Friday, March 22, 2013

Anglo-Saxon Occupation of Britain, Part I

Well, well, well. March was been a terrible month. I had the flu, I missed all St. Patrick's Day festivities IN BOSTON, my ear infection threw off my equilibrium which resulted in fainting in a bathroom stall.... The bright lights of my computer were too much of a brain stimulation but that didn't stop me from reading (a little). But that bug is kicked. So here's another two part history for dummier dummies with the big, the bad, the Anglo-Saxons and their occupation of Britain. The preface can be found here.

Ethelbert and Re-Christianizing
Pope Gregory dispatched a papal mission to re-Christianize England after Roman departure in 596 A.D. The Gregorian mission was led by St. Augustine who had his sight set on Ethelbert, the most important king of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms by the end of the sixth century.

If Ethelbert's country could be converted to Christianity, St. Augustine might be able to influence the other kingdoms to follow suit. Upon the forty monk's arrival, Ethelbert treated them as if they were wizards or magicians. He insisted on meeting them in open air where their magic would be less potent to prevent them from casting spells.

After observing the monks for some time he began to warm up to them. They were quiet and well-behaved and even lavished him with gifts from the pope. He became impressed by their preaching of a future of eternal life at a time where even a king could do little against illness. Their ability to read and write further led Ethelbert to accept baptism. By the end of the year, 10,000 of his people were baptized as well.

Land division
Most Anglo-Saxons invaded England and settled in tribal groups of free peasants under separate leaders, not under one national king. The country was now divided up into separate lands of small tribal peoples who were in the process of being absorbed by the more warlike kings.

By the end of the seventh century, there were seven kingdoms altogether, known as the Heptarchy: Sussex, Kent, Essex, East Anglia, Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria. Historians have had to make educated guesses about these tribal peoples because they were not literate, hence little written information was left behind.

For the first time in the England of the Anglo-Saxons, a code of laws was written down in 616. It was in English, not Latin. The laws protected the new clergy and the land the king donated to them for church building.

The Witan was created, a political institution of "wise men" who were great land owners of the kingdom. They witnessed the king's acts of state, whether it was giving land to a noble, or declaring that a monastery need not pay rent. They could elect a king from a royal line if they chose, but their chief role was to advise him. 

The primitive Anglo-Saxon people had genuinely democratic customs, even though they themselves had slaves. Proof of their democracy was that judges were chosen by local people rather than by the king. Also, loyalty and sacredness of oath taking was the bedrock of Anglo-Saxon society. Breaking of an oath resulted in imprisonment.

In addition to reforms within the country, preparations were made for attacks by outsiders. The Ford was created which was a militia that was called out against national enemies at times of crisis.

Architecture and Cultural Revival
'The work of giants' is how the Anglo-Saxons repeatedly described Roman architecture. After 300 years of constructing simple wooden dwellings, the Anglo-Saxons started to put up great numbers of elaborate churches and monasteries as it began to erect buildings to the glory of God. English buildings would become grand again under the influence of the Christian church with its links to a higher civilization.

The links to Rome brought glass-making back to England after three centuries. King Raedwald's tomb (King of East Anglia from 599-624) showed that there had been a revival of international trade in Europe, which for two centuries after the fall of the western Roman empire had decayed to local barter. The armor found was Swedish and the drinking bowls were middle eastern.

Fun Facts:
  • Place names in England that end in 'ing, which means 'people of.' Ex: Woking, 'the people of Wocca'
  • The suffix 'wic' comes from the Latin word vicus meaning 'a place.' Ex: Ipswich and Norwich
  • The Old English word for 'monastery' is minster and towns with minster at the end suggest that they were once religious communities. Ex: Westminster, Minster Lovell and Upminster

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