-barbaric sons divided his Scandinavian empire between them.
They did not even found a dynasty. Seven years later, when the last of them died “as he stood at his drink at Lambeth,” the Witan chose as successor the forty-year-old Edward, son of Ethelred the Unready by his second wife, Emma of Normandy. He was a soft, devout, peace-loving man, with a clerk’s long tapering fingers, a rosy face and flaxen hair that turned with age to a beautiful silver. Though exile in his mother’s country had made him more French than English, his subjects were much impressed by his piety. He was more like an abbot to them than a king, and they called him the Confessor. His greatest interest was the building of a monastery among the river marches at Thorney, a mile or two to the west of London. Here, that he might watch his abbey rising — the West Minster, as it was called — he made himself a hall that was one, day to become the heart of an empire.
Yet Edward exposed his subjects to almost as many dangers as his father. He was so devout that he refused to give his wife a child and his realm an heir. Absorbed in works of piety, he left its affairs to the great earldormen and his Norman favourites. He made immense grants of land to a Sussex thane named Godwin, whom Canute had created earl of the West Saxons, and who, in the dynastic quarrels before his accession, had been instrumental in blinding and, possibly, murdering Edward’s brother, and later, when the Danish cause seemed doomed, in securing his election to the throne. This able but ambitious man induced the king to marry his sister and to confer on his spoilt, quarrelling sons the earldoms of East Anglia, Gloucester, Hereford, Oxford, Northampton, Huntingdon and northern Northumbria. The jealousies aroused by his greatness and the crimes of his eldest son led to his eclipse and banishment. But he returned to England at the head of a fleet, harried its coasts and, with the help of the Londoners, dictated terms to the throne.
Godwin was not the only subject able to defy the Crown. Equally masters in their provincial strongholds were his rivals, Leofric of Mercia —husband of the legendary Lady Godiva, foundress of Coventry abbey — and the giant Dane, Siward of York, who met his death like a Norse warrior standing fully accoutred with breast-plate, helmet and gilded battle-axe. The power of such magnates was not wholly Edward’s fault. It was a result of the cumulative alienation of royal estates — caused by the difficulty of raising revenue to pay for public services — which had been going on for generations and which deprived the monarchy of its chief and almost only source of income. The bidding prayer in York Minster might invoke a blessing on king and earldorman, but it was the latter, with his castle and retainers, who now had the power to oppress or protect his neighbours. Appointed in the days of Athelstan to lead the fyrd and enforce the royal law in a single shire, the earldorman by the eleventh century, with his accumulation of shires and hereditary claim to office, had grown beyond the control of any ordinary ruler. His was the disintegrating force of power without responsibility. He was neither a chieftain bound by tribal ties nor a consecrated king with obligations to his people. He was merely an inflated landowner with proprietary rights in the human beings who lived on his estates. His rivalries and family feuds cut across the growing sense of nationhood and tore the realm to pieces.
A similar process had long been taking place on the Continent. The problem of the Dark Ages was to make any system of government work except that of force. In tribal times a king had only been able to impose his will when the horde was assembled for battle. Even then his powers were limited; when Clovis, conqueror of Gaul and first king of the Franks, wished to preserve a chalice - looted from Soissons cathedral, his sole resource was to split open the head of the warrior who voiced the customary right of veto. Later the tribe had broken on the submerged rock of Roman civilization; the community of the herd and war-horn could not survive the growing yearning, awoken by Christianity, for individual justice. But the premature attempts of rulers like Charlemagne to recreate an international empire based on law had been shattered, partly by the Norse raids and still more by the difficulty of uniting large areas inhabited by primitive peoples. Without a trained bureaucracy the Roman system of raising revenue could not work; a Frankish king could only levy taxes by farming them out to local magnates. Feudalism — the protection of the locality from predatory strangers by its stronger members —was the only answer until either the old imperialism could be recreated or a national order take its place. Only in island England had patriotism for a time enabled the Crown to hold together a nation.
Alfred’s recipe against the Danes and anarchy had been the ramparted town, the royal corps d'elite of thanes, and the national State. Against the Norse, Magyar and Saracen invasions Europe’s had been the walled city, the castle or chateau, and the local knight, armed and trained with a degree of specialization unknown in easy-going England. With his horse, lance, sword and shield, and leather and chain-armour hauberk, he was the answer to the invading horde from which the West had suffered so long. His elaborate smith-made protection, his mobility and striking-power, and his life-long dedication to arms, made him despise mere numbers. Something of the Christian missionary’s conviction that faith could conquer all things sustained him; that and a well-placed confidence in his weapons and training.
