All Roads Lead to Britain: Chapter IV (Parts I and II)

                     CHAPTER IV



 A well-deserved epithet  (Fighting in the dark)
         Few times in British History has an epithet been so descriptively accurate as the term Dark Ages and, what’s more, few times has it been so deserved and justified. The period from the downfall of the ancient classical civilization in the 5th century to the coming of the Normans in the 11th century is certainly a period of darkness and shadows. The intellectual decline which followed the exodus of the Romans from Britain plunged the country into a cultural misery (except for the reign of Alfred the Great) from which it would only recover in the Reinassance about ten centuries later.
         The root of the problem dates back to the parting of the Romans in 410 AD; when they finally left Britain, the few literate Britons, who perfectly knew which side their bread was buttered on, left too..., and what remained was a country in a state of “cultural anarchy”. The only written works which provide us with some information about this age are The Ecclesiastical History of English People, completed by Venerable Bede (a monk who lived and worked at a monastery in Jarrow) in 731, and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, possibly begun in the reign of Alfred the Great (871-899).
         But the cultural decrease was not the only characteristic of this period. Another pillar which supported the weight of this society was, “for a change”, violence. There was hardly a moment when there was not a threat of invasion, an actual invasion or devastation after an invasion; and if there were not any foreign enemies to fight against, as a last resort, one could always turn to internal conflicts: fights for the supremacy among the different kingdoms, alliances between two kingdoms to annihilate a third one, kings brutally slain by relatives or bodyguards, etc... were some of the basic components of the political framework of those times. (At this stage of your reading, this does not sound shocking. We are already immunized against so much violence).
         Although traditionally known as “Dark Ages”, this period of time might as well be known as “Confusing Ages”. If there is a moment in British History when things are not clear at all, this is it!. If there is a moment in the study of history that everyone would like to see passing before their eyes in two shakes of a lamb’s tail, this is it!...
         How could we illustrate this confusion we are referring to? On the following pages you will find out on your own, but in order to prepare the ground, let’s take some samples of this social and political mess.
         For instance, forenames. This was a time when there seemed to be a certain tendency to use forenames starting with “Aethel-”(let’s say that fifty per cent of the names did so). So we have Aethelwulf, Aethelbald, Aethelred, Aethelbert, Aethelswith...; did you have enough?...no?...,well, we also have Aethelfleda, Aethelstan, Aethelwold, Aethelfrith...(Variety is the spice of life, they say). As this may make anyone confused and mistaken, the beginnings of them are normally simplified, becoming “Ethel-” or “Athel-”, and therefore the confusion clearly (?) vanishes into thin air; now we have Ethelwulf, Ethelbald, Ethelred, Ethelbert, Athelstan..., which is much clearer, isn’t it?. But on no account must it be thought that all the names were like these. Not at all!. Fortunately there were also the names beginning with “Ead-”, often abbreviated to “Ed-”: Edred, Edward, Edmund, Edgar, Edwig, Edith, Edwin..., which added a great variety to the repertoire.
         If confusion with names is not enough, there will also be confusion with the kingdoms. It is almost impossible to determine how many kings there were in those Dark Ages. On the following pages you will read about the king of Kent, the king of Mercia, the king of Wessex...and about others who were considered bretwaldas, or rulers of Britain (bret = Britain, walda = ruler). How was that possible? Why were there so many kings? The answer is quite clear: when there is a nation, there is a king, an only king, and in those times the concept of Britain being a nation was closer to a science-fiction story than to reality.
         What did one need to be a king, then? Some things were essential and some others were not. They are summarized in the following table:

Not absolutely necessary
Absolutely necessary
1.- A castle. Yes, we all know that a king without a castle is something unimaginable, like a garden without flowers or like the sky without stars, but castles were introduced in the country by the Normans in the 11th century, so that is asking for the impossible.

2.- Royal ancestry. The Germanic tribes which invaded Britain had no kings in their own countries. The concept of “sovereign” developed in the invaded territory, and in order to avoid problems of succession to the throne, they just claimed to descend from the ancient gods..., and now who can object to that?
1.- A crown. It is not essential. You will be provided with it later or you can take it from the head of the king you have previously slain.

