Faculty of Arts
Department of English
and American Studies
English Language and Literature
Anglo-Saxons and English Identity
Master’s Diploma Thesis
Supervisor: Dr., M.A. Stephen Paul Hardy, Ph. D.
I declare that I have worked on this thesis independently,
using only the primary and secondary sources listed in the bibliography.
V Plzni dne 22.11.2010
I would like to thank my supervisor Dr., M.A. Stephen Paul Hardy, Ph.D. for his advice
and comments, and my family and boyfriend for their constant support.
Table of Contents
0 Introduction ............................................................................................................................1
1 Anglo-Saxon Period (410–1066) ...........................................................................................4
1.1 Anglo-Saxon Settlement in Britain ................................................................................4
1.2 A Brief History of the Anglo-Saxon Period ...................................................................5
1.3 ―Saxons‖,― English‖ or ―Anglo-Saxons‖? .....................................................................7
1.4 The Origins of English Identity and the Venerable Bede ..............................................9
1.5 English Identity in the Ninth Century and Alfred the Great‘s Preface
to the Pastoral Care ......................................................................................................15
1.6 Conclusion ...................................................................................................................17
2 The Conquered England (1066–1204) .................................................................................19
2.1 The Norman Conquest .................................................................................................19
2.2 The English and Norman Identities in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries ................20
2.3 English Identity and the Anglo-Saxons in William of Malmesbury‘s Deeds of the
Kings of the English .....................................................................................................22
2.4 Conclusion ...................................................................................................................25
3 The Late Middle Ages (1204–1485) ....................................................................................27
3.1 England, English Identity and the Anglo-Saxons in the Late Middle Ages .................27
3.2 The Romance of Guy of Warwick ...............................................................................31
3.3 Conclusion ...................................................................................................................36
4 The Tudor Age (1485–1603) ...............................................................................................38
4.1 England, English Identity and the Anglo-Saxons in the Tudor Age ............................38
4.2 Matthew Parker‘s A Testimony of Antiquity...............................................................41
4.3 Conclusion ...................................................................................................................45
5 The Early Stuarts (1603–1660) ............................................................................................47
5.1 England under the Early Stuarts and the Uses of Anglo-Saxon Past
in the Construction of English Identity during the Civil War ......................................47
5.2 John Hare‘s St. Edward‘s Ghost, or Anti-Normanism .................................................50
5.3 Conclusion ...................................................................................................................53
6 From Restoration until 1789 ................................................................................................55
6.1 England after the Restoration and the Revival of Interest in the Anglo-Saxon Past....55
6.2 Daniel Defoe‘s The True-Born Englishman ................................................................58
6.3 Conclusion ...................................................................................................................61
7 The Nineteenth Century (1789–1914)..................................................................................63
7.1 The Nineteenth Century and the Racialization of the Myth
of the Anglo-Saxon past ...............................................................................................63
7.2 Charles Dickens‘s A Child‘s History of England........................................................ 65
7.3 Conclusion ................................................................................................................... 68
8 After the Second World War (1945–2010) ......................................................................... 69
8.1 The United Kingdom after the Second World War: the Crisis of English Identity
and the Decline of Interest in Anglo-Saxon Past? ....................................................... 69
8.2 Geraldine McCaughrean‘s Britannia: 100 Great Stories from British History ........... 77
8.3 Conclusion ................................................................................................................... 80
9 Conclusion ........................................................................................................................... 81
10 Works Cited......................................................................................................................... 86
11 Resumé ................................................................................................................................ 96
12 Summary ............................................................................................................................. 97
The Norman Conquest is generally considered to be the end of what we call
Anglo-Saxon England. However, Anglo-Saxon England remained a vital cultural
construct in post-Conquest England. In fact, ―the remembrance and re-imagining of
Anglo-Saxon England in the post-conquest period is part of an ongoing cultural process
that began from the first moment that William stood among the slain Anglo-Saxon
nobles after the battle of Hastings,‖ writes Robert Allen Rouse in the first chapter of his
book The Idea of Anglo-Saxon England in Middle English Romance (1).
When, in the introduction to Anglo-Saxonism and the Construction of Social
Identity, Allen J. Frantzen and John D. Niles define what they mean by Anglo-
Saxonism, they claim that it is ―the process through which a self-conscious national and
racial identity first came into being among the early peoples of the region that we now
call England and how, over time, through both scholarly and popular promptings, that
identity was transformed into an originary myth available to a wide variety of political
and social interests‖ (1). However, this collection of essays explores Anglo-Saxonism
only in certain periods of time and in different parts of the world ranging from the
United States to England and Scandinavia.
My thesis further develops the concepts put forward in this work. I argue that the
perceptions of the Anglo-Saxon past played an important role in English history and
that they were used in various ways in the construction of English national identity,
each period of English history appropriating the Anglo-Saxon past in its own way
according to its current needs.
Therefore, the aim of this thesis is to demonstrate systematically how the Anglo-
Saxon past was viewed in different periods of English history, from the Anglo-Saxon
period until the twentieth century, and how (if at all) it influenced the development of
English identity. I am primarily concerned with the history and identity of England and
the English, not with that of Britain, though it is inevitably connected. As investigating
popular perceptions of identity in the past is extremely difficult, I will rather concentrate
on how writers throughout the ages attempted to shape English identity through their
works. Each period of English history will be investigated mainly through one work of a
All chapters, which are named after the period of English history which they
deal with, are structured similarly. First, I introduce the given historical period and the
main developments relevant to the evolution of English identity at the time. Then, I
summarize what has been argued about the perception of the Anglo-Saxons and the
development of English identity during the period. In the final part of each chapter, I
analyze one work by an English author dealing with the Anglo-Saxon past.
In chapter one, I provide a brief account of the origins of the Anglo-Saxon
settlement in England and the evolution of England during the Anglo-Saxon period.
Then, I describe the origins and meanings of the terms ―Saxon,‖ ―English‖ and ―Anglo-
Saxon‖ as well as how the meanings of these terms have changed throughout history.
Finally, I attempt to find out when the world first saw an ―English identity‖ and how
that identity was viewed at this early point in history by analyzing the eighth-century
Ecclesiastical History of the English People by the monk Venerable Bede and the ninth-
century preface to the Pastoral Care by King Alfred the Great.
Chapter two is devoted to the period between the Norman Conquest of 1066 and
the beginning of the thirteenth century. I focus on the impact of the Norman Conquest
on the development of English identity and attempt to trace the interaction of the
English and Norman identities until the final victory of the English. As a contemporary
work dealing with the clash of the two identities, I analyze Deeds of the Kings of the
English written at the beginning of the twelfth century by William of Malmesbury, a
monk of Anglo-Norman origin.
Chapter three deals with a number of changes which occurred in England during
the late medieval period. It endeavours to explain what the consequences were for
English identity, which represented a rather complicated notion at the time, and what
the role of the Anglo-Saxons was in this process. As an example of how the Anglo-
Saxons were viewed in this period, a fifteenth-century romance of Guy of Warwick is
In chapter four, I explore the period between 1485 and 1603, during which
England was ruled by the Tudor monarchs. I focus on the process of the English
Reformation, initiated by King Henry VIII, and on the new period in the development
of English identity, which was initiated by the Reformation. Moreover, I attempt to
explain what the role of the Anglo-Saxon past was in this development. In the second
part of the chapter, I analyze the preface to A Testimony of Antiquity, a collection of
religious writings from the Anglo-Saxon period assembled by Archbishop Matthew
Parker, one of the most important figures of the Reformation.
Chapter five discusses the period of the reign of the early Stuart kings, 1603–
1660. It focuses mainly on the English Civil War. First, it attempts to explain the causes
of this conflict. Then, it concentrates on the role of the Anglo-Saxon past in this event
and its impact on English identity. Finally, special interest is paid to one of the
examples of the radical interpretation of English history, St. Edward‟s Ghost, or Anti-
Normanism, a pamphlet by a radical thinker John Hare published in 1647.
Chapter six explores the period after the Restoration of the Stuart kings until the
end of the eighteenth century. It mainly deals with the political situation in England
after the Restoration and the revival of interest in the Anglo-Saxon past in the
eighteenth century and its accommodation to the new needs provided by the accession
of kings of foreign origin to the English throne. In the second part of the chapter, I
analyze the satirical poem The True-Born Englishman by Daniel Defoe.
In chapter seven, I focus on the nineteenth century. After briefly introducing the
period and the origins of the racialization of the myth of Anglo-Saxon past, I endeavour
to trace the development of English identity in the nineteenth century in relation to
Anglo-Saxon past. Following this, I attempt to illustrate the perceptions of the Anglo-
Saxons and their significance in the development of English identity during this period
by analyzing a section of A Child‟s History of England by Charles Dickens.
Chapter eight deals with the period from the Second World War until present. It
attempts to describe the changes that the British Empire underwent in the post-war
period, how they influenced English identity and what was the role of the Anglo-Saxons
in this process. As an example of a recent work, I provide an analysis of Britannia: 100
Great Stories from British History, a collection of stories and legends from the history
of Great Britain written by Geraldine McCaughrean.
1 Anglo-Saxon Period (410–1066)
In the fifth and sixth centuries, significant political, economic and cultural
changes took place in Britain. After the Roman legions withdrew, the structure of the
Roman state rapidly disintegrated. The economy collapsed and the Latin language was
gradually abandoned. The ―Dark Ages‖ began (Brooks 21).
In such a state, Britain was ―ripe for invasion‖ (Rodrick 16) and it did not take
long before such an invasion took place. The territory was soon split between the Celts,
who were driven to the west and highland areas, and the invading Germanic tribes
which settled in the south and east, bringing with them their language and pagan culture
(Brooks 21–23). Both formed a number of smaller kingdoms struggling to survive and,
often, attacking their neighbours to expand their own control (Rodrick 17).
However, by the eleventh century, the members of these Germanic tribes which
we usually call Anglo-Saxons had practically managed to ―make England‖ (John 4):
―the separate English kingdoms had gone, and the kingdom of England had been born‖
(Saul 5), as well as a certain sense of Englishness (Saul 1).
1.1 Anglo-Saxon Settlement in Britain
During the four centuries of its existence, Roman Britain faced assaults from all
directions. From the north and west, it was threatened by the Celtic peoples settled in
Wales, northern England and Ireland; the Germanic peoples were attacking from the
east and south. In the second half of the third century, fortifications had to be built along
the eastern and southern shores to prevent the growing piracy in the Narrow Seas (Blair
and Keynes 1-4). After the third-century stagnation, Britain enjoyed a revival in the first
half of the fourth century. Nevertheless, from about 340, the prosperity of Britain
declined again due to increasingly severe pressure on northern and seaward frontier and
political troubles (Haigh 22).
In 398–399, the Roman General Flavius Stilicho repulsed the invasions of the
Picts, the Saxons and the Irish into Britain. In 401 or 402, however, he withdrew troops
to defend Italy against the Goths led by Alaric (Haigh 23). It was followed by the
cessation of the payment of the remaining regular troops and civil officials from the
central resources which provoked extreme discontent (Blair and Salway 56). Three
emperors were elevated in a rapid succession by the army in Britain in the hope of
better defence for Britain, of whom only Constantine III survived (Blair and Keynes 3).
At the very end of 406, the attack of the barbarians on Gaul and the subsequent moving
of the centre of the western government south from Trier to Arles only led to a greater
isolation of Britain (Haigh 22–23). Constantine III left for Gaul with even more troops
to justify his loyalty to the emperor (Blair and Keynes 3).
In 409, neglected by Constantine III and the whole empire and again attacked by
barbarians, the disillusioned Romano-Britons expelled both Constantine‘s
administration and the invaders. In fact, they completely abandoned Roman rule (Haigh
22–23). Control was taken by ―usurpers‖ (―tyranni‖), local potentates of various
background (Blair and Salway 58). From 409, in the absence of central government,
groups of barbarians were probably employed as mercenaries. Some archaeological
findings suggest that they may have been brought to Britain already under Stilicho or
Constantine III. It was probably from the 430s onwards that Germanic settlers started to
arrive in large numbers in Britain (Blair and Salway 57–61).
1.2 A Brief History of the Anglo-Saxon Period
The Venerable Bede mentions three groups of the Germanic peoples who arrived
in Britain: the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. According to him, the Angles settled in the
north and east, while the Saxons settled in the south. The Jutes were to be found in
Kent, the Isle of Wight and southern Hampshire. This pattern of settlement was roughly
confirmed by archaeological findings though geographical boundaries were not clearly
cut. Archaeological evidence and place names suggest that other Germanic peoples,
though in smaller numbers, settled in Britain. Among them were Frisians, Franks and
Norwegians. Nevertheless, the scale of the Germanic migration into Britain is still
debated (Lapidge et al. 416).
However, it seems that the leaders of the invading warrior bands became kings
over smaller territories. It is traditionally believed that, in the course of the sixth
century, these territories were absorbed into seven larger kingdoms (the so-called
Heptarchy): Kent (the Jutes), Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia (the Angles), Essex,
Sussex, and Wessex (the Saxons) (Kramer 28; Nangonová 9). Nevertheless, as Richard
Dargie suggests, ―recent research has revealed a much more fluid pattern of power and
identity during the first three centuries of the Anglo-Saxon period‖ (48). England was in
fact a loose confederation of individual kingdoms, different kingdoms occasionally
gaining greater power than others and their rulers functioning as overlords to the whole
region (Rodrick 19).
One by one, the kingdoms were converted to Christianity, initially by
missionaries under St. Augustine sent by Pope Gregory the Great to Kent in 597
(Scragg 2). The first archbishopric was established in Canterbury from where Roman
Christianity spread over the island. Moreover, Irish Christianity, brought by Irish monks
from Iona in western Scotland, reached Northumbria in the first half of the seventh
century and started to spread to central England. The two branches of Christianity
coexisted until 664, when, after the Synod of Whitby, the Irish Church had to submit to
the Roman one (Nangonová 11; Scragg 2).
By the ninth century, the seven kingdoms were transformed into three even
larger kingdoms, Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria, which had been the largest ones
since the middle of the seventh century (Kramer 28; McDowall 12). From 793, England
had been attacked by the Vikings, initially ravaging the coastal areas but later also
settling down (Kramer 30). They were one of the causes of the unification of England
undertaken by King Alfred the Great (r. 871-99) from the House of Wessex (Scragg 3).
In 878, England was divided between the territories controlled by Alfred the Great and
the Danelaw where the Danes were forced to retreat (Nangonová 12). Alfred‘s work
was continued by his son Edward the Elder (899–924) and his grandson Athelstan (924–
39), resulting in most of the formerly independent (or semi-independent) Anglo-Saxon
kingdoms gradually coming under a single rule. By the time of Athelstan‘s death,
modern boundaries of England were virtually set and the king, having also links through
marriage into many influential European families, exercised a certain degree of power
over much of the British Isle: ―politically, England was born‖ (Scragg 3).
Despite some temporary losses of control over certain territories and divisions of
the territory, Athelstan‘s successors managed to maintain the unity and gradually
reconquer the Danelaw. When Ethelred the Unready became king in 978, the Danes
started attacking England again. Between 1016 and 1042, England was part of
Scandinavian Empire. In 1042, Ethelred‘s last surviving son, Edward the Confessor,
was brought back from exile in Normandy. The disputes over the succession after his
death in 1066 finally resulted in the Norman Conquest (Nangonová 12–14; Scragg 3–4).
1.3 “Saxons”,“ English” or “Anglo-Saxons”?
The term ―Saxones‖, representing a Germanic tribe of the North Sea Coast, was
first mentioned by the Egyptian astronomer, mathematician and geographer Ptolemy at
around 150 AD. He situates the Saxons to western Holstein or to western Slesvig.
During the third century, they probably migrated westward along the coast. In the fourth
century, they occupied the German coast from Elbe to Ems. During the fourth and fifth
centuries, ―Saxon‖ became a generic term for a North Sea pirate. Therefore, ―the
Saxons, Angles and Jutes who conquered eastern Britain in the fifth century were all
called Saxons by their victims and by the Continental writers of the day, and the name
was long kept as a generic term for the English settlers and their descendants,
irrespective of the tribal divisions and subdivisions which held for many centuries‖
The English, on the other hand, used the term ―Saxon‖ strictly for the members
of the Saxon tribe. They referred to themselves as ―Angli‖ (Malone 174). The Roman
historian Tacitus was the first one to speak about the ―Anglii‖ by whom he understood
one of the seven tribes worshipping a goddess called Nerthus at an island sanctuary.
While Tacitus regarded the Anglo-Saxons as a seaboard people, Ptolemy represented
them as inland people dwelling in the west of the middle Elbe. It is, nonetheless, agreed
that Ptolemy was wrong as the Old English poem Widsith, Tacitus, Bede and Alfred
situate the English to the southern part of the Jutland peninsula. Moreover, the area
north-east of Slesvig still bears the name of Angeln. However, we are not sure about the
original home of the Jutes (Blair and Keynes 8–9).
The abbreviated form ―Angli‖, referring to all Germanic inhabitants of Britain,
was first used, in Latinized form, by Pope Gregory the Great at the end of the sixth
century (Malone 174). Gregory‘s ―Angli‖ (or ―Anguli‖) were given a wider currency by
the Venerable Bede (Lapidge et al. 170). The term also gradually conquered the
Continent where it allowed to avoid ambiguity because the term ―Saxones‖ also referred
to the Saxons of Germany (these were called Old Saxons by the English writers)
(Malone 174). When the word ―English‖ first appeared in Old English, it had already
lost its original sense ―of or about the Angles‖ and referred to all the Teutonic peoples
who had settled in Britain in the fifth century (Kumar 9).
It was the Lombard historian and poet Paul the Deacon (c. 720–c. 799) who, in
his History of the Langobards, introduced a third generic name, ―Angli Saxones‖ or
―Saxones Angli‖ for the English, though never much used. It was sometimes used in the
learned Continental writings until the end of the tenth century but in England, it
appeared only in connection with the Royal title (―Rex Angulsaxonum‖) (Malone 175–
76). It was adopted at the court of Alfred the Great to express the amalgamation of
―Anglian‖ and ―Saxon‖ peoples under Alfred‘s leadership in the 880s (Lapidge et al.
38). The names ―Angli‖ and ―Saxones‖ were far more common until the end of the
tenth century, when ―Angli‖ definitively replaced the two other names (Malone 175–
76). Accordingly, the kings from the later tenth century bore the title ―rex Anglorum‖
and, as Susan Reynolds asserts, ―the compound name did not reappear until it was
resurrected in the sixteenth century in order to distinguish the language and history of
the inhabitants of England before the Norman Conquest from those of later periods‖
As for the meaning of ―Anglo-Saxon‖ in English, Kemp Malone proposes three
main definitions, of which the following one is the most important:
English in the broad or unrestricted sense, i.e. without regard to historical
periods, political boundaries, or geographical areas; applied to the
English people and their culture (laws, customs, language, literature, etc.)
from the fifth century to the present day, in England, Scotland, Ireland,
America, etc. This is the oldest sense of the word and the only meaning
recorded in the Middle Ages; it is also the most frequent meaning in
popular speech today. (184)
The two other possible meanings, according to Malone, are: ―English in some
restricted sense; various restrictions are applied‖ (she further lists six types of such
restrictions) and ―Pre-English (implying a restriction of ―English‖ to the later Middle
Ages and modern times)‖ (Malone 184–85).
We should also mention the term ―gens Anglorum‖ (English people), coined
again by Pope Gregory the Great and subsequently promoted by Bede. The vernacular
version of this name – ―Angelcynn‖ – appears in a Mercian charter in the 850s, but
becomes common at the close on the ninth century in vernacular texts associated with
the court of Alfred the Great (Lapidge et al. 171). It is also used in the sense ―the land of
the English folk‖ (Blair and Salway 1993). It was the eleventh-century king Canute who
called his kingdom ―Engla Lond‖ (Lapidge et al. 171).
In this master‘s thesis, I am mainly using the name ―Anglo-Saxons‖ in the sense
of ―the English people, that is, the Germanic peoples who settled in England and who
are generally known as the Anglo-Saxons‖ (Bede 22) and the adjective ―Anglo-Saxon‖
in the sense ―English‖ but with a ―temporal restriction to the Saxon period of English
history (circa 400 to 1066 A.D.) to which a part or the whole of the Norman period
(1066–1154) is often added‖ (Malone 184–85).
1.4 The Origins of English Identity and the Venerable Bede
As Susan Reynolds claims, ―we do not know how consistently the Germanic-
speaking invaders of Britain behaved like a group or felt themselves to be a group
during the fifth and sixth centuries. We do not know what they called themselves or
what others called them, if indeed they had any collective name‖ (401). During the two
centuries after their arrival, the Germanic peoples were illiterate which means that for
the fifth and sixth centuries, we have to rely on foreign sources and archaeology (Blair
and Salway 61). Most sources describing the period of the Germanic settlement are of a
later date and they are based on oral tradition, myth and imaginative fiction (Wormald,
―Anglo-Saxon‖ 2). In fact, as Blair and Keynes state, for the period between 410 and
597, ―there are few events in the history of Britain so firmly established that they can be
regarded as incontrovertible historical facts‖ (2). The situation improves only after 597,
the year when Pope Gregory the Great sent a mission to the Angles and when literacy
and, subsequently, written history were brought to the Germanic peoples of Britain
together with Christianity (Wormald, ―Anglo-Saxon‖ 2). Therefore, we cannot state for
certain whether the Germanic peoples formed a homogeneous group, either racially or
culturally, when they came to Britain. Neither do we know how much different they
were from the British population or the Pictish and Scottish invaders (Blair and Keynes
10–11; Reynolds 402).
