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FEW periods of our history seem drearier and more unprofitable to one who follows the mere course of political events than the two hundred years which close with the submission of the English states to Ecgberht. The petty and ineffectual strife of the Three Kingdoms, Northumbria, Mercia, and Wessex, presents few features of human interest, while we are without the means of explaining the sudden revolutions which raise and depress their power, or their final subsidence into isolation and inaction. It is only when we view it from within that we see the importance of the time. It was, in fact, an age of revolution – an age in which mighty changes were passing over every phase of the life of Englishmen; an age in which heathendom was passing into Christianity, the tribal king into the national ruler, the ætheling into the thegn; an age in which English society saw the beginnings of the change which transformed the noble into a lord, and the free ceorl into a dependent or a serf; an age in which new moral conceptions told on the fabric of our early jurisprudence, and in which custom began to harden into written law. Without, the new England again became a member of the European commonwealth; while within, the very springs of national life were touched by the mingling of new blood with the blood of the nation itself. The ethnological character of the country had, in fact, changed since the close of the age of conquest. The area of the ground subject to English rule was far greater than in the days of Ceawlin or Æthelfrith, but in the character of its population the portion added was very different from the earlier area; for while the Britons had been wholly driven off from the eastern half of the island, in the western part they remained as subjects of the conquerors. It was thus that in Ecgberht's day Britain had come to consist of three long belts of country, two of which stretched side by side from the utmost north to the utmost south, and the population of each of which was absolutely diverse. Between the eastern coast and a line which we may draw along the Selkirk and Yorkshire moorlands to the Cotswolds and Selwood, lay a people of wholly English blood. Westward again of the Tamar, of the western hills of Herefordshire, and of Offa's Dyke, lay a people whose blood was wholly Celtic. Between them, from the Lune to the coast of Dorset and Devon, ran the lands of the Wealhcyn – of folks, that is, in whose veins British and English blood were already blending together and presaging in their mingling a wider blending of these elements in the nation as a whole...
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Copyright © 2015 by John Green
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THE ENGLAND OF ECGBERHT
THE COMING OF THE VIKINGS, 829-858
THE MAKING OF THE DANELAW, 858-878
THE HOUSE OF ÆLFRED, 901-937
WESSEX AND THE DANELAW, 937-955
THE GREAT EALDORMEN, 955-988
THE DANISH CONQUEST, 988-1016
THE REIGN OF CNUT, 1016-1035
THE HOUSE OF GODWINE, 1035-1053
THE NORMAN CONQUEST, 1053-1071
FEW PERIODS OF OUR history seem drearier and more unprofitable to one who follows the mere course of political events than the two hundred years which close with the submission of the English states to Ecgberht. The petty and ineffectual strife of the Three Kingdoms, Northumbria, Mercia, and Wessex, presents few features of human interest, while we are without the means of explaining the sudden revolutions which raise and depress their power, or their final subsidence into isolation and inaction. It is only when we view it from within that we see the importance of the time. It was, in fact, an age of revolution – an age in which mighty changes were passing over every phase of the life of Englishmen; an age in which heathendom was passing into Christianity, the tribal king into the national ruler, the ætheling into the thegn; an age in which Eng lish society saw the beginnings of the change which transformed the noble into a lord, and the free ceorl into a dependent or a serf; an age in which new moral conceptions told on the fabric of our early jurisprudence, and in which custom began to harden into written law. Without, the new England again became a member of the European commonwealth; while within, the very springs of national life were touched by the mingling of new blood with the blood of the nation itself.
The ethnological character of the country had, in fact, changed since the close of the age of conquest. The area of the ground subject to English rule was far greater than in the days of Ceawlin or Æthelfrith, but in the character of its population the portion added was very different from the earlier area; for while the Britons had been wholly driven off from the eastern half of the island, in the western part they remained as subjects of the conquerors. It was thus that in Ecgberht’s day Britain had come to consist of three long belts of country, two of which stretched side by side from the utmost north to the utmost south, and the population of each of which was absolutely diverse. Between the eastern coast and a line which we may draw along the Selkirk and Yorkshire moorlands to the Cotswolds and Selwood, lay a people of wholly English blood. Westward again of the Tamar, of the western hills of Herefordshire, and of Offa’s Dyke, lay a people whose blood was wholly Celtic. Between them, from the Lune to the coast of Dorset and Devon, ran the lands of the Wealhcyn – of folks, that is, in whose veins British and English blood were already blending together and presaging in their mingling a wider blending of these elements in the nation as a whole.
The winning of Western Britain opened, in fact, a way to that addition of outer elements to the pure English stock which has gone on from that day to this without a break. Celt and Gael, Welshman and Irishman, Frisian and Flamand, French Huguenot and German Palatine, have come successively in, with a hundred smaller streams of foreign blood. The intermingling of races has nowhere been less hindered by national antipathy; and even the hindrances interposed by law, such as Offa’s prohibition of marriage between English and Welsh, or Edward III.’s prohibition of marriage between English and Irish, have met with the same disregard. The result is, that, so far as blood goes, few nations are of an origin more mixed than the present English nation; for there is no living Englishman who can say with certainty that the blood of any of the races we have named does not mingle in his veins. As regards the political or social structure of the people, indeed, this intermingling of blood has had little or no result. They remain purely English and Teutonic. The firm English groundwork which had been laid by the character of the early conquest has never been disturbed. Gathered gradually in, tribe by tribe, fugitive by fugitive, these outer elements were quietly absorbed into a people whose social and political form was already fixed. But though it would be hard to distinguish the changes wrought by the mixture of race from the changes wrought by the lapse of time and the different circumstances which surround each generation, there can be no doubt that it has brought with it moral results in modifying the character of the nation. It is not without significance that the highest type of the race, the one Englishman who has combined in their largest measure the mobility and fancy of the Celt with the depth and energy of the Teutonic temper, was born on the old Welsh and English borderland, in the forest of Arden.
