1902 Encyclopedia > England > [English History] The British People. A Note on Ancient and Roman England.

(Part 16)


Part 16: The English People. A Note on Ancient and Roman England.

England, the land of the Angles or English, is , according to its etymology, the distinctive name of that part of Britain in which, by reason of the Teutonic conquests in the fifth and sixth centuries, the Teutonic race and speech became dominant. The name is in itself equally applicable to the older home of the Angles in Germany ; but, though cognate forms, a Angeln, are to be found there, the exact forms Anglia or England do not seems to have been in use. As applied to later settlements of Englishmen, settlements made by men starting from Britain, it is used with direct and conscious reference to the elder England. New England implies Old England. The name is thus etymologically applicable to English settlements anywhere; historically it belongs to the great English settlement in Britain. And, in its use for many ages past, it has not taken in the whole of part of Britain which is historically English. Part of northern England was at an early time detached from the English kingdom to form part of Scotland. And again, from the part of England so detached, the English tongue, and much of English blood, has further spread over part of the proper Scotland. In modern usage then England means somewhat less than the land which is marked out by its strict etymology. It does not mean the whole of the Teutonic part of Britain, but only that part of it which has formed the kingdom of England since the present line between England and Scotland was drawn. But in any case it should be remembered that the name is purely political name. Britain is a certain part of the earth’s surface, with unchangeable physical boundaries. England, Scotland, Wales, are political names of parts of Britain, which have had different meanings at different times, according as the part of Britain to which they have been applied has been larger or smaller. It is also to be remembered that these political names are comparatively modern. England, for instance, is not heard of by that name till late in the tenth century. In fact it hardly could have been a formal title, used in the country itself till many English settlements in Britain had become one kingdom. It is not, as we shall see, the oldest name for the Teutonic part of Britain. But as the various English kingdoms were fused into one, England became and remained the name of that one. England then is that part of Britain which came and remained under the direct rule of the king of the English. It thus excludes Scotland, meaning by Scotland, as by England, a greater and a smaller space at different times. It also in strictness excludes Wales. Legal phraseology is not quite consistent on this head ; but the more accurate description of South Britain is "England and Wales," rather than "England" only. Wales, first under its own princes, then under the English kings, was long a dependency of England rather than a part of England ; and its complete political incorporation with England has not altogether destroyed its separate character.

England then is the name which certain historical events caused to be applied to a part of the isle of Britain. The history of England therefore strictly begins with the beginning of those event which caused part of Britain to become England. The histordy of England has no concern with the earlier history of Britain, except so far as is needed to make the working of those causes intelligible. Nor need it dwell on the earlier history of the English before they came into Britain further than is needed for the same end. The history of England begins when the English first settled in Britain. But, in order to understand this settlement, some account must be given of the earlier both of the settlers themselves and of the land in which they settled.

