The strife between the kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia for supremacy in the North was closed by their being united under King aethelric of Bernicia; and from this union was formed a new kingdom, the kingdom of Northumbria.
It was this century of conquest by the English race which really made Britain England. In our anxiety to know more of our fathers, we listen to the monotonous plaint of Gildas, the one writer whom Britain has left us, with a strange disappointment. Gildas had seen the invasion of the pirate hosts, and it is to him we owe our knowledge of the conquest of Kent. But we look in vain to his book for any account of the life or settlement of the English conquerors. Across the border of the new England that was growing up along the southern shores of Britain, Gildas gives us but a glimpse - doubtless he had but a glimpse himself - of forsaken walls, of shrines polluted by heathen impiety. His silence and his ignorance mark the character of the struggle. No British neck had as yet bowed before the English invader, no British pen was to record his conquest. A century after their landing the English are still known to their British foes only as "barbarians," "wolves," "dogs," "whelps from the kennel of barbarism," "hateful to God and man." Their victories seemed victories of the powers of evil, chastisements of a divine justice for national sin.
Their ravage, terrible as it had been, was held to be almost at an end: in another century - so ran old prophecies - their last hold on the land would be shaken off. But of submission to, or even of intercourse with the strangers there is not a word. Gildas tells us nothing of their fortunes, or of their leaders.
In spite of his silence, however, we may still know something of the way in which the new English society grew up in the conquered country, for the driving back of the Briton was but the prelude to the settlement of his conqueror. What strikes us at once in the new England is, that it was the one purely German nation that rose upon the wreck of Rome. In other lands, in Spain, or Gaul, or Italy, though they were equally conquered by German peoples, religion, social life, administrative order, still remained Roman. In Britain alone Rome died into a vague tradition of the past. The whole organization of government and society disappeared with the people who used it. The villas, the mosaics, the coins which we dig up in our fields are no relics of our English fathers, but of a Roman world which our fathers' sword swept utterly away. Its law, its literature, its manners, its faith, went with it. The new England was a heathen country. The religion of Woden and Thunder triumphed over the religion of Christ. Alone among the German assailants of Rome the English rejected the faith of the Empire they helped to overthrow. Elsewhere the Christian priesthood served as mediators between the barbarian and the conquered, but in the conquered part of Britain Christianity wholly disappeared.
River and homestead and boundary, the very days of the week, bore the names of the new gods who displaced Christ. But if England seemed for the moment a waste from which all the civilization of the world had fled away, it contained within itself the germs of a nobler life than that which had been destroyed. The base of the new English society was the freeman whom we have seen tilling, judging, or sacrificing for himself in his far-off fatherland by the Northern Sea. However roughly he dealt while the struggle went on with the material civilization of Britain, it was impossible that such a man could be a mere destroyer. War was no sooner over than the warrior settled down into a farmer, and the home of the peasant churl rose beside the heap of goblin-haunted stones that marked the site of the villa he had burnt. Little knots of kinsfolk drew together in "tun" and "ham" beside the Thames and the Trent as they had settled beside the Elbe or the Weser, not as kinsfolk only, but as dwellers in the same plot, knit together by their common holding within the same bounds. Each little village-commonwealth lived the same life in Britain as its farmers had lived at home.
Each had its moot hill or sacred tree as a centre, its "mark" as a border; each judged by witness of the kinsfolk and made laws in the assembly of its freemen, and chose the leaders for its own governance, and the men who were to follow headman or ealdorman to hundred-court or war.
In more ways than one, indeed, the primitive organization of English society was affected by its transfer to the soil of Britain. Conquest begat the King. It is probable that the English had hitherto known nothing of kings in their own fatherland, where each tribe lived under the rule of its own customary Ealdorman. But in a war such as that which they waged against the Britons it was necessary to find a common leader whom the various tribes engaged in conquests such as those of Kent or Wessex might follow; and such a leader soon rose into a higher position than that of a temporary chief. The sons of Hengest became kings in Kent; those of aelle in Sussex; the West-Saxons chose I Cerdic for their king. Such a choice at once drew the various villages and tribes of each community closer together than of old, while the new ruler surrounded himself with a chosen war-band of companions, servants, or "thegns" as they were called, who were rewarded for their service by gifts from the public land. Their distinction rested, not on hereditary rank, but on service done to the King, and they at last became a nobility which superseded the "eorls" of the original English constitution. And as war begat the King and the military noble, so it all but begat the slave.
There had always been a slave class, a class of the unfree, among the English as among all German peoples; but the numbers of this class, if unaffected by the conquest of Britain, were swelled by the wars which soon sprang up among the English conquerors. No rank saved the prisoner taken in battle from the doom of slavery, and slavery itself was often welcomed as saving the prisoner from death. We see this in the story of a noble warrior who had fallen wounded in a fight between two English tribes, and was carried as a bond-slave to the house of a thegn hard by. He declared himself a peasant, but his master penetrated the disguise. "You deserve death," he said, "since all my brothers and kinsfolk fell in the fight;" but for his oath's sake he spared his life and sold him to a Frisian at London, probably a merchant such as those who were carrying English captives at that time to the market-place of Rome. But war was not the only cause of the increase of this slave class. The number of the "unfree" were swelled by death and crime. Famine drove men to "bend their heads in the evil days for meat;" the debtor unable to discharge his debt flung on the ground the freeman's sword and spear, took up the labourer's mattock, and placed his head as a slave within a master's hands.
The criminal whose kinsfolk would not make up his fine became a crime-serf of the plaintiff or the king. Sometimes a father, pressed by need, sold children and wife into bondage. The slave became part of the live-stock of the estate, to be willed away at death with horse or ox whose pedigree was kept as carefully as his own. His children were bondsmen like himself; even the freeman's children by a slave-mother inherited the mother's taint. "Mine is the calf that is born of my cow," ran the English proverb. The cabins of the unfree clustered round the home of the rich landowner as they had clustered round the villa of the Roman gentleman; ploughman, shepherd, goatherd, swineherd, oxherd and cowherd, dairymaid, barnman, sower, hayward and woodward, were often slaves. It was not such a slavery as that we have known in modern times, for stripes and bonds were rare; if the slave were slain, it was by an angry blow, not by the lash. But his lord could slay him if he would; it was but a chattel the less. The slave had no place in the justice-court, no kinsman to claim vengeance for his wrong. If a stranger slew him, his lord claimed the damages; if guilty of wrong-doing, "his skin paid for him" under the lash.
If he fled he might be chased like a strayed beast, and flogged to death for his crime, or burned to death if the slave were a woman.