English origins

St Peter’s church, Barton on Humber

The Anglo-Saxons – A History of the Beginnings of England

Marc Morris, Hutchinson, 2021, hb, 508pps, £25

England is one of the oldest nations in the world, and tales of its foundation have been told since at least 731 AD, when the Venerable Bede completed his Historiam Ecclesiasticam Gentis Anglorum. The Northumbrian monk described the indigenous Britons being gradually superseded from 449 onwards by three tribes from across the North Sea – the Angles, Jutes and Saxons. Although the word ‘English’ does not appear until 855, by 731 these tribes were starting to think of themselves as a nation unified by experience, propinquity, religion and what a later Saxon, St. Boniface, would call ‘blood and bone.’

Ever since, some Englishmen have seen themselves as Anglo-Saxon scions – brave, freeborn, vigorously superior to all ‘others,’ from sixth century Welsh to twentieth century imperial subjects. Yet frustratingly little is known about these patriotically pivotal people, and much of what we do ‘know’ is retrospective romancing, useable by a burgeoning nation anxious to legitimise often unedifying activities. Marc Morris, previously noted for histories of the Norman Conquest, and Plantagenet kings, now strives to make sense of these Old World founding fathers, and show them in European context, amongst a bewilderment of Æthelbalds and Æthelflæds, and still-resonant battles whose sites were long ago lost to view.

The Anglo-Saxon period lasted 700 years, from Bede’s ‘adventus saxonum’ to the death of Harold at Hastings, so generalisations are frequently fatuous. Bede and the later Anglo-Saxon Chronicle were often vague, sometimes mistaken, but in the dearth of other records, subsequent narratives have leaned heavily on both, and often added errors of their own. Morris strives to reconcile these with archaeological insights, folk-traditions, administrative trace-elements (bishoprics, courts, shires), and toponymy – and such treasures as the Sutton Hoo helmet, with its challengingly empty eye-sockets.

He revivifies overlooked figures like SS. Dunstan and Wilfrid, to resume their rightful place alongside more obvious avatars – Alcuin, Alfred, Edmund, Offa. He navigates carefully, and readably, out of the ‘Dark Ages’ towards the Norman night-time, by way of complex wars, Christianisation, Romanisation, attacks by and then absorption of Vikings, Alfred’s ‘resurrection’ of English fortunes, and the treacherous, troubled, ‘unready’ twilights of Æthelred, Edward the Confessor, and the House of Godwine – highlighted with occasional colour, such as that King Eadred (946-55) had the habit of masticating his food, and then spitting it back out onto his plate, disgusting fellow diners.

He closes with the chroniclers Henry of Huntingdon and William of Malmesbury, Anglo-Normans who saw themselves as wholly English, writing to ‘mend the broken chain of our history.’ England, Morris reminds us, is still ‘a work in progress.’ If he deflates many myths, in the end the author is affectionate, and admiring of a people out of whose obscure origins arose an epic legacy.

This review first appeared in the August issue of Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission

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