The Great Empires of Prophecy, from Babylon to the Fall of Rome



The Original Englishmen—Angles on the Sea—Beginning of English History—Britain Becomes England

THE Angles and Saxons, the freedom-loving progenitors of the English race, were the next barbarians to plant themselves on the territory of what had been the majestic empire of Rome. GEP 644.1

2. “For the fatherland of the English race we must look far away from England itself. In the fifth century after the birth of Christ the one country which we know to have borne the name of Angeln, or England, lay within the district which is now called Sleswick, a district in the heart of the peninsula that parts the Baltic from the Northern seas. Its pleasant pastures, its black-timbered homesteads, its prim little townships looking down on inlets of purple water, were then but a wild waste of heather and sand, girt along the coast with a sunless woodland, broken here and there by meadows that crept down to the marshes and the sea. GEP 644.2

3. “The dwellers in this district, however, seem to have been merely an outlying fragment of what was called the Engle, or English folk, the bulk of whom lay probably in what is now Lower Hanover and Oldenburg. On one side of them the Saxons of Westphalia held the land from the Weser to the Rhine; on the other, the Eastphalian Saxons stretched away to the Elbe. North again of the fragment of the English folk in Sleswick lay another kindred tribe, the Jutes, whose name is still preserved in their district of Jutland. Engle, Saxon, and Jute all belonged to the same low German branch of the Teutonic family; and at the moment when history discovers them they were being drawn together by the ties of a common blood, common speech, common social and political institutions. There is little ground indeed for believing that the three tribes looked on themselves as one people, or that we can as yet apply to them, save by anticipation, the common name of Englishmen. But each of them was destined to share in the conquest of the land in which we live [England], and it is from the union of all of them, when its conquest was complete, that the English people has sprung. GEP 644.3

4. “Of the temper and life of the folk in this older England we know little. But from the glimpses that we catch of it when conquest had brought them to the shores of Britain, their political and social organization must have been that of the German race to which they belonged. In their villages lay ready formed the social and political life which is round us in the England of to-day. A belt of forest or waste parted each from its fellow villages, and within this boundary or mark the ‘township,’ as the village was then called, from the ‘tun’ or rough fence and trench that served as its simple fortification, formed a complete and independent body, though linked by ties which were strengthening every day, to the townships about it and the tribe of which it formed a part. Its social center was the homestead where the aetheling or eorl, a descendant of the first English settlers in the waste, still handed down the blood and traditions of his fathers. GEP 645.1

5. “Around this homestead or aethel, each in its little croft, stood the lowlier dwellings of freelings or ceorls ... The eorl was distinguished from his fellow villagers by his wealth and his nobler blood; he was held by them in a hereditary reverence; and it was from him and his fellow aethelings that host leaders, whether of the village or the tribe, were chosen in times of war. But this claim to precedence rested simply on the free recognition of his fellow villagers. Within the township every freeman or ceorl was equal. It was the freeman who was the base of village society. He was the ‘free-necked man,’ whose long hair floated over a neck which had never bowed to a lord. He was the ‘weaponed man,’ who alone bore spear and sword, and who alone preserved that right of selfredress or private war which in such a state of society formed the main check upon lawless outrage.” GEP 645.2

6. “The religion of these men was the same as that of the rest of the German peoples ... The common god of the English people was Woden, the war god, the guardian of ways and boundaries, to whom his worshipers attributed the invention of letters, and whom every tribe held to be the first ancestor of its kings. Our own names for the days of the week still recall to us the gods whom our fathers worshiped in their German home land. Wednesday is Woden’s-day, as Thursday is the day of Thunder, the god of air and storm and rain. Friday is Frea’s-day, the deity of peace and joy and fruitfulness, whose emblems, borne aloft by dancing maidens, brought increase to every field and stall they visited. Saturday commemorates an obscure god, Saetere; Tuesday, the dark god, Tiw, to meet whom was death. Eostre, the god of the dawn or of the spring, lends his name to the Christian festival of the resurrection. Behind these floated the dim shapes of an older mythology: ‘Wyrd,’ the death-goddess, whose memory lingered long in the ‘Weird’ of Northern superstition; or the Shield-Maidens, the ‘mighty women,’ who, an old rhyme tells us, ‘wrought on the battle-field their toil, and hurled the thrilling javelins.’ Nearer to the popular fancy lay deities of wood and fell, or hero-gods of legend and song: Nicor, the water-sprite who survives in our nixies and ‘Old Nick;’ Weland, the forger of weighty shields and sharp-biting swords, who found a later home in the ‘Weyland’s smithy’ of Berkshire; Egil, the hero-archer, whose legend is one with that of Cloudesly or Tell. GEP 645.3