Side by side with this change in the character of its population had gone on a change in the character of the country itself. Its outer appearance, indeed, still remained much the same as in earlier days. Not half its soil had as yet been brought under tillage; as the traveller passed along its roads, vast reaches of forest, of moor, of fen, formed the main landscape before him; even the open and tilled districts were broken everywhere by woods and thickets which the farmer needed for his homestead, for his fences, for his house-building, and his fire. But limited as was its cultivation, Britain was no longer the mere sheet of woodland and waste which the English had found it. Population had increased, and four hundred years of labor had done their work in widening the clearings and thinning the woods. We have already caught glimpses of such a work in the moorlands of the North, in the fens of the Wash, in the thickets of Arden, as the monk carried his axe into the forest, or the thegn planted tillers over the grants that had been carved for him out of the waste “folkland.” The study of such a tract as the Andreds weald would show the same ceaseless struggle with nature – Sussex-men and Surrey-men mounting over the South-downs and the North-downs to hew their way forward to the future meeting of their shirebounds in the heart of the Weald, while the vast herds of swine that formed the advance guard of the Cantwara, who were cleaving their way westward along the Medway, pushed into the “dens” or glades in the woodland beyond.
We can see the general results of this industrial warfare in a single district, such as Dorset. When the English landed in Britain no tract was wilder or less civilized; its dense forest-reaches, in fact, checked the westward advance of the conquerors, and forced them to make their way slowly along the coast from the Stour to the Exe. Even when the Dorsætan were fairly settled there, the names of their hundreds and of the trysting-places of their courts show the wild state of the land. The hundred-moots gather at barrow or den, at burn or ford, in comb or vale, in glade or woodland, here beside some huge boulder or stone, there on the line of a primeval foss-dyke, or beneath some mighty and sacred tree. But even its hundred names show how soon the winning of the land began. Dorchester tells of the new life growing up on the Roman ruins; Knolton and Gillingham of the new “tons” and “hams” which rose about the settlements of the conquerors; while Beaminster, Yetminster, and Christchurch recall the work of the new Christendom that settled at last on the soil. Nowhere, indeed, was the industrial work of the Church more energetic; we have seen how Ealdhelm planted centres of agriculture as well as of religion at Sherborne and Wareham, and if more than a third of the shire belonged in later days to the clergy, it was in the main because monk and priest had been foremost in the reclamation of the land. Much, indeed, remained to be done. As late as the eve of the Norman conquest, but thirty or forty thousand inhabitants were scattered over the soil; the king’s forest-rights stretched over wild and waste throughout half the county, and even in the parts that had been won for culture, scrub and brushwood broke the less fruitful ground, while relics of the vanished woodland lingered in the copses beside every homestead, the “pannage woods” of beech and oak, and the “barren woods” of other timber that gave no mast to the swineherd.
But in spite of all, the work of civilization had begun. Little boroughs that, small as they were, already formed centres of social and industrial life were rising beside the harbors of the coast or clustering under the shelter of the great abbeys. Even where the bulk of the land lay waste, pastures stretched along the lower slopes of the moorland, whose herbage, though too rough and broken for the scythe, gave fair grazing ground to the herds of the township, while by stream and river ran the meadow-lands of homestead after homestead, clear of shrub and thicket, girt in by ditch and fence. About the homestead stretched the broad acres of the corn-land, with gangs of eight oxen, each dragging its plough through the furrows. All the features of English life, in fact all its characteristic figures, were already there. We see mills grinding along the burns, the hammer rings in the village smithy, the thegn’s hall rises out of its demesne, the parish priest is at his mass-book in the little church that forms the centre of every township, reeves are gathering their lord’s dues, forester and verderer wake the silent woodland with hound and horn, the moot gathers for order and law beneath the sacred oak or by the gray stone on the moor, along the shore the well-to-do saltmen are busy with their salt-pans, and the fishers are washing their nets in the little coast hamlets, and setting apart the due of fish for their lords.
Side by side, however, with this industrial change in the temper and aspect of the country, was going on a far more profound change in its moral life. We have already noted the more striking and picturesque sides of the revolution which had been wrought in the displacement of the old faith and the adoption of the new – the planting of a Church on the soil with its ecclesiastical organization, its bishops, its priests, its court, and its councils, its language, its law, above all, the new impulse given to political consolidation by the building up of Britain into a single religious communion. But these results of the new faith were small and unimportant beside the revolution which was wrought by it in individual life. From the cradle to the grave it had forced on the Englishman a new law of conduct, new habits, new conceptions of life and society. It entered above all into that sphere within which the individual will of the freeman had been till now supreme – the sphere of the home; it curtailed his powers over child and wife and slave; it forbade infanticide, the putting away of wives, or cruelty to the serf. It challenged almost every social conception; it denied to the king his heritage of the blood of the gods; it proclaimed slavery an evil, war an evil, manual labor a virtue. It met the feud face to face by denouncing revenge. It held up gluttony and drunkenness, the very essence of the old English “feast,” as sins. It claimed to control every circumstance of life. It interfered with labor-customs by prohibitions of toil on Sundays and holydays. It forced on a rude community, to which bodily joys were dear, long and painful fasts. Even profounder modifications were brought about by the changes it wrought in the personal history of every Englishman. Ceremonialism hung round every one in those old days from the cradle to the grave, and by the contact with Christendom the whole character of English ceremonialism was altered. The very babe felt the change. Baptism succeeded the “dragging through the earth” for Hertha. A new kin was created for child and parents in the “gossip” of the christening. The next great act of life, marriage, remained an act done before and with assent of the fellow-villagers; but new bonds of affinity limited a man’s choice; and while the old hand-plighting and wed survived, the priest’s blessing was added. The burial-rite was as completely altered. The burial-fire was abolished; and instead of resting beneath his mound, like Beowulf, on some wind-swept headland or hill, the Christian warrior slept with his fellows in his lowly grave beneath the shade of the village church.