We can say, though, that in the seventh century, military and political conflicts
did not always follow ―ethnic‖ lines (Reynolds 402). They derived rather from different
interests of individual kingdoms the Germanic peoples formed in Britain. Because, as
Susan Reynolds suggests, ―after a generation or two of post-Roman Britain not
everyone, perhaps comparatively few people, can have been of pure native or invading
descent. Who can have known who was descended from whom?‖ (403). Moreover, as
she further argues, the origin of the inhabitants of England as such may not be the clue
to the creation of the common English identity in the eighth century: ―That was a matter
not of physical descent but of changes in political and social solidarity. Anyone who
lived in an area dominated by an English king and who therefore owed allegiance to
him was likely to come to consider himself and to be considered English. In time
everyone in these areas came to speak English‖ (Reynolds 403–04). In short, ―the layer
of unity was as yet a matter of feeling, not one of either political authority or genuinely
common descent‖ (Reynolds 404).
As Krishan Kumar mentions, it was probably the monk Venerable Bede (c. 672–
735) who first (or at least as the first Anglo-Saxon) spoke of the English (―gens
Anglorum‖) as a single people (41). At the age of seven, Bede was taken to the
monastery of Jarrow (the twin monastery of Wearmouth) in Northumbria, where he
spent the rest of his life. Without ever leaving Northumbria, he became one of the most
learned men of Europe and the institution of Wearmouth-Jarrow one of the most
important cultural centres in Europe. Though he regarded himself mainly as a biblical
commentator (Farmer, Introduction 21), Bede‘s greatest achievement was the Latin
Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People).
The History consists of five volumes. It begins in 60 BC with the unsuccessful
invasion of Britain by Julius Caesar and ends in AD 731 when Bede finished writing.
Therefore, when we read the History, we have to take into account that it was completed
about 130 years after Augustine came into Britain and 300 years after the arrival of the
Anglo-Saxons (Farmer, Introduction 24). It means that further back we proceed in
history, the less reliable the facts are. Bede himself, in the preface to the History,
distinguishes between his pre- and post- conversion sources. The first book was largely
based on Liber querulus de excidio Britanniae by the British monk Gildas1 which, as D.
H. Farmer argues, was ―more of a homily than a history. Explicitly dependent on the
biblical account of Jeremiah, it saw the downfall of the British in terms of Israel‘s fall to
the Assyrians‖ (24). Among other pre-conversion sources of the History, we may
mention Orosius, Pliny, Solinus, Life of St. Germanus written by Constantinus, Life of
St. Alban and the Liber Pontificalis (Gransden 19).
Nevertheless, in the preface, Bede lists only his contemporary sources. Abbot
Albinus of Canterbury (709-32) was not only his principal source for Kent but, as Bede
claims, ―it was mainly owing to the persuasion of Albinus that I was encouraged to
begin this work‖ (Bede 42; Author‘s Preface). Albinus‘s assistant Nothelm, a London
priest, supplied Bede with the letters of Pope Gregory and some later popes which he
found in the papal archives in Rome (Farmer, Introduction 25). Other sources include
Daniel, Bishop of Winchester (the history of the West and East Saxons and the Isle of
Wight), monks of Lastingham monastery (information about Chad, Cedd and Mercia),
Abbot Esi (East Anglia), Bishop Cynibert (Lindsey) and himself and ―countless faithful
witnesses‖ (Northumbria) (Bede 43; Author‘s Preface).
In fact, Bede accorded prominence to the kingdom of Northumbria where he
originated. On the other hand, his attitude was rather hostile towards Mercia, whose
pagan king Penda caused the death of Edwin, the first Christian king of Northumbria.
As regards Wessex, Bede lacked information about this kingdom and therefore omitted
many important facts from its history. Bede‘s account of the Celtic Christians was
influenced by his sympathies for the Irish and his antipathy towards the Welsh (Farmer,
Introduction 29–30). Nevertheless, even if it may sometimes be biased and contain
historical inaccuracies, Bede‘s Ecclesiastical History ―was widely read and respected in
the dark and middle ages‖ and ―today is regarded as the most important source for early
English history‖ (Gransden 14).
As Krishan Kumar remarks, Bede‘s History ―was, as its title made clear,
primarily Church history; its purpose moral and prescriptive‖ (Kumar 41–42). This
Gildas was a 6th century British historian and a monk. This book of his is the most important source for
fifth-century Britain, though it concentrates more on the downfall of the Britons and their conquest by the
pagan Anglo-Saxons, caused by their sinfulness and the incapacity of their leaders, than on historical
moral purpose is evident already from the preface to the History: ―For if history records
good things of good men, the thoughtful hearer is encouraged to imitate what is good‖
(Bede 41; Author‘s Preface). As for example D. H. Farmer argues, for Bede,
Christianity represented a unifying force which brought together Picts, Irish, Angles,
Saxons, Jutes, and, possibly, even the Britons (the symbol of this unity was the
celebration of the Easter on the same day) (Farmer, Introduction 27). However, Bede is
mainly interested in the history of the English people and the Church of the English, as
he claims in the autobiographical note of his History (Bede 5).
Inspired by Gildas, Bede perceives the arrival of the German tribes into Britain
as God‘s punishment for the wickedness of the Britons. In chapters thirteen and
fourteen of Book One, he describes how the Britons, stricken by famine and without
help from Rome, are left at the mercy of the barbarians. However, they gradually
manage to banish the invaders from their territory and they enjoy a period of sheer
abundance. But, according to Bede, such wealth leads to an extreme proliferation of sin
between both laymen and the clergy. Consequently, God sends a terrible plague on the
whole nation but not even such blight causes the Britons to turn back to the Christian
faith. Therefore, even a worse disaster follows when the Britons themselves, on the
advice of King Vortigern, decide to invite the Saxon peoples to help them protect
themselves from the attacks of the Irish and the Picts.
As Bede notes, ―this decision, as its results were to show, seems to have been
ordained by God as a punishment on their wickedness‖ (Bede 62; bk. 1, ch. 14).
Because, though the Angles initially defeat the invaders from the North, the former later
start coming in large numbers and finally they ally with the Picts and turn against the
Britons. They continue to devastate the country and slain the people until a major defeat
by the Britons in 493 at the battle of Badon Hill.
Bede mentions three ―races‖ of the Germanic peoples: the Angles, Saxons and
Jutes. The Jutes are the ancestors of the people of Kent and the Isle of Wight and the
area opposite to it. From the Saxons are descended the East, South and West Saxons and
the Angles are forebears of the East and Middle Angles, the Mercians, the
Northumbrians and the remaining English peoples (Bede 63; bk. 1, ch. 15).
Nevertheless, together they form the English people, ―gens Anglorum‖, the people
―chosen by God‖, as Bede claims. Because, while the Britons only committed another
sin when they did not preach the Word of God to the invaders, God ―remembered them
[the people whom he had chosen], and sent this nation more worthy preachers of truth
to bring them to the Faith‖ (Bede 72; bk. 1, ch. 22).
These ―more worthy preachers of truth‖ were to become Augustine and his
companions sent to Ethelbert, the King of Kent, in 596 by Pope Gregory the Great.
―Gregory‘s deep desire for the salvation of our nation‖, as Bede claims, was aroused at
a market in Rome where he saw some English boys beautiful as angels and decided that
they should therefore joint the angels in heaven (Bede 103; bk. 2, ch. 1). For Bede,
Gregory the Great represents a ―father‖ of the English people who ―transformed our still
idolatrous nation into a church of Christ‖ (Bede 98; bk. 2, ch. 1).
From this point, Bede‘s History becomes predominantly a narration about the
gradual conversion of the Germanic peoples and the succession of their kings and
bishops. Because, as Sarah Foot points out, ―part of what Bede had aimed to illustrate
was the process by which a ‗national‘ Church was created; as he traced the
establishment of separate sees in each individual kingdom . . . he stressed not a series of
distinct institutions for each individual people but the making of a single Church,
subject to Rome‖ (60).
Nevertheless, this process was very slow as the conversion of a king did not
guarantee that his successors would also become adherents of the Christian faith. The
revival of the worship of pagan gods is usually accompanied by the misfortunes of the
people of the kingdom. In this aspect, the English people resemble the nation of Israel.
For instance, in chapter one of Book Three, King Edwin‘s successors abandon the
Christian faith for the former beliefs. But, as Bede concludes, ―not long afterwards they
were justly punished by meeting their death at the hands of the godless Cadwalla, king
of the Britons‖ who installed tyranny in Northumbria (Bede 143; bk. 3, ch. 6). But, as
soon as King Oswald, ―a man beloved of God‖, becomes king, though his army is small,
he manages to defeat Cadwalla. Later, this king, reputed for his devotion and piety,
subjugates all the four nations of Britain (Bede 144; bk. 3, ch. 6).
As for example Sarah Foot has argued, Bede‘s History culminates when
Theodore becomes archbishop (Foot 60). For ―Theodore was the first archbishop whom
the entire Church of the English obeyed‖ (Bede 205; bk. 4, ch. 1). Bede also represents
Theodore‘s reign as the period of the biggest prosperity of the English: ―Never had
there been such happy times as these since the English settled in Britain; for the
Christian kings were so strong that they daunted all the barbarious tribes‖ (Bede 205;
bk. 4, ch. 2). However, the most important for us is the fact that ―not only was this first
time when the separate churches of the individual kingdoms were united under one
authority, but Theodore was the first person to whom all the English offered any sort of
authority‖ (Foot 60). Though Bede was mainly concerned with the church history, he
also hints, as Sarah Foot promotes, at the possible political unity of the nation in the list
of seven kings who ruled several English kingdoms (Foot 60). According to Bede, the
first of these kings, whom the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle calls ―Bretwaldas‖ (Overlord
kings) was Aelle, King of the South Saxons (Bede 111; bk. 2, ch. 5; Farmer, Notes
There definitely did not exist, in the political sense, any single English nation at
the time of Bede (Wormald, ―Anglo-Saxon‖ 7). Still, Susan Reynolds concedes that ―by
the eighth century, however, a sense of unity had somehow developed that enabled
Bede to write in Latin of the gens Anglorum‖ (402). Brooks goes even further
maintaining that ―none the less the Anglo-Saxons had a sense that they were one people.
Thus their greatest historian, the Northumbrian monk, Bede, chose to write the
‗Ecclesiastical History‘ of the single ‗English people‘, not of separate English
kingdoms‖ (21). For Krishan Kumar (and some other scholars as Cowdrey or Higham),
on the other hand, the existence of English national identity in the eighth century is
unconvincing. He refutes that Bede‘s account could provide us with a clue to English
identity in the Anglo-Saxon period, arguing that Bede‘s concerns were ―more
theological than sociological or historical in the usual sense‖ (Kumar 46) and that the
History‘s purpose was ―not so much national as imperial‖ (Kumar 47), expressing rather
Bede‘s desire for the unification of the whole Britain under the Roman Church (Kumar
1.5 English Identity in the Ninth Century and Alfred the Great’s Preface to the
However, it is towards the end of the ninth century that, according to Kathleen
Davis, we observe the emergence of the sense of English unity (619). It was caused by
the necessity for the English to unite against the Vikings and promoted by the court of
King Alfred the Great (871–99) (Foot 51). In 878, he defeated the Danes at the battle of
Eddington. The Danish leader Guthrum and some of his captains were baptized and the
English concluded peace with the Danes. England was divided between the Danes and
the king of Wessex. In 879, the Danish army finally moved to East Anglia where it
began systematic settlement.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions that in 886 (it was, in fact, probably
earlier), Alfred recaptured London and created a united West Saxon–Mercian realm
(Foot 52). As ―all the Angles and Saxons – those who had formerly been scattered
everywhere and were not in captivity with the Vikings – turned willingly to King Alfred
and submitted themselves to his lordship‖ (―Alfred the Great‖ 98; ch. 83), Alfred
became the king of the whole English people (―all Angelcynn‖) who were not subjected
to the Danes and, thereafter, the charters call him ―rex Angul-Saxonum‖ (instead of the
traditional title of ―rex Saxonum‖ of the kings of Wessex) (Foot 51–52).
Alfred the Great also became famous due to his attempts to revive learning in
England (Keynes and Lapidge 28). Part of this project was a series of translations from
Latin to Old English. One of the books Alfred translated was Pope Gregory the Great‘s
Liber Regulae Pastoralis (Pastoral Care or Pastoral Rule), a handbook about the duties
and obligations of the clergy. It is its preface that is of particular interest to us.
Alfred begins the prefatory letter by greeting Bishop Woerferth. As many
scholars argue, this greeting represents a common opening of a writ. Alfred thus
establishes his authority not only as a translator but also as a king and the preface thus
becomes legally binding as the king‘s word. The past events then acquire a present
significance as a justification for the program of translation and education (Davis 626).
Alfred then complains about the decline of knowledge and morality in England,
remembering the old times when English kings obeyed God, ruled wisely and expanded
their kingdom and when the English were so reputed for their learning that men came
from abroad to let themselves be taught by them. He contrasts it with the present
situation when teachers have to be obtained from abroad. Interestingly, the decline of
learning is not the consequence of the Danish invasion because Alfred mentions it
already ―before it had all been ravaged and burned‖ (Alfred the Great 219). It seems that
it was rather the decay of knowledge that caused the invasion, when Alfred says that
―therefore we have lost both the wealth and the wisdom, because we would not incline
our hearts after their [our forefathers‘] example‖ (Alfred the Great 219).
In this first part of the preface, Alfred conceives of the English as a united
nation. In fact, as Kathleen Davis points out, England achieved political unity only in
the middle of the tenth century under Alfred‘s successors (617). But Alfred ventures
even further evoking the past of this non-existing nation, and this past is constructed as
an ―ideal‖ one. It is an important fact because, as Davis explains, it ―not only posits the
nation as a pre-existing, homogeneous entity, but also authorizes the contemporary
nation in terms of apparently intrinsic, timeless characteristics, such as the composition
of its people, its geographical boundaries, its laws, values, and political structure‖ (622).
In fact, as Sarah Foot points out, while Bede conceived of the English people as a newly
created unity based on the Christian faith (a new Israel), Alfred, who based his ideas on
Bede, further developed this idea. He claimed that he was only restoring the state which
had existed before (55).
In the other part of the letter, Alfred introduces and justifies his translation
project. If the forebears of the English did not translate any books into their language, it
was only because they did not think that learning would ever so decline in England that
people would not be able to read in Latin. Moreover, by translating books he
accomplishes nothing else than what Ancient Greeks, Romans and other Christian
nations did when they translated the law from Hebrew. Therefore, he decides to
―translate some books which are most needful for all men to know into the language
which we can all understand‖ (Alfred the Great 220). He also mentions his intention to
educate the young free men of England so that they could read and write in English and
teach Latin to those who are to continue in their studies.
Here, Alfred represents the English language as a factor uniting the English and
distinguishing them from other nations. Moreover, English does not have a subordinate
status compared to Latin: ―the English vernacular stands as one among many legitimate
languages in which wisdom can be conveyed‖ (Davis 615). By mentioning ―some
books‖, Alfred in fact introduces a larger project than the translation of one book. He
intends to create a whole corpus of writings in English. If we accept Kathleen Davis‘s
suggests that translation ―produces the boundaries of a culture that define it against
other cultures‖ (Davis 616), then this corpus helps to establish the sense of English
identity based on the common language.
As Sarah Foot, basing herself on Keynes and Lapidge, argues, due to his
promotion of the term ―Angelcynn‖ during the preface reflecting the common identity
of the West Saxons, Mercians and the people of Kent as opposed to the Danish but also
having a common heritage, faith and a shared history, we may consider King Alfred the
Great the inventor of the English as a political community (Foot 51–52).
Alfred concludes the preface by claiming that he will send one copy of the
Pastoral Care to every bishopric in his kingdom where it should remain. Thus, he
assures the dissemination of his ideas and of the sense of unity among the English
As we have seen, reliable sources about early Anglo-Saxon history, not to
mention identity, are virtually unavailable. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to try to
trace the origins of English identity and to examine the nature of the earliest perceptions
of English identity.
However, we know that in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People,
completed at the beginning of the eighth century, the English monk Bede created a
single English people on the basis of the common faith, Christianity, and a united
church with close connections to Rome. He also distinguished the English from their
neighbours by the language they spoke.
His History being primarily focused on the history of the English church, Bede
describes the English as a ―chosen people‖ sent to Britain to punish the wickedness of
the Britons. Here, they are gradually converted to Christianity. The high point of the
English Church comes when Theodore becomes the archbishop of the whole English
people. This is also the period of the greatest prosperity of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
Some scholars argue that, as Bede speaks of an English people united on the
basis of religion and mentions the overlords of England, suggesting a possible political
unity of the English, his History proves that a sense of English identity had already
existed by the eighth century among the English. Others, however, refuse this view, and
object that we cannot draw any conclusions about English identity from Bede‘s History.
A century later, when justifying his educational programme and promoting the
unity of the English people under West Saxon rule, King Alfred the Great took up
Bede‘s ideas and further developed them by claiming a common past for the English. In
the preface to the Pastoral Care, he claimed that he was only restoring a once existing
kingdom of the English where learning had flourished. What distinguished the English
from the Danish was their language, English. Though political unification of England
was achieved only under his successors, Alfred the Great is therefore considered by
some scholars the inventor of England as a political community.
On the basis of what has been argued above, we may conclude that, though
assessing English identity in the Anglo-Saxon period is extremely difficult, a certain
concept of a separate English identity was born already in this period, even though it
may have originated from the elites with specific aims on mind and may not have been
shared by the entire population. Moreover, in the ninth century, Alfred the Great,
drawing on a glorious past of the English, attempted to create a common English
identity based on the English language.
The idea of the English as one united people also persisted during the tenth and
eleventh centuries. First, under West Saxon kings, it referred exclusively to the
Germanic peoples; then, under Cnut (1016–35), it included both the Danish and the
English; and, finally, under William the Conqueror, it encompassed the Normans as
well as the Germanic inhabitants of Britain (Lapidge et al. 171).
2 The Conquered England (1066–1204)
By the eleventh century, England had become one of the most integrated and
centralized states in Europe (Kumar 42). When the Normans invaded England, it was a
―well-ordered state with a uniform system of administration, a highly developed
structure of royal law, a centralized coinage and an effective system of taxation‖
(Kumar 42). Therefore, ―the Norman Conquest cannot have been the making, even if it
was the saving, of England. England, as its name implies, was made already‖
(Wormald, ―Engla Lond‖ 10).
Moreover, the English had succeeded in forging some kind of territorial and
possibly even proto-national identity. However, it was mainly thanks to their social,
political and cultural elites. When they were replaced by the Norman elite, it had
significant consequences: socially, the social hierarchy was tightened by a greater
emphasis on the obligations of the subjects towards their lords; politically, in the
domestic scene the control from the king‘s court and government increased, and
internationally, close relations in Scandinavia gave way to a growing involvement with
the Continent; and culturally, Norman French replaced Anglo-Saxon as the language of
the ruling class (Kramer 34). Therefore, we may suppose that the Norman Conquest
must have had an impact on English identity (at least on that of the elites) and how the
English perceived of themselves.
2.1 The Norman Conquest
Edward the Confessor was the last English king descended directly from Cerdic,
King of Wessex in the sixth century (Barlow 99). When he died in 1066 without leaving
any obvious heir, Harold, a member of the most powerful family of Wessex, the
Godwinsons, and Edward‘s brother-in-law, was appointed king by the Witan2.
Nevertheless, his right to the throne was challenged by William, Duke of Normandy,
who claimed that King Edward had promised it to him and that Harold, during his visit
to Normandy in 1064 or 1065, swore an oath that he would not try to take hold of the
throne. Harold retorted that he had been forced to swear so and the oath therefore was
Witan (or Witenagemot) was the council of the Anglo-Saxon kings. It advised the king on the matters on
which he chose to ask its opinion. It was composed of the greater nobles and bishops and its composition
and time of meeting were determined by the king (―Witan‖).
not valid. Before William could assert his claims by force, a third claimant to the
throne, Harold Hardrada, King of Norway, invaded in Yorkshire. But as soon as Harold
Godwinson defeated the Viking pretender, he had to move his army to the south of
England where William had landed. Harold Godwinson was killed and his tired troops
were defeated in the battle near Hastings on 14 October 1066 (McDowall 17).
Having captured London, William was crowned King of England in
Westminster Abbey on 25 December 1066 and became the first Norman king of the
English. Nevertheless, the disturbances that his reign would bring about were already
suggested at his coronation. The nervous Norman guards afraid that the people cheering
the king would attack him set fire to nearby houses and the ceremony ended in disorder.
