Britain had become England in the five hundred years that followed the landing of Hengest, and its conquest had ended in the settlement of its conquerors, in their conversion to Christianity, in the birth of a national literature, of an imperfect civilization, of a rough political order. But through the whole of this earlier age every attempt to fuse the various tribes of conquerors into a single nation had failed. The effort of Northumbria to extend her rule over all England had been foiled by the resistance of Mercia; that of Mercia by the resistance of Wessex. Wessex herself, even under the guidance of great kings and statesmen, had no sooner reduced the country to a seeming unity than local independence rose again at the call of the Danes. The tide of supremacy rolled in fact backwards and forwards; now the South won lordship over the North, now the North won lordship over the South. But whatever titles kings might assume, or however imposing their rule might appear, Northumbrian remained apart from West-Saxon, Dane from Englishman. A common national sympathy held the country roughly together, but a real national union had yet to come.
Through the two hundred years that lie between the flight of aethelred from England to Normandy and that of John from Normandy to England our story is a story of foreign rule. Kings from Denmark were succeeded by kings from Normandy, and these by kings from Anjou. Under Dane, Norman, or Angevin, Englishmen were a subject race, conquered and ruled by foreign masters; and yet it was in these years of subjection that England first became really England. Provincial differences were crushed into national unity by the pressure of the stranger. The same pressure redressed the wrong which had been done to the fabric of national society by the degradation of the free landowner at the close of the preceding age into a feudal dependent on his lord. The English lords themselves sank into a middle class as they were pushed from their place by the foreign baronage who settled on English soil; and this change was accompanied by a gradual elevation of the class of servile and semi-servile cultivators which gradually lifted them into almost complete freedom. The middle-class which was thus created was reinforced by the upgrowth of a corresponding class in our towns.
[Authorities. - We are still aided by the collections of royal laws and charters. The English Chronicle is here of great importance; its various copies differ much in tone, etc, from one another, and may to some extent be regarded as distinct works. Florence of Worcester is probably the translator of a valuable copy of the Chronicle which has disappeared. For the reign of Cnut see Green's "Conquest of England." The authority of the contemporary biographer of Eadward (in Luard's "Lives of Eadward the Confessor," published by the Master of the Rolls) is " primary," says Mr. Freeman, "for all matters strictly personal to the King and the whole family of Godwine.. He is, however, very distinctly not an historian, but a biographer, sometimes a laureate." All modern accounts of this reign have been superseded by the elaborate history of Mr. Freeman ("Norman Conquest," vol. ii.) For the Danish kings and the House of Godwine, see the " Conquest of England," by Mr. Green].
Commerce and trade were promoted by the justice and policy of the foreign kings; and with their advance rose the political importance of the trader. The boroughs of England, which at the opening of this period were for the most part mere villages, were rich enough at its close to buy liberty from the Crown. Rights of self-government, of free speech, of common deliberation, which had passed from the people at large into the hands of its nobles, revived in the charters and councils of the towns. A moral revival followed hard on this political developement. The occupation of every see and abbacy by strangers who could only speak to their flocks in an unknown tongue had severed the higher clergy from the lower priesthood and the people; but religion became a living thing as it passed to the people themselves, and hermit and friar carried spiritual life home to the heart of the nation at large. At the same time the close connexion with the Continent which foreign conquest brought about secured for England a new communion with the artistic and intellectual life of the world without her. The old mental stagnation was broken up, and art and literature covered England with great buildings and busy schools.
Time for this varied progress was gained by the long peace which England owed to the firm government of her Kings, while their political ability gave her administrative order, and their judicial reforms built up the fabric of her law. In a word, it is to the stern discipline of these two hundred years that we owe not merely English wealth and English freedom, but England itself. The first of our foreign masters was the Dane. The countries of Scandinavia which had so long been the mere starting-points of the pirate-bands who had ravaged England and Ireland had now settled down into comparative order. It was the aim of Swein to unite them in a great Scandinavian Empire, of which England should be the head; and this project, interrupted for a time by his death, was resumed with yet greater vigour by his son Cnut. Fear of the Dane was still great in the land, and Cnut had no sooner appeared off the English coast than Wessex, Mercia, and Northumberland joined in owning him for their lord, and in discarding again the rule of aethelred, who had returned on the death of Swein. When aethelred's death in 1016 raised his son Eadmund Ironside to the throne, the loyalty of London enabled him to struggle bravely for a few months against the Danes; but a decisive victory at Assandun and the death of his rival left Cnut master of the realm.
Conqueror as he was, the Dane was no foreigner in the sense that the Norman was a foreigner after him. His language differed little from the English tongue. He brought in no new system of tenure or government. Cnut ruled, in fact, not as a foreign conqueror but as a native king. The goodwill and tranquillity of England were necessary for the success of his larger schemes in the north, where the arms of his English subjects aided him in later years in uniting Denmark and Norway beneath his sway. Dismissing therefore his Danish " host," and retaining only a trained body of household troops or hus-carls to serve in sudden emergencies, Cnut boldly relied for support within his realm on the justice and good government he secured it. His aim during twenty years seems to have been to obliterate from men's minds the foreign character of his rule, and the bloodshed in which it had begun. The change in himself was as startling as the change in his policy. When he first appears in England, it is as the mere northman, passionate, revengeful, uniting the guile of the savage with his thirst for blood. His first acts of government were a series of murders.