Earlier Inhabitants: Britons, Romans, and Anglo-Saxons

The greater part of England consists of flat and fertile lowland,
particularly towards the southern and eastern coasts, where large open
plains extend themselves. Smiling landscapes, with well-cultivated
fields, beautiful ranges of forest, and small clear lakes everywhere
meet the eye. One would often be led to fancy oneself in some Danish
province, if the splendid country seats, with their extensive parks, the
numerous towns, the smoking factories, and the locomotive engines, with
their trains darting continually to and fro, did not remind one of being
in that land, which, with regard to riches and commerce, stands first in
Europe. The plains are watered by noble and smooth-flowing rivers, which
receive in their protecting embraces the thousands of ships which from
all quarters seek the coasts of England. The winter is considerably
milder than in our northern regions; and the sea air, not permitting the
snow to lie for any length of time, renders the climate, on the whole,
warmer. In summer the fields are clothed with the most luxuriant
verdure. The leafy woods, with their numerous oaks, are filled with
singing birds. The charm that is extended over English scenery, united
with that freshness of life that stirs itself on all sides, cannot fail
to make a deep impression on every foreigner. One feels in its full
extent that the nature of the country presents all the requisites for
greatness to a powerful and undegenerate people; and one no longer
requires an explanation why it was not till after a desperate struggle
that the ancient Britons relinquished it, or why, in after times,
various nations strove with their utmost efforts for the possession of
such a land.

The farther one travels towards the north or west of England, the
mountains become higher, the valleys narrower, and the streams more
rapid. In the north, however, the mountains rather resemble high hills.
They do not tower in broken masses like the granite cliffs of
Scandinavia. Their forms are softer and more undulating, and they are,
too, clothed with a rich vegetation, and frequently overgrown with wood.
In Cumberland and Westmorland are inwreathed those charming lakes whose
beauties constantly attract a number of tourists. Even the ridge of the
Cheviot Hills is not much more than about two thousand feet above the
level of the sea: but stretching from east-north-east to
west-south-west, with the river Tweed on one side, and the Solway firth
on the other, they form a natural boundary between England and Scotland.

Farthest towards the west rise the mountains of Wales, England’s real
highland. The valleys here are short and narrow, yet the country has not
the wildness of mountain tracts. Although it contains England’s highest
mountain, Snowdon, whose summit is nearly three thousand five hundred
feet above the sea, still it unites the charms of plain and mountain.
The whole of Wales may be regarded as a knot of mountains opposed by
nature to the enormous waves of the Atlantic Ocean and Irish Sea. The
middle is the highest part, whence rivers flow towards the east and
west; the latter of which, after a short and foaming course, discharge
themselves into the sea. The extent of the country, both in length and
breadth, is, on the whole, inconsiderable.

This little mountain tract, which, in comparison with England, is poor
as regards fertility, but all the richer in natural beauties, contains
the last remains of the former masters of England, the Celtic Britons.
By its remote situation, its rocks and narrow mountain passes, the
characteristics of its former inhabitants have been preserved to our
times. The people speak the ancient Welsh language, a branch of the
Celtic stock; and have also inherited no small share of that burning
hatred which their forefathers nourished against the English, who gained
possession of their original fatherland by force.

Wales was united to England as early as the close of the thirteenth
century; yet for ages later the Britons knew how to keep their country
almost closed against the intrusion of strangers; whilst the harpers, by
their ancient songs, kept alive the remembrance of past exploits and
past disasters, and thus, as it were, still more hedged in and protected
the language and nationality of the people. It was not till later times,
when high roads, and at present railroads, began to open a more frequent
intercourse between Wales and England, that the tones of the harp became
almost entirely mute. The Welsh language gave way more and more to the
English, and the time can hardly be far distant when the Celtic will
become entirely extinct in Wales, as it has long been in Cornwall.

