The coming of the English

Tue, 12/02/2013 - 15:00
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By Man of Kent
The word indigenous when applied to the English is often written with contemptuous inverted commas (but not when applied to the native people of New Zealand, Australia or America, or red squirrels) implying that no such people exist.

As denying one’s ancestors is the first step to the exit of history, it is vital that the English people know about their past.

Throughout the second half of the fifth century Teutonic tribes made frequent incursions into southern Britain.

From the north of modern Germany came the Saxons, named, some antiquarians believe, after their distinctive bone-handled, single-edged curved knife, called a sæx, carried everywhere for household tasks and used in fighting.

To this day the flag of the county of Essex (‘East Saxons’) consists of three of these knives. From a district north-east of Schleswig on the German-Danish border that is still called Angeln came the Angles; and from the Rhineland (not Jutland, as is often, reasonably but erroneously, believed) came the Jutes.

Although there is little documentary evidence outside Bede’s writings of 300 years later and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle even later still, archaeological discoveries on Britain’s eastern seaboard, mainly objects from graves in pagan cemeteries, confirm their account of the waves of incomers.

The remnants of a timber village at the mouth of the River Weser in Old Saxony indicate that the place was abandoned in about 450, apparently in consequence of rising sea levels.

With the natural fertility of southern Britain and the evidence that its inhabitants’ leaders invited foreign mercenaries, this flooding of coastal settlements across the Channel and the North Sea helps to provide an explanation for the migrations.

Another reason may have been that those realms, which had been outside the Roman Empire, once the Roman defences of the Rhine collapsed in 407 suffered a northward migration into their territory, providing further encouragement for the Saxons and others to move westward across the sea to the fertile lowlands of Britain.

Meanwhile, following the Romans’ withdrawal from Britain in 410, regional leadership had reverted to tribal chieftains. The most powerful overlords in fifth-century Britain were Vortigern, Cunedda, Ceretic and Cunedda’s father-in-law, the wise ruler of the northern kingdom of Rheged, Coel the Old, remembered in nursery rhyme as Old King Cole.

In the middle of the fifth century, at the request of Vortigern, Cunedda and his sons led their armies into North Wales to expel unwanted Irish settlers.

The Picts of Caledonia in the far north took advantage of Cunedda’s absence to launch a series of border raids across Hadrian’s Wall. Vortigern invited a band of Jute mercenaries, led by two brothers, Hengist, who is mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf, and Horsa, to help repel the invaders.

The mercenaries’ three ships arrived at Thanet in Kent, at Pegwell Bay, now a nature reserve. A replica longship, with the typical twisted prow and round shields along the hull, commemorates the spot.

Chroniclers’ dating of this event, ‘the coming of the English’, to 449 is backed by no evidence (though this did not prevent an anniversary enactment in 1949, when a longship sailed from Denmark and landed at Thanet).

Ambiguity of the early sources of information makes it impossible to assign a precise year to the beginning of the English settlement in Britain.

But the coming of these three ships on the beach at Pegwell Bay at the foot of the eroded chalk cliffs with their flint-encrusted strata is an historical event as important as the landing of the Mayflower and of the Empire Windrush.
Let us try to imagine this legendary landing.

As a winter crossing was unthinkable, let us say it was summer - a cloudless, sunny day, the parchment sky reflected in the sea, but windy. Approaching the wide eastern end of the Channel, there just a narrowing of the North Sea, those of the men who have never been to sea before are delighted by the ocean’s fecundity.

The luminescent water teems with life. Behind them, half a mile away to starboard, a family of humpbacks spouts in turn, revealing their backs and dorsal flippers. Porpoises race alongside the boats, leaping into the air.

Those men making their first sea voyage have never seen or heard of these strange fish before, fish as big as a deerhound, with a triangular fin, their backs glistening in the sun as they arch out of the water.

The few men who know about them say they are reputed to give sailors luck, which heartens the superstitious warriors. The porpoises swim off to chase a shoal of mackerel they have seen just beneath the sea’s surface, visible also to the men.

As the ships approach the shore the waves surge and the swell mounts higher. The men ship their oars (a dozen each side), the ragged square single sails rattle down and the helmsmen work hard at the rudder to hold a true course, for if their ship, with its shallow draught, goes even slightly across the surf it will certainly capsize.

