« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »
combined kingly and popular authority. By the year 560, when Ethelbert succeeded to the kingship in Kent, all enmity between the races which occupied the south of England had ceased, either by the extirpation or submission of the British families. It is impossible to think that all the inhabitants of so large a district can have been slain, or driven away; it is much more likely that the new possessors became softened towards them in course of time, and heard from them the stories of the ancient Roman sway, and of the doctrines of the Christian faith; so that when Augustine the monk came over from Rome in 597, his efforts only spread into new quarters a flame which had never entirely died out, and converted the descendants of Woden and successors of Hengist to a belief which had long furnished consolation to the oppressed peasantry of native blood. It is only on this supposition that the rapid reception of Christianity can be reasonably accounted for among the masses of the people. The bloody feasts of the Walhalla, which fired the imaginations of the first invaders, and formed the subject of song and prophecy in the wild regions bordering on the Elbe and Eyder, lost their attraction amid the rich fields and in the milder air of Kent. Ethelbert married a Christian lady called Bertha, the daughter of Caribert, of Paris, in 575, received the emissary from Rome with kindness and respect; and in 602 we find Augustine recognised in language which might suit the prelate of the present day, as "Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of all England."
But the pride of the ancient Britons would no more submit to the spiritual supremacy of this intruder from Rome than it had submitted to the domination of the Saxon invaders. The bishops of Wales declined the jurisdiction of the Pontiff's nominee, and preserved the independence of their sees and their equality with the chair of St. Peter itself. The state assumed by the Roman legate offended the ecclesiastics of the west by the double claim it ostentatiously made of supremacy. for a
priest in Italy, and for a cathedral seat in the dominions of the hated Saxons. National animosity infused itself into their religious differences, and Augustine, whose haughty bearing had run counter to their ideas of Christian meekness, now justified their dislike by the bitterness of his upbraidings. These took the form of prophecy, and in a year worked their own fulfilment. "If the Britons," he said, "refuse their assistance in the conversion of the Saxons, behold! the Saxon sword will be let loose upon the land." The Saxon sword obeyed the zealous missionary, and directed its vengeance principally against the rebellious priesthood, of whom two hundred were pitilessly slain near Bangor, as they prayed for the success of their countrymen.
But Edwin of Northumbria having, in 625, extended his authority over all the other kingdoms except Kent, married a daughter of Ethelbert and Bertha, and speedily submitted the nations who owned his sway to the authority of the Roman Church. The bishopric of York, which had been founded during the Roman rule, was re-established in favour of Paulinus, the favourite priest of the new queen, and step by step the blind and debasing superstitions of Scandinavia retired before the advancing gospel, as Druidism had expiredbefore the march of material improvement. Idolatry was overthrown without the dangerous aid of persecution. The more reflective minds were attracted by the beauties and elevating promises of the new dispensation; the grosser intellects were disgusted with the powerlessness of their gods. when brought into contrast with a religion of holiness and purity; and some-like the ambitious priest Coifi, who discovered the dulness of his divinities in the fact that they had neglected to promote a man of his extraordinary merit to the richest offices in the order-were discontented with the inadequacy of the hopes held out by the Edda, and turned with. trust and happiness to the new revelations of a future life.
§ 9. Amid all the childish exaggerations and simple cre
A.D. 625–837.] IMPROVEMENTS OF THE PEOPLE.
dulity of the venerable Bede, and the other chroniclers of those early days, we can see a vast improvement in the thoughts and feelings of the people. Gentleness to the weak, generosity to the poor, humility in themselves, are inculcated on the newly-converted heathens in every page; and if we are inclined to laugh at the futile wonders and impossible incidents recorded at the same time, we must accept them as the measure of the critical faculty of the period, and turn with truer admiration to the precepts of charity and forbearance when we find them asserting their divine origin unobscured by the ignorance which lies so thick and palpable on every other subject.
