« PreviousContinue »
THREE PHASES OF ENGLISH HISTORY.
BY JOHN RICHARD GREEN.
[JOHN RICHARD GREEN was born at Oxford in 1837 ; graduated at Jesus College ; became a clergyman, and in 1868 librarian to the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth. His earliest bent was toward studying the germs of English history, and after many short papers his “ Short History of the English People" (1874) made him famous. In spite of an incurable disease and great weakness, and of ardent service in practical church work, he published “The Making of England" in 1882, and had nearly completed “ The Conquest of England” (completed and published by his widow) when he died, March 7, 1883. He published some other works, and suggested the English Historical Review.]
THE PRIMITIVE TEUTONS.
FOR the fatherland of the English race we must look far away from England itself. In the fifth century after the birth of Christ the one country which we know to have borne the name of Angeln or England lay within the district which is now called Sleswick, a district in the heart of the peninsula that parts the Baltic from the northern seas. Its pleasant pastures, its black-timbered homesteads, its prim little townships looking down on inlets of purple water, were then but a wild waste of heather and sand, girt along the coast with a sunless woodland, broken here and there by meadows that crept down to the marshes and the sea. The dwellers in this district, however, seem to have been merely an outlying fragment of what was called the Engle or English folk, the bulk of whom lay probably in what is now Lower Hanover and Oldenburg. On one side of them the Saxons of Westphalia held the land from the Weser to the Rhine ; on the other, the Eastphalian Saxons stretched away to the Elbe. North again of the fragment of the English folk in Sleswick lay another kindred tribe, the Jutes, whose name is still preserved in their district of Jutland. Engle, Saxon, and Jute all belonged to the same Low German branch of the Teutonic family ; and at the moment when history discovers them they were being drawn together by the ties of a common blood, common speech, common social and political institutions. There is little ground indeed for believing that the three tribes looked on themselves as one people, or that we can as yet apply to them, save by anticipation, the common name of Englishmen. But each of them was destined to share in the conquest of the land in which we live, and it is from the union of all of them when its conquest was complete that the English people has sprung. .
Changes of which we know nothing had long before the time at which our history opens grouped these little commonwealths together in larger communities, whether we name them tribe, people, or folk. The ties of race and kindred were no doubt drawn tighter by the needs of war. The organization of each folk, as such, sprang in all likelihood mainly from war, from a common greed of conquest, a common need of defense. Its form at any rate was wholly military. The folkmoot was in fact the war host, the gathering of every freeman of the tribe in arms. The head of the folk, a head which existed only so long as war went on, was the leader whom the host chose to command it. Its witеnagemote or meeting of wise men was the host's council of war, the gathering of those ealdormen who had brought the men of the villages to the field. The host was formed by levies from the various districts of the tribe; the larger of which probably owed their name of “hundreds ” to the hundred warriors each originally sent to it. In historic times, however, the regularity of such a military organization, if it ever existed, had passed away, and the quotas varied with the varying customs of each district. But men, whether many or few, were still due from each district to the host, and a cry of war at once called townreeve and hundred-reeve with their followers to the field. .
The energy of these peoples found vent in a restlessness which drove them to take part in the general attack of the German race on the Empire of Rome. For busy tillers and busy fishers as Englishmen were, they were at heart fighters, and their world was a world of war. Tribe warred with tribe, and village with village; even within the township itself feuds parted household from household, and passions of hatred and vengeance were handed on from father to son. Their mood was above all a mood of fighting men, venturesome, self-reliant, proud, with a dash of hardness and cruelty in it, but ennobled by the virtues which spring from war, by personal courage and loyalty to plighted word, by a high and stern sense of manhood and the worth of man. A grim joy in hard fighting was already a characteristic of the race. War was the Englishman's “shield play” and “sword game”; the gleeman's verse took fresh fire as he sang of the rush of the host and the crash of its shield line. Their arms and weapons, helmet and mail shirt, tall spear and javelin, sword and seax, the short, broad dagger that hung at each warrior's girdle, gathered to them much of the legend and the art which gave color and poetry to the life of Englishmen. Each sword had its name like a living thing. And next to their love of war came their love of the sea. Everywhere throughout Beowulf's song, as everywhere throughout the life that it pictures, we catch the salt whiff of the sea. The Englishman was as proud of his sea craft as of his war craft; sword in teeth he plunged into the sea to meet walrus and sea lion; he told of his whale chase amid the icy waters of the north. Hardly less than his love for the sea was the love he bore to the ship that traversed it. In the fond playfulness of English verse the ship was “the wave floater,” “the foamnecked," " like a bird” as it skimmed the wave crest, “ like a swan” as its curved prow breasted the “swan road” of the sea.
