Early Britain eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 175 pages of information about Early Britain.

There was, however, one section of the true English race which kept itself largely free from the Scandinavian host.  North of the Tyne the Danes apparently spread but sparsely; English ealdormen continued to rule at Bamborough over the land between Forth and Tyne.  Hence Northumberland and the Lothians remained more purely English than any other part of Britain.  The people of the South are Saxons:  the people of the West are half Celts; the people of the North and the Midlands are largely intermixed with Danes; but the people of the Scottish lowlands, from Forth to Tweed, are almost purely English; and the dialect which we always describe as Scotch is the strongest, the tersest, and the most native modern form of the original Anglo-Saxon tongue.  If we wish to find the truest existing representative of the genuine pure-blooded English race, we must look for him, not in Mercia or in Wessex, but amongst the sturdy and hard-headed farmers of Tweedside and Lammermoor.

CHAPTER XIV.

THE SAXONS AT BAY IN WESSEX.

Only one English kingdom now held out against the wickings, and that was Wessex.  Its comparatively successful resistance may be set down, in some slight degree, to the energy of a single man, AElfred, though it was doubtless far more largely due to the relatively strong organisation of the West Saxon state.  In judging of AElfred, we must lay aside the false notions derived from the application of words expressing late ideas to an early and undeveloped stage of civilised society.  To call him a great general or a great statesman is to use utterly misleading terms.  Generalship and statesmanship, as we understand them, did not yet exist, and to speak of them in the ninth century in England is to be guilty of a common, but none the more excusable, anachronism.  AElfred was a sturdy and hearty fighter, and a good king of a semi-barbaric people.  As a lad, he had visited Rome; and he retained throughout life a strong sense of his own and his people’s barbarism, and a genuine desire to civilise himself and his subjects, so far as his limited lights could carry him.  He succeeded to a kingdom overrun from end to end by piratical hordes:  and he did his best to restore peace and to promote order.  But his character was merely that of a practical, common-sense, fighting West Saxon, brought up in the camp of his father and brothers, and doing his rough work in life with the honest straightforwardness of a simple, hard-headed, religious, but only half-educated barbaric soldier.

The successful East Anglian wickings, under their chief Guthrum, turned at once to ravage Wessex.  They “harried the West Saxons’ land, and settled there, and drove many of the folk over sea.”  For awhile it seemed as if Wessex too was to fall into their hands.  AElfred himself, with a little band, “withdrew to the woods and moor-fastnesses.”  He took refuge in the Somerset marshes, and there

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Early Britain from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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