HERITAGE - 7: WHAT IS ENGLAND - or even ENGLISH?

Known best to many as the 'local', George & Dragon' (nice ales, shame about the landlord's doorsteps)

St George's Cross banner, England's ensign - more chivalrous than our earlier patron saint, Eadward 'the Confessor', although King Oswald of Northumbria's a better candidate, murdered as he was by Penda in Shropshire
St George's Cross banner, England's ensign - more chivalrous than our earlier patron saint, Eadward 'the Confessor', although King Oswald of Northumbria's a better candidate, murdered as he was by Penda in Shropshire | Source

The early kingdoms

Each virtually with a language of its own,  kingdoms were divided by loyalties through local leaders only grudgingly acknowledging an over-king, East Anglia, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria and Wessex went their own ways, swallowing up rival minor kingdoms
Each virtually with a language of its own, kingdoms were divided by loyalties through local leaders only grudgingly acknowledging an over-king, East Anglia, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria and Wessex went their own ways, swallowing up rival minor kingdoms

England and English, the new kingdoms emerge

Many hundreds of years ago, after the Romans abandoned the Britons to their fate there was an interregnum, a period when Roman law was a memory and the only rule was that the strongest won out. Word was sent across the North Sea that a strong pair of hands was needed to keep the warring tribes from one anothers' throats.

Some of these tribes, such as the Brigantes and the Iceni had only grudgingly acknowledged Roman law in the first place or flatly denied their following to Rome. Now a new wave of outsiders was to over-run them. However, unlike the previous claimants to mastery the 'new boys' carried different weaponry and their way of warfaring tended to be fast and ferocious. Similarities were many, their gods were warlike as were those of the Romans, they were disciplined and their outlook on the surrounding peoples ruled out power-sharing - although the kingdom of Deira (southern half of Northumbria, when disagreements divided the Northumbrians) tolerated the presence of a Celtic kingdom of Elmete, marked nowadays by the names of Barwick-in-Elmet and Sherburn-in-Elmet to the north-east of Barnsley.

Legend has it that a 'Vortigern' invited these outsiders as a force to police the neighbourhood. In truth 'Vortigern' was a collective of British tribal elders from the south-east. The 'police force' were Jutes. At that time Denmark was still way in the future, and each of its component parts was a self-ruling region. Jutland was the least hospitable of the future Danish regions, marsh, thick forest, desolate moorland. Its people made a living predominantly from fishing - or piracy. The Jutish leaders who answered the summons from 'Vortigern' were brothers, Hengist and Horsa. They brought with them six ships of men. Not many you think, when a ship only carried about forty or fifty men. They were rowing ships, too, that followed the coast line from western Jutland down across the Bight. They probably rested frequently on eyots near the mouths of the Elbe, Scheldt and Rhine before crossing to the shore opposite the mouth of the Meuse, so as not to be taken unawares by curious locals.

The 'honeymoon' was brief. The agreement was that these Jutes would have been rewarded with land and silver, but whatever was promised could not be delivered for one reason or another. This was viewed dimly by men who put great value on keeping your word. A man's word was his bond, was it not? Fighting broke out between the Britons and Jutes, more men were shipped in by the brothers and deaths would have numbered in their hundreds on the part of the Britons. Horsa fell in one engagement and it fell to Hengist to prosecute the Jutes' case. The incomers were better armed, battle hardened and disciplined - some may have been with the Romans' foederati, men paid by Rome to control other Barbarians. Their ethos was different to that of the Britons, many of whom had been Chritianised. Their gods rewarded heroes - winners - with a place at the high table in Valhol. .