The annals of the Heptarchy are confused by a want of method, and by the unavoidable uncertainty of events where there were no witnesses to record them till long intervals had elapsed, and the story had passed through several hands. An aged monk, sitting in his solitary study in a monastery on the distant Wear, was dependent for his narrative of incidents in Essex or Kent on the hearsay evidence of some other monk, who travelled on the business of the church, and found shelter in the walls of Jarrow. For the proceedings of kings and warriors in Northumberland itself he had to trust to the still less reliable reports of soldiers who had escaped from some battle, and were fed at the refectory door; or some despoiled and revengeful priest who had been ruined by the invasion of the Welsh. There were no conflicting accounts from different and independent sources to be sifted and weighed against each other, as in our newspaper announcements of the present day, and many, in despair at the difficulty of unravelling the tangled skein of the chronicles of the boisterous and unsettled Saxon confederacies which called themselves kingdoms, have passed them over altogether as no more deserving of notice than the quarrels and reconciliations of kites or crows. But though individual traits may be undiscoverable, the broad impress of that struggling and active
time is left upon our land, and we ourselves, even in the combat between those jealous and contiguous princedoms, see the indomitable energy and aggressive disposition of our race; and as the populations of all the seven had the same descent, and were equal in courage, and several were nearly balanced in extent of territory, it is interesting to see the circumstances which threw the final preponderance on the side of one of the sister states, and stamped on all the component territories the great name of England.
The first element of conquest abroad is security at home. Rome was safe within the sea-girt peninsula and the Italian Alps before she sent her eagles to Syria or Britain. Greece was impregnable within her own boundaries before she attempted the subjugation of Persia; and if you will examine on a smaller scale the map of heptarchic Britain, you will see the future dominator of the rest in the one which has the most easily defended borders. This was Wessex. The sea was on the south throughout its whole extent, and when it had overrun the thinly-peopled districts of Sussex, and united them to its powers, and when Kent also fell under its authority by the disorders which distracted its government, its northern boundary was the easily defended Thames and the wild lands extending from Dorchester to the Bristol Channel. Its west was guarded from the subdued and dispirited Britons of Cornwall and Devon by the hills of Somerset; and a simple restoration of the old Roman fortifications gave the unscientific Saxons of Wessex all the advantages of that conquering and restraining people's military and engineering skill. Nearest to Wessex in population and extent was the midland Mercia; but the name itself is a proof that its lands were everywhere conterminous with a rival state's. If it gathered its forces to resist Wessex, bands of enemies crossed over to it from the peninsular East Anglia, crowded down upon it from the warlike and hostile Northumbria, and came shouting across the Wye and through the Forest of Radnor from the unappease
DEATH OF EGBERT.
able valleys of Wales. When at length the kingdom of Wessex, thus strengthened by its tributaries, fell into the hands of one of the great men whom even the darkest ages sometimes produce, and Egbert-who had spent many years of exile, an honoured guest and appreciating scholar, in the court of the great Charlemagne at Aix-la-Chapelle-was restored to his rightful inheritance, all the constituent parts of supreme authority required only to be fitted together, and the crown of all England rested on the brow of the wisest and best of Englishmen. Soon after this time we hear nothing of the old partitions of the country. The names died out by the substitution of other territorial divisions which still remain; and probably a man of Staffordshire or Yorkshire would have been as much astonished in the tenth century as in the present, if he had been called a Mercian or Deirian.
Wessex, fortunate equally in rulers and situation, had boasted in the previous century of the only other Saxon king who could compare with the politic and warlike Egbert. This was Ina-admired by all the nations as a warrior and king, but lauded with the eloquence of enthusiasm when his chroniclers describe his piety of life and generosity to the Church. A ruler and legislator greatly in advance of his time, his crowning achievements are the foundations of monasteries like Abingdon and Glastonbury, and his bestowal of Peter's Pence on the Roman chair. Tired of state and trial, the saintly king resigned his dignity in 728, and retired to Rome. Avoiding show and ostentation, clothed in plebeian apparel, and living by the labour of his hands, he grew old, and died in that capital of the faith. Great trouble had followed his desertion of the throne. The public estimation of the monastic virtues had changed, and his wiser successor knew the duties of his royal state too well to be seduced by his example; but unfortunately, ten years after the submission. of all the kingdoms came the untimely death of Egbert, the