The people, whose scanty remnant thus spend the last days of their old
age among the Welsh mountains, formerly belonged, both by possessions
and kinship, to the most powerful in Europe. Not only were the Scotch
and the Irish of the same origin with them, but on the other side of the
channel, throughout Gaul, or France, Spain, and the middle and south of
Europe, dwelt tribes of the Celtic race. Until about the time of the
birth of Christ there was no people north of the Alps, which, with
regard to power, agriculture, commerce, skill in the arts, and
civilization in general, could equal, much less surpass, the Celts. Yet
they were not strong enough to clip the wings of the Roman eagle, when
it began to extend them over the Alps. The superior military skill and
higher civilization of the Romans, triumphed over the various Celtic
tribes, which were torn by internal dissensions, and could not once,
even under the danger which menaced them, faithfully unite together.
Shortly after the birth of Christ, therefore, the Roman hosts had
already gained a footing in Britain, and, notwithstanding the violent
and repeated attacks of the natives, soon made themselves masters of the
country. They even fought their way to Scotland; where, however, the
wild highlands, and their brave inhabitants, the Caledonians, arrested
their victorious march. The Romans were now obliged to erect walls,
ramparts, and towers, in order to prevent the highland Scots from
uniting with the Britons, and to avert the speedy loss of the land which
they had already won. Throughout Britain they laid the foundations of a
civilization till then unknown there. They promoted agriculture,
commerce, and trade; they made roads, and built towns and castles; and,
as they had not immigrated in any great multitudes, they left the
inhabitants in tolerably quiet possession of the soil of their

But the Roman power fell in turn. It was natural that their dominion in
so distant and sequestered a land as Britain should decay sooner and
more easily than elsewhere, especially as the British chiefs did not
fail immediately to revive the old disputes. Their rude neighbours in
Scotland, the Picts and Scots, no longer restrained by fear of the
Romans, made serious and devastating inroads upon the northern provinces
of England, where no slight degree of riches and splendour already
prevailed. The Britons, moreover, under the dominion of the Romans, had,
like their kinsmen across the channel, already begun to grow cowardly
and effeminate. Long oppression had given the power of the Celts a
death-blow: and they were consequently unable to withstand the powerful
and undegenerate tribes of Germany, which now, in the great tide of
emigration from the east and north of Europe, rushed into the old Celtic
countries, and made themselves new abodes, either, for the most part,
putting the ancient inhabitants to death, or reducing them to a state of

In the fifth century Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, from North Germany and
the peninsula of Jutland, invaded Britain. The unfortunate Britons, when
they would not submit to their conquerors, were persecuted with fire and
sword, and were at last driven to the remote mountain districts in the
West of England, particularly Cumberland (the land of the Cymbri or
Celts), Wales, and Cornwall. After a sanguinary war, which lasted more
than a hundred and fifty years, all their fine fruitful plains fell into
the hands of their foreign conquerors, who continually brought more and
more of their countrymen over, to build up again and inhabit the burnt
or destroyed towns and houses, and to cultivate the neglected fields.
The Angles settled principally in the north of England, the Saxons in
the south and south-west, and mingled amongst both dwelt the Jutes, who
do not appear to have been numerous enough to occupy large districts of
their own. Under the common name of “Anglo-Saxons,” the descendants of
these nations continued for several centuries to be the reigning people,
although the Britons did not cease to make harassing invasions on the
frontiers of their hereditary enemies. For the rest, the Saxons
successfully continued what the Romans had begun, with regard to the
improvement of the land, and the promotion of civilization among the
people. They were, it is true, divided into several tribes and smaller
kingdoms, which not unfrequently warred against each other. But
Christianity soon began to extend itself, and about the time of its
introduction the separate kingdoms were united into one. Churches and
convents rose with surprising rapidity throughout the country, and the
pursuits of peace, science, and art, throve luxuriantly. Every plant,
though foreign, flourished vigorously in the English soil.

In the first ages, however, Christianity produced among the people,
as was the case in other countries besides England, a sort of
degeneracy and weakness. Instead of the din of battle of the
heathens there were now heard songs and prayers, which, joined with
the constantly-increasing refinement, made the people dull and
effeminate, so that they willingly bent under the yoke of their
masters, both spiritual and temporal. In the ninth, tenth, and
eleventh centuries the Anglo-Saxons had greatly degenerated from
their forefathers. Relatives sold one another into thraldom;
lewdness and ungodliness were become habitual; and cowardice had
increased to such a degree, that, according to the old chroniclers,
one Dane would often put ten Anglo-Saxons to flight. Before such a
people could be conducted to true freedom and greatness it was
necessary that an entirely new vigour should be infused into the
decayed stock.

