Fragmentary knowledge of England in the 5th and 6th centuries comes from the British writer Gildas (6th century), the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In the absence of Roman administrators, British warlords, nominally Christian, ruled small, unstable kingdoms and continued some Roman traditions of governance. In the mid-5th century, they revived the Roman policy of hiring Germanic mercenaries to help defend them against warlike peoples of the north (Picts and Scots). The Saxon mercenaries revolted against their British chiefs and began the process of invasion and settlement that destroyed the native ruling class and established Germanic kingdoms throughout the island by the 7th century. Later legends about a hero named Arthur were placed in this period of violence. The invaders were variously Angles, Saxons, Frisians, Jutes, and Franks in origin, but were similar in culture and eventually identified themselves indifferently as Angles or Saxons. Any man of noble birth and success in war could organize an army of warriors loyal to him personally and attempt to conquer and establish a kingdom. By the 7th century the Germanic kingdoms included Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Wessex, Sussex, and Kent. They were turbulent states, but all Anglo-Saxon societies were characterized by strong kinship groups, feuds, customary law, and a system of money compensations (wergeld) for death, personal injury, and theft. They practiced their traditional polytheistic religions, lacked written language, and depended on mixed economies of agriculture, hunting, and animal husbandry.
The dominant themes of the next two centuries were the success of Christianity and the political unification of England. Christianity came from two directions, Rome and Ireland. In 596 Pope Gregory I sent a group of missionaries under a monk named Augustine to Kent, where King Ethelbert had married Bertha (d. 612?), a Christian Frankish princess. Soon after, Ethelbert was baptized, Augustine became the first archbishop of Canterbury, and the southern kingdoms became Christian. In Northumbria the Christianity from Rome met Celtic Christianity, which had been brought from Ireland to Scotland by St. Columba and then to Northumbria by St. Aidan (d. 651), who founded the monastery of Lindisfarne in 635. Although not heretical, the Celtic church differed from Rome in the way the monks tonsured their heads, in its reckoning of the date of Easter, and, most important, in its organization, which reflected the clans of Ireland rather than the highly centralized Roman Empire. At the Synod of Whitby in 664, Northumbria’s King Oswy (c. 612- 71) chose to go with Rome, giving England a common religion and a vivid example of unification. Theodore of Tarsus (602-90), who became arch-bishop of Canterbury in 668, created dioceses and gave the English church its basic structure.
The meeting in Northumbria of Celtic and Mediterranean scholarship produced a flowering of letters unequaled in western Europe. The Venerable Bede, a Northumbrian monk, was the outstanding European scholar of his age. His Ecclesiastical History of the English People made popular the use of BC and AD to date historical events. It also treated England as a unit, even while it was still divided among several kingdoms. Charlemagne chose Alcuin of York, another Northumbrian, to head his palace school.
The Germanic kingdoms tended to coalesce by means of warfare. As early as the time of Ethelbert of Kent, one king could be recognized as Bretwalda, or ruler of Britain. Generally speaking, the title fell in the 7th century to the kings of Northumbria, in the 8th to those of Mercia, and finally, in the 9th, to Egbert of Wessex, who in 825 defeated the Mercians at Ellendun. In the next century his family came to rule all England.
Egbert’s grandson, Alfred, became king of Wessex in one of England’s darkest hours. The Danes, part of the Viking forces that had begun to raid the English coasts in the late 8th century, had given up their primary goal of plunder and were now set on conquering England. Wessex and Alfred were all that stood in their way. Alfred at first had to buy a respite, but after his victory at Edington in 878 he forced the Danish king Guthrum (fl. 865-90) to accept baptism and a division of England into two parts, Wessex and what historians later called the Danelaw (Essex, East Anglia, and Northumbria). By creating an English navy, by reorganizing the Anglo-Saxon fyrd, or militia, allowing his warriors to alternate between farming and fighting, and by building strategic forts, Alfred captured London and began to roll back the Danish tide.
Alfred also gave his attention to good government, issuing a set of dooms, or laws, and to scholarship, which had declined in the years since Bede and Alcuin. He promoted, and assisted in, the translation of Latin works into Old English and encouraged the compilation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. For his many accomplishments, Alfred was called The Great, the only English king so acclaimed. The conquest of the Danelaw was completed by Alfred’s son, Edward the Elder, and by his grandson Athelstan, who won a great victory at Brunanburh in 937. Most of the remainder of the century was peaceful. In this atmosphere, St. Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury from 960 to 988, was able to restore the English church to health and prosperity.
The conquest of the Danelaw meant the creation of a unified government for all England and the evolution of the territorial state, which was replacing the kinship structure of earlier times. The king ruled with the assistance of the witenagemot, a council of wise men, which participated in the issuing of dooms and oversaw the selection of kings. About 40 shires (counties) were created out of former kingdoms or from significant military or administrative units. Each had a shiremoot, or court, consisting of all free males and meeting twice a year, at first presided over by a royal official called an alderman (later an earl) and then by a shire reeve, or sheriff. Smaller administrative, tax, and military units, called hundreds, had courts roughly parallel to the older folk moots, which met every four weeks, handling most of the ordinary judicial business. England had the most advanced government in western Europe, especially at the local level and in the office of sheriff, the key link between the king and local administration. After 991 this government proved capable of collecting the Danegeld, a tax on land, initially used as tribute to the Danes but later as an ordinary source of royal revenue. No other country in western Europe had the ability to assess and collect such a tax.
A new round of Danish invasions came in the reign of Ethelred II (the Redeless), often called The Unready, but better understood as being “without counsel,” or unwise. The Danegeld was his idea, as was the attempt to kill all the Danes from previous invasions, who were by this time becoming assimilated. In 1014 he was driven from the throne by King Sweyn I of Denmark, only to return a few months later when Sweyn died. When Ethelred died in 1016, Sweyn’s son Canute II won out over Edmund II, called Ironside, the son of Ethelred. Under Canute, England was part of an empire that also included Denmark and Norway. Following the short and unpopular reigns of Canute’s sons, Harold I Harefoot and Hardecanute, Edward the Confessor, another son of Ethelred, was recalled from Normandy, where he had lived in exile. Edward’s reign is noted for its dominance by the powerful earls of Wessex-Godwin (990?-1053) and then his son Harold (subsequently Harold II) and for the first influx of Norman-French influence. Edward was most interested in the building of Westminster Abbey, which was completed just in time for his burialin January 1066.
Edward’s death without an heir left the succession in doubt. The witenagemot chose Harold, earl of Wessex, although his only claim to the throne was his availability. Other aspirants were King Harold III (the Hard Ruler) of Norway and Duke William of Normandy. Harold II defeated the former at Stamford Bridge on Sept. 25, 1066, but lost to William at Hastings on Octo ber 14. William, who had more right to the throne than Harold, was crowned in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day.