I suppose it only seems fair really, if I'm going to badmouth the English in my History of Ireland journal, to give them a chance to talk back; and to be honest, though I'm still writing that journal it has given me something of a taste for looking into the history of our nearest neighbour and longtime oppressor. Yes, I have a million journals on the go, but when did that ever stop me? I actually tried to talk myself out of this one, but I know me: once I get an idea in my head I can't dissuade myself, and I know it's useless trying, so I gave up and left me to my own devices. All I can say is, if this turns out to be too much work for me, I'd better not come crying to me, because I told me so, but would I listen to me? Would I, as our English friends say in certain parts of their country, hell as like. So let it be on my own head. I'm done with me.

Identity crisis to one side, yeah, that's what I've decided to do, and while I may slag England off as a true son of Erin would, I am quite aware that it has a truly fascinating history, and it should actually be fun getting into the nuts and bolts of it. Naturally, at points the two journals are going to meet, and cross, and in that case, rather than rewrite what I've written in Four Green Fields already, I'll just refer or link to those entries. So events such as the Reformation, or at least, how it came about via Henry VIII, already well documented in the History of Ireland, will be noted but then linked; if there's more to say, as in, events that went beyond how they impacted Ireland, then I'll carry on the story in this journal. I'm sure you get what I mean.

But as I say, England has its own long and very rich history, and that does not by any means rely on Ireland and its oppression. In fact, for probably eighty percent of English history my country doesn't play a part, and that's fine. Linking into the history will be countries such as France, Spain and Holland - with whom England was all but perpetually at war - as well as Italy (Rome invaded England) and Scotland and Wales. Wait, I hear you say: aren't those part of Britain? Yes they are. And shouldn't this then, I hear you say again, be the History of Britain? Who do I look like, I ask: Simon Schama? No, though the history of England will invariably end up as that of Britain, I'm concentrating here on the English bit, as both Wales and Scotland have their own separate histories, and much of what happens in England doesn't really involve them. So it's the history of England, at least until the Kingdom of Great Britain comes to be, and there's a lot happened before then.

What to expect here? Well if you've read my History of Ireland journal you'll know. A timeline reflecting the greater (and lesser) events that went to make up the story of how England rose from being a tiny little insignificant island to being one of the biggest and baddest powers in the world, at least up until about World War II, when America pushed her aside and said "It's all right, honey, we'll take it from here." Kings and queens, England has had more than you can shake a sceptre at, many of whom didn't do a lot, many of whom are unforgettable, both in the history of England and that of the world, or at least Europe. We'll be looking at them all. Battles? You want battles? We got battles. One thing England did better than almost anyone else in the world was pick fights. It seemed, at times (and may in fact have been) that they just got bored and wanted a war, or, to put it in the words of Captain Edmund Blackadder, it was just too much trouble not to have a war.

The English navy, or Royal Navy, grew to be the terror of the high seas, and was, almost single-handedly, responsible for the growth of England from an unregarded bit of land floating in the Atlantic Ocean to a force to be reckoned with, an empire on which it was said the sun never set, though of course eventually it did. The Royal Air Force alone kept the skies over Britain free of Nazi fighters and ensured Hitler would not be having tea in Windsor Castle any time soon, something for which I think nobody can deny we owe them a huge debt of gratitude. English artists, architects, musicians and writers spread His or Her Majesty's fame far and wide, and of course they gave us names like Wren, Constable, Wellington, Nelson, Shakespeare and Dickens, to name but a very few. Speaking of Dickens, they were also one of the most inhumanly cruel people the world ever saw, at least when it came to the poor, who were treated almost worse than the slaves from Africa were by Americans.

As in all histories, there is good and there is bad, and unless history has already done so, I will try not to make judgements. I do have a bias against the English, merely by virtue of being Irish, my ancestors have suffered so much under them, but I don't intend to let that influence or interfere with my chronicling their history here. I will try, as I always do, to be as even-handed as possible. And as in all histories too, it would be impossible to relate every event and talk about every character who featured in the story of England, but I will try to ensure nothing important is left out, while also trying to dig a little behind the scenes as it were and talk about some of the lesser figures we may not know about, but who may be important to English history.

There will not be, however, a rousing or otherwise chorus of "God Save the Queen". I have to draw the line somewhere.

All right then. Let's get started, shall we?

Part One: Albion Rising -
In Fire and Blood, a Nation is Forged

Chapter I: Ruled Britannia: The First Conquest of Britain

Timeline: Approx 6,000 BC - 87 AD

There are certain sectors of English society who believe, rather naively or perhaps in a pig-headed way, that they are "true" Englishmen, original inhabitants of England, proper English and the only pure English. They are, of course, wrong; as is the case with just about any country, the original population are long gone, destroyed or gone extinct, they have vanished into the mists of time with often very little to mark their passing. I mentioned in my History of Ireland journal that even the Celts, seen by many as the original Irish, are not the first to have lived on the island, and so it is with the English*. Although the island (not an island at the time, as I'll explain in a moment) has been occupied for about a million years, in common with every other habitation of humanity we have no written records to go on, and must glean the scant details of these disappeared civilisations through the artefacts and structures they left behind.

With stone tools and footprints thought to date back 900,000 years on the Norfolk Coast, this makes that area the oldest known part of England to have been inhabited by humans, Sussex providing the oldest human fossils (about 500,000 years old) and Neanderthal fossils found in Kent which date back 400,000 years, it's clear England was occupied long before human history began being recorded, and this is probably, almost certainly, true of any country you look at. Possibly fleeing from advancing ice and rising seas, for about 120,000 years England was unoccupied by humans, with Neanderthals coming back about 40,000 years ago but only lasting a mere 20,000 years before becoming extinct. With the end of the last ice age, about 11,700 years ago (ah I remember it as if it were only yesterday!) modern humans, or Homo Sapiens, repopulated England and have remained ever since.

For a long time, as alluded to a short while ago, England and indeed Ireland were connected to the mainland of Europe by a chalk ridge known as the Weald-Artois Anticline, which ran from southeast England to southern France, but rising sea levels as ice sheets melted and glaciers retreated, about 425,000 years ago, swamped the bridge and no longer made it possible for Englishmen to pop over to France by way of Shank's mare. In place of the Weald-Artois Anticline was the English Channel, and as this now made of England an island, it was effectively cut off from the technological and cultural advances taking place in Europe at the time. Paul Pettitt and Mark White writing about Britain call it, rather fatalistically and quite dramatically, an island of the living dead.

* Note: though much of this concerns the history of Britain as an island, I'm mostly going to refer to the inhabitants as English where I can, as I want to differentiate them from the Scottish and the Welsh, with whom this history is not concerned. Initially though, they're all going to be called the Britons, because, well, that's what they were called back then.

Pytheas of Massalia (fl 310 - 306 BC)

The first written records of England come from the Greek navigator Pytheas, covered in my World Exploration journal, from which I'm going to shamelessly paste the article concerning him.

Pytheas is said to have travelled south to Spain and Portugal, and thence across to Britain and Ireland, becoming perhaps the first one to use the word "Britain" for the island country. His impressions of the British seem to indicate that he found the land cold and wet (quelle surprise!) which to a native of France would be quite a shock, that the people lived in thatched cottages and were ruled by many kings - another odd thing to a democratic Greek - but were at heart a simple people who lived in peace with each other. When they did war, he says, they rode in chariots just like his own people.
(From The Men Who Drew the Map of the World)

The origin of the word Britain is disputed, but seems to have been coined by Pytheas (or at least, he seems to have been the first to use it) to denote a "people of forms", meaning that the British understood and used pictures and shapes, as they tended to tattoo their bodies for war or decoration. He described three "corners of Britain", these translating as Kent, Orkney and Cornwall. By this point the English are already what could be called civilised, as engaging in commerce. They make tin ingots and sell them in France and other countries, and as they have to deal with buyers Pytheas says they are quite approachable.

There's probably a lot more to be said about Neolithic Britons, but who cares about them? They couldn't even be bothered to leave us any written record, so fuck them. The next period therefore in which we're interested in some thousands of years later.

Settling Down (200 BC - 43 AD)

Expansion by the Roman Empire forced refugees from Gaul to migrate towards England, and probably Ireland too, bringing with them their Celtic language and customs, and also sophistication to the English way of life, Kent, Hertfordshire and Essex becoming the centre of the pottery trade around 175 BC, with iron bars replacing, um, whatever they had been using as currency up to that from about 100 BC.

What's quite interesting about this is that unlike we Irish, who knocked seven bells out of the original Celts and then snaffled their country (Go Tuatha!) England does not seem to have proceeded along the same lines at all, with their peoples moving to and from Britain as it got  colder or harder to live there, and returning when the weather or the living conditions improved. Nobody seems to have kicked anything out of anyone, and really, for a country that ended up being the bully of the world for a very long time, the top dog and the one all others would bow and scrape to (while secretly plotting their overthrow beneath the doffed cap, so to speak) that's quite remarkable. So other than the likes of Neanderthals and so on going extinct, there was no major shift as to who controlled England. Makes us like the aggressive ones!

As temperatures began to rise and weather improve around about 5,000 – 6,000 BC, the hunter-gatherer population began to settle down a little more, and some animals, like the dog, were domesticated. DNA in human remains seems to indicate the migration of people from what would become Finland and Estonia, as well as other European countries, so it could possibly be said that the first real Englishmen were in fact what are now considered by certain sectors of their society as "foreigners". Take that, English Defence League! Around 4,500 BC the idea of farming and raising crops seems to have been considered a good one, and more settling down occurred as the woodlands grew and hunting became more difficult. In fact, a program of extensive deforestation began around 4,300 BC to provide more land for crops and farming.

The original inhabitants of Britain were soon supplanted by what were known as the Beaker people. No, not them! These people came from all over Europe, and are so-called due to their creation of and usage of the inverted bell-shaped beaker which became prevalent everywhere. I don't know, but I presume the precursor to that was a normal tumbler-style thing? Not sure, but anyway this is the reason they were called that, and by about 2400 BC they had more or less taken over Britain. They were able to exploit the vast reserves of tin in England, especially in Cornwall and Devon, and this provided them something to trade with other countries, and a form of commerce began.

Evidence of a certain belief in some sort of religion began around 2,500 BC – 2.000 BC, when huge stone monuments, burial chambers and possibly sites of religious worship, began to appear all over Britain. The most famous of these of course is Stonehenge, still a popular attraction in England today. Nobody has ever been able to work out definitively what Stonehenge was intended for - some say burial mounts, some say a place of worship, others say something to do with astronomy or even a place to gather at certain times such as the Summer and Winter Solstice (June and December 21 respectively). In addition to burying their dead the Britons also cremated them, with the urns then buried in cemeteries.

Manufacturing processes were changing too. From around 2150 BC British people learned to smelt copper and then bronze, heralding the arrival of what is known as the Bronze Age in Britain. As the previous age, the Stone Age, receded then, bronze became the go-to material, replacing stone in things such as weapons and tools until about 750 BC, when this great new thing was imported from Europe. They called it iron, and it was even stronger than bronze, making better weapons and better agricultural implements, and so improving the lives of the Britons and ushering in (say it with me) the Iron Age. This saw the organisation of people into clans headed by chieftains, and almost by default, the first proper wars between tribes.