2.- A queen. Once you become a king, you have many chances to chat up girls. If that does not happen, you can take the wife of the king you have previously slain.

3.- A throne. If you don’t have a big comfortable chair that you can call “throne”... you know who has left an empty one.
1.- Money. But don’t worry, you only need it at the beginning. Then you can get it easily from your subjects by raising the taxes, it doesn’t matter if they are reduced to poverty and become down-and-outs. You may feel embarrassed to ask them for money at first, but it is very easy once you have got the hang of it.

2.- An army. In order to persuade other people to be governed by you, there is nothing like a powerful army, as long as it is loyal to death.

3.- A promise. Always promise your future subjects something, so that they can trust you, love you, admire you and accept you. But don’t worry about fulfilling your promises. Once they have accepted you, you can do as you please.

         It was so usual to have kings that, if red tape had been “invented” in those times, conversations like the following one would have possibly taken place somewhere in the country:

         ‘Good morning’
         ‘Good morning, sir. Can I help you?’
         ‘Yes, please. I’d like to become a king. I have filled in the form. Here it is’
         ‘OK, let’s see...So...your name is Edwin of Rochester...It’s all right, we haven’t had many Edwins lately. Yesterday we had thirty-seven Aethelreds and forty-nine Edgars, can you believe it?...But you are the first Edwin today.’
         ‘Oh, lucky me!’
         ‘Yes, so you’ll be..., let me see..., Edwin XXVIII. Is that all right?’
         ‘I assume you’ve got an army and all that jazz...’
         ‘Yes, I have gathered around two thousand loyal soldiers. Is that enough?’
         ‘Of course. And what about your subjects?’
         ‘You need subjects to rule’
         ‘Well, that’s the problem. Up to now, I’ve only been able to convince my wife, Aethelfleda, my two children, Eadred and Eadwig, and my uncle Edmund..., good chap, uncle Edmund. I wonder if there is a minimum number of subjects required’
         ‘I am afraid there is. We can only accept your application if there are at least three hundred subjects...But never say die, you can get them easily. Go back to your town and try to convince them. Promise anything to them..., promise them the moon, if you like, and they will support you. When that is done, you can come back here again’
         ‘Well, I’ll come back tomorrow then... By the way, can I already reserve the crown?’
         ‘Certainly. Which size would you like?...Small, medium, large, extra-large...?’
         ‘King-size, please’
         ‘Of course... OK, I’ve noted down everything. See you tomorrow then’
         ‘Thank you. Good-bye. May you have a nice day’
         ‘And may you have a nice reign, sir’


None so deaf as those who won’t hear

         Since the beginning of the 4th century AD the Romans had had problems with their neighbours throughout the length and breadth of their possessions, that is, not only in Britain but also on the Continent. The Picts, the Gauls, the Saxons and other Germanic tribes (known as barbarians..., imagine what they were like), were little by little eroding the power of the empire with constant raids which did not cease even for a split second..., day after day, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, death after death..., enough to make anyone throw in the towel, which is exactly what the Romans finally had to do. They were not strong enough to overcome the disastrous situation they were immersed in.
         As regards our island, the troubles started around 367 AD with the Picts from Scotland and the Saxons from present-day Germany. The Gauls in France also did their bit to contribute to the final destruction of Roman dominance in Britain; revolts which broke loose in the neighbouring country occasioned the departure of a good number of troops to defend the continental possessions; the Romans preferred to keep the territories near Rome rather than that remote island conquered by their ancestors.
         When the last Roman troops left the Britons in the lurch, the island became unprotected, like a wounded prey surrounded by hungry scavengers. The Romano-Britons asked Emperor Honorius for help but he turned a deaf ear to their grief:

         ‘Honorius, can’t you hear the cries and laments of your broken-hearted people in Britain, suffering because of these barbaric tribes?’
         ‘Pardon? Are you talking to me?’
         ‘We are weak and helpless. Won’t you help a lame dog over a stile?’
         ‘Well, listen. You’re big boys and girls now and you should learn to take care of yourselves...You’re being invaded...,so what? It is the fashion nowadays! Tell me of someone who is not having a tough time on account of these barbarians...Yes, the barbarians themselves, I know..., but I mean, someone else. I’m sorry, guys, hard cheese!...You’ve got your troubles and I’ve got mine.’
         ‘But Honorius, how can you...?’
         ‘I’ll tell you in other words, that’s your tough luck! Arrivederci, and that’s the end of the matter!’

