Gateway to the Classics: The Story of Liberty by James Baldwin
The Story of Liberty by  James Baldwin

Our Forefathers between the Seas


F IFTEEN hundred years ago, our forefathers lived, not in America nor yet in England, but in that low-lying narrow neck of land which lies between the great North Sea and the Baltic. The main or middle portion of their country they called Angle-land, or Engle-land; the northern section was known by the name which it still bears, Jutland; and the broader, more open southern part was Saxon-land, or the home of the Saxons.


Where Our Ancestors Dwelt

No matter whether they were Saxons, Jutes, or Angles, these ancestors of ours were bound together by traditions of common origin and common interest which made each one feel a kinship with all his neighbors. It is pleasant to think that perhaps, at some time in the dim, distant past, and somewhere in an unknown, far-away corner of the mystic East, the race may have had its beginning in a single household, under the roof of a single dwelling.

Our early kinsmen between the two seas left no history to tell us about themselves—how they lived and what they did and thought in those times so long ago. What we know about them has been gathered mainly from the writings of Roman historians and poets who, we may be quite sure, were not at all likely to speak of them in words of too high praise.

They had no cities or large towns; but here and there, in the midst of the great forest or within easy distance from the sea, were little family settlements or communities where each man lived among his own kinspeople and tilled his own little allotment of ground. Each settlement, no matter how small, was an independent commonwealth; and between it and its nearest neighbors there was a strip of common ground which belonged to neither. This neutral belt of uncertain width was called a "mearc" or march. In some cases it was a stretch of dense woodland; but more often it was an impassable fen or moorland, or a dismal marsh where goblins and other strange, uncanny creatures were supposed to dwell. No man might cross a march without first blowing a horn or otherwise giving notice of his coming; and any one failing to do so was regarded as a spy and a trespasser worthy of death.

Around each settlement, and along the inner border of the march, there was commonly a rude wall or fence of sticks and stones, or perhaps a shallow ditch, to serve as a boundary line. This was called the "tun" or town; and the people who dwelt within the inclosure were known collectively as the "tunscipe" or township. So far as possible, each man lived somewhat apart from his fellows, as woodland, stream, or field made most desirable. But for purposes of safety or defense, several cottages were often clustered round a more lordly dwelling, the home of the "eorl" or headman of the tunscipe. Even there, however, each family had its own complete house; "all must have independence and free air."


These forefathers of ours rejoiced in their liberty. Each in his own tunscipe, within his home, was his own master, "upright and free, scorning to be the thrall of any man." They had never known a king; they had never felt the oppressive hand of a tyrant. They made their own laws and chose their own rulers. Even the "eorl" was subject to the people's will and could not hold his place without their approval.

At some central place in each settlement there was a "moot hill," a sacred tree, or a public field where the freemen of the tunscipe, or of the tribe, met to discuss and order public affairs. It was at this "tun moot" that lots were cast by which each farmer citizen received his due share of plow land or of meadow land. It was there also that choice was made of the fittest to bear sword and spear in the service or defense of the common weal; disagreements between man and man were adjusted; wrongdoers were tried and punished; and due authority was given to "eorl" and "ealdormen" to look after the interests of the tunscipe in peace and in war.

It is interesting to know that the tun moot has been preserved until the present day by the descendants of these sturdy freemen of olden times. It survives with but few changes in the town meetings  of Connecticut and other New England states. It exists in one form or another throughout the world wherever English thought and English institutions prevail. It represents the purest form of democracy—of "government of the people, by the people, for the people"—which, let us all hope, shall never cease on earth.

And this is what we mean by freedom—political freedom:—The right of every honest and capable citizen, whether high or low, to an equal voice in the management of public affairs and in the government of his country.

To obtain their full measure of freedom, our forefathers found it necessary to establish other moots  besides that of the tun.  It was not unusual for several tunscipes to unite in a friendly league to promote the common welfare; and in that case each settlement was entitled to send its "reeve," or representative, with four to ten picked men, to speak for it in the general assembly, called the "hundred moot." Finally, in times of war or other great public peril, the strong men of the hundreds, or tribes, gathered in one great conclave or "folk moot," which was at once the highest court and the supreme power of the nation.

All this, we must remember, was fifteen hundred years ago—yes, more than that. The custom had come down to our ancient kinsmen through nobody knows how many ages. And now, just as the tun moot  survives in the town meeting, so also the hundred moot  exists to this very day in our state and colonial legislatures and the folk moot  lives in our English Parliament and in our American Congress.