In fact, there would be an Anglo-Saxon rebellion against the Normans every year until
1070 (McDowall 23).
2.2 The English and Norman Identities in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries
According to Hugh Thomas, by the eleventh century, the idea of a common and
distinct English identity was well established, at least within the elites. Language,
culture and geography formed the basis of the distinction. A separate identity was
supported by the origin myth and historical tradition (founded by Bede and depicting
the English as a chosen people), the royal government (especially via coinage and
loyalty oaths) and the English church (both the members of the English church and the
cult of the saints fostered the identity). It was connected with the loyalty to the English
people, the land, and the king. On the other hand, we cannot draw any definitive
conclusions about the ethnic self-identity of the peasants. The sense of Englishness was
probably widespread among them but we are not sure how strong it was. Moreover, we
have to take into account that other group identities (for instance regional identities)
rivalled the English identity (20–26).
The same is true about the Normans. Both before and after 1066, a strong sense
of a separate ethnic identity existed in Normandy, at least among the elites. The
invaders considered themselves to be the Normans, not the French, though, being of
Viking origin, by 1066, they had adopted French language and culture. Their sense of
their distinct identity was based on the origin myth and history first recorded by Dudo
of Saint-Quentin. One of the things that distinguished the Normans from the French was
the Scandinavian heritage. The Normans thus became a chosen people who could trace
their ancestry to the Trojan Antenor and who, on the one hand, came to France to
punish the vices of its inhabitants and, on the other hand, to receive salvation through
them. Norman identity was supported by the Norman government and the church
(centred on Rouen). The French played an important role in its shaping, not dissimilar
to the role of the Vikings in shaping the English identity (but the Normans developed
hostility also towards other peoples such as the Bretons and Irish) (Thomas 35–40).
As Hugh Thomas writes, ―hostility dominated the relationship between the
ethnic groups‖ and ―the bitterness between the English and Normans lingered well into
the twelfth century‖ (5). Nonetheless, the relations between the two ethnic groups
changed radically between the late eleventh and twelfth centuries.
The Norman invasion naturally provoked sentiments of hatred in the English. It
was, moreover, strengthened by the ruthless suppression of the English rebellions
(Thomas 61). However, the process of integration and assimilation had started already
during the reign of William I (Thomas 62). Thomas, who distinguishes between
individual and collective identity, recognizes three stages in the development of the
During the first stage, lasting until late in Henry I‘s reign, strong distinctions
existed between the English and Normans and their identities. On the other hand, some
individuals of Continental descent already adopted, at least partially, English identities.
Ambiguity was developing about collective identities.
In the second phase, delimited by the reigns of Stephen and Henry II, nobles
were increasingly turning to an English identity. Collective identity became even more
ambiguous and collective reference appeared only rarely in sources. English identity
gradually became the norm for the descendants of earlier immigrants.
In the final period, at around the beginning of the thirteenth century, the process
of the merging of the two identities was completed. The English identity was firmly
established as the collective identity of the elites (Thomas 77–80). Some historians may
see the completion of the assimilation even earlier in the twelfth century (Thomas 57).
Still, the outcome remains the same: that the English identity triumphed over the
Norman one though it was the identity of the conquered.
For the transitional period from plainly Norman to English identity, we may now
speak about the Anglo-Normans. However, this term does not appear in contemporary
sources (Thomas 72–73). Still, multiple ethnicity remained a possibility. As Hugh
Thomas argues, it was not viewed in terms of hyphenated identities but people were
perceived as having more than one identity (Thomas 73). It was not a matter of a
transitional group identity but of individual choice (Thomas 71). In fact, ―different
individuals made different choices‖ (Thomas 74). We therefore have to approach the
authors from this period of shifting identity one by one. To illustrate the process, I will
now analyze William of Malmesbury‘s Deeds of the Kings of the English.
2.3 English Identity and the Anglo-Saxons in William of Malmesbury’s Deeds of
the Kings of the English
William of Malmesbury was probably born not far from Malmesbury in
Wiltshire between 1085 and 1090. He was of mixed parentage: his father was Norman
and his mother English (Thomson 4). In fact, we may draw many parallels between the
life and work of William of Malmesbury and that of Bede. From his boyhood until his
death, William was monk of Malmesbury abbey in Wiltshire (Thomson 4) which was
not a very important institution, except for the first half of the twelfth century (Gransden
141). He studied scriptures, hagiography, theology, the classics, civil and common law
(Gransden 141) and became one of the most prolific writers of his time (Jones 11).
Similarly to Bede, he became famous due to his historical works (Gransden 141).
In 1126, William of Malmesbury completed the first version of his Gesta Regum
Anglorum (Deeds of the Kings of the English), a chronicle covering the history of
England from 449 until 1127. It was the second secular literary history of the English
nation to be written in England (Gransden 142). William of Malmesbury‘s project was
unique in many aspects. His historical method, based on both the Anglo-Saxon and the
Anglo-Norman historiography, was innovative. He also transferred sources for the
Anglo-Saxon period which are otherwise lost and provided us with (more or less)
reliable information for his period (Gransden 142). He was the first historian to revise
his writings as his opinions changed (Gransden 142). He revised the Deeds twice
(Gransden 168). He also encouraged readers to cooperate on his project. The book
appeared in English as The Chronicle of the Kings of England in 1847, and was edited
by J. A. Giles.
As Antonia Gransden indicates, for William of Malmesbury, the task of a
historian was to ―record the truth, as far as it could be discovered, about important
people and events, without fear or favour, clothing it in literary form, for the edification
and amusement of his audience‖ (142). He used works of almost all the historians,
biographers and hagiographers of the Anglo-Saxon period and many of those of his
generation (Gransden 143). Nevertheless, his dedication of the Deeds to Robert, Earl of
Gloucester, son of King Henry I and William of Malmesbury‘s patron, suggests that he
could not be completely impartial. Moreover, as Antonia Gransden argues, ―he felt
obliged to ‗prove‘ the great antiquity of Malmesbury and Glastonbury: to do this he
sometimes made uncritical use of legend and he copied forged charters‖ (168). Still,
though he did not always succeed in remaining objective, ―he showed a considerable
critical acumen‖ (Gransden 168) and is considered to be the best of the twelfth century
chroniclers (Jones 11).
William of Malmesbury begins the preface of his Deeds by praising Bede. He
claims that there has not been any English history written in Latin of a quality better
than that of Bede. William of Malmesbury‘s purpose therefore is ―to fill up the chasm,
and to season the crude materials with Roman art‖ (Malmesbury 4). His Deeds are
composed in five books. The first book is dedicated to the history of the English since
their arrival to Britain until the reign of King Egbert and the author here gradually
narrates the history of the individual Germanic peoples. The second book deals with the
history of the English up to the Norman Conquest and the three remaining books treat
the lives and reigns of three kings: William I, William II and Henry I.
William of Malmesbury begins his narrative with the description of Roman
Britain. After the withdrawal of the Roman troops from Britain, when attacked by the
Scots, the Britons are left to their fate. As the author writes, at that time, Vortigern was
king of Britain. He is depicted as a man ―wholly given up to the lusts of the flesh, the
slave of every vice: a character of unsatiable avarice, ungovernable pride, and polluted
by his lusts‖ (7; bk. 1, ch. 1). Together with his council, he decides to invite the Angles
and Saxons to protect the kingdom. The Britons suppose that these Germanic peoples,
being ―of a roving life‖ (7; bk.1, ch. 1), would be so grateful for any piece of land that
would enable them to settle down that they would not attempt anything against their
hosts. Nevertheless, the Britons are to recognize soon that they underestimated the
Germans who are as treacherous as themselves.
The Anglo-Saxons, led by two brothers, Hengist and Horsa, first come in a small
number. However, they soon bring more compatriots with them and the beautiful
daughter of Hengist. Vortigern, driven by lust, offers Hengist the whole of Kent for her
hand and this is how the first Anglo-Saxon kingdom is founded. After that, despite the
efforts of the Britons to expulse the invaders, the Anglo-Saxons gradually occupy the
whole island ―for the counsels of God, in whose hand is every change of empire, did not
oppose their career‖ (11; bk. 1, ch. 1). William of Malmesbury then describes the
development of the kingdoms and their mutual feuds. For him, Wessex represents the
most magnificent and lasting kingdom that has ever existed in Britain (17; bk. 1, ch. 2).
Of particular interest is the depiction of the Norman invasion and the events
which preceded it. Harold, Edward the Confessor‘s successor, is portrayed as a plotter
who ―seized the diadem, and extorted from the nobles their consent‖ (255; bk. 2, ch.
13). On the other hand, William of Malmesbury opposes those who claim that the
English were defeated in the battle of Hastings because, even though they were
numerous, they were cowardly. He asserts that ―they were few in number and brave in
the extreme; and sacrificing every regard to their bodies, poured forth their spirit for
their country‖ (257; bk. 2, ch. 13). However, in the following chapter, the author
describes William the Conqueror as a brave man who keeps oaths (contrary to Harold)
and whose claims to the English throne are a ―just cause‖ (273; bk. 3, ch. 1), supported
by both the Pope and God himself.
The chronicler‘s view of the English and the Normans is also revealed by his
description of the preparations for the battle of Hastings. The English spend the night
before the battle drinking and singing whereas the Normans confess their sins. William
of Malemsbury summarises the battle as ―a fatal day to England, a melancholy havoc of
our dear country, through its change of masters‖ (278; bk. 3, ch. 1). Because, though the
English were warlike heathens when they arrived in Britain, they progressively became
extremely religious. However, ―in process of time, the desire after religion and literature
had decayed, for several years before the arrival of the Normans‖ (279; bk. 3, ch. 1).
Here, we learn why the English had to be defeated and subjected to the Normans:
because they had turned away from God. Rather than seek knowledge and God‘s will,
they indulged in luxury and drunkenness (while the Normans remained frugal). Because
of their rashness, they were defeated by the Normans who ―revived, by their arrival, the
observances of religion, which were everywhere grown lifeless in England‖ (280; bk. 3,
ch. 1). In fact, the Normans are portrayed as generally superior to the English: the
English indulge in gluttony whereas the Normans eat with moderacy, the English live in
poor houses whereas the Normans dwell in grand mansions.
As for which identity William of Malmesbury considered to be his own, the best
conclusion is probably proposed by Nick Webber. He asserts that ―William saw himself
as neither Norman, like William of Jumièges, nor English, like the Anglo-Saxon
chronicler, but as a product of two gentes, two cultures and one country‖ (Webber 151).
Interestingly, William of Malmesbury was able to distinguish between the land and the
people. While he considered England to be his patria and English to be his tongue, the
people with whom he identified were the inhabitants of England and of the two, he
considered the Normans to be superior (Webber 151).
As we have seen, during his history, William of Malmesbury in turn takes
opposite sides. It is due to the facts that he used both English and Norman sources and
that he was half Norman and half English (Gransden 147). In the preface to Book Three,
he claims that ―as the blood of either people flows in my veins, I shall steer a middle
course‖ (258; bk. 3, ch. 1). His attempts to reconcile the two sides are well illustrated by
a passage at the end of Book Two. While he extols the bravery of the English and their
struggle for liberty, he adds that ―nor in saying this, do I at all derogate from the valour
of the Normans, to whom I am strongly bound, both by my descent, and for the
privileges I enjoy‖ (257; bk. 2, ch. 13). Living in an England ruled by the Normans, it
was certainly expected that he glorify them. Nevertheless, he seems to be persuaded
about the superiority of the Normans. On the other hand, he does not deny some strong
points of the English.
To conclude, we may state that when England was conquered by the Normans in
1066, two peoples with two different and well-established identities encountered.
Though their relationship was deeply marked by hostility at the beginning, a radical
change had taken place in their relationship by the end of the twelfth century (Thomas
57, 69). ―Normanitas‖, a product of the eleventh century, as G. A. Loud argues,
declined in the twelfth century when the Normans established themselves in the
kingdom (Ashe 55). However, the Norman aristocracy did not merely accept the
English identity. Llater, by the thirteenth century, it had even become part of their
political agenda and propaganda (Thomas 71). It is even more surprising that the
identity of the conquered triumphed over the identity of the conquerors.
Nevertheless, there was a period of transition between these two identities.
During this period, hostility towards the other ethnicity persisted with some authors as
is well illustrated by William of Malmesbury‘s comment on the different treatments of
the figure of William the Conqueror: ―Normans and English, incited by different
motives, have written of king William: the former have praised him to excess; extolling
to the utmost both his good and bad actions: while the latter, out of national hatred, have
laden their conqueror with undeserved reproach‖ (258; bk. 3, Preface). On the other
hand, others who issued from mixed background were not as strict in their opinion—
the manner in which they represented the English past and identity was ambiguous. One
of them was William of Malmesbury.
William of Malmesbury first depicts the Anglo-Saxons, though pagans, as a
nation elected by God to occupy Britain and punish the sins of its inhabitants. In Britain,
they are converted to Christianity. However, gradually, they turn away from God and
God sends other invaders to punish them, the Normans. On the other hand, the Anglo-
Saxons are also portrayed as a brave nation willing to sacrifice their lives for their
country. Nevertheless, the Normans are depicted as superior.
By presenting the invasions of the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans as God‘s
punishment for the sins of Britain‘s inhabitants, William of Malmesbury manages to
justify both of them. His presenting of the Normans as superior must have suited the
demands of the society he was living in. On the other hand, by defending certain
qualities of the Anglo-Saxons, he could have remained loyal to his English origin at the
same time. However, it does not seem that Anglo-Saxon past would play an essential
role in constructing English identity in this period.
3 The Late Middle Ages (1204–1485)
The late Middle Ages were a turbulent period. England, as well as most of
Europe, was stricken with wars, revolts, plagues, disease and famine (McDowall 43).
However, it was also a period of an unprecedented development of the sense of English
national awareness and identity.
In the second half of the twelfth century, the political and cultural ties of
England to the Continent, and to France in particular, were very close. The kings of
England ruled over a large part of western France. Their nobles possessed lands in
Normandy, spoke French as their first language, read or listened to French romances
and saints‘ lives and went to France to attend tournaments. The higher clergy were often
trained in the schools and monasteries of northern France. The English church was
subordinated to the authority of the Pope. In fact, England was truly distinctive only in
its government (Kramer 39; Haigh 94). Despite the development of feudalism, the
English kings enjoyed ―a precocious degree of both power and authority unrivalled in
any other European kingdom at that time‖ (Haigh 94).
By the end of the late Middle Ages, however, the image of England radically
changes. As a result of a number of changes, by 1450, it had become a nation with a
sense of separate identity and an indigenous culture (Haigh 94).
3.1 England, English Identity and the Anglo-Saxons in the Late Middle Ages
In 1154, after disputed successions which followed the death of Henry I, the son
of William of Normandy, Henry II became the King of England. However, being also
Duke of Normandy, Count of Anjou and Duke of Aquitaine, he brought together several
inheritances under his rule. The so called Angevin Empire which he thus created lasted
until 1215, when it collapsed under King John. It covered a vast territory stretching
from Scotland to the Pyrenees and the Angevin (or Plantagenet) family became the most
powerful dynasty in Europe (Kramer 37–42). Nevertheless, this early developed and
strong monarchy was also very soon limited by Magna Carta (Haigh 96–97), a
document which limited royal rights (Kramer 42).
Moreover, Parliament played an important role in late medieval government.
Waging wars was expensive and the kings had to persuade their subjects to pay taxes.
Therefore, whenever the merchants and gentry provided the king with money, their
political strength increased. Slowly, early forms of representational government
developed (Kramer 39; McDowall 43). The first parliament was summoned by Simon
de Montfort in 1265 (Nangonová 28). The commons‘ representatives have been its
permanent members since 1337 (Gillingham and Griffiths 134). In order to persuade
them, well-developed methods of communication and propaganda were used. The
preambles of official proclamations, songs, ballads, sermons, coronations, royal
progresses, the formal entries of kings and queens into towns and even the works of
writers became an instrument of propaganda (Gillingham and Griffiths 135–36). John
Gillingham and Ralph A. Griffiths state that ―in the fifteenth century, authors rarely
produced their works unsolicitedly‖ (136).
At the beginning of the reign of King John, in 1204, Normandy was recovered
by the French. As Nigel Saul argues, England thus became separated from her closest
mainland partner. The Anglo-Norman nobility became definitely English. The language
of political debate also changed. The terms ―liberties‖ and ―inheritances‖ were replaced
by ―nations‖ and ―commmunities‖ (Saul 8). A growing national feeling may be partly
observed in the reign of Henry III: ―the . . . opposition of the nobility to Henry III‘s
foreign expeditions, to the aliens whom he patronized at Court and to the papal clerks
whose intrusion into English benefices he permitted, marked the novel development of
baronial nationalism in reaction to the policies of the monarch‖ (Haigh 94). Though it
may have been rather disguising the struggle for the king‘s favour, the concept of
―alienness‖ figured in political debate (Saul 8-9).
Despite the breakdown of the Angevin Empire, close relations with Continental
Europe continued, both political and cultural. Chivalry long represented a unifying force
of the European elites (Saul 10-11). However, at the end of the thirteenth century, with
the break out of wars in northern Europe, the pervasive feeling of solidarity between the
European elites started to change. Perceptions of ethnicity gradually sharpened (Saul
11). According to Saul, nationalism became a very useful concept during the reigns of
the three Edwards. It helped them to gain popular support for their cause (12) which
was represented by foreign wars (Haigh 94). While the conquest of Wales in the 1280s
was presented as ―the civilizing mission of a superior nation towards barbarians‖ (Haigh
94), two wars were particularly important for the development of English identity – the
war with Scotland (1296–1328) and the war with France, the so called Hundred Years
War (1337–1453) (Saul 12). The mythical history of Britain (especially that associated
with King Arthur) should have justified the rightfulness of Edward I‘s conquest of
Wales and Scotland and of Edward III‘s and Henry V‘s incursions into France (Haigh
A distinctive English culture was also developing. From the second half of the
fourteenth century, the use of English as the language of an elevated literature was
growing (Haigh 96) while the knowledge of French was in marked decline before the
end of the fourteenth century (Gillingham and Griffiths 144); the English Perpendicular
style was developing in architecture (Haigh 96). With the establishment of national
orders of chivalry (the first of them being the Order of the Garter founded around 1348),
royal and national allegiance started to dominate solidarities of chivalry. By the mid- to
late fifteenth century, the ties between the English and European nobility were
weakening and the monarchy itself was becoming less cosmopolitan (Saul 12).
The institution which united people of all nations was the Church (Saul 12).
However, religious changes that endangered the traditional links between England and
the universal Church were taking place during the late Middle Ages. From the thirteenth
century onwards, the English religion was becoming increasingly anti-papal. From
Edward I‘s reign, English kings were gradually taking control over the Church (Haigh
96) and the Church of England was acquiring its English character (Gillingham and
Griffiths 137). The lay hostility to papal authority also partly gave birth to Lollardy,
―England‘s first heresy‖, founded by John Wycliff at the end of the fourteenth century
(Haigh 96). His translation of the Bible into English became an instrument of religious
reform. As David McDowall writes, ―if the Lollards had been supported by the king, the
English Church might have become independent from the papacy in the early fifteenth
century‖ (50). Also, saints in the late Middle Ages were increasingly becoming patrons
of nations. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, St George became the patron
saint of England (Saul 15–16).
Thorlac Turville-Petre maintains that ―the establishment and exploration of a
sense of a national identity is a major preoccupation of English writers in the late
thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries: who are the English; where do they come
from; what constitutes the English nation?‖ (121). In fact, it is a current trend among
scholars and historians to identify the discourse of English to the late thirteenth century
and early fourteenth century (Rouse 70).
However, according to Donald Scragg, apart from chroniclers and historians,
few authors of the late medieval period were interested in the Anglo-Saxon period.
Major writers showed no interest at all for this subject. Nevertheless, some of the major
Anglo-Saxon kings continued to attract attention. They appear, for example, in the early
thirteenth-century The Proverbs of Alured or the early fourteenth-century verse romance
Athelston in which, as Scragg notes, tenth-century names are used merely for ―nostalgic
In fact, it was the myth of Trojan origins of the English which dominated from
the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries (Kumar 204). In England, it reached its zenith in
the 1130s in Historia regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) written by a
Welsh bishop Geoffrey of Monmouth. In his History, Geoffrey of Monmouth combined
Trojan origins with the tale of Arthur3, who is depicted as a descendant of Trojan kings,
and created a British identity on the basis of a Celtic past. According to him, Britons
trace their origins to Brutus, great-grandson of Aeneas, who settled in Britain with his
companions after the fall of Troy (Bradley 81–82). Though immediately condemned by
some contemporaries, the work influenced British history for centuries (Swanson 61).
However, Robert Allen Rouse asserts that while major canonical Middle English
authors are much more preoccupied with classical or Arthurian pasts than with that of
the Anglo-Saxon period, ―we find an extensive and enduring interest in the deeds and
actions of the figures of England‘s Anglo-Saxon past‖ in more popular literature
In the following part of this chapter, I will investigate the relevancy of the claims
of the growing national feeling in the romance of Guy of Warwick and the role of the
Anglo-Saxon past in this process.
