FOR the fatherland of the English race we must look far away from England itself. In the fifth century after the birth of Christ, the one country which we know to have borne the name of Angeln or the Engleland lay in the district which we now call Sleswick, a district in the heart of the peninsula which parts the Baltic from the northern seas. Its pleasant pastures, its black-timbered homesteads, its prim little townships looking down on inlets of purple water, were then but a wild waste of heather and sand, girt along the coast with sunless woodland, broken here and there by meadows which crept down to the marshes and the sea. The dwellers in this district, however, seem to have been merely an outlying fragment of what was called the Engle or English folk, the bulk of whom lay probably along the middle Elbe and on the Weser. To the north of the English in their Sleswick home lay another kindred tribe, the Jutes, whose name is still preserved in their district of Jutland. To the south of them a number of German tribes had drawn together in their homeland between the Elbe and the Ems, and in a wide tract across the Ems to the Rhine, into the people of the Saxons. Engle, Saxon, and Jute all belonged to the same Low German branch of the Teutonic family; and at the moment when history discovers them, they were being drawn together by the ties of a common blood, common speech, common social and political institutions.
Each of them was destined to share in the conquest of the land in which we live; and it is from the union of all of them when its conquest was complete that the English people has sprung.
[Authorities. - For the constitution and settlement of the English, see Kemble's "Saxons in England" and especially the "Constitutional History of England " by Dr. Stubbs. Sir Francis Palgrave's History of the English Commonwealth is valuable, but to be used with care. A vigorous and accurate sketch of the early constitution may be found in Mr. Freeman's History of the Norman Conquest, vol. i. See also "The Making of England" and "The Conquest of England" by J. R. Green].
Of the temper and life of the folk in this older England we know little. But, from the glimpses which we catch of them when conquest had brought them to the shores of Britain, their political and social organization must have been that of the German race to which they belonged. The basis of their society was the free man. He alone was known as "the man," or "the churl;" and two phrases set his freedom vividly before us. He was "the free-necked man," whose long hair floated over a neck that had never bent to a lord. He was "the weaponed man," who alone bore spear and sword, for he alone possessed the right which in such a state of society formed the main check upon lawless outrage, the right of private war. Among the English, as among all the races of mankind, justice had originally sprung from each man's personal action. There had been a time when every freeman was his own avenger. But even in the earliest forms of English society of which we catch traces this right of self-defence was being modified and restricted by a growing sense of public justice. The "blood-wite," or compensation in money for personal wrong, was the first effort of the tribe as a whole to regulate private revenge.
The freeman's life and the freeman's limb had each on this system its legal price. "Eye for eye," ran the rough customary code, and "limb for limb," or for each fair damages. We see a further step towards the recognition of a wrong as done not to the individual man, but to the people at large, in another custom of early date. The price of life or limb was paid, not by the wrong-doer to the man he wronged, but by the family or house of the wrong-doer to the family or house of the wronged. Order and law were thus made to rest in each little group of English people upon the blood-bond which knit its families together; every outrage was held to have been done by all who were linked by blood to the doer of it, every crime to have been done against all who were linked by blood to the sufferer from it. From this sense of the value of the family bond, as a means of restraining the wrong-doer by forces which the tribe as a whole did not as yet possess, sprang the first rude forms of English justice. Each kinsman was his kinsman's keeper, bound to protect him from wrong, to hinder him from wrong-doing, and to suffer with and pay for him, it wrong were done.
So fully was this principle recognized that, even if any man was charged before his fellow-tribesmen with crime, his kinsfolk still remained in fact his sole judges; for it was by their solemn oath of his innocence or his guilt that he had to stand or fall.
The blood-bond gave both its military and social form to Old English society. Kinsmen fought side by side in the hour of battle, and the feelings of honour and discipline which held the host together were drawn from the common duty of every man in each little group of warriors to his house. And as they fought side by side on the field, so they dwelled side by side on the soil. Harling abode by Hading, and Billing by Billing; and each "wick" or "ham" or "stead" or "tun" took its name from the kinsmen who dwelt together in it. The home or "ham" of the Billings would be Billingham, and the "tun" or township of the Harlings would be Harlington. But in such settlements, the tie of blood was widened into the larger tie of land. Land with the German race seems at a very early time to have become the accompaniment of full freedom The freeman was strictly the freeholder, and the exercise of his fall rights as a free member of the community to which he belonged was inseparable from the possession of his "holding." The landless man ceased for all practical purposes to be free, though he was no man's slave.
In the very earliest glimpse we get of the German race we see them a race of land-holders and land-tillers. Tacitus, the first Roman who sought to know these destined conquerors of Rome, describes them as pasturing on the forest glades around their villages, and ploughing their village fields. A feature which at once struck him as parting them from the civilized world to which he himself belonged, was their hatred of cities, and their love even within their little settlements of a jealous independence. "They live apart," he says, "each by himself, as woodside, plain, or fresh spring attracts him." And as each dweller within the settlement was jealous of his own isolation and independence among his fellow settlers, so each settlement was jealous of its independence among its fellow settlements. Of the character of their life in this early world, however, we know little save what may be gathered from the indications of a later time. Each little farmer commonwealth was girt in by its own border or "mark," a belt of forest or waste or fen which parted it from its fellow villages, a ring of common ground which none of its settlers might take for his own, but which sometimes served as a death-ground where criminals met their doom, and was held to be the special dwelling-place of the nixie and the will-o'-the-wisp. If a stranger came through this wood, or over this waste, custom bade him blow his horn as he came, for if he stole through secretly he was taken for a foe, and any man might lawfully slay him.