The ships are now going faster than a galloping horse; the surf thunders in the men’s ears, the waves break around them in great crashing walls of foam and suddenly the ships bump and skid and grind up the beach as yet another breaker smashes over the stern and rushes past the men.

They are shouting like children, roaring with laughter at the joy of this, tossing the salt water from their flowing, light-brown hair, jumping over, soaking their woollen leggings and leather-thong cross-gartering, so that they can help the last push of the waves to get the ship a few yards further up the rock-strewn beach to where the receding spent water resembles filigreed lace.

Maybe one trips, banging his face and making his nose bleed. Maybe one of the ships does capsize, and snaps its mast, for which Hengist rages at the helmsman.

Presumably, some locals are waiting on the cliff top to welcome them, having been alerted by Vortigen’s men that they come as allies, one with a glinting chain about his neck, suggesting he is of high rank.

Possibly some have misgivings. Even unarmed (axes, swords, shields and leather helmets still stowed away on the ships in large, heavy hessian sacks) and laughing and shouting like excited children, the newcomers look ferocious. Their tatty elongated ships are obviously expendable war-boats, and they are clearly warriors.

They are lean and tough, quick and wiry and light on their feet. Several have a scarred face or a mutilation. Maybe a long scar runs across the cheek of one, drawing the corner of his mouth up in a sinister curl, and perhaps another has lost the top of an ear. Although the welcoming party has encountered Jutes, Angles and Saxons before, the others had been straggling groups cultivating difficult marginalised land with their superior heavy ploughs.

The injuries of these newcomers had not been inflicted while they were drawing a plough. And warriors always too much relish acquiring things by force. These men with the blond flowing locks and blue eyes will be more enamoured with the thought of fighting than of sailing away to their own country in their long ships.

The misgivings proved justified. After helping to repel the Picts, Hengist and Horsa were joined by more Jute warriors, with whom they sought to acquire territory for themselves.

Provoking a dispute over provisions, they took up arms against Vortigern. Horsa was killed in a battle at Aylesford in Kent but Vortigern bought off Hengist by offering him the kingdom of Kent, which Hengist ruled from his base on the Isle of Thanet (which ceased to be an island in the 16th century when the channel separating it from the mainland silted up).

His son was king of Kent for 24 years, from 488 to 512.
The Jutes’ success in founding a kingdom encouraged Saxon and Angle warriors to invade from north Germany, landing on the stretch of Kent coast known as ‘the Saxon Shore’.
Many years of inconclusive warfare followed.

The Britons had lost much of their military strength when the Romans departed. After having learnt to fight in a trained manner like the legions, they now once again fought ineffectively as separate tribes, as they had done before the Romans came.

But a major British victory, about the year 500, at an unidentified place called Badon Hill, halted and even reversed the Anglo-Saxon advance for more than a generation. (According to a monk called Nennius in his History of the Britons, a British chieftain named Arthur fought in this battle, personally killing 960 men.)

Shortly after the middle of the 6th century the historian Procopius wrote that the Angles had been crossing in great numbers from Britain to the Continent. A reverse migration of English peoples to the Continent at this time implied that that the invaders had outgrown their first settlements and abandoned the attempt to find new ones.

After the defeat at Badon Hill they were restricted to their original Kentish coastal territory with no chance of providing for a growing population by the establishment of new inland colonies.
But the Anglo-Saxons eventually returned and when they regained the initiative new kingdoms emerged.

Reinforced by a continual stream of immigrants, the invaders pressed further and further west, until eventually they held almost the whole of what is now England, the east of Scotland at least as far north as the Forth, and the Solway Plain.

The 6th century British monk Gildas lamented that Britain’s rulers ‘sealed its doom by inviting in among them (like wolves in to the sheepfold) the fierce and impious Saxons, a race hurtful both to God and men. Nothing was ever so pernicious to our country, nothing was ever so unlucky.

What palpable darkness must have enveloped their minds! Those very people whom, when absent, they dreaded more than death itself, were invited to reside, as one may say, under the selfsame roof’.

Bede too noted the fatal stupidity of inviting hordes of foreigners: ‘Swarms of the aforesaid nations came over into the island, and the foreigners began to increase so much, that they became a source of terror to the natives themselves who had invited them. They over-ran the whole face of the doomed island.’

