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Demolishing the myths of the Anglo-Saxons

Archaeologists dig over the site of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery near Dover - Credit: PA

A new book about the Anglo-Saxons demolishes faddish myths that aspects of their culture live on today, and instead tells their own story in gripping style

We are blessed to live in the golden age of straight-talking history. ‘Straight-talking’ rather than ‘popular’, because the people filling the windows of Waterstones are scholars of unimpeachable renown, often with senior posts at our finest universities.

This a cultural achievement of the first order for, as William Caxton already saw in 1490, English is really two languages. Caxton tried hard to solve but (by his own account) finally gave up on the problem of how to address clerkys and very gentylmen that vnderstande gentylnes and science while also speaking to the comyn peple.

Sir Edward Coke, the legal bane of King James I and the man who made Magna Carta into a lodestone, also saw Caxton’s problem and demanded that England’s book-learned folk solve it: Loquendum Ut Vulgus; Sentiendum Ut Docti (we must speak like the common people; we must think like scholars). In our day, that challenge has at last been met. The Brothers Holland (Tom and James), the Dans Snow & Jones, Christopher Clark, Richard Evans and their ilk, excellent scholars, write in words ordinary English-speakers can enjoy.  

In this august yet approachable company, Marc Morris stands tall: his books on castles and the Conquest are pre-eminent, and now he turns his attention to the civilisation whose fall – or rather, whose practical extinction – is the root cause of that long-standing chasm between the common English and their educated classes: the Anglo-Saxons. And with this gorgeous volume he delivers another triumph.

Perhaps it is precisely because they are so completely lost that the Anglo-Saxons (as they only very rarely called themselves) fascinate us so much. This is by no means always a good thing.

As anyone who has ever been a hands-on archaeological excavator and then spoken to academic archaeologists will know, it is the universal law of scholarship that the fewer the demonstrable facts, the bigger the sand-pit and the romper-room for theorists.

Mercifully, Morris loves the artefacts rather than the theories, and he tells his wonderful story with a briskly straight bat, allowing the weight of the evidence to speak for itself.

It may well be, he acknowledges, that some scholars dispute the long-accepted probable identity of the dissolved corpse that we now know once lay within the bowels of the Sutton Hoo ship; but the overwhelming weight of the evidence – not just the dating or the sheer wealth on display, but the striking nature of the objects, mixing as they do the Christian with the pagan – favours Raedwald, King of East Anglia.

Of course, we will never know with complete certainty, but only first year undergraduates, awestruck by Jacques Derrida and suchlike, think that if you can’t know anything with absolute certainty, you can’t know a thing for practical purposes: Raedwald, Morris quickly shows, is the most likely candidate by a country mile, so Raedwald it is – and on we go.

There’s just one point when we go on so briskly that we ride roughshod over the evidence. Morris rightly cites the laws of King Ine, for that extraordinary document from around 700AD is one of a tiny handful from the birth-centuries of England.

But it doesn’t actually say what he says it says. Yes, Ine’s laws distinguish between Ine’s English and Welsh subjects – the very name ‘Welsh’ is, of course, a disparaging term invented by the English – but it’s not a question of straight apartheid.

There are different classes of citizens within both ethnic groups, and the highest of the Welsh have a ‘blood price’ (i.e. the fine you have to pay if you kill them) second only to English thegns of the royal household, and well above that of ordinary English landowning Freeman (who were themselves the elite of English population).

So Ine’s laws don’t show that “in every instance, to be wilisc meant to be worse off”; on the contrary, they witness an English-ruled kingdom of around 700AD in which ethnicity could still be trumped by class, or perhaps by loyalty to the King – for Ine possessed an elite force (to judge by their high blood-price) called the cyninges horswealh, which translates neatly as ‘the King’s Welsh Horse’.

Still, nobody can be right all the time – and nobody will be able to resist Morris’s telling of this tale, which gallops along, lit up by his love for his subject as well as his learning. The life and times of King Offa, for example, have never been so illuminated.

Perhaps best of all are the scenes from the end-times, when Anglo-Saxon England, having apparently regrouped under the Wessex dynasty from near-extinction by the Vikings, is traumatised by Danish colonisation under Cnut – Morris rightly believes that the impact of these years is often underestimated – before the absolute cataclysm of the Conquest.

He has no truck with the Victorian infatuation which claimed that somehow, Anglo-Saxon culture, a kind of embryonic populist parliamentary democracy, survived the Conquest, to reappear in Protestantism and the Island Fortress (not to mention, in our racial DNA).

This is no mere academic point. History matters, and the myth of the Anglo-Saxons is still potent. In 2015 Daniel Hannan, the grey eminence of Brexit, explicitly proclaimed the quasi-genetic love of freedom which the English allegedly brought from “deep in the German woods”.

Morris is a wonderfully straight-talking historian who loves Anglo-Saxon England, but he refuses to end on a populist note. Instead, he stresses how radical the fracture of 1066 really was.

“A lot of what is often touted as the enduring legacy of the Anglo-Saxons proves on close inspection to be mythological. The claim that they invented representative government because their kings held large assemblies ignores the fact that other rulers in contemporary Europe did the same… Their laws and legal concepts were mostly gone by the 12th century, replaced with newly drafted Norman ones.”

Just as we English cannot read even the simplest Anglo-Saxon literature without having studied it like a foreign language, we cannot pretend that their culture is in any meaningful way ours.

The structures of our church and of our shires may still be Anglo-Saxon, and we may unthinkingly praise their pagan gods in the names of our villages (not to mention, every time we say the days of the week), but as a linguistic, constitutional and legal entity, Anglo-Saxon England was mortally wounded in 1066 and dead by 1154.

It lives on only in the manner of its dying, which left a uniquely damaging cultural rift in England between very gentylmen that understande gentylnes and science and the comyn peple. In this magnificent retelling of our past, Marc Morris, by bridging that gap in an exemplary way, is doing his own bit to overcome it.

Anglo-Saxons: A History of the Beginnings of England, by Marc Morris, is published by Hutchinson, £25

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