Pristina libertas: liberty and the Anglo-Saxons revisited
By Julia Crick
Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol.14 (2004)
Abstract: The association between liberty and the Anglo-Saxons has been rendered mythical by later retellings, both in the Middle Ages and afterwards. This later history notwithstanding, it is argued here that liberty occupied a significant place in the early English documentary record. Originally part of the cultural and linguistic inheritance from late antiquity, the notion of liberty was deployed by English churchmen in defence of monastic freedom from the eighth century onwards, creating an archival legacy which was rewritten and imitated in later centuries, becoming fixed in institutional memory as fiscal and legal freedoms bestowed on the populations of monasteries and towns by pre-Conquest kings.
Introduction: Liberty and the Anglo-Saxons once co-existed in happy equilibrium. As long as later Englishmen pictured the England of the Anglo-Saxons as the fount of the ancient constitution or cradle of the English nation they projected on to this apparently formative period their aspirations, liberty among them; from at least the seventeenth century to the twentieth historians, politicians and polemicists sought and found liberty in the pre-Conquest past. The traces of their sentimental quest are unmistakable. Stubbs celebrated the Anglo-Saxon chronicle (in almost Ossianic terms) as ‘The song of the people emulous of ancient glories, girding itself up for a strong and united effort after liberty.’ Edward Freeman, on a lecture tour of New England in 1881, invited his audience to view William ‘the Great’ as ‘a friend disguised in the garb of an enemy’ who by the Norman Conquest had ensured not the destruction but the preservation ‘of English law, of English freedom, of all that makes England England’. More than two centuries earlier Thomas Hedley, addressing parliament in June 1610, had defended the ‘ancient freedom and liberty of the subjects of England’ a status conﬁrmed in Magna Carta but of much greater antiquity, rooted in ‘the ancient laws and liberties of the kingdom’ before the Norman Conquest. In the rhetoric of liberty we may detect something of the spirit which once ﬁred the passion for Anglo-Saxon studies.