Anglo-Saxon Conquest of Britain; The Heptarchy; Conversion of the British Isles

English Language Study for Russian Orthodox Learners

Anglo-Saxon Conquest of Britain
The Heptarchy*
Conversion of the British Isles

The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed,
a stronghold in times of trouble.  And those who
know Thy name put their trust in Thee, for Thou,
O Lord, hast not forsaken  those who seek Thee.
- Psalms, 9:10-11

I

After St. Emperor Constantine granted Christians freedom of worship, Christianity flourished in Britain and became widespread.  The faithful repaired the churches that were destroyed during the persecution, and built shrines to their holy martyrs.  British bishops served as good shepherds to their flocks, holding firm to the Orthodox faith during difficult times when heresies were spreading on the continent.  In 314, three bishops from Britain travelled to southern Gaul to attend the Council of Arles.

By the beginning of the fifth century, the Western Empire was in serious trouble from attacks by barbarians.  Rome could no longer sustain troops in Britain and, by 410,  all Roman legions had left the island.  Tragic times were in store for the country: having lost Rome’s military protection, Britain became an easy target for invading Germanic hordes.  The three main invading tribes were the Saxons, Angles and Jutes.  The Saxons were of Germanic origin; the Angles came from south-west Denmark and the Jutes – from central Denmark.  The invaders worshipped numerous Teutonic gods.  They knew no mercy and killed defenceless clergymen, women and children.  The destruction that the enemy brought to civilized Britain was horrific.  “Public and private buildings fell in ruins, priests were everywhere slain at their altars … people perished by sword and fire.”**   The Britons tried to resist but suffered defeat.  The number of the dead was so great that there were not enough people to bury them.  Christianity was eliminated; the only areas which remained unoccupied were in the western-most and northern-most parts of the island.  As the tribe of the Angles was the largest in number, the country received a new name:  England, “the land of the Angles.”

II

There is very little information about England of the fifth and sixth centuries:  the Anglo-Saxons were illiterate and left no written records.  The invaders settled as farmers.  The three major tribes broke into many groups who either formed alliances, or fought with each other for land and power.  By the beginning of the fifth century, Anglo-Saxon Britain was divided into seven states, or kingdoms, known as the Heptarchy: Wessex, Sussex, Kent, Essex, East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria.  Northumbria at times was separated into  two states – Deira and Bernicia.  The kingdoms rose and fell in importance, and borders frequently changed.

In His infinite love for mankind, God did not reject the new inhabitants of the island; nor did He forsake the people He had known.  He sent His heralds to bring the Good News to England and Ireland.  The missionaries’ difficult and often dangerous work bore fruit: the heathens opened their hearts to Christ.  To Ireland the Gospel of Truth came earlier than to England:  St. Patrick, the Enlightener of the Irish, began to preach throughout the land in 432.  In 597, the first Anglo-Saxon king, Aethelbert of Kent, received holy baptism and allowed missionaries to preach freely.  Gradually, Christianity spread roots, transforming the society of former barbarians into a strong, flourishing nation.  New Christian laws brought peace and ended the Anglo-Saxon tradition of violent feuds.  Monasteries became vital centres of education, learning and art.  The labours, ministry and martyrdom of the holy men and women – so abundantly begotten by the land –  testified to the glory of the Holy Church.

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* See Map of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy.
** Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 53.

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