From the little strip of eastern and southern coast on which they first settled, the English advanced slowly into the interior by the valleys of the great rivers, and finally swarmed across the central dividing ridge into the basins of the Severn and the Irish Sea. Up the open river mouths they could make their way in their shallow-bottomed boats, as the Scandinavian pirates did three centuries later; and when they reached the head of navigation in each stream for the small draught of their light vessels, they probably took to the land and settled down at once, leaving further inland expeditions to their sons and successors. For this second step in the Teutonic colonisation of Britain we have some few traditional accounts, which seem somewhat more trustworthy than those of the first settlement. Unfortunately, however, they apply for the most part only to the kingdom of Wessex, and not to the North and the Midlands, where such details would be of far greater value.
The valley of the Humber gives access to the great central basin of the Trent. Up this fruitful basin, at a somewhat later date, apparently, than the settlement of Deira and Lincolnshire, scattered bodies of English colonists, under petty leaders whose names have been forgotten, seem to have pushed their way forward through the broad lowlands towards Derby, Nottingham, and Leicester. They bore the name of Middle English. Westward, again, other settlers raised their capital at Lichfield. These formed the advanced guard of the English against the Welsh, and hence their country was generally known as the Mark, or March, a name which was afterwards latinized into the familiar form of Mercia. The absence of all tradition as to the colonisation of this important tract, the heart of England, and afterwards one of the three dominant Anglo-Saxon states, leads one to suppose that the process was probably very gradual, and the change came about so slowly as to have left but little trace on the popular memory. At any rate, it is certain that the central ridge long formed the division between the two races; and that the Welsh at this period still occupied the whole western watershed, except in the lower portion of the Severn valley.
The Welland, the Nene, and the Great Ouse, flowing through the centre of the Fen Country, then a vast morass, studded with low and marshy islands, gave access to the districts about Peterborough, Stamford, and Cambridge. Here, too, a body of unknown settlers, the Gyrwas, seem about the same time to have planted their colonies. At a later date they coalesced with the Mercians. However, the comparative scarcity of villages bearing the English clan names throughout all these regions suggests the probability that Mercia, Middle England, and the Fen Country were not by any means so densely colonised as the coast districts; and independent Welsh communities long held out among the isolated dry tracts of the fens as robbers and outlaws.
In the south, the advance of the West Saxons had been checked in 520, according to the legend, by the prowess of Arthur, king of the Devonshire Welsh. As Mr. Guest acutely notes, some special cause must have been at work to make the Britons resist here so desperately as to maintain for half a century a weak frontier within little more than twenty miles of Winchester, the West Saxon capital. He suggests that the great choir of Ambrosius at Amesbury was probably the chief Christian monastery of Britain, and that the Welshman may here have been fighting for all that was most sacred to him on earth. Moreover, just behind stood the mysterious national monument of Stonehenge, the honoured tomb of some Celtic or still earlier aboriginal chief. But in 552, the English Chronicle tells us, Cynric, the West Saxon king, crossed the downs behind Winchester, and descended upon the dale at Salisbury. The Roman town occupied the square hill-fort of Old Sarum, and there Cynric put the Welsh to flight and took the stronghold by storm.
The road was thus opened in the rear to the upper waters of the Thames (impassable before because of the Roman population of London), as well as towards the valley of the Bath Avon. Four years later Cynric and his son Ceawlin once more advanced as far as Barbury hill-fort, probably on a mere plundering raid. But in 571 Cuthwulf, brother of Ceawlin, again marched northward, and "fought against the Welsh at Bedford, and took four towns, Lenbury (or Leighton Buzzard), Aylesbury, Bensington (near Dorchester in Oxfordshire), and Ensham." Thus the West Saxons overran the whole upper valley of the Thames from Berkshire to above Oxford, and formed a junction with the Middle Saxons to the north of London; while eastward they spread as far as the northern boundaries of Essex. In 577 the same intruders made a still more important move. Crossing the central watershed of England, near Chippenham, they descended upon the broken valley of the Bath Avon, and found themselves the first Englishmen who reached any of the basins which point westward towards the Atlantic seaboard. At a doubtful place named Deorham (probably Dyrham near Bath), "Cuthwine and Ceawlin fought against the Welsh, and slew three kings, Conmail, and Condidan, and Farinmail, and took three towns from them, Gloucester, and Cirencester, and Bath." Thus the three great Roman cities of the lower Severn valley fell into the hands of the West Saxons, and the English for the first time stood face to face with the western sea. Though the story of these conquests is of course recorded from mere tradition at a much later date, it still has a ring of truth, or at least of probability, about it, which is wholly wanting to the earlier legends. If we are not certain as to the facts, we can at least accept them as symbolical of the manner in which the West Saxon power wormed its way over the upper basin of the Thames, and crept gradually along the southern valley of the Severn.