But if the old faith was beaten by the new, it was long in being killed. A hundred years after the conversion of Kent, King Wihtroed had still to forbid Kentishmen “offering to devils.” At the very close of the eighth century synods in Mercia and Northumbria were struggling against the heathen practice of eating horse-flesh at the feast to Woden. In spite of this resistance, however, Wodenism was so completely vanquished that even the coming of the Danes failed to revive it. The Christian priest had no longer to struggle against the worship of Thunder or of Frigga. But the far older natureworship, the rude fetichism which dated back to ages long before history, had tougher and deeper roots. The new religion could turn the nature-deities of this primeval superstition into devils, its spells into magic, its spaewives into witches, but it could never banish them from the imagination of men; it had, in the end, even to capitulate to the nature-worship, to adopt its stones and its wells, to turn its spells into exorcisms and benedictions, its charms into prayers. How persistent was the strength of the older belief we see even at a later time than we have reached. “If witches or diviners,” says Eadward, “perjurers or morth-workers, or foul, defiled, notorious adulteresses be found anywhere within the land, let them be driven from the country and the people cleansed, or let them wholly perish within the country.” Æthelstan, Eadmund, and Æthelred are as vigorous in their enactments; and the Church Councils were fierce in their denunciations of these lower superstitions. “We earnestly forbid all heathendom,” says a canon of Cnut’s day. “Heathendom is that men worship idols; that is, that they worship heathen gods, and the sun or the moon, fire or rivers, water-wells or stones, or great trees of any kind; or that they love witchcraft or promote ‘morth-work’ in any wise, or by ‘blot’ or by ‘fyrht,’ or do anything of like illusions.” If witches or diviners, morth-workers or adulteresses, be anywhere found in the land, let them be diligently driven out of the country, or let them wholly perish in the country, save that they cease and amend.” The effort of the kings and the Church was far from limiting it self to words. In the tenth century we hear of the first instance of a death in England for heresy, in the actual drowning of a witch-wife at London Bridge.
But against many a heathen usage even Councils did not struggle. Easter fires, Mayday fires, Midsummer fires, with their numerous ceremonies, the rubbing the sacred flame, the running through the glowing embers, the throwing flowers on the fire, the baking’ in it and distributing large loaves and cakes, with the round dance about it, remained village customs. At Christmas the entry of the boar’s head, decked with laurel and rosemary, recalled the sacrifice of the boar to Frigga at the Midwinter feast of the old heathendom. The autumn feast lingered on unchallenged in the village harvesthome, with the sheaf, in old times a symbol of the god, nodding, gay with flowers and ribbons, on the last wagon. As the ploughman took to his plough he still chanted the prayer that, though christened as it were by the new faith, remained in substance a cry to the Earth-Goddess of the old, “Earth, Earth, Earth, Mother Earth, grant thee the Almighty One, grant thee the Lord, acres waxing, and sprouts wantoning . . . and the broad crops of barley, and the white wheat-crop, and all crops of earth.” So, as he drove the first furrow he sang again, “Hail, Mother Earth, thou feeder of folk, be thou growing by goodness of God, filled with fodder, the folk to feed.”
But if Christianity failed in winning a complete victory in this strife with the primeval religion, which the tradition of ages had almost made a part of human thought and feeling, its outer victory over individual and social life was unquestioned. One of its momentous results was the intrusion into the social system of a new class – that of the clergy. The shorn head had its own social rights. Bishop, priest, lesser clerk, had each his legal “wer” as well as king, thegn, ceorl. The churchmen formed a distinct element in the state, an element to which, in numbers, wealth, influence, jurisdiction, character, nothing analogous existed in the older English society; a class with its own organization, rule, laws, discipline, carefully defined by written documents, in face of a world where all was yet vague, fluctuating, traditional. But this class had hardly taken its place in English society when influences from without and from within began to modify its relation to the general body of the state; and yet more radical modifications were brought about by the Danish wars. The very character of the Church was changed. English Christianity had in its earlier days been specially monastic. But the development of the country was fast changing the relation of monasticism to its religious needs. The earlier monasteries had been practically mission-stations – centres from which preachers went out to convert the country, and from which, after its conversion, priests were still sent about to conduct its worship. But as the country became Christian the place of these missionaries was taken by the parish priest. The influence of the unmonastic clergy, the seculars, as they were termed, superseded that of the regu lars. It was not by monasteries, but by its parochial organization, that the Church was henceforth to penetrate into the very heart of English society.
It was only by slow degrees that the parish, or kirkshire as it was then called, attained a settled form. The three classes of churches which we find noted in the laws mark so many stages in the religious annexation of the land. The minster, or mother church, which levied dues over wide tracts, recalled the earlier days when the Church still had an exclusively monastic form, and its preachers went forth from mountain centres to evangelize the country. The next stage was represented by the manorial church, the establishment within this wide area by lord after lord of churches on their own estates for the service of their dependants, the extent of whose spiritual jurisdidtion was at first coincident with that of the estate itself. A third class, of small churches without burial-grounds, represented the growing demands of popular religion. From Boeda’s letter to Archbishop Ecgberht we see that the establishment of manorial churches, that is, of what we commonly mean by a parochial system, was still far from complete, at least in Northumbria, in the middle of the eighth century; but in the half century that followed, it had probably extended itself fairly over the land. An attempt was also made to provide a settled livelihood for the parish priests in the “tithe,” or payment of a tenth of the farmproduce by their parishioners; but the obligation to pay this was still only imperfectly recognized, and the repeated injunctions of kings and synods from Æthelstan downwards witness, by their repetition, to the general disobedience. It is probable that the priest as yet relied far more for his subsistence on his dues, on the “plough-alms” after Easter, the “church-shot” at Martinmas, and “light-shot” thrice in the year, as well as the “soul-shot” that was paid at the open grave.