Arthur was a legendary prince of a British tribe who became famous thanks to defensive battles against
the Anglo-Saxons at the beginning of the sixth century (Grabes 181).
3.2 The Romance of Guy of Warwick
The first written account of the legend is the early thirteenth century Anglo-
Norman romance Gui de Warewic by an unknown author. It may have been composed
in Oseney Abbey to flatter the d‘Oilly family who had founded this important
Augustinian house in 1129. It is an ancestral romance, an Anglo-Norman narrative ―that
tried to provide a sense of belonging.‖ It is a genre not dissimilar from the twelfth-
century ―genealogical literature‖ usually written by a secular clerk or chaplain to present
the lineage and remarkable deeds of their patron family. It was not concerned with the
contemporary events but with the past of the family, which was represented as glorious
(Richmond 39). The legend of Guy of Warwick later appears in many adaptations, for
instance the fourteenth-century Middle English verse romance (included in the
Auchinleck Manuscript) destined primarily for a lower or lower-middle class
(Richmond 53) or its second fifteenth-century version which I will use as the source of
my analysis. However, as Susan Crane argues, these Middle English romances differ
from the original Anglo-Norman romance in the same sense as Sir Beues of Hamtoun
differs from its antecedent: ―Sir Beues of Hamtoun undertakes an important
development, whose beginnings are barely discernible in Boeve, from the perception of
the baronial family as a political unit owing personal allegiance to rulers on the basis of
reciprocal support, to a wider perception of national identity and the importance of
national interests‖ (Crane 59). The romance is preserved in the Cambridge Univ. Lib.
MS. Ff. 2. 38. It consists of 11,976 lines and it is set in tenth- century England, precisely
during the reign of King Athelstan. In this chapter, I analyze the nineteenth-century
reprint of the romance published under the name The Romance of Guy of Warwick.
However, I refer to this work only as Guy of Warwick.
At the beginning of the romance, we are introduced to Sir Roholde, an English
earl who holds Warwick and is also lord of Oxford and Buckingham. He is so rich and
powerful that no one dares to oppose him. He has a daughter, Felice la Belle, who is so
beautiful and accomplished that no other maiden can be compared to her. Earls and
dukes court her but in vain. Sir Roholde also has a brave steward named Segwarde, lord
of Wallingford, who takes excellent care of his lord‘s property. Segwarde‗s son, Guy of
Warwick, a courteous, well educated, handsome and strong squire, is loved by all
people. He falls in love with Felice but she will not grant him her love before he is a
proven knight. Guy therefore persuades the earl to bestow knighthood on him and
leaves England with money and three knights, Harrawde, Toralde and Urry.
They arrive at a town in Normandy where a tournament in honour of the German
Emperor‘s daughter takes place. Guy and his companions do very well at the
tournament; Guy defeats the emperor‘s son Gayere, Otoun, Duke of Pavia, and two
other dukes. On the third day, he is declared the winner. Guy sends the prize to Earl
Roholde who is very pleased at it. Guy then wins praise in many countries. When they
have travelled as far as Rome, his companions express a desire to return to England.
They are all heartily welcomed back home. Guy goes to see Felice and reminds her of
her promise. However, she replies that she will not marry him until he becomes the best
knight in Christendom.
Woeful Guy therefore leaves again for foreign countries. After achieving many
valiant exploits, he is wounded at a tournament in Benevento in Italy and is
subsequently ambushed by Duke Otoun. Guy loses all his men except for Harrawde but
manages to escape and is cured by a hermit. He thereafter reconciles the Emperor
Raynere to Segwin, Duke of Louvain. Guy and Harrawde follow the Emperor to
Germany where they learn about the Emperor of Constantinople being besieged by the
sultan. Guy not only manages to kill the sultan, but also escapes the traps set by
Morgadowre, the envious steward of the Emperor. He is about to marry the Emperor‘s
daughter when, at seeing the wedding rings, he is reminded of Felice. Under the pretext
that he cannot stay at a court where he is exposed to so many plots he leaves the
Emperor. He then rescues Tyrry, son to Earl Aubry of Gormoyse, and Ozelle, daughter
to the Duke of Lorraine, whom Duke Otoun wanted to marry, kills Otoun and all are
Subsequently, Guy returns to England. Here, he slays a dragon at King
Athelstan‘s request. Then he finally arrives home and marries Felice. Nevertheless, their
happiness does not last long. One day after a hunt, Guy contemplates the beauty of the
landscape and realizes that until now, he has done everything for Felice‘s sake but
nothing for the glory of God. He therefore decides to devote the rest of his life to
penance and serving God. He parts with Felice expecting a baby and leaves for
Jerusalem and Antioch. Here, Guy defeats the giant Ameraunt and saves the sons of a
pilgrim, Earl Jonas, imprisoned by the Saracen king Triamour. He then refuses all
wealth and honours offered to him, visits all the saints‘ shrines in the country and leaves
for Constantinople. In the meantime, Felice devotes herself to charitable works and
gives birth to their son Reynbrown. When he grows up, he fulfils Guy‘s wish of being
educated by Harrawde. However, one day, Reynbrown is kidnapped by Russian
merchants and given to a king in Africa. Harrawde sets off to find him but he is
captured by the Saracens in Africa and thrown into prison. Guy, travelling home
through Germany, meets Tyrry and slays Barrarde, Otoun‘s cousin, in order to obtain
freedom for Tyrry.
Guy then returns to England. Meanwhile, the Danish king has brought a giant
called Collebrande to England, giving Athelstan the choice either to find a knight who
could defeat the giant, or become a Danish liegeman. Though Guy is afraid as never
before when he sees the giant, he finally overcomes him. He reveals his identity only to
Guy then makes his way to Warwick but pretends to be a pilgrim. He settles in a
hermitage where he remains until his death. After a dream foretells his death, Guy sends
a messenger for Felice. She arrives just before he dies and they only have time to
embrace each other before Guy‘s spirit is taken to heaven. Felice dies by Guy‗s side
forty days later. Harrawde and Reynbrown meet as adversaries in a battle but eventually
recognize each other. On their way home, Reynbrun accomplishes many valiant deeds.
Finally, Harrawde and Reynbrown are reunited with Harrawde‘s son Asslake and return
together to England, Harrawde taking up Wallingford again which he received from
Guy and Reynbrown becoming Earl of Warwick.
As Thorlac Turville-Petre argues, the romance of Guy of Warwick, as well as
that of Beues of Hamtoun, is deeply concerned with the construction of Englishness
(Rouse 73) and the space in which it is constructed is the Anglo-Saxon past (Rouse 74).
However, English national identity is not the sole identity demonstrated in the romance
of Guy of Warwick and similar Middle English romances. In fact, a whole hierarchy of
identities, which sometimes compete with each other, are present there: the identity of
the region or city, national identity, the identity of the whole Christendom (Rouse 74-
75). In the romance of Guy of Warwick, the dominant identity is that of a Christian
knight and the Other is represented by the Saracens. It is in contrast to the Saracens that
the identity of Guy of Warwick is represented.
Travelling to the East, Guy encounters a racial, cultural and religious Other
(Rouse 76). The first of these Others, as Robert Allen Rouse argues, is admiral Coldran,
a cousin of the sultan (77). In reality, he shares some characteristics with Guy – he is
also very strong and stout, but his envenomed weapons distinguish him from Christian
knights who do not know and use such weapons (Rouse 77). After another unsuccessful
battle, the sultan realizes the uselessness of the Saracen gods and destroys them (3425–
3442). The Christian God is represented here as more powerful than the heathen gods.
Similarly, the difference in religion is manifested in Guy‘s speech when he comes to the
sultan‘s pavilion as a messenger:
That ylke kynge, þat syttyþ in heuyn,
That made þe erthe and þe planettys seuyn
And in the see the sturgone,
Yeue the, syr sowdan, hys malysone,
And all, that y hereynne see,
That beleue in Mahowndys poste. (3653–3658)
As Rouse concludes, ―Guy‘s first encounter with the Saracen Other constructs a
cultural opposition that leaves no room for compromise or co-existence. His speech to
the sultan is notable for the uncompromising attitude of religious intolerance towards
the Saracens, an attitude that is characteristic of the whole romance‖ (80).
Guy encounters the Saracen Other for the second time in the form of the giant
Ameraunt. As Rouse argues, ―this judicial combat, fought against the sultan‘s giant
champion Amoraunt, highlights two important elements of the Saracen Other:
Gigantism and Honour (or the lack thereof)‖ (81). Indeed, Guy is astonished at the
Brynge forthe,‘ he seyde, ‗the gyawnt,‘
A paynym, that hyght Amerawnt.
He was armed nobullye:
Euery man of hym had farlye.
Hys body was boþe grete and longe:
He semed to be owtrageus stronge.
But, when Gye sye that sarsyn,
That was so myghty and so kene,
‗Be Cryste,‘ he seyde vnto þe kynge þan,
‗ʒondur ys þe deuell and no man. (7951–7960)
Ameraunt is also contrasted with Guy, a Christian knight, in terms of honour.
When, on that hot day, the giant becomes thirsty, he asks Guy to allow him to drink
some water. He promises to grant Guy the same favour if the latter needs it. Guy agrees
and the fight resumes. Then Guy is wounded and he demands the giant to keep his
promise and let him drink. However, Ameraunt replies that he will let him drink only if
Guy reveals his true identity to him. When he learns that his opponent is the famous
Guy of Warwick, he claims that he would not let him drink even for the whole Hungary.
Guy therefore leaps into the river without Ameraunt‘s permission and renews his forces.
However, the Saracen‘s lack of honour, contrasted with Guy‘s mercifulness, becomes
obvious in this passage. He becomes a ―traytoure‖ (8280).
As we have seen, and as Rouse points out, the opposition between the Christian
hero and a Saracen is constructed here on three levels: in terms of religion, appearance
and honour (76). ―The English are all that the Saracens are not: Christian, honourable,
trustworthy, moderate, and human‖ (Rouse 83).
Though Guy has the qualities of a supranational chivalrous knight, he remains an
English knight. However, while during the Hundred Years War English identity was
often constructed in opposition to the continental enemies, especially the French (Rouse
84), we do not find much evidence of the sentiments of hatred between the English and
the nationals of Continental states in the romance of Guy of Warwick. As Rouse asserts,
―when Guy does encounter villains, it is his superlative ability as a knight that is the
root of the problem, not his national identity‖ (85).
On the other hand, by surpassing the qualities of all other knights in the whole of
Christendom, Guy as an Englishman becomes the ideal Christian knight. In this, we
may perceive an attempt to commend England above other countries. Patriotism is also
suggested in the following passage, where the need to save England from the Danish is
Byschoppes, archedekyns and abbottys,
Wyse men of the churche and no sottys,
At Wynchestur be euerychone,
The moost parte of the reygyown.
They haue sende thorow Ynglande
To yonge and olde, y vnderstande,
That þey schulde faste dayes thre
And nyght and day in preyers bee,
That God them sende soche a man,
That wyll and may, dar and can
Thorow helpe of God almyght
For Ynglondes sake in batell fyght
Wyth the gyawnt Collebrande
And hym to stroye wyth hys hande. (9925–9938)
We can therefore conclude that in this work, the Anglo-Saxon past is depicted as
heroic and glorious and thus serves the interests of the late Middle Ages when a proper
English culture and the sense of being English were being born and therefore needed to
During the late Middle Ages, England experienced a lot of turbulent events and
underwent numerous changes. Compared to the situation at the end of the twelfth
century, when England had strong cultural and political ties to the Continent, by 1450,
England had become a nation with a sense of separate identity. This sense of a separate
identity was shaped by the wars between France and England in particular. Moreover,
we can claim that, by 1450, England was emerging as a nation with proper language,
literature, and architecture. The Church of England was also increasingly becoming an
independent church with an English character. Though the Anglo-Saxon past,
overshadowed by the Arthurian legends, was not the centre of attention during this
period, it appears for instance in Matter of England Romances, one of them being the
fifteenth-century version of the romance of Guy of Warwick which takes place under the
reign of King Athelstan.
In fact, the concept of identity was complicated during this period and there
were competing individual identities. The romance of Guy of Warwick primarily
presents Guy as a perfect representation of a Christian knight, valiant, honourable,
credible, faithful, and moderate. However, while being depicted as the most valiant
knight in the world, emphasis is also placed on him being an Anglo-Saxon knight and
on England as his ―patria‖. We can therefore assert that a sense of English identity and
even superiority, supported by the glorious and heroic past of the English, is present in
this work. Thus, the heroic Anglo-Saxon past might have served to strengthen the
English identity and enhance the pride of belonging to the English nation.
4 The Tudor Age (1485–1603)
The reign of the Tudor dynasty in England can be in many respects regarded as
the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the modern era. An absolute monarchy
and a national Church were established. England defeated its main rival, Spain, and the
foundations of its maritime supremacy were laid. However, under Henry VIII, the
English Church passed under the control of the state. The Reformation, brought about
by Henry VIII, was a major political and social change which had the appearance of a
religious change (Nangonová 54–56). By its potential to justify the break with the
Roman Church, the Anglo-Saxon past was to play an important role in the Reformation
and the further development of English identity.
4.1 England, English Identity and the Anglo-Saxons in the Tudor Age
In the second half of the fifteenth century, England witnessed quarrels between
its two most powerful families – the House of York and the House of Lancaster.
Between 1461 and 1483, the country was ruled by the Yorkist king Edward IV. When
he died, leaving as his heir a young boy, Edward‘s youngest brother declared himself
King Richard III. However, Richard made himself unpopular with both Lancastrians
and Yorkists. When, in August 1485, Henry Tudor, the heir to the Lancastrian title,
landed in Wales, he was joined by many discontent lords, both Lancastrians and
Yorkists. When Henry Tudor and Richard III met on 22 August at Bosworth Field, half
of Richard‘s army changed sides. Richard was thus quickly defeated and Henry was
crowned king on the very battlefield, becoming Henry VII and founding a new dynasty
– the Tudors (McDowall 55).
Henry VII established the foundations of a wealthy nation state and a powerful
new monarchy (McDowall 67). In 1486, he united the houses of York and Lancaster by
marrying Elizabeth of York, Edward IV‘s daughter. Though his reign was marked by
rebellions of other pretenders to the throne, he aimed at peace, security and trade
(Cannon and Griffiths 295).
When Henry VIII ascended the throne in 1508, no one opposed his accession
(Cannon and Griffiths 295). However, despite his efforts, he failed to secure an
important position in European politics (McDowall 68). His unsuccessful wars and
sumptuous court soon caused financial difficulties. In search of new financial resources,
Henry realized how powerful and wealthy the Catholic Church in England was and how
it limited his authority and deprived him of finances (McDowall 69). Nevertheless,
there was also another cause for a conflict with the Catholic Church. As, by 1526,
Henry‗s wife, Catherine of Aragon, had not been able to provide a son who survived
infancy, Henry asked the Pope to allow him to divorce her. However, the Pope refused
to do so (McDowall 69) and his refusal became the most important cause of the English
Reformation (Pendrill 60).
Between 1529 and 1536, a number of Reformation statutes were enacted by
Parliament. First, papal jurisdiction was abolished. Via the 1533 Act in Restraint of
Appeals, Henry VIII, through Parliament, forbid appeals to Rome on the grounds that
England was an empire governed by one supreme head and king ―with plenary, whole
and entire power‖ (Cannon and Griffiths 318). Then, Henry asserted his royal authority
over the Church. The Act of Supremacy, passed in 1534, made Henry the supreme head
of the Church of England (―Anglicana Ecclesia‖) (Cannon and Griffiths 318).
Therefore, even if there was a strong anticlerical sentiment in English society, the
English Reformation was not a popular movement but an ―act of state‖ (Kramer 66). In
fact, as David Gordon Newcombe points out, contrary to the radical changes that had
taken place on the continent, ―it was only in throwing off the authority of the Pope that
the Church of England bore any resemblance to the Protestant Churches on the
continent. There were few doctrinal changes of any significance‖ (Newcombe 1).
England became a truly Protestant country only under the reign of Henry‗s son,
Edward I (r. 1547–53). The Book of Common Prayer and the Confession of Faith of
1552 (in 42 articles) provided the theological basis of the Anglican Church (Kramer 68–
69). Although Queen Mary, daughter of Henry VIII through Catherine of Aragon,
attempted to bring England back to Catholicism, the Protestant national church was
finally established by Elizabeth I, Henry VIII‘s daughter through Anne Boleyn. It was
Elizabeth who finally established the monarch as the supreme head of the English
Church and undertook a revision of the prayer book (1559) and the Thirty-nine Articles
(1563) (Kramer 69).
On the whole, the ―Tudor revolution‖, which took place between 1530 and 1580,
was a period of a development of the ―state‖, the consolidation of Wales which became
definitely part of England in 1453, the emergence of Britain as a naval power, an
increase in foreign trade and a rise of English as a national language of literature and
learning (Shrank 7–8). According to Hans Kohn, it was the Tudor period that ―laid the
foundations for the growth of English nationhood‖ (Kohn 74), and in particular the
Elizabethan period, though it did not yet have the character of modern nationalism
However, it was the Reformation that, ―by cutting some of the ties binding
England to the common body of Catholic Christendom and by raising up new enemies
to force Englishmen into a common purpose‖ (Levy 8), had the greatest influence on the
construction of English national identity (Shrank 8). Moreover, thanks to the
Reformation, the English viewed themselves as a nation specially chosen ―to spread
again the light of Christianity in a world from which faith and morals had practically
disappeared‖ (Kennedy 1). It also contributed to a national pride (Kennedy 1).
In fact, while, during the Middle Ages, Geoffrey of Monmouth‘s History of the
Kings of Britain and its mythology tracing the origins of the Britons to Brutus, grandson
of Aeneas of Troy, as well as the Arthurian legend, played an important role in England
(Appiah 283), they were discredited by the popular classes in the 16th century. This was
because they represented the mythologies taken up first by the ruling class in medieval
England and subsequently by the Tudors and the Stuarts. In the sixteenth century, they
were replaced by the legend of free Anglo-Saxon institutions (Hill 55–56).
As Fred Jacob Levy writes, ―of all the ‗reformations‘ of Europe, the English
was, in terms of its justification, the most historical‖ (79). Since the Act in Restraint of
Appeals, innovation was denied and new practices were justified by their historical
antecedents (Levy 79). The reformers underlined the purity of the primitive Church, and
intended to re-establish both its practices and theology (Newcombe 8). However, they
did not agree on the time of the existence of the pure Church which, they believed, had
been polluted by the false doctrines of the papacy and the Church of Rome (Newcombe
For most of them, the Church of England was founded by an apostle,
independent of Roman influence (Kidd 99–100). However, though English political
identity at that time was becoming mainly Saxonist, ―the ethnic association of the
Church of England remained firmly tied to a myth of ancient British christianity‖ (Kidd
99). According to this myth, the pagan Anglo-Saxons drove the Britons into the
mountains of Wales where the latter preserved their faith. The Anglo-Saxons were later
evangelized by St. Augustine sent by the Pope Gregory the Great. The British Church
survived untouched until the reign of Henry I when it was incorporated within the
Anglo-Norman church. It was finally Henry VIII, of Welsh descent, who restored the
church to its former autonomy and purity (Kidd 100–01). In some cases, the belief that
the pure church of the Britons started to decay in the Anglo-Saxon period led even to
anti-Saxon sentiment (Kidd 102–03). These two different identities coexisted until the
seventeenth century which was marked by the rise of Gothicism (Kidd 101).
Nevertheless, while the church of the Britons ―may not have been contaminated
by Roman influences‖ (Kidd 106), there were few sources available about it that could
provide a basis for ecclesiastical polemic. Therefore, other reformers (for instance John
Foxe, Archbishops Parker and Ussher) turned their attention to a later period of English
history (Kidd 106–07). According to them, the ―pure church‖ was represented by the
English Anglo-Saxon church (Hill 55; Horsman 9). It led in turn to the revival of
interest in the Anglo-Saxon past (Hill 55). In fact, as Horsman argues, ―the first
enthusiastic English interest in Anglo-Saxon England was a product of the English
Reformation‖ (10). It was only during the Reformation that Anglo-Saxon writings first
drew public attention because they contained religious opinions that attacked some of
the doctrines of the Roman Church that represented heresies at that time. The period
before the Norman Conquest had a great importance for reformers because ―the doctrine
of transubstantiation had not yet been established, the clergy was not yet celibate, and
the Scripture and services were in the vernacular‖ (Levy 117). Moreover, the Anglo-
Saxons had translated the Scriptures into the vernacular. These facts were therefore
powerful arguments for the reformers (Wright 2). In this chapter, I will analyze writings
by one of the reformers belonging to the second group, Archbishop Matthew Parker.
4.2 Matthew Parker’s A Testimony of Antiquity
Archbishop Parker, a man who became known for his ―great learning and the
uncompromising rectitude of his religious principles‖ (Partington 533), was born in
Norwich in 1504. In 1521, he was sent to Cambridge and educated at St Mary‘s Hostel
and Corpus Christi College. During his studies, he was influenced by Cambridge
reformers. In 1524, he became Bachelor of Arts. In 1527, he was ordained deacon and
priest and elected to a fellowship. He then devoted himself to the study of the Scripture
and early Church history and became a popular preacher (Kennedy 35).
