Of all the barbarous nations known either in ancient or modern times, the Germans seem to have been the most distinguished, both by their manners and political institutions; and to have carried to the highest pitch the virtues of valour and love of liberty; the only virtues which can have place among an uncivilized people, where justice and humanity are commonly neglected. Kingly government, even when established among the Germans, (for it was not universal,) possessed a very limited authority; and though the sovereign was usually chosen from among the royal family, he was directed in every measure by the common consent of the nation over whom he presided. When any important affairs were transacted, all the warriors met in arms; the men of greatest authority employed persuasion to engage their consent; the people expressed their approbation by rattling their armour, or their dissent by murmurs: there was no necessity for a nice scrutiny of votes among a multitude, who were usually carried with a strong current to one side or the other; and the measure, thus suddenly chosen by general agreement, was executed with alacrity, and prosecuted with vigour. Even in war, the princes governed more by example than by authority: but in peace, the civil union was in a great measure dissolved, and the inferior leaders administered justice after an independent manner, each in his particular district. These were elected by the votes of the people in their great councils; and though regard was paid to nobility in the choice,. their personal qualities, chiefly their valour, procured them, from the suffrages of their fellow-citizens, that honourable but dangerous distinction. The warriors of each tribe attached themselves to their leader with the most devoted affection and most unshaken constancy: they attended him as his ornament in peace, as his defence in war, as his council in the administration of justice. Their constant emulation in military renown dissolved not that inviolable friendship which they professed to their chieftain and to each other. To die for the honour of their band, was their chief ambition: to survive its disgrace, or the death of their leader, was infamous. They even carried into the field their women and children, who adopted all the martial sentiments of the men : and, being thus impelled by every human motive, they were invincible, where they were not opposed either by the similar manners and institutions of the neighbouring Germans, or by the superior discipline, arms, and numbers of the Romans.
The leaders, and their military companions, were maintained by the labour of their slaves, or by that of the weaker and less warlike part of the community whom they defended. The contributions which they levied went not beyond a bare subsistence; and the honours acquired by a superior rank, were the only reward of their superior dangers and fatigues. All the refined arts of life were unknown among the Germans: tillage itself was almost wholly neglected; they even seem to have been anxious to prevent any improvements of that nature: and the leaders, by annually distributing anew all the land among the inhabitants of each village, kept them from attaching themselves to particular possessions, or making such progress in agriculture as might divert their attention from military expeditions, the chief occupation of the community.
The Saxons had been for some time regarded as one of the most warlike tribes of this fierce people, and had become the terror of the neighbouring nations. They had diffused themselves from the northern parts of Germany and the Cimbrian Chersonesus, and had taken possession of all the sea-coast from the mouth of the Rhine to Jutland, whence they had long infested, by their piracies, all the eastern and southern parts of Britain, and the northern of Gaul. In order to oppose their inroads, the Romans had established an officer, whom they called Count of the Saxon shore; and as the naval arts can flourish among a civilized people alone, they seem to have been more successful in repelling the Saxons, than any of the other barbarians by whom they were invaded. The dissolution of the Roman power invited them to renew their inroads; and it was an acceptable circumstance, that the deputies of the Britons appeared among them, and prompted them to undertake an enterprise, to which they were of themselves sufficiently inclined.
Hengist and Horsa, two brothers, possessed great credit among the Saxons, and were much celebrated, both for their valour and nobility. They were reputed, as most of the Saxon princes, to be sprung from Woden, who was worshipped as a god among those nations; and they are said to be his great grandsons; a circumstance which added much to their authority. We shall not attempt to trace any higher the origin of those princes and nations. It is evident what fruitless labour it must be to search, in those barbarous and illiterate ages, for the annals of a people, when their first leaders, known in any true history, were believed by them to be the fourth in descent from a fabulous deity, or from a man exalted by ignorance into that character. The dark industry of antiquaries, led by imaginary analogies of names, or by uncertain traditions, would in vain attempt to pierce into that deep obscurity which covers the remote history of those nations.
These two brothers, observing the other provinces of Germany to be occupied by a warlike and necessitous people, and the rich provinces of Gaul already conquered or overrun by other German tribes, found it easy to persuade their countrymen to embrace the sole enterprise which promised a favourable opportunity of displaying their valour and gratifying their avidity. They embarked their troops in three vessels; and, about the year 449 or 450, carried over 1600 men, who landed in the isle of Thanet, and immediately marched to the defence of the Britons against the northern invaders. The Scots and Picts were unable to resist the valour of these auxiliaries; and the Britons, applauding their own wisdom in calling over the Saxons, hoped thenceforth to enjoy peace and security, under the powerful protection of that warlike people.
