Great Britain: Early Period to the Norman Conquest
Early Period to the Norman Conquest
Although evidence of human habitation in Great Britain dates to more than 800,000 years ago, ice sheets forced the inhabitants from the island several times, and modern settlement dates only from about 12,000 years ago. Resettlement was initially by hunter-gathers such as “Cheddar Man,” who were displaced c.4000
Trade contributed to town prosperity; wine, olive oil, plate, and furnishings were imported, and lead, tin, iron, wheat, and wool were exported. This trade declined with the economic dislocation of the late Roman Empire and the withdrawal of Roman troops to meet barbarian threats elsewhere. The garrisons had been consumers of the products of local artisans as well as of imports; as they were disbanded, the towns decayed. Barbarian incursions became frequent. In 410 an appeal to Rome for military aid was refused, and Roman officials subsequently were withdrawn.
As Rome withdrew its legions from Britain, Germanic peoples—the Anglo-Saxons and the Jutes—began raids that turned into great waves of invasion and settlement in the later 5th cent. The Celts fell back into Wales and Cornwall and across the English Channel to Brittany, and the loosely knit tribes of the newcomers gradually coalesced into a heptarchy of kingdoms (see Kent, Sussex, Essex, Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria).
Late in the 8th cent., and with increasing severity until the middle of the 9th cent., raiding Vikings (known in English history as Danes) harassed coastal England and finally, in 865, launched a full-scale invasion. They were first effectively checked by King Alfred of Wessex and were with great difficulty confined to the Danelaw, where their leaders divided land among the soldiers for settlement. Alfred's successors conquered the Danelaw to form a united England, but new Danish invasions late in the 10th cent. overcame ineffective resistance (see Æthelred, 965?–1016). The Dane Canute ruled all England by 1016. At the expiration of the Scandinavian line in 1042, the Wessex dynasty (see Edward the Confessor) regained the throne. The conquest of England in 1066 by William, duke of Normandy (William I of England), ended the Anglo-Saxon period.
The freeman (ceorl) of the early Germanic invaders had been responsible to the king and superior to the serf. Subsequent centuries of war and subsistence farming, however, had forced the majority of freemen into serfdom, or dependence on the aristocracy of lords and thanes, who came to enjoy a large measure of autonomous control over manors granted them by the king (see manorial system). The central government evolved from tribal chieftainships to become a monarchy in which executive and judicial powers were usually vested in the king. The aristocracy made up his witan, or council of advisers (see witenagemot). The king set up shires as units of local government ruled by earldormen. In some instances these earldormen became powerful hereditary earls, ruling several shires. Subdivisions of shires were called hundreds. There were shire and hundred courts, the former headed by sheriffs, the latter by reeves. Agriculture was the principal industry, but the Danes were aggressive traders, and towns increased in importance starting in the 9th cent.
The Anglo-Saxons had been Christianized by missionaries from Rome and from Ireland, and the influence of Christianity became strongly manifest in all phases of culture (see Anglo-Saxon literature). Differences between Irish and continental religious customs were decided in favor of the Roman forms at the Synod of Whitby (663). Monastic communities, outstanding in the later 7th and in the 8th cent. and strongly revived in the 10th, developed great proficiency in manuscript illumination. Church scholars, such as Bede, Alcuin, and Aelfric—as well as King Alfred himself—preserved and advanced learning.
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- The Thatcher Era to the Present
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- World War II and the Welfare State
- World War I and Its Aftermath
- Victorian Foreign Policy
- Economic, Social, and Political Change
- The Growth of Empire and Eighteenth-Century Political Developments
- The Stuarts
- Tudor England
- Medieval England
- Early Period to the Norman Conquest
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