Story of England - S. B. Harding

The Coming of the English


Where the English came from; what sort of life they led in their old home; why they came to Britain; when.

How long it took them to conquer Britain; the seven kingdoms which they founded; where they were; what became of the Britons.

What their villages were like; how they used the land. What a township was; a "hundred"; a "shire."

How the English were governed; the "Witenagemot"; the "thegns."

Disappearance of Christianity and the Roman civilization from the conquered lands.

The German tribes that invaded Britain were the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. They were the ancestors of the English people of today.

For many generations these tribes had dwelt in northern Germany, by the shores of the North Sea and the Baltic. Their ways of living were like those of the other Germans of that time. They cleared little tracts of land in the gloomy forests, on which they raised a few bushels of grain and pastured their scrubby cattle. The men left most of the work to the women, while they engaged in hunting or went to war. These tribes had never been governed by the Romans, so they knew nothing of Roman civilization or the Christian religion. More than any other Germans, perhaps, they loved the sea, a liking which their situation made it easy for them to gratify. They delighted to swoop down on unsuspecting coasts, gather what booty they could, and then take to their ships again before resistance could be formed. A Roman poet sings of the Old English in these words:

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding

Old English Ships

"Foes are they, fierce beyond other foes, and cunning as they are fierce. The sea is their school of war, and the storm is their friend. They are sea-wolves that prey on the pillage of the world!"

So long as the Romans ruled Britain, the English made only pirate raids on that land. But when the Roman troops were withdrawn, an opportunity soon came for them to settle there, and to begin the conquest of the island.

This opportunity arose out of the weakness of the Britons, and the attacks which the barbarous Picts and Scots were making upon them from the north and west. A ruler of the Britons named Vortigern, about the year 449, invited a band of the Old English sea-rovers to assist the Britons against the Picts and Scots. He promised to supply them with provisions during the war, and to give them for their own an island near the mouth of the Thames river.

The bargain was agreed to, and the English came, under the lead, it is said, of two brothers, named Hengist and Horsa—names which mean "the horse" and "the mare." They soon defeated the Picts, and freed the Britons from that danger. Then they quarreled with their employers, on the ground that the provisions furnished them were not sufficient.

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding

Old English Warriors

"Unless more plentiful supplies are brought us," they said, "we will break our agreement with you, and ravage the whole country."

The English were strengthened by the arrival of many shiploads from their home lands, and war with the Britons followed. It lasted for nearly two centuries, and ended in the conquest by the newcomers of all that part of the island ("England," or "Angle-land") which we still call by their name.

We know very little of the details of this struggle. It was a long and bitter conquest, with much fierce and cruel fighting. Little by little, the Britons were driven back towards the west and north. When captured, they were either killed or enslaved. The Roman cities were either destroyed by fire, or were left unoccupied, and fell into ruins. Fresh bands of the English kept coming in, bringing their families, their cattle, and their goods. The Christian religion disappeared from all the eastern and southern parts of the island.

"The priests were everywhere slain before the altars," says Bede, the oldest English historian. "The people were destroyed with fire and sword. Some of the miserable remainder, being taken in the mountains, were butchered in heaps. Some fled beyond the seas. Others led a miserable life among the woods, rocks, and mountains, with scarcely enough food to support life, and expecting every moment to be their last."

After one hundred and fifty years of fighting, the invaders did not hold quite all that the Romans had held. The western coast, from Cornwall in the south to the river Clyde in the north, was still British. All the north was still in the hands of the wild Celtic tribes. But from the Firth of Forth southward, all the eastern, central, and southeastern parts of the island passed from the old owners to the new. The Britons had been replaced by the English. The Jutes settled in the southeastern district, which formed the Kingdom of Kent.

The southern coast was occupied by the Saxons. Those nearest the Jutes formed the kingdom of the South Saxons or "Sussex." Farther west were the West Saxons, with their kingdom of "Wessex." Just north of the Jutes were the East Saxons, in what is called "Essex."

The greater part of the eastern coast, as well as the interior of the country, was in the hands of the Angles, who formed the kingdoms of "East Anglia," "Mercia," and "Northumberland" (the land north of the Humber river).