But Hengist and Horsa, perceiving, from their easy
victory over the Scots and Pits, with what facility they might subdue the Britons themselves, who had not been
able to resist those feeble invaders, were determined to conquer and fight for their own grandeur, not for the
defence of their degenerate allies. They sent intelligence to Saxony of the fertility and riches of Britain; and
represented as certain the subjection of a people so long disused to arms, who, being now cut off from the Roman
empire, of which they had been a province during so many ages, had not yet acquired any union among themselves,
and were destitute of all affection to their new liberties, and of all national attachments and regards. The vices
and pusillanimity of Vortigern, the British leader, were a new ground of hope; and the Saxons in Germany, following
such agreeable prospects, soon reinforced Hengist and Horsa with 5000 men, who came over in seventeen vessels.
The Britons now began to entertain apprehensions of their allies, whose numbers they found continually augmenting;
but thought of no remedy, except a passive submission and connivance. This weak exponent soon failed them. The
Saxons sought a quarrel, by complaining that their subsidies were ill paid, and their provisions withdrawn; and,
immediately taking off the mask, they formed an alliance with the Picts and Scots, and proceeded to open hostility
against the Britons.
The Britons, impelled by these violent extremities, and roused to indignation against their treacherous auxiliaries, were necessitated to take arms; and having deposed Vortigern, who had become odious from his vices, and from the bad event of his rash counsels, they put themselves under the command of his son Vortimer. They fought many battles with their enemies; and though the victories in these actions be disputed between the British and Saxon annalists, the progress still made by the Saxons proves that the advantage was commonly on their side. In one battle, however, fought at Eaglesford, now Ailsford, Horsa, the Saxon general, was slain, and left the sole command over his countrymen in the hands of Hengist. This active general, continually reinforced by fresh numbers from Germany, carried devastation into the most remote corners of Britain; and being chiefly anxious to spread the terror of his arms, he spared neither age, nor sex, nor condition, wherever he marched with his victorious forces. The private and public edifices of the Britons were reduced to ashes: the priests were slaughtered on the altars by those idolatrous ravagers:
the bishops and nobility shared the fate of the vulgar: the people, flying to the mountains and deserts, were intercepted and butchered in heaps: some were glad to accept of life and servitude under their victors: others, deserting their native country, took shelter in the province of Armorica, where, being charitably received by a people of the same language and manners, they settled in great numbers, and gave the country the name of Brittany.
The British writers assign one cause which facilitated the entrance of the Saxons into this island - the love with which Vortigern was at first seized for Rovena, the daughter of Hengist, and which that artful warrior made use of to blind the eyes of the imprudent monarch. The same historians add, that Vortimer died, and that Vortigern being restored to the throne, accepted of a banquet from Hentgist at Stonehenge, where 300 of his nobility were treacherously slaughtered, and himself detained captive. But these stories seem to have been invented by the Welsh authors, in order to palliate the weak resistance made at first by their countrymen, and to account for the rapid progress and licentious devastation of the Saxons.
After the death of Vortimer, Ambrosius, a Briton, though of Roman descent, was invested with the commend over his countrymen, and endeavoured, not without success, to unite them in their resistance against the Saxons. Those contests increased the animosity between the two nations, and roused the military spirit of the ancient inhabitants, which had before been sunk into a fatal lethargy. Hengist, however, notwithstanding their opposition, still maintained his ground in Britain; and in order to divide the forces and attention of the natives, he called over a new tribe of Saxons, under the command of his brother Octa, and of Ebissa, the son of Octa; and he settled them in Northumberland. He himself remained in the southern parts of the island, and laid the foundation of the kingdom of Kent, comprehending the county of that name, Middlesex, Essex, and part of Surrey. He fixed his royal seat at Canterbury, where he governed about forty years; and he died in or near the near 488, leaving his new acquired dominions to his posterity.
The success of Hengist excited the avidity of the
other northern Germans; and at different times, and under different leaders, they flocked over in multitudes to
the invasion of this island. These conquerors were chiefly composed of three tribes, the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes,
who all passed under the common appellation, sometime, of Saxons, sometimes of Angles; and, speaking the same language,
and being governed by the same institutions, they were naturally led from these causes, as well as from their common
interest, to unite themselves against the ancient inhabitants. The resistance, however, though unequal, was still
maintained by the Britons; but became every day more feeble: and their calamities admitted of few intervals, till
they were driven into Cornwall and Wales, and received protection from the remote situation or inaccessible mountains
of those countries.