They would soon have a new and powerful enemy to fight though, and would have to band together and forget old enmities, or perish under the onslaught of the greatest empire the world had ever seen.

Romans go home (55 BC - 43 AD)
One man, of course, would make it his business to attempt to bring Britain to heel, and he was perhaps the most famous of all the Roman emperors. It is pretty amazing to hear that Romans feared the area in which Britain was said to lie, the island existing, as it was seen at the time, on the edge of the known world. It's even more intriguing to find there were Romans who refused to believe Britain existed at all! Fake News, huh, in the Empire! Nevertheless, news of Britain's vast stores of tin (very much a coveted item in those times, it seems) had reached the empire, and so they naturally assumed they could just go and take it.

And they did.

Well, they tried.

I'm not going to run a profile of Julius Caesar, as I don't think it's warranted. Anyone who doesn't know him or of him, or know something about him clearly has not been paying attention, or has been holidaying on Alpha Squiggle IX for most of their lives. I hear it's lovely there. But back down here on Earth, I might as well try to tell you about Hitler (which I do, in my World War II journal, but that's different). So suffice to say we won't be going too deeply into Caesar's biography.

Part of the reason for invading Britain seems to have been a matter of revenge, as the Britons had supported the Gauls in their war against the Roman general, and as already noted, some of the refugees from that defeat had fled to the shores of Britain to escape the advancing Roman hordes. Caesar landed in Britain in 55 BC but did not have things his own way, the capricious English weather proving as much an enemy to him as the Britons, swamping his low-built ships and driving them against each other, wrecking some. In essence, Caesar's first attempt at subduing the Britons failed miserably, on just about every level, but with his usual talent for turning potentially bad press about him to good (in other words, Julius Caesar was as good a propagandist as Goebbels, if not better) he claimed victory in having successfully sailed "beyond the known world" and come back alive. The Senate agreed, and ordered a twenty-day holiday of thanksgiving in his honour. It wasn't quite the triumph he had hoped for, but it was a good result for him that papered over the cracks in his campaign, and ignored the fact that he had utterly failed in his objective.

He would not, of course, leave it at that.

The next year, armed with his experience of England and with better-built boats (and also with hundreds of allies, traders who were willing to shift loyalties in return for the chance of earning more than a few sesterces) Caesar was back. This time, whether due to the size of the fleet or as a delaying tactic while they prepared defences, the Britons did not oppose him, and the legions marched inland, where they met a British force in Kent. These guys did offer opposition, but to no avail. Rather oddly, it seems our man Julius had not taken on board (sorry) all the lessons he had learned in the previous year's campaign, as once again the high tides and wild winds that plagued the English coast damaged his ships, and he had to return to oversee their repair. Having done so, he returned to Kent, where he met his first real challenge.


If we want to frame it in such terms, seeing Caesar as Hitler, trying to advance across England as Der Fuhrer swept across Europe in 1939, then it would seem that Cassivelaunus was the equivalent of perhaps Churchill, or maybe Montgomery. He was the one who marshalled all the English tribes together to resist Caesar, realising that no one clan could hope to defeat him alone. However, such alliances have always been fragile and hard to hold together, and given that Cassivelaunus had defeated the king of the Trilobites, sorry Trinovantes, and caused his son Mind Your Braces sorry Mandubracius to flee to Gaul to seek Caesar's aid in regaining his father's kingdom, well, you can see where this is going, can't you?

As almost always happens in history, and as we've certainly seen happen time and time again in Irish history, the deposed and vanquished look to a foreign power to restore them to their throne, in return for which they will sell out their countrymen. And so it was with Mandubracius, who revealed the location of Cassivelaunus's stronghold, which was then put under siege by Caesar. Although he fought well, and enlisted four other kings to his cause, Cassivelaunus had to surrender, and Mandubracius was crowned king of the Trinovantes, his erstwhile enemy having had to undertake not to engage in war against him. With things wrapped up and unrest simmering back in good old Gaul, Julius Caesar once again bad farewell to the shores of old Blighty and left for friendlier climes.

An interesting point to note here is that, until he beheld them being used in Britain, Caesar had never seen chariots used in war, in fact no Roman had, and the intelligence of these he brought back to the empire surely set in motion their own love affair with the things, which in turn must have been of great assistance to them in winning future battles and wars. He notes, with obvious deep interest, "Their mode of fighting with their chariots is this: firstly, they drive about in all directions and throw their weapons and generally break the ranks of the enemy with the very dread of their horses and the noise of their wheels; and when they have worked themselves in between the troops of horse, leap from their chariots and engage on foot. The charioteers in the meantime withdraw some little distance from the battle, and so place themselves with the chariots that, if their masters are overpowered by the number of the enemy, they may have a ready retreat to their own troops. Thus they display in battle the speed of horse, [together with] the firmness of infantry; and by daily practice and exercise attain to such expertness that they are accustomed, even on a declining and steep place, to check their horses at full speed, and manage and turn them in an instant and run along the pole, and stand on the yoke, and thence betake themselves with the greatest celerity to their chariots again."

He also reported back on other aspects of Britain, such as the geographical layout (such of it as he got to see anyway) and the climate: "The climate is more temperate than in Gaul, the colds being less severe. The island is triangular in its form, and one of its sides is opposite to Gaul. One angle of this side, which is in Kent, whither almost all ships from Gaul are directed, [looks] to the east; the lower looks to the south. This side extends about 500 miles. Another side lies toward Hispania and the west, on which part is Ireland, less, as is reckoned, than Britain, by one half: but the passage from it into Britain is of equal distance with that from Gaul. In the middle of this voyage, is an island, which is called Mona: many smaller islands besides are supposed to lie there, of which islands some have written that at the time of the winter solstice it is night there for thirty consecutive days. We, in our inquiries about that matter, ascertained nothing, except that, by accurate measurements with water, we perceived the nights to be shorter there than on the continent. The length of this side, as their account states, is 700 miles. The third side is toward the north, to which portion of the island no land is opposite; but an angle of that side looks principally toward Germany. This side is considered to be 800 miles in length. Thus the whole island is about 2,000 miles in circumference."

He had things to say too about the people: "The interior portion of Britain is inhabited by those of whom they say that it is handed down by tradition that they were born in the island itself: the maritime portion by those who had passed over from the country of the Belgae for the purpose of plunder and making war; almost all of whom are called by the names of those states from which being sprung they went thither, and having waged war, continued there and began to cultivate the lands. The number of the people is countless, and their buildings exceedingly numerous, for the most part very like those of the Gauls... They do not regard it lawful to eat the hare, and the cock, and the goose; they, however, breed them for amusement and pleasure.

The most civilised of all these nations are they who inhabit Kent, which is entirely a maritime district, nor do they differ much from the Gallic customs. Most of the inland inhabitants do not sow corn, but live on milk and flesh, and are clad with skins. All the Britons, indeed, dye themselves with woad, which occasions a bluish colour, and thereby have a more terrible appearance in fight. They wear their hair long, and have every part of their body shaved except their head and upper lip. Ten and even twelve have wives common to them, and particularly brothers among brothers, and parents among their children; but if there be any issue by these wives, they are reputed to be the children of those by whom respectively each was first espoused when a virgin."

Shipbuilding: "[T]he keels and ribs were made of light timber, then, the rest of the hull of the ships was wrought with wicker work, and covered over with hides."

Religion: "The institution [of Druidism] is thought to have originated in Britain, and to have been thence introduced into Gaul; and even now those who wish to become more accurately acquainted with it, generally repair thither, for the sake of learning it."

And resources: "[T]he number of cattle is great. They use either brass or iron rings, determined at a certain weight, as their money. Tin is produced in the midland regions; in the maritime, iron; but the quantity of it is small: they employ brass, which is imported. There, as in Gaul, is timber of every description, except beech and fir."

For all his bluster however, the greatest general the world had ever seen since Alexander the Great proved unable to subdue Britain, leaving without so much as a Roman garrison in place, although he did sponsor two separate kings to rule over Britain, and in that way made it part of the Roman Empire, if in name only. It would be almost another century before Rome would try again to take on this mysterious land beyond the known limits of the world.

The British would probably have been conquered by helpless laughter alone, had they seen the so-called preparations for war laid by the unhinged emperor Caligula, who lined his troops up at the sea facing in the direction of Britain and ordered them, without prejudice and without mercy or quarter, on pain of death to... gather seashells! Yeah, well, the guy was a nut, we all know that. You only have to read a little history to see what he was like, or if you prefer to give my Serial Killers journal a look... Oh well, coming soon.

The next, proper invasion would be prosecuted by, again, one of the greatest Roman emperors ever known, and here's a clue as to its success or failure: it's gone down in history as the Claudian conquest of Britain.

It's one thing to set up client - which is to say, puppet - rulers in another country, but unless you have a way of reinforcing your wishes (in other words, unless you have an actual force that will ensure they're carried out) there's nothing to stop your new king being deposed by another who seizes power.

And that's exactly what happened once Julius Caesar left Britain. Wars broke out - or, I should probably say, resumed, as the Britons had been at war with each other for yonks, only ostensibly joining forces to oppose the invader - and our man Mandy Brunches sorry Mandubracius was unceremoniously (or perhaps with great ceremony; it amounted to the same thing) kicked off the throne of Britain, the throne basically given to him by Rome, and another chieftain, Cataractus sorry Caracatus had taken his place.

The problem here for Rome was not the deposing of Mandubracius; his tribe had already fallen out of favour with the empire for the heinous sin of allowing a stronger enemy to defeat and supplant him, and they left him to his fate. What they did not take kindly to was that chieftain ignoring the edict of Rome, which held that Verica, of the Mastur - sorry Atrebates clan was the officially sanctioned ruler of Britain, and taking the throne for himself, in the process exiling poor old Verica. Who, as had his predecessor, went crying to the emperor, demanding his throne back.

With the supposed intention of reasserting the claim to the throne of Verica,  Claudius set sail in 43 AD for the shores of merry old England, to have a frank exchange of views and see if they couldn't sort this out over tea and crumpets. Possibly.

Now it wasn't just a case of taking their lands and resources due to the Hillary principle, ie because it was there. No, now it was personal. Caratacus had given the finger to the world's mightiest empire, and the world's mightiest empire did not take that sort of insult lying down.


Probably one of the first great leaders of the Britons, and given how he stood up to Claudius, possibly one of their first real heroes. Caratacus was a member, and later leader of the Catavellauni, one of the two most powerful and respected tribes in Britain at that time. He was a prince, son of the king Cunobelinus, taken under the wing of his uncle Epaticcus, who was responsible for expanding the territory of the Catavellauni as far as that of their rivals, the Atebates, whose leader, Verica, as already explained, had been chosen by Rome as king.

That didn't matter a red deer's jawbone to Epaticcus though, and after his death in 35 AD his protege carried on his work, eventually defeating the Atebates, exiling their king and setting himself up as ruler of Britain. After Claudius invaded Caratacus had enough sense to see that the only way to deal with the Roman legions was with guerilla warfare, and in this he was quite successful. For a time. But unlike Julius Caesar ninety years ago, Claudius had come to Britain with the very definite intention of conquering it, and to that end brought with him three legions, as well as other allies, so Caratacus would have been well outnumbered and would not have stood a chance in open, direct combat with the battle-hardened and well-armed and armoured Roman legionnaires.