This vigour was derived from the Scandinavian north, where neither
Romans nor any other conquerors had domineered over the people, and
where heathenism with all its roughness, and all its love of freedom and
bravery, still held absolute sway.

A fate similar to that which the Anglo-Saxons had formerly brought upon
the Britons, now partly became the lot of the Anglo-Saxons themselves.
The same sea, the North Sea, or, as the old inhabitants of Scandinavia
called it, “England’s Sea,” which in the fifth century had borne the
Anglo-Saxons to England, and which had afterwards served to maintain the
peaceful connections of trade, and the intercourse between kinsmen in
England and in their northern fatherland, now suddenly teemed with the
numberless barks of the Vikings, which, from the close of the eighth
century, constantly showed themselves in all the harbours and rivers of
England. For about three centuries the Danes were the terror of the
Anglo-Saxons. They generally anchored their ships at the mouths of
rivers, or lay under the islands on the coasts. Thence they would sail
up the rivers to the interior of the country, where they frequently
mounted on horseback, and conveyed themselves with incredible speed from
one place to another. Their frightful sabre-cuts resounded everywhere.
Their progress was marked by the burning of churches and convents,
castles, and towns; and great multitudes of people were either killed or
dragged away into slavery. In a short time they began to take up their
abode in the country for the winter, and in the spring they renewed
their destructive incursions. The terrified inhabitants imagined they
beheld a judgment of God in the devastations of the Vikings, which had
been foretold in ancient prophecies.

Not even the remote and poorer districts of Wales were spared. It is
true that it was extremely difficult for the Danes to force an entrance
on the land side, and, in order to do so by sea, it was necessary to
make a troublesome and dangerous voyage round the long-extended
peninsula formed by the modern Cornwall and Devonshire. In general its
rivers were not large or navigable, and the number of good harbours was
but small. Nevertheless, the Northmen seem to have known Wales well, as
the old land of the Britons; since it was always called “Bretland,” to
distinguish it from England. Palnatoke, the celebrated chief of the
Jomsvikings, is said to have married there, during one of his warlike
expeditions, Olöf, a daughter of the Bretland jarl, Stefner, whose
Jarledömme (earldom) Palnatoke afterwards possessed. The Sagas often
make mention of _Björn hin Bretske_ (Bear the Briton) as being among his
men; and it is said that when he assisted at the funeral solemnities
which his foster son, King Svend Tveskjæg[3], held in honour of his
father, King Harald Blaatand[4], the half of his suite were Britons.
Svend himself had ravaged Bretland; and it was there, as is well known,
that the Icelander, Thorvald Kodransön, surnamed Vidförle (the
far-travelled), delivered him by his noble disinterestedness from a
perilous imprisonment.

Footnote 3:


Footnote 4:


The expeditions of the Danes to Bretland seem, however, to have been
confined to the tracts bordering on the north bank of the Severn, and to
the Isle of Anglesey; which latter was not unfrequently visited by the
Norwegians in their piratical voyages to the Hebrides and Ireland. At
least the Sagas mention it as “the southernmost region, of which former
Norwegian kings had made themselves masters;” and it was probably here
that Palnatoke had his kingdom. The very name of the island recalls a
close connection with the inhabitants of the north. Anciently it was
called “Maenige;” but the Danes and Norwegians, with regard, clearly, to
its situation by the land of the Angles (England), gave it the name of
“Öngulsey,” or Angelsöen, whence the present form Anglesey may,
doubtless, be said to have been derived.

The connections of the Danish Vikings with Bretland were, however, far
from being always unfriendly. For as the Britons in Wales and Cornwall
constantly nourished a lively hatred against the Anglo-Saxons, on whose
lands they continued to make war, the Danes often entered into an
alliance with them against their common enemies. The Danish and British
armies were either combined, or else the Britons attacked from the west
and south, whilst the Danes invaded the eastern coasts. These deep and
well-laid plans show that the views of the Danes were no longer confined
to robbery and plunder, with a view to gain booty, or to overthrow the
churches and convents which threatened their ancient gods with
destruction, but that they now seriously thought of conquering for
themselves new tracts of country; nay, if possible, of subjugating or
expelling the Anglo-Saxons throughout England.

