With the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons a panoply of changes took effect across Britain. Old English replaced Latin as the lingua franca, the island of Britannia was renamed Aengla Land after the Angles, and perhaps most significantly, there was a political shift. The Saxons brought with them the idea of kingship by consent. That is, the Saxons selected ‘kings’ from amongst themselves, and the kings ruled with limited authority. It was not yet a monarchy familiar to modern minds but it was rulership by the consent of the governed and it was entirely foreign to a culture that carried the fresh memory of the decadent Roman Empire. The legacy of self-government from the Anglo-Saxons is still with us today.
This Anglo-Saxon epoch was captured wonderfully in the epic folk-poem, Beowulf. The hero, Beowulf, is an elected leader who becomes king, ruling for ‘fifty winters.’ Upon his death, a great pyre is built and valuables are buried in an Anglo-Saxon rites ceremony. Anthropologists of Anglo-Saxon culture were delighted when in 1939 the ceremonial practices described in Beowulf were triumphantly confirmed at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk where vast riches, likely once the possessions of a great king, were unearthed along with an entirely buried Dark Age Anglo-Saxon ship. Perhaps this king was Redwald of East Anglia. His iron helmet indicates royalty and the vast riches unearthed matched time period -including Merovingian coins dating to AD 625 (the most successful Anglo-Saxon kings built alliances with the powerful Frankish kingdom in contemporary France).
Over time, Anglo-Saxon England was divided into seven chief kingdoms, sometimes referred to as the “heptarchy.” The regional names have continued to this day, like Northumbria (“north of the Humber River”), Essex (“East Saxony”), Wessex (“West Saxony”), and Sussex (“South Saxony”). Each king jockeyed for power to rule over the others as bretwalda (“Britan-Ruler”). Names like Redwald of East Anglia (mentioned above) and Offa of Mercia loom large over this period (he called himself Rex Anglorum, “King of the English”). Some consider Redwald to be the occupant of the massive ship excavated at Sutton Hoo. During his lifetime, Offa led some remarkable advances in Roman-styled coinage throughout his kingdom, and across the Channel his rule coincided with Pepin the Short’s Carolingian Revolution of the Frankish kingdom (Pepin usurped the throne in AD 751, 49 years later his son Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas morning AD 800).
With the rise of the Frankish kingdom and the decline of Offa’s family, the kingdom of Wessex arose as the dominant power in Anglo-Saxon England. In AD 827 Egbert, a former exile at Charlemagne’s court during the Offa years, returned to England and claimed the throne of Wessex. He dominated many of the surrounding kingdoms, calling himself the new Rex Anglorum. He was followed by his son Aethelwulf in AD 839, a devoutly pious man and father of five sons, including Alfred the Great (Aethelwulf took young Alfred on a trip to Rome to see the Pope -a trip that would have remarkably lasting consequences). Each of Aethelwulf’s sons then ruled in turn: Aethelbald (Aethelwulf’s second son) took the throne of Wessex in AD 858. He was in some sort of conflict with his father while Aethelwulf traveled with Alfred abroad and after his father’s death, Aethelbald later married his stepmother, causing condemnation from the church. At the time, the church in Rome had a somewhat uneasy relationship with the British Isle.
All across the isle was a religious schism. The ashes of Rome had left a Christian heritage, while the Anglo-Saxons had remained largely pagan, with many leaders claiming to descend from Woden, himself. In the 5th century, a Roman Briton St. Patrick was living somewhere on the British Isles. He was captured and enslaved by a band of marauding Irish pirates. He was forced into servitude, tending animals in Ireland but he escaped after six years only to return to the Emerald Isle and spread the faith across Ireland and Scotland, with the help of his follower, St. Columba who founded the important Abbey at Iona (a small island off the coast of western Scotland). Thus, the form of Christianity that took hold among the Celts was monastic, ascetic, and characterized by vast abbeys and monasteries, as well as sacred and ornately decorated books, like the famous Book of Kells (9th century). In parts of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales Christianity grew entirely apart from mainland papal authority. One unique example of the unusual character of early British Christianity is the cult of St. Alban, in honor of the martyrdom of Alban at the Romano-British city of Verumalium, today known as St. Albans.
However, this unique Christian heritage was not always entirely popular with mainstream Roman Christianity. For example, a well-educated, ascetic monk living somewhere on the British Isles named Pelagius (354-418) taught a controversial doctrine that was highly antithetical to the apostolic and Augustinian tradition, namely that humans were not fallen as a result of “original sin” and instead could achieve goodness and grace through their own free will (i.e. without divine intervention). This “Pelagian Heresy” -as it came to be known- needed to be stamped out by the church (Pope Innocent I condemned Pelagius at Augustine’s behest).
In an effort to spread the ‘true faith’ Pope Gregory “The Great” sent a cohort of bishops led by a man named Augustine (not to be confused with St. Augustine of Hippo.) Today he is known as “Augustine of Canterbury” because his cohort reluctantly landed at Kent after expressing their wish not to continue with the mission -the British isle seemed far too dangerous a place, so the group initially landed at Gaul requesting permission to abandon the mission from the Pope, but their request was denied. With no other options, they set sail across the Channel to Kent.
The Southeastern region of Kent had recently been conquered by the dominant Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex and King Aethelbald’s brother was put in charge. When Augustine and his group landed, they were met by the pagan King Aethelbert (brother of Aethelbald) who had married the Christian princess Bertha of the Franks. A pagan king and a Christian queen. Bertha brought to Kent her Frankish, Christian bishop, Luidhard, and King Aethelbert gave Bertha a little church originally from the Romano-British era called St. Martin’s to worship (she named it after Martin of Tours, the patron saint of the Merovingian family). This church is now the oldest still active church in England today. It was located just outside the capital city of Kent at Canterbury. On the ruins of this ancient church, Augustine founded the British Christian tradition (he later died before completing the construction of his prized cathedral at Canterbury which was first founded in AD 597 and then entirely rebuilt between 1070-1077 by the Normans). Initially skeptical of the newcomers, Aethelbert had Augustine confined to the island of Thanet. He consulted his advisors about the ‘magical powers’ of this new preacher, but the allure of a strengthened relationship with the Franks was too promising a prospect, thus Aethelbert allowed Augustine entry and free-reign to preach the gospel in Kent. Augustine first arrived in Canterbury clad in robes, singing the litany in Latin, while also carrying a large icon of Jesus -a scene which must have seemed magical to the Anglo-Saxons. Augustine’s preaching caught hold among the populace and he baptized thousands, including King Aethelbert, himself, who eventually converted to Christianity -much to Queen Bertha’s delight. After his conversion, Aethelbert issued a new series of laws much like the Byzantine Justinian Code.
In the coming years, the authority of the church in England was established in a series of letters between Pope Gregory and St. Augustine of Canterbury. The Pope was to be the supreme authority, but England would be self-governing for all internal matters by two archbishops -one in the north in York and the other in the south in Canterbury. This dual leadership was novel but would cause future political strife -Augustine declared himself the superior authority as the first archbishop of Canterbury. Augustine died in AD 605, and Aethelbert died nearly a decade later. Both were buried at the splendid abbey at Canterbury which was later named in the honor of “St. Augustine” (not to be confused with Canterbury Cathedral where Chaucer’s famous pilgrims ventured). In the end, church and state both found their final resting place alongside one another in the cemetery at St. Augustine’s: Augustine and his followers were buried on one side of the church, and Aethelbert, Bertha, and their successors on the other.
In the north, in AD 664, the King of Northrumbria issued a proclamation regarding the church. He made the heavy decision to side with Catholic Rome, rather than the Celtic monks. However, tensions would remain in place between north and south, Celtic and Catholic for years to come.
After the death of Aethelbert, the throne of the House of Wessex passed to Aethelred, the fourth son of Aethelwulf. His reign oversaw the violent arrival of the Vikings and their takeover of the surrounding Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Kent, Northumbria, and Mercia. However, Wessex had the advantage over the Vikings with minimal rivers with which the Danes could use to sail inland and pillage the many English commercial ports (including an occupation of London). Through the year AD 871, Aethelred, ever the pious Christian, waged a divinely ordained war alongside his younger brother against the invaders, including an impressive victory at Ashdown, but Aethelred caught a sickness late in the year AD 871 and he died after ruling for six years. Following Aethelred’s reign came the most consequential Anglo-Saxon king who would ever take the throne: Alfred “The Great,” the fifth son of Aethelwulf. Alfred assumed the kingship of Wessex while still in his early twenties.
For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, Peter Ackroyd’s Foundation: The History of England From Its Earliest Beginnings To The Tudors, and the writings of Gildas, the Venerable Bede, and Asser’s Life of Alfred the Great.