EGBERT BECOMES KING OF THE ANGLO-SAXON HEPTARCHY
From the time that the Britons called upon the Saxons to assist them against the Picts and Scots, about A.D. 410, the domination of the hardy Teutonic people in England was a foregone conclusion. The Britons had become exhausted through their long exposure to Roman influences, and in their state of enfeeblement were unable to resist the attacks of the rude highland tribes .
The Saxons rescued the Britons from their plight, but themselves became masters of the country which they had delivered. They were joined by the Angles and Jutes, and divided the territory into the kingdoms known in history as the Saxon Heptarchy, 1which had an existence of about two hundred and fifty years. The various members were involved in endless controversies with each other, often breaking out into savage wars, and the Saxons were also exposed to conflicts with their common enemies, the Britons. Their power was greatly impaired by the civil strifes which distracted them.
[Footnote 1: The seven kingdoms founded in England by seven different Saxon invaders. They were Kent, Sussex, Wessex, Essex, Northumbria, East Anglia, and Mercia.]
This condition continued until it became essential that under a strong hand a more solid union of the Saxons should be formed. And it was to Egbert, King of the West Saxons, the son of Ealhmund, King of Kent, that this great constructive task was committed. He took the throne of Wessex in 802, for twelve years enjoyed a peaceful reign, then became involved in wars, first with the Cornish and afterward with the Mercians. His victories in these wars resulted in the final establishment of his authority over the entire heptarchy, and this made him in fact, though not in name, the first real king of England.
When Brithric obtained possession of the government of Wessex, he enjoyed not that dignity without inquietude. Eoppa, nephew to KingIna, by his brother Ingild, who died before that prince, had begot Eata, father to Alchmond, from whom sprung Egbert, a young man of the most promising hopes, who gave great jealousy to Brithric, the reigning prince, both because he seemed by his birth better entitled to the crown and because he had acquired, to an eminent degree, the affections of the people. Egbert, sensible of his danger from the suspicions of Brithric, secretly withdrew into France, where he was well received by Charlemagne. By living in the court, and serving in the armies of that prince, the most able and most generous that had appeared in Europe during several ages, he acquired those accomplishments which afterward enabled him to make such a shining figure on the throne. And familiarizing himself to the manners of the French, who, as Malmesbury observes, were eminent both for valor and civility above all the western nations, he learned to polish the rudeness and barbarity of the Saxon character; his early misfortunes thus proved of singular advantage to him.
It was not long ere Egbert had opportunities of displaying his natural and acquired talents. Brithric, King of Wessex, had married Eadburga, natural daughter of Offa, King of Mercia , a profligate woman, equally infamous for cruelty and for incontinence. Having great influence over her husband, she often instigated him to destroy such of the nobility as were obnoxious to her; and where this expedient failed, she scrupled not being herself active in traitorous attempts against them. She had mixed a cup of poison for a young nobleman, who had acquire d her husband's friendship, and had on that account become the object of her jealousy; but unfortunately the King drank of the fatal cup along with his favorite, and soon after expired. This tragical incident, joined to her other crimes, rendered Eadburga so odious that she was obliged to fly into France; whence Egbert was at the same time recalled by the nobility, in order to ascend the throne of his ancestors. He attained that dignity in the last year of the eighth century.
See--Egbert The Great: Driven in his younger days to seek refuge at the Frankish court, Egbert of Wessex there learned many lessons that were valuable to him on his return to England. He extended his kingdom, and fought the invading Northmen.
In the kingdoms of the heptarchy, an exact rule of succession was either unknown or not strictly observed; and thence the reigning prince was continually agitated with jealousy against all the princes of the blood, whom he still considered as rivals, and whose death alone could give him entire security in his possession of the throne. From this fatal cause, together with the admiration of the monastic life, and the opinion of merit attending the preservation of chastity even in a married state, the royal families had been entirely extinguished in all the kingdoms except that of Wessex; and the emulations, suspicions, and conspiracies, which had former ly beenconfined to the princes of the blood alone, were now diffused among all the nobility in the several Saxon states. Egbert was the sole descendant of those first conquerors who subdued Britain, and who enhanced their authority by claiming a pedigree from Woden, the supreme divinity of their ancestors. But that prince, though invitedby this favorable circumstance to make attempts on the neighboring Saxons, gave them for some time no disturbance, and rather chose to turn his arms against the Britons in Cornwall, whom he defeated in several battles . He was recalled from the conquest of that country by an invasion made upon his dominions by Bernulf, King of Mercia.
The Mercians, before the accession of Egbert, had very nearly attained the absolute sovereignty in the heptarchy: they had reduced the East Angles under subjection, and established tribut ary princes inthe kingdoms of Kent and Essex. Northumberland was involved in anarchy; and no state of any consequence remained but that of Wessex,which, much inferior in extent to Mercia, was supported solely by the great qualities of its sovereign. Egbert led his army against the invaders; and encountering them at Ellandun, in Wiltshire, obtained a complete victory, and, by the great slaughter which he made of them in their flight, gave a mortal blow to the power of the Mercians. While he himself, in prosecution of his victory, entered their country on the side of Oxfordshire, and threatened the heart of their dominions,he sent an army into Kent, commanded by Ethelwulf, his eldest son, and, expelling Baldred, the tributary King, soon made himself master of that country.