Nothing is more remarkable in this extension of the ecclesiastical system than the changes wrought by it in the original unit of English social life. The stages by which the township passed into its modern form of the parish, and by which almost every trace of its civil life successively disappeared, are obscure and hard to follow, but the change began with the first entry of the Christian priest into the township. The village church seems often to have been built on the very mound that had served till then for the gatherings of the tunsfolk. It is through this that we so often find in later days the tun-moot held in the church-yard or ground about the church; and the common practice even now of the farmers gathering for conference outside the church porch before morning service may preserve a memory of this freer open-air life of the moot before it became merged in the parish vestry. The church thus became the centre of village life; it was at the churchdoor as in the moot, that “banns” were proclaimed, marriages or bargains made; even the “fair,” or market, was held in the church-yard, and the village feast, an institution no doubt of immemorial antiquity, was held on the day of the saint to which the church was dedicated; while the priest himself, as its custodian, displaced more and more the tunreeve or elder. It was he who preserved the weights and measures of the little community, who headed the “beating” of its bounds, who administered its oaths and ordeals, who led its four chosen men to hundred-moot or folk-moot, and sometimes even to the field. The revolution which was transforming the free township into the manor of a lord aided in giving the priest a public position. Though the lord’s court came to absorb the bulk of the work of the older tun-moot, the regulation and apportionment of the land, the enforcement of by-laws, the business of its police, yet the tun-moot retained the little that grant or custom had not stripped from it; and it is thus that, in its election of village officers, of churchwarden and waywarden, as well as in its exercise of the right of taxation within the township for the support of church and poor, we are enabled to recognize in the parish vestry, with the priest at its head, the survival of the village-moot which had been the nucleus of our early life.
Without, the new faith brought England for the first time, as we have seen, into religious contact with the western world through the mission-work of Boniface and his followers in Germany, and into political contact with it through the relations which this mission work established with the Empire of the Franks. But a social contact of a far closer and more national kind was brought about by the growth of pilgrimages. At the time which we have reached, pilgrimages were among the leading features of English life. The spell which the mere name of Rome had thrown over Wilfrid and Benedict Biscop had only wrought the more widely as years went on. From churchman it passed to layman, and the enthusiasm reached its height when English ‘kings laid down their crowns to become suppliants at the shrine of the apostles. Fresh from his slaughter of the Jutes in the Isle of Wight, the West-Saxon Ceadwalla “went to Rome, being desirous to obtain the peculiar honor of being washed in the font of baptism within the church of the blessed apostles; for he had learned that in baptism alone the entrance of heaven is opened to mankind, and he hoped that laying down his flesh as soon as he was baptized, he, being cleansed, should immediately pass to the eternal joys of heaven. Both which things came to pass as he had conceived them in his mind. For coming to Rome,” in 689, “he was baptized on the holy Saturday before Easter Day, and being still in his white garment he fell sick, was freed from the flesh,” on the 20th of April, “and was associated with the blessed in heaven.” Twenty years later a king of the Mercians and a king of the East Saxons quitted their thrones to take the tonsure at Rome, and in 725 even Ine of Wessex gave up the strife with the anarchy about him, and made his way to die amidst the sacred memories of the holy city. The pilgrimages of the kings gave a new energy to the movement, and from this time the pilgrims’ way was thronged by groups of English folk, “noble and ceorl, layman and clerk, men and women.” The dangers and hardships of the journey failed to deter them. The road which the pilgrims followed was mainly the same by which English travellers nowadays reach Italy; they landed at Quentavic near Boulogne, which was then the chief port of the northern coast of Gaul, and, crossing the high grounds of Burgundy at Langres, journeyed along the Saone valley and Savoy to the passes of Mount Cenis. It was in these Alpine districts that the troubles of the pilgrims reached their height; for if an Archbishop of Canterbury could be frozen to death in traversing them, we may conjecture how severe must have been the sufferings of poorer travellers; but to the natural hardships of the journey was added the hostility of their fellow-men. To the robber lords of the mountain valleys pilgrims were a natural prey. It was in vain that Offa and Cnut alike sought protection for their subjects from Charles the Great and the Emperor Conrad. Imperial edicts, told little on the greed of these hungry mountain wolves; an archbishop was plundered in Cnut’s own day; and soon after the marauders were lucky enough to pillage three bishops as well. It was in vain that the wayfarers gathered into com panies for mutual protection; for the country with its defiles and precipices was itself on the side of their assailants, and in the opening of the tenth century we hear of the surprise and slaughter of two bodies of English pilgrims in the mountains.