         And that is how the Britons were left high and dry in the hands of one of the most ferocious hordes ever seen.

Rolling out the red carpet   (Next invader, please!)

         When the Romans left, Britain was ruled by chaos and tyranny (this would not be the only time in its history when it would become a chaotic country). The word “emperor” sounded all right in the ears of many ambitious people (it is a good title to be added to the name, no one can deny it), and for some years usurpers took hold of the throne and did not want to let go of it.
         One of them was Vortigern. He was happy being the emperor of Britain, so happy...!. But why can’t one reach absolute happiness? Why must there always be a fly in the ointment to spoil your dreams, your pleasure or your ambitions...?: ‘These noisy annoying Picts from the north! Always trying to jump Hadrian’s wall when the Romans were here! And now that they’re gone and the wall has been demolished, they don’t stop shouting and disturbing me! Can’t they possibly leave me alone?’
         Desperate and fearing for his crown, Vortigern remembered that there were some people who had been loitering along the British coasts for years and who would come in handy for the occasion: the Saxons. He considered that they were strong and had an army powerful enough to make anyone’s hair stand on end: ‘These guys from abroad will teach the Picts a lesson. I’ll tell them to come round’, he might have thought. History books have traditionally referred to this event as an “invitation” to settle in return for help. We don’t know exactly if that invitation was real or if it is pure legend, we don’t know whether Vortigern addressed King Hengist and King Horsa to ask them for help or not, but if he did, it might have been something like this:


449 AD

King Hengist and King Horsa
Saxon Country
The Continent

Dear colleagues,
I know you are very busy causing trouble to your neighbours on the Continent, but if you could concede just a minute of your time to me and my people, I would be very grateful.
First of all, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Vortigern and I am the ruler of Britain, the island which you seem to like so much and which you have been regularly visiting these days. We are in deep water because of our northern neighbours, the Picts. They are determined to make our lives hell, and we can’t stand it any longer.
Therefore, it would be a great pleasure if you accepted my invitation to come to our humble abode and could pay us a visit. By the way, if you do, please don’t forget to bring all your weapons and your best warriors.
I  look forward to hearing from you.

Yours ,

         Vortigern was offering his country to foreigners as a tourist brochure would do. In fact, he was “inventing” tourist advertising, something which many centuries later travel agencies would deal with.

Come and see our island

  A land of opportunities                                                         There’s so much to discover!
                                                Just a few miles from the Continent


Don’t miss the boat!
You won’t regret it!
An unforgettable experience!

   Enjoy watching the remains of the Roman civilization
   Enjoy visiting Hadrian’s Wall (or what is left of it)
   Enjoy fighting the Picts (or the Scots, if you like)
   Enjoy massacring the Picts (or being massacred by them)

We provide the visitors with a wide range of accommodation.
And it is not necessary to book in advance!

Britain is a must

         Such an invitation could not be refused. The offer sounded great.

Passing the baton  (or how the guests became the hosts)