Not surprisingly, Caratacus's stronghold at Camulodunon - where the city of Colchester now stands - became the focus of the Roman efforts, and he and his brother fought but lost two major battles, the Battle of the River Medway (no I said MEDway) and the Battle of the River Thames, where his brother was killed.

Caratacus could only hold out so long, and eventually he was defeated and fled to Wales, where he took up the fight again, but when his wife and daughter were captured by the Romans and his other brothers surrendered, Caratacus legged it to Yorkshire (then called Brigantes) seeking sanctuary there with its ruler, Queen Cartman I mean Cartimandua. She, however, betrayed and sold him out and he went back to Rome in chains.

Sentenced to death, he earned himself an unlikely reprieve due to the eloquence of his speech, which he made before the Senate, proving, perhaps surprisingly to them, that he, and indeed all Britons, might not be the unprincipled, ignorant barbarians they had been told they were. Caratacus was allowed to live in peace in Rome, and marvelling at its wealth and opulence, wondered why such people would covet a crappy land like Britain?

Not on your nelly! Living engines of war

If, when Julius Caesar had first visited Britain, Romans had never before seen chariots being used in war, they were able to repay the compliment by bringing as part of their invasion force something no Briton had ever laid eyes on: elephants. And not just any elephants (though the mere sight of the beasts was enough to send the Britons into a panicked rout) - war elephants. Elephants armoured for war, carrying men on their backs who fired spears down from their great height advantage. This was enough to force the surrender of most of the tribes of southeast Britain, and the conquest continued apace.

By 47 AD there was a Roman governor of Britain, Publius Ostorius Scapula, and he launched an invasion of Wales. The Welsh, however, proved harder to conquer than the English, and Claudius decided to leave them to it. What, after all, was there of worth in Wales? Nero, when he came to the throne, thought differently, and consequently many Welsh druids were killed when he had the new governor, Quintus Veranius, invade Anglesey. He was almost directly responsible for the creation and rise of one of Britain's first true legendary figures, and as you might expect, she was a woman.

Wait, what?

Boudica (died c. 60/61 AD)

Boudica's story is that of one woman being pushed way, way too far, and an arrogant, overbearing occupier who believed he was invincible, had no reason to fear a mere female, and acted accordingly. It is surely also one of regret for Rome, partial triumph for Britain and a legend for the ages. Boudica did not start out as a rebel, far from it. She and her husband had signed treaties with Claudius during the conquest of Britain in 43 AD and had remained loyal to his successor, Nero. In fact, her husband, Prasutagus, was such an arselick that when he died he left half of his kingdom to his two daughters, and the other half to Nero. I suppose it's expensive running an empire, and every little sesterce helps.

Nero however didn't see it this way, and sent his emissary to take the lot. When Boudica protested that these were not the terms of her late husband's will, said functionary is reported probably not to have said, "are you calling the emperor a liar? That's treason, that is!" and proceeded to have her whipped. Humiliating enough, you would think, for a woman who was now queen of the Iceni tribe, and for someone who had thrown in her lot with the very people who were now abusing her. But no, apparently it was not enough. Spotting Boudica's two daughters, the unnamed centurion directed his men to rape them, which they did. In the final analysis, and understandably, this would have been the last straw. It would lead to the first proper revolt in Britain under Roman rule.

Waking the Lion: the Revolt of Boudica

"'But now, it is not as a woman descended from noble ancestry, but as one of the people that I am avenging lost freedom, my scourged body, the outraged chastity of my daughters. Roman lust has gone so far that not our very persons, nor even age or virginity, are left unpolluted. But heaven is on the side of a righteous vengeance; a legion which dared to fight has perished; the rest are hiding themselves in their camp, or are thinking anxiously of flight. They will not sustain even the din and the shout of so many thousands, much less our charge and our blows. If you weigh well the strength of the armies, and the causes of the war, you will see that in this battle you must conquer or die. This is a woman's resolve; as for men, they may live and be slaves."

I've said it in the History of Ireland journal, and it holds true for most peoples: you can only push them so far, and if you think a populace is so beaten into submission that you can ride roughshod (perhaps literally) over them, then all I can say is you have not been reading your history, my son, and you had better sleep lightly, because when you least expect it, when you feel at your most secure and are at your most arrogant, that's when they'll come for you.

Believing the Britons no threat (he had, after all, subdued their entire island) Nero was surely taken by surprise by the uprising that broke out, and cost so many Roman lives. Gathering all the disaffected tribes to her - for she was not the only one with whom the empire had broken faith - she marched on Camulodunum, the Roman capital as already noted, modern-day Colchester.

Here many Roman veterans had retired, and the people there had been mistreated by them, forced to build a temple to Claudius at their own expense, so they were just in the mood to kick some Roman butt. All they needed was an impetus, which arrived in the form of Boudica and her allies. Laying siege to the town they took it easily, destroying a large bronze statue of Nero and knocking its head off, which Boudica took as a trophy.

The rebels scored another huge victory when a Roman legion, coming to relieve the town, was met by them and roundly defeated, leaving its few survivors to fly for their lives. On hearing of the comprehensive defeat, and of the fall of Camulodunum, Catus Deciamus, the Roman procurator decided Gaul was a much safer place to be, and departed English shores. With the rebels on the way, the governor, Gaiuis Seutonius Paulinus, decided to abandon Londinium (anyone?) and evacuated all his people from the city, everyone left behind tortured and slaughtered by the rebels when they arrived. Whether they discriminated between their own people and the Romans is not made clear. What is made clear, apparently, is that being a woman did not imbue in Boudica any pity or sympathy, or indeed weakness shown towards others of her sex.

The Roman historian Dio - that's Cassius, not Ronnie James! - tells us that the Britons were not taking prisoners, slaughtering, hanging, burning as they came, and that the noblest of the Roman women were impaled on spikes (that's a real pain in the arse. Sorry) and as if this wasn't enough, also had their breasts cut off and sewn to their mouths. Must have felt like right tits. And left tits. Okay, I'll stop now.

As, eventually, did Boudica, whose revolt was of course doomed to failure, if a glorious one. Once the Romans regrouped, there was no way a ragtag band of pretty much untrained and undisciplined barbarian warriors were going to get one over on the cream of the empire, and this was only going to end one way.

As ever in such battles, he who controls the terrain controls the battle, and from Scotland to Agincourt we've seen that strength in numbers can mean nothing if the territory is used to best advantage. Despite being outnumbered by Boudica's forces by a factor of, say some historians, twenty to one, others claim thirty to one, Suetonius had fought many a campaign whereas this was Boudica's first. Not a good time to be learning!

A seasoned soldier, though not of course a native of Britain, Suetonius selected a narrow gorge with a forest behind him opening out into a wide plain. The forest protected him from an attack from the rear while the gorge of course meant his forces could not be outflanked. In contrast to the well-armed and drilled legionnaires, Boudica's people were poorly armed, their tribes having been disarmed previously by Suetonius prior to their revolt. The Roman governor disdainfully told his men "Ignore the racket made by these savages. There are more women than men in their ranks. They are not soldiers—they're not even properly equipped. We've beaten them before and when they see our weapons and feel our spirit, they'll crack. Stick together. Throw the javelins, then push forward: knock them down with your shields and finish them off with your swords. Forget about plunder. Just win and you'll have everything."

It was a good speech, and in truth it seems that overconfidence was Boudica's undoing. The tribes even brought their families along and set them in wagons behind the battle lines, promising them a mighty victory they could enjoy. A real day out, huh? Except of course, it didn't quite turn out that way.

Perhaps naively, perhaps desperately, perhaps arrogantly, the warrior queen led her army in a frontal attack, playing right into Suetonius's hands. Javelins launched by the Romans at the Britons killed many and damaged the shields of others, forcing them to discard them and thereby leave themselves defenceless.

The legions attacked, and once their cavalry joined the melee it was all over for the Britons, who tried to flee but found their exit blocked by their own wagons. A mass slaughter ensued, as even the women, children and animals were butchered by the victorious Romans. Boudica herself is said to have taken poison rather than be captured.

A rather amusing side-note concerns a Roman centurion who was believed to have robbed his legion of a share in the triumph by not turning up for the battle and who fell on his own sword in disgrace. His name? Poenius Posthumus. :laughing:

Despite her defeat, Boudica is recognised as a true hero of Britain, an example of the fighting spirit and a role model for women in a time when they did little but support their men. Indeed, her revolt shocked Nero so deeply that he seriously considered pulling his forces out of Britain, but decided to let them remain, not wishing to lose face in front of the Senate. It would be another nine years before Britain would rise again in revolt, and this time it would be in the north.

Having defeated Boudica comprehensively and shown Britain that it was unwise to awaken the wrath of Rome, Suetonius pillaged the land around, carrying out reprisals against anyone suspected of having supported, agreed with or perhaps even heard of the warrior queen, or who he just didn't like the look of. His blood was up, and Nero decided so too was his time in Britain, the emperor removing him before he could do more harm than good, and provoke further rebellions. It was, however, a little late for that.

Rumblings in the North: the revolt of Venutius and Cartimandua

You'll remember the second name; she was the queen of the Brigantes who delivered up poor old Caratacus to his hated enemies when he went seeking shelter from her. So why did she and her husband turn against Rome? Well, apparently it was all down to marital strife. No, I said marital, not martial, though of course that figured in the deal too.

See, apparently Cartimandua had lost interest in her husband and had abandoned Venutius to go with, of all people, his armour bearer, a guy called John. well no actually he was called Vellocatus (didn't anyone in this age have a name without ten or twelve letters? Sounds like a very soft kitten, doesn't it?) Hey, at least she chose someone whose name began with the same letter, so that if she and Venutius had ever carved their names on the bark of a tree (or more likely, in the skull of some enemy) the sentiment would still stand. Anyway Venutius initially went to war against the old lady because she had set Vellocatus up on the throne that was his, you know, by right. The little woman was, however, well protected by her Roman masters, but Venutius wasn't having any of that.

History does not record their conversation but it's entirely unlikely he said "I'm not having any of that!" while she smiled sweetly and invited him "Come at me, hubby dear. I'll wipe you out," and that he responded "Oh yeah? You and what army?" and that she grinned and said "This one." Even if she had, this guy was no coward, or alternatively, thought only with his sword, and so might have snapped back "Think you can hide behind them? I'll do you, and your bloody Roman lapdogs!" And so he did. Or tried to.

To nobody's surprise - and no doubt his wife's delight - he was quickly beaten, but that was in the AD 50s, and by almost the time of the 70s he was ready again. This time the Romans weren't so quick to come to Cartimandua's rescue, being a trifle more concerned with matters at home. Nero had finally pissed off and died, having burned Rome almost to the ground before he went, and in that year, 69 AD, no less than four emperors came to the throne in quick succession, each gone almost before he could warm his arse on the seat. This, as you can imagine, caused great unrest and political turmoil in the empire, and Britain was not seen as a priority. Thus, when Venutius attacked his ex again, they really weren't that interested and thought best to leave them to it, no point getting involved in petty family squabbles.