The first Saxon state, after that of Kent, which was established in Britain, was the kingdom of South Saxony. In the year 477, Ælla, a Saxon chief, brought over an army from Germany, and, landing on the southern coast, proceeded to take possession of the neighbouring territory. The Britons, now armed, did not tamely abandon their possessions; nor were they expelled, till defeated in many battles by their warlike invaders. The most memorable action mentioned by historians, is that of Meacredes-Burn; where, though the Saxons seem to have obtained the victory, they suffered so considerable a loss as somewhat retarded the progress of their conquests. But Ælla, re-enforced by fresh numbers of his countrymen, again took the field against the Britons, and laid siege to Andred-Ceaster, which was defended by the garrison and inhabitants with desperate valour. The Saxons, enraged by this resistance, and by the fatigues and dangers which they had sustained, redoubled their efforts against the place, and, when masters of it, put all their enemies to the sword, without distinction. This decisive advantage secured the conquests of Ælla, who assumed the name of king, and extended his dominion over Sussex and a great part of Surrey. He was stopped, in his progress to the east, by the kingdom of Kent: in that to the west, by another tribe of Saxons, who had taken possession of that territory.
These Saxons, from the situation of the country in which they settled, were called the West Saxons, and landed in the year 495, under the command of Cerdic, and of his son Kenric. The Britons were, by past experience, so much on their guard, and so well prepared to receive the enemy, that they gave battle to Cerdic the very day of his landing; and, though vanquished, still defended, for some time, their liberties against the invaders. None of the other tribes of Saxons met with such vigorous resistance, or exerted such valour and perseverance in pushing their conquests. Cerdic was even obliged to call for the assistance of his countrymen from the kingdoms of Kent and Sussex, as well as from Germany; and he was thence joined by a fresh army under the command of Porte, and of his sons Bleda and Megia. Strengthened by these succours, he fought, in the year 503, a desperate battle with the Britons, commanded by NazanLeod, who was victorious in the beginning of the action, and routed the wing in which Cerdic himself commanded; but Kenric, who had prevailed in the other wing, brought timely assistance to his father, and restored the battle, which ended in a complete victory gained by the Saxons. Nazan-Leod perished, with 5000 of his army; but left the Britons more weakened than discouraged by his deaths. The war still continued, though the success was commonly on the side of the Saxons, whose short swords, and close manner of fighting, gave them great advantage over the missile weapons of the Britons. Cerdic was not wanting to his good fortune; and, in order to extend his conquests, he laid siege to Mount Badon or Banesdowne, near Bath, whither the most obstinate of the discomfited Britons had retired. The southern Britons, in this extremity, applied for assistance to Arthur, prince of the Silures, whose heroic valour now sustained the declining fate of his country. This is that Arthur so much celebrated in the songs of Thaliessin, and the other British bards; and whose military achievements have been blended with so marry fables, as even to give occasion for entertaining a doubt of his real existence. But poets, though they disfigure the most certain history by their fictions, and use strange liberties with truth where they are the sole historians, as among the Britons, have commonly some foundation for their wildest exaggerations. Certain it is, that the siege of Badon was raised by the Britons in the year 520; and the Saxons were there discomfited in a great battle. This misfortune stopped the progress of Cerdic; but was not sufficient to wrest from him the conquests which he had already made. He, and his son Kenric, who succeeded him, established the kingdom of the West Saxons, or of Wessex, over the counties of Hants, Dorset, Wilts, Berks, and the Isle of Wight, and left their new-acquired dominions to their posterity. Cerdic died in 634; Kenric, in 569.
While the Saxons made this progress in the south, their countrymen were not less active in other quarters. In the year 527, a great tribe of adventurers, under several leaders, landed on the east coast of Britain; and after fighting many battles, of which history has preserved no particular account, they established three new kingdoms in this island. Uffa assumed the title of king of the East-Angles, in 575; Crida, that of Mercia, in 585 ; and Erkenwin, that of East-Saxony or Essex, nearly about the same time, but the year is uncertain. This latter kingdom was dismembered from that of Kent, and comprehended Essex, Middlesex, and part of Hertfordshire; that of the East-Angles, the counties of Cambridge, Suffolk, and Norfolk; Mercia was extended over all the middle counties, from the banks of the Severn, to the frontiers of these two kingdoms.
