THE PROVINCIAL HISTORY OF ENGLAND.
V. — THE WEST COUNTRY: — FROM THE SAXON TO THE NORMAN CONQUEST.
I3EFORE the tide of Saxon conquest passed beyond the Exe, the British kingdom of the West was exposed, equally with its Saxon neighbours, to the ravages of new invaders—the North- men—to whom the numerous mouths of rivers presented an irre- sistible temptation ; and a common Christianity must have formed a new tie between the Saxons and Britons in the presence of these pagan pirates.
The Nofthmen appear to have been in Devonshire during parts of the years 876, 877, and 878. They are said even to have wintered in Exeter about 876 and 877, and in the latter year King Alfred is said to have besieged them in that town. It is stated that they then betook themselves to their fortress, where they were secure from his attacks, but that they soon afterwards made their peace, and gave the King such hostages as he required. In 878 Hubba made a descent on the north coast of Devonshire with twenty-three ships, and landed at Appledore (at the mouth of the river leading to Bideford). But he was defeated by the Saxons with great loss. Probably this was a combined resistance of the Britons and Saxons. In 894 the pirates again landed and besieged Exeter and other for- tified towns, but on the approach of Alfred's army fled to their ships. On one occasion the Britons are said to have called in the aid of the Northmen against Egbert, the West-Saxon King, but in 813 that King penetrated into Cornwall, though this was of course only a raid. In 823 a great battle was fought at Camel- ford, between the Cornish Britons and the Saxons of Devonshire, and twelve years afterwards another severe battle is said to have been fought at Ilengston Hill, in the parish of Stoke Clinsland, between Egbert and the united Nortbmen and Britons. About the year 926, Athelstan, one of the greatest of the West-Saxon Kings, and the first monarch of Saxon England, is stated to have defeated the Britons near Exeter, and to have expelled them from their joint possession of the city, and driven them towards, if not over, the Tamar. It was probably now that Athelstan spent his Christmas at Exeter, and promulgated his laws from that place. Nine years afterwards he is said to have completed the conquest of Cornwall, and reaching the Land's End, and there embarking his army, to have reduced the Scilly Islands also to obedience to his sceptre. From this time, then—about the year 935—the West Country ceased altogether to be British in its govern- ment, and became an integral part of the Saxon monarchy. From this time it followed the destiniea,and was moulded by the institutions and laws of another race. Whence exactly that race— the Saxons—were derived we cannot determine. Dr. Latham, after an exhaustive examination of the problem, pronounces it hopeless, beyond the single fact that they were "pirates from the North German seaboard. Some may have been Angle, some Frisian, some Platt-Deutsch, some Scandinavian." What they were the history of England tells in unmistakable characters. Their indomitable spirit, rather soberly persistent than brilliant—their strong common sense, rising into the noblest realism, the hatred of deception and unsubstantial shams, and the keenest appetite for positive truth, but degenerating into dull materialism—their strong love of order and law and appreciation of class rights and class distinctions stripped of class oppression—their calm self-reliance and rooted self-respect, rising into the highest kind of courage, the nicest sense of personal honour, and the most devoted self-sacrifice and patriotic attachment, but sinking into arrogance and selfish- ! ness—their deep sense of responsibility to one another, as well as to the State, and hence their vivid resentment of injuries against others, as well as themselves, as equally under the guardian- ship of a common system of laws and a common standard of right their disposition to act and think as members of a class, and yet resist anything which seemed to merge their individuality in the mass—in short, all the qualities which go to make up a good and honourable citizen of one well ordered State, with an impatience of foreign ideas and modes of life not based on positive law, and a disposition to rate a citizen of the world as a synonym for an unprincipled adventurer,—these have long formed consti- tuent elements of the English national character, though they have been modified, and either expanded or neutralized to some extent, by the additional elements of race which have from time to time been blended with the stock. How far they influenced and were influenced by the Kelto-Romanic element of the West Country it is not easy to say. Certainly the contact of the two races in this part of the island must have differed essentially from that elsewhere. • Five hundred years had elapsed since the Roman dominion ceased in Britain ere the Saxon sway was extended over the whole of the West Country. During the greater part of that period the district had been left to its own self-government, with such elements of civilization as up to that period existed within its frontiers, and such slight infusions from without as the hostile or quasi-hostile attitude of its neighbours would permit. Its inhabi- tants met with a scarcely diminished vital force of national character another nation, already far advanced in a civilization of its own, and entirely different from the wild races who six hundred years before were a terror to Roman Britain. Who can estimate the vast influence on the future character of the West Country, of this long period of independent growth in the two races who now amalgamated as common citizens ? The Romano-Keltic civiliza- tion was not here uprooted by fire and sword, but received into the heart of Saxon England in a comparatively intact state. Had that civilization been of the most advanced type of Roman Britain, no doubt the effect would have been more striking ; but even as it was, there must have been some remarkable results, and we have now, though very briefly, to endeavour to estimate them in the subsequent history of the amalgamated province.