According to Bede... J D Penrose painting of him in his dotage, dictating

...the Jutes took Kent, the Saxons the southern shore and hinterland, to north, west and east of Lundenwic (London), in the west as far as the Tamar and Severn. The Angles took East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria. War was inevitable
...the Jutes took Kent, the Saxons the southern shore and hinterland, to north, west and east of Lundenwic (London), in the west as far as the Tamar and Severn. The Angles took East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria. War was inevitable | Source

After the Jutes in the south and south-east came the Saxons

Fearful for the safety of their families, and thinking the Britons would harm them, they pushed them westward, giving them the name 'Wealsc' (Welsh, meaning 'Foreigner'). They also ousted the Jutes from Wight. Cerdic, the West Saxon war leader and founder of the Wessex dynasty consolidated his hold on the territories of Wessex now known as the counties of Devon (Defna scir), Dorset (Dorn- or Thornsaetan), Somerset (Sumorsaetan), Gloucestershire (Gleaweceaster scir) , Hampshire (Hamtun scir), Wiltshire (Wiltun scir) and Berkshire (Bearruc scir).

The Angles, on the other hand did not push the Britons out, although many left on their own accord. Many stayed, such as in Northumbria there was - still is, reflected in some of the area's names - the Kingdom of Elmet. Amongst the high-born of Northumbria were Briton first names, such as Maccus at the time of Eirik Haraldsson's death in AD 954 and Gospatric appointed by William of Gospatric as earl of Northumbria at Bamburgh as late as AD1069. In East Anglia under Raedwald the Angles' burghs and hamlets were ringed by British settlements. Penda the pagan king of Mercia allied himself with Cadwallon ap Cadfan the prince of Gwynedd in attacking Northumbria, defeating Oswald at Maserfield (Maes Cogwy) near Oswestry in AD 641. His greed got the better of him though, when in AD 655 his men were routed at Winwaed (near modern-day Leeds) when trying to ford the River Went, he refused to abandon the treasures given by King Eadwy at Bamburgh to stave off Penda's attack. The Mercians had been abandoned by their Welsh allies - who left in good time - and could not cross the river in flood. Many drowned who were not cut down by the avenging Northumbrians. There were others who had already crossed at the time Eadwy caught up with Penda. They were pursued through Mercia and buried or lost some of the treasure on land near the old Mercian capital Tamworth (West Midlands, near Stafford). This has to be the treasure found in July, 2009 by Terry Herbert on farm land owned by Fred Johnson at Hammerwich near Lichfield (see also the Northumbria series here for details).

What is unique about the West Midlands is that there is very little evidence of Danish colonisation from the 9th Century aside from, say, Knutsford in Cheshire. Place names are very much Aenglish (English) by origin, as opposed to the East Midlands, where an over-riding Danish presence is evidenced by the place names ending on -thorpe, -by, -holm and -toft. This is covered elsewhere, so I shouldn't labour it here.


The Aenglisc (English) taught here is not that spoken by the common folk, who had their own dialects from when they migrated here. This is the Aenglisc (High Old English) of the Upper Classes: Church, kings and nobility. When communicating with their underlings a knowledge of dialect was needed if interpreters were unavailable.

Part of the Staffordshire Hoard

Gold and silver ornament - believed to have been buried by the Mercians under pursuit by avenging Northumbrians after the defeat of Penda at Winwaed (near Leeds)
Gold and silver ornament - believed to have been buried by the Mercians under pursuit by avenging Northumbrians after the defeat of Penda at Winwaed (near Leeds)
A sword hilt, close-up of the intricate pattern more typical of Northumbrian styles than Mercian, although they were both Anglian kingdoms, as was also East Anglia. Some of the finds were Byzantine from trade or as gifts to the king (Oswald and Oswy)
A sword hilt, close-up of the intricate pattern more typical of Northumbrian styles than Mercian, although they were both Anglian kingdoms, as was also East Anglia. Some of the finds were Byzantine from trade or as gifts to the king (Oswald and Oswy)

Subsequently, around the late 8th Century things began to change

Norsemen had been coming as traders to these shores from both Scandinavia and their holdings in Ireland. They began raiding in far-flung outposts such as Lindisfarne and iona in AD 793 and AD 795 respectively, but these were no threat to the stability of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms themselves until...

