After the Romans came the Saxons. It seemed that for a thousand years England was the battle ground of marauding invaders. No sooner had the last of the Romans taken his departure than the Saxons came. They were invited by the Britons, who, the moment they lost the protection of the Romans, found themselves the prey of their old enemies, the Picts and the Scots.
Now we are going to dismiss the Picts and the Scots from our picture. The Saxons drove them back, but, like many other conquerors, the Saxons were not satisfied with this. They laid claim to England. They conquered it. They established themselves in it. They took the Britons as slaves and serfs and those who escaped either went to the mountains of Wales and Cornwall or emigrated to France, and gave the name of Brittany to that part in which they settled.
Thus, we come to the end of the story of Picts, Scots and Britons. We are now concerned with the men who really made England. They were Germans, or Teutons as the Romans called them and they were known as Angles and Saxons. Britain was a tempting land for invasion. On the East coast it lies right opposite Germany, and the River Humber invited the Saxon ships up its broad highway. From the Humber they ascended the River Don, which is tidal as far as Doncaster, and then we know that in the very early days of the Saxon invasion the lands on either side of the Don were soon in the hands of these hardy settlers from beyond the sea.
The Saxon invasion was more enduring than that of the Romans. When the Romans went, beyond their buildings, their laws and customs, little was left to influence the tide of history. The Saxons came to settle, and they never rested until the whole of the country was in ther grasp. They grafted their language upon ours. They imposed their laws and customs upon the inhabitants who remained. They founded a new social system, and though the Norman invasion, 600 years later, was even a greater historical fact, it says something for the enduring character of the work of the Saxons that even the masterful Normans were unable to uproot it. It was the blending of the Saxon and the Norman that made the English race.
But before this came to pass, six long centuries had to roll on. Now, we are not
going to write a history of Saxon England. If we were, we should describe at length how the Saxons divided the land into seven parts, known to historians as the period of Heptarchy, and how they established a King over each part. Doncaster was in the Northern kingdom, called Northumbria, and its first King was Edwin. There was a strong Saxon settlement around Doncaster, and it is believed that Edwin stayed in this town more than once. It is fairly certain that he was the first Saxon King to build a Christian church; and if the honour of having the first fell to York, it seems certain that the honour of having the second fell to Doncaster. Later, the seven Saxon Kingdoms were united as one and given the name England, and thus we see the origin of our race and the foundation of our state.
There are a thousand and one evidences of Saxon domination in the neighbourhood of Doncaster. Curiously enough, Doncaster was not their capital stronghold. They went four or five miles further up the Don and made Conisborough their fortress. They were established at Doncaster, and at Hexthorpe, which is now a busy manufacturing suburb of Doncaster, they founded a settlement, or Earldom known as the “soke”, and from it their Earls ruled not only Doncaster, but Wheatley, Auckley, Austerfield, Rossington, Balby, Loversall and Warmsworth.
At Conisborough and Tickhill they had residences, and Conisborough in particular, they made a Royal Centre. The name itself tells its story. It is derived from two old Saxon words “cyning” which means King and “burh” which translates fortified town. Later, the splendid romance of Conisborough will entitle it to a special chapter.
Meanwhile, though Hexthorpe was probably of little less importance than Doncaster, the Saxons may have had their church in what is now the town itself. It is believed that Doncaster’s first church was built on what is now the centre of the town, very near the site of the present Corn Exchange. The Saxon Earl Goodwin was the first to be the Lord of the Soke of Hexthorpe, and thus he was the first great landlord of Doncaster – the first of a long line of illustrious names bound up very closely with the history of our town and also our country.
Saxon Doncaster need not detain us, although the period is full of interest. The Saxons were converted to Christianity in the time of Pope Gregory I, who sent Augustine with forty monks to spread the gospel. They had destroyed whatever remained of the Christianity introduced by the Romans, but when they themselves embraced the faith, they became zealous adherents, and Saxon churched started to spring up all over the land. In the North, as we have seen, the second of these Christian temples to rise was the one at Doncaster.
For six centuries, Doncaster and its neighbourhood were occupied by the Saxons. Probably the town knew something of the terrors of the Danish invasion. It would know something of the great names of Saxon history, of which that of King Alfred stands out as the most distinguished. It would benefit by the laws he made, the system of justice he introduced and the learning he brought to the people. For in those days, education was not the heritage of the poor. Even amongst the clergy there were many who could not read. It was Alfred the Great who altered this. He was, too, the founder of our Navy – the bulwark of our shores, the shield of our safety in years to come.
The church was placed upon a sure foundation by the Saxons. The Archbishoprics of York and London were founded. Parish churches began to dot the landscape. There was one at Doncaster, as we have seen, and there were others in the neighbourhood, although the actual Saxon remains, like those of the Romans are few and far between.
A picture of Saxon Doncaster would be deeply interesting. The standard of comfort was not very high. Even Kings slept upon straw and covered themselves with bearskins. The common people lived in hovels. Floors were covered with rushes, and the smoke from the fire had to escape as best it could by way of the door or through a whole in the roof. There was no lighting system, no water service, no sewerage arrangements – everything was crude, rough and uncomely. Yet it was a great period in English History. It shewed the race making a big step forward towards civilization. The Kingdom was divided into County’s and Hundreds, and the names still survive in our system of government. Sheriffs and Aldermaen looked after the observance of the law, and the interests of the people were safeguarded by the institution of jury’s and county courts. Indeed, even parliament was foreshadowed by the Saxons, for Alfred called a council in London twice per year, of nobles, bishops and landowners, to assist him in the government of the nation; and we may be sure that the Saxon Lords who held the lands around Doncaster, travelled to London in pomp and state, to lend their aid to the King in the good government of the country as a whole.