In 1535, Parker left Cambridge and accepted the office of chaplain to Ann
Boleyn. She recommended to his care her daughter Elizabeth and later presented him
for the deanery of St John the Baptist College of Stoke Clare, Suffolk (Kennedy 37–39).
In 1538, he received the degree of doctor of divinity (Partington 533) and became
chaplain to Henry VIII. On Henry‗s recommendation, he was made Master of Corpus
Christi College in 1544 and Vice-chancellor of the university in 1545 (and again in
1549) (Kennedy 43).
During the reign of Edward VI, Parker was elected dean of Lincoln (Blake 719).
However, as a Protestant and a married priest, he was deprived of his ecclesiastical
honours when Mary became queen (Blake 719) and had to retire from public life
(―Parker‖). When Elizabeth I, whom he had educated and counselled, ascended the
throne, she appointed him Archbishop of Canterbury (1559) (Houghton 1173). Parker,
who had always taken ―a middle road between Catholic and Puritan extremes‖
(Houghton 1173), thus obtained the difficult task of having to mediate between the two
sides. He revised Archbishop Thomas Cranmer‘s forty two doctrinal articles of 1553
(the new Thirty Nine Articles of Anglican Doctrine were authorized in 1571)
(―Parker‖). He also organized a new translation of the Bible known as the Bishops‟
Bible (1568), the official version until King James‟ Bible (―Parker‖; Houghton 1173).
Moreover, Parker‘s book De Antiquitate Britannica Ecclesiae is probably the first
privately printed English book (Houghton 1173).
In fact, Archbishop Parker was the most important figure to provide ―a historical
base for the new Anglican church that emerged under Elizabeth‖ (Horsman 10),
although it was Henry VIII who authorized him to gather all documents revealing the
Germanic and Anglo-Saxon origins of the primitive church (Doyle 54). Parker became
―a major patron of Anglo-Saxon scholarship‖ (Horsman 10). He collected manuscripts
(Horsman 10), especially those connected with early English church history and, with
the help of his secretary, John Jocelyn, and his assistants based at Lambeth Palace, he
devoted himself to their transcribing and editing (Fogle 186; Levy 120). He encouraged
the study of the Anglo-Saxon language and the publishing of Anglo-Saxon texts, too
It was also Parker who furnished the printer John Day with the first Anglo-
Saxon type and sponsored the first Anglo-Saxon book, A Testimonie of Antiquitie
(Doyle 55). This collection of sermons, epistles, and prayers (Doyle 55) was first
published in 1566 as A Testimonie of Antiquitie, shewing the aucient fayth in the Church
of England touching the Sacrament of the body and bloude of the Lord here publikely
preached, and also receaved in the Saxons tyme above 600 yeares agoe (Ferguson 125)
and then reprinted many times. I analyze its reprint from 1736 published under the name
A Testimony of Antiquity.
The whole collection is devoted to one of the sources of contention between the
Catholics and the Protestants, the nature of Holy Communion. According to the
Catholic doctrine, the bread and wine taken in the ceremony become the actual body
and blood of Christ. This process is named as transubstantiation (―Transubstantiation‖).
The aim of A Testimony of Antiquity is to persuade the ―good christian reader‖ (Parker
6) that the doctrine of transubstantiation is erroneous.
As Archbishop Parker claims in the preface to A Testimony of Antiquity, there
has long been a controversy about the communion ceremony. It has resulted in many
charges and condemnations of heresy and many people have been accused of
advocating a new doctrine which was not known before Berengarius (6), ―the first
public opponent of transubstantiation‖ who was convinced of heresy and died in relative
exile in 1088 (Wylie 50-51). However, as Parker claims, the doctrine of
transubstantiation is defended mostly by the men who do not want to renounce their old
belief rather than by those who seek the truth. Therefore, the aim of this book, as Parker
claims, is to ―set forth unto thee a testimonye of verye auncient tyme, wherein is plainly
shewed what was the iudgement of the learned men in thys matter, in the dayes of the
Saxons before the conquest‖ (6).
The first document included in A Testimony of Antiquity which addresses
transubstantiation is a Saxon homily or sermon appointed for the day of Easter and
written in old English. As Parker maintains, it is only one example of many other
sermons written for similar occasions and preserved in books in possession of private
owners or the libraries of cathedral churches (for instance those of Worcester, Hereford,
and Exeter). Thanks to Matthew Parker and his ―diligent search for such writings of
historye, and other monumentes of antiquitie‖ (7) the contents of these books are now
revealed to the reader (7). However, as Parker stresses, the sermons were originally
written in Latin and only later translated into old English by Aelfric (7). Unfortunately,
the Latin originals cannot be found as they perished or were destroyed after the
Conquest by the opponents of the doctrine (8).
Nevertheless, Parker claims, there is still the Book of Cannons, an ancient book
preserved in Worcester library, mostly Latin but with a few leaves written in old
English. Two epistles written by Aelfric where this sacrament is dealt with were erased
by a reader (8). Still, it was possible to restore them because they are preserved (both in
Latin and old English) in the church of Exeter and we can find them in A Testimony of
Antiquity immediately after the sermon.
As all the documents included in A Testimony of Antiquity and condemning
transubstantiation were either written or translated by Aelfric, it is necessary to establish
Aelfric‘s authority. Parker therefore describes how Aelfric was raised in the schools of
Aethelwold (c. 904–84), bishop of Winchester and an important monastic reformer, and
consequently became himself ―an earnest lover and a great setter forward of monkerye‖
(10) and critic of priests‘ matrimony. According to Parker, Aelfric then became abbot of
St. Albans and Malmesbury and possibly also Archbishop of York (11–12). In any case,
writes Parker, he was a very learned man and interpreter and ―of such credite and
estimation to the lyking of that age in which he lived, that all his writinges, and chiefly
these his epistles, were then thought to contayne founde doctrine and the byshops them
selues dyd judge them full of ryghte good counsaile, preceptes, and rules to gouerne
thereby their clergie‖ (13). Therefore, bishops requested Aelfric‘s epistles to be sent to
them (13). Thus, we find his two epistles in the books of Cannons of Worcester library
(one written in old English and one in Latin) as well as in the Book of Cannons of
Exeter church (13–14).
Consequently, Parker points out, on the basis of Aelfric‗s translations and
sermons in which he denies bodily presence during communion, we can easily ascertain
what was the common doctrine of the Anglo-Saxon church during Aelfric‘s life as well
as in the time before and after (17). While the church was ―full of blindnes and
ignorance: full of childysh servitude to ceremonies . . . and to much geuen to the loue of
monkerye‖ in various aspects during Aelfric‘s life, it was also the most reverenced and
holy period of the English Church because it produced the highest number of saints
(17–18). Subsequently, those who accept the doctrine of transubstantiation differ both
from the doctrine of the present Church of England and from that of the holiest period
of its existence (18-19). This, claims Parker, is proved both by what has been said in the
preface and what follows.
As we have seen in this chapter, Archbishop Parker, as well as many other
Tudor reformers, turned into Anglo-Saxon past in order to justify the Reformation of
the English Church. In A Testimony of Antiquity, it was the writings and translations of
abbot Aelfric that served Parker to attack the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation and
to defend the opinion that merely a ―spirituall uniting and incorporation with Christes
blessed body and bloud‖ takes place during Holy Communion (19). Here, according to
Parker, the Anglo-Saxon church represented the pure and primitive English church
towards the purity of which it was necessary to return.
As I have argued in this chapter, the Tudor era was a period of England‘s
expansion as well as of the development of English national sentiment. During this
period, the ancient Trajan myth gradually gave place to the Anglo-Saxon myth of
origin. Moreover, by its potential to justify the break with the Roman Church, the
Anglo-Saxon past, and especially the Saxon church, played an important role in the
In A Testimony of Antiquity, Matthew Parker, one of the most important
defenders of the English Reformation, uses a collection of documents from the Anglo-
Saxon period in order to justify the Anglican Church‗s opposition to the Catholic
doctrine of transubstantiation. According to him, these works, written or translated by
Aelfric, illustrate that the dogma was rejected already at Aelfric‘s time, which was the
holiest period of the Anglo-Saxon church. Therefore, the refusal of the doctrine is well-
founded and those who defend it oppose not only the current Church of England, but
also an ancient tradition of the Anglo-Saxon Church.
Thus, the Anglo-Saxon Church, depicted as Protestant, served as a justification
for the Reformation and the new doctrines it introduced, because the break out from
Rome was presented only as a return to the Anglo-Saxon origins. The English were
represented as the descendants of the Protestant Anglo-Saxons and it was partly thanks
to the myth of Anglo-Saxon origins that the English could view themselves as
Protestants by the beginning of the seventeenth century (Shrank 1, 9–10).
5 The Early Stuarts (1603–1660)
Whereas the Tudors were successful monarchs, it is less true about the Stuarts,
who ascended the English throne in 1603. They quarrelled with Parliament and this
quarrel resulted in the English Civil War, the Stuart King Charles I being the only
English king to be executed (McDowall 87). By the time of the Stuart accession, the
myth of the Anglo-Saxon origins of the English had already been generally preferred to
Arthurian legends (though it did not replace them completely). However, the Anglo-
Saxons were to become the central issue in the conflict between Parliament and the
monarchy (Horsman 12).
5.1 England under the Early Stuarts and the Uses of Anglo-Saxon Past in the
Construction of English Identity during the Civil War
When Queen Elizabeth died childless in 1603, it was her cousin, James VI of
Scotland, who became King of England. A new dynasty, the Stuarts, thus acceded to the
English throne (Wood 6). However, the reign of the Stuart monarchs was troubled from
its very beginning as they had to handle several long-term causes of instability. Firstly,
it was the fact that they were both Kings of England and Kings of Scotland. This
brought about problems such as an absentee monarch, different traditions of ministerial
and parliamentarian advice and the clash of different interests of the two territories.
Secondly, there were religious divisions both within and between the two kingdoms.
Moreover, the Stuart kings had to face financial difficulties resulting from inflation, war
expenditures and a sumptuous life of their courts (Kramer 83).
In addition, important social changes took place during the reign of the Stuarts.
The seventeenth century was marked by the decline of the aristocracy and the rise of the
gentry and middle classes (Kramer 83–84). As the merchants and landowning farmer
classes were taking over economic power, the king needed their cooperation in order to
govern and raise money. The House of Commons, by which they were represented,
therefore demanded political power in exchange for financial resources (McDowall 87).
Nevertheless, both James I and Charles I, the first two Stuart kings, firmly
believed that absolutism could be maintained in the same measure as under the Tudors
(Ogg 50). Still, whereas James I was in most cases willing to accept compromises, his
successor, Charles I, preferred confrontation (Kramer 84). His repeated failures to
conclude an agreement with Parliament resulted in the beginning of the English Civil
War in 1642 (McDowall 91).
According to Hans Kohn, the Civil War was ―the first example of modern
nationalism, religious, political and social at the same time‖ (though not yet the
secularized nationalism that arose at the end of the eighteenth century). Its main motto
was ―liberty‖ (Kohn 80). In fact, the revolting masses needed to justify their rebellion
against a legal authority. For this purpose, a vast and rich literature was produced
(Greenberg 611) and it was the Old Testament and the concepts of the Golden Age or
Noble Savage, symbolizing ―an earlier, more equal form of organization, before the
development of private property and the state‖, that provided both inspiration and
excuse for future deeds for the Parliamentarians (Hill 51). It was also the Anglo-Saxon
past with its legend of free Anglo-Saxon institutions that became a favourite topic of
Parliamentarian pamphleteers (Hill 55–61).
In fact, as has already been mentioned in the previous chapter, the English
started to associate their identity with the Anglo-Saxons rather than with the Britons at
the close of the sixteenth century (Hill 55–56; Kidd 75–76). However, the myth of a
pure Anglo-Saxon church, developed in the sixteenth century, was joined by an even
more powerful myth of a free Anglo-Saxon government in the seventeenth century
(Horsman 14). By the beginning of the seventeenth century, authors like William
Camden, Richard Verstegan, John Speed, Samuel Daniel, John Selden, Laurence
Nowell, William Lambarde, William Harrison, Raphael Holinshed and John Hayward
had discredited the royal Arthurian legend (Hill 56). In 1605, Richard Verstegan‘s A
Restitution of Decayed Intelligence, ―the first authentically Saxonist history,‖ appeared
Still, part of the English identity was represented by those institutions, such as
historical laws and the constitution, which had been inherited from the Celts and the
Normans (Kidd 75–76). Therefore, individual authors dealt with the English history of
continuous settlement and invasion in different manners (Kidd 79). The royalists argued
for discontinuity in the history of English institutions and placed emphasis on the
Norman Conquest (Kidd 79) which, they believed, justified absolutism (Hill 65). The
under-privileged – ―the merchants and gentry who felt their property endangered by
arbitrary government, arbitrary taxation, and the enforcement of feudal payments‖ (Hill
62) – on the other hand, developed the Norman Yoke theory (Hill 61–62).
The theory of ―Norman Yoke‖, which appeared for the first time in the mid-
seventeenth century (Kramer 35) (though we may trace similar ideas back to the Middle
Ages), claimed that, before 1066, the Anglo-Saxons were free and equal citizens who
governed themselves through representative institutions. However, the Norman
Conquest put an end to their liberty and they became subjects of a foreign king and
landlords. Still, the English people kept fighting for their rights and their demands were
occasionally fulfilled (in the form of Magna Charta, for instance). Though this theory
was not historically precise, it united the Third Estate against the King, Church and
landlords, who became hereditary enemies of the people who believed that they could
rule themselves better without the upper classes (Hill 52–53).
The Parliamentarians therefore depicted their struggle with Charles I as ―a
defence of the immemorial liberties of the English people against the tendencies toward
royal absolutism implanted by the introduction of feudal law at the time of the Norman
conquest‖ (Gleason 41). However, the conservative Parliamentarians, who represented
the propertied, insisted on the continuity of common law, which originated in the
Anglo-Saxon period, but which brought the liberties into post-conquest England (Hill
55). They only demanded the abolishment of monarchy while maintaining the rule of
common law (Hill 79–80).
For most of the radicals, on the other hand, the law was ―the enemy, the symbol
of Normanism, instead of being the surviving pledge of Anglo-Saxon freedom‖ (Hill
73) (though they acknowledged some continuities of the Saxon common law) (Kidd
79). For them, Parliament only replaced the King as ―an irresponsible, unrepresentative
authority‖ (Hill 72). Therefore, they wanted to purge the common law of its ―noxious
Norman-feudal elements‖ (Kidd 79). They also demanded representation for the whole
adult male population (Hill 72).
The most extreme form of the Norman Yoke Theory was formulated by the
Diggers. They ―contrasted the Norman Yoke with the primitive liberty of the Saxons,
regarding feudalism, and the Norman Conquest which had brought it into England, as
the French root of all evil and of the tyrannical rule of ‗foreign kings‘ from whom
Charles I was deemed to descend‖ (Ortenberg 20). They advocated a form of ―primitive
communism‖ and demanded the abolition of parliament, law and property which were
viewed as Norman inventions (Ortenberg 20).
5.2 John Hare’s St. Edward’s Ghost, or Anti-Normanism
One of the authors who wrote about the Norman yoke was John Hare, a
revolutionary pamphleteer who published three pamphlets on the matter during the Civil
War (Doyle 27). The first of them, St. Edward‟s Ghost, or Anti-Normanism, was
probably written in 1642, but published in 1647 (Beer 59).
In this tract, Hare complains of the dishonourable state of the English nation.
The cause of its dishonour lies in its being a conquered nation, and, even more, in not
trying to get rid of ―those foreign laws, language, names, titles, and customs, then
introduced, and to this day, domineering over ours‖ (92).
Criticizing those who celebrate Normanism and Francism, he emphasizes that
the English are ―a member of the Teutonick nation, and descended out of Germany‖
(92). He then proceeds to demonstrate the greatness of this mother nation of the
English. He traces its origins to the tower of Babel from which it was lead by Tuisco to
the land where it settled. He calls the Teutons ―the most illustrous and first nation of
christendom‖ (93) because their origin can be traced back to Gomer, Japhet‘s eldest son,
―acknowledged, by historians, to have been the first king and possessor of Europe‖ (93)
and Gomer‘s son Askenaz, a supposed father of the German nation.
Hare then describes how Alexander the Great himself envied the German nation
its greatness; how it managed to conquer France several times during the existence of
the Roman empire; and how it almost conquered the Roman empire itself. He also
describes how Roman authors considered the Germans the ―most soldiery nation of the
world‖ and ―the flower and quintessence of mankind, chosen and advanced above all
nations to the dignity of the Caesarian guard; by nature consecrated to heroick
activeness, disdaining other than sanguinean desudations‖ (94).
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Hare continues, Germanic tribes took
possession of France, Spain and England. Since then, he asserts, royalty and most of the
nobility in these regions (and in England also the commoners) have been ―German, and
of the German blood‖ (95) and, though these nations initially suffered under the Roman
yoke, they became honourable and free. The Germans overcame even the Celtic nations
and became a united empire sharing the same blood, laws, language and situation and
became the leader of the Western civilization (95). Meanwhile, they have remained free
and unconquered (96).
While this mother nation is ―the chief and most honourable nation of Europe‖
(97), the Saxons, he insists, are ―the most ancient and noble of her tribes‖ (97). Though
they moved into Britain where they encountered the native population, the Britons, they
did not interfuse with them, but preserved their blood, laws, and language,
―incorrupted‖ (97). As for their arrival in Britain, it was a noble cause with the only
purpose of relieving the oppressed nation from the Scots and Picts (97–98). Hare does
not at all question the right of the Saxons to the English land but rather complains of the
distresses they had to undergo in order to preserve it as well as their honour and liberty.
Subsequently, Hare glorifies the whole heritage of the Saxons. To the
―generosity of blood, and freeness of descent and condition‖ (98), he adds ―happy laws‖
(98) which provided the English with freedom unparalleled in the whole of Europe
whereas their Prince was ―a true and happy monarch‖ (98). The English were also
invested with ―a hopeful language‖ (98), a dialect of the Teutonic, which gradually,
similarly to Greek, became capable of creating derivations and compositions and its
own dialects. He also promotes that, as the princes and nobility were issued from their
nation, they were loved and respected by it (99).
In fact, Hare summarizes the whole history of the English in order to be able to
claim that if heaven granted the English people such privileges and if their ancestors
have so hard struggled for their honour and freedom, they should not surrender because
of one unfortunate battle (the Battle of Hastings) (99). Still, he continues, English law,
language, and nobility are imbued with Normanism and only remind the English people
of their slavery (99).
But, even if the Normans conquered the English nation, the English conquered
not only Normandy, but also France many times before. So, asks Hare, why should one
victory of theirs over the English have more effect than so many victories of the English
over them? As he says, ―our right doth call, our honour doth cry out upon us, that, if our
progenitors massacred the Danish garisons that usurped over them, we should not, like
the Jews, ear-boared slaves, for ever serve the progeny of their subjects, the
Norwegians‖ (101). He claims that every reasonable man must agree that the English
have a lawful right to recover their lost rights, honour and liberty (101).
But, according to Hare, until they attempt to liberate themselves, the English can
only call themselves vassals and slaves. In order to achieve such a liberation, he
proposes the following measures:
1) deprive William the Conqueror of his title and either consider him one of
English lawful kings, or an usurper but not ―the alpha of our kings in the
royal catalogue‖ (103);
2) base the right to the English crown only on St. Edward‘s legacy and not on
any conquest; moreover, restore the ancient English arms to the royal
3) divest the Norman nobility and progeny of their names and titles brought
from Normandy as well as of their property in England;
4) abolish all Norman laws and usages and replace them by St. Edward‘s laws
or civil laws written in English or Latin;
5) purify the English language of all Norman and French words and replace
them by words from old Saxon and learned languages and make English an
honourable and sufficient language in the whole (103).
As for the king, he should derive his descent from Saxony and its free kings,
which would grant him affection of his subjects, and claim himself English (104).
The Norman progeny, as the descendants of the Norwegians and therefore of the
same blood and nation as the English, would, by fulfilling these requirements, ―shake
off that tincture of Gallicism, which their ancestors took in Neustria‖ (105), and rejoin
the English, ―their ancient countrymen‖ (105). But, if they refuse to do so, Hare urges
them to remember that the ancestors of the English massacred them (105).
Hare concludes his list by claiming that all these requirements are in the interest
of the State. Because, if it should be strong, it is necessary that its citizens respect the
laws and the institutions of their country (105).
As we have seen, Hare perceives of the Anglo-Saxon period as the time when
the English were the greatest nation in the whole of Europe: valiant, free, with their own
laws and language and good administration. However, the Norman Conquest marked
the end of English freedom. Recalling the glorious English past, Hare calls on the
English to break the chains of Norman rule and recover their old rights. To this purpose,
he presents a series of brave demands comprising a legal reform and the dispossession
of the Norman nobility in England.