In the mid-9th Century suddenly things began to move faster. Ragnar Lothbrok had been raiding in Northumbria and was caught by King Aella's men when his ship was wrecked off the coast near Bamburgh (Baebbanburh) in Bernicia, northern Northumbria. His sons, Halfdan, Ivar the Boneless nd Ubbi heard of his fate in Aella's snake pit and hastened to chide the wayward king. He and Osbert the king of neighbouring Deira together tried to fight off the Danes, leading to Osbert's death in battle and Aella being executed in a grim manner for the way he dealt with their father. They appointed Aella's son Eadwin as puppet king and went on to take Mercia in the same way. At about the same time another Danish war leader, Guthrum came to East Anglia and set himself up as king. He was ambitious and before too long hungered after Wessex, attacking in mid-winter when Aelfred and his court were celebrating Epiphany at Chippenham (Cipanham) in Wiltshire. Aelfred and a few of his court were driven to seek asylum on Aethelney in northern Somerset. A series of reverses and victories brought Aelfred back from the brink but he was still unable to oust the Danes. Instead he struck an agreement with Guthrum, in that the Danes would keep all their holdings east of Watling Street. Guthrum was pleased. He had no rivals, as Ragnar's sons had either been killed, settled in Ireland or settled at Jorvik (Viking York). He had the whole of Eastern Mercia and East Anglia. The only concession he had to make was in taking Christianity and adopting the baptismal name of Aethelstan (not to be confused with Aelfred's grandson by the same name). Aelfred was easily satisfied, and Guthrum was free to rule as he pleased. The Danelaw was created. Much of eastern England, up as far as the River Tees, was settled by Danes. They largely occupied the lower-lying areas, whilst the Angles were left in or around the higher ground. The names of small towns or settlements ending in -thorpe, -by, -thwaite or -toft were originally established by the Danes; some in higher areas toward the Pennines are probably those of Norse migrants from the north-west (Lake District) or displaced Hiberno-Norse from when Brian Boru expelled them from Leinster in the 10th Century.

Next we have a double-dose of Norsemen, this time with a Frankish veneer. In 1066 as we all know Duke William came from Normandy (Northmandige, pronounced Nor'mandiye). William's bloodline came down from Hrolf 'the Ganger' (Goengu-Hrolf), but many of his barons' bloodlines were Danish because the Norsemen Hrolf took with him (from Norway) were uninterested in colonising, they mainly just wished for their valuables. The Danes seem to have been far-sighted in this respect. For a long time they sent their sons back to Denmark to learn their war skills, but then in the late-10th Century a change came and suddenly they began to wage war in the manner of their Frankish overlords, i.e, cavalry, catapults and crossbows became the order of the day. With this new technology they were able not only to conquer England, but also Wales and Ireland in Britain (and took Apulia, Calabria and Sicily from the Byzantine empire in the Mediterranean).

Soon enough the mix of Anglo-Saxon, Briton, Norse and Norman brought about an almost total fusion of blood-lines. The language changed only at a higher level, and even then not for much more than a couple of centuries before a different form of the English language emerged in Chaucer's time (mid-to-end 14th Century). However, that was just in polite society, and there was by no means a standardised form of English. Everyone had their own way of speaking, from the Fens in East Anglia to the Somerset Levels or South Devon, or from the South Downs to the Cheviot Hills in Northumberland. There were differences in dialects even within the same county, as in Yorkshire there were similarities between East and West Ridings that couln't be found in the North Riding, and vice versa both ways around. The man in the street did not go further than the local market town. In the London area a man from, say, Stepney would not have understood a man from Kent or Surrey. He might just about have understood someone from Great Dunmow in Essex. Standardised English was a hybrid of different areas, but mainly it was the adoption of a particular way of talking in the Cambridge area. King's English has little to do with the monarch of the day, but with one monarch, Henry VI in 1441 who established King's College in Cambridge. But the general adoption of this East Anglian speech pattern didn't come about until much later. Published by the Fowler brothers in 1906. 'King's English' was more induction than it was instruction, an insight into the do's and don'ts of polite speech.

