Chapter 5

Saxon Drugs, and Rock 'n' Roll

In This Chapter

● Finding out how the Angles and Saxons arrived in Britain

● Dividing Britain into Saxon and Celtic kingdoms

● Converting Celtic and British Christians to the Roman Church

● Political and religious centres of power and influence

When you start talking about the Anglo-Saxons, things get a bit tricky.

Up until the middle of the fifth century the two groups who lived in Britain were Celtic Britons - different tribes, sure, but basically all the same type of people - and Romans (head to Chapters 3 and 4 for information about these groups). Once the Anglo-Saxons arrive, in about AD 450, however, things change. The English are descended (in theory) from the Anglo-Saxons; the word England comes from Angle-land, and some historians even talk about this period as “The Coming of the English”. The Scots still call the English Sassenachs, which means “Saxons”, and the Welsh sing about “Saxon hosts” invading their hills in “Men of Harlech”. Clearly we are deep into National Identity territory (not to say National Identity Crisis territory). If you’re a Celt, or like to pretend you are, then it looks like a straightforward story of invasion and oppression with the Saxons as the Bad Guys. Some people even accuse the Saxons of trying to wipe the Celts out completely. But if you’re of Saxon descent, then it looks like a fairly standard story of conquest and settlement, the sort of thing people - including Celtic people - have done throughout history.

Not all the moving and settling was violent. This was also the time when Christian missionaries travelled through Britain and Ireland spreading a gospel of peace to some very war-like people. But here too there was an identity crisis: Were the English going to keep to their Celtic heritage, or throw in their lot with Europe? This period might be a long time ago, but it was crucial in shaping the Britain we know today.

They're Coming from All Angles!

When the Romans left Britain, you could hardly move in Europe without bumping into a wave of people who had upped sticks and gone off to find somewhere nice and overrun it. There were Ostrogoths and Visigoths and Huns and Avars and Bulgars and Slavs and Franks and Lombards and Burgundians, all running rampage and generally helping the Roman Empire to get a move on with its Decline and Fall. Across the North Sea, it was the Angles and Saxons, who came from what is nowadays north Germany and Denmark. They came to Britain for all sorts of reasons - a taste for adventure, overpopulation at home, even plague coming in from Asia.

Welcome to our shores!

Although the Romans had built a string of forts along Britain’s Saxon shore precisely to stop such invaders, the Romans had gone now. Protecting Britain was down to the two groups of people remaining:

Romano-Britons, or Cives (that’s kee-ways, which means “Roman citizens”), who had been thoroughly Romanised for generations and probably spoke Latin rather than any British language.

● Celts, who spoke their own Celtic language and had lived alongside the Romans, usually fairly peacefully, for a long time too.

You would think that with boatloads of Angles and Saxons landing all along the east coast, pinching anything they could carry, and burning anything they couldn’t, this would be the Time for All Good Men to Come to the Aid of the Party, but it wasn’t. The Cives and the Celts just couldn’t get on, and soon they were engaged in a full-scale civil war. Which was very good news for the Angles and Saxons: With the Cives and Celts fighting each other, the invaders could carry on with their raids and no-one was likely to stop them.

The Overlord of All Britain: Vitalinus the Vortigern

It’s very difficult to be certain exactly how and why the Angles and Saxons settled in Britain. There are very few written sources and they’re very patchy. What follows is the story which the British monk Gildas told in his history, but how much is truth and how much is legend (possibly all of it) we just cannot know for certain.

According to Gildas, the Celtic King Vitalinus managed to get the upper hand for a while in the war with the Cives and declared himself Vortigern, or Overlord of All Britain. However, what the Vortigern was now up against was a classic problem - how to fight a war on two - or rather, three - fronts. Firstly, he was still fighting the Cives. These guys were Roman citizens, and there was no way they were going to take orders from a mere Briton. Secondly, the Angles and Saxons were raiding the coast. And then a third problem landed in his lap: the Picts. The Picts, who lived up in the north, were so fierce that Hadrian had built his wall to keep them back (head to Chapter 4 to find out more about the Picts, Hadrian, and Hadrian’s Wall). They had given up attacking the wall - it was too well defended, and were now raiding the coast instead.