In the end, all they could do was get Cartimandua out of England, and this left Venutius possibly beating his chest and standing on some high mountain roaring "YES! I am the BEST!" and according to some sources (all right: according to me) giving Rome what was traditionally referred to in Britain as the Finger.

They weren't going to stand for that.

And they didn't.

Now, you see, the problem here is that the only written accounts that we have left are those made by Roman historians such as Tacitus and Dio, and invariably, and unsurprisingly, these are written with a strong Roman bias. So mostly you get a version of "the brave Roman army pushed the barbarians back" and so forth, leaving us with little hard detail - indeed, any detail - about the nuts and bolts of the battles. But from these sources and archaeological finds it appears that Venutius was relatively easily beaten, though his people, the Brigantes, made life tough for the occupiers for the next few decades. The Scots, too, rose in revolt but that's another story, and one we're not concerned with here, though it does deserve a short mention.

So here it is.

Suffice to say, by around 87 AD Britain was more or less completely under Roman control, and for the first time the people of Britain felt what it was like to be under the heel of an oppressor. It wouldn't be the last time.

Mother Should I Build a Wall? Scotland Attacks

Although Britain as an island had been subdued by Rome, they certainly did not have it their own way, and rebellions and uprisings continued to break out for another eighty or so years. Much of this resistance to Roman rule came from the far north, the area they called Caledonia but which we know as Scotland. While the Scots - Picts, mostly, at the time - had no love for Britons (Englishmen) and there would be strife between the two for centuries (and even still is, to some extent) they weren't going to sit back and let this foreign power invade their homeland, and they fought fiercely, more savage and with more abandon than Romans had ever seen, even with the English. Although this journal isn't concerned with the history of Scotland, as such, it is impossible to imagine the eventual forced withdrawal of the Roman Empire from Britain without the constant attacks on them from there taking place.

This so concerned Rome that in 122 the new emperor, Hadrian, commissioned the building of a wall at the northern border, which would effectively provide a barrier between the "barbarians" and his people.

Hadrian's Wall, as it came to be rather unoriginally known, is still there today, stretching from Wallsend on the river Tyne to Bowness-on-Solway, more or less bisecting the island from west to east and cutting off Scotland from what is now England. Of course it's a ruin now, and a tourist attraction, but that any of it at all survived is testament to the prowess of Roman engineering and construction. The wall was, and remains, seventy-three miles long, and originally was said to have reached to twelve feet in height, though of course most of that has now fallen and it's much lower.

Hadrian's Wall marked the "boundary of the civilised part of Britannia" (as they came to call England) and the unconquered, barbarian, mostly unknown land of Caledonia, Scotland, though it is built entirely in England and does not form a true border between the two countries.

Of course, the wall was also a physical representation and reminder of the might of the Roman Empire in Britain. Its construction provided employment for thousands of soldiers who might otherwise have been idle and restless, and helped to control the flow of commerce, and people, through that part of the empire.

It wasn't just a wall though, being supplemented by a number of forts and milehouses along its length, staffed by Roman soldiers. It took six years and three legions - approximately 15,000 soldiers - to build. After three more emperors had unsuccessfully attempted to subdue the Scots, the last of them, Septimius Severus, withdrew to Hadrian's Wall around 211 and it became the northernmost border of the Roman Empire in Britain. Even so, Picts breached it in 180, killing the commanding officer. Roman soldiers and officers were beginning to resent being in Britain, and a withdrawal was on the cards as events further afield began to occupy the empire's attention.

But first...

(Note: I have no idea if this is a real flag that was used or not, but it's pretty damn cool, isn't it?)

The Britannic Empire (286 - 296)

There were two things every man needed to possess in order to progress, even survive, in the Roman Empire, and those were ambition and a sense of ruthlessness. If you were squeamish, if you were weak, if you were idle or just not prepared to do what needed to be done, you didn't last long. Most of the emperors had risen to power by one of two means: bribery or murder, often both. Even when there was a clear line of succession to the throne, a prospective claimant could be unseated or even prevented ascending if his enemies - often from within his own family - were powerful or rich enough, or had enough support to oppose him. Thus, while Greece was the world's first democracy, Rome was anything but, and the men who sat on the throne were forever restive, anticipating - sometimes with cause, sometimes without - a challenge to their reign.

It was enough to drive you mad. And some emperors did indeed descend into madness, such as Nero and Caligula, and surely others too. But then again, it could be seen perhaps as a good thing that, unlike the line of royal succession a millennium later in England, in effect any Roman could rise to be emperor, somewhat like the American presidency. Of course, he usually had to be from the right background, but theoretically, once enough money had crossed enough palms or enough knives had been sunk into enough backs, the way was often clear for a man to take power who should, and often did, have no such claim to the throne.

Thus it was with Marcus Aurelius Mausaeus Carausius, who was a commoner who had clawed his way up the ranks of the Roman military and was given command of keeping the seas around France clear of Saxon and Frankish raiders. However accusations that he was in fact in league with the pirates, that he allowed them to loot and then they paid him a percentage, in a sort of perhaps ancient foreshadowing of the Mafia, led to the order being given for his execution by the then-emperor, Maximian. In response, Carausius declared himself "Emperor in the North" (shades of Game of Thrones, huh?) and with the fleet at his command he was able to back this up. Maximian sent a force to take back Britain from him in 288 or 289 but suffered a defeat, and Carausius remained emperor of that part of the world.

He also made alliances with the natives, who were at this point weary of Roman rule, and set himself up as Restitutor Britanniae (Restorer of Britain) and Genius Britanniae (Spirit of Britain). In this way he presumably hoped to show or prove that he was the great liberator who would release Britain from the yoke of its longtime oppressor, and allow them some form of autonomy. Whether he had any intention of doing this or not is unknown, but he needed the support of the Britons and, like most Romans, was ready to say what was needed. He could always go back on his word later.

He therefore set up what became known as the Britannic Empire, which was not to last long, with the end beginning in 293, when the emperor Constantius Chlorus cut Carausius off from his Gaul allies by besieging the port of Gesoriacum, modern Boulougne-sur-Mer, and invading Batavia. After seven years in power, Carausius fell victim to the favourite Roman pastime, assassinate-my-leader, when his treasurer, Allectus, did just that, taking the title of emperor for himself. He was not to hold it long, as an invasion fleet arrived in 296, quickly routing his army and once again Londinium was the scene of a massacre. The Britannic Empire had lasted ten short years, and direct Roman rule was once again established over the island.

Barbarians at the Gates: The End of Roman Rule in Britain, and the Beginning of the Fall of the Roman Empire

I'm sure that, to someone living at the time, especially those living under Roman rule, it must have seemed completely inconceivable that this mighty empire could ever fall, but as history tells us, nothing lasts forever, and while Rome may not have been built in a day, for an empire that had lasted a thousand years she certainly fell within a couple of hundred. Incursions by German (Teutonic) tribes such as the Goths and the Visigoths and the Franks proved too strong for the empire to resist, perhaps as a result of being spread too thin, or perhaps due to internal politics or bad management, or arrogance and overconfidence, or bad strategy. I'm sure scholars have many reasons why Rome fell, but the barbarians didn't care why, they just intended it should.

And it would.

Certainly, internal power struggles which often erupted into civil war did not help the cause of the Romans, and to some degree the Visigoths and their allies had only to sit back and watch the greatest empire the world had ever known tear itself apart, though of course they made sure they did some of the tearing themselves. As the situation became increasingly desperate for Rome, they began to consolidate their forces to defend the empire against the encroaching hordes, and this meant that Britain became less a priority, as troops were shipped back home to assist in the defence of the motherland.

By about 383 the north and west of Britain had been cleared of any Roman presence, and around 407 Constantine III took what troops remained from Britain to aid in the defence of Rome (or actually, to try to set himself up as emperor), but neither he nor the currently-serving emperor, Honarius, could prevent the Visigoths breaking through and Rome was sacked in 410, effectively bringing to an end the mighty Roman Empire.

Chapter II: Dying Groans, Birthing Cries - A Nation is Born

Timeline: 446 - 770

After the end of the Roman Empire Britain entered the medieval age, the Britons once again faced attack from the north, from the Picts, and appealed to the emperor for help, in a letter which has been recorded by history as "The Groans of the Britons", but he was rather busy fending off barbarians. Historians argue (as they invariably do) over what was in the letter, and what was the reply, if any, but a part of it seems to have been this:

To Agitius [or Aetius], thrice consul: the groans of the Britons. [...] The barbarians drive us to the sea, the sea drives us to the barbarians; between these two means of death, we are either killed or drowned.

The message is believed to have been sent between 446 - 454, and when it was not responded to (or was, but not favourably; at any rate, when no assistance was sent) the Britons battled, were invaded by and eventually defeated by German troops from the region of Saxony, known as Saxons. On their settlement of Britain, and in order to distinguish the new inhabitants from their German cousins, the new race were called Anglo-Saxons, as some had come from Anglia (not to be confused with the later English county) on the border between Denmark and Germany.

Saxon Violence: The Second Conquest of Britain

Though Hitler failed in his attempt to conquer, or even invade England, Germans did succeed, albeit fifteen hundred years before the dictator was even born. As you might expect, with the withdrawal of Roman troops and the end of Roman rule, Britain descended into a kind of anarchy, with kings elected who had no interest in anything other than keeping power, ignoring the suffering of their people as famine gripped the land. According to the British monk Gildas:  "Britain has kings but they are tyrants; she has judges but they are wicked; they plunder and terrorise the innocent, they defend and protect the guilty and thieving, they have many wives, whores and adulteresses, swear false oaths, tell lies, reward thieves, sit with murderous men, despise the humble, their commanders are 'enemies of God'"; the list is long. Oath breaking and the absence of just judgements for ordinary people were mentioned a number of times. British leadership, everywhere, was immoral and the cause of the "ruin of Britain."

Into this chaos came the Saxons, and they were determined to put their stamp on the country, and as the English were to prove, to a degree, centuries later in Ireland, one way to do that was to destroy the culture and traditions of the people you are trying to supplant. A very effective way of doing that, in turn, is by abolishing their native tongue and substituting your own.

You're Speaking my Language! The Decline of the Celtic Tongue in Britain

Up until about 400, most people in what was then Britain spoke the Celtic language, their own version which was called Brittonic. When the Saxons arrived they spoke German, which in time would metamorphose into Old English, and become the dominant language in the country. A form of British Latin had also been spoken, which is not surprising, as if nothing else, constant hassle by Roman soldiers and governors and functionaries would have meant that the Britons would have picked up at least some sense of the language of the occupiers, and that in some places, perhaps even merely as an expedient so that one could understand the other and avoid unfortunate incidents (what is the Latin for "Your mother hangs around with sailors" anyway?) it may have been adopted as the dominant language. It's also possible that it may have been forced upon the populace, as it's hard to give orders if the people you're talking to don't understand what you're saying.

However, with the decline of the Roman Empire and the withdrawal of Roman troops, and the end of Roman rule in Britain this became less and less popular and eventually faded out altogether. The later establishment of the Christian Church in England would have prompted a revival, or resurgence of Latin, and hastened the death of the Celtic language, its final death-throes occurring when the Saxons arrived. I've always wondered why Old English bears little or no resemblance to modern English, and now I know: it's essentially German. The other three countries in, as it were, the British Isles continued to retain the Celtic languages, and even today Wales and Scotland speak their own tongue (the latter a sort of bastardisation of the English one) and of course Ireland was eventually driven so far under the English boot that all but the most rural and western areas now speak English.