It would be too much to say that the idea of human liberty began with our forefathers between the two seas; but we are quite sure that it was ingrained in their very life and character, and that, through all these centuries, their children and grandchildren to the fiftieth generation have been its foremost friends and defenders. The story of the English people is the story of Liberty; and by English people I mean all those, of whatsoever country or whatsoever continent, who can claim descent from the Angles, the Saxons, or the Jutes, the forefathers of the English race.


Our forefathers knew very little about other countries and peoples; and other peoples knew almost nothing about our forefathers. The Romans, who had some dealings with them, called them barbarians; and yet we are sure that they were by no means savages. They lived simply, in well-built houses of wood, each family having its own home and fireside. They had their loves and aspirations, their joys and sorrows, their triumphs and failures, very much as we, their remote heirs and grandchildren, continue to have them to this day.

Those who were inland dwellers tilled the soil in such rude manner as they knew. Those whose homes were near the coast became expert sailors and fishermen and, in time, bold navigators and sea kings, fearing neither wind nor wave nor the monsters of the deep. They dressed with taste and care, and delighted in ornaments of gold and of bronze, which were probably brought to them by Roman traders.


Saxon Eorl

The men were heroic; the women were beautiful. Among both there was "a seriousness of purpose, the result of struggles and sacrifices, which foretold great achievements." They were not Christians, but held loosely to a sort of hero worship in which they reverenced Odin and Thor and other gods of power and strength. "Their mood was above all venturesome, self-reliant, proud, with a dash of hardness and cruelty in it, but ennobled by personal courage and by a high and stern sense of manhood and the worth of man."


Saxon Warrior

Such were the men whom we, whether Englishmen or Americans, are proud to look back to as our remote ancestors from whom we have inherited our ideas of Liberty and the best instincts of humanity.


Just what it was that first impelled our forefathers to leave their old homes between the seas and seek others in a strange land, we shall never know. Perhaps it was to escape the hordes of savages—ancestors of the Germans—who were crowding in upon them from the east. Perhaps it was because rumors had reached them of wonderful islands in the west, more fertile than their own land, waiting only for conquest. Perhaps it was because of that unexplained migratory instinct which, through untold ages, has incited tribes and individuals to seek new fortunes, new homes, and a broader outlook in regions toward the setting sun.


Saxon Ship

At first a few bold fellows who have learned to sail their rude fishing boats along the bay-indented shores of old Angle-land, strike bravely out into the western sea intent upon adventures, hungry for plunder. Like Columbus, a thousand years later, they discover a new world. What a wonderful tale it is that they, after a while, carry back to their friends in the old home land!

"The island is called Britain," we may imagine them saying. "It is a fair country, with pleasant rivers and fertile fields and great forests, all inviting us to come and take. The Romans, who once dwelt there in great numbers, have gone back to their own place, leaving their houses empty and their fields untilled. The only people who now live in the main parts of the island are the Britons, a feeble folk unused to sword or spear. They are hard pressed by the Picts and the Scots, savages who often come down from the north and from the west to pillage and destroy. It would be easy for us to sail up and down the coast and fill our ships with booty. Indeed, it would be easy, if we chose, to take possession of the entire land and make new settlements there for ourselves; for the land is more fertile and everything is more promising than here in our old Angle-land and Saxon-land. . . . Yes, certainly; we are surely going back; and this time we shall sail in several ships instead of in one. Who will join us? Who will go with us to that strange country where every one may have his fill of adventures? Yes, who will go?"

Among men so courageous and so full of energy, a call like this did not go long unheeded. At first, most of those who went were sea robbers, marauders eager only for pillage. They left their lands and herds and fisheries with the women and the slaves, and launched out boldly upon a career of depredation. And, oh! how cruel was the havoc which they wrought among the easy-going, stay-at-home Britons, unused to defending themselves in war!

"Foes are these Saxons, and fierce beyond other foes," wrote a poet of the time. "The sea is their school of war, and the storm is their friend. They are sea wolves that live on the pillage of the world."


Saxon Invaders of Britain

The terror-stricken Britons, fleeing from their burning villages, cried out in despair, "Lord, deliver us from the fury of these Jutes!"

