The first of our regular series about Englishness by our mysterious contributor – the Count of the Saxon Shore
As I stare out at that grey whale-road the English Channel it no longer seems absurd to make that boldest of historical parallels for Brexit: the end of the Roman Empire in Britain. Well, at least gives me an opportunity to properly talk about English identity. Yes, I want my country back. I want us to be honest about what it was in the first place.
The Romans left us with a pretty good infrastructure to regulate freedom of movement. There was the Wall, of course, but more important were the system of coastal defenses governed by the Count of the Saxon Shore, the Comes Littoris Saxonici. The Saxon Shore comprised a formidable system of nine large forts stretched out between Hampshire and Norfolk, with auxiliary signal stations and watchtowers in between, designed to keep out the most dangerous economic migrants of that age: the English.
There’s evidence to suggest that at least part of this operation was still in use nearly a century after the departure of the Romans. Along the coast from me is Pevensey Castle, the outer walls of which form the impressive remains of one of the larger forts, Anderitum.
Eng-er-Land, they seem to cry. They are really shouting Angle-Land, calling back this ever mongrel, ever migrant nation.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 491 AD notes that the Romano-British were still in occupation when a proto-English force of invaders besieged them and ‘slew all the inhabitants; there was not even one Briton left.’ And so the Kingdom of the South Saxons, or Sussex where I am writing this, was founded.
Saxons were named after their favoured weapon, a long-bladed knife called a seax. A beautiful example of this is the Seax of Beagnoth, inlaid with copper bronze and silver wire and decorated with the runic alphabet that the early English believed to have magic properties.
I last saw it as part of the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, on display next to intricately illuminated manuscripts of the period, to show how we went from barely literate knife-wielding barbarians to dedicated bibliophiles within a century. The evidence of the way English fanatically embraced new literary technology is here from the exquisite Kindle-sized Cuthbert’s Gospel (the oldest surviving bound book in Europe) to the massive mainframe of the Codex Amiatinus (the earliest surviving complete version of the Latin
This civilizing drive obviously came from our diversity and strong migrant identity. The very term ‘anglo-saxon’ is multicultural (also covering other nations, Jutes, Frisians and tribal groups like the Gewisse and the Hastingas); our first historian Bede is clearly proud of the fact that we came from somewhere else. This is what gave us the energy to aspire to something greater. Don’t believe this lie that we are some inert, ‘indigenous’ nation endlessly swamped by ‘alien’ cultures. The English are better than that.
Yes, I want my country back. I want us to be honest about what it was in the first place.
In 664 AD the Synod of Whitby brought us back into Europe. The Angles of Northumbria decided on an ecclesiastical customs union with Rome when others in Britain wanted a Church quite separate from the rest of Christendom. And it was the ascendancy of those Angles that determined the eventual prefix of this country.
We still hear it at international football matches, when that atavistic extra syllable inserts itself into the tribal chant of the fans. Eng-er-Land, they seem to cry. They are really shouting Angle-Land, calling back this ever mongrel, ever migrant nation.