Already in the ninth century the Anglo-Saxons had receded considerably
before the Danes, who had obtained possessions on the east coast, where
they quickly spread themselves, and where fresh arriving Vikings always
found reception and assistance. The Anglo-Saxon king, Alfred the Great,
was driven from his throne, and wandered about a long time in the
forests, whilst the Danes held the sovereignty in his dominions. He
succeeded, indeed, at length in regaining the crown; but in the mean
time the possessions of the Danes on the east coast had been extended,
and their power continually increased by the arrival of fresh emigrants,
who settled in different parts of the country, and married the native
women. Alfred, it is true, built fleets for the protection of the
coasts; but the militia-men instituted in his time, in order to repel
the frequent attacks of the Danes, now went over to them, accounting
them their kinsmen. In Northumberland especially, the Danes, and a
considerable number of Norwegians, had settled themselves securely under
their own chiefs. Here they had sought a refuge against the new order of
things which was now about to make itself felt in the mother countries,
Denmark and Norway.

Partly as a result of the expeditions of the Vikings, and the frequent
contact into which they were thus brought with Christian States,
Christianity began, towards A.D. 900, to spread itself in the countries
of Scandinavia. About the same time occurred there, as in the rest of
Europe, a union of many small kingdoms under a single sovereign: and the
Scandinavian tribes were subjected to the kings of Denmark, Norway, and
Sweden. Some powerful and malcontent ones had indeed migrated beyond the
sea; but, nevertheless, there were materials enough left for dissension
in the new kingdoms, before Christianity could be generally introduced,
and the power of the kings firmly established. A time arrived when the
internal struggles in Denmark and Norway scarcely allowed the
inhabitants to send any availing support to their friends in
Northumberland, or to the other Danes on the coasts of England. Towards
the middle of the tenth century, therefore, the hitherto almost
independent Danish provinces in England were compelled to submit to the
Anglo-Saxon kings, whose sovereignty, however, was but of short
duration; for after the year 980 Danish and Norwegian Vikings again
swarmed throughout England. Nor was it now, as formerly, merely the
petty kings, who, with a comparatively inferior force, conducted these
warlike expeditions. By degrees the Danish and Norwegian kings’ sons,
and even the kings themselves, endeavoured, with large fleets and
well-appointed armies, to wrest the sceptre from the hands of the feeble
Anglo-Saxon monarchs. It was in vain that the latter strove against
them. They laid a tax on the whole land, called _Danegelt_, in order to
defray the great expenses which the defence of the country against the
Danes occasioned. But the money thus raised it was often necessary to
expend in buying off the Danes, or in supporting their victorious hosts
whilst they wintered in the country. The Anglo-Saxon king, Ethelred,
after seeing his kingdom harried and fearfully devastated by the Danish
king, Svend Tveskjæg, in conjunction with Olaf Trygvesön, the son of the
king of Norway, first succeeded in making peace with Olaf in 995, and
with Svend in 1002, after paying immense sums as Danegelt, and agreeing
to many humiliating conditions.

As a last resource against the daily-increasing number and power of the
Danes, Ethelred determined secretly and cruelly to murder these who were
settled in England. The massacre took place on St. Bridget’s eve, the
13th of November, 1002. Old and young, women and children, were murdered
with the most frightful tortures. Not even the churches could protect
the Christian Danes against the fury of the Anglo-Saxons. The slaughter
was, however, confined almost exclusively to the south of England; since
towards the north, and particularly in Northumberland, the population
was chiefly of Danish and Norwegian extraction.

No sooner did the news of Ethelred’s perfidious and sanguinary act reach
Denmark, than a strong fleet was fitted out, and in the following year
(1003) the Danish flag waved on the coasts of England. After numerous
sanguinary battles, the Anglo-Saxons were compelled to submit to Svend
Tveskjæg and Canute. What could not be conquered by force of arms was
obtained through prudence and cunning. The Danish conquest of England
was completed, and for about one generation Danish kings wore the
English crown.