I need to start this with a disclaimer – none of this historical information has come out of my own research. I have never crawled around in a field digging up evidence (not in an archaeological sense, at any rate) nor have I ever sat pawing my way through ancient texts. I have cross referenced dates and information over several sources to check accuracy as much as possible, and where I am not comfortable that I can get correlating facts, I have left it deliberately vague.
If you want more accurate historical data, get an expert. Or a time machine.
HISTORY. History has never been a strong point of mine, because it has never interested me enough to pay attention for long; in a world where I can choose to read about dragons instead, real events have always suffered by comparison.
Way better than flax, or royal interbreeding
However, I was recently set a challenge to write about Saxon archaeology (which will still be happening, by the way) and so I started doing some research. I distinctly remember completing a project about Saxons when I was in middle school, but I remember nothing about it, apart from drawing a dude with yellow hair. I couldn’t even remember what time period they were involved in, so I got online with the intention of giving myself a basic framework of information…and I ended out getting completely caught up in it all.
The thing that caught my interest – and my amusement, if I am honest – is that England didn’t exist until 927AD. I don’t mean the land just bubbled up from the sea in the 10th century like some claymation prop; it was simply a number of other things before it became the country that many of its people so xenophobically defend. I was intrigued, and decided to get me some more learnin’.
In terms of modern as-we-know-them humans, they migrated back into Britain when the last ice-age finished, about 9600BC. While the evolution from hunter-gatherer into farmer is interesting in its own right, I am going to fast forward about 9000 years to the Iron Age [750BC – 43AD]. Those of you who have played World of Warcraft will of course be familiar with the evolution of metalwork; copper, tin, bronze, iron… No? OK, that’s just me, then.
By around 500BC, most people in the British Isles were speaking an ancient Celtic language called Common Brythonic (Brittonic/Bretonnic – spelling depends on where you look…probably because we never actually SPELLED anything back then). Celtic language, customs, iconography and metalwork had originally evolved over in Central Europe. The first distinctly Celtic culture was in the Hallstatt culture, and later in the La Tène culture (both named for their respective geographical regions).
The gold part of the map shows the Celtic hotspots, and how the migration spread throughout Europe.
There seems to be little agreement about how exactly Britain ended out adopting the Celtic language and lifestyle, but given that tin had been exported from the South-West since around 1600BC, it would make sense to consider that Celtic started as a common trade language and then gradually became adopted at home, evolving as it spread. You can see adaptation and evolution of current day English happening on an almost year by year basis. A fascinating example is accents. The accent that a lot of young people from British urban areas have today seems to be a blend of their own local dialect and imported foreign accents. Maybe it has fed out of popular culture and mimicry of popstars, perhaps from close association with people who have moved here and had their own accent Anglicised.
“FAM, you is HENCH.”
No, I have no idea either.
Blue – Picts/Caledonii (AKA Scottish), Green – Goidels/Gaels (AKA Irish), Red – Bretons/Britons (AKA Welsh).
Anyway, the upshot was that by the time the Romans invaded Britain in 43AD, there were essentially three different groups of Celtic people in Britain.
The main body of Britain was occupied by the Bretons, who are what ended out becoming the Welsh and the Cornish. The very top of the land, above the Clyde and Forth rivers, was occupied by the Picts, or the Highland Scottish. Ireland, the Isle of Man and South-West Scotland was occupied by the Goidels or Gaels, the Irish.
Britain had had trade and diplomatic links with the Roman Empire since the first forays in by Julius Caesar in 55BC. However, they decided to go hardcore in the first century, turned up on the South coast with 40,000 troups in 43AD, and had a proper go. They fairly quickly overwhelmed the South-East, where 11 tribes surrendered after some heavy fighting. To be fair though, the Romans turned up with a war elephant cavalry. Just think about that for a minute. A war elephant cavalry. Fuck that shit, I’d have surrendered too.