But neither the dangers of the journey nor the fever that awaited them at its close checked the rush of pilgrims. The increase in number, indeed, had been accompanied by a falling off in the character of the travellers. In some cases the exemption from port-dues which was granted to pilgrims seems to have been used as a cover for smuggling; while the custom of enforcing a visit to the shrine of St. Peter as a penance for ecclesiastical crimes must have introduced a criminal element into the pilgrim companies. The association was the easier, as the unshorn hair and beard which the law imposed on the “banished” man was also the customary mark of the pilgrim. Poverty, too, told hardly on the virtue of the women devotees; and Boniface, with a touch of priestly exaggeration, protests that by the middle of the eighth century Englishwomen of evil life could be found in every city in Lombardy. But the religious impulse never ceased to supply worthier pilgrims than these; there was indeed so constant a stream of Englishmen traversing Rome from shrine to shrine, listening to its wild legends, gathering relics, books, gold-work, and embroidery, that it was necessary by Offa’s day to found a distinct quarter of the town, called the “Saxon School,” for their reception and shelter.
It would be hard to trace out the multifold forms in which the new religion impressed itself upon the social and political organization of the people whom it had won. We have already seen the influence which it exerted on the intellectual development of the country; but if the art of writing, as the missionaries introduced it, made a revolution in our literature, it made an even greater revolution in our law. Law, as all early tribes understood it was simply the custom of each separate people as uttered from memory by its “law-man,” under check of his assessors and of the gathered folk. Such utterances were looked on as changeless and divine. The authority of the past was, in fact, unquestioned; the people itself was conscious of no power to change the customs of its fathers; and it was only by an unconscious adaptation to the varying circumstances of each generation that this oral law was ceaselessly modified. But with the writing down of these customs the whole conception of law was changed. Not only was its sacred character, as well as the mystery which veiled its sources in the memory of the law-man, taken from it, but the mere writing them down fixed and hardened the customs themselves and took from them their power of adaptation and self-development; for change in the laws could henceforth only be wrought consciously, and on grounds of reason or necessity which questioned or set aside the authority they drew from the past. What caused this revolution to be so little felt was the slowness with which it was wrought. Great as was the fame of Æthelberht’s code among scholars like Bæda, it was long before the rival states followed the example of Kent. There is nothing to warrant us in believing that written law reached Wessex before Ine, or Mercia before Offa, or that it ever reached Northumbria at all. The sphere, too, of the written code remained a narrow and partial one; it restricted itself, for the most part, to such customs as were affected by the new moral conceptions which Christianity brought in and the new social order it created, or to the changes in police or in land-tenure which sprang from the natural advance of population and wealth. Æthelberht’s laws are little more than a record of the customary fines for penal offences, with a provision for the legal status of the new Christian priesthood, and in the Kentish codes that follow, it is mainly on the ecclesiastical side that the area of legislation is widened. Ine found himself forced by the advance of industry, and by a new state of public order, to deal largely with the subjects of agriculture and police, while fresh provisions were needed to regulate the position of the Welsh who had submitted to his sword; but in other ways the bounds of his legislation are as narrow as those of the Kentish code; nor, so far as we can gather from Ælfred’s compilation, were those of Offa any wider. To the last, indeed, the whole of our family law, with the bulk of our village and of our land law, remained purely oral.
The new moral ideas which were generated alike by Christianity and by the settlement of the community itself in more peaceful and industrious form told with equal force on English jurisprudence. A glance at the early history of our national justice shows that its original groundwork was the right of feud. Older than “the peace of the folk,” far older than the king’s peace,” which was to succeed it, was the “frith” or peace of the freeman himself – the right that each man had to secure for himself safe life and sound limb. He lay, as the phrase ran then, “in his own hand.” It was his right to fight his foe, his right, and even his duty, personally to exact vengeance for wrong done to him; and his kinsmen were bound by their tie of blood to aid him alike in self-defence and in revenge. Traces of this older state of things, in which every freeman was his own absolute guardian and avenger, ran through the whole structure of our later jurisprudence and procedure. A man might slay one whom he found in his own house within closed doors with his wife, or daughter, or sister, or mother; he might slay the thief whom he caught red-handed in the actual commission of his theft, or the accused man who would not come in peacefully to make answer to the charge. But as a general right, that of unregulated vengeance had long passed away before Saxon or Engle reached Britain. The conquerors came as “folks;” and the very existence of a folk implied a “folk-frith” of the community as a whole. Every man of the folk lay in “the folk’s hand;” and, wrong-doer as he might be, it was only when the “hand” was opened, and its protection withdrawn, that the folk could suffer him to be mairned or slain. The earliest conception, therefore, of public justice was a solemn waiver on the part of the community of its right and duty of protection in the case of one who had wronged his fellow-member of the folk. Till such a waiver was given the wrong-doer remained in the folk’s “mund;” and to act against him without such a waiver, or without appeal to the folk, was to act against the folk itself, for it was a breach of the peace or frith to which his “mund” entitled him. It was the demand for such a withdrawal of the public protection that constituted the trial, and the folk were the only judges of the demand. Thrice, and before good witness, had the summons to the folk-moot, or court, to be given by the accuser to the man he charged with the crime, and that at his own house, at the sunsetting, and seven days before the moot. Refusal thrice repeated, on the part of the accused, to hearken to the summons to make answer in the folk-moot, or to submit to its doom, was a contempt of the folk; but only after threefold refusal was the folk’s “mund” withdrawn from him; till then the wronged man who sought his own vengeance for the wrong broke the folk-frith and became a wrong-doer in his turn.
