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THE BEGINNINGS OF NATIONAL CONSCIOUSNESS
HE building up of a common personality is, of necessity, the work of many generations. Premature and superficial indications may point towards a patriotism for which the nation is, as yet, unripe. The human mind is so constituted, that any real and considerable change in its attitude is never sudden. This is the difficulty which confronts advocates of a volunteer system of military training. A fortnight's, or even a six months' camp may turn out a creditable peace soldier; but in the stress and fatigue of real battle, it is the subconscious habits of obedience and co-operation, which have sunk in during years of training, that give the victory into the hands of regulars. In art, too, the theory of the divinely inspired novice remains the solace and the snare of amateurs; while in an even higher sphere it is the vulgarest of delusions to imagine that sinners can become saints as the result of one hour's hysteria. It took more than a Magna Carta to secure England's liberties, and more than a Cressy to cement her patriotism.
We must regard the Middle Ages as a long period of
preparation, in the course of which the obstacles to patriotism were one by one removed, and the seeds sown which were not to burst into flower, until the Almighty blew with his winds and scattered the Armada. At the period of the Norman Conquest all circumstances seemed in league, to render the very idea unthinkable. William the Bastard was a conqueror of another stamp than Canute, at whose passing the monks of Ely had been moved to song; and the Norman Conquest of England was of a sterner nature than the sea-king Rollo's conquest of Normandy a century and a half before. Even though he might express his contempt for his French suzerain by tipping him over backwards in his throne, by way of homage, the Northman soon realized that he was in the presence of a superior civilization, and with the ready capacity for assimilation which was characteristic of his race, he soon acquired its language, its religion, and its outlook on life, thus entering, by a peaceful and more glorious conquest, upon the inheritance of the saints and the Cæsars. But in conquering England, he might not unnaturally claim to be coming into contact with an inferior civilization. William of Malmesbury, who was incomparably the greatest of the chroniclers, has drawn. the contrast between Norman and Englishman in terms to which the modern historian has little to add. The masterful, subtle and polite Norman, with a religious ardour as fierce as his love of battle, was naturally contemptuous of the coarser-grained Saxon, with his prolonged and swinish orgies, and his lower standard of culture. For, in truth, the Englishman had not improved since the days of Alfred, and in the years preceding the Conquest he seems to have been upon the downward grade. Learning of all sorts was neglected; "a person who understood grammar," says the chronicler, “ was a source of wonder and amusement." And this was just at the time when Normandy was coming under the
influence of the Cluniac reformation, and her churchmen were aglow with new learning and enthusiasm.
It does not fall within the scope of this history, to inquire minutely into the patriotism of Englishmen before the Conquest. That the Anglo-Saxon was capable, upon occasion, of devotion to his native land is beyond question. In Alfred, England found one who is entitled to a high place upon her roll of patriot kings, one who may literally be said to have loved her with all his heart and mind and soul and strength, who combined the best qualities of a warrior, a scholar and a Christian. We read in Asser, how he was wont to exhort, and on occasion to rebuke, his bishops, earls and great men, in order that their attention might be directed towards the common needs of the people, though, as his biographer goes on to tell us, owing to the sluggishness of the people, his commands were very imperfectly obeyed. The men who fell on Senlac Hill beneath the golden dragon of Wessex, were animated by a spirit not different from that of the squares, which overthrew the veterans of Napoleon. "They were few in number," says the chronicler, "but very brave, and throwing aside all regard for their own safety, laid down their lives for their country."
The literature of Saxon patriotism is scanty, but it produced one poem or saga, which, though strangely neglected, is not unworthy to bear comparison with "Chevy Chase" and Drayton's " Agincourt." It is called "The Battle of Maldon," and describes the encounter between a force of sea rovers, and a shire levy under Brythnoth," the folk's elder." The proud challenge of the Danish herald, and the answer of the old Earl, who tells them that if they want tribute they shall be paid in coin of spear and sword-edge, are pitched in the heroic key. Then follows Brythnoth's act of sublime madness, in abandoning an impregnable position for the sake of a
fight, and the final scene, in which the Thanes, with the exception of one who fled from the battle,
make a last stand around their master's body. As the oldest and noblest of them all cries:
"I am old of life,
Hence stir will I not,
And I by the half of my lord,
By such a loved man,
To lie am thinking."
The saga of Brunanburgh is better known, thanks to Tennyson's translation, but it misses the dignity and ineffable pathos of this "Battle of Maldon."
Saxon patriotism was, after all, an unstable and fitful thing. The country was never properly united. Even the little kingdoms of the Heptarchy were too frequently torn asunder by civil strife, and the history of Northumbria, in particular, is one weary record of dissension and regicide. A commanding personality, like Alfred or Edgar, might produce the semblance of union, but we have seen how even Alfred was hampered owing to the slackness of his people. The two battle pieces that we have just noticed can scarcely be called patriotic in the modern sense. In both the personal note is predominant, and in neither is the sentiment definitely national. After Brunanburgh,
Also the brethren,
Went to his own West Saxon land,
and in the Battle of Maldon it is the shire levy, and not a national army, that follows Brythnoth.
The Danish invasions and conquests did not bring the