Monday, December 7, 2009

The Three Kingdoms and the Welsh

For a moment it seemed as if England would be brought together under the rule of Oswiu. After Penda's death Mercia accepted Christianity, and the newly united Mercia was split up into its original parts ruled by several kings. The supremacy of Oswiu was, however, as little to be borne by the Mercians as the supremacy of Penda had been borne by the men of North-humberland. Under Wulfhere the Mercians rose in 659 against Oswiu. All hope of uniting England was for the present at an end. For about a century and a half longer there remained three larger kingdoms—North-humberland, Mercia, and Wessex, whilst four smaller ones—East Anglia, Essex, Kent, and Sussex—were usually attached either to Mercia or to Wessex. The failure of North-humberland to maintain the power was no doubt, in the first place owing to the absence of any common danger, the fear of which would bind together its populations in self-defence. The northern Kymry of Strathclyde were no longer formidable, and they grew less formidable as years passed on. The southern Kymry of Wales were too weak to threaten Mercia, and the Welsh of the south-western peninsula were too weak to threaten Wessex. It was most unlikely that any permanent union of the English states would be brought about till some enemy arose who was more terrible to them than the Welsh could any longer be.

Some preparation might, however, be made for the day of union by the steady growth of the Church. The South Saxons, secluded between the forest and the sea, were the last to be converted, but with them English heathenism came to an end as an avowed religion, though it still continued to influence the multitude in the form of a belief in fairies and witchcraft. Monasteries and nunneries sprang up on all sides. Missionaries spread over the country. In their mouths, and still more in their lives, Christianity taught what the fierce English warrior most wanted to learn, the duty of restraining his evil passions, and above all his cruelty. Nowhere in all Europe did the missionaries appeal so exclusively as they did in England to higher and purer motives. Nowhere but in England were to be found kings like Oswald and Oswini, who bowed their souls to the lesson of the Cross, and learned that they were not their own, but were placed in power that they might use their strength in helping the poor and needy.

The lesson was all the better taught because those who taught it were monks. Monasticism brought with it an extravagant view of the life of self-denial, but those who had to be instructed needed to have the lesson written plainly so that a child might read it. The rough warrior or the rough peasant was more likely to abstain from drunkenness, if he had learned to look up to men who ate and drank barely enough to enable them to live; and he was more likely to treat women with gentleness and honour, if he had learned to look up to some women who separated themselves from the joys of married life that they might give themselves to fasting and prayer. Yet, great as the influence of the clergy was, it was in danger of being lessened through internal disputes amongst themselves. A very large part of England had been converted by the Celtic missionaries, and the Celtic missionaries, though their life and teaching was in the main the same as that of the Church of Canterbury and of the Churches of the Continent, differed from them in the shape of the tonsure and in the time at which they kept their Easter. These things were themselves unimportant, but it was of great importance that the young English Church should not be separated from the Churches of more civilised countries which had preserved much of the learning and art of the old Roman Empire. One of those who felt strongly the evil which would follow on such a separation was Wilfrid. He was scornful and self-satisfied, but he had travelled to Rome, and had been impressed with the ecclesiastical memories of the great city, and with the fervour and learning of its clergy. He came back resolved to bring the customs of England into conformity with those of the churches of the Continent. On his arrival, Oswiu, in 664, gathered an assembly of the clergy of the north headed by Colman, Aidan's successor, to discuss the point. Learned arguments were poured forth on either side. Oswiu listened in a puzzled way. Wilfrid boasted that his mode of keeping Easter was derived from Peter, and that Christ had given to Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Oswiu at once decided to follow Peter, lest when he came to the gate of that kingdom Peter, who held the keys, should lock him out. Wilfrid triumphed, and the English Church was in all outward matters regulated in conformity with that of Rome.

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