The Northern Way


Page 3

During the sanguinary conflicts of the eleventh century, which ended first in the temporary triumph of the Danes, and afterwards in the total subjugation of the country by the Normans, literary pursuits, as might be expected, were so much neglected, that scarcely a Latin writer is to be found: but the "Saxon Chronicle" has preserved a regular and minute detail of occurrences, as they passed along, of which subsequent historians were glad to avail themselves. For nearly a century after the Conquest, the Saxon annalists appear to have been chiefly eye-witnesses of the transactions which they relate (23). The policy of the Conqueror led him by degrees to employ Saxons as well as Normans: and William II. found them the most faithful of his subjects: but such an influx of foreigners naturally corrupted the ancient language; till at length, after many foreign and domestic wars, tranquillity being restored on the accession of Henry II., literature revived; a taste for composition increased; and the compilation of Latin histories of English and foreign affairs, blended and diversified with the fabled romance and legendary tale, became the ordinary path to distinction. It is remarkable, that when the "Saxon Chronicle" ends, Geoffrey of Monmouth begins. Almost every great monastery about this time had its historian: but some still adhered to the ancient method. Florence of Worcester, an interpolator of Marianus, as we before observed, closely follows Bede, Asser, and the "Saxon Chronicle" (24). The same may be observed of the annals of Gisburne, of Margan, of Meiros, of Waverley, etc.; some of which are anonymous compilations, whilst others have the name of an author, or rather transcriber; for very few aspired to the character of authors or original historians. Thomas Wikes, a canon of Oseney, who compiled a Latin chronicle of English affairs from the Conquest to the year 1304, tells us expressly, that he did this, not because he could add much to the histories of Bede, William of Newburgh, and Matthew Paris, but "propter minores, quibus non suppetit copia librorum." (25) Before the invention of printing, it was necessary that numerous copies of historical works should be transcribed, for the instruction of those who had not access to libraries. The transcribers frequently added something of their own, and abridged or omitted what they thought less interesting. Hence the endless variety of interpolators and deflorators of English history. William of Malmsbury, indeed, deserves to be selected from all his competitors for the superiority of his genius; but he is occasionally inaccurate, and negligent of dates and other minor circumstances; insomuch that his modern translator has corrected some mistakes, and supplied the deficiencies in his chronology, by a reference to the "Saxon Chronicle". Henry of Huntingdon, when he is not transcribing Bede, or translating the "Saxon Annals", may be placed on the same shelf with Geoffrey of Monmouth.

As I have now brought the reader to the period when our "Chronicle" terminates, I shall dismiss without much ceremony the succeeding writers, who have partly borrowed from this source; Simon of Durham, who transcribes Florence of Worcester, the two priors of Hexham, Gervase, Hoveden, Bromton, Stubbes, the two Matthews, of Paris and Westminster, and many others, considering that sufficient has been said to convince those who may not have leisure or opportunity to examine the matter themselves, that however numerous are the Latin historians of English affairs, almost everything original and authentic, and essentially conducive to a correct knowledge of our general history, to the period above mentioned, may be traced to the "Saxon Annals".

It is now time to examine, who were probably the writers of these "Annals". I say probably, because we have very little more than rational conjecture to guide us.

The period antecedent to the times of Bede, except where passages were afterwards inserted, was perhaps little else, originally, than a kind of chronological table of events, with a few genealogies, and notices of the death and succession of kings and other distinguished personages. But it is evident from the preface of Bede and from many passages in his work, that he received considerable assistance from Saxon bishops, abbots, and others; who not only communicated certain traditionary facts "viva voce", but also transmitted to him many written documents. These, therefore, must have been the early chronicles of Wessex, of Kent, and of the other provinces of the Heptarchy; which formed together the ground-work of his history. With greater honesty than most of his followers, he has given us the names of those learned persons who assisted him with this local information. The first is Alcuinus or Albinus, an abbot of Canterbury, at whose instigation he undertook the work; who sent by Nothelm, afterwards archbishop of that province, a full account of all ecclesiastical transactions in Kent, and in the contiguous districts, from the first conversion of the Saxons. From the same source he partly derived his information respecting the provinces of Essex, Wessex, East Anglia, and Northumbria. Bishop Daniel communicated to him by letter many particulars concerning Wessex, Sussex, and the Isle of Wight. He acknowledges assistance more than once "ex scriptis priorum"; and there is every reason to believe that some of these preceding records were the "Anglo-Saxon Annals"; for we have already seen that such records were in existence before the age of Nennius. In proof of this we may observe, that even the phraseology sometimes partakes more of the Saxon idiom than the Latin. If, therefore, it be admitted, as there is every reason to conclude from the foregoing remarks, that certain succinct and chronological arrangements of historical facts had taken place in several provinces of the Heptarchy before the time of Bede, let us inquire by whom they were likely to have been made.