The kingdom of Essex was conquered with equal facility, and the East Angles, from their hatred of the Mercian government, which had been established over them by treachery and violence, and probably exercised with tyranny, immediately rose in arms and craved the protection of Egbert. Bernulf, the Mercian King, who marched against them, was defeated and slain; and two years after, Ludican, his successor, met with the same fate. These insurrections and calamities facilitated the enterprises of Egbert, who advanced into the centre ofthe Mercian territories and made easy conquests over a dispirited and divided people. In order to engage them more easily to submission, he allowed Wiglef, their countryman, to retain the title of king, whilehe himself exercised the real powers of sovereignty. The anarchy which prevailed in Northumberland tempted him to carry still further his victorious arms; and the inhabitants, unable to resist his power,and desirous of possessing some established form of government, were forward, on his first appearance, to send deputies, who submitted to his authority and swore allegiance to him as their sovereign. Egbert, however, still allowed to Northumberland, as he had done to Mercia and East Anglia, the power of electing a king, who paid him tribute and was dependent on him.
Thus were united all the kingdoms of the heptarchy in one great state, near four hundred years after the first arrival of the Saxonsin Britain; and the fortunate arms and prudent policy of Egbert at last effected what had been so often attempted in vain by so many princes. Kent, Northumberland, and Mercia, which had successfully aspired to general dominion, were now incorporated in his empire; and the other subordinate kingdoms seemed willingly to share the same fate. His territories were nearly of the same extent with what is now properly called England ; and a favorable prospect was afforded to the Anglo-Saxons of establishing a civilized monarchy, possessed of tranquillity within itself, and secure against foreign invasion. This great event happened in the year 827.
The Saxons, though they had been so long settled in the island, seem not as yet to have been much improved beyond their German ancestors, either in arts, civility, knowledge, humanity , justice, or obedience to the laws. Even Christianity, though it opened the way to connections between them and the more polished states of Europe, had not hitherto been very effectual in banishing their ignorance or softening their barbarous manners. As they received that doctrine through the corrupted channels of Rome, it carried along with it agreat mixture of credulity and superstition, equally destructive to the understanding and to morals. The reverence toward saints and relics seems to have almost supplanted the adoration of the Supreme Being; monastic observances were esteemed more meritorious than the active virtues; the knowledge of natural causes was neglected, from the universal belief of miraculous interpositions and judgments; bounty to the Church atoned for every violence against society; and the remorses for cruelty, murder, treachery, assassination, and the more robust vices, were appeased, not by amendment of life, but by penances, servility to the monks, and an abject and illiberal devotion. 1The reverence for the clergy had been carried to such aheight that wherever a person appeared in a sacerdotal habit, though on the highway, the people flocked around him, and, showing him all marks of profound respect, received every word he uttered as the most sacred oracle. Even the military virtues, so inherent in all the Saxon tribes, began to be neglected; and the nobility, preferring the security and sloth of the cloister to the tumults and glory of war, valued themselves chiefly on endowing monasteries, of which they assumed the government. The several kings, too, being extremely impoverished by continual benefactions to the Church, to which the states of their kingdoms had weakly assented, could bestow no rewards on valor or military services, and retained not even sufficient influence to support their government.
[Footnote 1: These abuses were common to all the European churches; but the priests in Italy, Spain, and Gaul made some atonement for them by other advantages which they rendered society . For several ages they were almost all Romans, or, in other words, the ancient natives; and they preserved the Roman language and laws, with some remains of the former civility. But the priests in the heptarchy, after the first missionaries, were wholly Saxons, and almost as ignorant and barbarous as the laity. They contributed, therefore, little to the improvement of society in knowledge or the arts.]
Another inconvenience which attended this corrupt species of Christianity was the superstitious attachment to Rome, and the gradual subjection of the kingdom to a foreign jurisdiction. The Britons, having never acknowledged any subordination to the Roman pontiff, had conducted all acclesiastical government by their domestic synods and councils; but the Saxons, receiving their religion from Roman monks, were taught at the same time a profound reverence for that see, and were naturally led to regard it as the capital of their religion.Pilgrimages to Rome were represented as the most meritorious acts of devotion. Not only noblemen and ladies of rank undertook this tedious journey, but kings themselves, abdicating their crowns, sought for a secure passport to heaven at the feet of the Roman pontiff. New relics, perpetually sent fro m that inexhaustible mint of superstition,and magnified by lying miracles, invented in convents, operated on the astonished minds of the multitude. And every prince has attained the eulogies of the monks, the only historians of those ages, not inproportion to his civil and military virtues, but to his devoted attachment toward their order, and his superstitious reverence forRome.