Britons fled in such numbers to the nearest safe land, the Armorica peninsula, that it became known as Brittany.
The invaders meanwhile divided up England among themselves.

Saxons took the south of Britain, developing the kingdoms of Wessex, Essex, Middlesex and Sussex, while the Angles occupied the rest of the land (excluding Wales) from the Severn estuary up to Hadrian’s Wall, comprising Northumbria (‘north of the Humber’), Mercia and East Anglia.

By the end of the 6th century the invaders were in permanent control of half of Britain, though kings rose and fell quickly, gaining great power briefly. The longest reign was that of Penda, who ruled Mercia from 632 until his death in battle in 654.

One of the first kings in England to mint a coinage of his own, his name survives in the word ‘penny’. The Anglian, Saxon and Jutish peoples who lived between the Humber and the Channel are often referred to in early charters as the Sutangli, or southern English.

Thanet was again the site of an important landing when, in 597, Augustine reluctantly arrived there with 40 other reluctant monks to begin his Papal mission to convert the English race to Christianity. King Æthelbert of Kent, afraid of the strangers’ magic if he crossed a building’s threshold (they could have buried some magical object underneath it, with dire consequences for anyone who stepped over it), insisted on meeting them outdoors.

The interview, which took place in Thanet, convinced him of their honesty, and although he refused to give up immediately what he and the whole English race had hitherto always believed, he gave them a dwelling-place in Canterbury, supplied them with food, and allowed them to preach their religion.

They on their part lived a simple communal life in Canterbury.
The first stage in their mission ended successfully, despite Augustine’s tendency to panic under pressure, when Æthelbert himself accepted Christianity, undoubtedly influenced by his wife Bertha, who was already a Christian.

From Æthelbert they received the beginnings of an endowment in land, and, though the Kentish church itself almost expired after the death of its royal protector, the tradition of Augustine always prevented Canterbury from becoming a mere local diocese. Æthelbert’s grandson Eorcenbert was the first English king to order the destruction of idols throughout his kingdom.

In other kingdoms too Christianity had been established at court and preached around the country, and by 664 was the dominant religion throughout England, though it took a long time to percolate down from court to the populace. The reformation was too radical to happen quickly.

Christianity was at first an aristocratic indulgence. But over a century the new religion spread down through society and out, north and west, across all the pagan island.
In practice, the old festivals did not altogether disappear, remaining as Christian festivals. The word Easter comes from Eostre, the old Germanic goddess of spring.

Rituals related to Eostre focused on new beginnings, symbolised by the Easter egg, and fertility, which was symbolised by the hare, who became the Easter bunny. And, following the advice of Pope Gregory, pagan sacred places were taken over and turned to Christian use.

By 695 the Kent king Wihtred, while issuing laws granting complete freedom from taxation to the church, also felt the necessity to include provisions against offerings to devils. (His law-code also excluded from the country foreigners who would not conform!)
The 7th century was an age of continual wars.

Even in the early 8th century the bishops and abbots attending a king’s court seem incongruous members of an assembly that was still essentially a war-band.

Kings were glorified warlords, and their nobles leading warriors.
Linguistic evidence shows that the immigrants whose settlements formed these original English kingdoms all belonged to a single group of closely related Germanic peoples.

This evidence establishing a basic connection between them is the first sure fact in English history. There was no difference of race or culture.

They were of the same stock.
And they knew it. They remained highly aware of their Germanic origin. Bede’s older contemporary, St Aldhelm, used ‘our stock’ and ‘the German race’ as parallel expressions, noting that the English so identified with the continental Saxons that they were wont to say, ‘We are of one blood and one bone.’

They were conscious of an essential unity that distinguished them from the subjects of the Roman empire to the south and the barbarians to the east.

It rested on a fundamental similarity of political structure and social convention. Beowulf came from the middle of what is now Sweden; the poem about him was known in every Germanic country.

It is preserved in West Saxon English of the 10th century but contains many ancient forms of words showing that an Anglian original lies behind the existing texts, composed for an audience sufficiently familiar with northern tradition to grasp the meaning of the most casual reference to other stories.

