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The Growth of Feudalism in Britain. The Anglo-Saxon Conquest, the Struggle against the Danes

After the departure of the Romans (407) the Celts retained their independence for a short period of time. From the middle of the 5th century they were subject to the attacks of the Germanic tribes of the Jutes, the Saxons and the Angles. The Jutes and the Angles came from tHeTutland peninsula (southern Denmark) and the Saxons from.the territory between the Rhine and the Elbe rivers (northern Germany).

By the fifth century the German tribes were expanding into the Roman Empire, as well as into Britain. The Angles, Saxons and Jutes turned their special attention to the British Isles.

The Jutes landed in Kent somewhere in 450. They were followed by the Angles and the Saxons.The Celts offered stiff opposition and it took them more than a century for the country to be subdued. Eventually the invaders settled down and formed a number of small kingdoms. The Angles in the north and east made kingdoms called Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia. The Saxons in the centre and south had Wessex, Sussex and Essex. The Jutes had Kent in the south-east. The Anglo-Saxons and Jutes were close to each other in speech and customs, and they gradually merged into one people. The name Jute soon died out and the invaders were generally referred to as the Anglo-Saxons.

Although the German invaders occupied most of the British Isles, certain refuge areas were left to the natives. They retained territory in West and North Wales and in the northern territory of Cumbria. The northern part of Britain was the home of the Picts and Scots, whom neither the Romans nor the Angles and Saxons had been able to conquer. After the conquest of the Picts by the Scots in the ninth century this northern territory came to be called Scotland and a united Scottish kingdom was formed in the 11th century. In the course of the struggle of the Celts against the Anglo-Saxons many legends emerged of which most famous is the legend of the Court of King Arthur.

Anglo-Saxon society was much more backward as compared with the social organization which prevailed among the Celts in Britain. The establishment of Anglo-Saxon rule in Britain hampered the development of class relations and the formation of class society in the country. The communal organization was widespread among the newcomers.

The Anglo-Saxons settled mainly in small villages consisting of about 20( to 30 families all faithful to their leader. The churls or freemen formed the majority of the population of the communities. They received their share of land a 'hide' of about 120 acres from the community. Local rules (for example, how to share the great grass field between them before hay-making) were made by the 'moot'. The moot was a small meeting held on a grassy hill or under a tree. Sometimes it judged cases between the people of the village. The many villages were, as time went by, grouped into 'hundreds', and the hundreds were grouped into shires. Each hundred had an open-air court of justice, the judges being the leaders of the district, who were called aldermen. Important cases were judged by the sheriff of a shire or by a king's officer called a reeve. These cases were discussed at a shire moot which met usually twice a year.

The king's council was called the Witan. It could make laws and choose or elect new kings. Initially the king's power was mainly symbolic.

Gradually class inequality increased especially after the conquest of Britain. The nobility distributed the land and cattle among the tribesmen seizing the best lands and gradually becoming great landowners. The tribal nobility could no longer cultivate the land themselves, so initially the slaves worked their fields. As slave labour was unproductive the slaves began to receive plots of land for their personal use as an incentive for better work. This was another important step in the development of serf labour.

In the 7th 9th centuries important changes took place among the members of the Anglo-Saxon communities: land held by separate families became their private property which could be sold, inherited or used as a payment for debts. Thus in the given period feudal relations were beginning to make slow progress within the Anglo-Saxon society. However, though some peasants were already in bondage and others could hardly make their ends meet because their plots were too small, the majority of the population still consisted of free peasants.

At first the invaders spoke different dialects but little by little the dialect of the Angles of Mercia prevailed. Soon the people living in Britain were referred to as the English after the Angles and the name England became widely used as the name of the whole country. The Anglo-Saxons were pagans and remained so for some time. Tiu (Tuesday) was the god of war, Woden (Wednesday) was the supreme god and the ancestor of kings, Thor (Thursday) was the god of storm, Frigga (Friday), Woden's wife, was the goddess of nature and of love. Anglo-Saxon folklore, the greatest monument of which is The Poem of Beowulf created in the seventh century, reflected the life of society and its beliefs.

The Saxon kingdoms warred one against the other, at times one kingdom would gain supremacy, then another, but at the beginning of the ninth century Wessex became the leading kingdom and united the rest of England in the fight against the Danes. Since 829 the greater part of the country was united under the name England.

The adoption of Christianity which was officially proclaimed at the Synod of Whitby in 664 contributed to the development of class relations in the country. It served the interests of the rich Anglo-Saxons propagating their rights to rule and exploit. However, the spread of the Christian faith influenced the growth of culture and contributed to the revival of Latin too.

Having become the most powerful kingdom of England, Wessex began to face a most dangerous enemy. They were the Danes from Denmark and the Northmen from the Scandinavian peninsula. They are frequently called as the Vikings. These two Scandinavian peoples were closely related with one another, but in the main the Danes were the invaders of England and the Northmen were the invaders of Ireland and Scotland. At first they were contented with sudden invasions in small bands, but later they came in larger numbers conquering one territory after another. The kingdom of Wessex alone was left to resist them. Fortunately at this time there appeared a Saxon king, whose military genius, whose capacity for learning from the enemy was one of the main reasons for the defeat of the Danes. This was Alfred, born 849 (ruled 871 901). King Alfred was driven first this way and then that way, sometimes winning battle but often having to retire from one place to another. However, he gathered his men and defeated the Danes by surprise attack. As a result the treaty of Wedmore was signed between Alfred and the Danes (886) ^/According to this treaty England was divided into two parts by a line drawn, roughly speaking, from London to Chester: the Danelaw under Danish rule, lying north and east and Saxon England which remained under Alfred's rule lying south and west of the line.^There were renewed attempts to defeat Alfred, but as a poet of those days sang: 'They got hard blows instead of shillings, and the axe's weight instead of tribute'.

Alfred was not only a bold warrior, but he showed that he was a wise statesman. Though he had for a time to give up the north and east of England, it was only for a time. His descendants recovered all that had been lost. He turned undefended villages into fortified towns, or boroughs. Alfred saw that the best way to keep off the Danes was by fighting them at sea, and so he built ships bigger and faster than the Danish ships, took into his service Welsh and even Danish sailors to teach his men and at last was able to guard the shores of England more or less effectually from foreign invaders. He is considered to be the founder of the English fleet.

Alfred is also important as a lawgiver and as a patron of learning. He compiled and published a code of laws from earlier laws.

Date: 2015-02-03; view: 2216

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