These seven kingdoms are sometimes spoken of as the "Heptarchy," which means "seven governments."

We may be very sure that the Britons resisted bravely, otherwise the conquest would not have taken so long. In later days, their descendants loved to tell stories of a great King, called Arthur, who led his people to many victories against the English.

As the stories have it, King Arthur was pure in thought and deed, and was without fear. It was said that he was mysteriously cast up by the sea, a new-born babe, to be heir to the kingdom. When he became King he gathered warriors like himself in council, about the famous Round Table, and led them to war. He bore an enchanted sword of victory, which had come to him in a wonderful way. The poet Tennyson makes Arthur say:

"Thou rememberest how

In those old days, one summer noon, an arm

Rose up from out the bosom of the lake,

Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,

Holding the sword—and how I rowed across

And took it, and have worn it, like a King."

The stories say that King Arthur protected his people from their enemies for many years, and at last was miraculously carried away to the happy island, there to live until he should come again, and again rule Britain. A great number of stories have gathered about the name of Arthur, until the tales of the "Knights of the Round Table" have become as numerous and as famous as the thousand and one tales of the "Arabian Nights."

But in spite of King Arthur—if there really was such a person—the Britons were pushed back into the mountains of the West. There, under the name of the "Welsh" (which was a German word for "strangers"), they maintain themselves to this day. The two races settled down, each in its own region. Sometimes there was war between them, sometimes peace. The English could no longer turn their whole strength against the Welsh, because there was much fighting among the different English kingdoms.

The life of the English, in their new home, was much like what it had been in Germany. They lived in small villages of rude and comfortless huts. About each village lay the land belonging to it, divided into woodland, pasture, and tillable ground. The woodland and pasture were used by all the people in common. The tillable ground was divided into three fields. One-third was used for winter grain, one-third grew spring grain, and the remainder lay fallow—that is, was allowed to rest. Every year a change was made, so that each field lay fallow one year out of every three. The fields were divided into long, narrow strips, and each man held a number of these strips, scattered over the field. No man had all his land in one piece. This system of landholding continued among the English for a thousand years—long after their other customs had seen great changes.

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding


[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding


[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding


The village and its lands usually formed a single "township." The townships, in turn, were grouped into districts called "hundreds." Each hundred had its own public meeting, called the "moot," which decided the affairs of the hundred. The warriors from all the hundreds of each kingdom met in a "folk-moot," or meeting of the people. When the small kingdoms were combined, in later days, into larger kingdoms, these folk-moots became "shire-moots," or county courts, and the original kingdoms became "shires," or counties of the larger kingdom. For the whole kingdom there was a meeting of the wise men called the "Witan," or the "Witenagemot."

In Germany, few of the tribes had kings. But when the English entered Britain the constant fighting obliged them to choose permanent leaders. It was easy for a successful military leader to increase his power. So, by the time the conquest of the Britons ended, each of the English tribes had its King.

Below the king, there were two classes of freemen—the old nobles who claimed descent from the gods, and the common people. But a new class of nobles was arising, composed of those warriors who followed the King most closely, and lived in his house. These were the King's "thegns," and they were destined to become more powerful than the old nobles.

Below the freemen were the "slaves," who could be bought and sold like cattle, and had no rights at all. Then there was a class of "unfree" people, who could not be bought and sold, yet in some ways had not the rights of freemen, and could not go and come as they pleased.

The life of these Old English was very rude and simple. They had no great cities; they made no roads or bridges; they had no statues, no paintings, no books. Where they found these things in the land, they destroyed them or neglected them. When they drove out the Britons, they drove out with them all that made life easier and more refined. The Roman culture was all gone. The Britons long refused to send Christian missionaries among these English; so they continued their pagan worship in their new home. Heathen altars were set up, and sacrifices were offered to the German gods.

But the time was close at hand when the English, too, should be won to the faith of Christ.


  1. Find out what you can about the way the old Germans lived.
  2. How did the English conquest of Britain differ from the Roman?
  3. Find out what you can of the stories of King Arthur. (See Tennyson's "Idylls of the King.")
  4. Did the English Conquest of Britain produce more good or harm? Why?