who are yer?
Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre , mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlað.... "
"Our hearts must grow resolute, our courage more valiant, our spirits must be greater, though our strength grows less...”
Battle of Maldon - Anglo-Saxon Poem
Our people first came to this country around 450AD, firstly as paid mercenaries and then later to conquer and settle. These were a northern European people composed of three main tribes - Engles, Saxons and Jutes. The dominant group were the Engles who gave their name to their new homeland - Englalond, the Land of the Engles. All three tribes shared a common background, language and culture and by the 9th century they had merged into a single English identity. Those writing at the time would also refer to the early English people as The Anglo-Saxons.
Hengest and Horsa were two of the first Anglo-Saxons to come to this country. Chieftains of the Jutes, they came with three longships of fighting men, not initially as an invasion but by invitation. They had been invited here by Vortigern, a British king who had come to rule large parts of what is now southern England. The reason for their invitation was to counter repeated raiding by the Pictish people of Scotland. The Jutes defeated a Pictish army sent against them, but according to the Venerable Bede in his eighth-century History of the English People, they also noted that the other defenders were cowardly and weak in the face of the enemy.
Relations with the Welsh king soon deteriorated after it was said that he “welshed” on a deal to pay his mercenaries what he had promised. In a clash with Vortigern, Horsa was killed, but Hengest had soon taken over the whole of Kent and the Isle of Wight. Soon Engles from Schleswig-Holstein and Saxons from the region between the Rhine and the Elbe arrived in force. The Saxons established themselves in Essex (East Saxons), Middlesex (Middle Saxons), Sussex (South Saxons) and Wessex (West Saxons), while the Engles occupied East Anglia (East Engles). From the East Engle’s territory we also get the words Norfolk – the land of the North Folk and Suffolk – the land of the South Folk. As more of their kinsman arrived they pushed inland up the rivers with small squadrons of ships whose crews became the founders of new communities. The Engles pushed into the Midlands and further north forming the new kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria as well as settling most of what is now Lowland Scotland*. Later Viking settlement also occurred in the north with new kingdoms of their own being formed, most notably at York before eventually being re-conquered by the English. Over the years these small independent kingdoms were gradually brought together by successive kings and forged into what we know today as England.
These were the early pioneering days for the English people. No one had that much more than the next man and no one was that much more important than anyone else. They picked their own leaders who ruled by consent rather than by force and intimidation, and justice was dispensed in open-air moots in full view of the people. Their social lives were based around great Saxon mead halls, 24m or more in length and hung inside with tapestries, ornamental drinking horns and shields. Here they would drink and listen to the minstrels with harps and repeat popular tales like that of Beowulf that had been passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation. Theirs was a society where the principles of honour loyalty and kinship were prized above all others. These were people who’s lives were not dominated solely by the acquisition of worldly goods but whether their memories would be kept alive and they would be remembered with fondness and respect when they were gone.
A man’s good name was everything and indeed their entire system of law and justice was founded upon the sworn word of good men. The ties of kinship were of utmost importance and it was from here that they drew their strength. It was in the interest of the entire kin-group to watch over potential troublemakers within their own group as it would be everyone, even down to second cousins, who would be held responsible to pay the fines incurred by any wrong-doer within their group. To be disowned by your own kinsmen would be tantamount to disaster as without the protection of the extended family and kin-group you would be “nothing” and would have no one to swear an oath in your defence.
Although it was a formal society even in these early days women were protected by law from marrying men they did not like, and could own land and property and divorce if they wished. Women had much more power and influence in Anglo-Saxon culture than under later Norman rule where they were viewed as little more than the possession of their husbands. They took a full role in society and there is much evidence of this where their names appear in wills and charters, as well as the presence of female names in the place names of towns and villages. They could dispose of their own assets as they saw fit and not simply at the behest of their husbands and as such had a legal presence within society and so were considered “oath worthy” Although both men and women had their place in society (King Alfred referred to the spindle and spear sides of the family), the lines were not always strictly held and there are tales of “shieldmaidens” taking to the battlefield with their men.
