With the final triumph of Christianity, all the formative elements of Anglo-Saxon Britain are complete. We see it, a rough conglomeration of loosely-aggregated principalities, composed of a fighting aristocracy and a body of unvalued serfs; while interspersed through its parts are the bishops, monks, and clergy, centres of nascent civilisation for the seething mass of noble barbarism. The country is divided into agricultural colonies, and its only industry is agriculture, its only wealth, land. We want but one more conspicuous change to make it into the England of the Augustan Anglo-Saxon age—the reign of Eadgar—and that one change is the consolidation of the discordant kingdoms under a single loose over-lordship. To understand this final step, we must glance briefly at the dull record of the political history.
Under Æthelfrith, Eadwine, and Oswiu, Northumbria had been the chief power in England. But the eighth century is taken up with the greatness of Mercia. Ecgfrith, the last great king of Northumbria, whose over-lordship extended over the Picts of Galloway and the Cumbrians of Strathclyde, endeavoured to carry his conquests beyond the Forth, and annex the free land lying to the north of the old Roman line. He was defeated and slain, and with him fell the supremacy of Northumbria. Mercia, which already, under Penda and Wulfhere, had risen to the second place, now assumed the first position among the Teutonic kingdoms. Unfortunately we know little of the period of Mercian supremacy. The West Saxon chronicle contains few notices of the rival state, and we are thrown for information chiefly on the second-hand Latin historians of the twelfth century. Æthelbald, the first powerful Mercian king (716-755), "ravaged the land of the Northumbrians," and made Wessex acknowledge his supremacy. By this time all the minor kingdoms had practically become subject to the three great powers, though still retaining their native princes: and Wessex, Mercia, and Northumbria shared between them, as suzerains, the whole of Teutonic Britain. The meagre annals of the Chronicle, upon which alone (with the Charters and Latin writers of later date) we rest after the death of Bæda, show us a chaotic list of wars and battles between these three great powers themselves, or between them and their vassals, or with the Welsh and Devonians. Æthelbald was succeeded, after a short interval, by Offa, whose reign of nearly forty years (758-796), is the first settled period in English history. Offa ruled over the subject princes with rigour, and seems to have made his power really felt. He drove the Prince of Powys from Shrewsbury, and carried his ravages into the heart of Wales. He conquered the land between the Severn and the Wye, and his dyke from the Dee to the Severn, and the Wye, marked the new limits of the Welsh and English borders; while his laws codified the customs of Mercia, as those of Æthelberht and Ine had done with the customs of Kent and Wessex. He set up for awhile an archbishopric at Lichfield, which seems to mark his determination to erect Mercia into a sovereign power. He also founded the great monastery of St. Alban's, and is said to have established the English college at Rome, though another account attributes it to Ine, the West Saxon. East Anglia, Kent, Essex, and Sussex all acknowledged his supremacy. Karl the Great was then reviving the Roman Empire in its Germanic form, and Offa ventured to correspond with the Frank emperor as an equal. The possession of London, now a Mercian city, gave Offa an interest in continental affairs; and the growth of trade is marked by the fact that when a quarrel arose between them, they formally closed the ports of their respective kingdoms against each other's subjects.
Nevertheless, English kingship still remained a mere military office, and consolidation, in our modern sense, was clearly impossible. Local jealousies divided all the little kingdoms and their component principalities; and any real subordination was impracticable amongst a purely agricultural and warlike people, with no regular army, and governed only by their own anarchic desires. Like the Afghans of the present time, the early English were incapable of union, except in a temporary way under the strong hand of a single warlike leader against a common foe. As soon as that was removed, they fell asunder at once into their original separateness. Hence the chaotic nature of our early annals, in which it is impossible to discover any real order underlying the perpetual flux of states and princes.
