With the coming of Augustine to Kent the darkness which for nearly two centuries had enwrapped the history of Britain begins to clear away. From the days of Honorius to those of Gregory the Great the line of vision of the annalists of the continent was bounded by the Channel. As to what was going on beyond it, we have but a few casual gleams of light, just enough to make the darkness visible, from writers such as the author of the life of Saint Germanus, Prosper Tiro, Procopius, and Gregory of Tours. These notices do not, for the most part, square particularly well with the fragmentary British narrative that can be patched together from Gildas's lamentable book, or the confused story of Nennius. Nor again do these British sources fit in happily with the English annals constructed long centuries after by King Alfred's scribes in the first edition of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. But from the date when the long-lost communication between Britain and Rome was once more resumed, the history of the island becomes clear and fairly continuous. The gaps are neither broader nor more obscure than those which may be found in the contemporary annals of the other kingdoms of Europe. The stream of history in this period is narrow and turbid throughout the West. Quite as much is known of the doings of the English as of those of the Visigoths of Spain, the Lombards, or the later Merovingians. The 7th century was the darkest of all the dark ages, and England is particularly fortunate in possessing the Ecclcsiastica historia of Bede, which, though its author was primarily interested in things religious, yet contains a copious chronicle of things secular. No Western author, since the death of Gregory of Tours, wrote on such a scale, or with such vigour and insight.
The conversion of England to Christianity took, from first to last, some ninety years (AD. 597 to 686), though during the last thirty the ancestral heathenism was only lingering on in remote corners of the land. The original missionary England impulse came from Rome, and Augustine is rightly regarded as the evangelist of the English; yet only a comparatively small part of the nation owed its Christianity directly to the mission sent out by Pope Gregory. Wessex was won over by an independent adventurer, the Frank Birinus, who had no connection with the earlier arrivals in Kent. The great kingdom of Northumbria, though its first Christian monarch Edwin was converted by Paulinus, a disciple of Augustine, relapsed into heathenism after his death. It was finally evangelized from quite another quarter, by Irish missionaries brought by King Oswald from Columba's monastery of Iona. The church that they founded struck root, as that of Paulinus and Edwin had failed to do, and was not wrecked even by Oswald's death in battle at the hands of Penda the Mercian, the one strong champion of heathenism that England produced. Moreover, Penda was no sooner dead, smitten down by Oswald's brother Oswiu at the battle of the Winwaed (A.D. 655), than his whole kingdom eagerly accepted Christianity, and received missionaries, Irish and Northumbrian, from the victorious Oswiu. It is clear that, unlike their king, the Mercians had no profound enthusiasm for the old gods. Essex, which had received its first bishop from Augustine's hands but had relapsed into heathenism after a few years, also owed its ultimate conversion to a Northumbrian preacher, Cedd, whom Oswiu lent to King Sigeberht after the latter had visited his court and been baptized, hard by the Roman wall, in 653.
Yet even in those English regions where the missionaries from Iona were the founders of the Church, the representatives of Rome were to be its organizers. In 664 the Northumbrian king Oswiu, at the synod of Whitby, declared his adhesion to the Roman connection, whether it was that he saw political advantage therein, or whether he realized the failings and weaknesses of the Celtic church, and preferred the more orderly methods of her rival. Five years later there arrived from Rome the great organizer, Archbishop Theodore of Tarsus, who bound the hitherto isolated churches of the English kingdoms into a well-compacted whole, wherein the tribal bishops paid obedience to the metropolitan at Canterbury, and met him frequently in national councils and synods. England gained a spiritual unity long ere she attained a political unity, for in these meetings, which were often attended by kings as well as by prelates, Northumbrian, West Saxon and Mercian first learnt to work together as brothers. In a few years the English church became the pride of Western Christendom. Not merely did it produce the great band of missionaries who converted heathen Germany, Willibrord, Suidbert, Boniface and the rest but it excelled the other national churches in learning and culture.
It is but necessary to mention Bede and Alcuin. The first, as has been already said, was the one true historian who wrote during the dark time of the 7th-8th centuries; the second became the pride of the court of Charles the Great for his unrivalled scholarship. At the coming of Augustine England had been a barbarous country; a century and a half later she was more than abreast of the civilization of the rest of Europe.