At the pinnacle of this society were the warriors. They owed unquestionable allegiance to there Lord who, in return, kept them and supplied them with mead and for his closest household troops, land and riches. These were men bound by honour, to fight to the death on the battlefield rather than face the shame of returning home without their Lord. Foremost amongst this warrior elite were the famed English Huscarls, possibly the toughest fighting men in Europe at the time. It is said that these men were worth any two of the Vikings finest warriors. Their preferred weapon was the huge double-handed battle-axe and with it they were more than an equal to any fighting man, anywhere. Unlike many contemporary societies (Norman society is a prime example) the relationship between the Lord and his warriors was not based on fear but on honour, friendship and respect. The code of conduct between a Lord and his warriors was referred to by the Roman historian Tacitus as the “comitatus” and required a warrior to defend his lord to the death who in turn would provide protection, shelter and a warm fire. It was not simply a relationship of services but was in fact one of the closest bonds in Anglo-Saxon society. Unlike many other societies of the time the comitatus code was not a strictly formal one. One of the great strengths of the Anglo-Saxon warband was the comradery that existed between the lord and his thanes. Anglo-Saxon literature is littered with words such as friends, kinsmen, table comrades, hearth comrades and hall-sitters that were used to describe the strong bonds of friendship that existed between them. In the Old English poem “Beowulf”, the warrior Beowulf is welcomed into his warband by his new lord, with treasure and gifts, but is also given a solemn oath of friendship.
“Now Beowulf, best of men, I will love you in my heart like a son; keep to our new kinship from this day on”
The flowering of the English nation, one of the most sophisticated and richest societies in Europe was dealt a hammer blow, when, on the 14th October 1066 King Harold II was cut down on the bloodstained field of Senlac. As the Norman veil was slowly drawn over Anglo-Saxon England the comitatus still held strong and the oaths of loyalty to their Lord were paid in blood by the King’s faithful warriors. Even with the King dead his Huscarls would not leave the battlefield and they would not yield to the invaders. They made their final stand at a place on the battlefield later known as Malfosse (Evil Ditch) and in their vengeance caused such slaughter among the Norman knights that once again the outcome of the battle hung in the balance. At the last they were overcome and died to a man, just as they had vowed they would, protecting the Kings personal banner “The Fighting Man”.
Things would be different now. The fortified burghs that were built by and manned by the people, for the protection of the people, were torn down and replaced by Norman castles placed there to dominate and intimidate the local population. The language of law and the King’s court, and the language that books were increasing written in was no longer to be English, the language of the common man. With the coming of the Normans it would be Latin and Norman French that would hold sway. The new governing elite also brought with them their own version of the bond between the lord and his vassals. Out went the oath of loyalty and respect and in came the Norman’s own continental version. To the English the oath of loyalty was a two-way thing. The contract binding them together could be denounced if the lord wilfully abused his power over them. The lord had a general duty to keep faith with his vassal and not to act in such a way as to injure his life, honour or property. The Norman European way of doing things was altogether different. To them the oath that they demanded was an oath of utter fealty. This meant that the English who submitted to William would be surrendering everything to him including lands and honours or offices and this is something that many of them could never do. Resistance to the Norman invasion went on for many years but with the cream of the English aristocracy killed in the Battles of Hastings and Stamford Bridge the English rebels were essentially leaderless.
Many of the warriors who could never reconcile themselves to the new regime took to their ships. In an epic voyage, in which they sacked the city of Septom in Morocco, landed in Majorca, Minorca and Sicily they finally arrive in Byzantium, during the reign of Michael VII. Receiving news that Constantinople was under siege by the Seljuk Turks, they sailed to its rescue, arriving unexpectedly at night, attacking the besieging ships and destroying them. In gratitude, the Emperor offered them service in his elite Varangian Guard. Many accepted his offer and went on to form the core of the Emperor’s bodyguard for many years to come. Others declined, not wanting to serve under a foreign emperor and these were given permission to carve out a home for themselves north of the Black Sea. Historians note that around this time the Byzantium Empire suddenly regained lands around the Sea of Azov and the Crimea. 15th and 16th century maps of the Black Sea area also show six towns suggesting English influence. One appears on various maps as “Londia”, “Londin” or “Londina”. Similarly in the 13th century, records tell of a Christian people called the “Saxi” speaking a language very similar to English serving in the Georgian Army.
Back at home William the Bastard crushed the last large scale English rebellion with his “harrying of the north” where he laid waste to huge areas of northern England and caused the death of over 100,000 men women and children. It was his attempt to finally impose his will on his new kingdom and with his brutal reign the English felt the full weight of the Norman Yoke. But they weren’t finished yet.
One of the factors that have marked England out from the very earliest times has been the libertarian instinct of her people, an inheritance of our sea-faring ancestors, who brought with them a confident and positive outlook on life that would allow them to sow the seeds of a nation that would eventually touch this world like none other ever had, or possibly will ever again. Our inherent sense of justice and fairplay made it increasingly difficult for our kings to rule without "counsel and consent" and spawned a myriad of movements and protests from the English (Peasants) Revolt to the Levellers, the Diggers to the Suffragettes, the slavery abolitionists to the Trade Union Movement. These ideals would later be laid down in Magna Carta. Although it guaranteed fewer freedoms for the ordinary man than are popularly imagined, certain concepts were to find there way into judicial thinking and eventually into the accepted principles of English life. The thirty-ninth article stated:
"No free man shall be arrested or imprisoned or dispossessed or outlawed or harmed in any way, save by the lawful judgement of his equals under the law of the land. Justice will not be sold to any man, nor will it be refused or delayed".
