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18 September 2014
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Birth of England: The Wessex Kings

By Michael Wood
Image of the Sermon of the Wolf manuscript
The beginning of the Sermon of the Wolf - 'Sermo Lupe' ©

In 1014, Archbishop Wulfstan of York gave a sermon that provides us with vital clues about when the English started thinking of themselves as a nation.

The birth of England

When did England become England? Some believe the English identity was formed long after the Norman Conquest, others are not so sure.

'The devil has led this people too far astray ...'

I think the idea of England and the allegiance to the English crown and English law was created by the Anglo-Saxon successors of Alfred the Great - long before 1066.

Let me give you an illustration, a snapshot from those days. It comes from a public speech by a bishop made in 1014.

At that time England was in deep trouble. By the winter of 1013-14, the government of Anglo-Saxon England had almost collapsed and the King, Ethelred the Unready, had gone into exile abroad.

The country had been devastated by Vikings and everybody complained about government inefficiency and failure to act and implement policy. Things could not really get much worse. It was at this point that Archbishop Wulfstan of York preached a sermon to the highest people in the land.

'The devil has led this people too far astray... the people have betrayed their own country [literally their "earth"]. And the harm will become common to this entire people.
'There was a historian in the time of the Britons called Gildas who wrote about their misdeeds; how their sins angered God so much that finally He allowed the army of the English to conquer their land. Let us take warning from this... we all know there are worse things going on now than we have heard of among the ancients. Let us turn to the right and leave wrongdoing... Let us love God and follow God's laws.'

Published: 2004-11-12

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