         Although the date of arrival of these Germanic tribes is not clear, it is thought that around 450 AD King Hengist and King Horsa shook hands with Vortigern. They were received cordially; they had come from distant lands to lean over backwards for the Britons, and that was very kind of them. But there was a sudden change of plans, and those who had come to make troubles cease would start to cause troubles themselves. We do not know exactly if the Saxons ever saw the Picts (the reason why they had gone to Britain), but they might have thought: ‘And why make life difficult for us? Look around. Plenty of land for us and our friends from the Continent. To hell with Vortigern and his gang of Britons! Come on, boys! Make yourselves at home! (possibly there would be exclamations of joy and delight such as “Hooray!” or “Yippee!” after this comment, but that cannot be proved since there are no written records of it).
         To put it in a nutshell, the Saxons took many liberties with their hosts..., so many that they, who had come as servants, soon became the masters..., enough to make one weep!. Surely you have had to undergo this calamity yourself from time to time. For example, when you are quietly lying on your comfortable sofa and the doorbell rings... and who is it...?. One of those bores you call “friend”! Somebody you can’t get rid of as easily as you’d like to, one of those who says hello and the second after is pouring himself a glass of whisky without permission, one of those pains in the neck who sits in your favourite armchair and starts telling you stories in which there’s no way you could be interested, one of those who makes you glimpse the clock more often than you would normally do.
         Arrogantly, the Saxons seized control of the situation. But wasn’t there anybody to stop them and drive them back home...? The native resistance to their advance was rather little and not too effective. The story of the short struggle against the guests/invaders is summarized in two names (Ambrosius Aurelianus and especially King Arthur) and will be dealt with in Part III.
         Apart from the fact of being “invited”, there was another reason for the Saxons to come to Britain. Life in the Dark Ages was hard and you had to fight for survival. Everybody had problems, even the Saxons, or did you think that they were just savage uncivilized barbarians who enjoyed devastating all the lands they found in their way and annoying its inhabitants?...Absolutely not, let’s come to their defence. Perhaps it is not a perfect excuse, but if you think that the Saxons were cruel and horrifying, that is because you have never heard of their eastern neighbours the Huns. Led by the well-known king Attila, the Huns ravaged most of the Roman Empire from 433 to 453. In the 5th century they created the rules of a game which became very fashionable at that time and which could be called make-your-neighbour-move-westwards. The instructions to play are very simple. Those who start the game have to annoy and disturb their western neighbours as much as they can and never leave them alone (for example, you can take walks along the border boasting about your strength and your magnificent weapons, you can frighten them with horrible stories about what you are going to do to them if they don’t leave, or you can actually kill some of them if you consider it is necessary). When they are fed up to the back teeth with you, they have to pack their luggage and move westwards, as far as they are able, until they reach the country of a third player. Now the second player has to do the same as the first has done, until the third player moves westwards, and so on... He who can’t move westwards any longer loses the game; the rest of the players are the winners and have the privilege of poking fun at the losers. It is a very cheap game; no dice or boards are needed and it is suitable for all ages.
         So the Huns, along with their brothers-in-arms, the Avars, went to the west (from their home country in present-day Turkey and Russia to what is nowadays Central Europe). Then the Saxons and other Germanic tribes (Angles and Jutes) had to move westwards forced by the Huns and Avars (from Central Europe to Britain). And then, once they reached our island, the Britons in turn were forced to move westwards, being driven to present-day Cornwall and Wales. Finally, the Britons “stuck” and lost the game.
         This “push-and-move” game affected enourmously the lands that are nowadays known as Wales and Cornwall. Wales (or Weallas, in the language spoken at that time) means literally “the land of foreigners”, and Cornwall is “the land of the foreigners who belonged to the Cornish tribes”. These names were, of course, given by the Germanic tribes, not by the Britons themselves. And it is a very funny fact (well, not so funny for the Britons) that they were considered “foreigners” in their own country and were confined to a small territory. To cap it all, even one of the Saxon kings who would reign some years later would have the cheek to build a dyke along the Welsh border to keep the legitimate inhabitants away from the land occupied by the newcomers. Really incredible! (see part VI). As a consequence of having lost this “game”, the Welsh have sometimes been called “Celts who did not learn to swim”.

Men of the same kidney  (Tarred with the same brush)

         The coming of the first invaders/visitors/mercenaries/holiday-makers (cross out what you don’t consider appropriate) paved the way for further expeditions/immigrations/business trips/package holidays (do the same as before). New droves of Saxons and their colleagues, the Angles and Jutes, arrived and settled on the island. These three peoples were much of the same kind: warlike, aggressive, proud and greedy, and these four qualities would later lead to troubles among them.
         Once the Celts were definitely driven into Cornwall, Wales and the Scottish Lowlands, the country was for the most part under Anglo-Saxon-Jute control. Or rather, under Anglo-Saxon control, since the third of these Germanic tribes seems to have cut no ice in British History; everyone forgets about them and their influence has practically counted for nothing. However, the Jutes settled in the rich lands of Kent, in the south east, one of the seven kingdoms (=Heptarchy) into which the country was divided, the other six kingdoms being distributed between the Angles and the Saxons in the following way:
-         The Saxons preferred the lovely weather of the south and occupied three kingdoms, called Sussex (meaning southern Saxon land), Essex (eastern Saxon land) and Wessex (western Saxon land). There was no “Norsex” because the north of the country was for the Angles.
-         The Angles were also in charge of three kingdoms (East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria), but they were much larger than those ruled by the Saxons. In spite of this, the latter did not envy the former their larger possessions. If they felt jealous of the Angles, it was because of another reason.

Why Angleland?

         The Saxons had arrived first and had done the dirty work, and now... what did they receive...? A very angry Saxon of that time might give an answer to this question: ‘Glory! That’s what we got! Yes, that’s true, the glory of having been the first..., but who wants it? Glory is but a nine days’ wonder. If you really want to go down in history..., if you want the future generations to remember you, then you need your name given to a country, not a consolation prize consisting in a couple of shires named after you (East Sussex, or Essex, for instance). And now the Angles, just because they are more numerous than us, steal the show. That’s simply not fair!‘
         This fact could certainly be enough to make all the Saxons turn in their graves (if you consider that this fact is not important at all, remember Christopher Columbus and America, named after some Americo Vespucio, whose only work was to say: ‘Well, I am not so sure about it‘, and remember the award given to the explorer: do you think that many people know that the name Colombia comes from Columbus?). Anyway all this has a logical explanation. It is in fact a linguistic explanation.
 Let’s study the evolution of the term Angleland into England. Obviously this word has too many l’s, the vowel between both of them is lost and the new word becomes Angland; then the initial a becomes e as it was the fashion (see Part I), and that is how we get England.
Now let’s try with Saxonland. The n before the l is practically inaudible unless you make a considerable effort to pronounce it. Therefore Saxoland is the new word we achieve; as this word would rather sound as the country where wind instruments are made  and the stress is on the first a, the vowel o tends to disappear, thus becoming Saxland. And finally the change of a into e that we have mentioned before would also be logical here, and we would get... Sexland. For obvious reasons, this name is absolutely unacceptable. Or could you imagine someone saying: ‘I’m going to spend a few weeks in Sexland next spring’... Sincerely, what would you think of them? Or fancy a teenager longing to go to an English Language School for a summer course in Sexland. If you were the parent, would you let your child go to that abominable place? What kind of vocabulary would he learn?... Therefore, it is for the sake of decorum, decency and respectability that the Saxons did not give their name to “England”.
Note: Many people do not know the difference between Britain and England (you know that in general people mistakenly use the word England, which they consider the whole country, and the words United Kingdom, Great Britain or just Britain practically don’t exist in many foreigners’ vocabulary. The fact that English is the name of the language spoken in the country contributes to enlarge the confusion. And one thing is for sure: only ten per cent of the worldwide population use the words Britain, Briton or British; the remaining ninety per cent have no idea what they mean.
         Once you think you understand this difference we are referring to, you begin to delve deeper into the study of history and find out that this confusion (one more to be added to the general confusing state of the Dark Ages) has a certain foundation, since for a time there were more English people (=Angles) in the country than British people (=Britons). The Angles, who, as it has been mentioned, played the leading role because of their numerical predominance, gave the name to the greatest part of the country (approximately what is nowadays called England); what we call Scotland kept on being Pictland until the 9th century; and what we know as Wales and Cornwall was the place where the real Britons lived, that is, Britain. This means that Britain (Roman Britain) really diminished in size in favour of a territory which started to be called “England”. Now, has all this mess made confusion worse confounded?... Probably it has.

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