In the province of Kent, the first person on record, who is celebrated for his learning, is Tobias, the ninth bishop of Rochester, who succeeded to that see in 693. He is noticed by Bede as not only furnished with an ample store of Greek and Latin literature, but skilled also in the Saxon language and erudition (26). It is probable, therefore, that he left some proofs of this attention to his native language and as he died within a few years of Bede, the latter would naturally avail himself of his labours. It is worthy also of remark, that Bertwald, who succeeded to the illustrious Theodore of Tarsus in 690, was the first English or Saxon archbishop of Canterbury. From this period, consequently, we may date that cultivation of the vernacular tongue which would lead to the composition of brief chronicles (27), and other vehicles of instruction, necessary for the improvement of a rude and illiterate people. The first chronicles were, perhaps, those of Kent or Wessex; which seem to have been regularly continued, at intervals. by the archbishops of Canterbury, or by their direction (28), at least as far as the year 1001, or by even 1070; for the Benet MS., which some call the Plegmund MS., ends in the latter year; the rest being in Latin. From internal evidence indeed, of an indirect nature, there is great reason to presume, that Archbishop Plegmund transcribed or superintended this very copy of the "Saxon Annals" to the year 891 (29); the year in which he came to the see; inserting, both before and after this date, to the time of his death in 923, such additional materials as he was well qualified to furnish from his high station and learning, and the confidential intercourse which he enjoyed in the court of King Alfred. The total omission of his own name, except by another hand, affords indirect evidence of some importance in support of this conjecture. Whether King Alfred himself was the author of a distinct and separate chronicle of Wessex, cannot now be determined. (30) That he furnished additional supplies of historical matter to the older chronicles is, I conceive, sufficiently obvious to every reader who will take the trouble of examining the subject. The argument of Dr. Beeke, the present Dean of Bristol, in an obliging letter to the editor on this subject, is not without its force; -- that it is extremely improbable, when we consider the number and variety of King Alfred's works, that he should have neglected the history, of his own country. Besides a genealogy of the kings of Wessex from Cerdic to his own time, which seems never to have been incorporated with any MS. of the "Saxon Chronicle", though prefixed or annexed to several, he undoubtedly preserved many traditionary facts; with a full and circumstantial detail of his own operations, as well as those of his father, brother, and other members of his family; which scarcely any other person than himself could have supplied. To doubt this would be as incredulous a thing as to deny that Xenophon wrote his "Anabasis", or Caesar his "Commentaries". From the time of Alfred and Plegmund to a few years after the Norman Conquest, these chronicles seem to have been continued by different hands, under the auspices of such men as Archbishops Dunstan, Aelfric, and others, whose characters have been much misrepresented by ignorance and scepticism on the one hand; as well as by mistaken zeal and devotion on the other. The indirect evidence respecting Dunstan and Aelfric is as curious as that concerning Plegmund; but the discussion of it would lead us into a wide and barren field of investigation; nor is this the place to refute the errors of Hickes, Cave, and Wharton, already noticed by Wanley in his preface. The chronicles of Abingdon, of Worcester, of Peterborough, and others, are continued in the same manner by different hands; partly, though not exclusively, by monks of those monasteries, who very naturally inserted many particulars relating to their own local interests and concerns; which, so far from invalidating the general history, render it more interesting and valuable. It would be a vain and frivolous attempt ascribe these latter compilations to particular persons (31), where there were evidently so many contributors; but that they were successively furnished by contemporary writers, many of whom were eye-witnesses of the events and transactions which they relate, there is abundance of internal evidence to convince us. Many instances of this the editor had taken some pains to collect, in order to lay them before the reader in the preface; but they are so numerous that the subject would necessarily become tedious; and therefore every reader must be left to find them for himself. They will amply repay him for his trouble, if he takes any interest in the early history of England, or in the general construction of authentic history of any kind. He will see plagarisms without end in the Latin histories, and will be in no danger of falling into the errors of Gale and others; not to mention those of our historians who were not professed antiquaries, who mistook that for original and authentic testimony which was only translated. It is remarkable that the "Saxon Chronicle" gradually expires with the Saxon language, almost melted into modern English, in the year 1154. From this period almost to the Reformation, whatever knowledge we have of the affairs of England has been originally derived either from the semi-barbarous Latin of our own countrymen, or from the French chronicles of Froissart and others.


(23) See particularly the character of William I. p. 294, written by one who was in his court. The compiler of the "Waverley Annals" we find literally translating it more than a century afterwards: -- "nos dicemus, qui eum vidimus, et in curia ejus aliquando fuimus," etc. -- Gale, ii. 134. Back

(24) His work, which is very faithfully and diligently compiled, ends in the year 1117; but it is continued by another hand to the imprisonment of King Stephen. Back

(25) "Chron. ap." Gale, ii. 21. Back

(26) "Virum Latina, Graec, et Saxonica lingua atque eruditione multipliciter instructum." -- Bede, "Ecclesiastical History", v. 8. "Chron. S. Crucis Edinb. ap.", Wharton, i. 157. Back

(27) The materials, however, though not regularly arranged, must be traced to a much higher source. Back

(28) Josselyn collated two Kentish MSS. of the first authority; one of which he calls the History or Chronicle of St. Augustine's, the other that of Christ Church, Canterbury. The former was perhaps the one marked in our series "C.T."A VI.; the latter the Benet or Plegmund MS. Back

(29) Wanley observes, that the Benet MS. is written in one and the same hand to this year, and in hands equally ancient to the year 924; after which it is continued in different hands to the end. Vid. "Cat." p. 130. Back

(30) Florence of Worcester, in ascertaining the succession of the kings of Wessex, refers expressly to the "Dicta Aelfredi". Ethelwerd had before acknowledged that he reported many things -- "sicut docuere parentes;" and then he immediately adds, "Scilicet Aelfred rex Athulfi regis filius; ex quo nos originem trahimus." Vid. Prol. Back

(31) Hickes supposed the Laud or Peterborough Chronicle to have been compiled by Hugo Candidus (Albus, or White), or some other monk of that house. Back

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