Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

infected with credulity, with the love of wonder, and with a propensity to imposture ; vices almost inséparable from their profession and manner of life. The history of that period abounds in names, but is extremely barren of events; or the events are related so much without circumstances and causes, that the most profound or most eloquent writer must despair of rendering them either instructive or entertaining to the reader. Even the great learning and vigorous imagination of Milton sunk under the weight; and this author scruples not to declare, that the skirmishes of kites or crows as much merited a particular narrative, as the confused tansactions and battles of the Saxon Heptarchy.* In order, however, to connect the events in some tolerable measure, we shall give a succinct account of the successions of kings, and of the more remarkable revolutions in each particular kingdom ; beginning with that of Kent, which was the first established.

[ocr errors][merged small][ocr errors]

Escus succeeded his father, Hengist, in the kingdom of Kent; but seems not to have possessed the military genius of that conqueror, who first made way for the entrance of the Saxon arms into Britain. All the Saxons, who sought either the fame of valor, or new establishments by arms, flocked to the standard of Ælla, king of Sussex, who was carrying on successful war against the Britons, and laying the foundatiores of a new kingdom. Escus was content to possess in tranquillity the kingdom of Kent, which he left in 512 to his son Octa, in whose time the East Saxons established their monarchy, and dismembered the provinces of Essex and Middlesex from that of Kent. His death, after a reign of twenty. two years, made room for his son Hermenric in 534, who performed nothing memorable during a reign of thirty-two years ; excepting associating with him his son Ethelbert in the government, that he might secure the succession in his family, and prevent such revolutions as are incident to a turbulent and barbarous monarchy.

Ethelbert revived the reputation of his family, which had languished for some generations. The inactivity of his predecessors, and the situation of his country, secured from all hostility with the Britons, seem to have much enfeebled the warlike genius of the Kentish Saxons; and Ethelbert, in his first attempt to aggrandize his country, and distinguish his own name, was unsuccessful.* He was twice discomfited in battle by Ceaulin, king of Wessex, and obliged to yield the superiority in the Heptarchy to that ambitious monarch, who preserved no moderation in his victory, and by reducing the kingdom of Sussex to subjection, excited jealousy in all the other princes. An association was formed against him; and Ethelbert, intrusted with the command of the allies, gave him battle, and obtained a decisive victory. Ceaulin died soon after; and Ethelbert succeeded as well to his ascendant among the Saxon states, as to his other ambitious projects He reduced all the princes, except the king of Northumber land, to a strict dependence upon him; and even established himself by force on the throne of Mercia, the most extensivo of the Saxon kingdoms. Apprehensive, however, of a dangerous league against him, like that by which he himself had been enabled to overthrow Ceaulin, he had the prudence to resign the kingdom of Mercia to Webba, the rightful heir, the son of Crida, who had first founded that monarchy. But governed still by ambition more than by justice, he gave Webba possession of the crown on such conditions, as rendered him little better than a tributary prince under his artful benefactor.

* Milton in Kennet, p. 50

But the most memorable event which distinguished the reign of this great prince, was the introduction of the Christian religion among the English Saxons. She superstition of the Germans, particularly that of the Saxons, was of the grossest and most barbarous kind; and being founded on traditional tales, received from their ancestors, not reduced to any system, not supported by political institutions, like that of the druids, it seems to have made little impression on its votaries, and to have easily resigned its place to the new doctrine promulgated to them. Woden, whom they deemed the ancestor of all their princes, was regarded as the god of war, and, by a natural consequence, became their supreme deity, and the chief object of their religious worship. They believed that, if they obtained che favor of this divinity by their valor, (for they made less account of the other virtues,) they should be admitted after their death into his hall; and reposing on couches, should satiate themselves with ale from the skulls of their enemies, whom they had slain in battle. Incited by this idea of paradise,

* Chron. Sax. p. 21.

H. Hunting. lib. ii.

which gratified at once the passion of revenge and that of in temperance, the ruling inclinations of barbarians, they despised the dangers of war, and increased their native ferocity against the vanquished by their religious prejudices. We know little of the other theological tenets of the Saxons; we only learn that they were polytheists; that they worshipped the sun and moon ; that they adored the god of thunder, under the name of Thor; that they had images in their temples; that they practised sacrifices; believed firmly in spells and enchantments; and admitted in general a system of doctrines which they held as sacred, but which, like all other superstitions, must carry the air of the wildest extravagance, if propounded to those who are not familiarized to it from their earliest infancy.

The constant hostilities which the Saxons maintained against the Britons, would naturally indispose them for receiving the Christian faith, when preached to them by such inveterate enemies; and perhaps the Britons, as is objected to them by Gildas and Bede, were not over-fond of communicating to their cruel invaders the doctrine of eternal life and salvation, But as a civilized people, however subdued by arms, still maintain a sensible superiority over barbarous and ignorant nations, all the other northern conquerors of Europe had been already induced to embrace the Christian faith, which they found established in the empire ; and it was impossible but the Saxons, informed of this event, must have regarded with some degree of veneration a doctrine which had acquired the ascendant over all their brethren. However limited in their views, they could not but have perceived a degree of cultiva. tion in the southern countries beyond what they themselves possessed; and it was natural for them to yield to that superior knowledge, as well as zeal, by which the inhabitants of the Christian kingdoms were even at that time distinguished.

