To begin with, it took the Angles, Saxons and Jutes almost two hundred years to quell the British resistance and pen the natives back into Wales and Cornwall. There then followed what we might call the first Anglo-Saxon golden age, the epoch of the 'heptarchy', the seven kingdoms (illustrated below) of Northumbria, Mercia, Wessex, Sussex, Kent, Essex, and East Anglia.
It was the pressures of war and the existential threat of conquest which made such unity a necessity. In the 870s, under Alfred the Great, Wessex alone proved durable enough to withstand and repel the waves of Viking incursions which had brought such a brutal and bloody end to the first Anglo-Saxon golden age. After Alfred (871-899), his son Edward (899-924), and his grandson Athelstan (924-939) extended English rule further north and east until by the time of Edgar the Peaceable (959-975), the Anglo-Saxon king - sitting in Winchester, the ancient capital of Wessex - was regarded by all, albeit grudgingly in some quarters, as sovereign and overlord of the whole island of Britain.
Military success was only part of Alfred's gift to his country, however. Once peace had been established, he switched his focus towards scholarship and church-building, and we see this trend continuing right up to the time of Edgar and the wide-ranging monastic reforms carried out on his behalf by St. Dunstan. This whole era, from Alfred to Edgar, can be seen as the second Anglo-Saxon golden age.
Edgar's England, in the year 975, seemed set fair for greatness, but the King died suddenly, aged just 32, and his realm descended into internecine strife and foreign occupation all too swiftly. Edgar had two sons - Edward, who was possibly illegitimate, and Ethelred, the child of his queen, Elfrida. Edward, as the elder son, acceeded to the throne, aged about 13, and was murdered three years later at Corfe Castle in Dorset, either by supporters of Ethelred or on the orders of the Queen. As the picture above indicates, he was very soon held up as a saint and a martyr in the popular imagination.
Ethelred replaced him as king, as his mother had intended, but was soon exposed as wholly unfit for the role. Viking attacks resumed and grew in intensity year upon year. The net result was a succession of four Danish kings and a chronic dynastic instability which was only resolved with the death of Harold and the annihilation of the Anglo-Saxon state in a single day at Hastings.
We see in 1066, therefore, the same pattern repeating itself of collapse and surrender
after a strong king's death. This was typical of the times in many ways. Monarchs died young, often before they were forty, with their sons still in boyhood and the land at the mercy of squabbling, vindictive nobles. The other misfortune to beset Anglo-Saxon England was the constant threat of piracy and invasion from the coasts of Scandinavia. Harold himself, just nineteen days before his demise, had successfully fought off a colossal Viking army at Stamford Bridge in North Yorkshire.
We do not know what would have happened if Harold had prevailed against the Normans. His battlefield triumphs might have given him the kudos and the breathing space required to establish a dynasty of his own and inaugurate the enduring golden age which up to that point Anglo-Saxon England had never quite had. Or, given that his claim to the throne was far from ironclad, he may have had to deal with a string of rival claimants and could thereby have been deprived of the time needed to turn his mind towards long-term civilisational tasks à la Alfred.
I hasten to add at this point that I would not want to over-romanticise the Anglo-Saxons. They could be as barbaric as anyone when they put their minds to it. Yet it is clear that rule by Harold, or someone like him, would have been infinitely preferable to the ordinary man and woman than the rod of iron thrown down by William the Conqueror. It would have maintained the close bond between the king and his people that was sundered by the Conquest and steered the body politic away from from the needless expansionism and mercantilism which was so often the Norman hallmark. A third Anglo-Saxon golden age would, I believe, have concentrated on the things that truly matter - religion, learning and art - after the example of King Alfred and his understanding that temporal exigencies, while they have their place, are in reality just steps on the way towards an appreciation and understanding of the eternal verities.
Maybe one day it will happen. Perhaps the golden age that never quite was is stored up somewhere in the the national collective psyche - a 'memory of the future', as the theologian John Zizioulas writes of the Eucharist - a potent archetype which will manifest on the physical plane at the time and point of history of God's own choosing. If we ever see turbulence again on the level of those Viking invasions, let us pray in that day for a second Alfred to emerge from the destruction and lay once more the foundations of a peaceful and unified 'Isle of the Blessed', which will enjoy better luck than its Anglo-Saxon predecessor, and shine out to a world in sore need of political and social models which take the City of God as a template to build up and bring the best out of the City of Man.