Britain in the fifth century, the time of the settlement which gave to so large a part of the island the name of England, was in a state unlike any other part of the world. The greater part of the island, all that is now called England and Wales, with a considerable part of what is now called Scotland, had formed a Roman province, but had been cut off from empire by the act of the imperial power itself. As the Roman legions had been a hundred and thirty years earlier withdrawn from Dacia by Aurelian, so they were in the early years of the fifth century withdrawn from Britain by Honorius. The Teutonic invaders therefore found in Britain, what they did not find in Gaul or Spain, an independent people, who doubtless kept many memories and fruits of their long subjection to Rome, but who had ceased to be actual Roman subjects. The people whom the English found in the possession of this restored and somewhat precarious independence were the Celtic people of the Britons. It is not here needful to determine certain curious points of controversy, how far the purely Celtic character of the inhabitants of Britain had been modified by intermixture, either with races earlier than their own settlement or with Teutonic or other settlers during the time of Roman dominion. All the probabilities of the case would certainly go against the belief that the Celts found the isle of Britain wholly uninhabited. That they were the first Aryan settlers there can be no reasonable doubt ; but, even in the absence of any kind of evidence, we should expect that the first Aryan settlers would, in Britain as elsewhere, find earlier non-Aryan settlers in possession of the land. One set of inquirers have made it highly probable that the cromlechs and other primaeval remains, which used to be vaguely called Druidical, are really the works of a race of inhabitants earlier than the Celts. Another set of inquirers have, from the physiological point of view, brought plausible arguments to show, not only that such an earlier non-Aryan poplulation existed, but that it actually forms a perceptible element in the present population of South Britain. I has been argued that a large part of the population of the border shires of England and Wales is in truth neither English nor British, but comes of a non-Aryan stock akin to the Basques of Gaul and Spain. So, on the other hand, it has been argued that a part of the eastern coast of Britain had received Teutonic inhabitants earlier than the conquest of Britain by the Romans. It has been argued too, and in this case argued with undouted certainly, that, under the Roman occupation, soldiers and other subjects and allies of the empire of various races, the Teutonic race among others, settled in the Roman province of Britain, and helped to form a part of its inhabitants. But, if all these doctrines are admitted in their fullest extent, they in no way affect the political history of England. They simply prove that the British people whom the English found in possession of the isle of Britain had, like all other nations in all other and places, had the purity of their blood more or less affected by foreign intermixture. They in nowise affect the fact that the English invaders found in this island a people who, for all practical and historical purposes, must be looked upon as Celtic, a people in whom the dominant blood, and the dominant national being, was undoubtedly Celtic. In the eye of general history they must be looked on, as they were in the eyes of their English conquerors themselves, as Britons. They were Britons, modified no doubt in every respect by their long subjection to Rome, but still essentially a British, that is, a Celtic people. And it is further clear that they were a people who had been less modified by Roman influences than the inhabitants of the other provinces of the empire. This is shown by the fact that the ancient British language survived the Roman Conquest, and still remains the language of a not inconsiderable part of the isle of Britain. The mere fact of the existence of the Welsh language shows that Roman influences could not have been so strong in Britain as they were in Gaul and Spain. The military conquest and the political occupation were no doubt as complete in Britain as in any other province of the Roman empire ; but the moral and social influence of Rome must have been less than it was elsewhere. In Gaul and Spain the inhabitants adopted the name, the feelings, and the speech of Rome, and handed on their Roman speech to their Teutonic conquerors. The difference between the phaenomena of Britain and the phaenomena of the continental provinces is plain at a glance. The speech of Gaul and Spain at this day is Latin ; the exceptions are only where the earlier languages survive in obscure corners. In the lands which formed the Roman provinces of Britain a Latin speech is now nowhere spoken, nor is there any sign that a Latin speech has ever spoken as the popular languages at any time since the withdrawal of the Roman legions. The dominant tongue is that of the Teutonic conquerors ; but part of the island, a part somewhat more than a mere corner, keeps its ancient British speech. The Roman tongue, dominant and more than dominant in Gaul and Spain, has in Britain no place at all.

Britain then, even if the Roman legions had not been deliberately withdrawn from it, was, at the beginning of the fifth century, quite another case from the other provinces of the empire. Mere conquest had been as thorough as in any other frontier province ; for it must not be forgotten that Britain was pre-eminently a frontier province. As the whole of Britain was never subdued, the part which was subdued always remained, like the lands on the Rhine and the Danube, exposed to the attacks of the still independent inhabitants of the island. But the usual results of Roman conquest, social and national assimilation, had been much less thorough then elsewhere even in the frontier provinces. One main cause of this difference doubtless was the geographical position of the country. A large island, an island large enough to have a separate being of its own, is far harder to incorporate or assimilate than a land which is geographically continuous with the ruling country. The history of the greater Mediterranean islands proves this, and it is still more true of great oceanic islands like our own. The British islands seems designed to form one political whole ; yet it has been found impossible to unite Ireland with Great Britain in the same way in which the different parts of Great Britain have been united with one another. Britain, the most distant and geographically the most distinct of the provinces of Rome, was felt to be, and was constantly spoken of as, another world. In all ages and among all changes of inhabitants, the insular character of Britain has been one of the ruling facts of its history. Its people, of whatever race or speech, whatever their political condition at home or their political relation to other countries, have been before all things pre-eminently islanders. This must be borne in mind through the whole of British history. We are not dealing with Celts, Romans, Teutons, simply as such, but with Celts, Romans, Teutons, modified by the fact that they dwelled in a great island, which was cut off in many ways from the rest of the world, and which acted in many things as a separate world of itself.