Naturally, the people along the coast appealed to the Vortigern for help, but he didn’t have any men to spare. So he decided to do exactly what the Romans had often done in the past: Buy in some help. The Vortigern wasn’t to know that he was making one of the biggest mistakes in history.

My Kingdom for a Hengist (and possibly a Horsa)

The man the Vortigern got in touch with was probably a Germanic chieftain called Hengist. According to Gildas, Hengist (and possibly his little bruv Horsa) arrived in three ships off the coast of Kent at Thanet. Don’t read too much into those three ships: Writers at the time always described invaders as arriving in three ships. But Hengist must have had some ships, because apparently he sailed up north, sank the Picts, and then went and raided their homeland, giving the Picts a taste of their own medicine. Some of Hengist’s men may even have settled in Pictland. As you can imagine, the Vortigern was very pleased and paid Hengist his fee. But then Hengist did something very odd. He sent home for reinforcements from the Angles. And when they came, they were in a lot more than three ships.

You can probably guess what followed. The more the Vortigern dropped hints about how it was time for Hengist and his pals to go home, the more shiploads of Angles and Saxons arrived. Eventually Hengist suggested a big meeting of all Vortigern’s Council to discuss matters. And when the Council gathered for the meeting, Hengist’s men sprang out from behind pillars and killed them all. All except the Vortigern, which was probably quite cruel. He had nothing left to be Vortigern of: Hengist was in charge now.

Being Briton in Saxon England

Some of the Britons left the areas that the Saxons took over. We know, for example, that some Britons moved west to get away from the Saxons and ended up in Wales and Cornwall, or Kernow, as they called it. Those further north may have gone to a British kingdom up in Strathclyde. Some got in boats and headed over to Gaul (though with the Franks overrunning it, people were beginning to call it Frank-land, or France). These folks ended up in what became known as Brittany. Most of the Britons, however, stayed put and learned to live alongside the Angles and Saxons, just as you would expect.

Of course, in the beginning, these two groups didn’t have much in common. The Romanised Britons were used to living in towns; the Saxons went in for farming. By this time, the Britons were mainly Christian; the Saxons had their own religion, with Odin the King of the Gods, Thor the Thunderer, Freya, Tiw and all that crowd. At first, the Britons and Saxons lived pretty separate lives. But in time, they started inter-marrying and making the part-German-part-Celtic people we call the English.

Disunited Kingdoms

If Hengist arrived at all, it was probably in or around AD 450. The last Celtic king to lose to the Saxons was Cadwallader of Gwynned in AD 682 - two hundred and thirty years later. So, the Saxon invasion of Britain wasn’t some fifth century blitzkrieg, all over in a matter of weeks. The Angles and Saxons spent at least as much time fighting each other as they spent fighting the Celts. But they did push the independent Celtic kingdoms back so that the only places outside Pictland and Ireland where the Celts still ruled themselves were in Wales, Cumbria, Cornwall, and a British tribe who lived in Strathclyde (take a look at Figure 5-1 for more details of the kingdoms during this period). The Saxons called these Celts Strangers, which in their language came out as Welsh. The Welsh had other names that they called the Saxons, but my editor won’t let me print them.

Celtic kingdoms

Meanwhile, what was happening in the largest of the Celtic kingdoms - Ireland?

The luck of the Irish

The Irish had five Gaelic kingdoms - Ulster, Leinster, Munster, Connaught, and a smaller one in County Meath - with a High King who was crowned at the royal hill of Tara. For the most part, the High King probably didn’t have much real power, but there were exceptions, like High King Neill of the Nine Hostages, so called because, at one point, he had hostages from every one of the other nine royal houses of Ireland. Ireland had a detailed legal code called

Behan Law, which treated everyone the same, and a rich oral tradition telling their history, which later got written down in four great epic Cycles. Above all, the Irish had taken to Christianity in a big way, a fact that plays a crucial role in their history, as explained in the section “Sharing the faith: The Celtic Church” a bit later in this chapter.

Figure 5-1: Saxon and Celtic kingdoms in Britain.

Shedding light on the Dark Ages

For many years historians used to talk about the period after the Romans left as the Dark Ages because we have so little evidence from it. Actually, plenty of archaeological evidence does exist, but it is true that only a handful of writers chronicled the events of these years. First up is a British monk called Gildas. Gildas wrote about a hundred years after the time that Hengist is supposed to have arrived, and he was not a happy bunny. He called his book Concerning the Ruin of Britain, and he doesn't have a good word to say about the Saxons or about the Vortigern who let them in. "A race hateful to God and men", he calls them: "Nothing was ever so pernicious to our country, nothing was ever so unlucky." Still, at least you know where he stands on the topic.

Next up is Bede, who was a Northumbrian monk living about a hundred years after Gildas. Bede's greatest work is his Ecclesiastical Historyof the English People, which is often called the first history of the English. It's a great work, no question, but in his way Bede is just as difficult a source as Gildas because Bede was a great Northumbrian patriot. All the heroes in his history tend to be Northumbrian kings or saints, and all the villains tend to be people who went to war with them, like the Welsh or the Mercians. In addition, Bede wrote a history of the English people; he had no time for the native British, who always come across in his history as hot-headed, insular and, well, stupid.

Finally there's the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which is essentially an enormous timeline, going right the way back to the Romans. The Chronicle has dates, a lot of which, unfortunately, we now reckon are wrong. But the real problem with the Chronicle is that it isn't quite what it seems. It looks like an impartial record of events; in fact, King Alfred the Great of Wessex commissioned the work specifically to make him and his kingdom look good. Which it does. In other words, it's propaganda. Handle with care.

With the Angles and Saxons putting on the pressure over in Britain, the Irish began to expand their kingdom. They took over the Isle of Man and started crossing over to Wales. The main Welsh kingdoms were Gwynedd in the north and Dyfed in the south, and the Irish virtually made parts of Dyfed an Irish colony. The people of Dalriada in modern County Antrim crossed over to Pictish territory and carved out a kingdom for themselves in modern-day Argyll, which they also called Dalriada.

Picturing Picttand

There were four main groups living north of Hadrian’s Wall.

Picts: a.k.a. the Painted People. The largest of the tribes and fearsome fighters.

Irish Dalriadans: Recently arrived from Dalriada in Ireland (as explained above) and settled in Argyll, or “New Dalriada” as you might call it.

Britons: Moved north, possibly to get away from the Saxons, and settled in the Kingdom of Strathclyde.

● Angles: Possibly - possibly - descended from some of Hengist’s men who settled on Pictish territory. At any rate, there was a large Angle kingdom in what is now the Scottish lowlands.

So how did they all become Scots?

There was a lot of fighting between these groups. The Angles pushed deep into Pictish territory: They took Dun Eidyn (that’s Edinburgh, folks) and might have conquered the highlands if they hadn’t been sent packing by the Pictish King Brudei. Meanwhile, the Picts - in between conquering the Britons of Strathclyde - were finding the Irish of “New” Dalriada a wretched nuisance - thieves, they called them, or in Pictish, Scotti.

They attacked them relentlessly - at one point the Picts very nearly destroyed Dalriada - but in the end the Picts and the Scotti (OK, we can call them Scots now) gradually merged together. Scots married into the Pictish royal family, and because King Kenneth I MacAlpin, who finally united the Picts and Scots and led them against the Vikings, was one of the Scottish Kings of Dalriada, they all took the name of his people - Scots.

Saxon kingdoms

Meanwhile, in “Angle-land” the Angles and Saxons were setting up some kingdoms of their own:

Northumbria: made up of two smaller kingdoms, Bernicia and Deira (Angles)

● Mercia: (Angles)

● East Anglia: (Angles)

● Sussex: (Saxons)

● Essex: (Saxons)

● Wessex: (Saxons)

● Kent: (Possibly Jutes from Jutland, but more likely Saxons)

These seven kingdoms were known as the Heptarchy. There is some evidence that one of the kings would be recognised by the others as Overlord (many books will tell you the term was Bretwalda - “Lord of Britain” or possibly “Wide (i.e. broad) Ruler” - though the evidence for this is very shaky) but quite what this meant in practice is not entirely clear. It may be a bit of spin applied by later “English” historians.

But what about King Arthur?

There is a story that a British chief called Arthur led a sort of resistance movement against the Saxons. Arthur is supposed to have beaten the Saxons in a great battle at a place whose Latin name is Mons Badonicus, or Mount Badon, until eventually he was killed by treachery. If you really go for myths and legends, then he's still supposed to be sleeping somewhere with his men, ready to come charging out whenever England is in deadly danger, though where was he in the 2002 World Cup I should like to know?

