All Roads Lead to Britain: Chapter IV (Parts V and VI)



         According to legends, Christianity was introduced into Britain by Joseph of Arimathea, bearer of the Holy Grail and founder of Glastonbury Abbey, Somerset, the place from which the conversion of the heathen country started (see Part III). He is supposed to have brought the chalice Christ drank from at the Last Supper to the island, but nobody knows for sure who gave it to him or for what strange reason he travelled thousands of miles with it. Perhaps he thought that its miraculous properties would be more appreciated in unknown lands, or perhaps he just simply appointed himself Messenger of the Holy Truth without asking anyone if he could do it.
         But this is just legend and fantasy. Let’s come back to earth. Forgetting about holy grails, we may find it more sensible to state that during the Roman occupation of Britain, Christianity had already started to spread all over the then-known world, including Rome itself, an evident proof of this being the crowds of Christians who were sacrificed at the Colosseum just for the sake of pure fun during the first centuries of our era. You may feel a bit shocked by our use of the word fun and not defence from the danger of an increasing religious force (in fact, either would have been appropriate), but judging from the movies we have seen about Roman life, the audience at the amphitheatres really seemed to get a kick out of watching people being devoured by hungry lions; you may not personally find this very attractive and consider that it is not the most logical way to have a whale of a time, but, as it is often said, there’s no accounting for tastes.
         Forgetting about the previous comment (which may have possibly made your stomach turn..., let’s hope you are not eating while reading...), the most reliable thought would be to consider that the Roman settlers who had already accepted Christian doctrines while the new religion was still being persecuted in their own country were those who first brought Christianity to Britain. Then in the early 4th century Emperor Constantine adopted it as the official religion of the empire, and the following generation of Romans who left their town bound for our-still-heathen-island brought with them the ideas of their new religion. Bit by bit Christianity replaced the old Celtic religious customs, and the varied assortment of ancient gods (deities to all kinds of tastes) was substituted by one and only one god (whether you had a taste for  Him or not): that is what we can certainly call “an about-turn”. But then the Germanic invaders (with a different religion) came and forced the Britons to withdraw to the west. The domain of Christianity was reduced to Wales, Cornwall and Ireland, where, however, it became firmly established. The Roman government had forsaken the Romano-Celts when Britain had been taken over by the Anglo-Saxons and did not want any sort of further relations with their old colonies; but soon they changed their mind and tried to regain what they had lost. And as they could not do it by using their weapons, they tried to do it by using their newly-adopted religion.

Practising what one preaches  (A “divine” welcome)