The result of this insular position of Britain was shown in many things during the time of the Roman dominion. It was remarked that no province of the empire was so fertile in tyrants. That is to say, no part of the empire produced so many of those military chiefs who, by the favour of their armies, sometimes it would seem with the good will of the inhabitants of the provinces, set themselves up as opposition emperors, in revolt against the acknowledged prince who reigned in the Old or the New Rome, at Milan or at Ravenna. The position of these tyrants must not be misunderstood, as if they at all consciously aimed at the foundation of national kingdoms. Their object was not to lop off a province from the empire, and to form it into an independent state. Their object was the empire itself, the whole if they could get it; if not, as large a share of it as their forces would allow them to hold. An emperor who ruled in Britain was anxious, if he could, to rule also in Gaul, to rule also in Italy. But the geographical necessities of the case stepped in, add often confined the emperors who arose in Britain to a purely insular dominion. That dominion was more easily won, and more easily kept as a practically distinct power, than the dominion of any of the continental provinces. It was again doubtless due to the geographical position of Britain that it was the once province of the West from which the legions were deliberately withdrawn. They were withdrawn from one world to another. The Roman world, it seemed, might exist without the dominion of the British world. The deliberate surrender of Gaul or Spain or Africa would have been quite another matter. Those lands had become in every sense members of the Roman world, and the voluntary lopping off of any one of those members would have been an act of suicide which no one would have dreamed of. With the great island it was otherwise. While the other provinces were cut off from the empire by open or disguised foreign invasion, Britain was voluntarily given up. It was doubtless given up through fear of foreign invasion, through a feeling of inability to withstand foreign invasion ;but not as the direct result of foreign invasion itself. We may believe that successive Teutonic inroads had so weakened the Roman power in Britain that it was felt hopeless to attempt to keep the province any longer. But the actual Teutonic conquerors of the island found the Roman legions already gone. Britain was won by the English, not from Roman legions or from Roman provincials, but from men who had been Roman provincials, but who on the withdrawal of the Roman legions, had changed into an independent British people. It is however to be borne in mind that the independence in possession of which the Britons were found by their English conquerors was an independence which had been thrust upon them. No province of the empire separated itself from the empire of its own free will. Britain would have had, on every geographical and national ground, more temptation so to do than any other province of the West. But Britain did not, any more than any other province of the West, seek for independence of Rome. The forsaken people, left to themselves, cried to their masters to come back to be their helpers ; but the groans of the Britons fell in vain on the ears of Aëtius. He could deliver Gaul from the Hun ; he felt no call to deliver Britain from the Pict or the Saxon. The inhabitants of the Roman province of Britain were left to defend themselves how they could, against the incursions alike of their neighbours in those parts of their island which Rome had never subdued, and of the more dangerous Teutonic invaders from beyond the sea. Thus forsaken by Rome, they seem to have tried to keep up some shadow of a Roman dominion among themselves. Their chiefs bore Roman titles; a tradition of imperial succession was kept up among the reputed descendants of the tyrants Maximus. So the first British prince whom history or legend brings into personal contact with the Teutonic invaders appears in the earliest versions of the tale, not as a British king. but as a Roman,. Such is the title which Vortigern bears in that one meagre yet authentic narrative of English conquest which we have from the hand of British Gildas. But, however they might cling to Roman shadows, the people whom the English found in this island were undoubtedly in every practical sense a British nation, a revived British nation. And the fact that the invaders had to deal with a nation, and not with mere provincials, had, beyond all doubt, a most important effect on the progress and the nature of their conquest.

The land then in which the English conquerors settled, and the people whom they found in possession of that land, were thus in a wholly different condition from the lands in which the other Teutonic conquerors settled, and from the people whom they found in those lands. Here was one cause which gave the English conquest of Britain a wholly different character from the Teutonic conquest of any other of the western provinces of the empire. The difference may in truth be summed up in word; it was not a conquest of one of the provinces of the empire; but a conquest of a land which had once been a province of the empire. And if the condition of the land and the people that were to be conquered was thus unlike that of any land and people elsewhere, the condition of those who were to be its conquerors was at least as widely different from the condition of those who were the conquerors of any of the continent6al provinces. A large part of the difference lies in the provinces. A large part of the difference lies in the difference between a continental and an insular land. When an island is conquered by new settlers, it can only be by settlers from beyond sea, and a settlement from beyond sea is likely to be in many things different from a settlement which is made by land. This is part of the difference, but it is far from all. Had the invaders of Britain been exactly the same kind of people as the invaders of Gaul or Spain, had the people of Britain been in exactly the same position as the people of Gaul or Spain, the mere fact that it was made by sea would doubtless have given the conquest of Britain a special character of its own. But the main difference lies deeper. As the people of Britain were in a widely different position from the people of Gaul and Spain, so the Teutonic conquerors of Britain were in a position at least as different from the Teutonic conquerors of Gaul or Spain.

The enemies by whom the inhabitants of the forsaken province were first attacked were indeed neither men of another race nor invaders from beyond sea. The immediate danger was from the Celtic inhabitants of those parts of the island which the Romans had never subdued. The boundary of the Roman province had often fluctuated, and the defence of the frontier had needed all the efforts of the legions and the further protection of artificial bulwarks. A line of forts, a massive dyke, a wall of stone strengthened by towers, had been raised at different times at two different points. The line of Hadrian marked the southern limit from Solway to the mouth of the Tyne. The line of Antoninus took in a larger territory as far as the firths of Clyde and Forth. Severus fell back to the line of Hadrian. Under Valentinian the victories of the elder Theodosius carried the recovered Roman land of Valentia beyond the line of Antoninus. In the last moments of Roman dominion the boundary again fell back; the defences of Hadrian and Severus were again strengthened, and took the form of that mighty wall on the ruins of which we still gaze with wonder. But amid all these changes there remained to the north of the Roman province an independent territory; of greater or less extent, which the Roman confessed by his very defences that he was unable to subdue. That its inhabitants, like the inhabitants of the conquered part of the island, belonged to the Celtic race there can be no reasonable doubt; but as to the exact degree of there kindred with the people of southern Britain many questions have been raised. On the whole it seems most likely that they belonged to the same branch of the Celtic race as the southern Britons, and that they differed from them chiefly as the unsubdued part of any race naturally differs from the part which is brought into subjection. In the later days of the Roman power in Britain, these northern tribes, under the name of Picts, appears as dangerous invaders of the Roman province, invaders whose inroads were sometimes pushed even into its southern regions. Along with them we hear of the Scots, a name which as yet means only the people of Ireland. But about this time the Scottish name was carried into Britain by a settlement of Irish Scots on the north-western coast of the island, in the land known as Argyle. The Picts of Britain, the Scots of Ireland, appear as the first enemies whose attacks had to be endured by the forsaken inhabitants of the former Roman province. But it was not the Picts or the Scots by whom the conquest of Southern Britain was to be made. A conquest at their hands could have had no other effect than bringing the island back more or less thoroughly into that of the state in which it had been before the Roman Conquest. Another fate was in store for the greatest of European islands. The conquest of southern Britain was to be made, but it was not to be made by any of the inhabitants of Britain. The great event, one of the greatest in the history of Europe and of the world, was to be the work of Teutonic settlers from beyond the sea.

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