But these causes might long have failed of producing any considerable effect, had not a favorable incident prepared the means of introducing Christianity into Kent. Ethelbert, in his father's lifetime, had married Bertha, the only daughter of Caribert, king of Paris, * one of the descendants of Clovis, the conqueror of Gaul; but before he was admitted to this alliance, he was obliged to stipulate, that the princess should enjoy the free exercise of her religion; a concession not difficult to be

* Greg. of Tours, lib. ix. cap. 26. H. Hunting. lib. Ü.

obtained from the idolatrous Saxons.* Bertha brought over a French bishop to the court of Canterbury ; and being zealous for the propagation of her religion, she had been very assiduous in her devotional exercises, had supported the credit of her faith by an irreproachable conduct, and had employed every art of insinuation and address to reconcile her husband to her religious principles. Her popularity in the court, and hier influence over Ethelbert, had so well paved the way for the reception of the Christian doctrine, that Gregory, surnamed the Great; then Roman pontiff, began to entertain hopes of eflecting a project which he himself, before he mounted the papal throne, had once embraced, of converting the British Saxons.

It happened that this prelate, at that time in a private atation, had observed in the market place of Rome some Saxon youth exposed to sale, whom the Roman merchants, in their trading voyages to Britain, had bought of their mercenary parents. Struck with the beauty of their fair complexions and blooming countenances, Gregory asked to what country they belonged ; and being told they were “ Angles,” he replied, thut they ought more properly to be denominated “angels. It were a pity that the prince of darkness should enjoy so fair a prey, and that so beautiful a frontispiece should cover a niind destitute of internal grace and righteousness. Inquiring further concerning the name of their province, he was informed, that it wası 66 Deïri," a district of Northumberland. " Deïri !” replied he," that is good! They are called to the mercy of God from his anger de ira. But what is the name of the king of that province ?" He was told it was “Ælla,"

be Alla." Alleluiah," cried he, " we must endeavor that the praises of God be sung in their country.” Moved by these allusions, which appeared to him so happy, he deter. mined to undertake himself a mission into Britain ; and having nbiained the pope's approbation, he prepared for that perilous journey; but his popularity at home was so great, that the Romans, unwilling to expose him to such dangers, opposed his design, and he was obliged for the present to lay aside all further thoughts of executing that pious purpose.t

The controversy between the pagans and the Christians was

or

* Bede, lib. i. cap. 25. Brompton, p. 729.
+ 3yde, lib. ii. cap. l. Spell. Concil. p. 91.

3

VOL, I

H

not entirely cooled in that age; and no pontiff before Gregory had ever carried to greater excess an intemperate zeal against the former religion. He had waged war with all the precious monuments of the ancients, and even with their writings, which, as appears from the strain of his own wit, as well as from the style of his compositions, he had not taste or genius sufficient to comprehend. . Ambitious to distinguish his pontificate by the conversion of the British Saxons, he pitched on Augustine, a Roman monk, and sent him with forty associates to preach the gospel in this island. These missionaries, terrified with the dangers which might attend their proposing a new doctrine to so fierce a people, of whose language they were'ignorant, stopped some time in France, and sent back Augustine to lay the hazards and difficulties before the pope, and crave his permission to desist from the undertaking. But Gregory exhorted them to persevere in their purpose, advised them to choose some interpreters from among the Franks, who still spoke the same language with the Saxons,* and recommended them to the good offices of Queen Brunehaut, who had at this time usurped the sovereign power in France. This princess, though stained with every vice of treachery and cruelty, either possessed or pretended great zeal for the cause; and Gregory acknowledged, that to her friendly assistance was, in a great measure, owing the success of that undertaking.

Augustine, on his arrival in Kent in the year 597,4 found the danger much less than he had apprehended. Ethelbert, already well disposed towards the Christian faith, assigned him a habitation in the Isle of Thanet, and soon after admitted him to a conference. Apprehensive, however, lest spells o enchantments might be employed against him by priests, w17 brought an unknown worship from a distant country, he has the precaution to receive them in the open air, where, he believed, the force of their magic would be more easily diş sipated. Here Augustine, by means of his interpreters delivered to him the tenets of the Christian faith, and promised. him eternal joys above, and a kingdom in heaven without end, if he would be persuaded to receive that salutary doctrine.

* Bede, lib. i. cap. 23.
† Greg. Epist. lib. ix. epist. 56. Spell. Concil. p. 82.
Higden, Polychron. lib. v. Chron. Sax.

p.

23. Bede, lib. i. cap. 25. H. Hunting. lib. iii. Brompton, p. 729 Parker, Antiq. Brit. Eccl. p 61.

« ZurückWeiter »