Under the Stuarts, important social changes took place in England. As the power
of the gentry and middle classes increased, they also demanded more political power.
However, King Charles I was unwilling to grant it to them. This conflict finally led to
the English Civil War which ended by the overthrow and execution of the king.
However, such a treatment of a monarch was unprecedented, not only in English history
but in all of Europe. Therefore, the revolutionaries needed to justify their right to depose
They found such a justification in the Anglo-Saxon past. In fact, by the
seventeenth century, the English were depicted mainly as the descendants of the Anglo-
Saxons (but also partly of the Celtic Britons). Moreover, in the seventeenth century, the
perception of the Anglo-Saxon period as a period when all citizens were free and equal
and also equally represented was emphasized. Thus, the English revolutionaries were
able to view themselves as the descendants of the free Anglo-Saxons and, therefore, the
bearers of these freedoms. While most Parliamentarians maintained the theory of the
continuity of Anglo-Saxon liberties and demanded the abolishment of monarchy and the
enactment of common law, the radicals criticized the common law as a heritage of the
Norman Conquest and demanded the same rights for all English citizens.
One of the radical thinkers of the Civil War was John Hare. In St. Edward‟s
Ghost, or Anti-Normanism, in order to justify the claims for a just government, he
depicted the Anglo-Saxons as a free nation with limited government and the English
people as their descendants. He demanded that the English should get rid of all the
heritage of the Norman Conquest and proposed a whole series of steps to be undertaken
for this purpose. In fact, some ideas of Hare‘s proved to be rather influential. They
inspired many other revolutionaries, for instance the Levellers, one of the radical groups
and ―the most advanced democratic group which had yet appeared on the political stage
in Europe‖ (Hill 66–68).
6 From Restoration until 1789
As we have seen in the previous chapter, the myth of the free Anglo-Saxon past,
expressed in the Norman Yoke theory, provided one of the arguments for the
seventeenth-century Civil War in England. However, during the war, this theory was
discredited due to its connections to the radical movements of the Levellers and
Diggers. Still, the idea of the contrast between the ―Norman yoke‖ and the ―Gothic
liberties‖ of the Anglo-Saxon period did not disappear with the end of the war. It
became popular again as one of the elements of the ―true Whig‖ or ―country‖ ideology
of eighteenth-century republicanism in England, supported by William Blackstone,
Catherine Macaulay, Lord Bolingbroke and others (Gleason 41; Ortenberg 20).
6.1 England after the Restoration and the Revival of Interest in the Anglo-Saxon
Although initially successful, Oliver Cromwell‘s government was gradually
losing support at home. When he died in 1648, his incompetent son Richard abdicated
and the Protectorate (the military dictatorship of the Puritans) collapsed (Nangonová
76). A Convention Parliament then recalled Charles II from his exile on the Continent
(Kramer 94). Charles‘s settlement was generous (Kramer 94). However, in an
atmosphere of religious intolerance, his inclination towards absolutism and Catholicism
resulted in political factions in Parliament, which gradually led to the formation of the
first political parties in Britain (Kramer 94; McDowall 94; Nangonová 77).
The parties were originally termed ―court‖ and ―country‖ according to whose
interests they represented. However, from the 1680s and, in particular, 1714, the ―court
party‖ became associated with the Tories and the ―country party‖ with the Whigs
(Dargie 124; Kramer 95). The Whigs supported a monarchy dependent upon the consent
of Parliament and religious freedom. They feared absolute monarchy and Catholicism.
They were also opposed to a regular army. Therefore, they stood for the Protestant
succession (McDowall 94; Nangonová 77). Their opponents, the Tories, defended the
Anglican Church and divine right monarchy (Nangonová 77). Because of the Tories
being associated with the ―old cause‖ of the Stuarts, the Whigs dominated in the
government from 1714 until 1760 (Dargie 124).
In the later 1670s, anti-Catholic feelings were amplified by the alleged Popish
Plot (1678), aiming at the replacement of Charles II by his brother James (Kramer 94).
In the subsequent Exclusion Crisis (1678–81), certain Whig parliamentarians
unsuccessfully tried to exclude Charles‘s Catholic brother, James, Duke of York, from
the succession in favour of the king‘s illegitimate, but Protestant son James, Duke of
Monmouth. As a consequence, Charles reigned without parliament from 1681 until his
death in 1685 (Kramer 94–95).
When the Catholic James II acceded to the throne, his attempts to usurp absolute
power temporarily united the Whigs and the Tories. When his son, a Catholic heir, was
born to him in June 1688, five Whig and two Tory politicians (the ―Immortal Seven‖)
decided to invite William of Orange ―to protect Protestant religion and ancient liberties‖
(Kramer 95). William, who needed England as an ally against France, accepted the offer
and landed in England in November 1688. James took refuge at the French court and
William and his wife Mary were declared joint sovereigns by the Bill of Rights in 1689
(Nangonová 79). This transfer of power was called Glorious Revolution.
In 1701, the Whigs supported the Act of Settlement which settled the succession
of the English crown on the House of Hanover in case Queen Anne, the last sovereign
of the Stuart line, died without children. Therefore, in 1714, George I became the first
Hanoverian king of Britain and the Whigs, who had lost power in 1710 due to the
unpopular policy of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1713), were restored into
power where they remained until 1757 (Nangonová 87–88).
According to Horsman, in the seventy years after 1660, the Anglo-Saxon myth
played an important role in English politics. At the same time, Anglo-Saxon scholarship
flourished, especially at Oxford, with such prominent scholars as Francis Junius,
Edward Thwaites, George Hickes, and Humphrey Wanley devoting themselves to the
study of the Anglo-Saxon language and sources (Horsman 15). The ideology of
Teutonism was further consolidated by the accession of the German Hanoverians to the
throne. Such pride in the common Saxon origin linking the Hanoverian king to his
subjects is for example expressed in the Bishop of Lincoln‘s version of Camden‘s
Britannia (Pittock 55).
After 1660, the radical versions of the Norman Yoke theory temporarily receded.
The Royalist doctrine, which perceived the Norman Conquest as a justification for
absolutism, definitely disappeared after 1688. Most writers supported the Whig theory
of continuity, maintaining that the common law represented the embodiment of Anglo-
Saxon liberties (Hill 79–81). According to this view, a good government had existed in
the Anglo-Saxon period. The Norman Conquest put an end to it but he English have
since struggled for its restoration. This, they believed, was finally achieved in the
seventeenth century (Horsman 14).
However, there were also the anti-Whigs like Thomas Hobbes who held more
realistic opinions of the Anglo-Saxon society, and the ―Real Whigs‖ (also called
―Commonwealthmen‖) who, on the other hand, were ―often more enthusiastic about the
Anglo-Saxons than those who accepted the more general Whig interpretation of the
past‖ (Horsman 14). According to them, the Anglo-Saxon liberties were not restored
during the Civil War (Horsman 14).
As Rogers M. Smith maintains, from the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the
British viewed themselves as ―an essentially Germanic-descended, Anglo-Saxon
people‖ (Smith 116). The same is argued by Colin Kidd. However, Kidd also states that
―ideological imperatives shaped a troubled legacy of repeated conquests and new ethnic
settlements into an irreducible ‗story‘ of England‖ (75). Moreover, with the ascendency
of foreign monarchs in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, ―the
multicultural ancestry of the English sometimes had to be stressed‖ (Ward-Perkins 533).
This was also the case of certain works of Daniel Defoe. Though not a Whig
party partisan, Defoe basically adhered to Whig doctrine (even if he was a moderate and
did not always agree with the party‘s policies) (Guilhamet 46–47) and defended the
principles of the Whigs and dissenters4 in his political works (Thomas 734). In order to
provide an example of how the English perceived their Anglo-Saxon past in this period,
I will now proceed to analyzing Daniel Defoe‘s satiric poem The True-Born
Dissenters, as well as ―Low Churchmen‖ were predominantly Whigs. They were opposed by the
―highfliers‖, the High-Church Tories (―Defoe‖).
6.2 Daniel Defoe’s The True-Born Englishman
Daniel Defoe, the son of a tallow chandler, was born in London around 1660
into a family of Presbyterian dissenters. Though initially trained for the ministry, he
soon became involved in trade and politics (―Defoe‖, Carrington 107). In 1683, he
started a hosiery business in London (Houghton 415). He joined the insurrection of the
Duke of Monmouth against James II in 1685 (Thomas 734) and then, in 1688, William
III‘s army. He supported the king‘s party until 1704 (Houghton 415) (though it was one
of the causes of his bankruptcy) and was William‘s leading pamphleteer (―Defoe‖).
After publishing his satirical pamphlet, The Shortest-Way With The Dissenters5, in
1702, he was imprisoned (Houghton 415). After his release, he became a pamphleteer
and secret agent for the Tory minister Richard Harley (Houghton 415) and founded a
newspaper, The Review (1704–13), ―a journal of comment and opinion on political and
social affairs written almost entirely by himself‖ (Carrington 107). He published his
largest poem, Jure Divino, a satire on the doctrine of divine right, in 1706 (Partington
567). He was arrested again in 1706 for his satire Reasons Against The Succession of
the House of Hanover (1712) (Carrington 107). From 1714, when the Whigs acceded to
power, he continued to work for the new government (―Defoe‖) and also started writing
fiction (Houghton 415).
In 1701, Defoe published the satirical poem The True-Born Englishman. It was
written in reaction to the attacks on the foreign origin of William III (in particular to
John Tutchin‘s poem The Foreigners) and soon became very popular (Defoe referred to
himself in his later works as ―The Author of The True-Born Englishman‖) (Novak 149;
Sampson and Churchill 377).
As stated in an explanatory preface of The True-Born Englishman, Defoe
addresses in this work especially those who boast of their pedigree, claiming to be the
―true-born Englishmen‖, the descendants of ancient families, and despise foreigners
(Defoe 592). The aim of this work is to remind them of the fact that they are derived
In fact, the pamphlet The Shortest-Way With The Dissenters was written in an ironic way: using the
arguments of High-Church Tories, but bringing them to absurdity, he pretended to argue against the
dissenters. However, both sides took it seriously, and Defoe was prosecuted for seditious libel and finally
from several nations and that it has been an advantage for them because ―those nations
which are most mixed are the best, and have least of barbarism and brutality among
them‖ (Defoe 592).
Defoe argues that England was originally settled by the Britons, the first
invaders being the Romans with whom numerous other nations were introduced into the
country (the Gauls, Greeks, Lombards and slaves of various nations). The Romans were
followed by the Saxons, Danes, Scots, Picts, Irish and Normans. All these nations
introduced their languages, manners and even surnames in the country and ―from this
Amphibious Ill-born Mob began / That vain ill-natur‘d thing, an English-man‖ (Defoe
596). However, Defoe goes as far as to claim that not only are the English a mixture of
many nations, but even ―Europe‘s sink, the jakes, where she / Void all her offal out-cast
As for the Anglo-Saxons, they are depicted as one of the many nations that
shaped the English. Defoe decribes how they created a heptarchy and maintained wars
between themselves, their women mixing with conquerors. Finally, the Western Angles,
―a bloody nation, barbarous and rude‖, subdued the Scots, Picts, Britons, Romans,
Danes and other Germanic tribes and gave their name to the whole nation (597).
Moreover, Defoe claims that Providence ensures that new and new mixing
occurs every day not to allow the English to be transformed by time or climate. Since
the reign of Henry V, England has served as a refuge for ―the strolling bands, / Of
banish‘d fugitives from neighb‘ring land‖ (596). Under the reign of Queen Elizabeth,
persecuted Protestants from various nations settled in England. The first Stuart king,
James I, brought with him ―troops of Scots and scabs from north of Tweed‖ (596). The
Civil Wars of the 17th century resulted in Restoration of Charles II and:
The royal refugee our breed restores,
With foreign courtiers, and with foreign whores:
And carefully re-peopled us again,
Throughout his lazy, long, lascivious reign. (596)
Defoe therefore concludes that ―A true-born Englishman‘s a contradiction‖
(597). He stresses in particular the Norman origins of English nobility, sarcastically
noting: ―But that the Longest Sword shou‘d be so Civil / To make a Frenchman English,
that‘s the Devil‖ (596). However, as he further argues, the origin does not matter: ―For
fame of families is all a cheat, / It‘s personal virtue only makes us great‖ (603).
Nevertheless, in contrast to England, Defoe asserts, other nations can boast of
ancient noble families. In fact, in this poem, he clearly distinguishes between individual
nations and describes their national character. According to him, every nation has its
own sin: the Spanish are proud, the Italians lustful, the Germans drunkards, the French
are driven by ungoverned passion etc. The English, Defoe argues, have too many vices
and too few virtues. Each of the nations they are composed of contributed to their
Fierce as the Briton, as the Roman brave,
And less inclined to conquer than to save;
Eager to fight, and lavish of their blood,
And equally of fear and forecast void.
The Pict has made them sour, the Dane morose,
False from the Scot, and from the Norman worse.
What honesty they have, the Saxon gave them,
And that, now they grow old, begins to leave them. (598)
Moreover, while open-hearted (and therefore bad at intrigues), agreeable, fair,
―modester than other nations‖ (599), the English are also inclined to drinking too much,
are uneven in religion and inconstant in temper. However, the most important vices for
Defoe‘s argument are dissatisfaction and ungratefulness of the English. Because, while
―they were oppress‘d, / Their rights invaded, and their laws suppress‘d‖ under the
restored Stuart kings and humbly asked William to aid them protect their liberty, ―They
soon their new deliverer despise‖ (599). In the rest of the poem, Defoe defends the right
of the people to revolt against their king because ―kings, when they descend to tyranny,
/ Dissolve the bond, and leave the subject free‖ and praises William who, moved by
pity, ventured to save the liberty of the English (600).
As we have seen, Daniel Defoe refutes theories about the pure ethnicity of
Englishmen and perceives the Anglo-Saxons merely as one of the components of the
English nation, as only one element in the continuity of its history. The Anglo-Saxons
contributed to that history by uniting all the nations in Britain at the time and
contributed their name to this new union. The English can also attribute the honesty of
their national character to the Anglo-Saxons. However, Defoe argues that the English
are not purely Anglo-Saxon in character. He also depicts the Anglo-Saxons rather
negatively (or at least as no better than other nations that contributed to the formation of
the English). He describes them as ―A bloody nation, barbarous and rude.‖
Nevertheless, it is necessary to realize that Defoe‘s work was aimed at proving that
William III was a rightful English king and therefore the emphasis on Anglo-Saxon
ancestry was not particularly desirable.
The Protectorate, which came into power after the Civil War, did not last long.
In 1660, the Stuart King Charles II was restored to the throne. His inclinations towards
absolutism and Catholicism finally resulted in the formation of two political parties in
the English government, the Whigs and the Tories, the former supporting Parliament
and religious freedom, the latter upholding the authority of the Crown and the Church.
The myth of the Anglo-Saxon origins of the English remained dominant in this
period. The Anglo-Saxons became part of the Whig interpretation of English history
which maintained the theory of the continuity of English common law since the Anglo-
Saxon period. However, the English were sometimes also seen as a result of the mixing
of different peoples. This aspect was emphasized especially with the accession of
foreign monarchs to the English throne at the end of the seventeenth and the beginning
of the eighteenth centuries.
As an example of the Whig interpretation of history, I chose the satirical poem
The True-Born Englishman by Daniel Defoe. Written as a reply to the attacks on the
foreign origin of King William III, especially John Tutchin‘s poem The Foreigner, the
poem presents the English as a result of a mixture of a number of different peoples, new
mixing occurring all the time and being an advantage for the nation. The Anglo-Saxons
are depicted only as one of many components of Englishness. Moreover, they are
described rather negatively. Therefore, they do not represent a major component in the
construction of English identity during this period.
Interestingly, John Tutchin, who argued for the racial purity of the English and
the return to the ―liberties enshrined in the ancient Constitution‖ was also a Whig writer.
Therefore, we can see that there was a ―lack of consensus among Whigs‖ concerning
the role of the king‘s Dutch allies in public life, the meaning and significance of the
Revolution and the identity of the English (Williams 130–31).
Radical versions of the Norman Yoke theory re-emerged in the second half of
the eighteenth century (Cone 4). From the accession of George III, English radicalism
became ―more assertively Saxonist‖. The radicals criticized the Whig parliamentarians
for not having been able to restore the ancient Anglo-Saxon freedoms, such as annual
parliaments and a general freeman franchise (Kidd 267).
7 The Nineteenth Century (1789–1914)
In the nineteenth century, Britain was at its most powerful and self-confident.
Thanks to its growing industry and foreign trade, it became the leading world power.
British colonial empire, protected by its powerful navy, was also at its height.
Accordingly, the upper and middle classes enjoyed a long period of prosperity which
seemed to last forever (Nangonová 106). This power of the British Empire inspired in
the English a new self-confidence which was also officially promoted by the state. The
nineteenth century was also the highest point in the development of English identity in
relation to its Anglo-Saxon past. However, the myth of the Anglo-Saxon origins
attained a new dimension during this period.
7.1 The Nineteenth Century and the Racialization of the Myth of the Anglo-Saxon
The nineteenth century, generally delimited by two cataclysms, the French
Revolution of 1789 and the beginning of the First World War in 1914, was itself a
relatively peaceful period of economic, social and political development in many parts
of Europe. Germany being the most powerful country on the Continent, the United
Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland became the most important actor on the
international scene (Kramer 134). In fact, after the Industrial Revolution, Britain came
to be the ―workshop of the world‖ (McDowall 131). Moreover, after its expansion in the
eighteenth century, new territories were annexed to it (for example the Cape of Good
Hope, Ceylon, Mauritius, Trinidad and Tobago, Malta and Heligoland) during the
Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, and others were to follow (Kramer 138).
The Empire inspired in the British a sense of their own importance, which was at
its height in the middle of the century (McDowall 131). At the same time, the study of
the national past advanced and expanded (Ward 1). However, during this period, ―the
past does not stand to judge or to correct the present, but to confirm its virtues and to
show the origin from which they have evolved despite intermediate setbacks‖
(Chapman 36). It was the historians Macaulay, Stubbs, Froude, Freeman and Green in
particular who saw the English liberties as ―a story of steady, continuous and
cumulative growth and expansion, broadening out from precedent to precedent‖ (Kumar
In fact, as Donald Scragg argues, in the nineteenth century, interest in the Anglo-
Saxons (and in King Alfred in particular) reached the highest point since the Norman
Conquest (16). Moreover, according to Louis James, they were the central element of
Englishness for the Victorians (39). As Rogers M. Smith maintains, ―in the nineteenth
century, reinforced by evolutionary theories, self-glorifying myths of Anglo-Saxon
racial destiny became prime justifications for the still-expanding British empire, always
blended with predominantly Protestant notions of the British as God‘s favoured people‖
(116–17). However, as Horsman asserts, though until the end of the eighteenth century,
the myth of the Anglo-Saxons had been used internally (against royal absolutism), ―in
the first decades of the nineteenth century Englishmen and Americans increasingly
compared the Anglo-Saxon peoples to others and concluded that blood, not
environment or accident, had led to their success‖ (62). In other words, not the
institutions but ―the innate characteristics of the race‖ were the cause of English success
In A Companion to the Victorian Novel, Deirdre David summarizes the views of
different historians on the changing attitudes toward race in the Victorian period.
Taking as the point of departure the Industrial Revolution, Philip Curtin argues that
―whereas in the eighteenth century an English sense of national superiority was
grounded in religious difference and general xenophobia, in the nineteenth century
evidence of supremacy in factory production, agricultural yield, and elaborate systems
of transportation led to different explanations of expanding hegemony . . . . a belief that
English supremacy must be grounded in more than cultural and religious difference‖
(David 88). Therefore, ―superior racial qualities must be the explanation for
phenomenal success; and that success, in turn, must be interpreted as evidence of racial
superiority‖ (David 88).
Other historians emphasized the significance of evolutionary theory and early
cultural anthropology. According to Douglas Lorimer, before 1860, ethnocentrism and
the resulting belief in cultural superiority eventually allowed the possibility of being
educated or civilized. However, after 1859, theories of biological difference based on
Darwin‘s Origin of Species prevailed (David 88). Andrew Porter ―sees racial superiority
as taken for granted from midcentury onwards by the English ordinary Victorian
person; it is this belief in racial superiority that helped cement the different parts of a
wide-ranging geopolitical empire‖ (David 89).
The first British author to connect Saxon success to racial superiority was the
Lowland Scotsman Thomas Carlyle. He believed in the superiority of the Teutonic
people, which encompassed Germans, Norsemen and Anglo-Saxons and he largely
contributed to the dissemination of the idea of ―a superior Anglo-Saxon race with a
world mission to fulfil‖ (Horsman 63). Carlyle also stressed the Norse origins of the
Scots (Horsman 63). Interestingly, Lowland Scots were also included in the Teutonic
race during this period (Kumar 207).