These much-prized principles of freedom and liberty were for their time radical in the extreme. It is no coincidence that many of these movements and ideas first took root here in England and they can be traced directly back to those first boatloads of warriors who splashed up on our beaches all those years ago. This heady mix of Engle, Jute and Saxon was to form the basis of the ancestry of the English people. Centuries later the dauntless spirit and sense of adventure that first brought our people to these shores remained undiminished as the Anglo-Saxon nation spread to the far reaches of the globe.
In modern day multi-cultural England it is all too easy to forget the debt that we owe to all those who have come before us and sacrificed so much so that we can enjoy the freedoms and relative prosperity that we have today. For the modern British state it is not considered appropriate that we should pass on to our children a fundamental idea of who they are and from where they have come. No matter what their social or financial background, this could be something that they can draw strength from and stand them in good stead for the whole of their life. It is deemed to be in the in the interests of diversity and multi-culturalism that many English people have become detached from, and ignorant of their past, their Anglo-Saxon heritage and the true culture of this, the land of our births. In these days we will do well to remember the radical tradition of those who have come before us. The outlook of our early ancestors can be summed in the Old English term "se swa his hlaford" - "each his own lord". In essence it advocates individual freedom within a secure community where loyalty and respect were given to those who earned it. Free men do not owe loyalty or respect to those who show no respect or loyalty to them.
"Se swa his hlaford" is as relevant today as it has ever been. If the British state and the political elite that run it show the English people no loyalty and respect what right have they got to expect any in return? They constantly disregard our point of view because they think they know better and then time and time again, lie to us in the most cynical way. The Normans may be gone but many say their Yoke is with us once again. Just as then we are ruled by a governing elite that is detached from the people. Once again we see them try to impose their will on to us and once again we see them take our hard won freedoms away and try to install a foreign continental system of government. The spectacle of them lining up in Parliament endorsing Gordon Brown's lie that the Lisbon Treaty is not a repackaged version of the EU's rejected constitution, so that they can justify breaking the promise of a referendum on which they were all elected - was degrading even by their standards and yet they have no so shame and they have no honour. We owe these people nothing apart from the same contempt that they show us.
It is in the direct interest of the present government that we do not think too much about our history and all those who have come before us. Much of what they have bequeathed to us – either by the blistering of their hands or the shedding of their blood, our present day leaders have given away cheaply - and they sell it to us as progress. These are the people who have no honour, integrity or loyalty to the English people. They measure our progress as a nation solely on the growth of the economy – on how much we consume or how much we spend. We only have to look around us to see that the English people have totally lost their way. We have forgotten who we are and have become selfish and ignorant. We have allowed ourselves to become marginalized in our own homeland, we have been cowed into silence and we have lost the confidence as a people to do or say anything about it. They tell us to look to the future but we see nothing there that we like. We say, that if we are going to move forward and to progress as a people in these times of great upheaval then we must first look back.
The voices of our ancestors still echo through the ages and in these days of mass-immigration, globalisation, cultural chaos and broken communities, we must allow ourselves time to pause for a while and to listen to them, for they have much that they can teach us.
Ultimately it is they, and not Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, or any other politician, who in the end will show us the way forward....
Ræd sceal mon secgan, rune writan, leoþ gesingan, lofes gearnian, dom areccan, dæges onettan.
“Advice must be given, rune written, song sung, fame earned, judgment pronounced, the day seized.”
First line of an Old English poem known as Maxims I C
“England has become a residence for foreigners and the property of strangers. At the present time there is no English earl nor bishop nor abbot; foreigners all they prey upon the riches and vitals of England”
William of Malmesbury, 1135
'I've persecuted the natives of England beyond all reason, whether gentle or simple. I have cruelly oppressed them and unjustly disinherited them, killed innumerable multitudes by famine or the sword and become the barbarous murderer of many thousands both young and old of that fine race of people.'
Deathbed Confession of William the Bastard.
*One early English chieftain, Edwin, gave his name to a fortified town (burgh) he established on a prominent rock beside the River Forth. Over the years the town grew into a city, which is now called Edinburgh. The Scots language that is spoken across Lowland Scotland is derived from Old Scots, which is itself a dialect of Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons.