The Anglo-Saxons by Geoffrey Hindley is a “brief’ history of England from the fall of the Roman Empire in 410AD to the defeat of Harold in 1066. It stretches to 300 pages with two appendices and a bibliography.
I’m an English man with working class northern origins so I class myself as an Anglo-Saxon, with maybe a bit of Viking thrown in, and I have always had a romantic view of the period before the conquest. The Normans are those guys down south who have all the money and go to privileged schools. They speak posh and yes that is a big chip on my shoulder. Sorry!
I was hoping that Hindley would support my view, and in any case I wanted to find out more about this fairly neglected period of history. But Hindley just gives a run down on the current research on this topic – it’s the sort of academic overview you’d do in a student history essay. He doesn’t really offer any interesting opinions and it’s all quite dry and factual.
It’s interesting to discover the details of Alfred’s life, to learn about Bede and the flowering of Christian culture in Northumbria, and to learn that it was the English who took Christianity to Germany during the dark ages, founding many monasteries and bringing the benefits of civilisation to the wild German woods where even the Romans had failed to get a foothold.
Hindley explains the way that English Christianity developed from Irish and later Catholic sources, and was then intertwined with Rome, contributing to the growth of papal power. It’s amazing to think of Alfred in Rome, and of many English clerics travelling there on foot, or by boat down the Rhine. What an experience that must have been. Or Robert, walking barefoot to Jerusalem. And St Omer, a backwater now, once a thriving centre of cultural exchange between the regions. But Hindley doesn’t make any attempt to help you imagine this or imbue it with any sense of wonder or excitement. It’s just facts.
He gives us the facts about the patchwork of small kingdoms splattered across England, and the shifting balance of power between Mercia, Northumbria and Wessex. There is the early history of Northumbria which arose from two warring neighbours, and all the usual power struggles, the deceit and the treachery that we always associate with rulers, the powers and principals against which we as Christians must fight in our small way by being the light, and witnessing to the truth.
Hindley covers the role of women, and the wealth, and cultural life of England. It was way ahead of anywhere else in Europe, he says.
Of course he writes about the various Danish or Viking invasions. Alfred dealt with one lot. He was a great propagandist according to Hindley, and as he was the victor, it’s his version of history we read and know. The second wave led finally to the downfall of Anglo-Saxon England, when the invasion of Harald Hardrada more or less coincided with old Bill the Conqueror setting foot in Sussex. The rest is history, you might say.
I always thought the Normans stole our country and we never got it back. William certainly devastated the north of England,. The soldiers who received estates in the north complained there was nothing left, just empty villages, burnt to the ground. He wasn’t the only King or ruler to treat the north like that. Remember Thatcher? And we don’t forget up there. The nights are dark and long and we’ve had centuries to mull it all over.
Hindley himself is more forgiving. He gives us a brief history of the years after the conquest, one of the few times when he tells us his own opinion. For him the conquest was a victory for the English anyway. Within a hundred years the King was speaking English, English soldiers were fighting for him in France, and he had an English wife, so that was all right.
Well he might think so but I’m afraid I disagree. Marrying the locals might give you some credibility amongst the more gullible members of the population, but it cuts no ice with me.
They stole our country all right, and they’ve still got it. Just look at today’s news. Princess Eugenie got married in Windsor. They spent two million on security and moved the homeless off the streets so they wouldn’t spoil the view. In the heart of Norman London a Banksy was sold for a million pounds whilst on more or less every street corner in Bath there’s a rough sleeper looking hungry and cold.
Norman rule morphed into a complex matrix of social control and financial privilege that still dominates England. It’s called the Conservative party, and it’s time it was ended.