The Making of England

Article excerpt

In 1991, the British Museum staged an exhibition entitled 'The Making of England'. It was of course a superb show, and must have taught its countless visitors an immense amount about the culture of the early Christian English. But one thing about it was inept: its title. The period covered was from the coming of St Augustine in 597 to the death of Alfred in 899. Many very important things happened in these centuries. The 'Making of England' was not among them. There was no single kingdom of the English even at the end of the period. There had been a progressive reduction in the number of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms between the sixth and ninth centuries, leaving only four by 865. Of these, only one, Alfred's Wessex, survived the attentions of the Vikings. But this was a kingdom of the West Saxons, not of 'the English' as a whole.

There is evidence that Alfred came to see himself in some sense as a king of all Englishmen. There is almost no evidence that Englishmen beyond Wessex and perhaps the West Midlands would have agreed with him. The Northumbrians, East Anglians and at least some Mercians came to terms with the Vikings. Alfred's successors in due course took control of these areas. But it is an illusion that there was anything pre-ordained about that. Their campaign is usually called the 'Reconquest of the Danelaw'. It was in fact a conquest of lands never ruled by West Saxon kings before.

If 'England' was visibly not 'made' in the time implied by the British Museum's title, when did this happen? And if its 'making' was not foreordained, by what means? It is difficult, above all of course for Englishmen in their unshaken confidence that their history has the divine imprimatur, not to take England's existence for granted. It is also quite wrong. England's makers deserve more credit.

Most views of the Making of England tend to place it either too early or too late. A constant leitmotif of Sir Frank Stenton's great book Anglo-Saxon England, is that Anglo-Saxon history in the seventh and eighth centuries forms 'steps' towards an 'ultimate unity ... of all England'. Unification is treated as if ninth-century England, like nineteenth-century Italy or Germany, were patiently awaiting the experience -- it may be relevant that Stenton was born just ten years after 1870.

The central element in this approach to early Anglo-Saxon politics is the 'imperium' (empire) over all 'English' peoples south of the Humber which Bede ascribes in his Ecclesiastical History (ii 5) to seven kings before 671. To these seven, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of Alfred's time attaches not only an eighth name but also a vernacular word, 'Bretwalda', ('Britain-ruler') or 'Brytenwalda' (almost certainly the right form: 'Bretwalda' may be a 'ghost' word, born of a scribal slip).

The evidence just about suffices to establish that the early Anglo-Saxons had a notion, however vague or otherwise unwarranted, of hegemonial rule over Britain. Bede's words are echoed by a charter of 736, in which the Mercian king aeEthelbald, is entitled both 'king of all provinces called by the general name South-English' and 'king of Britain'. The Irish Abbot Adomnan of Iona, whose Life of Columba was finished a quarter of a century before Bede's Ecclesiastical History (731), says that Oswald of Northumbria, who is in Bede's list, was 'ordained emperor of Britain' after defeating the 'king of the Britons' in 634. But this does not justify talk of a 'Bretwalda-ship', or make the imperium an office with generally recognised prerogatives.

Analogy with Adomnan's homeland is instructive. The ancient Irish laws supply an extremely detailed and elaborate scheme of regnal hierarchy, from the petty kingship of the tribe to kings of overkings. A notable absentee from the hierarchy is the 'high-king of Ireland', also called 'king of Tara' after the hill in County Meath that combines an extraordinary prehistoric complex with a view on a clear day (if they ever happen in Ireland) of hills in all the island's quarters, Ulster, Leinster, Munster and Connacht. …