Every year, the Anglo-Saxon doctrines were fuelled by the increasing power of
Great Britain. At this time, ―English language, English law and English institutions
seemed ready to dominate the entire world‖ (Horsman 63). However, the myth of free
Anglo-Saxon institution was intermingled with the ideas of ―Teutonic greatness and
destiny developed by the comparative philologists and German nationalists and with the
concept of inherent Caucasian superiority developed by those interested in the science
of man‖ (Horsman 63).
Nevertheless, whereas Anglo-Saxon past and race provided a large source of
interest for Victorian historians, according to Chapman, Saxonism appeared rather
exceptionally in imaginative literature (37). Louis James, on the other hand, claims that
the Anglo-Saxons appeared in prose fiction while the Knights of the Round Table were
a subject of Victorian poetry and art (40). In fact, Anglo-Saxons and Anglo-Saxon
virtues also appeared in books for children. One of them is A Child‟s History of
England by Charles Dickens. I would now like to proceed by analyzing chapters two to
seven of this book which deal with the Anglo-Saxon past.
7.2 Charles Dickens’s A Child’s History of England
The second of eight children, Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in
Landport, Portsea, near Portsmouth in 1812. The Dickens moved to London in 1814, to
Chatham in 1817 and then returned to London in 1822. When Charles was 12 years old,
his father was imprisoned for debt and the boy was forced to work for some months in a
shoe-blacking warehouse. The experience deeply affected him and also became
inspiration for some of his works. The same year, he entered the Wellington House
Academy in London, where he completed his formal education in 1827, and then
worked as a clerk in a solicitor‘s office, a reporter in the law courts and finally a
parliamentary and newspaper reporter. His first book, Sketches by “Boz”, a collection of
articles which he contributed to various periodicals, was published in 1836. Just a few
months later, the first instalment of Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club appeared
and made him the most popular author of the day (―Dickens‖; Bloom 11–12).
In 1850, he started his own weekly journal Household Words (1850–59),
followed by All the Year Round (1859-88). He published much of his later works in
these two periodicals, including A Child‟s History of England (1851–53) (―Dickens‖;
Bloom 11–12). This series, later published in book form in three volumes, covers the
period between 50 BC and 1689.
In fact, the book does not belong among Dickens‘s masterpieces. G. K.
Chesterton calls Dickens in connection with this book ―a sturdy, sentimental English
Radical with a large heart and a narrow mind‖ (Chesterton 64). Further, he notes that ―it
is indeed ‗A Child‘s History of England;‘ but the child is the writer and not the reader . .
. . He had himself the most babyish ideas about the past‖ (Chesterton 64–65). As noted
in the introduction to one of the reprints, the book is full of historical incorrectness and
Dickens‘s prejudices. However, it stimulates imagination, ―stirs proper feeling‖ and
―strengthens good and simple ideals‖ (Introduction).
After considering ancient and Roman Britain, Dickens describes the Anglo-
Saxon period. Tracing the successions of individual Anglo-Saxon kings, he gives an
account of the arrival of the Germanic tribes, their gradual settlement in Britain and
driving back of the Britons, their adoption of Christianity, progressive unification of
England, the Viking invasions and other important events until the Norman Conquest.
However, the high point of the Anglo-Saxon period was, according to Dickens,
the reign of Alfred the Great, described in chapter three. It is because Alfred the Great,
―as merciful as he was good and great‖ (Dickens 37), constantly tried to improve his
people: he educated them, translated books for them from Latin, founded schools, made
just laws and supervised their observance so that England became a completely safe
country (38). Because, as Dickens writes, ―the great desires of his heart were, to do right
to all his subjects, and to leave England better, wiser, happier in all ways, than he found
In fact, Dickens, mentioning that the Indians of North America are inferior to the
Saxons (28), suggests a hierarchy of races. In his book, we also find traces of the
evolution of races: while the Anglo-Saxons were ―a fierce, seafaring people‖ (23) upon
their arrival in Britain, when Edward, Alfred‘s successor, united the Seven Kingdoms,
while remaining ―greedy eaters and great drinkers‖ (Dickens 40), they had already been
transformed in many ways. Defoe describes elegant decorations of their houses and
elaborated instruments they used and in particular praises their beauty: ―The Saxons
themselves were a handsome people. The men were proud of their long fair hair, parted
on the forehead; their ample beards, their fresh complexions, and clear eyes. The beauty
of the Saxon women filled all England with a new delight and grace‖ (40). Further on,
Dickens praises the perseverance of the Saxon race:
Wherever the descendants of the Saxon race have gone, have sailed, or
otherwise made their way, even to the remotest regions of the world, they
have been patient, persevering, never to be broken in spirit, never to be
turned aside from enterprises on which they have resolved. In Europe,
Asia, Africa, America, the whole world over; in the desert, in the forest,
on the sea; scorched by a burning sun, or frozen by ice that never melts;
the Saxon blood remains unchanged. Wheresoever that race goes, there,
law, and industry, and safety for life and property, and all the great
results of steady perseverance, are certain to arise. (41)
However, it was in Alfred the Great that ―all the best points of the English-
Saxon character were first encouraged, and in him first shown‖ (Dickens 41). Dickens
goes as far as to claim that Alfred has been the greatest person who has ever lived on
the earth. Possessing ―all the Saxon virtues‖, he was a king:
Whom misfortune could not subdue, whom prosperity could not spoil,
whose perseverance nothing could shake. Who was hopeful in defeat,
and generous in success. Who loved justice, freedom, truth, and
knowledge. Who, in his care to instruct his people, probably did more to
preserve the beautiful old Saxon language, than I can imagine. Without
whom, the English tongue in which I tell his story might have wanted
half its meaning. As it is said that his spirit still inspires some of our best
English laws, so, let you and I pray that it may animate our English
hearts, at least to this – to resolve, when we see any of our fellow-
creatures left in ignorance, that we will do our best, while life is in us, to
have them taught; and to tell those rulers whose duty it is to teach them,
and who neglect their duty, that they have profited very little by all the
years that have rolled away since the year nine hundred and one, and that
they are far behind the bright example of KING ALFRED THE GREAT.
As we have seen in this chapter, the power of the British Empire in the
nineteenth century led to the development of a particular pride of belonging to the
English nation. At the same time, it was the Anglo-Saxons who provided the main
source of English identity. However, at the end of the eighteenth century, the myth of
free Anglo-Saxon institutions became racialized. Therefore, according to the Victorians,
it was the superior qualities of the Anglo-Saxon race that lay at the core of English
In A Child‟s History of England, the Anglo-Saxons were portrayed as the noblest
race possessing superior qualities, their embodiment being King Alfred the Great.
However, Defoe suggests that the Anglo-Saxons may have undergone a development
from a rather primitive nation. According to him, the typical characteristics of the
Anglo-Saxon race are patience, perseverance, determination, industry, and justice. He
also mentions the beautiful appearance of the Anglo-Saxons and their skill. On the other
hand, he hints at their gluttony and intemperance. Finally, by shifting between the past
and present when depicting the Anglo-Saxons, Defoe implies that his contemporaries
share much of the virtues of their ancestors.
8 After the Second World War (1945–2010)
The twentieth century, and the period after the end of the Second World War in
particular, brought about unprecedented social, political and cultural change both in its
scope and rapidity (Kramer 165). At the beginning of the twentieth century, the United
Kingdom was the greatest world power, reaching its apogee after the First World War
when it controlled over a fifth of the world‘s land surface and ruled a quarter of its
population (Kramer 165–66). By the middle of the century, it was markedly weaker
than the United States or the Soviet Union, but it was still one of the three most
powerful countries. By the end of the seventies, however, it was no longer a world
power. Moreover, it was not even among the richest European powers (McDowall 159).
Naturally, these developments must have influenced the way the British
perceived themselves. Though it still possesses some valuable advantages, Britain has
lost much of its earlier self-confidence and is currently living in an age of uncertainty
(McDowall 159), looking for a new identity and role in the world. At the same time, it
seems that the interest in Anglo-Saxon past has diminished, too.
8.1 The United Kingdom after the Second World War: the Crisis of English Identity
and the Decline of Interest in Anglo-Saxon Past?
In the first half of the twentieth century, the world experienced, during not much
more than thirty years, two wars that originated in Europe but involved the whole
world. The First World War (1914–18) resulted in 15 million people being killed
(Kramer 168). Though Britain‘s influence in the world increased after the war, the
whole nation believed that ―never again‖ will anything comparable take place
(McDowall 161). However, with the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939,
Britain was forced to end its policy of appeasement and declare war on Germany. When
the Second World War ended in 1945, the losses of men and the financial costs of the
war were, again, immense. The national debt rose from £7130 million in 1939 to
£23,636 million in 1946 and the external debt (the largest one in British history)
amounted to about £10,000 million (Kramer 174).
After the war, the Allies split into the capitalist West and the communist East
and, for about forty years, fought a ―cold war‖ (Kramer 175). They formed two military
alliances: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO, 1949) and the Eastern
European Mutual Assistance Pact (Warsaw Pact, 1955). Britain played increasingly the
role of a junior partner of the United States. During the 1950s, Britain became
dependent on loans from the United States and, as the Suez crisis of 1956 proved, also
on its support in international affairs (Kramer 175).
Moreover, despite its previous indifference to the process of European
cooperation and integration (Kramer 175–76), by the early 1960s, as it realized the loss
of international political power and the loosening of its political bonds with the
Commonwealth (as well as the decline of their mutual trade), Britain was increasingly
interested in joining the European Community (EC). It was finally admitted in 1973
(McDowall 169; Nangonová 141), though its attitude towards the European Community
remained unenthusiastic (McDowall 174).
While Britain possessed the largest colonial empire in the world at the beginning
of the twentieth century, the two wars accelerated the transfer of power to indigenous
people. In 1931, the Statute of Westminster established legislative equality of Britain
and its dominions and recognized their complete independence. The title ―British
Empire‖ was replaced by the name ―British Commonwealth of Nations‖ in 1949
(Nangonová 143). In 1947, India became the first colony to gain independence. Most
British possessions followed its example between 1957 and 1967 (Dargie 193).
However, Hong Kong gained independence only in 1997 (Kramer 191).
With colonial servicemen from Honduras and the West Indies coming to Britain
and many of them remaining there after the war, the Second World War was the crucial
catalyst for post-war immigration. The servicemen were followed by other immigrants
mainly from the West Indies, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and East Africa and became a
welcome working force for British industry in the boom of the mid–1950s (Kramer
181–82). Subsequently, while until the 1950s, most immigrants into Britain were white
people, by 1960, there were 250,000 non-white immigrants and the first signs of trouble
(McDowall 177). The number of immigrants were being increasingly restricted by the
immigration acts of 1962, 1968 and 1971 (Kramer 181–82). Still, by 1985, there were
about 5 million recent immigrants and their children (McDowall 177) and serious race
riots broke out in several cities because of bad housing and unemployment. At the same
time, competition for jobs caused by economic depression and automation sharpened
racial tension (Nangonová 150). As it is estimated that in 2008 only, 590,000 migrants
(which means that the number of immigrants has remained constant since 2004) came to
live in the United Kingdom and 58 per cent of them were born outside the European
Union (―Migration Statistics 2008‖ 20), immigration remains a problem until today.
As regards home affairs, the post-war reconstruction of Britain was hindered by
its financial dependence on the United States and Canada, the additional expenditure
required by the military commitments abroad and great spending on social welfare.
Britain was recovering only slowly. Nevertheless, the Labour Government of Clement
Attlee (1945–51) successfully completed the Welfare State scheme and certain
measures of nationalization (Nangonová 139).
Between 1953 and 1970, living standards were increasingly improving (Dargie
196). However, problems in the British economy, that had taken place during two
decades, culminated in rampant inflation and rising unemployment in the later 1970s
(Dargie 196-98). These developments together with a formation of a militant left wing
within the Labour Party led to the victory of the Conservative Party in 1979 which
remained in power until 1997 (Nangonová 140). The Labour Party, which governed
over Britain between 1997 and 2010, carried out several important reforms, one of them
being the constitution of devolved legislative assemblies in Scotland and Wales
(―Labour Party‖) that transferred power from the central government to regional
No doubt, all these developments must have had an impact on the way the
English perceive themselves. Many scholars and writers point out that ―both the United
Kingdom, to a lesser degree, and England, to a greater degree, are suffering from a sort
of identity crisis‖ (Shippey 235).
T. A. Shippey explains this crisis by the retreat from Empire (235). However,
according to him, ―the destruction, or rather the repression‖ of English social identity
can be traced already to the nineteenth century – though, ironically, as A. Hastings
asserts, it was the English who provided the initial model for all later ―constructions of
nationhood‖ (Shippey 215). While, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries,
English political domination as well as the English language were imposed on other
nations, Englishness became unwelcomed and had to give way to ―an Imperial and a
British, not an English ideology‖ (Shippey 225). Rather, Scottish, Welsh and Irish
traditions were encouraged as ―compensation for progressive loss of independence and
erosion of the Celtic languages‖ (Shippey 225).
Similarly, Krishan Kumar notes that while the current ―break-up of Britain‖
(caused, firstly, by the devolution and the revival of nationalism in Scotland and Wales
and the need to solve the question of Northern Ireland; secondly, by Britain‘s entry into
the European Union; and, thirdly, by the arrival of the blacks and Asians into Britain)
has become a welcome development for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it is
threatening for the English:
They [these developments] are the source of a profound crisis of identity.
For they reverse the very things by which the English have built up a
sense of themselves over the centuries. It was by creating and
maintaining the ‗inner empire‘ of Great Britain that the English secured
their position and established their dominance in the British Isles. It was
in the expansion of their overseas empire that they saw themselves, like
the Romans of old, renewing the civilizing mission in the world . . . All
of these things provided the English with an identity . . . that not so much
suppressed as made it unnecessary to ask searching questions about the
English themselves, their particular history, culture and traditions.
As proof of the crisis of English identity, a number of scholars and writers (e.g.
Conrad 43; Paxman 10–12; Shippey 223–25) have pointed out ―the absence, for
England alone, of marks of national identity regarded as routine by all other nations,
and strongly present in the other ‗sub-nations‘ of the United Kingdom‖ (Shippey 223).
This absence is evident by the rare usage of the English flag and the red rose as popular
symbols; the insignificance of the national day and public holidays in general for the
English; and the non-existence of an English national anthem (other than the United
Kingdom‘s God Save the Queen), costume or dance. Susan Conrad maintains that the
only English icons are the national sports teams and that ―the recent revitalization and
re-invention of English ‗heritage‘ had been aimed almost entirely at the tourist market‖
Moreover, it is argued, English nationalism is also, apart from some exceptions
like Adrian Hastings‘s The Construction of Nationhood (Shippey 224), neglected by
academia (Hobsbawm 11; Paxman 19). Paxman suggests that ―very little at all has been
written on the subject of English nationalism‖ (16). Because, in fact, no nationalistic
movements emerged in England: as the English were not endangered by any foreign
attack and England does not exist as a country, ―nationalism was, and remains, a British
thing‖ (19). Still, he acknowledges the existence of a certain kind of English
nationalism, though a more private one (20). According to Krishan Kumar, England
restrained from nationalism after the First World War because it was perceived as one
of the causes of the war (232).
Susan Condor, writing about ―a relative absence of contemporary social
scientific literature on the subject‖ of English national identity (Condor 42), claims that
it is, with few exceptions, ―the lack of public symbolism or celebration of Englishness,
and the assumed tendency of the English to identify themselves as Britons, [that] has led
theorists to regard English national identity as simply ‗unproblematic‘, and to focus
instead on the ‗problems‘ caused by the English tendency to co-opt the term ‗British‘‖
On the other hand, she concedes, we may suppose that the English view their
identity as granted and there is therefore no need to demonstrate it publicly (Condor 57).
Accordingly, Jeremy Paxman claims that ―it is a mark of self-confidence: the English
have not spent a great deal of time defining themselves because they haven‘t needed to‖
(23). The same is suggested by Linda Colley who believes that the lack of desire to
promote national conscience is in fact a mark of a self-assured nation (Colley 16);
however, she later dismantles this argument by noting that ―the factors that provided for
the forging of a British nation in the past have largely ceased to operate‖ (374).
Nevertheless, while most scholars acknowledge a current crisis of English
identity, it is not, as Jeremy Paxman remarks, that ―everyone is so damned apocalyptic‖
as regards the future of England and the English (15). In fact, some authors remain
optimistic in this view.
Jeremy Paxman himself, writing that ―the war and its immediate aftermath are
the last time in living memory when the English had a clear and positive sense of
themselves‖ (2), links the English identity crisis to cultural, imperial and political
decline. However, he recognizes that ―discourses of decline have themselves played a
constitutive role in the making of postwar English identity and the fragmentation of
Britishness‖ (Dworkin 62) and, noting a number of events like starting to produce the
first cards to celebrate St George‘s Day in 1995, he observes that ―something is stirring‖
as regards English nationalism (Paxman 21).
Similarly, Krishan Kumar in his book The Making of English National Identity,
published in 2003, argues that with the ―death of Britain‖, the English were in fact
forced, for the first time in history, to inquire about their identity and future (251).
According to him, during the 1990s and in the early years of the 21st century, there was
―a massive and unprecedented inquiry into the national soul‖ (251), and he goes as far
as to claim that ―nationalism has finally caught up with the English‖ (251). He gives
examples of a number of newspaper and magazine articles and works published in the
1990s6 and in the year of 20007, the very year Shippey‘s essay appeared (itself testifying
of the growing interest in the subject).
While allowing for the fact that the prevailing popular feeling of national
identity is always difficult to tap, Kumar suggests that the rise of English national self-
awareness may be indicated by the replacement of the Union Jack by the cross of St.
George as the emblem of the English at international sporting events or the appearance
of a new ―English imaginary‖ in fashion, pop art, pop music and other areas (Kumar
252). Arguing that a cultural definition of Englishness still exists, he maintains that it is
―a public, institutional definition of Englishness that is required‖ (270).
―A marked revival of interest‖ in England and Englishness at the beginning of
the 21st century is also noted by Raphaël Ingelbien (1). Dennis Dworkin maintains that
Linda Colley‘s Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (1992/1994), Raphael Samuel‘s Theatres of
Memory (1994, 1999a), Stephen Haseler‘s The English Tribe (1996), Adrian Hastings‘s The Construction
of Nationhood (1997), Norman Davies‘s The Isles (1999), Simon Heffer‘s Nor Shall My Sword: The
Reinvention of England (1999), Jeremy Paxman‘s The English: A Portrait of a People (1999), etc.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown‘s Who Do We Think We Are? (2000/2001), Edwin Jones‘s The English Nation:
The Great Myth (2000); The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain (a Report of the Runnymede Trust, 2000); TV
series A History of Britain (2000-01) and The Day Britain Died (2000), etc. (Kumar 251-52).
nationalistic discourse was not prominent in Britain until the 1960s and 1970s when
British decline caused by the loss of empire, the problems of defining a new world role,
economic decline and a massive immigration of blacks and South Asian immigrants
―have produced a sense of precariousness and insecurity, a belief in the vulnerability of
the British state, and a breeding ground for challenges to received cultural identities‖
As we have seen, while identifying a post-war crisis of English (and British)
identity, many scholars also maintain that a new rise in identity is taking place. The
question that remains is what is the current status of the interest in Anglo-Saxon past
and how it is linked to the development of English identity.
In Desire for Origins, published in 1990, A. J. Frantzen maintains that ―the place
of Anglo-Saxon studies in modern intellectual life is marginal‖ (Frantzen 224). For T.
A. Shippey, ―marginal‖ is yet ―a fair description‖ (216). As for popular awareness, he
prefers the terms ―non-existent‖ or ―invisible‖ (216). He also states that pre-Conquest
history is not taught in schools at all and suspects that merely Alfred the Great, Harold
Godwinson and Ethelred the Unready are possibly part of the consciousness of educated
English (not even speaking about the uneducated), many Anglo-Saxon names being
misspelled or mispronounced: ―within popular consciousness, even educated popular
consciousness, there is no connected awareness of the Anglo-Saxon origins of the
current state at all‖ (216). He concludes by claiming that ―in any way, pre-Conquest
history is marked off as alien and discontinuous: nothing to do with us‖ (216).
Frantzen argues that ―with the exception of a small number of hallowed names
and titles, the literature and history of earlier ages are themselves routinely dismissed‖
(Frantzen 224). However, the oblivion of the Anglo-Saxons would not be surprising if
other figures, such as King Arthur for instance, did not survive in popular consciousness
even without being promoted by the education system. Moreover, other components of
medievalism still survive thanks to the education system, as the image of the Vikings,
for example (Shippey 216).
In fact, the Anglo-Saxon past is no longer appreciated in any measure in contrast
to its glorification during the nineteenth century as well as centuries before: the
achievements of the Anglo-Saxon church are not promoted, nor English saints
commemorated by the Church of England anymore; the idea of Anglo-Saxon law as the
foundation of the British (as well as American) constitution is promoted by legal
historians; the importance of the study of Old English is not recognized but by a few
scholars of Anglo-Saxon studies; and the racial dimension of the concept of Anglo-
Saxoness is no more present in political discourse (Shippey 220–23). However, as
Shippey points out, ―what we take to be a natural if regrettable state is in fact a
significant absence‖ (223).