Normans

The crossbow could deliver a bolt much faster or harder than a tradional bow at the time, and many an English shield was split by the force of the bolts... until the Welsh longbow was introduced, or unless the weather was damp even.
The crossbow could deliver a bolt much faster or harder than a tradional bow at the time, and many an English shield was split by the force of the bolts... until the Welsh longbow was introduced, or unless the weather was damp even.
Norman crossbowman - the artilleryman of another age
Norman crossbowman - the artilleryman of another age | Source
Norman cavalrymen - the tanks of the early middle ages
Norman cavalrymen - the tanks of the early middle ages | Source
Norman castle - the early ones were prone to  incendiary attacks, and were replaced by stone castles as early as the 1070's
Norman castle - the early ones were prone to incendiary attacks, and were replaced by stone castles as early as the 1070's | Source

Learn the Englishe of Chaucer's time, Edward III and the 'Black Prince', when the English court began to abandon French. There are still many French-derived words, Anglicised with 'ing' and other English word endings. Shakespeare might have been able to read and speak it, You can learn it here, as you would a foreign language

Loanwords have become 'staples' in English

After the Conquest new words came into use. Norman nobles ate more frugally than their Anglo-Danish-Saxon neighbours, but they had different words for what they ate. Where we talked about cows, sheep and pigs, the meat we got from them was beef, mutton and pork. There was now cider from apples, and wine was drunk by the new Norman lords more often than the nobility quaffed before.

Although the Normans were Norsemen once removed, they no longer spoke like their northern cousins. Over the years, though, the lower orders mixed more freely, the nobles entrusted their Anglo-Saxon servants with the welfare of their offspring and words were exchanged both ways - not always in friendship, no doubt! Building technology changed, too. Eventually Norman builders entrusted English craftsmen with the construction of their castles and cathrdrals, then manor houses replaced some castles. Monastic orders came from everywhere in the Frankish area to put down roots in quiet backwaters such as Jervaulx and Rievaulx in North Yorkshire, and they brought with them skills in cheese-making, brewing and other culinary sidelines. The monasteries and abbeys were hives of industry, cities almost. Villages sprouted around castles where there had been no settlements before, such as at Richmond in Yorkshire, Barnard Castle in County Durham, and Castle Rising in Essex.

Yet the Normans were not the first to introduce foreign words to the English, the Danes had already done that in Lincolnshire, in Yorkshire and East Anglia. Aside from the place names, words such as 'Freehold', 'Law', 'Leasehold' and 'Riding' in English began as 'Frihold', 'Log' (the 'g' is swallowed in a light gargle), 'Lejehold', and 'Thrijung' (or 'Thirding'). Scan a Danish dictionary and, allowing for the spelling, many words come over as familiar, as in 'Goddag', comes out the way Australians say 'G'day', or in the north they'd understand 'Good on yer' as 'Good of you' would be to southerners.

Listen and learn.

See also: DIRECT LINE to our distant past - What makes us what we are now (Reading list)

More recognisable now, although the English spoken in Shakespeare's time is another intermediate stage. The written version had rules, but only the educated could read it. His plays were performed in the London vernacular, as even then his Warwickshire dialect would have been like a foreign language - as would even Kentish dialect, across the river Thames and away from Southwark..

By Shakespeare's time English had moved on...

We can understand Shakespeare's English better than Chaucer's. Around 200 years had elapsed in the meantime. Even by the later 17th Century the language hadn't developed significantly since the Bard laid down his plays and sonnets (there is debate about this as well, Christopher Marlow being mooted as the real author - remember, this was before the days of copyright).

By the 18th Century a shift away from Shakespeare's English was more easily recognised. Modern English began to surface around this time, and moves toward standardised English spelling were taken after the time of the American Revolution. This would explain differences in spelling and expression on either side of the 'Pond', 'harbor' 'theater' and 'behavior' being cases in point, the English versions of these being 'harbour', 'theatre' and 'behaviour'.