What's it worth to ya mate? Buying national identity

Might seem strange indeed, but it appears that one theory advanced for the success of the Anglo-Saxon takeover of Britain points to the possibility of people being technically bribed, or if you prefer, incentivised to change their allegiance. The question has often been asked, down through the ages, what price a man's life? Hell, Jesus is even reputed to have said "what shall it proft a man if he gain the whole world but lose his soul?" Well, according to the ancient system of personal value practiced by the Saxons, that all depended on how rich or important you were.

The weregild was not, as you might at first think, an exclusive club for those of a lycantrhopic bent, but was in fact the established "man price", which was levied on every man in the kingdom. This meant that, should someone be killed and his family seek restitution, there was a ready-made scale by which to award compensation. Another story goes - I can't remember from where - that a man is asked to tell a king, to a penny, what is he worth? Obviously not using the weregild system, he replies that Jesus was sold for thirty pieces of gold, so a king - who could not, and should not, put himself on the same level as our Saviour - would be worth twenty-nine. All very well reasoned, but in reality, the Saxon system had a king valued at thirty thousand pieces of gold, or thrymsa, as they were called in sixth century Saxony, with an archbishop half that, and a bishop slightly more than half that (8,000) all the way down to the common men, where a "prospering" peasant was only worth 2,000 and a non-prospering Welshman a snip at only 80 shillings.

This system, then, the theory goes, may have been used to attract Britons to foreswear their Britishness and become instead Anglo-Saxons, by which they increased their weregild by one hundred percent, an Anglo-Saxon man being worth twice as much as a Briton. This naturally increased their social status; if you're worth more, then you must be better, so why are you clinging to those old ties to Britain when you could be like us, living it up as an Anglo-Saxon? Not to mention that I'm sure those who did not "climb up" were then looked down upon by those who had. Kind of reminds me of the Protestant Ascendancy, though without the cash incentive. Or, indeed, any chance to rise in the ranks.

Those who just did not want to, as it were, take the king's shilling (see my History of Ireland journal under Oliver Cromwell) may have emigrated, most of them moving to Brittany in France, originally called, believe it or not, Armorica (but not the united states of) and changed to reflect the influx of Britons. No doubt there were plenty of wars, skirmishes, forced resettlements and good old fashioned plague (always a reliable source for cutting down populations) too, but one way or another by about the sixth to eighth century the Anglo-Saxons were well in control of Britain, or at least the part that would become England.

Emergence of a Kingdom: From Britannia to England

It was under the Anglo-Saxons that England was born, as various chieftains claimed areas of the country and renamed them, giving rise to the first English kingdoms, the names of many of which survive today in English counties.

The Kingdom of Kent

It might be hard for English people to contemplate a small, market county like the so-called "Garden of England" forming the first proper post-Roman settlement in the country, but it is said to have been the first real English kingdom. Settled by two of the very first Saxon chieftains, Hengist and Horsa, two brothers who, finding their native Germany a little overrun with warlords and would-be kings, answered the call in 449 or 450 from Britain for assistance against the marauding Picts and Scots. Warriors born, the Saxons were easily able to defeat the northern invaders, bringing 1,600 men with them. This however turned out to be a two-edged sword, and the Britons soon had reason to regret having sought help from abroad.

The Picts and Scots had been so easy to defeat, and yet the Britons so unable to fight them before the arrival of the Saxons, that Hengist and Horsa looked at each other, looked at England, nodded and said "We'll have some of that" and proceeded to relay details of how puny and ripe for conquest these Britons were. So in the event, Britain swapped one occupying force for another, and the Saxons came over in their droves. They were clever though, careful not to reveal their true intentions at once; coming as saviours, defenders, paid mercenaries to protect the Britons from the wild Scots, they quickly found a way to quarrel with their erstwhile allies, claiming they had not been paid, and made alliances with the far more warlike Picts and Scots, joining them in oppression of the Britons.


The man who had inadvertently opened the door to invaders was the so-called King of Britain, Vortigern. He does not seem to have been overly popular, accused of incest - he is said to have had a son by his own daughter - faithlessness (though that might be due to his being essentially tricked by Hengist and Horsa) and, well, unlucky, which would be for the same reason I assume. He is linked to the myth of Dinas Emrys, recounted in another of my journals, which states that when a great lord (presumably meant to be him) wished to build his castle at this rocky hillock but it kept collapsing, Merlin (yeah, that's how much we can rely on this tale - a fictional wizard. But it gets better...) advised him to have the foundations excavated, and they found two dragons asleep there, one red, one white. When the dragons were disturbed from their sleep they fought, the white triumphing, showing that England, the white dragon, would prevail against the red one of Wales.

Vortigern is supposed to have married Hengest's daughter, Rowena, giving him most of Kent in exchange (hope she was worth it!) and is said to have perished in "fire from heaven" brought down by the prayers of the monk Germanus (later Saint Germanus) of Auxerre, because sure why not? I imagine incest doesn't go down too well with holy men, but as usual there's no real way to verify these things, and he could have been hit by lightning, or died by the sword, or who knows? Nobody seems to have a good word for the guy though. Here's what the foremost English historian of the twelfth century, William of Malmesbury, had to say about the first King of the Britons:

At this time Vortigern was King of Britain; a man calculated neither for the field nor the council, but wholly given up to the lusts of the flesh, the slave of every vice: a character of insatiable avarice, ungovernable pride, and polluted by his lusts. To complete the picture, he had defiled his own daughter, who was lured to the participation of such a crime by the hope of sharing his kingdom, and she had borne him a son. Regardless of his treasures at this dreadful juncture, and wasting the resources of the kingdom in riotous living, he was awake only to the blandishments of abandoned women.

I guess these Britons were still getting the hang of this king lark, but it seems odd that Vortigern was king, then succeeded by his son Vortimer (sounds like something out of Harry Potter, doesn't it?) and when he was killed, dad snatched back the throne. I've never heard before of a line of royal re-succession, but that seems to be how they did it back then. Not that it mattered much, as Vortigern was defeated and replaced by Hengist, the throne (I guess basically of Kent) passing from father to son to father to father-in-law. Hey, there are even historians who think the name Vortigern doesn't even refer to an actual individual, but stands as a sort of honorific or title. If he was real, I bet he's rolling in his grave now. Well, rattling. Well, probably gone to dust by now. But I bet those dust particles are agitated.

Horsa didn't last too long in merry old England, going down at the Battle of Aylesford (455), as related in the ninth-century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: This year Hengest and Horsa fought with Wurtgern the king on the spot that is called Aylesford. His brother Horsa being there slain, Hengest afterwards took to the kingdom with his son Esc.

Press escape, huh? Sorry. Hengist is said then to have enlisted help from Saxony from his son, Octa (no, as far as I know he only had the two arms) who settled in Northumberland while Hengist ravaged the southeast, sparing "neither age nor condition nor sex", which I think we can take to mean men, women and children, old and young, sick and well. He established the Kingdom of Kent, comprising Middlesex, Essex and parts of Surrey, and fixed his royal seat at Canterbury, from where he ruled for forty years until his death in 488 or thereabouts.

News of his success soon spread back home, and the Saxons, Angles and Jutes - all more or less the same and going under the one title of either Saxons or Angles - began arriving in numbers. The next kingdom to be set up was that of South Saxony. The Angles were so eager to come to Britain that they all did, leaving their country all but deserted and settling in (anyone?) Anglia, as well as Northumbria and Mercia.

Esc seems not to have been the greatest of kings, nothing like his father anyhow, and under his son Octa part of Kent was lost, taken or acceded to the East Saxons, who took Middlesex and Essex and formed the kingdom of East Saxon, or Essex. To some degree, under successive kings it seems that Kent could indeed have been called "the sleeping kingdom". Esc's son reigned for twenty-two years but seems to have done nothing of note, while his son reigned for ten years less but did as much, or as little, all leading up to AEthelbert, who appears to have been the first king of Kent to actually get his arse off the throne and do something for his kingdom.

What this was initially was to make war upon Ceawlin, king of Wessex, in 568, but his army was defeated and he retreated home to Kent. He then had to acknowledge Ceawlin's authority over not only his but all the Saxon kingdoms, affording him the title of bretwalda, or Britain-ruler. Later (it isn't clear when) he led the armies of other Saxon states (again, no information but we can assume East Anglia and Sussex were part of his "association", as it is described) and this time Ceawilin was defeated, Aethelbert taking the title and also helping himself to the throne of Mercia. Aware that his allies might turn against him though, he cleverly returned the Mercian throne to Webba, son of its founder, Crida, but more or less as a puppet king.

More to the point, he almost single-handed converted his people to Christianity. This was due to several factors. The Saxons were a warrior people, loyal to their god Woden, god of war, and Thor, god of thunder, hoping to win valour in battle and enter Valhalla. But as  their enemies diminished (despite still regional skirmishes, battles and even small wars among the Heptarchy) and the Saxons began to settle down, like the Vikings who would follow them in three or four centuries' time, and consider more the benefits of farming and commerce than war and plunder, the idea of paying homage to a god of blood and violence began to appeal less. Also, their people back home had mostly already been converted by missionaries sent out from Ireland and Rome, and they might have felt sort of like the poor relations or the backwards brothers in clinging to old, outmoded beliefs. Maybe it was time to change.

There is also the story told of a kind of epiphany had by one of the Pope's prelates. "Gregory, sirnamed the Great, then Roman pontiff, began to entertain hopes of effecting a project which he himself, before hemounted the papal throne, had once embraced, of converting the British Saxons.

It happened, that this prelate, at that time in a private station, had observed in the market-placeof Rome some Saxon youth exposed to sale, whom the Roman merchants, in their trading voyages to Britain, had bought of their mercenary parents. Struck with the beauty of their fair complexions and blooming countenances, Gregory asked to what country they belonged; and being told they were Angles, he replied, that they ought more properly to be denominated angels: It were a pity that the Prince of Darkness should enjoy so fair a prey, and that so beautiful a frontispiece should cover a mind destitute of internal grace and righteousness. Enquiring farther concerning the name of their province, he was informed, that it was Deïri, a district of Northumberland: Deïri! replied he, that is good! They are called to the mercy of God from his anger, De ira. But what is the name of the king of that province? He was told it was Aella or Alla Alleluiah, cried he: We must endeavour, that the praises of God be sung in their country.

Moved by these allusions, which appeared to him so happy, he determined to undertake, himself, a mission into Britain; and having obtained the Pope's approbation, he prepared for that perilous journey: But his popularity at home was so great, that the Romans, unwilling to expose him to such dangers, opposed his design; and he was obliged for the present to lay aside all farther thoughts of executing that pious purpose.

Well, you have to admire the old guy's cheek, making so much out of so little. Had it not been for those pesky Romans though (what did they ever do for us?) he probably would have been on the next galley or trireme or whatever, on his way to England, accompanied by a heavenly host, or at least a whole shitload of monks, bishops, priests and clerics. Not sure what kind of reception he would have got in then-Pagan Northumberland though!