But men in whom there were so many worthy traits could not long remain mere plunderers; neither was it possible for an entire people to live by piracy alone. Behind these earliest adventurers were the stay-at-homes, the landholders, the laborers, the rank and file of the nation—all of whom were in time stirred by the reports of a land of plenty beyond the sea. As rapidly, therefore, as the first bands of marauders gained some foothold along the coast, they were followed by bands of home makers, who brought with them their women and children and dependents—all breathing the air of adventure and inspired with ideals of life and liberty as ancient as the race itself. Meanwhile, in the old country between the two seas, the desire for better homes and a still broader freedom—dreams of family life with new surroundings—became stronger and stronger with the departure of each new shipload of adventurers; and, "To the West! to the West!" even if not an articulate cry, became the absorbing passion, the one great ambition of those who were left behind.

Year after year, for many years, the great moving went on. The ancient homes and settlements in old Angle-land were one by one left vacant or given over to the savage tribes who came crowding in from the East. Marches, tuns, moot hills, and farmsteads were alike abandoned. The Angle-men of the land between the two seas became the Englishmen of Britain.

The Jutes—smallest of the three tribes—settled in the Isle of Thanet and in the neighboring rich region, which the Romans had named Cantium but which was later called Kent. The Saxons pushed farther inland and gained possession of three broad stretches of territory to which they gave the names of Essex, Sussex, and Wessex. The Angles were attracted by the inlets and the river mouths and the broad streams of the north. They soon possessed themselves of the forests and the heaths and the abandoned lands of Suffolk and Norfolk; of Yorkshire and Durham, and of the great region of marshes known as Mercia.

The Britons, the ancient inhabitants of the land, being unable to defend their country, were obliged to retire into the mountain lands of Wales and Cornwall.


They were settled at last in their new homes, these old-time kinsmen of ours. The most of them were still tillers of the ground, keepers of flocks and herds—land holders and land workers, as they or their fathers had been in the old country. They lived in separate communities, each surrounded by its march. They still held their tun moots and their folk moots, the latter being, in time, combined to form the "witenagemot," or supreme high council of the land. (Note: This great national council was the forerunner of the modern English Parliament. Its members consisted of the ealdormen and earls of the different tribes, the archbishops and the bishops, and later the king's thanes. Its powers were supreme. It could elect or dethrone a king, declare war, make treaties of peace, levy taxes, appoint or remove great officers of state, and decide all questions of law and justice. Its meetings, which every freeman might attend, were held biennially at different places.)

The great migration from over the sea had wrought many changes—changes which were not all for the best. Some of the men, as we have seen, had lived as sea wolves, fierce marauders knowing no law; some had spent the better part of their lives in driving out the Britons, or in fighting the Picts and the Scots, or in defending themselves from invading Danes. It was not easy for such men to settle down to the quiet occupations of peace.

Frequently there were bitter quarrels for the best holdings, for the most desirable farmsteads, or for the richest towns. And these quarrels were seldom settled without violence. Scarcely a year passed without war. The great aims of life were self-protection and conquest. Every man was obliged to appear armed whenever called, and to be ready to fight bravely for his home, his township, or his tribe.

At such a time it was necessary for men to unite in bands or military companies for offense or defense. Each band must have its captain; each army, however small, must have its commander; each jealous clan or community must have a strong man to direct its energies. Thus arose the necessity for one-man leadership. Gradually, the weaker bands or communities were absorbed by the stronger; or several townships, led by a single strong man, united for the common defense. Less regard was had for the decisions of the tun moot, and much more for the favor of the leader. Thus the free democracy of earlier times gave place to a sort of limited monarchy in which the leader who was strongest and ablest exercised authority over his fellows and assumed the title of king. This he might do, however, only through the consent of his followers or by the decree of the witenagemot.

At first there were as many kingdoms as there were towns or separate communities, although the leader or ruler was not always called a king. The necessity for union gradually brought these communities into closer fellowship, and the number of kingdoms was finally reduced to seven; while, over all, the voice and the will of the people were heard through the general council, and the strongest of the kings was recognized as overlord of the land.

From the time of the first coming of Englishmen into England nearly four hundred years passed before all were united into one kingdom. Meanwhile, as the power and wealth of the kings became greater, the rights and the liberties of the people were gradually curtailed or taken from them. Nevertheless, the spirit of liberty remained strong in the minds and hearts of our ancestors; and Saxon grit and the love of home and kindred and country became forever ingrained in the lives and in the characters of the English people.

Supplementary Resources

In connection with the study of this period, you will find the following books valuable for reading and study:

Green, A Short History of the English People

Church, The Story of Early Britain

Dickens, A Child's History of England

Mrs. Charles, Early Dawn (romance of the Roman occupation of Britain)

Nivers, School History of England

Guerber, Story of the English People

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