Dr Samuel Johnson started the ball rolling with his dictionary of the English language. By the time he died in 1784 the American Colonies were a thing of the past, and the juggernaut of English had been set in its tracks towards Dickens' time. The American understanding of English was not so different that the likes of Dickens and later writers could not be understood. Even by the time of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes,and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein book writing could be appreciated on either side of the Atlantic. We got Mark Twain and M R James in exchange.

That's no mean swap. Welcome to Modern English. .

See also HERITAGE 31: Why Do We Call England England?

This is the 'gold standard', Oxford English Dictionary with added 'colour' (some more modern slang words accepted as 'argot').

The OED - Oxford English Dictionary

Depending on which side of 'the Pond' you are...

You'd either use the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) - and there is a clutch of associated books, such as the Oxford Concise Thesaurus, The Oxford Guide to English Usage and the Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar - or the Merriam Webster Dictionary (below).

Whichever one you use, you'll see differences in spelling. This is more to do with the 'cut-off' date, the end of British rule in the North American colony, than a deliberate wrench. Until the time Lord Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown in 1781 we all had the same spellings. Britain had another shift in the language later in the century. The population then was a largely Anglo-Irish-Scottish mix, later expanded to Hispano-American in the south-west and west up to Oregon, and Franco-American in Louisiana and Florida (originally Spanish).

More familiar? Used from Hawaii to Alaska and across to American embassies worldwide, like a colonising power of the word. It's probably even sold in the Big Apple.

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Comments 7 comments

fpherj48 profile image

fpherj48 5 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

alancaster....Treated myself to your fascinating hub this morning while sipping my first "wake-up" cup of delicious, strong coffee. I must thank you for this very educational story. LEARNING is my most favorite pass-time and you have given me a gift today. Voted UP & awesome. Until the next time...........


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 5 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Hello fpherj48,

Thanks for the comment. Read your note elsewhere, too. By the way Suzy works part-time in the students' restaurant on the cash till. She's the one with the red hair (last time I looked). Regards to your Texan mate Wesman


fpherj48 profile image

fpherj48 5 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

I am soooo glad you told me this! I should have my future daughter-in-law approach Suzy, introduce herself and explain that you and I have just met and exchanged comments on Hubpages. I LOVE how very small this world of ours truly is!!! (When you're browsing, you must read hubs by Wes....he is bright, refreshing and a REBEL to the core! His range of topics is ALL OVER THE PLACE and his writing style is unique and entertaining.)


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 5 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

I have read some of his writing and have just read a reply he made to my comment.

In terms of small worlds, I went to a pub near here back in the late 70's and had a nice surprise. The regular landlord and his wife were away whilst the stand-in-cum-trainee manager and his wife took over. I recognised the landlord's accent - being similar to mine, from the North East (in our case North Yorkshire) - and I asked him where he came from. He told me he had run a pub called The Norman Conquest at Normanby. Things narrowed down to him having been an apprentice at Cargo Fleet Steelworks (just east outside Middlesbrough)and he knew my Dad. You couldn't get a lot closer


fpherj48 profile image

fpherj48 5 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

Things like that happen to me all the time....and I love it! Sat talking to a young man at the Vet's, each with our dogs in tow....gabbed for an hour until we discovered our parents were cousins....but we'd never met. Ran into a classmate (literally) standing in line, while in GERMANY!! How does THAT happen??


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK

Excellent interesting hub. My hometown in N.E. England has an old Roman fort ruins but I know nothing about any invasions thereafter though I had to study St Bede at school, it's a given in my part of the world - he's one of our most venerated sons. Voted up, really enjoyable.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 4 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Hello Jools, Jarrow was sacked by some of my ancestors (they may have been yours too) some time after Bede died peacefully in his bed. He contributed a lot to our understanding of history that some of these so-called archaeologists on Time Team should read. For instance (not that he pretends to be an archaeologist) Tony Robinson, an Essex man, is convinced everyone's a Saxon from the Channel to the borders. His mates feed into that myth as well. In our neck of the woods the Angles settled amongst the Celts, and then the Norsemen came... Followed some time later by the Normans (Norsemen in Frankish garb). End of story. I should have a soap-box on Speakers' Corner outside Hyde Park

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