As with most myths, a smidgen of truth may be at the heart of this story. There was a Roman-Briton called Ambrosius Aurelianus (doesn't sound very like "Arthur" does it?), and the battle of Mount Badon probably took place in AD 500.

The Celts took up the legends of Arthur, especially in Cornwall, where Arthur is supposed to have lived at Tintagel Castle. There's a round table hanging on the wall in Winchester which is supposed to be the Round Table, though if you'll believe that you'll believe anything.

Later the story was adopted by the English - the very people Arthur is supposed to have been fighting in the first place! Since then, different people have used the Arthur story to put across their own messages. In the Middle Ages, the Arthur legends were all about chivalry, thanks to the stories written by Thomas Malory, who wrote them down in prison. The Victorians were in love with the Middle Ages, because they reckoned it was a time of innocence and ideals, so they lapped up Tennyson's version of the legend. Over in Germany, Richard Wagner used the stories to give the Germans a sense of their national heritage (which is a cheek, considering that Arthur is supposed to have been fighting Germans). They even dug up the imagery of Camelot to describe the Kennedy White House, though I can't quite see Sir Galahad approving of Marilyn Monroe.

Don’t forget: Celtic British kings still ruled in Wales and up in Pictland, and they could be just as powerful as their Angle and Saxon neighbours. At one time Mercia even forged an alliance with the Celtic King Gwynedd (in Wales) against Anglo-Saxon Northumbria, and a lot of trouble this alliance gave the Northumbrians, too.

We're on a Mission from God

Here’s a story. One day, as Pope Gregory I walked through the streets in Rome, he passed a slave market and his eye fell on some handsome young lads with rather fair skins. “Hello”, says he, “where are you from?” “We are Angles” replied one of the lads. “Ho ho,” says Gregory, “you are not Angles but Angels” (or to put it another way, a cute Angle!) So Gregory chatted with the boys, and when he gathered that they still worshipped all the wrong gods, he summoned one of his monks, a chap called Augustine, and sent him off to Angle-land to preach the gospel. Augustine landed in Kent, converted King Ethelbert (the Saxon Bretwalda, a.k.a. Lord of Britain, from Kent), and became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. Nice story.

But wait a minute. Hadn’t the Romans made Britain Christian? Yes. And weren’t there all sorts of Celtic saints? Yes again. So how can the story start with Augustine? Well, it doesn’t.

Britain already had two church traditions long before Pope Gregory met those boys in the slave market. First there was the British Church, still going strong but not really doing anything about preaching to the Saxons. Then there was the Celtic Church, with Irish missionaries on Iona and Lindisfarne.

This is a story of strong faith, high hopes, and precious little charity. Welcome to the Conversion of England.

Keeping the faith to themselves: The British Christians

Towards the end of the Romans’ time in Britain, they had turned Christian, and all the Romano-Britons followed suit. By the time the Romans left, there were plenty of British Christian priests and bishops. Britain even had its own home-grown heresy movement led by a priest called Pelagius, who reckoned sending so many people to Hell because of Original Sin was a bit harsh (Pelagius got condemned by the Pope for his trouble). There were British missionaries like St Ninian, who took his life in his hands and went to convert the Picts, and St Patrick, of course, who went to Ireland.

The Angles and Saxons didn’t want anything to do with this strange religion, and the Britons don’t seem to have done anything to tell them about it. They were probably sulking: “They’ve taken over our land; they can jolly well keep their own gods, and I hope they all burn.” So Christianity didn’t exactly die out in Britain: The British just kept it to themselves.

Sharing the faith: The Celtic Church

With the British Church just treading water, as explained in the preceding section, it was down to the Irish to go out and spread the word. Irish missionaries went all over Europe preaching, and of course they also crossed the Irish Sea. There were Irish colonies in Wales and in Scottish Dalriada, remember, so it made sense to start there. The man this section is interested in got in a boat and sailed over to Scotland. His name was Columba.

Place that name! Name that place!

