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  1. #1
    Administrator Prime Time's Avatar
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    A Prime Time History of Britain #2 - The (A)English are Coming

    By around 500 CE, several Kingdoms had been established in the British Isles. In Ireland, Kingdoms would be founded in Munster, Connacht, and Ulster, with Leinster following shortly afterwards. Many others would follow, with names less familiar to modern ears. Where myth bleeds into reality in Ireland is always hard to pinpoint, but it’s around this time that one of their most important figures is said to have lived. Niall Noígíallach, or Niall of the Nine hostages, is said to have been a real ‘High King’ of Ireland around this time. He’s also the man many subsequent High Kings claimed as an ancestor.

    Irish influence at the time also extended into the Western Isles of Scotland, and into Wales. The Kingdom of Dyfed on the Southwestern coast of Wales was formed by nobles formerly of Irish extraction. In northern Britain, the Kings of Dál Riata had control of islands including Iona and Skye. The Gaelic peoples from Ireland had been digging a foothold into the West of Scotland for some time; their territory extended up into the Western Highlands. Irish versions of Christianity, somewhat cut off from the primary influence of Rome, would spread to Northern Britain in this period, something that would bring them into conflict with official channels when they would make their way down into England later in the century. For now, though, we’ll just note the similarities between the cultures of the Scottish Islands and Ireland. They share similar languages. To give one example, whisky to a Scots-Gaelic speaker is uisge, while in Ireland it would be fuisce. And the games of Shinty and Hurling are so similar that a cross-code international is played annually. The Romans had called the Gaels of the area by the same name they called the Irish – the Scoti.




    On the other side of the Grampian Mountains, in the east of what is now Scotland, the people had a different culture. Rather than Gaels, these tribes were known as the Picts. It was people from these areas – in what are now the counties of Moray, Angus, Perth and Aberdeenshire – that had been the fiercest challengers to the Romans. These Picts spoke a different language and had a different culture from their neighbours, and for most of the early medieval period these competing kingdoms of Picts, Gaels/Scoti and the British in Southern Scotland would spend as much or more time fighting amongst themselves than with their neighbours to the South.

    It was further South, though, that the situation was most intriguing. It was there that the Romans had withdrawn, leaving a power vacuum behind them. A prominent legend that may have historical fact at its core tells of a warlord, Vortigern. He was based in Powys in what is now Wales, sometimes considered to be King of the region. The Britons were tired with attacks from the Scoti and Picts to the North. As a result, Vortigern is said to have invited settlers from Saxony and Jutland to take land in the East of England. The condition was that they would help defend them against the Northern invaders. These settlers later complained they were not treated well enough or paid properly, broke the treaty, and spread across England. In the late medieval period, a legend was invented that these Saxon invaders were led by two brothers – Hengist and Horsa. They were far more than settlers looking for a better deal in this version of the story. Now, they were said to have betrayed the British warlords at a peace conference, killing them at ‘the treachery of the long knives.’ In the medieval world, Vortigern, Hengist and Horsa became the ultimate cautionary tale.

    How much faith we should place in even the existence of these specific figures is a matter of debate. What does seem to be true is that the Britons invited the Saxons in during the first instance, and the abundance of the land and poor payment led them to take more than they had been offered. Even so, this was a takeover less bloody than some think. Initially, Saxons were heavily outnumbered and what sprung up was a hybrid culture that combined elements of Germanic cultures with those from the remnants of the Romano-British population. Over time, further migration in the more promising agricultural lands of the east saw the Northern European influence extend. Britons were forced west less by the sword, than demographic change. Now, there was a new ethnic grouping to deal with on the island. The Anglo-Saxons – or the Aenglish – were here to stay.

    The first Saxon kingdom in Britain was the Kingdom of Kent, in the South Eastern corner and easily accessible from the continent. Soon, much of Britain was to be divided up by Britons and Saxons alike, with the Anglo-Saxon territory – Aengland, later England as the language evolved – split into several kingdoms. This was known as the Heptarchy, as there were at least seven significant Kingdoms at one time. In truth, though, four came to be the most substantial and long-lasting: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex. The Britons, meanwhile, were forced into Wales, South Western Scotland and Cornwall.



    Of the English Kingdoms, Northumbria was the largest. This covered the whole of Northern England from the Humber river upwards. It also included much of Southern Scotland, as far as Edinburgh after its conquest in 638 CE. East Anglia was possibly the smallest and weakest of the major kingdoms. Still, it was also the first to have a king who converted to Christianity, very early in the seventh century. Modern-day Anglia also has some of the best Saxon sites in the country, such as Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, believed to be the site of a Saxon kings’ burial ground.

    Wessex extended to the south-west of London and bordered a British kingdom in Cornwall. We will hear more of Wessex soon. For now, though, the most powerful throne of Saxon England was Mercia. Between 700-800 CE, they effectively came to dominate the other Kingdoms in what became known as the ‘Mercian Supremacy’, conquering or achieving the submission of all the other local kings. An important King, Aethelbald, effectively ruled much of England from his base in Tamworth. He was eventually assassinated by his bodyguards and after a scuffle for the throne, would soon be succeeded by one of the most famous of Saxon kings.