7. “The energy of these people found vent in a restlessness which drove them to take part in the general attack of the German race on the empire of Rome. For busy tillers and busy fishers as Englishmen were, they were at heart fighters, and their world was a world of war. Tribe warred with tribe, and village with village; even within the township itself feuds parted household from household, and passions of hatred and vengeance were handed on from father to son. Their mood was above all a mood of fighting men, venturesome, self-reliant, proud, with a dash of hardness and cruelty in it, but ennobled by the virtues which spring from war,—by personal courage and loyalty to plighted word, by a high and stern sense of manhood and the worth of man. A grim joy in hard fighting was already a characteristic of the race. War was the Englishman’s ‘shield-play’ and ‘sword-game;’ the gleeman’s verse took fresh fire as he sang of the rush o the host and the crash of the shield line... GEP 646.1

8. “And next to their love of war came their love of the sea. Everywhere throughout Beowulf’s song, as everywhere throughout the life that it pictures, we catch the salt whiff of the sea. The Englishman was as proud of his sea-craft as of his war-craft; sword in teeth, he plunged into the sea to meet walrus and sea-lion; he told of his whale-chase amid the icy waters of the North. Hardly less than his love for the sea was the love he bore to the ship that traversed it. In the fond playfulness of English verse the ship was ‘the wave-floater,’ the ‘foam-necked,’ ‘like a bird’ as it skimmed the wave-crest, ‘like a swan’ as its curved prow breasted the ‘swan-road’ of the sea. GEP 647.1

9. “Their passion for the sea marked out for them their part in the general movement of the German nations. While Goth and Lombard were slowly advancing over the mountain and plain, the boats of the Englishmen pushed faster over the sea. Bands of English rovers, outdriven by stress of fight, had long found a home there, and lived as they could by sack of vessel or coast. Chance has preserved for us in a Sleswick peat-bog one of the war keels of these early pirates. The boat is flat-bottomed, seventy feet long and eight or nine feet wide, its sides of oak boards fastened with bark ropes and iron bolts. Fifty oars drove it over the waves with a freight of warriors whose arms, axes, swords, lances, and knives were found heaped together in its hold. GEP 647.2

10. “Like the galleys of the Middle Ages, such boats could only creep cautiously along from harbor to harbor in rough weather; but in smooth water their swiftness fitted them admirably for the piracy by which the men of these tribes were already making themselves dreaded. Its flat bottom enabled them to beach the vessel on any fitting coast; and a step on shore at once transformed the boatmen into a war-band. From the first the daring of the English race broke out in the secrecy and suddenness of the pirate’s swoop, in the fierceness of their onset, in the careless glee with which they seized either sword or oar. ‘Foes are they,’ sang a Roman poet of the time, ‘fierce beyond other foes, and cunning as they are fierce; the sea is their school of war, and the storm their friend; they are sea-wolves that prey on the pillage of the world!’ GEP 647.3

11. “Of the three English tribes the Saxons lay nearest to the empire, and they were naturally the first to touch the Roman world; before the close of the third century, indeed, their boats appeared in such force in the English Channel as to call for a special fleet to resist them. The piracy of our fathers had thus brought them to the shores of a land which, dear as it is now to Englishmen, had not as yet been trodden by English feet. This land was Britain. When the Saxon boats touched its coast, the island was the westernmost province of the Roman Empire. In the fifty-fifth year before Christ a descent of Julius Caesar revealed it to the Roman world; and a century after Caesar’s landing, the emperor Claudius undertook its conquest. The work was swiftly carried out. Before thirty years were over, the bulk of the island had passed beneath the Roman sway, and the Roman frontier had been carried to the Frith of Forth and of Clyde.... GEP 647.4

12. “For three hundred years the Roman sword secured order and peace without Britain and within; and with peace and order came a wide and rapid prosperity. Commerce sprang up in ports among which London held the first rank; agriculture flourished till Britain became one of the corn-exporting countries of the world; the mineral resources of the province were explored in the tin mines of Cornwall, the lead mines of Somerset or Northumberland, and the iron mines of the Forest of Dean. But evils which sapped the strength of the whole empire, told at last on the province of Britain.”—Green. 1 GEP 648.1

13. “Whilst Italy was ravaged by the Goths, and a succession of feeble tyrants oppressed the provinces beyond the Alps, the British island separated itself [A. D. 409] from the body of the Roman Empire. The regular forces which guarded that remote province, had been gradually withdrawn; and Britain was abandoned without defense to the Saxon pirates, and the savages of Ireland and Caledonia. The Britains, reduced to this extremity, no longer relied on the tardy and doubtful aid of a declining monarchy. They assembled in arms, repelled the invaders, and rejoiced in the important discovery of their own strength ... Britain was irrecoverably lost. But as the emperors wisely acquiesced in the independence of a remote province, the separation was not embittered by the reproach of tyranny or rebellion; and the claims of allegiance and protection were succeeded by the mutual and voluntary offices of national friendship. This revolution dissolved the artificial fabric of civil and military government, and the independent country, during a period of forty years [A. D. 409-449] till the descent of the Saxons, was ruled by the authority of the clergy, the nobles, and the municipal towns.”—Gibbon. 2 GEP 648.2

