The Winchester chronicle
Sanguinetti, Ann Veronica
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The Winchester Chronicle is one of seven major recensions which, when considered as a whole, are designated by the title of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Of these seven, the Winchester Chronicle has all the indications of being the earliest in point of composition. The exact date of its composition is unknown, but it is usually assigned to the reign of Alfred the Great. The entries up to the year 891 are all in the same handwriting; after 891, a number of hands took part in its composition. The conclusion usually made is that the chronicle in its present form was begun in the reign of Alfred. Up to the year 891, the writing consisted in revising an earlier, lost chronicle while after 891, the entries are of more or less contemporary events. There are some who have used linguistic arguments in behalf of a theory of Mercian origin for the Winchester Chronicle. However, these arguments are nullified by virtue of the fact that linguistic peculiarities can be used to argue the opposite side of the question just as effectively. As to whether or not Alfred himself played any direct part in the composition of the Chronicle, it is a question. Certainly there is no reason why such should not have been the case. Some evidence on this roint can be derived from the twelfth century chronicle of Geffrei Gaimar. As an historical document, the Winchester Chronicle is unique. As a vernacular history, it antedates all other English chronicles by at least a century, and it has no continental counterpart for over two centuries. The manuscript as it now exists covers the years 1 to 1070. Up to 755, the entries are for the most part short. From 755 to about 925 the entries are frequent and full. From 925 to the end of the Chronicle, the entries again become sporadic and incomplete, space being taken up by four poems inserted into it. Some interpolations were made on erasures of the oririnal text by a twelfth century writer, but these interpolations are clearly distinguishable fron the original matter. The Chronicle begins with a genealogy of the West Saxon king from Cardic, the supposed founder of the West Saxon kingdom to Alfred. The first section of the Chronicle, the years 1 to 449 is the least interesting part of the Chronicle. The entries deal largely with church and Roman Empire history, being maiinly a restatement of material found in Rede's Ecclesiastical History of England. The annals from 449 to about the middle of the seventh century are the nost difficult part of the Chronicle to read and evaluate. Lacking documentary material, the chroniclers resorted to legend and the oral tradition. In this section are recorded the first landing of the Angles and Saxons, the development of the various kingdoms, and the coming of Christianity. Very little mention is riven to the Celtic church, and no mention is eiven to the important synod at Whitby. The reliable information in this section is in generalities, specific details, names and dates cannot be trusted. In the next section of the Chronicle, from the middle of the seventh century to 855, we find the first documentary annals of the Chronicle. The entries are sinple and sober in contrast to the romancing of the preceding section, and the accessions of the Bishops of Winchester are faithfully recorded. Archaisms in the style indicate that the writer was here working with an older manuscript. In this section is recorded the rise of the West Saxon state. Kent succumbed as early as 694, Mercia in 823, and Northumbria in 827. In 787 cones the first record of the Danish Invasions. The next hundred years of the Chronicle cover the glorious years of the house of Wessex. This section deals almost exclusively with the struggle of the West Saxon kings against the Danes, the climax coming with the reign of Alfred. This section attains a peak from the point of view both of literature and history that was reached by none of the other chronicles. This is particularly true of the annals 893 to 898 which record Alfred's great victories over the Danes. The exalted and vibrant prose of these entries is like nothing else that was ever written in Anglo-Saxon prose. After the death of Alfred the Chronicle settles down to a calm, well written narrative. Towards the end of this section the annals again become meagre, but the lack of date is compensated "by four poems inserted into the Chronicle, among them the Battle of Brunnanburgh, one of the finest battle poems in Anglo-Saxon. The annals of the last section (960-1070) are negligible. Only two events of importance are recorded-the coming of Canute in 1017 and the coming of William the Conqueror in 1066. The language by this time was in an obvious state of decay. As far as history or literature are concerned, the Chronicle may well have stopped with the death of Edgar, the last of the great Anglo-Saxon kings. The picture of the political setup of the Anglo-Saxons as seen in the Chronicle is far from complete, but certain points of it are fairly clear. It is obvious that the king was all important and that the trend of the authority of the king was towards centralization. On the other hand, the Witan was relatively unimportant, more so than modern historians seem to think. Among the nobility, the most important figures were the ealdormen or earls, the royal representatives in the shires. These earls were often powerful enough to lead revolts against the king, but there is no evidence in the Chronicle that substantiates the theory that thet they represented a force akin to the feudalism of the Continent. From the Chronicle it can be gatherer that the Anglo-Saxons were a hard-living, hard-dying people. They were warlike, sturdy, at times cruel. They were not a thinking or talking people, but an acting people.
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