Instead he chose his shock-troops, led by a Roman monk called Augustine, later to be canonised as Saint Augustine, but they were so fearful of the Pagans that they decided to layover in France for a while, and sent their leader back to the Pope asking if he was sure it was safe. Gregory basically chased them out of France with a broom, telling them to go do their job, and duly admonished they landed in England and met with Aethelbert. Their first impression must have been "damn rainy here" (though being holy men and not wanting to profane the name of the Lord they probably said something like "Has God not in his wisdom blessed this land with an abundance of his bounteous rain, that the crops may grow and the land be fertile?" Possibly adding sotto voce, "but thank Christ he hasn't seen fit to endow our eternal land with the same gifts, as I like to take the air in the gardens of my Italian monasteries, and there's nothing as certain to ruin a nice walk as a heavy fucking shower of rain, beg your pardon Lord, pardon my English." ) That was a long bracket! Get used it it: I do that all the time.

Their second though may have been "this isn't such a bad place is it?" and when monsters completely failed to rise up out of the ground and swallow them whole, fire did not rain down on them (though rain surely did) and the approaching contingent of Saxons, led by Aethelbert, were only normal size and had the standard number of heads each, they must have breathed a sigh of relief. Aethelbert, for his part, was still suspicious, expecting magic and sorcery (being an ignorant pagan and all) and so had ensured he met the Christian missionaries in the open air, as if that somehow negated any magic they were perceived to have.

Finding, possibly to his own relief, that these unbelievers also possessed only the regulation number of heads and did not try to suck the soul from his living body, Aethelbert may have grumbled "Look, I still don't know about you guys... Hey!" Turning on one of them fiercely who had begun muttering a prayer. "No trying to convert me when I'm not looking!" And back to Augustine as their leader "I suppose you can have the Isle of Thanet. It's not very big and we're not doing anything with it at the moment. Kind of a dumping ground for old weapons and odds and sods. Kick back there and we'll see how you go. But no," again turning with a fierce eye, "sneaky trying to steal my soul behind my back, you!" I'm sure Bede himself would back up such a conversation. Oh no wait, he's dust now. Oh well, you'll just have to take my word for it I guess.

Trollheart's Hilarious History presents... Converting the Heathen in Anglo-Saxon England, a Beginner's Guide

I suppose in fairness you can see how, to pagans who had struggled all their lives to live up to a certain code in order to be included on Woden's guest list, Christianity must have been almost like a free meal ticket.

Let's imagine, for the sake of it, a typical conversation (soon to be conversion) between an unnamed Saxon and a Christian monk, the latter kind of the medieval equivalent of those military recruiters that haunt college campuses in search of souls they can snare and trap in a lifetime of servitude to the war machine.

Monk: "So what's the current deal with your god?"
Saxon: "We get to go to Valhalla when we die, where we will feast and sing and carouse with the prettiest women for all of eternity."
Monk: "Our God does not allow drinking or feasting or sex in his house."
Saxon: "Goodbye."
Augustine: "Nice try brother, but remember page one of Converting the Heathen, a Guide for the Novice Missionary: never tell them anything they won't approve of."
Monk: "But surely, Father, tis a sin to lie?"
Augustine: "I told you before, I'm not your father. I don't care what your mother says, she's a bitc - ah, where was I? Yes, a lie. Well, brother, as the Good Book says, there are lies and there are lies."
Monk: "Where does it say that, Fa - ah, brother?"
Augustine (annoyed): "Ah, somewhere at the back I think. It's not important. The point is, if you're lying for the glory of God, it's not a lie really, and since you're dealing with pagans, the lie does not apply. Got it?"
Monk (doubtfully): "Got it, brother."
Augustine: "Good man. Now here's another. What's your name friend? Really? Egthel, Slasher of Throats. Jolly good. My, you are a large fellow aren't you? Look at those muscles. Er, over to you, brother."

Monk: "Ah, well, I'm, ah, that is, I'm told that you can get into Valhalla if you...?"
Egthel, Slasher of Throats: "S' right. All you need do is die a hero's death, be valiant in battle, kill all your enemies, rape their women, take their land..."
Monk: "That's, ah, rather a lot of conditions."
Egthel, Slasher of Throats: "I don't care to be interrupted."
Monk: "Sorry, do go on."
Egthel, Slasher of Throats: "Sacrifice animals, obey your king, teach your children the ways of worship, never show weakness..."
Monk: "."
Egthel, Slasher of Throats: "I think that's it."
Monk: "I see. And if you don't, well, fulfill all those conditions?"
Egthel, Slasher of Throats: "Well, you don't get in."
Monk: "But what if there is no way for you to die in battle? What if you're at peace with all your neighbours?"
Egthel, Slasher of Throats: "Well, you go out and look for some enemies, don't you?"
Monk: "And what if you can't find any?"
Egthel, Slasher of Throats: "There's always enemies." A little less certainly "Aren't there? I mean, stands to reason. Man got to have enemies."
Monk: "But if there are none? What do you do then?"
Egthel (worried): "Well, I suppose you might - urgh - have to die a peaceful death, die in (spits) bed!"
Monk: "And then what?"
Egthel, Slasher of Throats: "Well, then you don't get into Valhalla, do ya? I mean, stands to reason. Doesn't it?"
Monk: "Ah, but what if I told you that MY god will take you into HIS house NO MATTER HOW you die?"
Egthel, Slasher of Throats: "You're winding me up, son!"
Monk: "No, really. I promise."
Egthel (still suspicious): "You're telling me (grappling with the unfamiliar concept) this god of yours will let me in even if I (whispers, looks around guiltily) die in bed?"
Monk: "Yep."
Egthel: "Sign me up, son! I never really liked all this dying in battle lark, if I'm honest with you now. All that rushing about with axes and swords and hammers - fella can get really hurt that way! Sides," (guiltily) "I haven't slashed a throat in yonks now. Wondering why I continue calling myself Egthel, Slasher of..."
Monk: "Throats, yes."
Egthel, Slasher of Throats: "Exactly. It's like, I'm more into farming these days, so maybe not so much throat slashing, more herding of sheep. I don't know," looking doubtful, "You think Egthel, Herder of Sheep works better?"
Monk: "Definitely."
Egthel, Previously Slasher of Throats, potential future Herder of Sheep: "You really think so?"
Monk: "No doubt about it at all. I mean, look at it this way: anyone can, um, slash a throat..."
Egthel, Previously Slasher of Throats, potential future Herder of Sheep: "Not like I could, mate! I was known for it! Famous I was. These kids these days, they don't know how to slash a throat, it's all rush rush hack hack with them. They don't realise there's an art to it..."
Monk: "Ah, yes. So, moving on. You think you might be interested in converting?"
Egthel, of no current occupation: "Could be, could be. Tell me, how do you deal with your enemies?"
Monk (uncomfortably): "Well, um, that is, we're taught that if someone strikes us on one cheek..."
Egthel: "Break his arms, right?"
Monk: "Um, no..."
Egthel: "Gouge out his eyes? Smash his teeth? Break his nose?"
Monk: "Not exactly."
Egthel, nodding, winking: "Ah, I got you! You're a cutting people, right? Why fuck around with breaking and gouging when you can cut. I can respect that. What do you cut? Arm? Leg? (eyes shining with a sudden manic light) Throat?"
Monk: "No! Listen, I..."
Egthel: "Gotcha. You go for something more (looks down, winks again) personal, right?"
Monk: "No! No! Bloody no! We don't gouge, cut, break or smash anything!"
Egthel (mystified): "So... what do you do?"
Monk: "We offer them the other cheek."
Egthel, eventually: "Sorry, my helmet must be on too tight. Wife is always getting me one size too small. She says my head's too big but I know it's her. Can you repeat that? I almost thought you said..."
Monk (miserably): "I did."
Egthel: "You... offer them the... other cheek? Why? They're just going to strike it too... oh wait!" (Brightening) "I think I have it now! Very clever, yeah. You turn the cheek so they don't see your mate coming up behind them with a big axe..."
Monk: "No, no, there's nobody coming up behind them."
Egthel: "Then why... I mean, how do you wreak your, you know, bloody vengeance?"
Monk: "We don't. We're a peaceful people."
Egthel: "Yeah, well, me too, son, but I got my limits. And if anyone hits me on the cheek, he's going down, and hard."
Monk: "It's not son, it's brother."
Egthel: "You're not my brother (confused). I bloody hate my brother. (Suspicious again) Hey! You're not, are you? You're not... you're not Egthorn, in disguise? (shaking head) "Nah, couldn't be. That bastard is about a foot taller than you."
Monk: "I think we're getting sidetracked again."
Egthel: "Look, you seem a nice guy, but if you're not into wreaking bloody vengeance, what's in this for me?"
Monk: "A free pass into Paradise? No dying gloriously in battle required? Those dying peacefully in bed welcome?"
Egthel (scratching chin): "Oh yeah. Forgot about that bit. I do like that idea. Not so keen on turning the other cheek though."
Monk: "Tell you what, let's put a pin in that for now, eh?"
Egthel: "Good idea. Where to put the pin though? I prefer the centre of the eye, driven hard..."
Monk: "It's just an expression."
Egthel: "An expression of violence, yes."
Monk: "Let's go back to this god of yours, shall we. Woden, isn't it? He demands a lot of you, does he not?"
Egthel, Previously Slasher of Throats, potential future Herder of Sheep: "Well yeah, I mean, your god must be more powerful than Woden if he can guarantee me a place in - what did ya call it? Pair of dice? He must be really strong! What's he like?"
Monk: "Well, he died on the cross for our sins..."
Egthel, Previously Slasher of Throats, potential future Herder of Sheep: (frowning) "Hold on just one Saxon second, son. You telling me - now, you seriously telling me your god is, well, dead?"
Monk: "Well, yes, but he rose again and..."
Egthel, Slasher of Throats, no longer considering a change of name: "Sorry son, you lost me. Give me a god that can kick Woden's arse, I'm there, but some Johnny who let us mortals hammer him up onto a cross and didn't come back to wreak bloody vengeance..." (Pause. Hopeful look) Did he come back to wreak bloody vengeance? Cos, I could be down with that. That speaks to me, god that gets killed, rises from the dead and then goes looking for his killers with a big axe in each hand. Did he go looking," another hopeful look, "for his killers with a big axe in each hand?"
Monk: "Well, not exactly, no."
Egthel, Slasher of Throats: "One big axe in both hands?"
Monk: "Um..."
Egthel, Slasher of Throats: "Two small axes, one in each hand?"
Monk: "The thing is..."
Egthel, Slasher of Throats: "Any... kind of axe at all?"
Monk: "He doesn't..."
Egthel, Slasher of Throats: "Doesn't have to be an axe." Sense of desperation. "Any weapon will do. Sword? Hammer? Big stick with nails in?"
Monk: "He's, well, he's not that kind of god I'm afraid." Brightening slightly. "Love is his weapon. And brotherhood. And..." Trailing off... "Peace."
Egthel, Slasher of Throats: "Nah, ya lost me pal. Any god who thinks peace is a weapon deserves all he gets. And any god who allows himself to be nailed to a piece of wood and doesn't avenge himself in - I should make this very clear - the most awful and bloody manner, is not a god I can get behind. I'll stick with the All-Father, if it's all the same to you."
Augustine (shaking head): "Brother! Page one, brother! Page fucking one!"

