Whatever may be the exact truth about the numbers of Britons saved alive by the English conquerors, there can be no doubt that English speech and English customs prevailed wherever the English settled. In Gaul, where the German Franks made themselves masters of the country, a different state of things prevailed. Roman officials continued to govern the country under Frankish kings, Roman bishops converted the conquerors to Christianity, and Roman cities maintained, as far as they could, the old standard of civilisation. All commercial intercourse between Gaul, still comparatively rich and prosperous, and Britain was for some time cut off by the irruption of the English, who were at first too rude and too much engaged in fighting to need the products of a more advanced race. Gradually, however, as the English settled down into peaceful industry along the south-eastern shores of the island, trade again sprang up, as it had sprung up in the wild times preceding the landing of Cæsar. The Gaulish merchants who crossed the straits found themselves in Kent, and during the years in which the West Saxon Ceawlin was struggling with the Britons the communications between Kent and the Continent had become so friendly that in 584, or a little later, Æthelberht, king of Kent, took to wife Bertha, the daughter of a Frankish king, Charibert. Bertha was a Christian, and brought with her a Christian bishop. She begged of her husband a forsaken Roman church for her own use. This church, now known as St. Martin's, stood outside the walls of the deserted city of Durovernum, the buildings of which were in ruins, except where a group of rude dwellings rose in a corner of the old fortifications. In these dwellings Æthelberht and his followers lived, and to them had been given the new name of Cantwarabyrig or Canterbury (the dwelling of the men of Kent). The English were heathen, but their heathenism was not intolerant.
Whilst the West Saxons were enlarging their boundaries in the south, the Angles were gradually spreading in the centre and the north. The East Anglians were stopped on their way to the west by the great fen, but either a branch of the Lindiswara or some new-comers made their way up the Trent, and established themselves first at Nottingham and then at Leicester, and called themselves the Middle English. Another body, known as the Mercians, or men of the mark or border-land, seized on the upper valley of the Trent. North of the Humber the advance was still slower. In 547, five years before the West Saxons attacked Sorbiodunum, Ida, a chieftain of one of the scattered settlements on the coast, was accepted as king by all those which lay between the Tees and the Forth. His new kingdom was called Bernicia, and his principal fortress was on a rock by the sea at Bamborough. During the next fifty years he and his successors enlarged their borders till they reached that central ridge of moorland hill which is sometimes known as the Pennine range. The Angles between the Tees and the Humber called their country Deira, but though they also united under a king, their progress was as slow as that of the Bernicians. Bernicia and Deira together were known as North-humberland, the land north of the Humber, a much larger territory than that of the modern county of Northumberland.
After the defeat at Faddiley the West Saxons split up into two peoples. Those of them who settled in the lower Severn valley took the name of Hwiccan, and joined the Britons against their own kindred. This alliance could hardly have taken place if the Hwiccan, in settling in the Severn valley, had destroyed the whole, or even a considerable part, of the Celtic population, though there can be little doubt that there was still slaughter when a battle was fought or a town taken by storm; as it is known that the magnificent Roman buildings at Bath were standing in ruins and the city untenanted many years after the capture of the city. At all events, the Britons, now allied with the Hwiccan, defeated Ceawlin at Wanborough. After this disaster, though the West Saxon kingdom retained its independence, it was independent within smaller limits than those which Ceawlin had wished to give to it. If he had seized Chester he would have been on the way to gain the mastery over all England, but he had tried to do too much in a short time. His people can hardly have been numerous enough to occupy in force a territory reaching from Southampton Water to Bedford on one side and to Chester on another.
In 552 Cynric, the West Saxon king, attacked the divided Britons, captured Sorbiodunum, and made himself master of Salisbury Plain. Step by step he fought his way to the valley of the Thames, and when he had reached it, he turned eastwards to descend the river to its mouth. Here, however, he found himself anticipated by the East Saxons, who had captured London, and had settled a branch of their people under the name of the Middle Saxons in Middlesex. The Jutes of Kent had pushed westwards through the Surrey hills, but in 568 the West Saxons defeated them and drove them back. After this battle, the first in which the conquerors strove with one another, the West Saxons turned northwards, defeated the Britons in 571 at Bedford, and occupied the valleys of the Thame and Cherwell and the upper valley of the Ouse. They are next heard of much further west, and it has been supposed that they turned in that direction because they found the lower Ouse already held by Angle tribes. However this may have been, they crossed the Cotswolds in 577 under two brothers, Ceawlin and Cutha, and at Deorham defeated and slew three kings who ruled over the cities of Glevum (Gloucester), Corinium (Cirencester), and Aquæ Sulis (Bath). They seized on the fertile valley of the Severn, and during the next few years they pressed gradually northwards. In 584 they destroyed and sacked the old Roman station of Viriconium. This was their last victory for many a year. They attempted to reach Chester, but were defeated at Faddiley by the Britons, who slew Cutha in the battle.