One way we can trace Saxon settlement is through place names. The Saxons believed in telling it like it was, so if they had a settlement (tun) by a winding river (cridi) they called it "Settlement by a Winding River", or Cridiantun, now Crediton in Devon. You also get Cyninges (King's)-tun: Kingston, which was a royal tun and is still a Royal Borough today. And talking of boroughs, that word comes from burh, a fortified town, as in Gaeignesburh (Gainsborough) and Maeldubesburg (Malmesbury). There's -feld for field and -ing for people, which gives Haslingfeld: the field of the Hasle people (now Haslingfield) or Haestingacaester, the camp of the people called Haestingas, modern Hastings.

You can even trace the chronology to an extent because, when the Saxons first arrived, they tended to name places after the people who settled there: Malling, for example, just means "the Malling folk live here". As the Saxons got more settled and started building things, their place names began to reflect that: Grantanbrycg means "Bridge on the River Granta or Cam" - Cambridge, and all those felds had to be cleared and all those burhs had to be constructed. Of course, not everyone likes to be reminded of their ancient Saxon history. Modern Nottingham was Snotingaham in those days, which means "The place of the snotty people". Though no doubt some of their neighbours would still agree.

Columba sails the ocean blue to Iona

Columba was a tough cookie. He was no obscure peasant or anything like that: He came from the royal clan of O’Neill who went on to be High Kings of Ireland. Columba needed to be tough because the Picts weren’t going to drop their old gods just like that. The Picts were used to Druids working magic and raising people from the dead, and when a Christian missionary came along they expected him to match it.

We don’t know exactly how Columba did it, but he obviously impressed the Picts because one of their kings gave him the island of Iona as a base.

Columba made Iona the nerve centre of a big mission to Britain. Just in case you’re ever faced with the task of converting a tribal kingdom to a new religion, take these tips on how to do it from the Irish missionaries of Iona:

Go straight to the Top: Convert the king and the rest will surely follow.

Give them a few simple stories: Finding the Trinity tricky? Try a shamrock - three leaves: one leaf. Simple! Our brief span of life on earth? Tell about the sparrow who flies through a mead hall, full of light and laughter, and then out the other end into the night. Works every time.

● Perform miracles: Sorry: I’m afraid miracles are expected. Note: Posthumous miracles are very acceptable.

● You’ve got to win a battle or two: Nothing succeeds like success. The Romans turned Christian because the Emperor Constantine reckoned it would win him more battles, and the Saxon Kings were much the same.

A very Holy Island - Lindisfarne

Getting on God’s good side was more or less what King Oswald of Northumbria was thinking when he sent a message to Iona to ask if they could send him a missionary. The Mercians got together with the Welsh to crush Northumbria, and they pretty nearly succeeded. Oswald decided his best chance was to get God on his side.

The abbot of Iona sent Oswald a monk called Aidan, and since Oswald reckoned anyone from Iona would operate best from an island, he gave Aidan the island of Lindisfarne (also known these days as Holy Island), within sight of his royal burh. Aidan seems to have been at court quite a lot, probably because Oswald and King Oswin who came after him wanted to make absolutely sure they had his blessing for the way they ruled. But Aidan didn’t feel happy with the swanky life: He disapproved of riding horses, and when King Oswin gave him one, he passed it on to a beggar (donkeys were okay for long journeys - good biblical precedents - but otherwise Aidan went on foot and told his followers to do the same).

Lindisfarne may have been an island, but it was still within easy reach of the royal court, so Aidan often used to go off on his own to the much more lonely Farne islands, where he could get a bit of peace. Even so, Aidan made Lindisfarne, or Holy Island as it became known, the real religious centre of England, much more important than Canterbury. Which meant, of course, that Northumbria was much more important than anywhere else. Which suited the Northumbrian kings just fine.

Enter the Roman Church

If Britain already had two church traditions going (as explained in the preceding sections), why did Pope Gregory decide to send someone else to convert England? There is good evidence that he was genuinely interested in Britain, but another reason was that the church in Rome was very wary about the Celtic Church. The Irish Celtic Church was a long way away, and it had its own way of doing things. The Roman Church believed in powerful bishops; the Celtic Church was more interested in monasteries and abbots. Irish monks wore their hair in a different style from Roman monks: Instead of that shaved bit on top, the Irish shaved it across the top, from ear to ear. And above all was the difference in the date at which the two churches celebrated the most important Christian feast day of all, Easter. So the Pope probably thought it time to remind everyone in Britain who was in charge. And Augustine was just the man to do it.