Despite my somewhat lame attempt at humour there (sorry if you had to read through all of that but I can't help myself sometimes) the idea of eternal life being granted just as long as you obey and lead a good life had to be more attractive than one only attained through a glorious death in battle, especially as, like I already pointed out, battles and the opportunity to die gloriously in them were becoming few and far between as the Saxons settled down. So it wasn't quite the slog that the missionaries had originally envisaged.

But if you want a job done properly, send a woman to do it. Aethelbert married Bertha, the only daughter of the king of Paris, Carlbert, on the condition laid down by her father that she should be free to practice her religion after being married. She brought her priests and bishops with her, and between their zeal (nothing like converting heathen to get a bishop out of bed in the morning!) and her popularity at court, most of Aetehelbert's people were won over (and those that weren't were probably given friendly advice that it might be in their best interests not to upset the queen with all those icky blood sacrifices and praying to the thunder like children) and by somewhere in the early seventh century all of his kingdom had converted.

In 602 or 603 Athelbert pronounced a series of laws, known to be the first written examples of Anglo-Saxon, which aimed to set penalties for crimes and create a code of conduct for his subjects. Penalties and fines were set by social status, though I'm not sure whether those on a higher level were fined more or less; the rich usually get the better part of the deal so I would assume the latter. Maybe not, but it's unclear. At any rate, Aethelbert left his kingdom in a far better state (no pun intended) on his death than it had been in before he rose to the throne.

Rather annoyingly for him, his son promptly undid all his father's good works, getting jiggy with his mother-in-law, which outraged Christianity and plunged all of Kent back into paganism, and surely made Augustine, if he was still there, throw up his hands in despair and say "That's it! All my work up in smoke because this kid wants to get into his mother-in-law's nether garments! I have had it with you Saxons! The Devil take you all - I'm going back to Rome, where they know how to make proper pasta!" Or words to that effect.

However his successor, Laurentius, gave it the old college try, appearing before Eadbald, the son and new king, all marked with bruises and weals and stripes, and when Eadbald asked who would dare to beat a holy man so, Laurentius told him it had been Saint Peter, who had taken him to task in a (surprisingly tactile) vision for failing. In reality, he probably did it himself or had some monks do it, they surely not loath to do so, hating England and its pagans and its rain, and yea verily most eager to take out their frustrations on the boss man. Whatever the truth of it, his ploy worked and Eadbald kicked mum-in-law out of bed and begged Laurentius's forgiveness, returning his people to Christianity, while the holy man went to anoint his body with some much-needed Savlon.

The return to Christianity did not bring peace to the kingdom. On Eadbald's death his own son reigned for another twenty-four years, and was famous for establishing the custom of Lent and also for getting rid of all those unsightly pagan idols and altars, but his son, Egbert, was a little too free with the sword and fearing the challenge of two of his uncles for the throne, removed them from the picture, precipitating unrest and eventual virtual civil war across the kingdom until finally Wessex defeated and took Kent in 686, later itself absorbed into the huge and mighty state of Mercia, as King Offa consolidated all the kingdoms together and dissolved the Heptarchy.

Kingdom of Sussex

Things didn't go so easily here for the invaders, and they suffered massive losses at the Battle of Mearcredes-Burn, so much so that although they won the battle it was all but a pyrrhic victory. They took their revenge on the defenders of Andred-Ceastar, when they slaughtered all the inhabitants once they took the town. Aella, the Saxon chief who led the assault, set up his kingdom here, taking Sussex and parts of Surrey, but was prevented from moving into Kent as Hengist was already established there, and wasn't planning on going anywhere any time soon.

Kingdom of Essex

Half-inched, as related in the entry above on Kent, from that kingdom when its ruler grew weak and feeble, Essex basically comprised, not surprisingly, Essex, Hertfordshire and Middlesex. Reading its - very sparse - history, I can't understand how such a weak kingdom was able to take territory from what was one of the larger and more powerful ones at the time, Kent, but so it says. Anyway it seems that for most of its existence Essex swung from paganism to Christianity and back, the latter not helped by a particularly virulent plague which, as you might imagine, convinced the Saxons that this new god wasn't any better than their old one, and they went whingeing back for forgiveness, hoping Woden would show the pestilence who was boss. He didn't, and back to Jesus they went, like some sort of religious tennis match or one of those roly-poly toys.

Listen, when your kings carry the epithet "the Good" and "The Little", you know you're not exactly destined to make your mark on history, and one of the kings - one of the last, in fact - though he had married, took and was determined to keep a vow of chastity, went on a "pilgrimage" to (read, ran away to) Rome and shut himself away for the rest of his life in an oyster. Sorry, cloyster. Cloister. This Old English can be hard to interpret sometimes. A later king than him also took the same path, dying in the eternal city, and his successor shrugged and called up Egbert, wondering if they could do a deal: did the King of Wessex fancy adding Essex to his portfolio? The king did, and Essex was absorbed too.

Kingdom of Wessex

Cerdic arrived around 495 and was attacked on the very day of his landing, but though victorious he suffered heavy losses and, perhaps surprised at the stiff resistance from the Britons, when he had been told they would be a pushover, found it necessary to enlist help from Kent and Sussex as well as the homeland. He engaged, with this reinforced army, the Briton king Nazan-Leod, whom he defeated with the loss of over (it's claimed) five thousand of the enemy. It seems even the mythical King Arthur himself came to the aid of his fellow Britons, taking on Cerdic and his son Kenric, though how much of that is embellished legend for effect you can never be sure, and I don't think there's been any historical evidence found to prove the man existed at all. Still, I guess it makes a good story.

Even Excalibur though was not enough to stay this army, and the Saxons prevailed, taking Hantshire, Wiltshire, Dorset and Berkshire, as well as the Isle of Wight, and naming the new kingdom West Saxon, or Wessex. Cerdic ruled till his death in 534, succeeded by his son Kenric, who died in 560.

Kingdom of East Anglia

When your entry in the account begins "the history of this kingdom contains nothing memorable", you know you're on to a loser. However, small as this state was it did give us Sale of the Century (what do you mean, you're too young to get that reference? Get out of here before I take me old man's stick to ye!) so we should at least look into it briefly, if only for the sake of Nicholas Parsons (I said, get out!)

Named, like Wessex, for the people who settled/conquered/created it, the East Angles (no, not the Right Angles) this was one of the smaller of the Saxon kingdoms, and as such only survived less than two centuries before being absorbed into the much larger one of Mercia. It comprised the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk. Wehha (sounds like he was named after sitting on a tack!) is said to have been its first king, but history tells us nothing about him, is not even sure if he existed, but if he did, seems reasonably certain that he was part of the ruling Wuffingas dynasty, and that his son, Wuffa, succeeded him. If he existed. Or his father. Not much evidence to prove it either way. If the name of that dynasty sounds like it was that of a pack of dogs, you wouldn't be far wrong. Wuffingas means "descended from the wolf".

A point of interest though is that the kingdom of East Anglia seems to have been established on the ground once ruled by the Iceni, of whose greatest leader, Boudica, we have already heard. And like her tribe, though small, the kingdom of East Anglia was, for a short time in the early seventh century, one of the most powerful in England, as it was developing into being, its third or fourth king, Raedwald, powerful enough to defeat the king of Northumbria, Aethelfrith and replace him with his own choice, Edwin, thus securing the loyalty and support of the northern kingdom.

(Note: Many of these names use the Saxon/Old English habit of joining an A and an E so that they're inseparable one from the other. I can't do that with my fonts, and can't be arsed copying and pasting each time, so just take it that the two will be separated at all times. If you have a problem with that, try doing this yourself. It ain't easy).

Kingdom of Northumbria

Originally two separate kingdoms - Deira, ruled first by Aella and then by Aethelfrith and Bernicia, Ida its first king - Northumbria (literally, north of the Humber (river)) was one of the more powerful of the Saxon states. A darkly humorous tale from the reign of Aethelfrith concerns the Battle of Chester, where the Britons opposed him with the aid of 1250 monks from nearby Bangor, who did not take part in the fight but prayed for their success. Aethelfrith was not pleased about this. Essentially he pointed and said "What are those guys doing?" When told they were praying for victory for his enemy, he is reported most definitely not to have said (but maybe thought) "Fuck that! Then they're my enemies too. Let's see if their prayers can save them from the sword! Or spear. Or pike. Or big pointy stick. Records from this era are spotty and nobody's sure what the weapons used were, but one thing is for sure: it will hurt!"

And so his forces massacred the praying monks (whose God seems to have sauntered away whistling nonchalantly and did not bring down fire and thunder or smite their enemies in any other way) almost to a man, proving the simple truth of war: if you're not with us, you're against us. Or perhaps disproving the maxim that the pen - or prayer - is mightier than the sword. The Britons, for their part, considering this hardly at all cricket, were shocked and quickly overwhelmed, defeated completely and lost Chester. Aethelfrith rather snippily then had the monastery pulled down. What happened to any spare monks left inside is not recorded.

Having exiled Edwin, son of Aella, the landless noble found refuge with Raedwald, King of East Anglia, and Aethelfrith wanted him. Hand him over or, you know, just kill the dude, he requested of Raedwald. I'll make it worth your while. The East Anglian king demurred, but as the promises of gifts grew richer and richer he became inclined to think, hey, what's this guy to me? Why not hand him over? Or... he could have a very unfortunate fall - onto a sword blade. Not to mention, that when the carrot failed to motivate Raedwald, Aethelfrith tried the stick, and threatened war if the kid was not handed over. His mind made up, Raedwald was all ready to do the deed when his queen stepped in. "Oh no you don't!" she snapped. "That nice young man sought sanctuary with you, and it is your sacred duty to uphold that and protect him. Unless you feel like going without for the next few months - YOU know what I mean! - you just go tell that Aethelfrith he can sod right off."

And so he did. In person. Believing it best to get his retaliation in first, Raedwald attacked Northumbria, defeated the rather surprised Aethelfrith, lopped his head off, probably - killed him anyway - and set Edwin on the throne. No doubt the ex-king's final thoughts were "should have left the little bleeder where he was!" And probably "Arrrggh!" too. However, establishing Edwin on the Northumbrian throne wasn't purely an act of philanthropy on the part of Raedwald, of course, nor was it because he didn't wish to wear his right hand out if his queen withheld the goods. He knew that by placing Edwin in charge he had secured the loyalty of Northumbria, and had expanded his sphere of influence, to say nothing of the good it did to his reputation. No doubt he showed his queen his appreciation for making him do the right thing when he got back to his own kingdom.

It turned out to be a good move. Sort of. Edwin became one of the most successful and, unusually enough, best-liked kings in all the land. Under his reign, crime was reduced to almost nothing - robbery, rape, murder, all sort of violent acts outlawed and dealt with, and drunkenness curtailed. THAT must have made him popular! And yet, it did, for a strange story is told of king Cuichelme of Wessex who, unable to best him in arms, determined to send an assassin to take Edwin out. When one of his guards saw the man rush at the king, and with no other weapon to hand, he threw himself in the killer's path, literally taking a bullet for the king, except of course bullets had yet to be invented. Now that's a popular ruler!