The small amount of English epic poetry that has survived plainly represents a mere fragment of a body of tradition once common to the whole Germanic world, with its mutually intelligible dialects. All the Germanic languages shared enough basic vocabulary for their peoples to adequately communicate.

The family feuding that ruined dynasties became a major problem when the Viking raids began in 835. During the next three decades attacks from Scandinavia came almost yearly, culminating in the arrival of a full-scale invading army, which the disorganised kingdoms were ill-prepared to repel.

It was hard for any 9th-century king to improvise an effective programme of resistance to invaders who could disembark 5,000 seasoned fighting-men at any one of a score of undefended ports.

The once-great kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia ceased to exist. Wessex was better organised, and when its king, Æthelred, died in the middle of the crisis of an impending invasion, his brother succeeded to the throne with no disunity.

This brother’s name was Alfred, later to be called the Great because of his success, against seemingly hopeless odds, in repelling the Vikings.

Alfred’s greatness did not only consist in defeating enemies in battle. He was the first English town planner; carried out a programme of education to revive literacy and learning, including writing and translating books himself, for which he studied Latin; and codified laws.

The English tribes who came over from the Continent already had an elaborate and developed legal system, whose basic principles were shared by other Germanic nations. Evidence exists that long before William the Conqueror’s invasion England already had a tradition of belief in the rule of law.

Alfred’s codification of laws in 871 recognised that without the ability to rely on people when they gave undertakings, society could not function (‘Every man should strictly hold to his oath and pledge’). Anglo-Saxons had always set great store by the keeping of oaths. The habit of law was deeply ingrained in the English.
And Englishness goes back a long way.

Alfred, in the preface to the translation of Pope Gregory’s Cura Pastoralis, alludes to ‘Angelcynn’, or Englishkind, and ‘Englise’. In a 9th-century treaty he is associated with ‘the councillors of all the English race’, and defined himself as ‘King of the English and Saxons’.

Though himself a Saxon, he used the term ‘Anglo-race’ and consistently called his native language English, not Saxon. Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, takes it for granted that the English people are a specific and identifiable race sprung out of Saxon and Old English roots.

King Harold’s army that fought at Hastings consisted of Angles, Jutes, Danes, Frisians, Saxons and even, from the forests of Kent and the western shires, Celts, all of whom called themselves English.

Fewer Angles than either Saxons or Danes were in it, but no Dane would call himself Saxon, nor vice-versa, so they were all happy to be called Angles or English.

The concept of Englishness had wide circulation in the Anglo-Saxon world.
The later Norsemen - first the Vikings and then the Vikings’ descendants the Normans - were also of the same stock.

The Viking founder of Normandy was a Norwegian named Rolf, later called Rollo, and some Normans still had Scandinavian names at the time of the Conquest. The peoples of Saxon England were not so very different from one another and, above all, they were wonderfully pliant and malleable in their admixture with those they settled among.

All belonged to the same broad culture as southern Scandinavia, Germany and northern France. By the time of William’s son Henry I there was no difference even between Norman and Saxon.

Even the initial antagonism described in Sir Walter Scott’s classic novel Ivanhoe was really between classes, not races.
Numerically, the Normans who remained to settle in England after the Battle of Hastings were insignificant.

Mercenary units hired out to William by enterprising nobles made up a substantial portion of his invading army, and these soldiers returned home immediately after the battle.

The Norman aristocracy simply became the ruling class of a country whose army they had destroyed.
The period of history between the coming of Hengist and Horsa and the Norman Conquest was fundamentally different to what is happening now.

The national catastrophe we now face makes the defeat at Hastings seem like a moderate misfortune.
We have among us vast hordes of settlers suffering from ethnic autism, a condition, encouraged by our treacherous, decadent leaders, in which they are so absorbed in themselves they cannot see the misery of others and cannot imagine themselves having caused it.

The autistic settlers are not only incapable of seeing that we English have a valid point of view, dismissing the idea that we could have excellent reasons for not wanting them here among us in their millions, but even deny that we exist as a people.

They do not accept that a race that has lived in a land for 1,500 years, with that land being named after them, has the right to be called indigenous.
In this dire situation, our only salvation is our anger.

We need an anger that is cold, lucid, rational, a fury that eliminates any detachment, any indulgence.

We need rage - armed with a knowledge of our history that is ignored or denied by the newcomers and our traitors.

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