Saxon saints - a Users' Guide

Half the towns and railway stations in England seem to be named after obscure Celtic saints. There's St Pancras, St Neots, St Austell - does anyone know who these people actually were? Often it turns out they didn't exist, or they are just christianised versions of old tribal gods. The following are some saints who definitely did exist.

St Cedd: An Irish monk, one of St Aidan's crew. Cedd spoke Anglo-Saxon and acted as interpreter in the crucial Synod of Whitby before becoming bishop of the East Saxons, and you can still see his seventh century (that's right: seventh century) church at Bradwell-on-Sea.

St Chad: English monk trained at Lindisfarne, who became Bishop to the Mercians. Chad said bad weather was a reminder of the Day of Judgement; if so, it looks like the English still need a lot of reminding.

St Cuthbert: The big Daddy of all these saints and missionaries. Cuthbert was a much-loved Saxon Abbot of Lindisfarne, a holy man (he was another one who liked to set off to the Farne Islands to be alone), and also a pretty shrewd politician. When he died the monks of Lindisfarne built a shrine to his memory and produced the beautiful Lindisfarne Gospels to go in it. They moved his bones to Durham to keep them safe from Viking raids, and they are still there today behind the altar in the Cathedral.

St Hild: Formidable abbess of the mixed monastery of Whitby (the Saxons rather approved of mixed monasteries. Hild made sure there was no hanky-panky). Hild, or Hilda, was a good friend of St Cuthbert, and she hosted the famous Synod of Whitby in Whitby Abbey. (If you're wondering what this Synod of Whitby is that keeps cropping up, head to the section "Showdown at Whitby Abbey" in this chapter).

St Wilfrid: Not everyone likes Wilfrid. He was another Lindisfarne product, but he went over to the Continent and picked up the Roman way of doing things. He came back to Northumbria determined to bring the Celtic Church to heel, and at the Synod of Whitby, where he led the Roman side, he did just that. You can still see Wilfrid's throne in Hexham Abbey.

St David: Or Dewi, to give him his proper name. David is the patron saint of Wales, and he went out from Wales to preach to the people of the English West Country. David's monasteries followed the Rule of St Columba, which said, among other things, that you shouldn't speak unless you really needed to. You won't be surprised to hear that Celtic monks were absolute masters of sign language.

St Boniface: A Saxon monk from Devon. He went over to Germany to preach to the Germans in their own homeland and even chopped down one of their sacred trees without getting struck down from on high. He converted thousands of Germans. They murdered him.

Now hear this! Augustine has landed!

In AD 597 Augustine set off for Britain with a group of 40 monks. He was lucky: The King he would be speaking to, Ethelbert of Kent, had overlordship over the other southern kingdoms at the time, so winning him over would have a big impact. He also had a head start because Ethelbert’s Queen was a Christian, and it may have been thanks to her that Ethelbert agreed to be baptised and told all his leading nobles to do the same.

There was just one problem: the British bishops. They didn’t see why they should accept Augustine’s authority over them, and they set off to meet him and tell him so. When the bishops arrived, instead of rising to greet them politely, Augustine stayed firmly seated and told them he had orders from Rome that they were to clean up their act about Easter and accept him as their chief. No ifs or buts. The meeting ended up as a shouting match with Augustine threatening the bishops with divine vengeance and the British bishops going back to Wales in a huff.

Augustine was right to target the top. King Ethelbert married his daughter Ethelburga off to King Edwin of Northumbria and when she went, she took a Roman monk called Paulinus with her. Paulinus converted King Edwin and brought the Roman version of Christianity up to Northumbria, right in Celtic Church territory. Unfortunately, after Edwin’s death, the Welsh and the Mercians tore Northumbria apart, and Paulinus fled back to Kent. That’s why King Oswald sent to Iona for his bishop, and it’s also why Christian Northumbria stayed firmly in the Celtic camp. (See the section “A very Holy Island - Lindisfarne” earlier in this chapter for the story of Oswald, St Aidan, and Northumbria).

Showdown at Whitby Abbey

The Celtic Church and the Roman Church could have carried on happily at opposite ends of the island for years, but once again the royal house of Northumbria took a hand. By AD 651 Northumbria had a new King called Oswy. Oswy decided to get married, and he too looked to Kent for a bride. The girl he chose was Eanfled, the daughter of old King Edwin and Queen Ethelburga.

