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Saxon Britain And King Offa

Saxon helmet found at Sutton Hoo

With the Roman's departure from Britain, Germanic migrants began to follow Hengest and Horsa's semi-mythic mercenaries into the country. Friesians moved into Kent, "South Saxons" colonised the Channel coast and Angles the eastern part of England. This was a chaotic time and there is very little firm evidence to give a picture of what happened. Myths and legends have evolved to fill the gap. Geoffrey of Monmouth published a fanciful forgery in 1140 which listed many imaginary ancient English kings, such as Gogmagog, Lear and Gorboduc. This work flattered England with an ancient and august history, and from it Arthurian romances developed (see The Creation of Scotland by Hugh Trevor Roper P11). If King Arthur had any basis at all in history, then he would have been a leader during the time of the Saxon invasion. Norman Davies in The Isles suggests that while the Anglo Saxon Chronicles do not talk of Anglo Saxon defeats, there is evidence of a petering out of victories in the period 515 to 550. There might have been a battle, known as the Battle of Mount Badon, in the West Country some time around the year 500, won by the Britons. Only conjecture is possible but perhaps a Celtic chieftain led resistance during this time, and perhaps the legend of Arthur has at least a glancing link to his identity. More likely Celtic Britain needed a mythic hero to help stiffen their resolve, a kind of Superman who would come to their aid. Interestingly the story of Arthur isn't the only one to come out of this turbulent time. On the South West coast of Cornwall near Marazion, St Michael's Mount is a further beautiful and emotive reminder of a desperate Celtish struggle. In 495, at a time when Cornwall was trying to hold out against the Saxons, the arch angel St Michael is supposed to have been spotted by some passing fishermen high up on a ledge of rock on what is now St Michael's Mount. The Mount was dedicated to the apparition, and became a place of pilgrimage. Perhaps the people of Cornwall felt they needed some supernatural help at this time, and let tales of an apparition, and of warrior kings fulfill their need.

 

The invasions of Germanic tribes caused the break up of Roman Britain into a mass of chaotic statelets. The transformation of these small, fluctuating kingdoms into larger units took hundreds of years. By 655 the "heptarchy" had settled into an uneasy, shifting existence. This was a pattern of seven kingdoms - Kent, Sussex, Wessex, Essex, Northumbria, East Anglia, and Mercia. Christianity to an extent helped give some semblance of unity. This religion came in on two opposing currents, the first from the Celtic Church founded on Iona in 565 by an Irishman known as St Columba, the other from Rome, represented by the missionary St Augustine who landed in Kent in 597 and established his church at Canterbury, Kent. The supremacy of the Roman church was finally decided at the synod of Whitby in 664. The issue was decided on the fact that St Peter traditionally held the gates of heaven, and the Church of Rome was that of St Peter. Showing admirable common sense Oswia of Northumbria pointed out that they had better choose Rome, to make sure that St Peter would open the gates of heaven when they got there. Slowly Christianity spread. The Mercian king Penda put up a spirited challenge against it, but in 655 on Penda's death, his son and heir Peada quietly accepted the new religion. This moment in history is captured at the remarkable burial site of Saxon kings at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, used between 590 and 630. The East Anglian king Raedweld was probably buried here. Raedwald hedged his bets. Pagan and Christian symbols share the same burial chamber.

 

 

Burial mounds at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk

While religion became more uniform, warfare between the heptarchy states was constant for the next two hundred years. Nevertheless one king or other generally held precedence over the others, and this man was known as the Bretwalda. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle lists eight Bretwaldas, beginning with Aelle of Sussex, who defeated the great British stronghold at Pevensey Castle in 491. Following Aelle, the Chronicle lists Caewlin of Wessex, Ethelbert of Kent, Raedwald of East Anglia - commemorated at Sutton Hoo - Edwin, Oswald and Oswin - all kings of Northumbria - and Egbert of Wessex in the ninth century. Ironically because of the Northumbrian/Wessex bias of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle the most powerful Bretwalda of all, King Offa (757 - 796) of Mercia is not mentioned. It was during Offa's reign that the first entity that might loosely be termed Saxon England came into being. Offa is the first person to be recorded as having the title "King of the English", and to be treated as such by European monarchs. Knowledge of Offa is sketchy. Winston Churchill described Offa as "a hollow shape in which a creature of unusual strength and size undoubtedly resided" (quoted by Richard Humble in The Saxon Kings). Surviving charters indicate that he had Ethelbert of East Anglia beheaded in 794. He also broke up a threatening dynastic merger between royal families of Wessex and Kent, and drove Egbert, son of the king of Kent, into exile in 786. Clearly Offa could be a ruthless and forceful leader, and though he did not conquer all the other kingdoms, he certainly used his Mercian power base in the Midlands to dominate his neighbours. But he had other statesman-like qualities. He built famous earthworks to mark his western frontier, Offa's Dyke, roughly following the border between what is now England and Wales, from Prestatyn in the north to Sedbury near Chepstow in the south. Natural barriers were used where practical, and where these barriers did not exist a dyke was built, an earthwork three to four meters in height, with a ditch giving a width of twenty meters. The dyke gave a physical dividing line between the Saxons and the Celtic Britons. The presence of such a large scale fortification might indicate great hostility between the Saxons and the Britons. But as far as the reign of Offa was concerned this might not generally be the case. There is evidence that Offa consulted with the rulers of Powys and Gwent about the line of the dyke, and it is clear that this line did not always run solely to Mercia's advantage. Offa made sure that a share of fertile land remained within the Celtic area. This is one of the reasons the dyke has endured for so long. Survival was not only a result of the formidable nature of the fortifications, it is also a result of respectful decisions that went into its planning. The dyke was more of a symbol than a real frontier. There were communities of Britons to the east of the line, and communities of Saxons to the west. This is perhaps the most endearing feature of Offa's Dyke, the sense of respect for one's neighbours.

Offa probably brought about as much unity as Saxon England was going to get. His son and successor, Eagfrith died in the same year as his father, 796. The usual divisions reopened, and this time Wessex, under Egbert became the dominant power. Unless something came along to shake up the whole pattern of England, things could have gone on like this endlessly. But then the huge life changing catastrophe took place. The Vikings arrived. They were eventually to kill all of the English kings, except one, Alfred of Wessex. Alfred and his descendents were to fight a long war with the Scandinavians, which did not so much end, as develop into an amalgamation of two peoples. The last "Saxon" king was to be King Harold, who had a Saxon father and a Scandinavian mother. Harold of course was to be killed in the great watershed of English history, the Battle of Hastings in 1066, when the Normans invaded. Such was the influence of this event that in many accounts the history of England begins in 1066. Edward I of England is given that title even though during the Saxon period there were three other English kings called Edward. The long centuries of Saxon England are in many ways forgotten behind the curtain of the Norman invasion.

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