It was thus that folk-moot and hundred-moot assumed a judicial character. Originally they were no courts of justice in the modern sense of the word; they did not decide on the truth or falsehood of the charge made, still less did they assign a punishment for wrong done. The wrong was still between man and man; its punishment, if punished it was, must be exacted by the wronged man, or his kinsfolk, from the wrong-doer by sheer fighting; but ere the fight could begin the leave of the folk at large had to be sought and given. The license ran in words long preserved in English law,” homini liceat pugnare,” “you may fight.” But before such a license could be procured, it was needful that the folk should decide that the man had a right to fight; and the accused thus found himself fronted by the oath, the solemn appeal to heaven. It may be that here again men looked on their fellow-men as being in the “mund,” not only of the folk, but, in a higher sense, of the gods they served, and that, as the appearance of the accuser before the moot was a seeking for the discharge of the wrong-doer from the protection of the folk, so the oath was a seeking for his discharge from the protection of his heavenly lord and guardian. But whether such a conception, or more dim and vague ideas of awe and dread, as of a vengeance of the gods on men who wronged them by falsehood, gave birth to the oath, it was the soul of the judicial process before the folk-moot. By a fore-oath the accuser stated his charge against the accused; and if the accused met oath with oath the appeal was complete. With the truth or falsehood of the charge the folk had nothing to do: what it had to do was to judge whether the charge was of such a sort, and made in such a way, as to give the accuser fair ground for seeking amends from the accused. If such was its judgment, the folk withdrew its “mund,” and suffered the two contending parties to wage their war. But its jurisdiction was not yet exhausted. As a people interested in its own peace and order, the folk had still the right, as it had the power, to determine how this war should be waged. Even in the earliest days custom had thrown its bonds round the wild right of private war. It had forbidden all secret vengeance, such as poisoning, all mutilation or cold-blooded cruelty, all concealment of the deed. Though in vengeance, or self-defence, a man might slay his foe if he met him, yet “If a man slay another man in revenge, or self-defence,” ran a law which, late as the date of its embodiment in writing may be, is clearly a record of primeval usage, “let him take to himself none of the goods of the dead, neither his horse, nor helmet, nor shield, nor any money, but in wonted manner let him arrange the body of the dead man, his head to the west, his feet to the east, upon his shield, if he have it; and let him drive deep his lance, and hang there his arms, and to it rein in the dead man’s steed; and let him go to the nearest vill and declare his deed to the first man he meets, that he may make proof and have defence against the kindred and friends of the man he has slain.” The same web of custom threw itself round the wider warfare of the kin. As late as the days of Ælfred we see the kindred of the slain man gathered, their quick secret ride over the country, the foe’s house surrounded and besieged; but not for seven days, ran law or custom, must attack be made; for seven days the vengeance-seeker and his kinsfolk must watch the house, while the wrong-doer within takes counsel with them of his household whether to surrender or to fight. If within these days he chose to surrender, for thirty days more they lay about the house, while the wrongdoer sent about his friends and kinsmen to find men who would aid him in the atonement for his crime; and it was not till these were gathered that, taking one of his house as a spokesman, he gave him pledge that he would make full atonement, and with this pledge the spokesman came forth to the kindred of the slain. Again, in their turn, these gave pledge that the slayer might draw near in peace and himself give pledge for the “wer,” or atonement for his crime. It was only when he stood before them and gave his free pledge for this payment, and strengthened it by giving security for its completion, that the feud was at an end.
With all these bounds and limitations, however, the feud became more and more incompatible with the growing sense of humanity and public order. “Both I and all of us,” said Eadmund, in a proclamation to his people, “hold in horror the unrighteous and manifold fightings that exist among ourselves.” It jarred, too, with the conception of personal responsibility that Christianity had introduced, and which was deepening as the bonds of kinship grew weaker with the progress of society. Eadmund’s law, indeed, struck a heavy blow at the very principle of kinship – “If henceforth any man slay another, let him bear the feud himself (save that by the aid of his friends and within twelve months he make amends with the full wer), to be borne as he may. If his kinsmen forsake him and will not pay for him, it is my will that all the kindred be out of feud, save the actual doer of the deed, provided that they do not give him either food or protection. . . . Moreover, if any of the other man’s kinsmen take vengeance upon any man save the actual doer of the deed, let him be foe to the king and all his friends, and forfeit all that he has.” It was only slowly that so great a change in custom and feeling as this law implies could be actually brought about, and the feud still remained, however hampered by reforms, the base of our criminal procedure; but its enactment shows that the change had begun, and that two conceptions, from whose union our modern justice was to spring – the conception of personal responsibility for crime, and the conception of crime as committed primarily not against the individual but against the public peace – were from this time to exercise a deepening influence on national sentiment.
In the reforms of Eadmund, however, we have passed long beyond the jurisprudence of the time of Ecgberht. At the opening of the ninth century English thought was still far from our modern conceptions of justice or law – from the conception of crime as committed primarily against the public peace, as cognizable only by public authority, and as corrected by public punishment. As yet, and for centuries to come, all that either king or community attempted to do was to bring the right of private vengeance and self-protection within definite and customary bounds, to subject it to the previous sanction and permission of the folk in the folk-moot, to provide means for averting it where no good grounds existed for its exercise by solemn oath or ordeal of innocence on the part of the accused, or, where such grounds really existed, to provide and extend the sphere of a fixed and customary atonement in place of actual blood-shedding. Scant, however, as such a justice may seem to modern eyes, it would have been practically effective for the purposes of public order had any adequate machinery existed for imposing the will of the folk on accuser and accused. But the folk-moot had no direct means of enforcing its doom. If a man thrice refused, after due summons, to appear before it, or appeared but refused to bow to its decision, he put himself, indeed, by his very act, out of the folk, and out of its protection; he became, in a word, an “outlaw,” who might be hunted down like a wolf, and knocked on the head by any man who met him. But beyond this general hostility the folk had no means of forcing such an offender to submit to its judgment. A yet weightier obstacle to efficient justice was often found in the course of procedure itself. Accuser and accused brought kinsmen and friends in their train to the folk-moot, whether to sway its doom or to enforce it, or to guard against vengeance without law. With such a crowd of adherents at the moot, it must always have been hard for meaner men to get justice against king’s thegn or country tbegn, and as the nobles rose to a new height above the people it was easy for them to hold hundred- moot, and even folk-moot, at bay. Kent was among the most civilized and orderly parts of England, but at an even later time than this we find the great men of Kent setting the doom of its folk-moot absolutely at defiance.