It was with the knights of East Francia or Germany that Athelstan’s brother-in-law, Otto the Saxon, overthrew the Magyar horsemen on the Lechfeld in 955, and re-established the imperial throne of the Germans. It was only a nominal title, for neither in Germany nor Italy, where he was crowned by the Pope, did he or his successors ever own much more than their private feudal lands and castles. Yet it marked a stage in the recovery of Europe’s dignity and freedom of action. So in the next century did a later emperor’s intervention at the head of his knights to rescue the papacy from the degrading control of the Roman mob. Another sign of returning health was the resumption, by colonizing knights from Germany’s frontier Marches and the little Christian kingdoms of northern Spain, of Christendom’s long-interrupted expansion towards the east and south.
Yet the feudal knight, while he helped to save and strengthen Europe, added to the problem of its government. If he was invulnerable to his country’s foes he was equally so to its rulers, and a scourge to everyone within reach of his strong arm. He lived for war and by it. His neighbours had to seek his protection or be ruined. In Europe it was not the Crown that guarded the peasant and trader, but the local knight and his castle; no village could survive unburnt and unplundered without him. The sole restraint on his power was that of the feudal superior from whom he received his lands. The Frankish knight’s obligation to his overlord was the counterpart to the loyalty to the Crown Alfred had tried to create in England. He did homage to him for his fief, swore fidelitas or fealty to him, gave him in war the precise measure of military service — neither more nor less — laid down in the terms of his enfeoffment, and attended formal meetings of his court of law.
The squabbling duchies and counties of the shadowy kingdoms of western and eastern Francia, Burgundy, and Italy were based on no other allegiance but this. By the eleventh century the only dominion, save the royal title, left to Charlemagne’s last descendant, the king of the West Franks, was the hill town of Laon. The great vassals of the Crown had absorbed everything else. Soon afterwards the chief of them, Hugh Capet, duke of the Isle of France, usurped the vacant and now hollow dignity. He, too, possessed no more than his personal domain, with its impregnable island capital, Paris. His fellow dukes, and nominal vassals, of Aquitaine, Normandy, Burgundy, Britanny and Gascony, and the counts of Flanders, Champagne, Toulouse, Maine, and Anjou, could call on far more knights than he. For ever at loggerheads with one another, they pursued their mutually antagonistic ends by war, for war was their sole resource.
Like laissez-faire in a later age, eleventh-century feudalism suffered from being too exclusively based on self-interest. And if at first the self-interest was mutual, it soon became contradictory and self-destructive. It rested the State on selfishness alone, and created a society without the cement of love and loyalty; one in which power was sought as a means of self-aggrandisement and men took to themselves lords that they might oppress others. It made for a multiplicity of rival princedoms, duchies and counties whose territories were for ever changing. It produced the very anarchy it was designed to avoid.
The future of European society lay with whoever could discipline and ennoble feudalism. The Church took the lead by trying to limit the ravages of private war. It set aside days and seasons for a “truce of God” when war was forbidden on penalty of expulsion from its communion. By the middle of the century it had succeeded in prohibiting private fighting — at least in theory — from Thursday night till Monday morning. It sought also, by an appeal to conscience, to present knightly power as a trust. It tried to make knight errantry a Christian pursuit: to turn the aggressive, acquisitive Frankish freebooter, armed cap-a- pied, into the Christian champion, driving back the heathen, defending Holy Church and punishing iniquity. In chivalry, as it became called, it offered the military class a code of honour. It devised an elaborate ceremony at which the young knight, before being invested with arms, knelt all night in solitary prayer before the altar and, like the king at his crowning, took the Sacrament, swearing to use the power entrusted to him in righteousness and the defence of the helpless. And, for the sake of society, it invested the oath of fealty with mystery and sanctity. It was an offence against God, the Church taught, for a vassal to be false to his liege-lord.
The Church’s success was only slow and partial. But in one State at least — the little warlike duchy of Normandy — it early established a working and mutually profitable partnership with the knightly class. Like Canute, Rollo the Viking and his descendants, in acquiring a Christian land, had become fervent champions of the Church. Nowhere was the monastic reforming movement so enthusiastically supported by the laity, so many monasteries built, and such learned and pious clerks appointed to well-endowed benefices. It was as though the Norman knights, the most acquisitive in Europe, were trying to offset their outrages by the orthodoxy of their ecclesiastical establishments and, while they stormed their way into their neighbours’ lands, to buy an entry to Heaven. They became the greatest church-builders since the days of Charlemagne and even since those of imperial Rome, whose giant buildings they boldly tried to copy. They were not delicate craftsmen like the English; their chief resource was to build immensely thick walls, and several of their grander achievements fell down. But they had infinite ambition and a sense of space and grandeur. It was after the model of one of their abbeys, Jumièges, that Edward the Confessor, himself half a Norman, modelled his abbey church at Westminster.
