The life of nations, no less than that of men, is lived largely in the imagination. History is continuously being edited to empower the story each generation wishes to believe about itself.1
The Romans were in britain for nearly four hundred years, and when they withdrew in 407 they left behind a well-farmed land with extensive country villas, over two thousand miles of road, numerous bridges, forts and extensive port works. But there was no political cohesion, no military force of its own, no sense of being what we think of as English, Welsh or Scottish. These islands were ripe for plunder, and so to these shores came Danes and Saxons, Viking war-lords, Irish raiders and eventually Norman barons. The Irish seized many youngsters to sell as slaves. One of these sixteen-year-olds was the son of a Romanised native who had already been taught to speak and write in Latin. For years the boy tended sheep in the Irish midlands before escaping and eventually reaching Rome where he became a priest and, years later, returned to convert the heathen Irish to Christianity. He is known to history as St. Patrick2.
It was the monasteries and isolated hermit cells that Patrick was to found over the next forty years that was to keep Christianity and a Roman sense of order alive in the gloomiest years of the Dark Ages3. Patrick ensured that his monks were rigorous academics and thoughtful in their interpretation of the scriptures. Monks laboured long hours making copies of classical Latin texts and many of these beautiful manuscripts have survived4. We can sense something of the sentiments of the times from the comments they jotted in the margins. “Some things (in what I have copied out) are devilish lies, some for the enjoyment of idiots”, scribbled one monk, cursing the poor quality of the ink. Another risked the wrath of his supervisor by indulging his own fancy, “All are keen / to know who’ll sleep with blond Aideen. / All Aideen herself will own / is that she will not sleep alone”. Has anything changed in the human brain in fifteen hundred years, or in the fantasies of adolescents!
It was King Alfred, a remarkable, likeable, and quite extraordinary man who created the idea of England, and the concept of Englishness5. His childhood had been most unusual for its time, in that he had visited Rome twice by the age of seven, and although he didn’t learn Latin until he was twelve, the dream of constructing a nation of well-educated people stayed with him in the darkest days of his struggle to rid Mercia of the pestilential Vikings. Had Alfred not defeated Guthrun at Bratton Camp, the site of an ancient Iron Age fort on the edge of Salisbury Plain in May 878 (possibly the most significant battle ever in these islands) there probably never would have been a country called England6. If Alfred had not had a passionate interest in education ─ he established schools, and trained teachers, trawled Europe for scholars to help him translate the classics into English, and codified the laws ─ we probably would not have had a language called English. Alfred gave his people their identity: he made them a people who valued knowledge.7
When Edgar in 973 became the first man to claim the kingship of all the English, he chose for his double coronation Bath and Chester, the two cities most associated with imperial Rome. That was Alfred’s achievement, to put England and Imperial Rome together in people’s minds. The Vikings could never have done that. No wonder Alfred is the only English King to be called great.
By the mid eleventh century, England was something of a pastoral paradise fighting off two very different contenders ─ Norsemen and Normans. In September 1066 King Harold (eight generations on from Alfred), hearing that the Norsemen had landed in Yorkshire, marched his army the hundred and ninety miles from London to York in a remarkable six days, and engaged the Norsemen in battle the next morning8. Harold soundly beat the Norsemen and sent them retreating to their boats, but that afternoon he learnt that William of Normandy had landed a large army in Sussex. Within hours Harold set off back south and two weeks later, outside the small town of Hastings, Harold and a majority of the old English aristocracy bled to death at the hands of the better equipped, better trained, and generally superior Normans. Within twenty years those Norman barons were to begin another make-over; far reaching as this would be, the land was now unmistakably English.9
Thesis 24: 24th August 2006