Thirty-two years passed away after the defeat of the West Saxons at Mount Badon in 520 before they made any further conquests. Welsh legends represent this period as that of the reign of Arthur. Some modern inquirers have argued that Arthur's kingdom was in the north, whilst others have argued that it was in the south. It is quite possible that the name was given by legend to more than one champion; at all events, there was a time when an Ambrosius, probably a descendant of Ambrosius Aurelianus , protected the southern Britons. This stronghold was at Sorbiodunum, the hill fort now a grassy space known as Old Sarum (see illustration), and his great church and monastery, where Christian priests encouraged the Christian Britons in their struggle against the heathen Saxons, was at the neighbouring Ambresbyrig (the fortress of Ambrosius), now modernised into Amesbury. Thirty-two years after the battle of Mount Badon the kingdom of Ambrosius had been divided amongst his successors, who were plunged in vice and were quarrelling with one another.
How many folks or tribes settled in the island it is impossible to say, but there is little doubt that many of them soon combined. The resistance of the Britons was desperate, and it was only by joining together that the settlers could hope to overcome it. The causes which produced this amalgamation of the folks produced the king. It was necessary to find a man always ready to take the command of the united folks, and this man was called King, a name which signifies the man of the kinship or race at the head of which he stood. His authority was greater than the Ealdorman's, and his warriors were more numerous than those which the Ealdorman had led. He must come of a royal family—that is, of one supposed to be descended from the god Woden. As it was necessary that he should be capable of leading an army, it was impossible that a child could be king, and therefore no law of hereditary succession prevailed. On the death of a king the folk-moot chose his successor out of the kingly family. If his eldest son was a grown man of repute, the choice would almost certainly fall upon him. If he was a child or an invalid, some other kinsman of the late king would be selected.
A new difficulty was introduced when a person who was charged with crime denied his guilt. As there were no trained lawyers and there was no knowledge of the principles of evidence, the accused person was required to bring twelve men to be his compurgators—that is to say, to hear him swear to his own innocence, and then to swear in turn that his oath was true. If he could not find men willing to be his compurgators he could appeal to the judgment of the gods, which was known as the Ordeal. If he could walk blindfold over red-hot ploughshares, or plunge his arm into boiling water, and show at the end of a fixed number of days that he had received no harm, it was thought that the gods bore witness to his innocency and had as it were become his compurgators when men had failed him. It is quite possible that all or most of those who tried the ordeal failed, but as nobody would try the ordeal who could get compurgators, those who did not succeed must have been regarded as persons of bad character, so that no surprise would be expressed at their failure.
When a man had failed in the ordeal there was a choice of punishments. If his offence was a slight one, a fine was deemed sufficient. If it was a very disgraceful one, such as secret murder, he was put to death or was degraded to slavery, in most cases he was declared to be a 'wolf's-head'—that is to say, he was outlawed and driven into the woods, where, as the protection of the community was withdrawn from him, anyone might kill him without fear of punishment.
In early days, long before the English had left their lands beyond the sea, it was not considered to be the business of the community to punish crime. If any one was murdered, it was the duty of the kinsmen of the slain man to put to death the murderer. In course of time men got tired of the continual slaughter produced by this arrangement, and there sprang up a system according to which the murderer might offer to the kinsmen a sum of money known as weregild, or the value of a man, and if this money was accepted, then peace was made and all thought of vengeance was at an end. At a later time, at all events after the arrival of the English in this country, charges of murder were brought before the hundred-moot whenever the alleged murderer and his victim lived in the same hundred. If the accused person did not dispute the fact the moot sentenced him to pay a weregild, the amount of which differed in proportion to the rank of the slain man, not in proportion to the heinousness of the offence. As there was a weregild for murder, so there was also a graduated scale of payments for lesser offences. One who struck off a hand or a foot could buy off vengeance at a fixed rate.
The smallest political community of the new settlers was the village, or, as it is commonly called, the township, which is still represented by the parish, the parish being merely a township in which ecclesiastical institutions have been maintained whilst political institutions have ceased to exist. The freemen of the township met to settle small questions between themselves, under the presidency of their reeve or headman.
More important cases were brought before the hundred-moot, or meeting of the hundred, a district which had been inhabited, or was supposed to have been inhabited, either by a hundred kindred groups of the original settlers or by the families of a hundred warriors. This hundred-moot was held once a month, and was attended by four men and the reeve from every township, and also by the Eorls and Thegns living in the hundred. It not only settled disputes about property, but gave judgment in criminal cases as well.