The Romans pressed North and West where rebel Bretons had fled. They were on the way to go and harry Wales when a certain lady called Boudica stopped them in their tracks. She was the queen of the celtic Iceni tribe who lived in what is pretty much Norfolk these days. The Iceni king Prasutagus had been on fairly good terms with the Romans as an independent ally, and in an effort to make sure things stayed happy and shiny after his death, in his will he split his estate 50-50 between his daughters and the Romans. However, the Romans had a shitbag policy of being nice to a dude until he died, but as soon as he was out of the way taking every damned thing he owned. When the Iceni king died, they ran roughshod over his land, his people, and did some frankly unspeakable things to his wife and daughters.
There is no known surviving written language from before the Romans arrived, so descriptions of Boudica come from Roman records. Apparently she was a tall, uncommonly smart, redheaded woman, whose presence seemed to command respect…or at least a healthy measure of the same fear that PMS strikes into the hearts of men. In 60/61AD, Boudica was chosen to lead an uprising of the Iceni and their neighbours the Trinovantes (from what is now Suffolk) amongst others.
I like this picture, so fuck you; this is Boudica.
She led a force of 100,000 tribesmen and demolished the city of Colchester which had been baggsied by the Romans, and then proceeded on to the new Roman settlement of Londinium. The now-capital was abandoned in the face of the rebels, who burned it down and slaughtered anyone who had not fled. They moved on to St Albans, and razed that too.
Between 70,000 and 80,000 Romans or Roman-sympathisers (and no doubt a load of poor sods who had no idea what was going on) were said to have been killed by the rebels, with a lot of distinctly horrible things being done to the most posh of them. Boudica was the living embodiment of Hell hath no fury… and Never mess with a Mama Bear.
The Romans were forced to halt their assault on the West and return to deal with her and her forces.
You’re welcome, Wales.
It all went horribly wrong in the end; lack of experience in open combat, inferior equipment, and poor tactics resulted in a rout of the Celtic Bretons. Boudica did not die in battle – conflicting accounts suggest she either committed suicide, or fell ill and died. Either way, she was a proud and fierce warrior, and I think I might have a bit of a girl crush on her.
After that particular uprising was quelled, the Romans continued working their way North and West, defeating and subduing tribes…only to find that when they came back that way again, those tribes had thrown off the occupation and gone back about their own business. There were many years of ongoing retaliatory raids from the the tribes of northern Britain (the Brigantes) and also from Caledonia; they consistently failed to ever subdue the Picts.
Amidst the back and forth raiding, in 122AD the Romans began construction on Hadrian’s Wall, and then later in 142AD on the Antonine Wall (between the Firth of Forth, and the Firth of Clyde). There appears to be some debate about whether these walls were built to define the boundaries of the Roman empire, like a small child making a ring around his toys with his arms, or whether they were to keep the Picts out. Having been married to a Scot, and spent a couple of evenings out in Glasgow, I would fairly confidently say it’s the latter.
Git tae fuck
Incidentally, 12 years after construction, the Antonine Wall was abandoned and the Romans retreated to Hadrian’s Wall. In 180AD, northern tribes breached Hadrian’s Wall and ravaged the countryside beyond. There were ongoing raids from the north until the Governor was forced to appeal for help from the Roman Emperor in 206AD.
…in 211AD, he abandoned the territory north of Hadrian’s Wall entirely and headed back to Rome.
That put a grin on my face when I first read it, and it’s done the same thing typing it back out again. Scotland; our feisty, lairy, drunk as fuck, blue skinned, redheaded cousin. I genuinely hope Scotland doesn’t leave the UK, I like their smelly arses.
The Romans continued to gad about southern Britain, and around 214AD they subdivided it into Britannia Superior (with Londinium [London]) as its capital) and Britannia Inferior (Eboracum [York] as the inferior capital…jus’ sayin’…)
Around 220AD, it started to get interesting again – the Saxons showed up and started raiding the South-East coast.
Saxon; a Germanic tribal ethnicity, not to be confused with the 1976 metal band from Barnsley
In 297AD the Picts began attacking from the North, and in 368AD a year-long series of attacks from both the Picts and the Saxons forced the Romans to finally abandon Hadrian’s Wall. Tribal uprising in Central Europe caused some real damage to the Empire and its supply chain, which may have played a contributory role in the Romans finally beginning to withdraw from Britain in 383AD.