Their passion for the sea marked out for them their part in the general movement of the German nations. While Goth and Lombard were slowly advancing over the mountain and plain, the boats of the Englishmen pushed faster over the sea. Bands of English rovers, outdriven by stress of fight, had long found a home there, and lived as they could by sack of vessel or coast. Chance has preserved for us in a Sleswick peat bog one of the war keels of these early pirates. The boat is flatbottomed, seventy feet long and eight or nine feet wide, its sides of oak boards fastened with bark ropes and iron bolts. Fifty oars drove it over the waves with a freight of warriors whose arms, axes, swords, lances, and knives were found heaped together in its hold. Like the galleys of the Middle Ages, such boats could only creep cautiously along from harbor to harbor in rough weather ; but in smooth water their swiftness fitted them admirably for the piracy by which the men of these tribes were already making themselves dreaded. Its flat bottom enabled them to beach the vessel on any fitting coast; and a step on shore at once transformed the boatmen into a war band. From the first the daring of the English race broke out in the secrecy and suddenness of the pirates' swoop, in the fierceness of their onset, in the careless glee with which they seized either sword or oar. “Foes are they," sang a Roman poet of the time, “ fierce beyond other foes and cunning as they are fierce ; the sea is their school of war and the storm their friend ; they are sea wolves that prey on the pillage of the world !”
Of the three English tribes the Saxons lay nearest to the empire, and they were naturally the first to touch the Roman
world; before the close of the third century, indeed, their boats appeared in such force in the English Channel as to call for a special fleet to resist them. The piracy of our fathers had thus brought them to the shores of a land which, dear as it is now to Englishmen, had not as yet been trodden by English feet. This land was Britain. When the Saxon boats touched its coast the island was the westernmost province of the Roman Empire. In the fifty-fifth year before Christ a descent of Julius Cæsar revealed it to the Roman world ; and a century after Cæsar's landing the Emperor Claudius undertook its conquest. The work was swiftly carried out. Before thirty years were over the bulk of the island had passed beneath the Roman sway and the Roman frontier had been carried to the Firths of Forth and of Clyde. The work of civilization followed fast on the work of the sword. To the last, indeed, the distance of the island from the seat of empire left her less Romanized than any other province of the west. The bulk of the population scattered over the country seem in spite of imperial edicts to have clung to their old law as to their old language, and to have retained some traditional allegiance to their native chief. But Roman civilization rested mainly on city life, and in Britain as elsewhere the city was thoroughly Roman. In towns such as Lincoln or York, governed by their own municipal officers, guarded by massive walls, and linked together by a network of magnificent roads which reached from one end of the island to the other, manners, language, political life, all were of Rome.
For three hundred years the Roman sword secured order and peace without Britain and within, and with peace and order came a wide and rapid prosperity. Commerce sprang up in ports, among which London held the first rank; agriculture flourished till Britain became one of the corn-exporting countries of the world; the mineral resources of the province were explored in the tin mines of Cornwall, the lead mines of Somerset or Northumberland, and the iron mines of the Forest of Dean. But evils which sapped the strength of the whole empire told at last on the province of Britain.
Wealth and population alike declined under a crushing system of taxation, under restrictions which fettered industry, under a despotism which crushed out all local independence. And with decay within came danger from without. For centuries past the Roman frontier had held back the barbaric world beyond it — the Parthian of the Euphrates, the Numidian of the African desert, the German of the Danube or the Rhine. In Britain a wall drawn from Newcastle to Carlisle bridled the British tribes, the Picts as they were called, who had been sheltered from Roman conquest by the fastnesses of the Highlands. It was this mass of savage barbarism which broke upon the empire as it sank into decay. In its western dominions the triumph of these assailants was complete. The Franks conquered and colonized Gaul. The West Goths conquered and colonized Spain. The Vandals founded a kingdom in Africa. The Burgundians encamped in the border land between Italy and the Rhone. The East Goths ruled at last in Italy itself.
It was to defend Italy against the Goths that Rome in the opening of the fifth century withdrew her legions from Britain, and from that moment the province was left to struggle unaided against the Picts. Nor were these its only enemies. While marauders from Ireland, whose inhabitants then bore the name of Scots, harried the west, the boats of Saxon pirates, as we have seen, were swarming off its eastern and southern coasts. For forty years Britain held bravely out against these assailants; but civil strife broke its powers of resistance, and its rulers fell back at last on the fatal policy by which the empire invited its doom while striving to avert it — the policy of matching barbarian against barbarian. By the usual promises of land and pay a band of warriors was drawn for this purpose from Jutland in 449, with two ealdormen, Hengest and Horsa, at their head. If by English history we mean the history of Englishmen in the land which from that time they made their own, it is with this landing of Hengest's war band that English history begins.
JOHN AND THE GREAT CHARTER. “ Foul as it is, hell itself is defiled by the fouler presence of John.” The terrible verdict of his contemporaries has passed into the sober judgment of history. Externally John possessed all the quickness, the vivacity, the cleverness, the good humor, the social charm, which distinguished his house. His worst enemies owned that he toiled steadily and closely at the work of administration. He was fond of learned men like Gerald of Wales. He had a strange gift of attracting friends and of winning the love of women. But in his inner soul John was the worst outcome of the Angevins. He united into one mass of wickedness their insolence, their selfishness, their unbridled