14. “Here then, in the year 409, was our England an independent State. In the Anglo-Saxon chronicle—the curious but meager record of early events, which is supposed to have existed in the time of Alfred, and even to have been partly compiled by that great king—there is the following entry which singularly agrees with the chronology of Greek and Latin historians:— GEP 649.1

“A. 409.—This year the Goths took the city of Rome by storm, and after this the Romans never ruled in Britain, and this was about eleven hundred and ten years after it was built. Altogether they ruled in Britain four hundred and seventy years since Caius Julius first sought the land.—knight. 3 GEP 649.2

15. “It was to defend Italy against the Goths that Rome in the opening of the fifth century withdrew her legions from Britain, and from that moment the province was left to struggle unaided against the Picts. Nor were these its only enemies. While marauders from Ireland, whose inhabitants then bore the name of Scots, harried the West, the boats of Saxon pirates, as we have seen, were swarming off its eastern and southern coasts. For forty years Britain held out bravely against these assailants; but civil strife broke its powers of resistance, and its rulers fell back at last on the fatal policy by which the empire invited its doom while striving to avert it,—the policy of matching barbarian against barbarian. GEP 649.3

16. “By the usual promises of land and pay, a band of warriors was drawn for this purpose from Jutland in 449, with two ealdormen, Hengist and Horsa, at their head. If by English history we mean the history of Englishmen in the land which from that time they made their own, it is with this landing of Hengist’s war-band that English history begins. They landed on the shores of the Isle of Tbanet at a spot known since as Ebbsfleet. No spot can be so sacred to Englishmen as the spot which first felt the tread of English feet.”—Green. 4 GEP 649.4

17. “Hengist and Horsa, who, according to the Anglo-Saxon historians, landed in the year 449 on the shore which is called Ypwinesfleet, were personages of more than common sort. ‘They were the sons of Wihtgils; son of Witta, Witta of Wecta, Wecta of Woden.’ So says the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, and adds, ‘From this Woden sprung all our royal families.’ These descendants, in the third generation from the great Saxon divinity, came over in three boats. They came by invitation of Wyrtgeone—Vortigern—king of the Britons. The king gave them land in the southeast of the country, on condition that they should fight against the Picts; and they did fight, and had the victory wheresoever they came. And then they sent for the Angles, and told them of the worthlessness of the people and the excellences of the land. This is the Saxon narrative.”—Knight. 5 GEP 650.1

18. “The work for which the mercenaries had been hired was quickly done, and the Picts are said to have been scattered to the winds in a battle fought on the eastern coast of Britain. But danger from the Pict was hardly over when danger came from the Jutes themselves. Their fellow pirates must have flocked from the Channel to their settlement in Thanet; the inlet between Thanet and the mainland was crossed, and the Englishmen won their first victory over the Britons in forcing their passage of the Medway at the village of Aylesford. A second defeat at the passage of the Cray drove the British forces in terror upon London; but the ground was soon won back again, and it was not till 465 that a series of petty conflicts which had gone on along the shores of Thanet made way for a decisive struggle at Wippedsfleet. Here, however, the overthrow was so terrible that from this moment all hope of saving northern Kent seems to have been abandoned, and it was only on its southern shore that the Britons held their ground. Ten years later, in 475, the long contest was over, and with the fall of Lymme, whose broken walls look, from the slope to which they cling, over the great flat of Romney Marsh, the work of the first English conqueror was done.”—Green. 6 GEP 650.2

19. “The arts and religion, the laws and language, which the Romans had so carefully planted in Britain, were extirpated by their barbarous successors. After the destruction of the principal churches, the bishops, who had declined the crown of martyrdom, retired with the holy relics into Wales and Armorica; the remains of their flocks were left destitute of any spiritual food; the practise, and even the remembrance, of Christianity were abolished. GEP 651.1

20. “The kings of France maintained the privileges of their Roman subjects; but the ferocious Saxons trampled on the laws of Rome and of the emperors. The proceedings of civil and criminal jurisdiction, the titles of honor, the forms of office, the ranks of society, and even the domestic rights of marriage, testament, and inheritance, were finally suppressed: and the indiscriminate crowd of noble and plebeian slaves was governed by the traditionary customs, which had been coarsely framed for the shepherds and pirates of Germany. GEP 651.2

21. “The language of science, of business, and of conversation, which had been introduced by the Romans, was lost in the general desolation. A sufficient number of Latin or Celtic words might be assumed by the Germans to express their new wants and ideas; but those illiterate pagans preserved and established the use of their national dialect. Almost every name, conspicuous either in the church or State, reveals its Teutonic origin; and the geography of England was universally inscribed with foreign characters and appellations. The example of a revolution, so rapid and so complete, may not easily be found.” 7 GEP 651.3

22. And from that time until now, the history of the Angles and Saxons—the Anglo-Saxons—is but the history of England—Angle-land. GEP 651.4