The Romans had been a dominant presence in what was to become England for 340 years. That is the equivalent of them arriving here in 1674, and just starting to leave now. They had a significant impact on the language and culture of the British Celts… but then they fucked off and left them unprepared and undefended.
in 410AD after the conclusion of the Roman withdrawl, the remaining Bretons were subject to an ongoing series of attacks from the Picts in the North, the Gaels from the West and the Saxons from the South-East. To add insult to injury, by 449AD, the Saxons had banded together with the Angles, the Jutes and the Frisians (other North Germanic tribes) and began to invade and occupy Britain.
By 500AD, the Anglo-Saxons had taken control of the main body of Britain and divided the land up into 7 kingdoms; Est-Anglie, Northumbrie, Mercie, Essex (‘East Saxons’), Wessex (‘West Saxons’), Sussex (‘South Saxons’) and Kent.
The Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy
A Gregorian mission arrived in 597AD, and for reasons best known to themselves, the pagan Saxons started allowing themselves to be baptised. There was a lot of back and forth about it over the years, but after the last openly pagan king was killed in battle in 686AD, all of the Anglo-Saxon kings were at least nominally Christian. This introduced a Latin influence, and the kingdoms were aligned with Roman Christianity in 664AD. Brilliant.
In 787AD, the Vikings from Scandinavia started invading the North East coast, and in 793AD they utterly sacked the island of Lindisfarne (partway between Newcastle and Berwick-Upon-Tweed). Lindisfarne had been the site of a monastery and all sorts of other holy business for a couple of hundred years, and there was much upset amongst the Christian west when the vikings slaughtered and pillaged their way through what was the centre of much religious activity, known as Holy Island.
Lindisfarne; an actual place, not to be confused with the 1968 prog-rock band from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne
The incident on Lindisfarne marked the start of what is referred to as the Viking Age. At that point in time, Scandinavia was yet to resolve itself into the nations that we understand now. The ‘norsemen’ were all referred to as Danes.
Originally all one big, hairy, aggressive nation. I am making assumptions about the hairy bit.
In 842AD, vikings successfully raided London, Rochester and Southampton, and then in 865AD, the Great Viking/Danish/Heathen [*delete as applicable] Army arrived, and began a campaign of conquest and residence. Their principle tactic involved exploiting the neglected coasts and waterways of mainland Britain, to turn up and be a giant pain in the arse where they were least expected.
A map of the routes taken by the Great Heathen Army from 865 to 878; they weren’t pissing about.
By this stage, the Heptarchy had consolidated into 4 main kingdoms. Dominance had started with Mercia in 716AD, and shifting to Wessex in 825AD. In 878AD, Alfred the Great was king of Wessex, and he finally defeated Guthrum the leader of the Danish vikings in the Battle of Edington. This triggered the creation of a treaty between Alfred and Guthrum, the establishment of Danelaw, which was also the term used to describe the geographical area of 15 counties already occupied by the Danes. The treaty was formalised in 886AD, defining boundaries and provisions for peaceful relations.
The division of mainland Britain in 878AD
Apparently, not everyone got the memo. Vikings continued to raid the North East coast, and a united Wessex and Mercia launched a 5 week campaign against Lindsey [mostly Lincolnshire] in 909AD. In 910AD the Danish vikings of course retaliated. They sailed up the River Severn into the heart of Mercia, eventually getting themselves surrounded, trapped, and dead in the Battle of Tettenhall. Bolstered by the success in putting down the invading Danes from the east coast, the combined Anglo-Saxon forces turned their attention to those who had settled in the south. While there were still viking held territories in the north and the east, that was the end of the viking expansion in Britain.
We then come to a significant chap called Æthelstan. He was crowned king of Mercia in 924AD. His half-brother, who had been king of Wessex, died some weeks later and after a few months of electioneering, Æthelstan was accepted as monarch there as well. Two years later, he defeated York, the last remaining Viking stronghold in Britain.
