Inside this boundary the "township," as the village was then called from the "tun" or rough fence and trench that served as its simple fortification, formed a ready-made fortress in war, while in peace its entrenchments were serviceable in the feuds of village with village, or house with house. Within the village we find from the first a marked social difference between two orders of its indwellers. The bulk of its homesteads were those of its freemen or "ceorls;" but amongst these were the larger homes of "eorls," or men distinguished among their fellows by noble blood, who were held in an hereditary reverence, and from whom the leaders of the village were chosen in war time, or rulers in time of peace. But the choice was a purely voluntary one, and the man of noble blood enjoyed no legal privilege among his fellows. The holdings of the freemen clustered round a moot-hill or sacred tree where the community met from time to time to order its own industry and to frame its own laws. Here plough-land and meadow-land were shared in due lot among the villagers, and field and homestead passed from man to man.
Here strife of farmer with farmer was settled according to the "customs" of the township as its "elder men" stated them, and the wrong-doer was judged and his fine assessed by the kinsfolk; and here men were chosen to follow headman or ealdorman to hundred court or war. It is with a reverence such as is stirred by the sight of the head-waters of some mighty river that one looks back to these tiny moots, where the men of the village met to order the village life and the village industry, as their descendants, the men of a later England, meet in Parliament at Westminster, to frame laws and do justice for the great empire which has sprung from this little body of farmer-commonwealths in Sleswick.
The religion of the English was the same as that of the whole German family. Christianity, which had by this time brought about the conversion of the Roman Empire, had not penetrated as yet among the forests of the North. Our own names for the days of the week still recall to us the gods whom our fathers worshipped. Wednesday is the day of Woden, the war-god, the guardian of ways and boundaries, the inventor of letters, the common god of the whole conquering people, whom every tribe held to be the first ancestor of its kings. Thursday is the day of Thunder, or, as the Northmen called him, Thor, the god of air and storm and rain; as Friday is Frea's-day, the god of peace and joy and fruitfulness, whose emblems, borne aloft by dancing maidens, brought increase to every field and stall they visited. Saturday may commemorate an obscure god Saetere; Tuesday the dark god, Tiw, to meet whom was death. Behind these floated dim shapes of an older mythology; Eostre, the goddess of the dawn, or of the spring, who lends her name to the Christian festival of the Resurrection; "Wyrd," the death-goddess, whose memory lingered long in the "weird" of northern superstition; or the Shield-Maidens, the "mighty women" who, an old rime tells us, "wrought on the battle-field their toil, and hurled the thrilling javelins." Nearer to the popular fancy lay deities of wood and fell, or the hero-gods of legend and song; "Nicor," the water-sprite, who gave us our water-nixies and "Old Nick"; "Weland," the forger of mighty shields and sharp-biting swords, whose memory lingers in the stories of "Weyland's Smithy" in Berkshire; while the name of Ailesbury may preserve the last trace of the legend of Weland's brother, the sun-archer aegil. But it is only in broken fragments that this mass of early faith and early poetry still lives for us, in a name, in the grey stones of a cairn, or in snatches of our older song: and the faint traces of worship or of priesthood which we find in later history show how lightly it clung to the national life.
From Sleswick and the shores of the Northern Sea we must pass, before opening our story, to a land which, dear as it is now to Englishmen, had not as yet been trodden by English feet. The island of Britain had for nearly four hundred years been a province of the Empire. A descent of Julius Caesar revealed it (B.C. 55) to the Roman world, but nearly a century elapsed before the Emperor Claudius attempted its definite conquest. The victories of Julius Agricola (a.d. 78 - 84) carried the Roman frontier to the Firths of Forth and of Clyde, and the work of Roman civilization followed hard upon the Roman sword. Population was grouped in cities such as York or Lincoln, cities governed by their own municipal officers, guarded by massive walls, and linked together by a network of roads, which extended from one end of the island to the other. Commerce sprang up in ports like that of London; agriculture flourished till Britain was able at need to supply the necessities of Gaul; its mineral resources were explored in the tin mines of Cornwall, the lead mines of Somerset and Northumberland, and the iron mines of the Forest of Dean. The wealth of the island grew fast during centuries of unbroken peace, but the evils which were slowly sapping the strength of the Roman Empire at large must have told heavily on the real wealth of the province of Britain. Here, as in Italy or Gaul, the population probably declined as the estates of the landed proprietors grew larger, and the cultivators sank into serfs whose cabins clustered round the luxurious villas of their lords.
The mines, if worked by forced labour, must have been a source of endless oppression. Town and country were alike crushed by heavy taxation, while industry was fettered by laws that turned every trade into an hereditary caste. Above all, the purely despotic system of the Roman Government, by crushing all local independence, crushed all local vigour. Men forgot how to fight for their country when they forgot how to govern it.
Such causes of decay were common to every province of the Empire; but there were others that sprang from the peculiar circumstances of Britain itself. The island was weakened by a disunion within, which arose from the partial character of its civilization. It was only in the towns that the conquered Britons became entirely Romanized. Over large tracts of country the rural Britons seemed to have remained apart, speaking their own tongue, owning some traditional allegiance to their native chiefs, and even retaining their native laws. The use of the Roman language may be taken as marking the progress of Roman civilization, and though Latin had wholly superseded the language of the conquered peoples in Spain or Gaul, its use seems to have been confined in Britain to the townsfolk and the wealthier landowners without the towns. The dangers that sprang from such a severance between the two elements of the population must have been stirred into active life by the danger which threatened Britain from the North. The Picts who had been sheltered from Roman conquest by the fastnesses of the Highlands were roused in their turn to attack by the weakness of the province and the hope of plunder. Their invasions penetrated to the heart of the island.