    King Offa is credited with the creation of Offa’s Dyke, a massive earthwork marking the borders between the Kingdom of Mercia and what is now Wales. The effects of this work are still visible at parts of the border today. Whether he deserves the credit or blame is, as with many things in the middle ages, a matter of dispute. The truth is that he gets the credit because he is, like his contemporary Charlemagne, such a colossal figure that things attach themselves to him. It is hard to unpick the fact from fiction in the historical record. Even so, a lot of the landscape of Britain as we know it today is due to Offa. Along with responsibility for using gold coins en masse for the first time, many of our county and market towns were founded at this time as centres of administration and distribution. Unusually for the period, chroniclers report that Offa was active in this kind of decision making, as well as being an able warrior.

    By this point, most of Saxon England was Christian. This transition occurred gradually but with a considerable spike in the middle of the seventh century when the King of Mercia converted. Offa’s contribution was to attempt to gain an Archbishop in Lichfield. However, this was to dilute the power of Canterbury as much as any more spiritual concerns. However, to reach such official status in the most powerful kingdom on the British Isles was a long, drawn-out process.

    Christianity’s earliest exponents in Great Britain came not from Rome, but from Ireland. A monk by the name of Columba would travel to the Islands in the West of Scotland. From there he journeyed to the rest of Scotland, where he would attempt to convert the Picts. Columba established a monastic Christian community on the island of Iona and, as luck would have it, in the following generation a Northumbrian in exile would live and study under his successors. In 634 CE, Oswald would return to Northumbria as King, and when he did so would send to Iona for monks to bring the word of God to his people. The monastery of Lindisfarne would be established off the coast of Northumbria as a result, not far from a major seat of power at Bamburgh Castle. The Irish-inflected brand of Christianity, then, had spread throughout the North of the Country. The monasteries at Iona and Lindisfarne were crucial landmarks on the Christian map despite being at the very edge of the known world.

    Not long after, emissaries from Rome brought a Vatican-sanctioned version of Christianity to the South. One version of the story suggests it is down to the desire for marital harmony. The King of Kent had married a Frankish Christian Princess to solidify alliances and that she incited him to ask Rome to sent missionaries. Whether or not this is true, the same year Columba died on Iona a mission from Pope Gregory arrived in Canterbury. King Aethelbert is said to have quickly converted and, as was standard at the time, the bulk of the population converted in line with the leader’s beliefs. It will not surprise you to learn that with such flimsy reasoning, there were numerous pagan backlashes as the kingdom’s changed hands. It was only with the conversion of the powerful King of Mercia that Christianity came to be stable in England.

    The two traditions of Christianity could not both survive. Religious differences could make a massive difference in such an observant community. In one crucial case, the King and Queen of Northumbria each followed a different branch, and each calculated the date of Easter differently. That meant that while one was celebrating, the other was still piously fasting in honour of Lent. To settle this debate, the King of Northumbria invited representatives of each side to the Synod of Whitby, which eventually ruled for Roman practices. The monastery at Lindisfarne would be taken over by Cuthbert, a monk in the Celtic tradition flexible enough to transfer to the new order. He would go on to be one of the most influential figures in English Christendom and one of the North’s most famous saints. His body is still interred at Durham cathedral. His canonization was assured when they opened his coffin to take bones as relics, only to find that his flesh had not rotted away. At least, that's the story the Christian chroniclers told.



    When the Romans left, Britain was in disarray. Now, political power was centred around the King of Mercia and Christianity was in the ascendancy. Monasteries began springing up, creating isolated communities that had what was, for the time, great wealth. Unfortunately for the Saxons, that wealth would encourage another wave of invaders from across the same sea that they crossed just a few centuries earlier.

    "The worst moron is the one too stupid to realise they're a moron."

  2. #2
    Lamb of LOP anonymous's Avatar
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    Looking forward to the next one. (as requested)

    Poor us, we really did come under the cosh a bit in those days didn't we?

  3. #3
    Administrator Prime Time's Avatar
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    Cheers Nony. Third is about to go up. Maybe slightly happier reading for the Welsh in the third even though they do play a pretty small role.

    "The worst moron is the one too stupid to realise they're a moron."

  4. #4
    Author of 101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die Samuel 'Plan's Avatar
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    Another interesting read, Prime. It's good to see you writing frequently again - so much so we can't keep up it would seem! Maybe I ought to try posting in here a bit more frequently as well. See if we can't get this long-neglected part of the site off the ground a little more.

    I won't lie. As I said last time, I find the ancient stuff very, very dry. I always hated the modules at Uni. But personal aversion aside, this was typically of high quality!

  5. #5
    Administrator Prime Time's Avatar
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    Ha, thanks 'Plan! Appreciate the candour! In your case, I think I'll just aim to try and get you to find it a bit more interesting than you usually would, and maybe give you a few bits and pieces to latch on to. Out of curiosity, what sort of time do you start to get interested?

    "The worst moron is the one too stupid to realise they're a moron."

  6. #6
    Senior Member Gooner's Avatar
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    Another great read, who knew that a lot of our names for regions come from this far back (you obviously!)



  7. #7
    The Brain
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    Very educational, I enjoyed this quite a bit... what little knowledge I have doesn't really extend to this period, so I'm learning quite a bit! On to part 3!

  8. #8
    Administrator Prime Time's Avatar
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    Gooner - thanks mate! Yes, a lot of those names survive to this day. Got to admit, looking for the legacies in place names etc. is something that's a bit of a hobby. Call it being a nerd, I guess!

    Mizfan - Thanks for stopping by! Yes, it's not the best known period in history. I guess that's the reason they used to call this 'the Dark Ages'!

    "The worst moron is the one too stupid to realise they're a moron."

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