It was this difficulty, more than all else, that must have led to the passing of the “folk’s justice” into “the justice of the king.” From the earliest days the king had been recognized not only as a political and military leader, but as a judge; and he was the one judge whose position gave him the power of enforcing his dooms, for by himself or by his ealdorman the whole military strength of the kingdom or shire could be called out to bring a culprit to submission. It was natural that as the local courts found themselves more and more helpless against the great lords they should appeal to a force before which the greatest lords must bow; and that the baffled Witan of Kent should pray Æthelstan that “if any man be so rich or of so great kin that he cannot be punished, or will not cease from his wrong-doing, you may settle how he may be carried away into some other part of your kingdom, be the case whose it may, whether of villein or thegn.” The extension, too, of thegnhood, and the growth of private jurisdictions or sokes, exempt from the common jurisdiction of the hundred-moot, gave a new scope to the justice of the king. As such private jurisdictions grew more and more frequent, they not only weakened the older justice of the people, but forced on the royal court a large development of its judicial activity, if the justice of the lords was to be hindered from passing into a means of extortion and tyranny.
Such a development was made easy by the very character of the king’s court. The English king was a great landowner, and, like other great landowners, he was driven from one “viii” to another for actual subsistence. He was in constant motion; for payments were made in kind, and it was only by moving from manor to manor that he could eat up his rents. A Northumbrian king had to consume his customary dues in one viii at the foot of the Cheviots and in another on the Don. A king of Wessex had no other means of gathering his rents from his demesne on the Exe or on the Thames. The king’s court, therefore, was really a moving body, a little army eating its way from demesne to demense, but with a home in our modern sense nowhere, encamping at one or another spot only for so long as the rent-in-kind sufficed, and then after a day or two rolling onward. In the stories of the time we see the king’s forerunners pushing ahead of the train, arriving in haste at the spot destined for the next halt, broaching the beer-barrels, setting the board, slaying and cooking the kine, baking the bread; till the long company come pounding in through the muddy roads – horsemen and spearmen, thegn and noble, bishop and clerk, the string of sumpter horses, the big wagons with the royal hoard or the royal wardrobe, and at last the heavy standard borne before the king himself. Then follows the rough justice-court, the hasty council, the huge banquet, the fires dying down into the darkness of the night, till a fresh dawn wakes the forerunners to seek a fresh encampment.
. Such was, in greater or less degree, the life of every great noble, and such, necessarily, was that of the king. But with the growing consolidation of England into a single realm these movements took a more ceremonious and political form. Custom came to regulate the seeming disorder of the royal progress; each manor, each town, knows and makes its customary payments in kind; thegn and villein render their customary service; while the royal clerk reads from the custom-roll and ticks off the dues paid and the service done. “Watching the king,” in fact, finding horses for his journey, or boats for his sail, guarding his person, supplying his larder, become the customary tenures by which towns hold their freedom. The progresses grow regular and methodical; men know when their king will be among them, they know where to bring their suit, their plea, their gift to him. As the king moves through forest and waste his progress is a chase; he finds his foresters in waiting with the villeins bound to customary service in driving the deer. As he passes over the “king’s highway,” landlord and thegn are called to give account for broken road or broken bridge. In his rough justice-court there is the appeal to be heard, the false moneyer to be branded, the outlaw to be hanged at the nearest oak. The “king’s peace” is about him as he goes; his “grith,” the breach of which no fine can atone for, spreads for a given space around his court: a double “bôt” and fine protects all who are on their way to him; if a brawler fight over his cups in the king’s hall, he may die at the king’s will. The court itself is no longer the mere train of personal attendants which followed a provincial king; it is a little army that needs its officers to order and marshal it, its chamberlain to command the household to deck the rough halls with courtly hanging for the king’s stay, to issue from the hoard the gold drinking-cups for the king’s table, to pay and command the bodyguard; its staller to order its movements, to direct the horses, the sumpter mules, the long string of wagons, as well as to “park” the vast encampment for the night; its dish-thegn and cup-thegn to provide the beeves and bread, the wines and ale, for its daily consumption. The creation of these great officers of the household, some of whom we find already existing in Ælfred’s time, was one of the most important results of the royal progresses. But a yet more important result was the impulse they gave to the change in our system of justice; for at a time when the public needs called for a judicial power which should be strong enough to enforce its doom upon noble and churl, and supreme alike over folk-moot and soke, the progresses of the king carried such a power into every corner of the realm.
The development, however, of English justice was but one of the influences that were telling through out the period on the transformation of the English kingship. As England drew together into its Three Kingdoms the wider dominion of the king removed him further and further from his people, lifting him higher and higher above the nobles, and clothing him more and more with a mysterious dignity. Every reign raised the sovereign in the social scale. The bishop, once ranked equal with him in value of life, sank to the level of the ealdorman. The ealdorman himself, in earlier days the hereditary ruler of a smaller state, became a mere delegate of the king. The king, if he was no longer sacred as the son of Woden, became yet more sacred as “the Lord’s Anointed.” By the very fact of his consecration he was pledged to a religious rule, to justice, mercy, and good government; but his “hallowing” invested him also with a power drawn not from the will of man, or the assent of his subjects, but from the will of God. Treason against him thus became the worst of crimes, while personal service at his court was held not to degrade, but to ennoble. The thegns of his household found themselves officers of state; and the development of politics, the wider extension of home and foreign affairs, gradually transformed these royal servants into a standing council of ministry for the transaction of ordinary administrative business, and the reception of judicial appeals.
