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How Unified Was Notes

History Notes > British History, 400-1088AD Notes

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Jonathan Lindsell 25/04/2011 How unified was "England" by the time of the Norman Conquest?
By 1066 the Anglo Saxon regions known as Mercia, Northumbria and East Anglia had not been independent kingdoms for over 150 years. Only Wessex had retained its status as a Kingdom, ruled by the house of Cerdic, and it is thus easy to see Wessex' slow expansion, from Alfred's time until Cnut's invasion, as the forging of a unified "England". The language used in legal documents, charters, religious and secular writings all indicate a movement towards a national identity rather than one based on the multiple kingdoms of the sixth century. Cnut taking the country as a whole from Ethelred, and acting, like his predecessor, as its sole king, reinforces this impression, as does the uniform Roman religion of the country, and examples of warriors from the different regions refusing to fight their countrymen. It would thus seem that by William's conquest, England unified to all intents and purposes. Athelstan was the first West Saxon king to claim to be "King of the English", but this does not by any means suggest the concept of a single English race and country was new. Centuries before, Bede entitled his book "An Ecclesiastical History of the English People" (using anglorum as a blanket term to describe all the English, even as he writes about the Jutes and Saxons.) There is a clear linguistic movement towards "Englishness", then, in the titles of all subsequent Kings, using both the vernacular Englisce or Englisch as well as angli. It has been suggested that this stems from Pope Gregory's original mistake of thinking all the Germanic inhabitants of Britain were Angles, resulting in the only literate group, the religious establishment, to call the people English. The same vocabulary, however, seems to be naturally adopted into the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which is on the whole concerned with secular affairs. The reason for such a unity being in the minds of the laity seems to stem, not from Wessex' domination of the other ex-kingdoms, but from the creation of a united front against the common enemy, the Danes. This distinction is somewhat harder to make when discussing the North, many of whom probably had Danish blood to some extent or other, but it remains a fact that the people living under the dominion of the West Saxon kings were willing to be part of a unified state if it would help ward off foreign attacks. Thus the power of the crown increased from Alfred's reign, showing that not only were the people willing to be "English", but willing to have more authoritarian laws designed for their protection, including military and fiscal obligations. Pledges were another indication of unification. Alfred was perhaps the first to do this, requiring an oath of loyalty from all those within his kingdom upon his successful conquest of London. However it is Cnut's requirement that all males over the age of 12 swear to him that is perhaps the better example of unity, for here we see the whole country as one accepting its own subjugation and, again for the sake of peace, giving control to the monarch. Another indicator of national unity was the state of the Church by the Norman Conquest. Gone were the days of strong Irish influence in Northumbria and various individual churches in other regions, set against the Roman establishment of East Anglia. The Church was organised and had its centre clearly based in Canterbury, with the lesser Archbishop in York and each diocese organised around this. Thus one church was present anywhere in the country, rather than split factions with different freedoms granted by different kings. Clearly, the actual government of the region played an integral part in the creation of unification. There would have been no England if Alfred's successors had merely

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