55 B.C. - A.D. 1066

"Ah, well," an American visitor is said to have soliloquized on the site of the battle of Hastings, "it is but a little island, and it has often been conquered." We have in these few pages to trace the evolution of a great empire, which has often conquered others, out of the little island which was often conquered itself. The mere incidents of this growth, which satisfied the childlike curiosity of earlier generations, hardly appeal to a public which is learning to look upon historical narrative not as a simple story, but as an interpretation of human development, and upon historical fact as the complex resultant of character and conditions; and introspective readers will look less for a list of facts and dates marking the milestones on this national march than for suggestions to explain the formation of the army, the spirit of its leaders and its men, the progress made, and the obstacles overcome. No solution of the problems presented by history will be complete until the knowledge of man is perfect; but we cannot approach the threshold of understanding without realizing that our national achievement has been the outcome of singular powers of assimilation, of adaptation to changing circumstances, and of elasticity of system. Change has been, and is, the breath of our existence and the condition of our growth.

Change began with the Creation, and ages of momentous development are shrouded from our eyes. The land and the people are the two foundations of English history; but before history began, the land had received the insular configuration which has largely determined its fortune; and the various peoples, who were to mould and be moulded by the land, had differentiated from the other races of the world. Several of these peoples had occupied the land before its conquest by the Anglo-Saxons, some before it was even Britain. Whether neolithic man superseded palaeolithic man in these islands by invasion or by domestic evolution, we do not know; but centuries before the Christian era the Britons overran the country and superimposed themselves upon its swarthy, squat inhabitants. They mounted comparatively high in the scale of civilization; they tilled the soil, worked mines, cultivated various forms of art, and even built towns. But their loose tribal organization left them at the mercy of the Romans; and though Julius Caesar's two raids in 55 B.C. and 54 B.C. left no permanent results, the conquest was soon completed when the Romans came in earnest in A.D. 43.

The extent to which the Romans during the three and a half centuries of their rule in Britain civilized its inhabitants is a matter of doubtful inference. The remains of Roman roads, Roman walls, and Roman villas still bear witness to their material activity; and an occupation of the land by Roman troops and Roman officials, spread over three hundred and fifty years, must have impressed upon the upper classes of the Britons at least some acquaintance with the language, religion, administration, and social and economic arrangements of the conquerors. But, on the whole, the evidence points rather to military occupation than to colonization; and the Roman province resembled more nearly a German than a British colony of to-day. Rome had then no surplus population with which to fill new territory; the only emigrants were the soldiers, the officials, and a few traders or prospectors; and of these most were partially Romanized provincials from other parts of the empire, for a Roman soldier of the third century A.D. was not generally a Roman or even an Italian. The imperial government, moreover, considered the interests of Britain not in themselves but only as subordinate to the empire, which any sort of distinctive national organization would have threatened. This distinguishes Roman rule in Britain from British rule in India; and if the army in Britain gradually grew more British, it was due to the weakness and not to the policy of the imperial government. There was no attempt to form a British constitution, or weld British tribes into a nation; for Rome brought to birth no daughter states, lest she should dismember her all-embracing unity. So the nascent nations warred within and rent her; and when, enfeebled and distracted by the struggle, she relaxed her hold on Britain, she left it more cultivated, perhaps, but more enervated and hardly stronger or more united than before.

Hardier peoples were already hovering over the prey. The Romans had themselves established a "count of the Saxon shore" to defend the eastern coasts of Britain against the pirates of the German Ocean; and it was not long after its revolt from Rome in 410, that the Angles and Saxons and Jutes discovered a chance to meddle in Britain, torn as it was by domestic anarchy, and threatened with inroads by the Picts and Scots in the north. Neither this temptation nor the alleged invitation from the British chief Vortigern to come over and help, supplied the original impulse which drove the Angles and Saxons across the sea. Whatever its origin - whether pressure from other tribes behind, internal dissensions, or the economic necessities of a population growing too fast for the produce of primitive farming - the restlessness was general; but while the Goths and the Franks poured south over the Roman frontiers on land, the Angles and Saxons obeyed a prophetic call to the sea and the setting sun.