And search for the Saxon spirit
BY STEVEN PILE -- SUNDAY TIMES, 7th
In my opinion, this word is the finest opening anyone has ever thought
up to any piece of writing. It instils a much-needed sense of urgency
into the reader, who is all too often moping around in a dressing gown
and reluctant to launch into a whole article, let alone a book.
I would like to claim
that I thought it up myself, but no. It is the opening of Beowulf, and I
quote it now in its entirety to show that the Anglo-Saxons did things
first and did them best.
And now answer me
this. Why is it that we have a clear picture of all historical periods
— the Romans, the Elizabethans, the Tudors, the lot (we know about
their clothes, their buildings, their battles, their habits) — and yet
have no image of the Anglo-Saxons, the most important people in our
If I examine that
great dark pit which I like to call my understanding of the past, I find
only two certain facts. The Anglo-Saxons went to war in
primitive-looking pyjamas, and buried their dead in ships (not the other
way round, as you might expect).
From my early study
of a Ladybird illustrated volume, I recall that the Anglo-Saxon
encampment was not a place to spend your holidays. It was very like the
future according to the Green party, with everyone in simple huts,
combing their hair with antler fragments.
Why is it that the British' totally ignore the
people who founded their race, society, government, attitudes and
characteristics? We haven’t even got a theme park devoted to them.
Why do we persist in thinking that the Romans
brought civilisation to this country when we were the only significant
part of their, empire to throw out their language, law, culture and
lifestyle as soon as they were on the banana boat" home? By the
time they docked in bella Italia, all the Brits had left was
London, straight roads and a few crummy viaducts.
Failing that, we think civilisation begins here
with the arrival from over the Channel of the Norman smartypants. If you
go into the gift shop at Windsor Castle and look at the illustrated
chart of English kings, you will see that it goes back to William the
Conqueror and talks of an Edward I when he was surely Edward IV (there
being three, perfectly good Anglo-Saxon Edwards before him).
Ii is a serious and important question why the
English think their history begins in 1066, which conquest obliterated
our English roots. Why, eve i now, do we eradicate our origins?
Tomorrow, the International
Society of Anglo-Saxonists (attend! this matters) pitch up from all
corners of the globe to discuss our early history for seven days solid,
with only tea breaks and outings to Fountains Abbey to restore
them. Even here, the English are not interested in their beginnings. The
society was founded by a Belgian and three-quarters of the membership is
None the less, I have taken this opportunity to
pester the world's leading authorities on the subject to get to the
bottom of this whole thing.
I can now confirm that the Anglo-Saxons gave us
our language, our counties, our place names, our common law, our taste
for living in villages, our idea of an English kingdom from Offa's Dyke
to the Tamar, our first vernacular literature and our political
constitution. In short, they gave us our social, legal and civil roots
and our whole notion of Englishness. In smaller details also they are
our parents. They gave us, for example, our taste for nostalgia, being
themselves in permanent lamentation for a golden age just passed.
They first came up with the English notion (now
abandoned) of fair play. There is a poem concerning the Battle of Maldon
in AD 991 which depicts the Vikings stranded on an island in the Thames
estuary. They ask the Anglo-Saxons to let them cross to the mainland so
they can have a more even fight. The Anglo-Saxons agreed and were
comprehensively thumped. Jolly good sports, though.
What is more, the English attitude to
government is a thousand years old and the Anglo-Saxons would have
immediately understood our rag-bag of largely hostile feelings towards
We don't like our governments (any of them),
but we go along with them. Only when we are pushed too far do we revolt.
This approach can be traced right back to the Anglo-Saxon period when
the dynasty/of King Alfred invented it.
As the heathen Danes invaded, Alfred said:
"Look, I may not be much, but I am ordained by God and the only
other choice is the Danes, who eat raw pig for breakfast, spit in
cathedrals and look like Mike Gatting." The kings of Wessex did
brilliantly with this line in the 12th century, and the Tudors managed
to keep it up even though they were hanging all their political
We endure our governments because we have been
rigorously trained for 10 centuries in the idea that, however bad they
are, the alternative is going to be much, much worse. (See the Labour
I find there are three reasons why we ignore
our founders. First, the Anglo-Saxons left us with few buildings to fire
the imagination. Most are just ugly, squat, slab-like churches that
should really be pulled down. Second, they arrived as barbarians and
ended up largely effete and famous for tapestry. They changed so much
while forging the English character that they are difficult to pin down.
Third, royalty and aristocracy can only trace
themselves back to 1066 and no further. So, the ruling classes have made
a systematic attempt to ditch the Anglo-Saxons by omission and
' This is our loss.
Today, there is a crisis in Englishness. Are we polite or rough? Are we
Europeans? Who are we? And why do we feel apologetic about being
English? In this hour, the Anglo-Saxons should be our model.
It was the last period in our history when England was a
self-contained unit with no foreign lands, but enjoying happy relations
with the continent because we were secure in our identity.
You do not hear other European nations bleating
about losing their sovereignty in 1992 because they know their roots and
who they are. Get thee to Durham, Margaret. Read Bede and think on.
1. International Society of Anglo-Saxonists
the article as an Acrobat pdf file
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