Eanfled had fled back to Kent with Paulinus when she was little; now she was grown up and Christian just like her mother. The trouble was Eanfled had grown up learning the Roman way of doing things, which proved a problem when Easter came around. The Celtic way of calculating the date of Easter was a week ahead of the Roman church (you do not want to know the details about this, believe me), so while the King and his pals were making merry at one end of the palace, at the other end the Queen and her Roman monks were still fasting and marking Palm Sunday.

The Roman monks saw their opportunity to get this issue settled once and for all. They persuaded King Oswy to summon both sides to a big summit meeting or synod at Whitby Abbey.

AD 664. Mark it down well: This date is as significant a date in British history as 1066 or 1940. It was the year the English turned their backs on their Celtic heritage and came down on the side of Europe.

The Celts brought out all their big guns for Whitby. Abbess Hild was there, so was Cedd and the new Bishop - Abbot of Lindisfarne, a fiery Irishman called Colman (keen as mustard!). The Romans struggled to find anyone eminent enough to match the Celtic team, but they did have Wilfrid, who had trained at Lindisfarne but had gone over to the Roman side. King Oswy chaired the debate, which wasn’t much of a debate at all:

Colman: The Celtic Church has been working out the date of Easter in the same way ever since St Columba’s day. What was good enough for him should be good enough for the rest of us.

Wilfrid: Who do you Celts think you are, you and your obstinate pals the Britons and the Picts? You live out here in the sticks, yet you think you’re right and the whole of the rest of Europe is wrong. You may have St Columba on your side, but we’ve got St Peter. So there.

King Oswy: St Peter’s in charge of the gates of Heaven, isn’t he? I reckon we ought to go with him; otherwise, when I die, he might not let me in. I find in favour of the Romans.

And that was that.

Winds of Change

All sorts of trouble could have occurred after Whitby, but luckily a new and very wise Archbishop of Canterbury, called Theodore, took things nice and smoothly and didn’t ruffle too many feathers. But things were changing. Northumbria’s days were numbered. Down south, King Cedwalla of Wessex was expanding his kingdom as far as Kent, but it was Mercia that was really making people sit up and take notice.

The Rise of Mercia

Mercia was Northumbria’s great heathen rival: King Penda of Mercia had beaten and killed King Oswald, and then King Oswy did the same to Penda. By AD 754 Mercia was the most powerful kingdom in Britain under its most famous and powerful ruler, King Offa.

An Offa you can't refuse

Offa had a very simple way of doing things. He showed the King of East Anglia he meant business by capturing him and cutting his head off (it worked), and he kept the Welsh out by building a huge earthwork, known as Offa’s Dyke, in much the same way that Hadrian had built his wall. Offa’s Dyke was one of the main reasons the Welsh developed in such a different way from their Saxon neighbours. Offa drew up a full law code and a remarkable survey of who owned what in his kingdom, called the Tribal Hideage, though it was probably just a way of making sure he knew exactly how much money to demand with menaces. Offa even stood up to the great Frankish Emperor Charlemagne, who recognised him as his “brother” King. Offa had turned England into a Mercian empire: Only Wessex was left outside it, and even Wessex had to do more or less what Offa wanted. Pope Adrian I called Offa “King of the English”, and it’s hard to disagree.

Offa and out

Offa was clearly hoping that his family would continue to rule England, but it was not to be. He died in AD 796 and, five months later, so did his son and heir. There were more warrior kings of Mercia - they particularly enjoyed taking on the Welsh - but Mercia’s glory days had gone. In any case, there were some new kids on the block.

I don't want to worry you, but I saw three ships come sailing in: The Vikings

In AD 787, according to the not-always-accurate Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, someone spotted three ships off Portland on the Wessex coast. “Better tell the reeve”, the ship-sighter said, and off he went to fetch him. The reeve, the royal official who was supposed to check out anyone coming into the country, rode down to the coast to see who these people were and what they wanted.

“’Ello, ’ello, ’ello”, says the reeve, “what ’ave we heah, then?” What he had was three boatloads of Vikings. And Vikings dealt very expediently with royal reeves who came to see what they were up to. They killed him. They would be doing a lot more killing in the years to come.

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