Their buildings expressed their religion. Their patron-saint, standing above their churches with uplifted sword and outstretched wings, was the warrior archangel Michael, guardian of Heaven; their conception of God a feudal overlord, ready to reward those like themselves who kept the letter of His law.
With the spirit they troubled themselves little; they were a practical folk who loved clear definitions. They built, not for comfort like the timber-loving Saxons, but in stone to endure. Their serried arches, marching like armies through space, the vast walls and pillars supporting them, the rude, demon-haunted figures that, gazing down from their capitals, symbolized the crude magnificence and vigour of their half-barbaric minds. With their grim massiveness and twin-towers rising into the sky like swords, such churches seemed designed, as Henry Adams wrote, to force Heaven: “all of them look as though they had fought at Hastings or stormed Jerusalem.”
For war this people had a supreme genius. With their hard Norse brilliance, they rode their horses through the waves of battle as their pirate forbears had sailed their ships. They loved fighting with lance and horse so much that, when they were not at war, they were for ever challenging one another in mimic tourneys where the victors held the vanquished to ransom and plundered their horses and armour.
They were masters, too, of law and rhetoric and, in their own estimation at least, of courtesy. They knew how to govern, just as they knew how to win battles, because they were absolutely clear what they wanted and how to get it. They never left anyone in any doubt as to what they wished them to do. They meant to,get their way and, with harsh, logical insistence, they got it. They were paragons of efficiency. They were what the Romans had been a thousand years before, the natural leaders of their age. Ruthless, entirely without sentiment, and, though passionate, self-possessed and cool, they had the simplicity of genius. With their round bullet-heads, blue eyes and long aquiline noses, they looked like intelligent birds of prey.
Above all, they had energy. They were as restless as they were greedy and calculating. Like their Norse forbears, they would go to the world’s end for plunder. In the middle of the eleventh century a few hundred of them succeeded in seizing the south of Italy from the Byzantine Greeks. Then they went on to conquer the rich island of Sicily from the Saracens, the lords of the Mediterranean. An Italian who witnessed that astonishing conquest has left us their picture: dominant, harsh, revengeful, cunning, frugal, yet capable of lavish generosity when fame was to be won by it. “You never know,” he wrote,
Whether you will find them spendthrifts or robbers. ... They are headstrong to excess unless they be curbed by the strong hand of justice. They are patient of cold if need be, patient of hunger, patient of hard work; they are passionately fond of hawking, of riding, of warlike armour and of splendid garments.
They had a genius for absorbing other civilizations. So thoroughly did they absorb that of the Frankish-Gaulish folk among whom they settled that within a century of their occupation of Normandy scarcely a word of their old Norse tongue was in use. They had become a Romance - or Latin-speaking race, with more of the Romans’ genius for rule and law than any people since their time. In the chapel-royal of the Norman robber king at Palermo and in the cathedral his heirs built at Monreale they infused the graceful sunshine art of the Saracens and Byzantines with their own northern vigour. Those they enrolled in their war-bands —and they drew from every race — they turned into Normans, as proud, ruthless and efficient as themselves. This, too, was a Roman trait.
After the collapse of Canute’s empire the Normans turned their gaze on England. Its wealth, so much superior to that of Normandy, seemed a standing invitation. They viewed its easy-going and rather sentimental provincials with a contempt they hardly tried to conceal: the words pride and proud first entered the English language to describe the arrogance of the Normans to whom the Confessor granted estates and bishoprics. As he had so conveniently refrained from giving his kingdom an heir, his great-nephew, the young Duke of Normandy, formed the idea of claiming it for himself. He even succeeded in persuading his uncle to promise it him — though it was not by English law his to promise.
The chief obstacle in the Duke’s way was Godwin’s eldest surviving son, Harold, earl of Wessex, brother to the queen and leader of the English and anti-Norman party at Edward’s court. In 1064 Harold was shipwrecked in Normandy, and William a great believer, like all Normans, in God’s sense of legalism — used the opportunity to make his unwilling guest swear to be his liege and help him obtain the English crown. To make doubly sure of divine intervention he concealed some sacred relics under the cloth of the table on which the Englishman swore.
The Duke of Normandy was not the only European ruler impatiently awaiting the Confessor’s death. The Norse king, Harald Hardrada or Fair Hair, engaged till now in the civil wars of Scandanavia, was also ready to claim his kinsman, Canute’s crown. He possessed the finest fleet in Europe, while that of England, which Canute had kept to guard her and which Edward in earlier days had taken to sea on rumours of a Danish invasion, had been disbanded. Harold Godwinson’s traitor brother, Tostig, the exiled earl of Northumbria, was known to be seeking Hardrada’s aid. Their vulture’s coalition boded ill for England.