But the progress toward national unity was still a slow one. The period when the English kingdoms began to enter into the commonwealth of Christendom, by receiving missionaries sent out from Rome or from lona, practically coincides with the period in which the occupation of central Britain was completed, and the kingdoms of the conquerors assumed their final size and shape. Aethelfrith, the last heathen among the Northumbrian kings, cut off the Britons of the North from those of the West, by winning the battle of Chester (AD. 613), and occupying the land about the mouths of the Mersey and the Dee. Cenwalh, the last monarch who ascended the throne of Wessex unbaptized, carried the boundaries of that kingdom into Mid-Somersetshire, where they halted for a long space. Penda, the last heathen king of Mercia, determined the size and strength of that state, by absorbing into it the territories of the other Anglian kingdoms of the Midlands, and probably also by carrying forward its western border beyond the Severn. By the time when the smallest and most barbarous of the Saxon states Sussex accepted Christianity in the year 686, the political geography of England had reached a stage from which it was not to vary in any marked degree for some 200 years. Indeed, there was nothing accomplished in the way of further encroachment on the Celt after 686, save Ine's and Cuthred's extension of Wessex into the valleys of the Tone and the Exe, and Offa's slight expansion of the Mercian frontier beyond the Severn, marked by his famous dyke. The conquests of the Northumbrian kings in Cumbria were ephemeral; what Oswiu won was lost after the death of Ecgfrith.
That the conversion of the English to Christianity had anything to do with their slackening from the work of conquest it would be wrong to assert. Though their wars with the Welsh were not conducted with such ferocious cruelty as of old, and though (as the laws of Ine show) the Celtic inhabitants of newly won districts were no longer exterminated, but received as the king's subjects, yet the hatred between Welsh and English did not cease because both were now Christians. The westward advance of the invaders would have continued, if only there had remained to attract them lands as desirable as those they had already won. But the mountains of Wales and the moors of Cornwall and Cumbria did not greatly tempt the settler. Moreover, the English states, which had seldom turned their swords against each other in the 5th or the 6th centuries, were engaged during the 7th and the 8th in those endless struggles for supremacy which seem so purposeless, because the hegemony which a king of energy and genius won for his kingdom always disappeared with his death.
The Bretwaldaship, as the English seem to have called it, was the most ephemeral of dignities. This was but natural: conquest can only be enforced by the extermination of the conquered, or by their consent to amalgamate with the conquerors, or by the garrisoning of the land that has been subdued by settlers or by military posts. None of these courses were possible to a king of the 7th or 8th centuries: even in their heathen days the English were not wont to massacre their beaten kinsmen as they massacred the unfortunate Celt. After their conversion to Christianity the idea of exterminating other English tribes grew even more impossible. On the other hand, local particularism was so strong that the conquered would not, at first, consent to give up their natural independence and merge themselves in the victors. Such amalgamations became possible after a time, when many of the local royal lines died out, and unifying influences, of which a common Christianity was the most powerful, sapped the strength of tribal pride. But it is not till the 9th century that we find this phenomenon growing general. A kingdom like Kent or East Anglia, even after long subjection to a powerful overlord, rose and reasserted its independence immeditely on hearing of his death. His successor had to attempt a new conquest, if he felt himself strong enough. To garrison a district that had been overrun was impossible: the military force of an English king consisted of his military household of gesiths, backed by the general levy of the tribe. The strength of Mercia or Northumbria might be mustered for a single battle, but could not supply a standing army to hold down the vanquished. The victorious king had to be content with tribute and obedience, which would cease when he died, or was beaten by a competitor for the position of Bretwalda.
In the ceaseless strife between the old English kingdoms, therefore, it was the personality of the king which was the main factor in determining the hegemony of one state over another. If in the 7th century the successive great Northumbrians Edwin, Oswald, Oswiu and Ecgfrith were reckoned the chief monarchs of England, and exercised a widespread influence over the southern realms, yet each had to win his supremacy by his own sword; and when Edwin and Oswald fell before the savage heathen Penda, and Ecgfrith was cut off by the Picts, there was a gap of anarchy before another king asserted his superior power. The same phenomenon was seen with regard to the Mercian kings of the 8th century; the long reigns of the two conquerors Aethelbald and Offa covered eighty years (716-796), and it might have been supposed that after such a term of supremacy Mercia would have remained permanently at the head of the English kingdoms. It was not so, Aethelbald in his old age lost his hegemony at the battle of Burford (752), and was murdered a few years after by his own people. Offa had to win back by long wars what his kinsman had lost; he became so powerful that we find the pope calling him Rex Anglorum, as if he were the only king in the island. He annexed Kent and East Anglia, overawed Northumbria and Wessex, both hopelessly faction-ridden at the time, was treated almost as an equal by the emperor Charles the Great, and died still at the height of his power. Yet the moment that he was dead all his vassals revolted; his successors could never recover all that was lost. Kent once more became a kingdom, and two successive Mercian sovereigns, Beornwulf and Ludica, fell in battle while vainly trying to recover Offa's supremacy over East Anglia and Wessex.
Text extracted from the entry for ENGLISH HISTORY in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.