WITH the final triumph of Christianity, all the forma-
tive elements of Anglo-Saxon Britain are complete.
We see it, a rough conglomeration of loosely-aggre·
gated principalities, composed of a fighting aristocracy
and a body of unvalued serfs; while interspersed
through its parts are the bishops, monks, and clergy,
centres of nascent civilisation for the seething mass
of noble barbarism. The country is divided into
agricultural colonies, and its only industry is agricul-
ture, its only wealth, land. We want but one more
conspicuous change to make" it into the England of
the Augustan Anglo-Saxon age-the reign of Eadgar
-and that one change is the consolidation of the
discordant kingdoms under a single loose overlord·
ship. To understand this final step, we must glance
briefly at the dull record of the political history.
Under LEthelfrith, Eadwine, and Oswiu, North-
umbria had been the chief power in England. But
the eighth century is taken up with the greatness Of
Mercia. Ecgfrith, the last great king of Northumbria,
whose over-lordship extended over the Picts of
Galloway and the Cumbrians of Strathclyde, en·
deavoured to carry his conquests beyond the Forth
, and annex the free land lying to the north of the old
Roman line. He was defeated and slain, and with
him fell the supremacy of Northumbria. Mercia,
which already, under Penda and Wulfhere, had risen
to the second place, now assumed the first position
among the Teutonic kingdoms. Unfortunately we
know little of the period of Mercian supremacy. The
West Saxon chronicle contains few notices of the
rival state, and we are thrown for information chiefly
on the second-hand Latin historians of the twelfth
century. 1Ethelbald, the first powerful Mercian king
(716-755), "ravaged the land of the Northumbrians,"
and made Wessex acknowledge his supremacy. By
this time all the minor kingdoms had practically
become subject to the three great powers, though still
retaining their native princes: and Wessex, Mercia,
and Northumbria shared between them, as suzerains,
the whole of Teutonic Britain. The meagre annals
of the Chronicle, upon which alone (with the Charters
and Latin writers of later date) we rest after the death
of Breda, show us a chaotic list of wars and battles
between these three great powers themselves, or
between them and their vassals, or with the Welsh
and Devonians. 1Ethelbald was succeeded, after a
short interval, by Offa, whose reign of nearly forty
years (758-796), is the first settled period in English
history. Offa ruled over the subject princes with
rigour, and seems to have made his power really felt.
He drove the Prince of Powys from Shrewsbury, and
carried his ravages into the heart of Wales. He con-
quered the land between the Severn and the Wye.
and his dyke from the Dee to the Severn, and the Wye,
marked the new limits of the Welsh and English
borders; while his laws codified the customs of
Mercia, as those of .iEthelberht and Ine had done with
the customs of Kent and Wessex. He set up fDr
awhile an archbishopric at Lichfield, which seems to
mark his determination to erect Mercia into a sovereign
power. He also founded the great monastery of St.
Alban's, and is said to have established the English
college at Rome, though another account attributes it to
Ine, the West Saxon. East Anglia, Kent, Essex, and
Sussex all acknowledged his supremacy. Karl the
Great was then reviving the Roman Empire in its
Germanic form, and Offa ventured to correspond with
the Frank emperor as an equal. The possession of
Lonl.1on, now a Mercian city, gave Offa an interest in
continental affairs; and the growth of trade is marked
by the fact that when a quarrel arose between them,
they formally closed the ports of their respective
kingdoms against each other's subjects.
Nevertheless, English kingship still remained a
mere military office, and consolidation, in our modern
sense, was clearly impossible. Local jealousies divided
all the little kingdoms and their component princi-
palities; and any real subordination was impracticable
amongst a purely agricultural and warlike people,
with no regular army, and governed only by their own
anarchic desires. Like the Afghans of the present
time, the early English were incapable of union,
except in a temporary way under the strong hand of
a single warlike leader against a common foe. As
. soon as that was removed, they fell asunder at once
into their original separateness. Hence the chaotic
nature of our early annals, in which it is impossible to
discover any real order underlying the perpetual flux
of states and princes.
A single story from the Chronicle will sufficiently
illustrate the type of men whose actions make up the
history of these predatory times. In 754, King
Cuthred of the West Saxons died. His kinsman,
Sigeberht, succeeded him. One year later, however,
Cynewulf and the witan deprived Sigeberht of his
kingdom, making over to him only the petty principality
of Hampshire, while Cynewulf himself reigned in his
stead. After a time Sigeberht murdered an ealdor-
man of his suite named Cymbra; whereupon Cyne-
wulf deprived him of his remaining territory and
drove him forth into the forest of the Weald. There
he lived a wild life till a herdsman met him in the
forest and stabbed him, to avt:nge the death of his
master, Cymbra. Cynewulf, in turn, after spending
his days in fighting the Welsh, lost his life in a quarrel
with Cyneheard, brother of the outlawed Sigeberht.