         The man who built the machinery designed to convert Britain to Christianity was Pope Gregory I, also known as “the Apostle of the English”. In 597 he sent the Roman monk Augustine on a mission to the kingdom of Kent. It was not an easy job. Augustine had to convert thousands of pagans and that meant having to use the art of persuasion on a large scale. If we think about it carefully, going to an unknown country where you do not know what kind of people you are going to meet and trying to convince them of your own ideas must be much more difficult than ringing someone’s doorbell and trying to sell them a life insurance policy nowadays; and it must be much more dangerous too, since, as far as we know, up to now no salesman from an insurance company has been captured, thrown in chains and later hanged, whereas there is attested evidence that quite often missionaries all around the world have been tortured, tormented or even “cooked”. Augustine might have thought, ‘Nice job I’ve been entrusted with! How the devil does the Pope think I’m going to... Whoops, I beg your pardon...’(choir of angels starts to sing), ‘...I wonder if I am worthy of being entrusted with such a glorious mission but I will humbly accept to be a chosen vessel to bear the Holy Word before all the children of this country; with God’s help, I’ll preach His Word and I will please the Pope, I will please the Saviour and I will please the Creator...’ (choir of angels stops singing).
         In spite of all his possible fears, Augustine and his church fellows landed at Thanet, Kent. There were two reasons for Kent being the chosen kingdom to start the conversion. First of all, it was the nearest kingdom; this meant that if they had no choice but to take to their heels, Augustine and company could return to the Continent in a minute; if the situation required it, they could even reach the French coasts by swimming. And secondly, Kent was being ruled by King Ethelberth (one of the many kings called like that to be found in the history of the Anglo-Saxon times), and his wife Bertha, who came from the Continent, was already Christian. Augustine must have felt that Ethelberth’s wife could be his ally; we all know about a woman’s power of persuasion: ‘Oh, darling..., let’s become Christians. Come on, sugar..., just do it for me, will you, honey?’, etc... So why go farther when half of the job was already done in the neighbouring land?
         Augustine could have never imagined that his mission was going to be as successful as it actually was and that he would make short work of it. His teachings of Faith, Hope and Charity were welcomed almost from the very first moment he set foot in Kent, and King Ethelberth became the first “English” king to convert to Christianity. And talking of extremities, that is what we can call “to start off on the right foot”. In a few months he had already taken Kent by storm, had been consecrated archbishop and initiated the construction of a church at Canterbury, which, as time went by, would become the centre of religious activity in the country and a city with one of the most imposing cathedrals in the world. The Pope was happy: ‘You’ve really got full marks. Congratulations!’.
         But not all the praise for having converted the islanders must go exclusively to  Augustine. When he died  in 604, the most difficult step had been taken, but there was still much more left to do. New missions and missionaries finished Augustine’s work: Felix, Birinus and especially Paulinus, who was sent to Northumbria in 627; he was not as successful as Augustine but he was appointed Bishop of York and converted King Edwin, though this kingdom would return to its heathen cult in a few years. Christianity was restored in Northumbria during the reign of King Oswald, thanks to the incessant labour undertaken by the second pillar in the conversion of Britain: the Celtic church.
         It would be unfair to laud only the Roman Church for having worked in the process of conversion of Britain. The Celtic Church, which had been cornered by the Anglo-Saxons in Wales, Cornwall and Ireland, played a decisive role in the achievement of this target. From 563 onwards it spread the Christian faith successfully from its base located on the island of Iona, west of Scotland. The monastery of Iona was founded by St. Columba (521-597), whose chief claim to fame has been essentially his ability to tame savage creatures: he is reputed to have defeated and tamed a horrible monster (about 30 feet long, with two humps, a long neck and a snake-like head) which lived in Loch Ness (something commendable indeed!), and he was able to convert the wild fierce Picts from Scotland to Christianity (something even more commendable!).
Iona became the centre of the Celtic Church; inside the walls of its monastery some of the most eminent clergymen of the time were formed and educated: men like Aidan, Finan and Colman were essential in the expansion of Christian ideas. After King Oswald of Northumbria had been baptized on the island, he invited these Ionan monks to convert his people; they accepted the invitation and not only did they convert his people but also started to go farther south preaching the doctrine of Christ.
         Both churches coexisted for some years but some divergences arose, the most renowned of them being one which for many would be considered a matter of extreme importance, for others just a trifle: the calculation of the date of Easter.

Making a mountain out of a molehill  (A storm in a teacup)

         Though both the Celtic and the Roman churches coexisted peacefully (at least, as far as we know, no pitched battles were fought between members of one congregation and the other), we can’t assume that the relationship with each other was exactly a bed of roses. There were some differences between them, but mainly one. The Celtic Church was more concerned with ordinary people; it was more worried about the poor, heartbroken, miserable people who suffered a good deal of pain, misfortune and sorrow. The Roman Church was much more interested in authority (maybe something  unavoidable, for it seems as if the words Rome and Roman had to suggest obligatorily the idea of power), and much more absorbed in organizing the religious activity in Britain and in rubbing shoulders with the aristocracy and the monarchy.
         That is unquestionably a big difference. And does this difference constitute a reason powerful enough to set up a struggle between both parties? If a survey was carried out on this matter, ninety-nine per cent of those polled would reply in the affirmative (‘Yes, of course. Down with tyrants!’), and only one per cent would avoid you like the plague (‘I don’t have time, sorry. I am in a hurry), would not care at all about it (It’s all the same to me) or would not understand what you are talking about (‘What does "Celtic" mean?’). Now let’s transfer this survey to the 7th century. You thought people would have the same opinion about the matter?... You were wrong! There was another thing which worried them much more, something which made them not get a wink of sleep, a problem which tormented them day and night: ‘How must we calculate the date of Easter?’, ‘When must we celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ each year?’ or, what’s the same, ‘When must we start to paint the Easter eggs?’

         Then the pick of bishops, archbishops and other high authorities of both churches met at Whitby (all expenses paid) where they held a synod (664) in order to discuss the matter in depth (In view of this, we can conclude that if the Houses of Parliament had been built, say, during the Roman times and Guy Fawkes had tried to blow them up not in the 17th century but in the 4th century, surely another synod would have had to be held in order to discuss when exactly one has permission to let off fireworks and disturb pedestrians by asking for pennies for the guy).
         After spending some days making a fuss about a trifle, the result of this fascinating competition was one-nil in favour of the Roman Church. The Celtic party did not stand a chance of winning from the beginning: they were inferior in number, their adversary was sponsored by the Roman empire, and the competition (or synod) was held at Whitby, Northumbria, an Anglo-Saxon territory, not a Celtic one, which means that the “match” was played on the home team’s ground. The Celtic Church had to eat humble pie and recognize the power of the opponent; some fans of the Celtic cult took subsequent mockery lying down, but others (bad losers!) withdrew grumbling and reeling off a long string of swear-words.
         The victory of the Roman Church and the humiliating defeat of the Celtic one contributed very much to the reinforcement of the royal power and the feudal system. Church and kings worked shoulder to shoulder: kings helped the Church to grow and this supported those by conceding them the honour of having God’s approval, that is, if one was on the throne, it was because God Himself wanted him to be there... And who dares to contradict God?


The ups and downs of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms

         Guess what this part and the following one are going to be for you...? You are right!... A mess! (How did you know? Have you possibly been influenced by what you have already read in the previous parts...?). Yes, an absolute mess. Kings, bretwaldas and overlords will appear everywhere; kingdoms will be created and will disappear; we will read about who-knows-how-many Aethelreds, Edwards and Harolds... Definitely a mess... Please, do not misinterpret this introduction. It is not the author’s intention that the reader should give up reading at this moment. Far from it. But it is only fair that the author should warn the readers of the difficulty they are going to find on the following pages and that it will be a considerable effort for them not to lose the thread of the story, and a considerable effort for the author not to get the story muddled up. So let’s pluck up our courage, all of us.
         The first man we can call king in British History was Aelle of Sussex, who governed during the last quarter of the 5th century. However he did not call himself king but bretwalda, derived from Bretenan (Britain) and wealda (ruler). It is a bit hard to believe that one man could rule over a country which was so disorganized and fragmented into small kingdoms and do it well; so the title bretwalda, or ruler of Britain, was a pompous title rather than a reality. Other bretwaldas were Ceawlin of Wessex and Aethelbert of Kent. We already know something about the latter (let’s remember that Augustine managed to get him baptized and converted to Christianity), and we also know something about his son-in-law, Edwin, King of Northumbria, who embraced the Christian doctrines as well thanks to Paulinus. Edwin was acknowledged as bretwalda of all England except Kent, because in this southeastern kingdom his father-in-law was in charge (family business!). He died in the battlefield fighting against King Penda of Mercia.
         But we’d better stop here for a minute, since we have mentioned Nortumbria, Mercia and Wessex, and you may not remember what you read about the Heptarchy in Part II. Let’s repeat it. Britain was divided into seven kingdoms: Northumbria, Mercia, Wessex, Essex, Sussex, East Anglia and Kent. Of these seven territories, only the first three remained. This does not mean that the other four disappeared off the face of the earth and left an empty space on the map; it means that by the 9th century the first three  kingdoms had absorbed those four territories and taken control of them. How was all this done? How did the seven kingdoms become three? Basically, it can be explained in a few points.
         Northumbria was already big enough. It extended over a large area, from the Firth of Forth to south Yorkshire, and its kings thought that what they had was sufficient. Mercia and Wessex took it in turns to conquer the kingdoms at their disposal: Essex, Sussex, East Anglia and Kent. Mercia was always the first to start. Meanwhile, Wessex waited patiently. Wessex kings had to wait for a century but their patience was finally rewarded; everything which had belonged to Mercia ended up in the hands of the “West Saxons”, who from that moment on should have stopped being called like that since they were now everywhere, not only in the west.
         Each of these three kingdoms held political and cultural supremacy during one century approximately, and the title of bretwalda passed from kingdom to kingdom, depending on which of them predominated at a specific moment in time:
1.- Northumbria was the number one kingdom during the 7th century mainly. Its political leadership began during the reign of Aethelfrith, who fought against the Scots and the Welsh and defeated them. Then there came Edwin, who, as it has already been mentioned, became bretwalda of almost all the country, but he was defeated by a joint Welsh-Mercian army led by Cadwaelon and Penda. After him, Oswald, the king who supported the Roman Church at the synod of Whitby (see Part V), restored the kingdom of Northumbria.
         During the golden age of Northumbria, there was a flourishing of arts and literature. Most of this cultural enrichment was owed to the Church, since it was in the monasteries that monks (practically the only privileged ones to be able to write and read) composed their literary works. Places like Wearmouth, Jarrow, Whitby, Ripon and Lindisfarne became cultural centres, and the first important works in English literature date from that time. In Jarrow, Bede wrote The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, but he did it in Latin, so it was called Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum. Another important work of that time was Hymn, written by Caedmon, who apparently was an ignorant herdsman who did not have the slightest idea about poetry but who was commanded in a dream by an angel to write a poem about the Creation of the World... But apart from people writing in Latin, or illiterate cattle-herders receiving divine inspiration..., did the concept of “writer in English language” exist?... Yes, for example, the unknown author of Beowulf, the greatest Old English poem, who wrote things like this:
Hpae t pe Capdena  in¦eap-da¦um
yeod cynin¦a  ypym ¦e fpunon
huda ae pelin¦aó  ellen fpe medon

2.- Mercia was the most warlike kingdom, always eager to start a fight. It had accepted the Northumbrian superiority during the first half of the 7th century. Its kings had not dared to throw down the gauntlet to the powerful neighbouring army for years, but someone had to break the tradition. King Penda took the plunge and attacked. He killed King Edwin of Northumbria (see above) and extended the dominion of his kingdom to the north and east. And then, still not having got enough satisfaction, he killed Edwin’s successor, Oswald, in 641, but he could not defeat Oswald’s successor, Oswy. Oswy fought fire with fire, and in the battle of Winwaed (655) Penda, in spite of being a pagan, went to meet his Maker.
         Oswy then became overlord of southern England, but Penda’s son, Wulfhere, demanded vengeance. Wulfhere extended Mercia power to the south, but when he fought against Ecgfrith of Northumbria in 674 he was defeated and died a few days later. He was succeeded by Aethelred, who defeated Ecgfrith in 678 and avenged his predecessor’s death:

Dear Daddy who are in heaven (or hell),
                I know that your soul is still worried about your final and disastrous defeat, but I have a piece of news that will be a load off your mind. I have done to Ecgfrith the same he did to you, so perhaps you’ll meet him one of these days. You can set your mind at rest now. By the way, how are things up there / down there?. As regards this earthly world, there is nothing to write home about; everything continues in the same way as when you left, so I have many chances to meet you soon too. Mummy sends you her regards.

P.S. Take care of yourself

         But it would be in the 8th century that Mercia would be the most powerful kingdom in the country. King Aethelbald called himself Rex Britanniae. He occupied his throne for forty-one years, and he could have set up the record of permanence on it if it had not been because his own bodyguard murdered him (it is needless to say that the bodyguard was immediately dismissed). After this a civil war broke out (757) and the new king of Mercia was Offa. He sought alliance with King Aethelred of Northumbria (not the Aethelred a few lines above) by allowing his daughter to marry him. Offa was keen on architecture and built a dyke to keep the Welsh off the English ground.

3.- Wessex gained predominance during the 9th century. After Offa had died, there was no other ruler in Mercia as powerful as him. Mercia started its decline and Wessex took advantage of the situation considering that it was a good moment to throw off the Mercian yoke. When King Egbert appeared on the scene, Wessex played the leading role in political affairs. Egbert can be considered the first English king, since he achieved the first union of England. He was accepted as king of Kent, Surrey, Sussex and Essex; he was accepted by the Northumbrians without having to use force; and, as for the Mercians, who did not accept him, they were liquidated at Ellandune (825): end of the problem.
         By the beginning of the 9th century the Saxon kings were definitively installed on the throne. The following diagram represents the line of succession of the Wessex kings since the times of Egbert up to the reign of Aethelred II the Unready. You do not need to learn it by heart, don’t worry, but do not think that you can simply turn over the page and forget about it. If you want to understand what follows, you will have to turn to this page more than once, that’s for sure.

The ins and outs of the succession

         A promise is a promise. Here is the family tree which includes the monarchs who reigned in Wessex from 802 to 1016.

Egbert (802-839)

 Aethelwulf (839-855)

Aethelbald (855-860)
Aethelbert (860-866)
Aethelred (866-871)
  Alfred the Great

m.Egwina= Edward the Elder = m. Eadgifu



   Edmund I


Eadwig (Edwy the Fair)

m. Aethelflaed = Edgar the Pacific = m. Aelfthryth

Edward the Martyr

Aethelred II (the Unready)

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