There is but little special history of the West Country during its subjection to the Saxons, indeed, as we have seen, it was not completely reduced under their sway until within little more than a hundred years of their own overthrow by the Normans. During the interval the West Country enjoyed the advantages of advancing civilization and growing wealth and prosperity under the greater Anglo-Saxon monarchs, and was exposed to all the trials of the Scandinavian invasions and occupations._ Every one knows the story of Alfred's retreat to the island of Athelney, at the confluence of the rivers Tone and Ferret, and his reconquest of Wessex from the Scandinavians step by step from that stronghold. Indeed the tide of Scandinavian conquest seems to have followed very much the course of the early Saxon invaders. In the reign of )Ethelred the Unready, in 981, the Northmen plundered the monastery of St. Petroc, in Cornwall. In the same reign they laid waste Devon- shire and burnt Exeter. In the year 997 they came up the Tamar and ravaged the country as far as Ladford. Tavis- tock Abbey was burnt by. them during this inroad, and they desolated the neighbouring parts of Cornwall—the land of the Cornish Wealas. In 1001 they landed at Exmouth, and marched to Exeter, which they besieged, but failing to take it, they laid waste the surrounding country. At Pinhoe they defeated the Saxon General Cola, and the day after the battle burnt Pinhoe, Broad Chat, and other neighbouring villages, and then marched with great spoils to their ships. In 1003 they again landed at Exmouth, again besieged Exeter, and this time took it, and nearly destroyed the city. Canute in his struggle with the Saxon ravaged the country with fire and sword, and at one time reduced all Wessex under his rule. It was rescued from him by Edmund Ironside, and in the division of the kingdom between them fell to the share of the West Saxon. His premature death, however, in the latter part of the year 1016, again placed it under the Danish yoke, under which it remained twenty-six years, down to the death of Hardicanute, in the middle of the year 1042. During the greater part of this period the con- dition of the West Country was much more tolerable than in the years which had followed the death of King Edgar. Canute the King was a very different man from Canute the conqueror. He repaired or rebuilt many of the churches and towns which had been destroyed by the Northmen, and showed every disposition to conciliate not only the Saxon Churchmen, but the laity also.
He promulgated a code of laws from Winchester, which may be regarded as the result of the numerous journeys he had made through every part of his dominions. He published a code of forest laws, "in which it is particularly striking to see with what care their distinctive rights are preserved to the Anglo-Saxons and
their several provinces, as well as to the Danes, to whom no legal favour appears to have been shown." Still the influence thus exerted over the West Country by the Royal Dane was a personal one, and the Danish influence beyond this must have been slight in Wessex, of which the population consisted mostly of Saxons, or Saxo-British, and which, during this period, was the stronghold of the Royal Anglo-Saxon House. Still there are some decidedly Scandinavian names among the holders of land in Devon and Cornwall in the reign of Edward the Confessor. When Godwin placed himself at the head of the Anglo-Saxon party, at the close of the reign of Hardicanute, it was on Wessex that the basis of his power rested, the other parts of the kingdom leaning to the Danish succession. Godwin's own earldom extended over the greatest part of the West Country, and was joined on its northern frontier by that of his sou, Sweyn. Cornwall probably remained during the same period very much under the rule of its old princes, in subordination to the central authority, whatever that was. But the ascendancy of the House of Godwin there can be no doubt was complete through the whole of the West Country. The character of that great man has as yet had but imperfect justice done to it. Even in the aggrandizement of his own family, he seems to have been regulated to a great extent by wider and national feelings, and there can be no doubt that his influence, so far as it was felt, was a beneficial one throughout the West Country, which again in him felt the hand of a firm and wise ruler. It shared the vicissitudes of his fortunes, and on his banishment, Oddon or Odo, a Norman, had bestowed upon him the earldom over the counties of Devon, Somerset, Dorset, and Cornwall, but the return of Godwin soon displaced the intrusive Norman.