He had endeavoured to drive out the a!theling; but
Cyneheard surprised him at Merton, and slew him
with all his thegns, except one Welsh hostage. Next
day, the king's friends, headed by the ealdorman
Osric, fell upon the a!theling, and killed him with all
his followers. In the very same year, of
Mercia was killed fighting at Seckington; and Offa
drove out his successor, Beornred. Of such murders,
..yars, surprises, and dynastic quarrels, the history of
the eighth century is full. But no modern reader
need know more of them than the fact that they
existed, and that they prove the wholly ungoverned
and ungovernable nature of the early English temper.
Until the Danish invasions of the ninth century,
the tribal kingdoms still remained practically separate,
and such cohesion as existed was only secured for the
purpose of temporary defence or aggression. Essex
kept its own kings under lEthelberht of Kent; Huiccia
retained its royal house under lEthelred of Mercia;
and later on, Mercia itself had its ealdormen, after
the conquest by Ecgberht of Wessex. Each royal
line reigned under the supreme power until it died
out naturally, like our own great feudatories in Imlia
at the present day. "When Wessex and Mercia have
worked their way to the rival hegemonies," says Canon
Stubbs, "Sussex and Essex do not cease to be
numbered among the kingdoms, until their royal
houses are extinct. When Wessex has conquered
Mercia and brought Northumbria on its knees, there
are still kings in both Northumbria and Mercia. The
royal house of Kent dies out, but the title of King
of Kent is bestowed on an retheling, first of the
Mercian, then of the West Saxon house. Until the
Danish conquest, the dependant royalties seem to
have been spared; and even afterwards organic union
can scarcely be said to exist."
The final supremacy of the West Saxons was
mainly brought about by the Danish invasion. But
the man who laid the foundation of the West Saxon
power was Ecgberht, the so-called first king of all
England. Banished from Wessex during his youth
by one of the constant dynastic quarrels, through the
enmity of Offa, the young retheling had taken refuge
with Karl the Great, at the court of Aachen, and there
had learnt to understand the rising statesmanship of
the Frankish race and of the restored Roman empire.
The death of his enemy Beorhtric, in 802, left the
kingdom open to him: but the very day of his acces-
sion showed him the character of the people whom he
had come to rule. The men of Worcester celebrated
his arrival by a raid on the men of Wilts. "On that
ilk day," says the Chronicle, "rode .tEthelpund,
ealdorman of the Huiccias [who were Merci:ms], over
at Cynemreres ford j and there Weohst..'U1 the ealdor-
man met him with the Wilts men [who were West
Saxons:] and there was a muckle fight, and both
ealdormen were slain, and the 'Wilts men won the
day." For twenty years, Ecgberht was engaged in
consolidating his ancestral dominions: but at the end
of that time, he found himself able to attack the
Mercians, who had lost Offa six years before
Ecgberht's return. In 825, the West Saxons met the
Mercian host at Ellandun, "and Ecgberht gained the
day, and there was muckle slaughter." Therefore all
the Saxon name, held tributary by the Mercians,
gathered about the Saxon champion. "The Kentish
folk, and they of Surrey, and the South Saxons, and
the East Saxons turned to him." In the same year,
the East Anglians, anxious to avoid the power of
Mercia, "sought Ecgberht for peace and for aid."
Beornwulf, the Mercian king, marched against his
revolted tributaries: but the East Anglians fought him
stoutly, and slew him and his successor in two battles.
Ecgberht followed up this step by annexing Mercia in
829 : after which he marched northward against the
N orthumbrians, who at once" offered him obedience
and peace; and they thereupon parted." One year
later, Ecgberht led an army against the northern
'Welsh, and" reduced them to humble obedience."
Thus the West Saxon kingdom absorbed all the
others, at least so far as a loose over-lordship was con-
cerned. Ecgberht had rivalled his master Karl by
founding, after a fashion, the empire of the English.
But all the local jealousies smouldered on as fiercely
as ever, the under-kings retained their several do-
minions, and Ecgberht's supremacy was merely one
of superior force, unconnected with any real organic
unity of the kingdom as a whole. Ecgberht himself
generally bore the title of King of Jhe West Saxons,
like his ancestors: and though in dealing with his
Anglian subjects he styled himself Rex Anglorum,
that title perhaps means little more than the humbler
one of Rex Gewissorum, which he used in addressing
his people of the lesser principality. The real king-
dom of the English never existed before the days of
Eadward the Elder, and scarcely before the days of
William the Norman and Henry the Angevin. As to
the kingdom of England, that was a far later invention
nf the feudal lawyers

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