« PreviousContinue »
UNWARLIKE CHARACTER OF THE CHRISTIAN PEOPLES. 91
hatred to the new faith of the Angles added bitterness to the war of race, for Penda was an obstinate pagan, and there are signs that Wessex, which he once overran, and which was certainly subject to his influence, relapsed into heathendom after two of its kings had been baptized.1 The alliance of Penda with the Christian Cadwallan proves nothing; the Welsh preferred pagans to Christians who kept Easter on the wrong day. But it is difficult to understand why a faith, so imperfectly accepted as Christianity was by the Anglian converts, should have provoked such bitter hostility. The destruction of idols never seems to have affected the Anglo-Saxon mind, so much as the prohibition of horse-flesh, and the command to bury instead of burning their dead. The ascetic discipline which the church recommended, perhaps provoked the contempt of the Saxon warriors; when Penda, in the later years of his life, was forced to tolerate Christianity in his own dominions, he took a malicious pleasure in compelling the converts to live up to the standard they professed. But the inconsistency of the Christian and heathen ideals of life on the subject of peace and war was probably the great reason why the northern nations recoiled from a faith on which victory seldom smiled. To a superstitious mind, it might seem that the kingdom departed from every people who embraced Christianity. The Britons were beaten by the Saxons, the people of Kent by the pagans of Wessex, and the Northumbrians by the pagans of Mercia; just as in after times the Saxons lay at the mercy of the heathen Danes. These facts, which were paralleled on the continent, were assuredly not accidental. Barbarians who concentrate their whole energies on war have an obvious advantage over a people
1 Ceadvalla was a heathen shortly before his conquest of the Isle of Wight. -Bede, H.E., lib. iv., c. 16.
2 Bodies are sometimes found which have been charred, and not burnt, as if to evade the prohibitions of the church.-See an article by Mr. Kemble, Archæological Journal, vol. xii. Olaf Tryggvason calls the Swedes "horseeaters," contemptuously.-Dasent's Norsemen in Iceland; Oxford Essays, 1858. When Iceland was converted, the new converts were allowed, and had probably stipulated for, the rights to eat horse-flesh and expose their children.-KristniSaga, cap. xi.
RISE OF THE SAXON POWER.
who are settling down into citizenship. Besides this, there had been a real want of manliness in the subject-nations of Rome who first embraced Christianity; the church had taken the taint; and while it triumphed in the long roll of kings and princes who exchanged the crown for the tonsure,1 a want of statesmen and soldiers weakened the commonwealth. But within the ruins of the old order lay the germ of better things; new races of conquerors brought with them the never-dying instinct of war; and found a system of law and philosophy, a belief in peace as grander than murder or rapine, in fact, the whole substructure of civilization maintained or restored by the Christian church.
In 655 A.D., a successful battle near Leeds, by Oswiu of Northumbria, ended in the rout of Penda's army, and the death of the old pagan himself. The Mercian power was broken for a time, but Oswiu did not push his advantages. He concluded peace with Peada, Penda's son, and the introduction of Christianity into Mercia was in all likelihood the condition of the treaty. Wulfhere, Peada's brother, is called Oswiu's brother in baptism; and a great monastery was founded at Medeshamstede by Oswiu and Peada together. Yet Northumbria never really retrieved its lost supremacy. Perhaps the long war had disorganized it, and retarded the growth of law. But the fierce nature of the people, who would burn an unpopular ruler alive, was the chief cause of weakness; the country was torn by civil war; and out of fourteen kings who reigned during the eighth century, seven were slain, and six banished, by their subjects. The Saxon districts had time to consolidate their power. After a fierce war, in which Mul, an Ætheling of Wessex, was burnt alive by the men of Kent, the royal line of Wessex succeeded (686-697 A.D.) in reducing the Isle of Wight, and in forcing Kent to recognize their supremacy and pay the were-gild for Mul.
1 Ceadvalla and Ine of Wessex; Offa of Essex; and Ethelred of Mercia, are instances of reigning princes who became monks. Within two hundred years, thirty Anglo-Saxon kings and queens embraced a conventual life.-Munford's Domesday of Norfolk, p. 96.
OFFA'S MERCIAN KINGDOM.
Ine, who achieved this last success, was a legislator as well as a general; and his laws show a desire to do even justice between his British and Saxon subjects, whose relations were still difficult. He is even said to have sent an embassy, desiring those who had emigrated to Armorica to return. But Ine, like his predecessor Ceadvalla, resigned his royalty, and went as a pilgrim to Rome.