It would be curious to ascertain the proportion of the Norman influence which crept into England during the reign of Edward the Confessor which fell to the share of the West Country. Probably the preponderance of the House of Godwin during the greater portion of that reign would exclude it very much from its area. At any rate, if we may judge from the list of landowners of Devon and Cornwall in the reign of Edward the Confessor, given in Domesday Book, the House of Godwin seems to have made a clear sweep of most of the Norman intruders. The name " Norman " occurs some five or six times, and there are one or two other names which may be possibly those of Normans, but the great proportion of the rest are either Saxon, Danish, or British. The first, however, of these races has the lion's share, the decidedly British names of landowners occurring comparatively rarely even in Cornwall. Indeed they occur as frequently in Devonshire. Whether this points to a wholesale displacement of the British possessors by Saxons, or only to the adoption of Saxon names by the conquered Britons, it is impossible to say. Harold succeeded his father Godwin in the Earldom of Wessex, and his mother Githa is said to have sought refuge at Exeter after the battle of Hastings. In the year 1067 King William marched west- ward to reduce those parts, and approached Exeter with a large army. The citizens seem to have been divided as to the policy of resist- ance. The leading citizens of the pacific faction repaired to William's camp, besought his pardon, and having promised fealty and that they would receive him with open gates, gave such hostages as he required. But when they returned to their fellow-citizens they found themselves outvoted, and the majority resolved upon an obstinate resistance. William, who was theu encamped four miles from the city, pushed forward with 500 horse, but finding the gates shut and the walls and bulwarks manned with a great force, he gave orders for his whole army to advance, and caused the eyes of the unfortunate hostages to be put out in front of the city gates. But the citizens, undaunted, defended the place in a most deter- mined manner for several days, till finding further resistance useless, they held a council, and resolved to throw themselves upon the King's mercy. Accordingly, " the chief men of the city, with its youth and beauty, and the clergy carrying the sacred volumes, went in procession and threw themselves at his feet." William seems to have thought it good policy to conciliate this important capital of the West, and at once granted them a pardon, with protection against plunder. To overawe them, however, for the future, he resolved to build a castle there, and committed this work and its governorship when completed to Baldwin de Molls, son of Earl Gilbert, with other select knights. He then marched into Corn- wall, Githa having made her escape into Flanders, it is said,
before the surrender of Exeter. The citizens of that town seem to have been so strongly impressed by William's mixture of severity and clemency, or so overawed by his officers, that when, two years afterwards, Godwin and Edmund, two of Harold's sons, having defeated the Norman commander in Somerset, marched into Devonshire and endeavoured to obtain possession of the city, they held it against them, and were relieved by Earls William and -Brion, sent by King William, uniting with whom they entirely defeated the Saxon invaders. Cornwall suffered much during this inroad of the sons of Harold. After this time the West Country settled down under Norman rule, and we may consider the Anglo-Saxon period is at an end. Before, however, glancing at the events of the remaining eight hundred years of its history,we must pause for a moment to estimate the progress which it had made up to this time.
It is not necessary here to enter on the general character of the Anglo-Saxon constitution, laws, and customs. These belong to the general rather than a provincial history of England. We know that the basis of the system was property, usually land, and that upon this was established a graduated scale of classes, each with specified rights and acknowledged disabilities ; that as little as possible was left to the exercise of personal dis- cretion or the influence of personal character ; that the law and custom of the Land were held as paramount, and introduced into nearly every relation and concern of life. The King himself, as well as the nobles, had to submit to this yoke, and their relative importance in the kingdom was rigidly laid down by the standard of their wergyld. This, however, varied in the different Anglo- Saxon kingdoms, and we are thus able to estimate the greater or less democratic or aristocratic character of the Social system in each part of England. In Wessex we find that the noble of the first class was estimated in value in proportion to the ceorl or simple freeman as 6 to 1, the second class (or six-hundred man) being as 3 to 1, while the King stood to the ceorl in the proportion of 72 to 1. In Mercia the proportions seem to have been exactly the same, except that there were no six-hundred men. In North- umbria the value of the ging rose to 113 to 1 nearly, and that of the noble of the first class to 56 to 1 nearly. If a certain docu- ment is genuine, there were three other classes of inferior nobles, whose proportionate value to the ceorl descended gradually to 7i to 1. This therefore was the most aristocratic part of the kingdom. On the other hand, in Kent we have the democratic element in equal strength. The King in this county only stood to the ceorl as 171 to 1, while the noble stood to the ceorl only as 2 to 1. In Wessex and Mercia, then, we have the medium between these extremes, and probably the nearest approximation to the present social condition of England. Land being the general standard of reference in these values, we can also thus arrive at some general idea of its distribution in the West Country during the -Saxon period. The possessions of the largest landowners Iere consi- derable, but not outrageously so, while between them and the general mass of yeomen, who were by no means in a degraded position, were a middle doss of gentry with sufficiently large pos- sessions to hold the great landowners in check. While such was the general distribution of the laud, an urban element was growing up which became very important throughout England, and was strongly, though not overpoweringly, felt in the West Country. Perhaps we may even say that on the whole the land maintained an ascendancy so far that its influence was uninterfered with over large areas of the agricultural and pastoral population, while the urban strength was nearly confined to the neighbourhood of the sea-port or river-port towns.