When Raedwald's nobles revolted against and killed him, and offered the throne of East Anglia to Edwin, he, remembering how he would not have been where he was but for his benefactor, refused, ordering instead that Raedwald's son be given the throne. Edwin further cemented alliances by marrying the daughter of the king of Kent, and she, a Christian, convinced him to convert. But it seems that he was the only man who could hold Northumbria together, and on his death Penda of Mercia again divided the kingdom, as related further, under the entry for Mercia. All the effort to convert them was wasted as Northumbria returned to paganism until Oswald defeated Penda and finally reunited the two kingdoms into one.

After Penda was killed by Oswiu, things got a little, well, bloody.

The new king slew Oswin, son of Osric, who was to be the last king of Deira. His own son, Egfrid, died without heir as his wife refused to violate her vow of chastity (some confusion over the idea of being a wife there!) and his brother Alfred ruled for nineteen years, leaving the kingdom in the charge of his eight-year-old son Ofsted sorry Osred, who, despite his tender years managed to rule for another eleven before he was slain by Kenred, who only got to sit on the throne for a single year before he was done in. With me so far? Next up was Osric, then Celwulph, until Eadbert, coming to the throne in 738, decided this was not a healthy occupation and like Sigebert legged it to a monastery so fast that the crown was still ringing on the floor of the throne room where he had dropped it, possibly.

From then on you have this guy and that guy ruling for a year here, a year there before being brutally murdered, betrayed or proven a pretender (and then betrayed and brutally murdered) until finally the people had had enough and invited King Egbert of Wessex to take the throne, to which he responded "Ta very much, don't mind if I do." And that was basically the end of Northumbria as an independent power, and nobody can say they didn't deserve it.

Kingdom of Mercia

For a long time the most powerful of the six kingdoms established by the Saxons, Mercia (border kingdom, or march) covered huge swathes of England (you can see from the map above how big it was) including South Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Staffordshire, Northamptonshire and northern Warwickshire. Like the establishment of many of these early kingdoms, little actual evidence is left to us as to who founded them, but the earliest ruler of Mercia - assuming he existed (yes, that again) - seems to be someone called Creoda, and that's as much as we know about him. However the next king is a different matter.

Panda, sorry Penda, was supposedly one of the descendants of Woden (Odin) - though how you can be descended from a makey-up figure of fiction you'd have to ask the Saxons I guess - and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives his lineage in a sort of Biblical "Ham-begat-Sham" sort of way like this: "Penda was Pybba's offspring, Pybba was Cryda's offspring, Cryda Cynewald's offspring, Cynewald Cnebba's offspring, Cnebba Icel's offspring, Icel Eomer's offspring, Eomer Angeltheow's offspring, Angeltheow Offa's offspring, Offa Wermund's offspring, Wermund Wihtlæg's offspring, Wihtlæg Woden's offspring". So now you know.

We're told Penda came to the throne in 626 and ruled for thirty years - none of these Saxon kings seem to have had anything like a short rule; whether that was because they were very popular or very strong, or because the idea of usurping was not part of the Saxon mindset, I have no idea, but in general as the English royal line got established later on, kings were always being murdered, challenged, deposed and basically the throne was almost interchangeable, a game of musical chairs (or thrones) being played by all claimants. But that's in the future. Of England's past. If you know what I mean.

The Battle of Hatfield Chase

Penda teamed up with Welsh king Cadwallon, ruler of Gwynedd, to take on the most powerful Saxon king at the time, Edwin of Northumbria (you probably recall that Raedwald, king of East Anglia, had him set up as ruler) and they met at Hatfield Chase, in Doncaster. It was a revenge battle, as Cadwallon had been defeated by Edwin some years earlier, but having secured the alliance of Penda he was able to return and kill not only Edwin but his two sons, weakening the kingdom and it's said paving the way for Penda to take the throne of Mercia. Using the old axiom of "divide and conquer" he did exactly that, splitting Northumbria back into the two separate kingdoms it had previously been, Deira and Bernicia.  Cadwallon's triumph would not last long though, as he was defeated and killed the following year at the Battle of Heavenfield, when Oswald, an exile under Edwin, returned from Scotland and attacked Northumbria.

With supposedly the saints on his side - he having dreamed the night before the battle of St. Columba, who promised him victory, and to whom he prayed - Oswald defeated the forces of Cadwallon (this time the Welsh king was alone, without aid from Penda) and killed him, taking the throne of Northumbria as he reunited  the two kingdoms into one. His reign would last eight years, after which Penda decided Northumbria had become enough of a threat for him to march against it again, and he met Oswald at the Battle of Maserfield in 641 or 642, where, if this can be characterised as a fight between pagans (Saxons) and Christians (Britons) - which is very much oversimplifying the situation - then the pagans triumphed, as Oswald was not only killed, but dismembered, his head stuck on a pole along with his arms. Poor man went to pieces! Disarmed and lost his head. All right, I'll stop now.

Maserfield left the kingdom of Northumbria weak, as it again divided in two, and secured Penda the title, at the time, of the most powerful king of Mercia. He would push his luck though, always driven by his hatred and/or jealousy of, or covetousness for the kingdom of Northumbria, and it would end up being his undoing. In 655 he marched with a huge force to take Northumbria, now under Oswald's brother Oswiu (although he had only taken reign over one of the two kingdoms in the split realm). Initially, Oswiu capitulated, buying off the Saxon king, but as Penda began the march home in heavy rain, and as many of his followers and allies deserted him, Oswiu struck, and they fought at the river Winwaed.

Oswiu emulated his brother and appealed for divine assistance, this time cutting out the middle man and going direct to the Big Guy, promising he would have his daughter take the veil (become a nun) if God gave him victory - nobody knows what she thought about it, though I guess back then women did what they were told - and would also build, and I quote*, a shit ton of monasteries. God may have considered it, thought hell I could always do with another nun, and who doesn't need monasteries, shrugged and said sure, you got a deal. Besides, he may have winked, I don't particularly like these pagans with their blood sacrifices and their strange rituals, coming over here, taking our jobs, stealing our women. Or not.

* not a quote

Anyway, the upshot was that Penda's army - or what remained of it after many had decided that there were perhaps better occupations to pursue in seventh century England - got the shit kicked out of it, the Venerable Bede, noted monk, historian and know-it-all citing the heavy rain as one of the bigger factors in the victory of Oswiu, where "many more were drowned in the flight than were destroyed by the sword." Never rains but it pours, huh? In a slice (sorry) of true poetic justice, Penda was beheaded, and all of his chieftains killed also, along with the East Anglian king, Ah here now, sorry Aethelhere.

Mirroring the fate suffered by its king, Mercia was now beheaded, as in, divided into two, just as Northumbria had been by him, with the victorious Oswiu taking one half, while Penda's son, Peada, who had converted to Christianity in order to get it on with Oswiu's daughter, was allowed to rule over the other half. Much good it did him though, as he was murdered a year later, betrayed by the very woman for whose love he had given up his pagan ways.

The defeat of Penda and the death of his son, along with the annexation of Mercia shifted the balance of power back to Northumbria, and also turned the formerly pagan kingdom into a Christian one, meaning that now the two most powerful and influential realms in Anglo-Saxon England were of that faith, and the rest could not be long falling into line, willingly or not.

(Look! Another stained-glass window. Well, a lot of the time it's the only way I can get any sort of a picture of these guys. It's not like they had cameras back then, and even artistry was all but unknown except to monks, who preferred creating, you guessed it, stained-glass windows. I guess they were like the JPEGs of their day, or something).

Sigebert, the Reluctant King

Before we move on, I've found this account and think it's amusing, in a dark kind of way, to take a look at. Sigebert was believed to be either the son or stepson of Raedwald, ruler of East Anglia from 599 - 624, and was sent into exile in Gaul during Raedwald's reign, where he converted to Christianity, returning around 629 and bringing with him Saint Felix, to help convert his subjects. Under his rule, Latin made a comeback as he established a school for its teaching to young boys as part of Christian education. This being a time coinciding with the great push from Irish monasteries to convert the heathen in the wake of the decline of the Roman Empire, it seemed saints were everywhere in England. You couldn't turn around without bumping into one, or, as Mrs Doyle once remarked in Father Ted, it was wall-to-wall saints. Columba, Felix, Fursey, Aidan... if saint-spotting was your thing you would have been in hog's heaven in England during the seventh century. Paganism didn't stand a chance.

Eventually though, Sigebert decided he'd had enough of this kinging lark and abdicated his throne, going into a monastery he built himself - you might say it was his personal retirement home. But he was not to be left to die in peace, oh no. Famous and popular as he had been, when Mercia attacked East Anglia they tried to make him come out of retirement and lead their people, but he was having none of it. "Fuck off," he's rather unlikely to have said, "I just want a quiet life, talking to God and tending my rose bushes, probably." His subjects were unmoved. "Plenty of time to talk to God later," they surely did not respond. "One more job, Your Majesty, or Your Grace, or Your Kingness, or Your whatever we called a king back then. One more job and you can retire."

Left with no choice - I mean, literally: they dragged him out of the monastery! - Sigebert plumped for passive resistance, a thousand years before Gandhi, determined it should not be worth their while to have called him from his solitude. He refused to hold a sword, going into battle armed only with a staff, and the enemy understood, and let him go back to his prayers. Oh no wait, they didn't: they killed him. And all his army. Well I never. He became a Christian martyr and saint (I'm sure he'd rather have been a live Christian monk than a dead martyr and saint) and his church at least lasted longer than he did, remaining the church of East Anglia up to about 840.

The above incident I think illustrates some sort of point probably: if you're forced into battle it's a good idea to use a weapon that can at least protect you, and a staff ain't it, or perhaps you actually CAN take the king out of the monk, but not the monk out of the king. Or something.

Seven Saxon States: The Heptarchy

And so were established the seven Saxon kingdoms, called the Heptarchy, which spread right across what is now known as England, and more or less civilised or pacified the country (take your pick), bringing, perhaps oddly enough given that it had been a pagan invasion, Christianity to the shores of Britain. Scotland, as ever, was left alone, though Northumbria did encroach on its border, running as far as Carlisle, destined to become the "gateway to the north" (or south, depending on which direction you were coming from, of course). While it might be hard to believe or accept now, the Saxon conquest of England was nothing more or less than an ethnic cleansing, in the same way as the original Irish had been destroyed by the Celts in Ireland. I started this journal off by remarking that the kind of annihilation practiced on the original inhabitants in my own country had not occurred in Britain, but it seems I was wrong to a degree.

Although not the original inhabitants of Britain, the descendants of Roman invaders were at this point in time the native population, and the  Saxons had no interest in either living with them peacefully or even making slaves of them. They were hungry for land, and as it says in History of England from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution of 1688 by David Hume, John Clive and Rodney W. Kilcup:

"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 every thing 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 over-ran 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 unwarlike, 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 they introduced."

Until the Britons were defeated, the Heptarchy acted almost like I suppose a modern coalition of forces, banding together (though not always, as we have seen) against the common foe, the native. But once they had been pushed into Cornwall and Wales, no longer a threat, the deal was over, and each kingdom looked to secure its own borders and, if possible, extend them, leading to wars between the kingdoms that might have rivalled anything in the imagination of George R.R. Martin.