Anglo-Saxon royalty had in its first beginnings been nothing more than the presidency of a warlike nobility, and the chiefs easily resumed their power if the heir to the throne had no better title to rule than his kingly birth. Cadwalla had rescued Wessex from an usurping multitude of princes; and after Ine's death, the western sovereignty again fell into abeyance, under a series of titular kings. Nevertheless, the province retained a sufficient sense of its national life to preserve itself by a desperate struggle from absorption into the Mercian kingdom, which flourished during the eighth century upon the dissensions of its neighbours. Ethelbald was the first great Mercian king (716-757 A.D.), and although beaten back from the south by a revolt which his exactions had provoked, he was probably suzerain of England to the last. His death, by the hand of traitors, opened the way after a short interval for the accession of the Etheling, Offa. Offa's forty years' reign is the first orderly epoch in Anglo-Saxon history, during which the country could be said to take rank as a single power with the states of the continent. Yet the brief and uncertain notices which we possess of the king, although mostly derived from the friendly pen of a monk whose monastery claimed Offa as a founder, do not give us a very high idea of his character. Unscrupulous rather than daring, crafty rather than statesmanlike, he trod to power through crimes, which revolted the moral sense of a barbarous age, and which established neither a system nor a dynasty. His most lasting work, if it be his indeed, was a fortified dyke from the Dee to the Severn, to
1 Villemarqué, Barzas Breiz, p. viii.
* The first authority for this is Asser, M.B., 471. As a Welshman, he might know the local traditions, but his testimony is a little late.
RELATIONS WITH THE CHURCH.
restrain the forays of the Welsh. Roman precedent might have shown that brave men are the only impassable lines; but Offa's dyke, if it failed to secure the frontier, was useful as a march, which the Welsh were never to overstep without a sense of violated law. Successful wars against Sussex, Wessex, and Kent, confirmed Offa's suzerainty in the south, and prompted him to a greater enterprize. The kingdom of east Anglia appeared by position to belong to Mercia; but Offa shrunk from the attempt of rectifying his frontiers by war. Unhappily, 792 A.D., Ethelbert, the Anglian king, disregarding his mother's advice, came to his powerful rival's court as a suitor for his daughter's hand, hoping probably to disarm hostilities by alliance. The royal suitor had received a promise of security; he was welcomed with lavish hospitality; and was foully murdered on the very night of his arrival. Offa's queen, Cynedrida,1 is described as the Jezebel who suggested or even ordered the villanous act; but the horror and remorse which the king is said to have felt, did not for a moment overpower his practical instincts: he annexed the kingdom bereaved of its lord to Mercia; and though he suffered it to be ruled by a separate prince, he changed the dynasty for a foreign stem that had no roots in the soil.
But Offa's most daring attempt was directed against the established church order. A Saxon and Mercian king, he felt that his sovereignty was deprived of half the prestige due to it, while the two archiepiscopal sees were at Canterbury and York. Moreover, as the midland provinces had been converted by missionary colonies, who penetrated them from every side, it would seem that the local patronage and endowments had frequently from a sense of gratitude been attached to the old founda
1 Matthew Paris has left biographies of two Offas: the Mercian king and an ancestor. They are clearly different versions of the same life. But in the first, Offa's queen is an innocent and wronged heroine; in the second, she is a French princess who has been exposed for her crimes, gains admittance by a false story to the court, and obtains a fatal ascendancy over the king.
2 Capgrave's Life of St. Edmund, quoted by Palgrave, Eng. Commonwealth, p. ccxcix., asserts that Edmund was a prince of the royal line of the old Saxons and came over from the continent.
OFFA AND CHARLEMAGNE.
tions in Kent or Wessex from which the preachers had gone forth. Offa took advantage of the presence of two legates from the pope, who had been sent to reform the discipline of the AngloSaxon church, and obtained permission to establish a third metropolitan see at Lichfield. Of his own authority he transferred a portion of the lands enjoyed by foreign beneficiaries to his new foundation. Each of these changes was reversed, without any sound reason, by Offa's successor. They are chiefly important, therefore, as showing the king's design to place Mercia on an equal footing with its neighbours, as if he despaired of reducing all under a common yoke. It is precisely this local sentiment which makes his reign unimportant for English history. But his relations with the church brought Offa into intercourse with the pope. The Saxon king is said to have visited Rome, and to have endowed the Saxon hostelry which had been established there for the use of students. Whether the legend be true of this time or of another, there is no doubt that the tax, afterwards so odious as Peter's pence, was at first nothing more than a payment for the maintenance of a privileged college and inn.
The times were critical for European society. The Saracens were pressing in from the south: they had scarcely been driven back from France; they still occupied or contested Spain, and threatened Italy. In the north, the war with heathendom had assumed the character of a crusade; and the Saxons, driven out of Westphalia, had taken refuge in Denmark, and were preparing to cover the seas, to conquer new kingdoms, and to revenge their ancient wrongs on the Christian name. The very existence of the Christian and Latinized peoples seemed bound up with the life of Charlemagne : wherever his sword pointed was victory; wherever his throne was established were peace and law; but his life lay behind, and the grave was opening at his feet. Between such a man and Offa there could be no sympathy, but there must also be no war; the hero had little in common with the assassin,
Malmesbury, lib. i., p. 119.