The victory of Deorham has a deeper importance of its own, however, than the mere capture of the three great Roman cities in the south-west of Britain. By the conquest of Bath and Gloucester, the West Saxons cut off the Welsh of Devon, Cornwall, and Somerset from their brethren in the Midlands and in Wales. This isolation of the West Welsh, as the English thenceforth called them, largely broke the power of the native resistance. Step by step in the succeeding age the West Saxons advanced by hard fighting, but with no serious difficulty, to the Axe, to the Parret, to the Tone, to the Exe, to the Tamar, till at last the West Welsh, confined to the peninsula of Cornwall, became known merely as the Cornish men, and in the reign of Æthelstan were finally subjugated by the English, though still retaining their own language and national existence. But in all the western regions the Celtic population was certainly spared to a far greater extent than in the east; and the position of the English might rather be described as an occupation than as a settlement in the strict sense of the word.
The westward progress of the Northumbrians is later and much more historical. Theodoric, son of Ida, as we may perhaps infer from the old Welsh ballads, fought long and not always successfully with Urien of Strathclyde. But in 592, says Bæda, who lived himself but three-quarters of a century later than the event he describes, "there reigned over the kingdom of the Northumbrians a most brave and ambitious king, Æthelfrith, who, more than all other nobles of the English, wasted the race of the Britons; for no one of our kings, no one of our chieftains, has rendered more of their lands either tributary to or an integral part of the English territories, whether by subjugating or expatriating the natives." In 606 Æthelfrith rounded the Peakland, now known as Derbyshire, and marched from the upper Trent upon the Roman city of Chester. There "he made a terrible slaughter of the perfidious race." Over two thousand Welsh monks from the monastery of Bangor Iscoed were slain by the heathen invader; but Bæda explains that Æthelfrith put them to death because they prayed against him; a sentence which strongly suggests the idea that the English did not usually kill non-combatant Welshmen.
The victory of Chester divided the Welsh power in the north as that of Deorham had divided it in the south. Henceforward, the Northumbrians bore rule from sea to sea, from the mouth of the Humber to the mouths of the Mersey and the Dee. Æthelfrith even kept up a rude navy in the Irish Sea. Thus the Welsh nationality was broken up into three separate and weak divisions—Strathclyde in the north, Wales in the centre, and Damnonia, or Cornwall, in the south. Against these three fragments the English presented an unbroken and aggressive front, Northumbria standing over against Strathclyde, Mercia steadily pushing its way along the upper valley of the Severn against North Wales, and Wessex advancing in the south against South Wales and the West Welsh of Somerset, Devon, and Cornwall. Thus the conquest of the interior was practically complete. There still remained, it is true, the subjugation of the west; but the west was brought under the English over-lordship by slow degrees, and in a very different manner from the east and the south coast, or even the central belt. Cornwall finally yielded under Æthelstan; Strathclyde was gradually absorbed by the English in the south and the Scottish kingdom on the north; and the last remnant of Wales only succumbed to the intruders under the rule of the Angevin Edward I.
There were, in fact, three epochs of English extension in Britain. The first epoch was one of colonisation on the coasts and along the valleys of the eastward rivers. The second epoch was one of conquest and partial settlement in the central plateau and the westward basins. The third epoch was one of merely political subjugation in the western mountain regions. The proofs of these assertions we must examine at length in the succeeding chapter.