“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.”
That was the gloomy prognosis of Gildas, a 6th century British monk, on the state of his country during the coming of the Saxons. Like some latter-day talking head bewailing the impotence of our government in the face of record Channel crossings and high house prices, his sermon On the Ruin of Britain was a damning indictment of a land in definite decline.
As we sink further into this winter’s omnicrisis, it is a feeling with which we are all familiar. Usually when languid commentators reach for an easy historical parallel for our current plight, we dip into Dominic Sandbrook’s handy tomes, hitch up our flares, and claim Britain’s going back to the Seventies. It is a condition from which I’m not immune, being the only man under 50 whose Spotify Wrapped is topped by Genesis.
Nonetheless, whilst it might be an obvious analogy to harken back to the ‘Winter of Discontent’, it is not the only parallel available for the chromatically-minded hack. Gildas shows the way. Rather than head back 50 years, we should go back at least 1200. Expunge the strikers and Kate Bush puns from your repertoire. Cease bemoaning Sunak’s lack of Thatcherite resolve. This is not a return to the age of big hair and poor government, but to the Anglo-Saxons.
Assuming most readers will have studied history at school, your historical knowledge likely stretches to Rosa Parks, Weimar hyper-inflation, and Henry VIII’s idiosyncratic approach to marriage. For the uninitiated, the Anglo-Saxons were a cultural and ethnic group who travelled from modern day Denmark and northern Europe to establish themselves in England between 450 and 1066, when my namesake William the Bastard commissioned some knitting about crossing the Channel to go conquering.
As Marc Morris points out in his excellent recent survey of this period, the Anglo-Saxon era is about as long as the gap between the Hundred Years’ and First World Wars. Generalisations are difficult, especially for a period where large segments have left only a handful of surviving texts, and where we rely for colour on whatever earnest men with metal detectors and cardigans can stumble across at the weekends. Nevertheless, a few useful similarities can be dug up, if only in the interest of variety.
Take Gildas’ opening lament. As a native Briton, he faced the threatening arrival of Anglo-Saxon warbands. His country had been left defenceless by the retreat and collapse off the Romans Empire. In turn, the Anglo-Saxon settlers would find themselves under siege in subsequent centuries by the Vikings, who first appeared when they attacked the Lindisfarne monastery in 793. The Vikings would go on to conquer and settle most of what would become England.
That we are not currently living in as peaceful Nordic social democracy was because the raiders were turned back by Alfred, of Great and cake-burning fame. Subsequent rulers faced a challenger familiar to us today: how to integrate a large immigrant population into an existing country. Yes, the Vikings were rather more interested in violence and pillaging than today’s Albanian dinghy enthusiasts or Hong Kong escapees. But they all still need to be housed, employed, and kept within the law.
Similarly, one particular Anglo-Saxon ruler would have had every sympathy with Rishi Sunak as he confronts the twin nuisances of the Northern Ireland Protocol and nationalist agitation in Scotland. The current Malmsbury resident was the first King to rule the whole of England, but he was resisted by the Scottish ruler Constantine and plagued by Viking raiding from across the Irish Sea. Think Nicola Sturgeon and Micheál Martin, but with longships and beards.
Athelstan dealt with the threat by smashing his opponents at the Battle of Brunanburh. Sunak may wish he had that tool in his armoury, but such an approach might be frowned upon today. Nonetheless, last week’s Supreme Court verdict should embolden those so-called ‘muscular unionists’ who want to make the case for diminishing Holyrood’s rule and challenging the nationalist ratchet. Athelstan declared himself the King of all Britain. Sunak is the Prime Minister of the same.
Of course, not every modern political passion can find an Anglo-Saxon parallel. As a society reliant upon slavery, the Anglo-Saxons didn’t have a problem with strikes. Inflation in those days relied upon how much gold could be dug out of the ground; a better control, perhaps, than having Andrew Bailey as the Bank of England’s governor. The country also – unsurprisingly – had more forests and fewer electrical goods, so Anglo-Saxon energy crises only occurred if one forgot to get the logs in for the evening’s fire.
And yet. Eyebrows have been raised by the news that now under half of those in England and Wales declare themselves to be Christian in the recent census. It would have been a situation familiar to figures such as Augustine of Canterbury, St Wilfred, or St Dunstan. The first was sent by Pope Gregory the Great to Christianise a land that had fallen to paganism, whereas the latter two sought to standardise, expand, and reform the English Church.
Today’s atheists prefer hacking through Evangelical platitudes on YouTube to hacking through monks off the coast of Northumbria. But the growing lack of a common faith in England and Britain highlights how we are becoming a nation with fewer and fewer common institutions, cultures, and identities. Kings like Alfred and Athelstan forged a common kingdom by building towns, spreading literacy, and encouraging the Church. What similar role can our government play today?
The unhappy answer is that it has little interest in taking up such a task, or ability to do so. Paradoxically, this might mean our fate ends up like that of our Anglo-Saxon forebears. Harold Godwinson found himself with an arrow in his eye and his country subjugated to the Norman Yoke. As politics in Britain becomes ever-more dysfunctional, my dissipated Europhile generation might choose, one day, to take us back under the heel of Brussels. Gildas didn’t know when he was well-off.
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