The rise of the royal power was furthered by the change which passed at this time over the character of the English noble. Not only was the character of this class profoundly affected by the consolidation of the smaller folks into larger realms, but its whole relation to the king was radically changed. The superiority of the ætheling over the ceorl was a traditional superiority which reached back to the very infancy of the race, and which consisted in an actual difference, as both believed, of blood and origin. The tribal king was simply the noblest among the æthelings. But with the extinction of the smaller kingships, and the subjection of both classes to one of the greater monarchies, the position of the hereditary noble was changed. He was no longer of the same blood with the king; while the wider area of the state, and the number of Æthelings it necessarily included within it, lowered his individual position and brought him nearer to the ceorl. At the same time he was being displaced from his older position by nobles of a new and distinct class. Service with the kings, as we have seen, begot the class of thegns; and while the hereditary noble dwindled with the growth of kingship, the noble by service necessarily rose with it. An ætheling of the Middle English inevitably grew less and less important as the Mercian kingdom widened its bounds from sea to sea, while a thegn of the Mercian court grew as inevitably greater. And to the greatness that came of his relation to a greater master the thegn added a corresponding superiority of wealth. The possessions of the village noble might lift him above his fellow villager, but they could not vie with the wide domains which the kings of the great states carved out of the folkland for their thegns. The æthelings thus died down into a social class, while the thegns took their place as a political nobility dependent on the crown.
A further development of the royal power sprang from the changes wrought in the older national institutions by the disappearance of the tribal kingships in the larger monarchies of the Three Kingdoms. The life of the earlier English state was gathered up in its folk-moot. There, through its representatives chosen in every hundred-moot, the folk expressed and exercised its own sovereignty in matters of justice, as of peace and war. But when the folk sank into a portion of a wider state, its folk-moot sank with it; if it still met it was only to exercise one of its older functions, that of supreme justice-court, while political supremacy passed from it to the court of the far-off lord. And as the folk-moot died down into the later shire-moot or county court the folk’s influence on government came to an end. Folk-moots of Surreymen or South Saxons could exercise no control over a king of Wessex. Folk-moots of Hwiccas or North Engle could bring no check to bear on a king of Mercia. Nor was the loss of this influence made up by the control of the nobler class. Beside the folk-moot, and acting with it, had stood the Witenagemot, the group of æthelings gathered to give rede to the king, and through him to propose a course of action to the folk. On these the growth of the monarchies did not tell as directly as on the folk-moot. Nobles could still gather about the king; and while the folk-moot passes out of political notice, the Witenagemot is heard of more and more as a royal council. But if the name remained, the meeting itself became a whol ly different one. The decline in the class of Æthelings, their displacement by the thegn, would alone have altered its character. The distance of the king from the nobles’ homes, as the lesser realms were gathered into the Three Kingdoms, altered it yet more. When a West-Saxon king called his Witan to Exeter he probably expected few thegns from Sussex or Kent. When he called them to Kent he can hardly have seen many from Cornwall or the Defnsætan. From the opening of the age of consolidation, therefore, the Witenagemot naturally changed into a mere gathering of bishops and great ealdormen, as well as of the royal thegns in service at the court; and it retained this form under the kings of a single England, with just such an increase of numbers as necessarily resulted from the welding of the three realms into one. The seventeen bishops of the English sees, about an equal number of ealdormen, whom we may again presume to be actual rulers of the various folks and under-kingdoms, a few abbots, and some fifty or sixty nobles and thegns, comprised the list at its fullest. But the usual gatherings hardly exceed in number those of Offa’s court; and even under later kings, such as Eadgar, the usual Witenagemots number some nine prelates, five ealdormen, and fifteen thegns.
Such a council might in many ways reflect the national temper, but it was in no sense a representative of the nation. On occasions of peculiar solemnity indeed, such as that of a coronation or the promulgation of a code of laws, the old theory of a folkmoot ratifying the decisions of the Witan and the king rose again into life, and the retinues in the train of noble and prelate represented by their shouts of “Aye, aye,” the assent of the collective freemen. But such an assent was a mere survival of the past; in practice it was an empty form, and the occasions on which it was called for were rare and exceptional. In ordinary times the Witenagemot was little more than a royal council, whose members were named and summoned by the king, and which widened now and then into aristocratic assemblies that foreshadowed the “Great Council” of the later Baronage.
That the movement towards national consolidation should have stopped so long at the creation of the Three Kingdoms is one of the problems of our early history. But as the eighth century drew to its close the internal conditions of these states, and their relations to one another, showed that the long-delayed revolution was near at hand. The most prominent cause of the break-up of the political system of the Three Kingdoms was one that had already told fatally on the lesser kingships. In the earlier life of the English peoples, political individuality found its centre and representative in their royal stocks, and the number of the separate folks was shown in the number of their kings. Kent and Sussex found room for at least two in each realm; East Anglia and Wessex seem at times to have had many; there were separate royal stocks for peoples like the Hecanas and Hwiccas, or the South Mercians and Middle Engle. It was only through the extinction or degradation of these kingly families that national union was possible; and it is as a main step in bringing this about that the formation of the larger states during the seventh and eighth centuries is so important in our history. With the gradual extension of the Three Kingdoms the bulk of the smaller kingships disappeared. Some kings lingered on for a time as under-kings; some sank into ealdormen, who drew their power from the appointment of the conquering overlord; some, no doubt, perished altogether with the chances of time and of war. But a new period began from the moment that the extinction of the royal stocks told on the Three Kingdoms themselves.
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