Thursday, March 24, 2011

History of England Part Two

History of England part two.

First off, sorry about leaving out Stonehenge.  I guess you will be seeing it so a few comments are in order.

It was built prior to all the stuff I mentioned last time.  So there are no written records.  Best guess is that it was made as a sort of gigantic sundial and was used to mark various astrological events.  As such it was primarily a ceremonial decoration.  Several questions have puzzled everyone since.

  1. Why make it out of stone that had to be hauled a long ways?
  2. Why make it so big?

I mean, you can just imagine someone pointing out that you could do the entire project at perhaps 5% of the bother by just pounding some tree trunks into the ground.  In fact, just such a structure-sometimes called Timberhenge-has been found in trace form nearby.

But I have a theory that has so far eluded the savants.  The guys who ordered it were kind of rock star Druid celebs, but they were illiterate after all.  They probably ordered the measurements in cubits when they meant hand spans.

The story was later retold in “This is Spinal Tap”.

So, on to the Dark Ages.

The inhabitants of the Roman province of Britannia had a pretty good thing going.  Law and order, roads, central heating, imported wine.  In the idle hours they would sit around the public baths-sort of a combination spa/club/beauty parlor-and debate the issues of the day.  Sure things got a little seedy in the late 300s, and it was rather regrettable that the local police force was made up of Germans (Saxons), who would be the ancient equivalent of really uncouth louts from a lawless trailer park in another state.  But heck, they were the only applicants what with the regular troops being away and money being tight.

One day circa 410 AD, the citizens discovered that the Trailer Park boys were in charge.  Folks who objected were killed.  Others ran off to the hills.  Those who stuck it out had to get along without running water and heat.  Nobody learned how to read.  Beyond jewelry and swords nothing got made.  You worked on a farm for the Trailer Parkers who were OK when sober which was not often.

But life goes on.  Your daughters start making eyes at Hengist and Horsa those hunky, if bad smelling, barbarian brothers and you realize that at least your grandchildren will own the farm you once owned.  Heck, your grandparents always called you barbarians anyway.

But in this case it was literally true.  Roman Britain just vanished.

Pretty much all the above is contained in the brief accounts of Gildas the Wise, who used most of his time and ink for the less useful task of telling the Britons how sinful they all must be.  Otherwise all this bad stuff would not have happened to them.

One measure of how complete the submersion was is the near obliteration of all Roman place names.  It’s what thuggish conquerors always do even today.  Go visit Ho Chi Minh City if you don’t believe me.  Only two modern cities retain something like their Roman names.  Londinium becomes London.  And Lindum Colonia gets shortened to Lincoln and eventually gives name to Old Abe.

You can trace the march of the Saxons across Britain by the place names.  Up in
Wales, which was not quite conquered, the names are Celtic, which is to say even pre-Roman.  Wales by the way comes from the Saxon word for slave, which is not exactly right—it’s the guys who refused to become slaves that ran off there.  Common Saxon words like “ham” for village, and “ton or don” for enclosed place turn up often.  You will for instance be visiting
Hampton Court
, presumably the site of a fortified Saxon village. Birmingham, Swindon, etc are other examples.  Anything ending in –wich is also a Saxon site.

The Saxons were pretty good warriors, but did have a few setbacks.  Supposedly a local chieftain named Arthur beat them at a series of battles circa 500 AD.  All the rest of the Arthurian stuff is bunk made up by later romance writers.  You might as well watch Monty Python’s Holy Grail, it’s probably more accurate.

The Saxons happily clobbered each other for a couple of centuries, eventually coalescing into a few distinct kingdoms.  Some regions of England preserve these names.  You will be in Sussex, home of the South Saxons.  There is also Essex for the East Saxons.  The West Saxons were in Wessex, which turned out to be the most powerful of the bunch.

By the late 700s things had settled down a bit.  Christianity had been reintroduced from Rome and roundabout through Ireland courtesy of St.Patrick.  There was some art, trade, learning going on.

Then the Viking showed up in the 790s.  If the Saxons were kind of sleazy low life types the Vikings were something entirely alien. They killed for fun and looted for profit. Saxons were like a playground bully who would steal your lunch money.  Vikings were like Klingons who would take your lunch money then burn down the school, carry off your sister and convert your IRA into beer.  Monasteries were a favorite target, as religious institutions throughout English history had a distressing tendency to get fat and rich.  Expect to hear that a few more times.

Anyway, there were pitched battles all the way up and down England.  The Vikings, also called Northmen, ranged pretty much anywhere there was coastline.  The even made it to modern day Canada and into the Mediterranean.  One branch of Northmen settled in coastal France and became the Normans, of whom more presently.

A series of vigorous West Saxon kings starting with Alfred very energetically resisted the Viking invasions.  One gets the sense that both parties were really into all this smiting and slaying stuff.  Eventually things settled down, as did the Vikings who ended up in a region of east central England that became known as the Dane law.  (Vikings were a mixture of Norwegians, Swedes and Danes).

Modern day Swedes and Norskies are almost maddeningly quiet and passive, but the original versions were otherwise.  You had to lay the occasional smite on them or they got moody and thought you did not care about them enough.

In the year 1000 the king of England was a certain Ethelred the Unready, probably the worst leader England ever had.  His smitings were tentative and happened to bump off the sister of a particularly intemperate Viking.  Repeated pillaging and destruction of, well, almost everything was the result.  Occasionally the Vikings would agree to a temporary time out in exchange for several tons of silver.  This cycle of wimpy military action followed by Viking terror then forking over several years worth of the national GNP pretty much wrecked England, and there was actually a Viking king for a short while.  These payments were called Dane geld, and the term is still used for ill considered efforts to buy your way out of trouble.

Ethered scampered off to France, married a Norman noble lady in hopes of restoring his fiscal and military fortunes.  The actual results were less happy.

Much complicated politics, and not a little bit of smiting later, one of Ethelred’s sons was on the throne.  Edward the Confessor has a good reputation.  It seems that being really generous to the church often does that.  It’s always useful to your legacy to reward the only people who write anything down.

Eddie the C. built the first part of Westminster Abby.  He is described as being a devout, chubby albino whose marriage was strictly a formality as he was really not into that sort of thing, if you know what I mean.

Childless, he apparently promised the throne to a certain Harold and also to William, one of his Norman relations via Ethelred’s dalliance a generation before.

Well, that won’t end well.  Harold’s army after stamping out the last of the Viking unrest had to march fast to Hastings in southern England when Edward the Confessor died.  There he met the invading army of William and his Normans, who came over the Channel in the last successful invasion going in that direction.  Harold got hit in the eye by a stray arrow, proving what mothers before and since have always said—“you’ll put an eye out with that thing”.  William the Conqueror, or William the Bastard if you prefer, becomes king of England in 1066.

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