Many years passed away before the kingdoms could be brought under one king. Northhumberland stood apart from southern England, and during the latter half of the seventh century Wessex grew in power. Wessex had been weak because it was seldom thoroughly united. Each district was presided over by an Ætheling, or chief of royal blood, and it was only occasionally that these Æthelings submitted to the king. From time to time a strong king compelled the obedience of the Æthelings and carried on the old struggle with the western Welsh. It was not till 710 that Ine succeeded in driving the Welsh out of Somerset, and about the same time a body of the West Saxons advancing through Dorset reached Exeter. They took possession of half the city for themselves, and left the remainder to the Welsh. Ine was, however, checked by fresh outbreaks of the subordinate Æthelings, and in 726 he gave up the struggle and went on a pilgrimage to Rome. Æthelbald, king of the Mercians, took the opportunity to invade Wessex, and made himself master of the country and over-lord of all the other kingdoms south of the Humber. In 754 the West Saxons rose against him and defeated him at Burford. After a few years his successor, Offa, once more took up the task of making the Mercian king over-lord of southern England. In 775, after a long struggle, he brought Kent as well as Essex under his sway. In 779 he defeated the West Saxons at Bensington, and pushed the Mercian frontier to the Thames. Further than that Offa did not venture to go, and, great as he was, the West Saxons within their shrunken (p. 054) limits continued to be independent of him. He turned his arms upon the Welsh, and drove them back from the Severn to the embankment which is known from his name as Offa's Dyke. The West Saxons, being freed from attack on the side of Mercia, overran Devon. Then there was a contest for the West Saxon crown between Beorhtric and Ecgberht. Beorhtric gained the upper hand, and entered into alliance with Offa by taking his daughter to wife. Ecgberht fled to the Continent.
Of all the English scholars of the time Bæda, usually known as 'the venerable Bede,' was the most remarkable. He was a monk of Jarrow on the Tyne. From his youth up he was a writer on all subjects embraced by the knowledge of his day. One subject he made his own. He was the first English historian. The title of his greatest work was the Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation. He told how that nation had been converted, and of the fortunes of its Church; but for him the Church included the whole nation, and he told of the doings of kings and people, as well as of priests and monks. In this he was a true interpreter of the spirit of the English Church. Its clergy did not stand aloof from the rulers of the state, but worked with them as well as for them. The bishops stepped into the place of the heathen priests in the Witenagemots of the kings, and counselled them in matters of state as well as in matters of religion.
Bede recognised in the title of his book that there was such a thing as an English nation long before there was any political unity. Whilst kingdom was fighting against kingdom, Theodore in 673 assembled the first English Church council at Hertford. From that time such councils of the bishops and principal clergy of all England met whenever any ecclesiastical question required them to deliberate in common. The clergy at least did not meet as West Saxons or as Mercians. They met on behalf of the whole English Church, and their united consultations must have done much to spread the idea that, in spite of the strife between the kings, the English nation was really one.
When a change is good in itself, it usually bears fruit in unexpected ways. Theodore was a scholar as well as a bishop. Under his care a school grew up at Canterbury, full of all the learning of the Roman world. That which distinguished this school and others founded in imitation of it was that the scholars did not keep their learning to themselves, but strove to make it helpful to the ignorant and the poor. They learnt architecture on the Continent in order to raise churches of stone in the place of churches of wood. One of these churches is still standing at Bradford-on-Avon. Its builder was Ealdhelm, the abbot of Malmesbury, a teacher of all the knowledge of the time. Ealdhelm, learned as he was, let his heart go forth to the unlearned.
Finding that his neighbours would not listen to his sermons, he sang to them on a bridge to win them to higher things. Like all people who cannot read, the English of those days loved a song. In the north, Cædmon, a rude herdsman on the lands of the abbey which in later days was known as Whitby, was vexed with himself because he could not sing. When at ale-drinkings his comrades pressed him to sing a song, he would leave his supper unfinished and return home ashamed. One night in a dream he heard a voice bidding him sing of the Creation. In his sleep the words came to him, and they remained with him when he woke. He had become a poet—a rude poet, it is true, but still a poet. The gift which Cædmon had acquired never left him. He sang of the Creation and of the whole course of God's providence. To the end he was unable to compose any songs which were not religious.
In 668, four years after Oswiu's decision was taken, Theodore of Tarsus was consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury at Rome by the Pope himself. When he arrived in England the time had come for the purely missionary stage of the English Church to come to an end. Hitherto the bishops had been few, only seven in all England. Their number was now increased, and they were set to work no longer merely to convert the heathen, but to see that the clergy did their duty amongst those who had been already converted. Gradually, under these bishops, a parochial clergy came into existence. Sometimes the freemen of a hamlet, or of two or three hamlets together, would demand the constant residence of a priest. Sometimes a lord would settle a priest to teach his serfs. The parish clergy attacked violence and looseness of life in a way different from that of the monks. The monks had given examples of extreme self-denial. Theodore introduced the penitential system of the Roman Church, and ordered that those who had committed sin should be excluded from sharing in the rites of the Church until they had done penance. They were to fast, or to repeat prayers, sometimes for many years, before they were readmitted to communion. Many centuries afterwards good men objected that these penances were only bodily actions, and (p. 051) did not necessarily bring with them any real repentance. In the seventh century the greater part of the population could only be reached by such bodily actions. They had never had any thought that a murder, for instance, was anything more than a dangerous action which might bring down on the murderer the vengeance of the relations of the murdered man, which might be bought off with the payment of a weregild of a few shillings. The murderer who was required by the Church to do penance was being taught that a murder was a sin against God and against himself, as well as an offence against his fellow-men. Gradually—very gradually—men would learn from the example of the monks and from the discipline of penance that they were to live for something higher than the gratification of their own passions.
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 (p. 050) 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.
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.