ORIGINAL INTRODUCTION TO INGRAM'S EDITION [1823] (continued)

But the most faithful and extraordinary follower of the "Saxon Annals" is Ethelwerd; who seems to have disregarded almost all other sources of information. One great error, however, he committed; for which Malmsbury does nor spare him. Despairing of the reputation of classical learning, if he had followed the simplicity of the Saxon original, he fell into a sort of measured and inverted prose, peculiar to himself; which, being at first sufficiently obscure, is sometimes rendered almost unintelligible by the incorrect manner in which it has been printed. His authority, nevertheless, in an historical point of view, is very respectable. Being one of the few writers untainted by monastic prejudice (21), he does not travel out of his way to indulge in legendary tales and romantic visions. Critically considered, his work is the best commentary on the "Saxon Chronicle" to the year 977; at which period one of the MSS. which he seems to have followed, terminates. Brevity and compression seem to have been his aim, because the compilation was intended to be sent abroad for the instruction of a female relative of high rank in Germany (22), at her request. But there are, nevertheless, some circumstances recorded which are not to be found elsewhere; so that a reference to this epitome of Saxon history will be sometimes useful in illustrating the early part of the "Chronicle"; though Gibson, I know not on what account, has scarcely once quoted it.

During the sanguinary conflicts of the eleventh century, which ended first in the temporary triumph of the Danes, and afterwards in the total subjugation of the country by the Normans, literary pursuits, as might be expected, were so much neglected, that scarcely a Latin writer is to be found: but the "Saxon Chronicle" has preserved a regular and minute detail of occurrences, as they passed along, of which subsequent historians were glad to avail themselves. For nearly a century after the Conquest, the Saxon annalists appear to have been chiefly eye-witnesses of the transactions which they relate (23). The policy of the Conqueror led him by degrees to employ Saxons as well as Normans: and William II. found them the most faithful of his subjects: but such an influx of foreigners naturally corrupted the ancient language; till at length, after many foreign and domestic wars, tranquillity being restored on the accession of Henry II., literature revived; a taste for composition increased; and the compilation of Latin histories of English and foreign affairs, blended and diversified with the fabled romance and legendary tale, became the ordinary path to distinction. It is remarkable, that when the "Saxon Chronicle" ends, Geoffrey of Monmouth begins. Almost every great monastery about this time had its historian: but some still adhered to the ancient method. Florence of Worcester, an interpolator of Marianus, as we before observed, closely follows Bede, Asser, and the "Saxon Chronicle" (24). The same may be observed of the annals of Gisburne, of Margan, of Meiros, of Waverley, etc.; some of which are anonymous compilations, whilst others have the name of an author, or rather transcriber; for very few aspired to the character of authors or original historians. Thomas Wikes, a canon of Oseney, who compiled a Latin chronicle of English affairs from the Conquest to the year 1304, tells us expressly, that he did this, not because he could add much to the histories of Bede, William of Newburgh, and Matthew Paris, but "propter minores, quibus non suppetit copia librorum." (25) Before the invention of printing, it was necessary that numerous copies of historical works should be transcribed, for the instruction of those who had not access to libraries. The transcribers frequently added something of their own, and abridged or omitted what they thought less interesting. Hence the endless variety of interpolators and deflorators of English history. William of Malmsbury, indeed, deserves to be selected from all his competitors for the superiority of his genius; but he is occasionally inaccurate, and negligent of dates and other minor circumstances; insomuch that his modern translator has corrected some mistakes, and supplied the deficiencies in his chronology, by a reference to the "Saxon Chronicle". Henry of Huntingdon, when he is not transcribing Bede, or translating the "Saxon Annals", may be placed on the same shelf with Geoffrey of Monmouth.

As I have now brought the reader to the period when our "Chronicle" terminates, I shall dismiss without much ceremony the succeeding writers, who have partly borrowed from this source; Simon of Durham, who transcribes Florence of Worcester, the two priors of Hexham, Gervase, Hoveden, Bromton, Stubbes, the two Matthews, of Paris and Westminster, and many others, considering that sufficient has been said to convince those who may not have leisure or opportunity to examine the matter themselves, that however numerous are the Latin historians of English affairs, almost everything original and authentic, and essentially conducive to a correct knowledge of our general history, to the period above mentioned, may be traced to the "Saxon Annals".

It is now time to examine, who were probably the writers of these "Annals". I say probably, because we have very little more than rational conjecture to guide us.

The period antecedent to the times of Bede, except where passages were afterwards inserted, was perhaps little else, originally, than a kind of chronological table of events, with a few genealogies, and notices of the death and succession of kings and other distinguished personages. But it is evident from the preface of Bede and from many passages in his work, that he received considerable assistance from Saxon bishops, abbots, and others; who not only communicated certain traditionary facts "viva voce", but also transmitted to him many written documents. These, therefore, must have been the early chronicles of Wessex, of Kent, and of the other provinces of the Heptarchy; which formed together the ground-work of his history. With greater honesty than most of his followers, he has given us the names of those learned persons who assisted him with this local information. The first is Alcuinus or Albinus, an abbot of Canterbury, at whose instigation he undertook the work; who sent by Nothelm, afterwards archbishop of that province, a full account of all ecclesiastical transactions in Kent, and in the contiguous districts, from the first conversion of the Saxons. From the same source he partly derived his information respecting the provinces of Essex, Wessex, East Anglia, and Northumbria. Bishop Daniel communicated to him by letter many particulars concerning Wessex, Sussex, and the Isle of Wight. He acknowledges assistance more than once "ex scriptis priorum"; and there is every reason to believe that some of these preceding records were the "Anglo-Saxon Annals"; for we have already seen that such records were in existence before the age of Nennius. In proof of this we may observe, that even the phraseology sometimes partakes more of the Saxon idiom than the Latin. If, therefore, it be admitted, as there is every reason to conclude from the foregoing remarks, that certain succinct and chronological arrangements of historical facts had taken place in several provinces of the Heptarchy before the time of Bede, let us inquire by whom they were likely to have been made.

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After Rome

Arthur and the Kings of Britain: The Historical Truth Behind the Myths

By Dr Miles Russell

The chapters in this volume, each written by a leading scholar of the period, analyse in turn the different nationalities and kingdoms that existed in the British Isles from the end of the Roman empire to the coming of the Vikings, the process of conversion to Christianity, the development of art and of a written culture, and the interaction between this written culture and the societies of the day. Available from:  

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