A single story from the Chronicle will sufficiently illustrate the type of men whose actions make up the history of these predatory times. In 754, King Cuthred of the West Saxons died. His kinsman, Sigeberht, succeeded him. One year later, however, Cynewulf and the witan deprived Sigeberht of his kingdom, making over to him only the petty principality of Hampshire, while Cynewulf himself reigned in his stead. After a time Sigeberht murdered an ealdorman of his suite named Cymbra; whereupon Cynewulf deprived him of his remaining territory and drove him forth into the forest of the Weald. There he lived a wild life till a herdsman met him in the forest and stabbed him, to avenge the death of his master, Cymbra. Cynewulf, in turn, after spending his days in fighting the Welsh, lost his life in a quarrel with Cyneheard, brother of the outlawed Sigeberht. He had endeavoured to drive out the ætheling; but Cyneheard surprised him at Merton, and slew him with all his thegns, except one Welsh hostage. Next day, the king's friends, headed by the ealdorman Osric, fell upon the ætheling, and killed him with all his followers. In the very same year, Æthelbald of Mercia was killed fighting at Seckington; and Offa drove out his successor, Beornred. Of such murders, wars, surprises, and dynastic quarrels, the history of the eighth century is full. But no modern reader need know more of them than the fact that they existed, and that they prove the wholly ungoverned and ungovernable nature of the early English temper.
Until the Danish invasions of the ninth century, the tribal kingdoms still remained practically separate, and such cohesion as existed was only secured for the purpose of temporary defence or aggression. Essex kept its own kings under Æthelberht of Kent; Huiccia retained its royal house under Æthelred of Mercia; and later on, Mercia itself had its ealdormen, after the conquest by Ecgberht of Wessex. Each royal line reigned under the supreme power until it died out naturally, like our own great feudatories in India at the present day. "When Wessex and Mercia have worked their way to the rival hegemonies," says Canon Stubbs, "Sussex and Essex do not cease to be numbered among the kingdoms, until their royal houses are extinct. When Wessex has conquered Mercia and brought Northumbria on its knees, there are still kings in both Northumbria and Mercia. The royal house of Kent dies out, but the title of King of Kent is bestowed on an ætheling, first of the Mercian, then of the West Saxon house. Until the Danish conquest, the dependant royalties seem to have been spared; and even afterwards organic union can scarcely be said to exist."
The final supremacy of the West Saxons was mainly brought about by the Danish invasion. But the man who laid the foundation of the West Saxon power was Ecgberht, the so-called first king of all England. Banished from Wessex during his youth by one of the constant dynastic quarrels, through the enmity of Offa, the young ætheling had taken refuge with Karl the Great, at the court of Aachen, and there had learnt to understand the rising statesmanship of the Frankish race and of the restored Roman empire. The death of his enemy Beorhtric, in 802, left the kingdom open to him: but the very day of his accession showed him the character of the people whom he had come to rule. The men of Worcester celebrated his arrival by a raid on the men of Wilts. "On that ilk day," says the Chronicle, "rode Æthelhund, ealdorman of the Huiccias [who were Mercians], over at Cynemæres ford; and there Weohstan the ealdorman met him with the Wilts men [who were West Saxons:] and there was a muckle fight, and both ealdormen were slain, and the Wilts men won the day." For twenty years, Ecgberht was engaged in consolidating his ancestral dominions: but at the end of that time, he found himself able to attack the Mercians, who had lost Offa six years before Ecgberht's return. In 825, the West Saxons met the Mercian host at Ellandun, "and Ecgberht gained the day, and there was muckle slaughter." Therefore all the Saxon name, held tributary by the Mercians, gathered about the Saxon champion. "The Kentish folk, and they of Surrey, and the South Saxons, and the East Saxons turned to him." In the same year, the East Anglians, anxious to avoid the power of Mercia, "sought Ecgberht for peace and for aid." Beornwulf, the Mercian king, marched against his revolted tributaries: but the East Anglians fought him stoutly, and slew him and his successor in two battles. Ecgberht followed up this step by annexing Mercia in 829: after which he marched northward against the Northumbrians, who at once "offered him obedience and peace; and they thereupon parted." One year later, Ecgberht led an army against the northern Welsh, and "reduced them to humble obedience." Thus the West Saxon kingdom absorbed all the others, at least so far as a loose over-lordship was concerned. Ecgberht had rivalled his master Karl by founding, after a fashion, the empire of the English. But all the local jealousies smouldered on as fiercely as ever, the under-kings retained their several dominions, and Ecgberht's supremacy was merely one of superior force, unconnected with any real organic unity of the kingdom as a whole. Ecgberht himself generally bore the title of King of the West Saxons, like his ancestors: and though in dealing with his Anglian subjects he styled himself Rex Anglorum, that title perhaps means little more than the humbler one of Rex Gewissorum, which he used in addressing his people of the lesser principality. The real kingdom of the English never existed before the days of Eadward the Elder, and scarcely before the days of William the Norman and Henry the Angevin. As to the kingdom of England, that was a far later invention of the feudal lawyers.