The Saxons, soon after the landing of Hengist, had been planted in Northumberland; but, as they met with an obstinate resistance, and made but small progress in subduing the inhabitants, their affairs were in so unsettled a condition, that none of their princes for a long time assumed the name of king. At last, in 547, Ida, a Saxon prince of great valour, who claimed a descent, as did all the other princes of that nation, from Woden, brought over a re-enforcement from Germany, and enabled the Northumbrians to carry on their conquests over the Britons. He entirely subdued the county now called Northumberland, the bishopric of Durham, as well as some of the south-east counties of Scotland; and he assumed the crown under the title of king of Bernicia. Nearly about the same time, Ælla, another Saxon prince, having conquered Lancashire and the greater part of Yorkshire, received the appellation of king of Deiri. These two kingdoms were united in the person of Ethilfrid, grandson of Ida, who married Acca, the daughter of Ælla, and, expelling her brother Edwin, established one of the most powerful of the Saxon kingdoms by the title of Northumberland. How far his dominions extended into the country now called Scotland is uncertain; but it cannot be doubted that all the lowlands, especially the east coast of that country, were peopled in a great measure from Germany; though the expeditions, made by the several Saxon adventurers, have escaped the records of history. The language spoken in those countries, which is purely Saxon, is a stronger proof of this event, than can be opposed by the imperfect, or rather fabulous annals, which are obtruded on us by the Scottish historians.
Thus was established, after a violent contest of
near a hundred and fifty years, the Heptarchy, or seven Saxon kingdoms, in Britain; and the whole southern part
of the island, except Wales and Cornwall, had totally changed its inhabitants, language, customs, and political
institutions. The Britons, under the Roman dominion had made such advances towards arts and civil manners, that
they had built twenty-eight considerable cities within their province, besides a great number of villages and country
seats. But the fierce conquerors, by whom they were now subdued, threw everything back into ancient barbarity;
and those few natives who were not either massacred or expelled their habitations, were reduced to the most abject
slavery. None of the other northern conquerors, the Franks, Goths, Vandals, or Burgundians, though they overran
the southern provinces of the empire like a mighty torrent, made such devastations in the conquered territories,
or were inflamed into so violent an animosity against the ancient inhabitants. As the Saxons came over at intervals
in separate bodies, the Britons, however at first un-warlike, were tempted to make resistance; and hostilities
being thereby prolonged, proved more destructive to both parties, especially to the vanquished. The first invaders
from Germany, instead of excluding other adventurers, who must share with them the spoils of the ancient inhabitants,
were obliged to solicit fresh supplies from their own country; and a total extermination of the Britons became
the sole expedient for providing a settlement and subsistence to the new planters. Hence there have been found
in history few conquests more ruinous than that of the Saxons; and few revolutions more violent than that which
So long as the contest was maintained with the natives, the several Saxon princes preserved a union of counsels and interests; but after the Britons were shut up in the barren counties of Cornwall and Wales, and gave no further disturbance to the conquerors, the band of alliance was in a great measure dissolved among the princes of the Heptarchy. Though one prince seems still to have been allowed, or to have assumed an ascendant over the whole, his authority, if it ought ever to be deemed regular or legal, was extremely limited; and each state acted as if it had been independent, and wholly separate from the rest. Wars, therefore, and revolutions and dissension's were unavoidable among a turbulent and military people; and these events, however intricate or confused, ought now to become the objects of our attention. But, added to the difficulty of carrying on at once the history of seven independent kingdoms, there is great discouragement to a writer, arising from the uncertainty, at least barrenness, of the accounts transmitted to us. The monks, who were the only annalists during those ages, lived remote from public affairs; considered the civil transactions as entirely subordinate to the ecclesiastical; and, besides partaking of the ignorance and barbarity which were then universal, were strongly infected with credulity, with the love of wonder, and with a propensity to imposture; vices almost inseparable from their profession and manner of life. The history of that period abounds in names, but is extremely barren of events; or the events are related so much without circumstances and causes, that the most profound or most eloquent writer must despair of rendering them either instructive or entertaining to the reader. Even the great learning and vigorous imagination of Milton sunk under the weight; and this author scruples not to declare, that the skirmishes of kites or crows as much merited a particular narrative, as the confused transactions and battles of the Saxon Heptarchy. In order, however, to connect the events in some tolerable measure, we shall give a succinct account of the successions of kings, and of the more remarkable revolutions, in each particular kingdom; beginning with that of Kent, which was the first established.