Early Britain eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 210 pages of information about Early Britain.

Throughout the whole of the ninth century, however, and the early part of the tenth, the whole history of England is the history of a perpetual pillage.  No man who sowed could tell whether he might reap or not.  The Englishman lived in constant fear of life and goods; he was liable at any moment to be called out against the enemy.  Whatever little civilisation had ever existed in the country died out almost altogether.  The Latin language was forgotten even by the priests.  War had turned everybody into fighters; commerce was impossible when the towns were sacked year after year by the pirates.  But in the rare intervals of peace, AElfred did his best to civilise his people.  The amount of work with which he is credited is truly astonishing.  He translated into English with his own hand “The History of the World,” by Orosius; Baeda’s “Ecclesiastical History;” Boethius’s “De Consolatione,” and Gregory’s “Regula Pastoralis.”  At his court, too, if not under his own direction, the English Chronicle was first begun, and many of the sentences quoted from that great document in this work are probably due to AElfred himself.  His devotion to the church was shown by the regular communication which he kept up with Rome, and by the gifts which he sent from his impoverished kingdom, not only to the shrine of St. Peter but even to that of St. Thomas in India.  No doubt his vigorous personality counted for much in the struggle with the Danes; but his death in 901 left the West Saxons as ready as ever to contend against the northern enemy.

One result of the Danish invasion of Wessex must not be passed over.  The common danger seems to have firmly welded together Welshman and Saxon into a single nationality.  The most faithful part of AElfred’s dominions were the West Welsh shires of Somerset and Devon, with the half Celtic folk of Dorset and Wilts.  The result is seen in the change which comes over the relations between the two races.  In Ine’s laws the distinction between Welshmen and Englishmen is strongly marked; the price of blood for the servile population is far less than that of their lords:  in AElfred’s laws the distinction has died out.  Compared to the heathen Dane, West Saxons and West Welsh were equally Englishmen.  From that day to this, the Celtic peasantry of the West Country have utterly forgotten their Welsh kinship, save in wholly Cymric Cornwall alone.  The Devon and Somerset men have for centuries been as English in tongue and feeling as the people of Kent or Sussex.



The history of the tenth century and the first half of the eleventh consists entirely of the continued contest between the West Saxons and the Scandinavians.  It falls naturally into three periods.  The first is that of the English reaction, when the West Saxon kings, Eadward and AEthelstan, gradually reconquered the Danish North by inches at a time.  The second is that of the Augustan age, when Dunstan and Eadgar held together the whole of Britain for a while in the hands of a single West Saxon over-lord.  The third is that of the decadence, when, under AEthelred, the ill-welded empire fell asunder, and the Danish kings, Cnut, Harold, and Harthacnut, ruled over all England, including even the unconquered Wessex of AElfred himself.

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Early Britain from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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