The sovereign pontiff, encouraged by this blindness and submissive disposition of the people, advanced every day in his encroachments on the independence of the English churches. Wilfrid, bishop of Lindisferne, the sole prelate of the Northumbrian kingdom, increased this subjection in the eighth century, by his making an appeal to Rome against the decisions of an English synod, which had abridged his diocese by the erection of some new bishoprics. Agatho, the pope, readily embraced this precedent of an appeal to his court; and Wilfrid, though the haughtiest and most luxurious prelate of his age, having obtained with the people the character of sanctity, was thus able to lay the foundation of this papal pretension.
The great topic by which Wilfrid confounded the imaginations of men was that St. Peter, to whose custody the keys of heaven were intrusted, would certainly refuse admittance to everyone who should be wanting in respect to his successor. This conceit, well suited to vulgar conceptions, made great impression on the people during several ages, and has not even at present lost all influence in the Catholic countries.
Had this abject superstition produced general peace and tranquillity, it had made some atonement for the ills attending it; but besides the usual avidity of men for power and riches, frivolous controversies in theology were engendered by it, which were so much the more fatal as they admitted not, like the others, of any final determination from established possession. The disputes, excited in Britain, were of the most ridiculous kind, and entirely worthy of those ignorant and barbarous ages. There were some intricacies, observed by all the Christian churches, in adjusting the day of keeping Easter, which depended on a complicated consideration of the course of the sun and moon; and it happened that the missionaries who had converted the Scots and Britons had followed a different calendar from that which was observed at Rome, in the age when Augustine converted the Saxons.
The priests also of all the Christian churches were accustomed to shave part of their head; but the form given to this tonsure was different in the former from what was practised in the latter. The Scots and Britons pleaded the antiquity of their usages; the Romans and their disiciples, the Saxons, insisted on the universality of theirs. That Easter must necessarily be kept by a rule which comprehended both the day of the year and age of the moon, was agreed by all ; that the tonsure of a priest could not be omitted without the utmost impiety was a point undisputed; but the Romans and Saxons called their antagonists schismatics, because they celebrated Easter on the very day of the full moon in March, if that day fell on a Sunday, instead of waiting till the Sunday following; and because they shaved the fore part of their head from ear to ear, instead of making that tonsure on the crown of the head, and in a circular form. In order to render their antagonists odious they affirmed that once in seven years they concurred with the Jews in the time of celebrating that festival; and that they might recommend their own form of tonsure they maintained that it imitated symbolically the crown of thorns worn by Christ in his passion; whereas the other form was invented by Simon Magus, without any regard to that representation.
These controversies had from the beginning excited such animosity between the British and Ro ish priests that, instead of concurring in their endeavors to convert the idolatrous Saxons, they refused all communion together, and each regarded his opponent as no better than a pagan . The dispute lasted more than a century, and was at last finished, not by men's discovering the folly of it, which would have been too great an effort for human reason to accomplish, but by the entire prevalence of the Romish ritual over the Scotch and British. Wilfrid, bishop of Lindisferne, acquired great merit, both with the court of Rome and with all the southern Saxons, by expelling the"quartodeciman" schism, as it was called, from the Northumbriankingdom , into which the neighborhood of the Scots had formerly introduced it.
Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury, called, in the year 680, a synod at Hatfield, consisting of all the bishops in Britain, where was accepted and ratified the decree of the Lateran council, summoned by Martin, against the heresy of the Monothelites. The council and synod maintained, in opposition to these heretics, that, though the divine and human nature in Christ made but one person, yet had they different inclinations, wills, acts, and sentiments, and that the unity of the person implied not any unity in the consciousness. This opinion it seems some what difficult to comprehend; and no one, unacquainted with the ecclesiastical history of those ages, could imagine the height of zeal and violence with which it was then inculcated. The decree of the Lateran council calls the Monothelites impious, execrable, wicked, abominable, and even diabolical, and curses and anathematizes them to all eternity.
The Saxons, from the first introduction of Christianity among them,had admitted the use of images; and perhaps that religion, without some of those exterior ornaments, had not made so quick a progress with these idolaters; but they had not paid any species of worship or address to images; and this abuse never prevailed among Christians till it received the sanction of the second council of Nice.
The kingdoms of the heptarchy, though united by so recent a conquest, seemed to be firmly cemented into one state under Egbert; and the inhabitants of the several provinces had lost all desire of revolting from that monarch or of restoring their former independent governments. Their language was everywhere nearly the same, their customs, laws, institutions, civil and religious; and as the race of the ancient kings was totally extinct in all the subjected states, the people readily transferred their allegiance to a prince who seemed to merit it by the splendor of his victories, the vigor of his administration, and the superior nobility of his birth . A union also in government opened to them the agreeable prospect of future tranquillity; and it appeared more probable that they would thenceforth become formidable to their neighbors than be exposed to their inroads and devastations. But these flattering views were soon overcast by the appearance of the Danes, who, during some centuries, kept the Anglo-Saxons in perpetual inquietude, committed the most barbarous ravages upon them, and at last reduced them to grievous servitude.
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