In 927AD, he gathered together all of the various kings from across the land to Eamont Bridge in Cumbria, where they swore an oath of peace, under the overlordship of Æthelstan.
England was born.
Beyond that, Æthelstan declared himself as ruler over all of Britain, and to bear some testimony to the validity of his position, Welsh and Scottish rulers would attend the assemblies of English kings and also witnessed their charters.
There doesn’t appear to be any one clear explanation as to why, but in 934AD, Æthelstan invaded Scotland. This happened very shortly after a couple of deaths amongst significant ruling figures, so one could assume – given his general drive and level of ambition to get where he did – Æthelstan probably wanted to own all of the British Isles but there had previously been enough chess pieces in the way to stop him trying.
There are apparently no records of any individual battles or the outcome of the invasion, but rather tellingly, 4 months later Æthelstan was back in Buckingham. With him was King Constantine II of Alba (Scotland) signing a charter acknowledging Æthelstan’s overlordship…
Fast forward a few years, and obviously Æthelstan was really getting on everyone’s tits. In 937AD, the Battle of Brunanburh took place. The combined army of Olaf Guthfrithsson – King of Dublin, Constantine II – King of Scotland, and Owen – King of Strathclyde engaged with Æthelstan’s forces in a location that is generally agreed as being Bromborough, just south of Liverpool. By all accounts, it was a huge and absolutely brutal conflict, even by comparison with the rest of Middle Age warfare. Æthelstan won, thus confirming England as one unified kingdom, but such heavy military losses on all sides of the conflict put paid to further expansion and conquering within the British Isles; it forced all of the nations involved to simply sit down and consolidate themselves as the England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales that we know today.
On a side note, there are a lot of Æthel‘s in English history, so I checked it out – Æthel is apparently old English for noble. I think I might demand to be known as Æthelbonj from now on.
Æthelbonj. ’nuff said.
In 980AD, there began a new wave of viking raids on England, and the government decided that the only way of dealing with them was to offer them money to go the fuck away. In 991AD Norwegian led viking forces defeated the English in the Battle of Maldon in Essex, resulting in the first payment of Danegeld in the country – the vikings were basically running a protection racket, with Danegeld being the tax raised to pay them.
Vikings; Scandinavian seafaring pirates and traders, not to be confused with the Hawkmen from Flash Gordon.
In the intervening years, many of the English demanded a more hostile approach be taken as the Danegeld payments started getting larger and larger, and so King Æthelred (the Unready) ordered the slaughter of all Danes in the land. Sweyn/Sveinn Forkbeard, King of Denmark, is noted as having lost some close family in the slaughters, and perhaps in retaliation, launched forces in a number of separate invasions of England, with a third being led by Thorkell the Tall (who later defected into service of Æthelred…until Æthelred later turned on him…but that’s another story).
By 1013AD, Sweyn returned and swept through the country. English resistance had collapsed, largely due to a lack of faith in Æthelred and everywhere he went, leaders submitted to Sweyn and offered him hostages. There was initially strong resistance from London due to the presence of both Æthelred and Thorkell, but the Londoners eventually surrendered when it became apparent that everyone else had, and the consequences of further resistance were getting more and more perilous.
What? It’s my blog, I can indulge myself with pretty TV vikings if I like.
Sweyn conquered the country, forcing Æthelred into exile…before suddenly dying in 1014AD and throwing it all into confusion again. The Danes immediately swore their loyalty to his son Cnut, but the English nobility had other ideas, and sent a party to negotiate with Æthelred about returning to the throne. He had made himself quite unpopular in the past (Unready meaning ‘ill-advised’) and the tone of the negotiations was something along the lines of “Look Æthelred, we’re sorry for the nasty things we said. We want to forget all about that, and we’d really like you to come home, but only if you promise to stop being a dick.”
I am just going to take a few moments to snigger childishly at the name Cnut, and get it all out of my system.
In 1014AD Cnut Sweynsson withdrew from England in the face of an attack by the newly restored Æthelred, which he and his army were unprepared for. This left his English allies on the East coast on their own, to take a complete beasting.
