Conquest by the Saxons
At length a time came when the Romans could no longer defend their own native country against the nations in the north of Europe. The soldiers were then withdrawn from Britain (about the year 440), and the people left to govern themselves. The Caledonians, who did not like to be so much straitened in the north, took advantage of the unprotected state of the Britons to pour in upon them from the other side of the wall, and despoil them of their lives and goods. The British had no resource but to call in another set of protectors, the Saxons, a warlike people who lived in the north of Germany, and the Jutes and Angles, who inhabited Denmark. The remedy was found hardly any better than the disease. Having once acquired a footing in the island, these hardy strangers proceeded to make it a subject of conquest, as the Romans had done before, with this material difference, that they drove the British to the western parts of the island, particularly into Wales, and settled, with new hordes of their countrymen, over the better part of the land. So completely was the population changed, that, excepting in the names of some of the hills and rivers, the British language was extinguished, and even the name of the country itself was changed, from what it originally was to Angle-land or England, a term taken from the Angles. The conquest required about two hundred and fifty years to be effected, and, like that of the Romans, it extended no farther north than the Firths of Forth and Clyde. Before the Britons were finally cooped up in Wales, many battles were fought but few of these are accurately recorded. The most distinguished of the British generals were the Princes Vortimer and Aurelius Ambrosius. It is probably on the achievements of the latter that the well-known fables of King Arthur and his knights are founded.
England, exclusive of the western regions, was now divided into seven kingdoms, called Kent, Northumberland, East Anglia, Mercia, Essex, Sussex and Wessex, each of which was governed by a race descended from the leader who had first subdued it and the whole have since been called by historians the Saxon Heptarchy, the latter word being composed of two Greek words, signifying seven kingdoms.To the north of the Forth dwelt a nation called the Picts, who also had a king, and were in all probability the people with whom Agricola had fought under the name of Caledonians. In the Western Highlands there was another nation, known by the name of the Scots, or Dalriads, who had gradually migrated thither from Ireland, between the middle of the third century and the year 503, when they established, under a chief named Fergus, a monarchy destined in time to absorb all the rest. About the year 700 there were no fewer than fifteen kings, or chiefs, within the island, while Ireland was nearly in the same situation. In Britain, at the same time, five languages were in use, the Latin, Saxon, Welsh, the Pictish, and the Irish. The general power of the country has been found to increase as these nations and principalities were gradually amassed together.
Although three of the Saxon kingdoms, Wessex, Mercia, and Northumberland, became predominant, the Heptarchy prevailed from about the year 585 to 800, when Egbert, king of Wessex, acquired a paramount influence over all the other states, though their kings still continued to reign. Alfred, so celebrated for his virtues, was the grandson of Egbert, and began to reign in the year 871. At this time the Danes, who are now a quiet, inoffensive people, were a nation of pirates, and at the same time hea thens. They used to come in large fleets, and commit dreadful ravages on the shores of Britain. For some time they completely overturned the sovereignty of Alfred, and compelled him to live in obscurity in the centre of a marsh. But he at length fell upon them when they thought themselves in no danger, and regained the greater part of his kingdom. Alfred spent the rest of his life in literary study, of which he was very fond, and in forming laws and regulations for the good of his people. He was perhaps the most able, most virtuous, and most popular prince that ever reigned in Britain and all this is the more surprising, when we find that his predecessors and successors, for many ages, were extremely cruel and ignorant. He died in the year 901, in the fifty-third year of his age.