The other peoples of the British Isles were also restive at the spectacle of English weakness. Since the days of Ethelred, the Britons, Picets and Scots of the far North had tended increasingly to merge, not with their southern neighbours, but with one another. They had been joined by the English and Danish settlers of northern Northumbria or Lothian — the corn-growing coastal plain which alone offered a chance of nationhood to the rocky, poverty- stricken lands of Caledonia. During the first half of the eleventh century these Scots, as they now called themselves, made repeated raids into Durham. In 1054 Siward, earl of Northumbria, was forced to lead a punitive expedition as far as the Forth, the old Northumbrian frontier, where he dethroned the Celtic usurper, Macbeth, and installed an exiled prince of the old Scottish line —Malcolm, king of the Cumbrians.
The little principalities of Wales, too, for all their constant wars with one another, were drawing closer in the hope of exploiting England’s weakness. They also had assumed a Welsh rather than an island patriotism; had become the Cymry or fellow-countrymen, uniting in battle, whenever plunder offered, against their wealthier neighbours, even though the English of the western shires were almost as Celtic as themselves. The dream of an earlier, greater Wales, ever victorious against the Saxons, began to haunt their poems and tales: the Mabinogion with their legends of Arthur and the great Druid magician, Merlin.
Politically this reversal of the unifying trend of the tenth century was to exact a heavy toll in racial war, cattle-raiding and border-baron brigandage. Yet socially it was to enrich, not impoverish, the island, fostering a regional consciousness in which much was preserved of poetry, song and character that would otherwise have perished. “Their God they shall praise,” it was said of the Celts, “their language they shall keep, their land they shall lose except wild Wales!” In 1055 the men of this indomitable, hardy race, under a patriot prince, Griffith or Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, ravaged the city of Hereford in alliance with a traitor English earl, and burnt the minster which Athelstan had built. Next year they slew its bishop. “It is hard to describe,” wrote an English chronicler, “the oppression and all the expeditions and the campaigning and the labours and the loss of men and horses that the army of England suffered.”
England had not only lost her chance of uniting Britain. She had lost her freedom of action. Under Alfred she had helped to save Christendom, as she had done two centuries earlier in the days of Bede and Boniface. But when under her last athelings she no longer proved capable of giving leadership, she found herself, as though by some inescapable law of her being, receiving it from others. Canute gave it for a time. And when after Canute’s death that failed, the vacuum had still to be filled.
The English were in many ;ways a more civilized people than any in northern Europe; they seem to have been gentler, kindlier and more peaceably governed. Their national achievement in vernacular scholarship and literature was unique; their craftsmanship — in sculpture, embroidery, goldsmith’s and coiner’s work — most skilful and sensitive. They had evolved a union of Church and State for national ends which had no parallel outside the civilized empire of the Greeks; their bishops and earldormen sat side by side in the Witan and in the provincial and shire courts. To matters of theology and philosophy, like their Irish neighbours, they had devoted much thought; alone among northern nations they possessed the priceless heritage of the scriptures in their native tongue. Left to themselves, they might even, four centuries before the Reformation, have established on Christendom’s western fringe an English Church, based on Celtic scholarship and piety, and free from the cruder superstitions that a stern and revivalist Rome, insisting that the pace of all must be the pace of one, was beginning to impose on the western world. Their great homilist, Aelfric, had repudiated transsubstantiation, and the saintly Dunstan tolerated a sober married clergy.
But to the finer minds of the vigorous eleventh-century England was a land where the enthusiasm of saints and scholars had become lost in a sluggish stream of petty provincial interests; where married canons lived on hereditary endowments, and boorish, provincial noblemen, sunk in swinish drunkenness and gluttony, sold sacred benefices; where the very archbishop of Canterbury was a simoniac and uncanonically appointed; and where bucolic warriors, too conservative to change, still fought on foot with battle-axes. She had lost touch with the new world growing up beyond the Channel: with the international Church, with its reforming popes and disciplined monasteries, with the new ideals of chivalry, and the mailed knights, battle-trained horses; tall, moated castles which were now becoming the dominant features of the European landscape. Her nerves had grown slack, her sinews had lost their strength. She was living among the memories of the past, static, conservative, unimaginative. She had barred her mind to change; it remained to be seen if she could bar her gates.
On January 5th, 1066, a few days after the consecration of his abbey church at Westminster, the gentle Confessor died and was buried in the Minster he had built. Next day, without awaiting their northern colleagues, the lords and prelates of the Wessex Witan met in the Godwin stronghold of London to choose a successor. Ignoring the claims of Norman duke, Norwegian king and the young atheling grandson of Edmund Ironside — the last survivor of the ancient line whom Edward had lately invited to England — they elected Harold Godwinson as king.