Running away; a tactic steeped in British history
When Cnut returned in 1015AD, Edmond Ironside (son of Æthelred) had revolted against his father and and established himself in the Danelaw, where they were thoroughly pissed off with both Æthelred (for the beasting) and Cnut (for the beasting-enablement), and were happy to side with anyone else.
The prince of Denmark had set sail for England with around 200 ships, and a force of 10,000 vikings from all over Scandinavia. They spent the next 14 months or so fighting against the English, who were later led by Edmond Ironside when he rejoined them after his father died in April 1016AD. The fighting appears to have been reasonably even matched, until 18th October when the Battle of Assandun takes place. The English intercepted the Danes on the way back to their boats, but during the fighting one Eadric Streona withdrew his forces, resulting in a resounding English defeat. Eadric seems to have a history of being a weaselly faced conniver and siding with the Danes, in order to take advantage of opportunities to cream money off the top of the Danegeld. All sources seem to agree that the withdrawl of his troops was quite deliberately intended to throw the battle to the Danes.
Edmund fled into Gloucestershire and was pursued by Cnut, with a further battle taking place. Edmund was wounded during the fighting, and he and Cnut met to negotiate peace. The terms agreed were that all of England north of the River Thames would be the territory of the Danes, with Edmund retaining control of everything south of the river – until such a time as Edmund died, at which point control of the entire realm would pass to the Danish prince.
Edmund then obligingly died a couple of weeks later. It’s amazing the number of people in English history who so conveniently expired just at the precise moment when someone else could gain advantage from it…
I’m not even sorry.
Cnut the Great of Denmark was crowned King of England at Christmas 1016AD. Incidentally, he also went on to succeed his older brother Harald II as King of Denmark in 1018AD. He then became the King of Norway in 1028AD, when Olaf Haraldsson was forced to stand down because his nobles were sick of his tendency to keep flaying their wives for sorcery. A good point to bring up in management seminars, I feel. He also took control of part of Sweden, creating the Anglo-Scandinavian or North-Sea Empire.
Cnut married Æthelred’s second wife and widow, Emma of Normandy. Their son Harthacnut (snigger) succeeded him to the throne in 1035AD, but upon his death – with no legimate male heir – in 1043AD, the crown passed to Edward the Confessor (Emma’s first son by Æthelred, and Cnut’s half-brother).
England remained under Edward’s rule until he died in 1066AD. Harold Godwinson, a powerful Earl of Wessex with family ties to Cnut, was chosen to be his successor, and was crowned on 6th January. He was to be the last Anglo-Saxon king of England.
Upon hearing of Edward the Confessor’s death, two men felt that they had claim to the English throne; William II of Normandy and Harald Hardrada of Norway. In the Battle of Fulford on 20th September 1066AD, Hardrada (in conjunction with Tostig Godwinson, who was Harold’s deposed-for-being-heavy-handed-with-taxes-and-otherwise-incompetent-as-a-leader, annoyed younger brother) won against the English earls, but was in turn defeated 5 days later by Harold himself at the Battle of Stamford Bridge.
Around the same time, William the Conqueror set sail for England. Harold had to turn on his heel and march his army back to to meet the challenge of the French duke. On 14th October 1066AD, the armies of Harold Godwinson and William of Normandy met at Senlac Hill in the Battle of Hastings. After a 9 hour battle, Harold was killed, and the new era of Norman rule in England began – permanently changing the language, the nobility and the culture of the English.
Would make for a far more psychadelic British flag
William was crowned on Christmas Day 1066, the first Norman king of England.
Two genuine coins from 1068 – William the Conqueror, not sure he was quite so flattered by the second one.
Here is where my interest wanes, and so I will draw this to a close. I will of course have a look at the rest of the history of England between William and current day, and if it intrigues me enough, I’ll write about it.
My final thoughts on the history of England; testosterone has a lot to answer for. If they’d only invented football, mosh pits or Grand Theft Auto 2000 years earlier, the world would have been a very different place.