How England became England

By February 18, 2013February 18th, 2021No Comments

It is with the landing of Hengest [Stallion] and his war-band at Ebbsfleet on the shores of the Isle of Thanet that English history begins. No spot in Britain can be so sacred to Englishmen as that which first felt the tread of English feet. There is little indeed to catch the eye in Ebbsfleet itself, a mere lift of higher ground with a few grey cottages dotted over it, cut off from the sea now-a-days by a reclaimed meadow and a sea-wall. But taken as a whole the scene has a wild beauty of its own. To the right the white curve of Ramsgate cliffs looks down on the crescent of Pegwell Bay; far away to the left across grey marsh levels, where smoke-wreaths mark the sites of Richborough and Sandwich, rises the dim cliff-line of Deal. Everything in the character of the spot confirms the national tradition which fixed here the first landing-place of our English fathers, for great as the physical changes of the country have been since the fifth century, they have told little on its main features. It is easy to discover in the misty level of the present Minster Marsh what was once a broad inlet of sea parting Thanet from the mainland of Britain, through which the pirate-boats of the first Englishmen came sailing with a fair wind to the little gravel-spit of Ebbsfleet;  and Richborough,  a fortress whose broken ramparts still rise above the grey flats which have taken the place of this older sea-channel, was the common landing-place of travellers from Gaul. If the war-ships of the English pirates therefore were cruising off the coast at the moment when the bargain with the Britons was concluded, their disembarkation at Ebbsfleet almost beneath the walls of Richborough would be natural enough. But the after-current of events serves to show that the choice of this landing-place was the result of a deliberate design. Between the Briton and his hireling soldiers there could be little mutual confidence. Quarters in Thanet would satisfy the followers of Hengest, who still lay in sight of their fellow-pirates in the Channel, and who felt themselves secured against the treachery which had so often proved fatal to the barbarian by the broad inlet which parted their camp from the mainland. Nor was the choice less satisfactory to the provincial, trembling – and, as the event proved, justly trembling – lest in his zeal against the Pict he had introduced an even fiercer foe into Britain. His dangerous allies were cooped up in a corner of the land, and parted from it by a sea-channel which was guarded by the strongest fortresses of the coast.

The need of such precautions was soon seen in the disputes which arose as soon as the work for which the mercenaries had been hired was done. The Picts were hardly scattered to the winds in a great battle when danger came from the English themselves. Their numbers rapidly increased as the news of the settlement spread among the pirates of the Channel, and with the increase of their number increased the difficulty of supplying rations and pay. The long dispute which rose over these questions was at last closed by the English with a threat of war. The threat, however, as we have seen, was no easy one to carry out. When the English chieftains gave their voice for war, in 449, the inlet between Thanet and the mainland, traversable only at low water, by a long and dangerous ford, and guarded at either mouth by the fortresses of Richborough and Reculver, stretched right across their path. The channels of the Medway and the Cray, with the great circle of the Weald, furnished further lines of defence in the rear, while around lay a population of soldiers, the military colonists of the coast, pledged by terms of feudal service to guard the shore against the barbarian. Great, however, as these difficulties were, they yielded before the suddenness of Hengest’s onset. The harbour seems to have been crossed, the coast-road to London seized, before any force could be collected to oppose the English; and it was only when they passed the vast potteries whose refuse still strews the mudbanks of the Medway that they found the river passage secured. The guarded walls of Rochester probably forced them to turn southwards along the ridge of low hills which forms the bound of its river-valley. Their march led them through a district full of memories of a past which had even then faded from the minds of men; for hill and hill-slope were the necropolis of a vanished race,  and scattered among the boulders that strewed the ground  rose the cromlechs and huge barrows of the dead. One such mighty relic survives in the monument now called Kits’ Coty House, the close as it seems of a great sepulchral avenue which linked the graves around it with the grave-ground of Addington. The view of their first battle-field broke on the English warriors from a steep knoll on which the grey weather-beaten stones of this monument are reared, and a lane which still leads down from it through peaceful homesteads guided them across the river-valley to a little village named Aylesford, which marked the ford across the Medway. The chronicle of the conquest tells nothing of the rush that must have carried the ford, or of the fight that went struggling up through the village. It tells only that Horsa [Horse] fell in the moment of victory; and the flint-heap of Horsted, which has long preserved his name, and was held in after-time to mark his grave, is thus the earliest of those monuments of English valour of which Westminster is the last and noblest shrine.

The victory of Aylesford did more than give East Kent to the English; it struck the key-note of the whole English conquest of Britain. The massacre which followed the battle indicated at once the merciless nature of the struggle which had begun.  While the wealthier Kentish landowners fled in panic over sea, the poorer Britons took refuge in hill and forest till hunger drove them from their lurking-places to be cut down or enslaved by their conquerors. It was in vain that some sought shelter within the walls of their churches: for the rage of the English seems to have burned fiercest against the clergy.  The priests were slain at the altar, the churches fired, the peasants driven by the flames to fling themselves on a ring of pitiless steel. It is a picture such as this which distinguishes the conquest of Britain from that of the other provinces of Rome. The conquest of Gaul by the Frank, or of Italy by the Lombard, proved little more than a forcible settlement of the one conqueror or the other among tributary subjects who were destined in a long course of ages to absorb their conquerors. French is the tongue not of the Frank but of the Gaul whom he overcame; and the fair hair of the Lombard is now all but unknown in Lombardy. But the English conquest was a sheer dispossession and slaughter of the people whom the English conquered. In all the world-wide struggle between Rome and the German invaders no land was so stubbornly fought for or so hardly won. The conquest of Britain was indeed only partly wrought out after two centuries of bitter warfare. But it was just through the long and merciless nature of the struggle that of all the German conquests this proved the most thorough and complete. At its close Britain had become England, a land that is, not of Britons, but of Englishmen. It is possible that a few of the vanquished people may have lingered as slaves round the homesteads of their English conquerors and a few of their household words (if these were not brought in at a later time) mingled oddly with the English tongue. But doubtful exceptions such as these leave the main facts untouched. When the steady progress of English conquest was stayed for a while by civil wars a century and a half after Aylesford, the Briton had disappeared from the greater part of the land which had been his own, and the tongue, the religion, the laws of his English conqueror reigned without a rival from Essex to the Severn, and from the British Channel to the Firth of Forth. 

Green JR, A Short History of the English People, 1885, London: Macmillan, pp 7-10.