In fact, Shippey links the loss of interest in the Anglo-Saxon past directly to the
crisis of English identity. According to him, the myth of Anglo-Saxon origins was only
one of the many marks of English national identity lost in the process of its destruction
(225–26). Furthermore, as obvious from what has been argued above, he is, contrary to
some other authors, pessimistic concerning the present and the future of both the
English identity and the importance of the Anglo-Saxon past.
Although Shippey‘s thesis is that there is virtually no interest in the Anglo-
Saxon past today (or in the year 2000 when his essay was published), we may find quite
a number of scholarly works dealing with the topic published in the last two decades,
for instance Barbara Yorke‘s Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England
(1990), Allen J. Frantzen‘s Desire for Origins: New Language, Old English, and
Teaching the Tradition (1991), D. P. Kirby‘s The Earliest English Kings (1991), Eric
John‘s Reassessing Anglo-Saxon England (1996), The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of
Anglo-Saxon England (1999), James Campbell‘s The Anglo-Saxon State (2000), Frank
Barlow‘s The Godwins: The Rise and Fall of a Noble Dynasty (2003), Paul Hills‘s The
Age of Athelstan: Britain‟s Forgotten History (2004), Ian W. Walker‘s Harold, The Last
Anglo-Saxon King (2004), John Blair‘s The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society (2005),
Penelope Walton Rogers‘s Cloth and Clothing in Early Anglo-Saxon England: AD 450-
700 (2006), Sally Crawford‘s Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England (2008), Ryan
Lavelle‘s Aethelred II: King of the English (2008), Sarah Foot‘s Monastic Life in Anglo-
Saxon England c. 600–900 (2009), Delia Hooke‘s The Anglo-Saxon Landscape: The
Kingdom of the Hwicce (2009), etc.
As for imaginative literature, writing in 2000, Donald Scragg argues that ―the
Anglo-Saxons have not as yet proved very fertile ground for the current vogue for light,
specifically detective, fiction set in medieval times‖ (20–21). Nevertheless, we can find
a few examples of historical fiction by English authors drawing on the Anglo-Saxon
past which were published in the 1990s and 2000s. There are for instance three novels
in the Norman Series by Valerie Anand; The Way of Wyrd by Bryan Bates; The Amber
Treasure by Richard Denning; Paths of Exile by Carla Nayland; A Casket of Earth, The
Flight of the Sparrow and The Land of Angels by Fay Sampson; or The Whispering Bell
by Brian Sellars. However, probably the most famous contemporary writer of historical
fiction set in Anglo-Saxon England is Bernard Cornwell, the author of The Saxon
Stories series now consisting of five novels, the last of them being The Burning Land
published in 2009. Nevertheless, I would argue that in these works, the Anglo-Saxon
past functions merely as a background for a good story and that it is not the object of
interest on its own.
Also, in recent years, popular history books for adults and children drawing on
the Anglo-Saxon past8 have been published. To provide an example of how the Anglo-
Saxons are viewed in this type of writings, I selected the children‘s book Britannia: 100
Great Stories from British History by Geraldine McCaughrean.
8.2 Geraldine McCaughrean’s Britannia: 100 Great Stories from British History
Geraldine McCaughrean was born in 1951 in North London where she also grew
up. She attended Church College of Education in Canterbury. After her studies, she
worked for a magazine publishing house in London for ten years. In 1988, she became a
full-time writer and she lives with her husband in Berkshire (―Geraldine‖; O‘Reilly).
McCaughrean is a contemporary English writer, an author of over 120 books for
both children and adults, 50 short plays for schools, and a radio play. However, she is
best known for her children‘s books for which she has received a number of awards (she
is the only author to have won the Whitbread Children‘s Book Award three times). Her
works range from first readers, picture books, and younger children‘s books to
children‘s novels. She has also published several collections of bible, folk and fairy
For instance John Blair‘s The Anglo-Saxon Age: A Very Short Introduction (2003), Margaret Sharman‘s
Anglo-Saxons (2003), Haydn Middleton‘s Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings in Britain (2005), Peter D.
Riley Anglo-Saxon Invaders and Settlers (2005), Sally Hewitt‘s The Anglo-Saxons (2006), Geoffrey
Hindley‘s A Brief History of the Anglo-Saxons (2006), Terry Deary‘s The Smashing Saxons (2007),
Maskell, Hazel and Abigail Wheatley‘s Anglo-Saxons and Vikings (2010).
stories and she specializes in the retelling of classic tales, myths and legends. Her books
have been translated into many languages (―Geraldine‖; O‘Reilly).
The second edition of Geraldine McCaughrean‘s Britannia: 100 Great Stories
from British History, on which I am drawing, was published in 2004. It is a collection of
famous stories from British history retold for children with illustrations by Richard
Brassey. The stories are chronologically ordered and they start with the legend of
Gogmagog (about 1100 BC). In fact, the book includes stories from all periods of
British history (Celtic, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Tudor, Stuart, Georgian, Victorian, etc.)
until the oil spill caused by the Braer oil tanker in 1993.
On the whole, Britannia includes eleven stories from Anglo-Saxon England: The
Hallelujah Victory; Hengist, Horsa and the Lovely Rowena; The Castle Which Could
Not Stand; “Not Angles but Angels”; Fleeting Glory; Offa‟s Shame; The Kingly Martyr;
Alfred and the Cakes; Dunstan and the Devil; London Bridge is Falling Down; and
Canute Defies the Sea. Therefore, we cannot claim (contrary to Shippey) that the
Anglo-Saxon past is completely omitted from contemporary writings.
The perception of history in general in this book as a whole is highly interesting.
In the introduction to the book titled Since When Was History True? Geraldine
McCaughrean discusses the perceptions of history throughout the ages. She writes about
a time when people believed the stories told by storytellers, ―folklore was history‖ (7).
Nevertheless, as she mentions, over the centuries, history has served various statesmen
to achieve their aims: ―it has been ‗improved on‘ so as to paint a grand and flattering
picture of Britain as ‗Britannia‘s realm‘, ordained and governed by God Himself‖ (7).
Today, however, she claims, history has become an exact science and
―thankfully, we look at ourselves more shrewdly, knowing that in every period of
history, our ancestors were probably just like us: good, bad and accident-prone‖ (7).
Though we may know today that many stories are not true, McCaughrean argues that it
would be a pity if they were to die because they have ―forged our national identity as a
race of heroes, saints and underdogs destined for greatness‖ (7). Therefore, she
encourages children to read these stories because they are part of British history and
national heritage but also warns them to ―watch out‖ for myth, propaganda, embroidery
and lies (7). In order to separate the tales from what is known as facts to contemporary
historians, every story is accompanied by a short text explaining the historical context
and showing what is currently known about the event and the characters. It thus teaches
the readers to acquire a certain critical thinking.
Of particular interest is the tale of Hengist, Horsa and the Lovely Rowena. It is
one of the oldest and most retold stories from the Anglo-Saxon history. Still, each
author usually appropriates it in a different way. From McCaughrean‘s story, we do not
learn much about the character of the Britons of Kent. They are portrayed merely as a
nation stricken by continuous invasions, first the Picts and Scots and later the Jutes.
When their King Vortigern sees the Jutes approaching and comes to greet them,
McCaughrean does not state whether it is from cowardice or foxiness. We just know
that, welcoming the Jutes and promising them reward for defeating the Picts and Scots,
Vortigern hopes that all these invaders will kill among themselves. However, when he
marries Rowena, many Britons, his sons included, consider him a traitor and try to gain
The Jutes, led by Hengist and Horsa, are depicted as a cruel tribe overflowing
Kent and desiring to seize its land and wealth. In order to achieve this, they are ready to
do anything. There can be no doubt about their prowess as good warriors because, in a
short time, they manage to defeat the Picts and Scots who are harassing the Britons.
However, they are not satisfied when they receive their reward from Vortigern, the King
of Kent, and, coming in bigger and bigger numbers, they demand land. They finally
bring Hengist‘s beautiful daughter, Rowena, with them. Vortigern falls in love with her
and exchanges the throne of Kent for her hand.
Thus, as a leader‘s daughter, Rowena becomes a sacrifice for the acquisition of
Kent. However, even as the wife of Vortigern, she remains loyal to her people – and is
as treacherous as they are. This becomes evident after the battle between the Britons,
led by Vortigern‘s son Vortimer and his stepbrother, and Jutes at Aylesford. During the
battle, both Vortigern‘s son and Hengist‘s brother Horsa die. However, the Jutes are
defeated and have to leave Kent. Rowena pretends to be mourning for Vortigern‘s son.
In fact, she weeps because the Jutes were defeated and plots how to revenge them. She
bribes a servant to poison Vortimer‘s food. When he dies, weeping, she begs her
husband to call her father back, claiming that the time of wars is over and they should
Vortigern therefore organizes a big feast for both the chieftains of the Britons
and Jutes. Everyone is supposed to come unarmed. After the meal, they swear to
maintain friendship and peace. However, when an inebriated Vortigern claims that there
is enough land in Britain for all of them, Hengist gives an order and his men, pulling out
their daggers, kill all the Britons, apart from Vortigern. Vortigern manages to escape
and calls his wife to leave with him. However, she refuses preferring to watch the
massacre of the Britons. When all three hundred Britons lay dead on the ground, she
raises her cup in honour of her uncle Horsa and wishes him peace in Valhalla.
As we have seen, the Jutes are depicted mainly as cruel, cunning and
treacherous. On the other hand, they are also good and valiant warriors, faithful to their
people. However, compared to Bede‘s History or William of Malmesbury‘s Deeds of
the Kings of the English, in McCaughrean‘s version of the legend, the Jutes (and, by
extension, the Anglo-Saxons) are not a nation God elected to rule over Britain. The
story is told mainly in a neutral tone, merely stating facts, though the author may
sometimes side with the Britons rather than with the Jutes (which is I suppose a logical
consequence of the fact that the Jutes were the invaders while the Britons were
defending their land). It is presented as only one episode in England‘s story of
Moreover, though McCaughrean cautions against ideology which can be present
in the stories, it seems that there is not in fact much of it in this legend. The legend
seems to be rather disconnected from the present and reduced to only reminding its
readers of the English past. This past could have been heroic but it is over and it does
not have any important implications for the reader. In other words, the legend does not
attempt to form any particular sense of pride about being English, or of Anglo-Saxon
origin. If it does, then only marginally.
As we have seen, the Second World War worsened Britain‘s position in the
world: due to the costly war, the post-war difficulties and the disintegration of the
British Empire, Britain lost the position of world power and became only a second-class
power (Nangonová 141). This, as well as other changes which took place in the
twentieth century, had important consequences for the English identity which started to
crumble. While some scholars predict a complete doom of Englishness, others have, on
the other hand, noticed a recent revival of English identity.
Similarly, it has been argued that the Anglo-Saxon past is currently only of a
minor interest for both the academia and the English people as such. However, this is
again only partially true because we may find a certain number of both imaginative and
scholarly works dealing with this topic. As an example, I analyzed a recent collection of
stories from British history named Britannia: 100 Great Stories from British History by
In this collection, we may find several stories drawing on the Anglo-Saxon past.
In my analysis, I focused on the story of Hengist, Horsa and the Lovely Rowena.
However, as I discovered, though recognizing that the stories form a part of British
history, McCaughrean is cautious not to convene any ideology through them but rather
incites her readers to develop critical thinking. Therefore, the book does not serve to
foster English identity or national consciousness. It rather remains a mere historical
account detached from the present, though being part of the nation‘s history.
Therefore, I would conclude that English identity is not completely dead, though
not much promoted at the moment, as my analysis reveals. Therefore, the role of the
Anglo-Saxon past has also become minor. Nevertheless, it seems that if the English
want to see themselves as a nation among other nations, they have to inquire more into
their identity (Kumar 273). Even if they did not have to define their identity in the past,
―it seems something the English can no longer avoid‖ (Paxman 23) as all other nations
do so. As Kumar states, ―England has to find its place in a world where its former
power and influence are much diminished‖ (Kumar 273).
In this thesis, I attempted to trace the perceptions of the Anglo-Saxon past
throughout English history and its possible influence on the development of English
identity using a number of primary sources.
In fact, tracing the origins of English identity is extremely difficult as we do not
have any written sources for the first two centuries after the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons
into Britain. However, as far as we can ascertain, the first Anglo-Saxon to speak of a
single English people was the monk Venerable Bede. In his Latin Ecclesiastical History
of the English People completed in 731, he depicted the English as a single people on
the basis of their common faith, Roman Christianity, and a common language. Some
scholars also argue that, by listing the Anglo-Saxon overkings, Bede may have hinted at
a possible political unity of the English.
It is in the ninth century, still during the Anglo-Saxon period, that we find the
first attempts to construct English identity on the basis of the Anglo-Saxon past. King
Alfred the Great, when announcing his educational project, claimed a common past for
the English united under his rule. According to his assertion, England had been ruled by
wise kings who expanded its territory and learning flourished. For King Alfred the
Great, the English were defined by their language.
In 1066, England was invaded by the Normans. Thus, two peoples with a sense
of their own separate identities encountered each other. After initial hostility, the
Normans were, by the end of the twelfth century, assimilated and they accepted English
identity. However, during the transitory period, there were a number of writers of a
mixed Anglo-Norman origin. In their works, the concept of identity is rather
complicated. In Deeds of the Kings of the English by the monk William of Malmesbury,
English identity constructed through the Anglo-Saxon past is ambiguous: the Anglo-
Saxons are portrayed both as a sinful and heroic nation. The Normans are depicted as
being superior to the Anglo-Saxons.
During the late Middle Ages, England was transformed from a country with
strong cultural and political ties to the Continent, and France in particular, into a nation
with a separate sense of identity and culture. However, at the time, English identity
rivaled with others, for instance regional identities. Therefore, English identity needed
to be reinforced. In the fifteenth-century version of the romance of Guy of Warwick,
such reinforcement was provided by claiming a heroic Anglo-Saxon past for the
In the sixteenth century, the role of the Anglo-Saxon past in the construction of
English identity became even more important. With the English Reformation,
undertaken by the Tudor King Henry VIII, the English Church became separated from
the Roman Catholic Church. However, a justification for this separation was needed.
The claims that the Anglo-Saxon church had been Protestant enabled the reformers to
depict the Reformation as a mere return to the original and pure Anglo-Saxon church. In
A Testimony of Antiquity, Archbishop Matthew Parker assembled a collection of
writings from the time of Aelfric, abbot of Eynsham, in order to prove that
transubstantiation, one of the dogmas of the Catholic Church, had already been rejected
in the time of Aelfric. Thus, the Anglo-Saxon past served in the construction of the
English as a Protestant nation. This view of the English also led to a gradual
replacement of the myth of the Trojan origins by a myth of the Anglo-Saxon origins.
The myth of the Anglo-Saxon past proved again influential in the seventeenth
century during the English Civil War. This conflict arose from the unwillingness of
King Charles I to grant more political power to the gentry and middle classes whose
power had increased. However, the deposition and execution of a king by the people
was an unprecedented event. Therefore, the revolting masses needed to justify their
right to act accordingly. They found such a justification in the Anglo-Saxon past which
was depicted as a time when all the Anglo-Saxons were free and equal and equally
represented. Thus, during the English Civil War, the English, as the descendants of the
free Anglo-Saxons, were only fighting to restore their ancient freedom and overthrow
the monarchy implanted by the Norman Conquest. While moderate Parliamentarians
claimed a continuity of the English common law, the radicals perceived it as a symbol
of Normanism. Thus, in his pamphlet St. Edward‟s Ghost, or Anti-Normanism, the
radical John Hare, claiming the English to be the inheritors of the Anglo-Saxon
liberties, demanded the purification of all Norman elements present in all spheres of the
life of the English, including the law, language and the dispossession of Norman
After 1660, these radical interpretations of the Anglo-Saxon past and the impact
of the Norman Conquest temporarily receded. Most writers promoted the Whig theory
of continuity, maintaining the idea of the continuity of the English common law which
embodied the Anglo-Saxon liberties. According to them, these ancient liberties had
been restored during the English Civil War. However, though the English viewed
themselves essentially as a nation descended from the Anglo-Saxons, they were also a
product of a mixing of different peoples. This aspect was emphasized especially at the
end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries when foreign
monarchs ascended the English throne. While certain promoters of the Whig doctrine
were opposed to the rule of the foreigners, Daniel Defoe in his famous satirical poem
The True-Born Englishman mocked the idea of the English as a pure nation. He
depicted the English as a product of a continuous mixing of different peoples, the
Anglo-Saxons being only one constitutive element of Englishness.
The nineteenth century was a period when the British Empire was at its height.
The English were still mainly viewed as the descendants of the Anglo-Saxons.
However, at this time, special emphasis was placed on the qualities of the Anglo-Saxon
race rather than on their institutions. It was the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race that
explained the success of not only of the English, but of the whole Empire and that
entitled the English to disseminate their power. In A Child‟s History of England,
Charles Dickens provided a eulogy of the greatness of the Anglo-Saxon race
characterized mainly by perseverance, determination, and industry.
However, after the Second World War, the British Empire, one of the sources of
English identity, collapsed. Therefore, the period after the Second World War was
marked by a certain crisis of English identity. On the other hand, while English identity
had been overshadowed by the successes of the British Empire, it suddenly proved
necessary to inquire into who the English are and what Englishness consists of.
Therefore, during the 1990s and the first decade of the twenty-first century, we find a
number of works dealing with the topic and a new rise of English identity can be
observed. However, it seems that English identity is only rarely officially promoted.
Therefore, the role of the Anglo-Saxon past has also diminished and it rather provides a
mere background for heroic stories. In Britannia: 100 Great Stories from British
History, a contemporary collection of stories from British history, Geraldine
McCaughrean‘s includes several stories from the Anglo-Saxon past. However, there
seems to be no intention to construct English identity through the Anglo-Saxon past.
We may therefore conclude that throughout English history, different
interpretations of Anglo-Saxon past enabled the writers to construct different identities
for the English. In some periods, the Anglo-Saxon past proved to be crucial in this
process. In others, as in the period directly after the Norman Conquest or in the
eighteenth century, its role was less important. However, until the second half of the
twentieth century, the Anglo-Saxon past played quite an important role in shaping
Nevertheless, we need to be aware that this conclusion is made mainly on the
basis of the primary sources analyzed in this thesis and that other conclusions may be
drawn after analyzing different primary sources.
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Tato diplomová práce se na základě analýzy primárních zdrojů zabývá tím, jak
různé pojetí anglosaského období anglických dějin ovlivňovalo vývoj anglické identity,
a to od té doby, kdy můžeme poprvé mluvit o anglické identitě, až po současnost.
Práce je rozdělena do osmi kapitol, přičemž každá z nich pojednává o určitém
období anglických dějin. Nejprve je vždy představeno dané období, pak následuje
shrnutí dosavadních poznatků o tom, jak se v této době vyvíjela anglická identita a jak
bylo vnímána anglosaská minulost. Na závěr je vždy analyzováno jedno dílo vytvořené
v daném období. Jedná se například o historické spisy, pamflety či literaturu pro děti.
Z výsledků práce vyplývá, že odlišné interpretace anglosaské minulosti sloužily
různým autorům ke konstrukci různých anglických identit v mnoha, ačkoli ne všech
období anglických dějin. Když se v devátém století král Alfréd Veliký obracel se svým
vzdělávacím programem k Anglosasům, které sjednotil pod svou nadvládu, tvrdil, že
obnovuje mocný anglický stát, proslulý vzdělaností. V pozdním středověku sloužila
hrdinská anglosaská minulost k propagaci anglické národní identity, která soupeřila s
jinými druhy identity, např. regionální identitou. Za vlády dynastie Tudorovců byla
anglosaská minulost jedním z prostředků k zobrazení Angličanů jako protestantského
národa. Během anglické občanské války vykreslovali revolucionáři Angličany jako
potomky svobodných Anglosasů. V devatenáctém století pak nadřazenost anglosaské
rasy vysvětlovala úspěchy Britského impéria.
The aim of this thesis was to investigate, via primary sources, the influence of
different appropriations of the Anglo-Saxon past on the development of English identity
from the earliest period that we can make reference to English identity until the present
For this purpose, the thesis was divided into eight chapters, each dealing with a
different period of English history. After briefly introducing each period and
summarizing what has been argued about the perception of the Anglo-Saxon past and
English identity in this period, one work by a contemporary author was examined for
each period, including historical accounts, pamphlets, and children‘s books.
It was found that in many, though not all periods of English history, different
interpretations of Anglo-Saxon past served the authors in constructing different
identities for the English. When King Alfred the great addressed the Anglo-Saxons
united under his rule with his education programme in the ninth century, he claimed to
be renewing an English state reputed for its learning. In the late Middle Ages, the
Anglo-Saxon past was used for promoting English national identity which competed
with other types of identity, for instance the regional one. Under the reign of the Tudors,
the Anglo-Saxon past served in constructing the English as a Protestant nation. During
the English Civil War, the English were depicted by the revolutionaries as the
descendants of the free Anglo-Saxons. In the nineteenth century, the superiority of the
Anglo-Saxon race provided an explanation for the expansion of the British Empire.