Who Were the Anglo-Saxons? This Is Their Incredible History

The Anglo-Saxons were a Germanic people who came to England after the Romans left. This article looks at their history.

Mar 24, 2022By Luisa Hagele, BA Archaeology, MA Int’l Heritage & Museum Cultures
anglo saxon king alfred statue with bayeux tapestry

 

The Anglo-Saxons, known in Old English as the “Angul-Seaxan”, shaped much of the English language, culture, and identity. Descended from a hotchpotch of Germanic peoples who migrated to parts of Britain, they inhabited and ruled territories in England and Wales for six centuries.

 

Who Were the Anglo-Saxons?

sutton hoo helmet
An Anglo-Saxon warriors’ helmet from the Sutton Hoo burial, 6th-7th centuries CE, via the British Museum

 

Spanning from 410 until 1066 CE, Britain’s Anglo-Saxon period was a time of war, continuous battles, and religious conversion. It witnessed the breaking up of Roman Britannia into several kingdoms before the Anglo-Saxons were finally joined under the kingdom of England. The development of an English identity arose as a result of the development of an Anglo-Saxon one.

 

The Anglo-Saxons were primarily migrants from northern Europe who interacted with one another, as well as with the indigenous British groups and, later, Viking and Danish invaders. They were the dominant political force until the defeat of the last Anglo-Saxon king in 1066. During this time, they crafted a unique identity and material culture that perfectly reflected the numerous and diverse influences that forged them.

 

Where Did the Anglo-Saxons Come From?

germanic migrations europe
Map showing the migration of Germanic peoples across Europe, via Encyclopaedia Britannica

 

In the centuries after 400 CE, low-lying areas in Europe experienced significant and regular flooding, particularly in what is now modern Denmark, Holland, and Belgium. Groups established within these areas began looking for somewhere to settle that was less likely to flood. With the withdrawal of the Roman legions from Britain, the defenseless island quickly became an appealing prospect.

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Germanic mercenaries were already well-acquainted with Britain, having fought for many years in the Roman army as soldiers for hire. In fact, some were even employed to help protect the island against invasion. Even before the Roman legions departed in 410 CE, however, Britain experienced a slow and steady series of invasions from Germanic-speaking groups known as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes.

 

Germanic Invasions of Britain

anglo saxon chronicle
An original page from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 10th century, via the British Library

 

The early Anglo-Saxon period began around the time that Roman rule in Britain came to an end, spanning from 410 until 660 CE. At this time, a period of intensified human migrations was taking place across Europe. Germanic tribes such as the Goths, Vandals, Lombards, Suebi, and Franks joined the Angles, Saxons, and Frisians in their search for new places to settle. In addition to substantial flooding catalyzing the migrations, these groups were also pushed westwards by the Huns, Slavs, Bulgars, Avars, and Alans.

 

Initially, the small invading parties were met with little resistance from the Romano-British. As larger invasions came in increasing numbers, however, the inhabitants of Britannia began to fight back. The Celtic groups regarded the invaders as their enemies, and a British Christian leader known as Ambrosius is mentioned by the monk Gildas (500 – 570 CE) as having rallied the Romano-British against them. Ultimately, however, the invaders were able to settle across most of England.

 

The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

anglo saxon kingdoms map
Map showing the seven kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxons, via archive.org

 

Following the migration period, various Germanic groups settled in different areas of the British Isles from around 650 until 800 CE. Evidence points towards the probability that the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes originally settled in eastern England. Later, they likely moved westwards and northwards into territory inhabited by the Britons. Cumbria and Cornwall remained the exceptions and held out against the invaders for much longer than other parts of England. Similarly, Wales retained its independence and remained a British stronghold.

 

These groups formed several kingdoms that were frequently at war with one another and constantly changing. By approximately 660 CE, smaller territories had coalesced, and seven main, separate kingdoms were established. The kingdom of Kent had been settled predominantly by the Jutes, while the kingdoms of Mercia, Northumbria, and East Anglia were mainly occupied by the Angles. The Saxons mostly settled in areas that became known as the kingdoms of the East Saxons, the South Saxons, and the West Saxons. Today, these areas have retained the roots of their names, known now as Essex, Sussex, and Wessex respectively.

 

Some evidence, while somewhat patchy, suggests that the Mercian kings were formidable rulers during this period. They were probably able to exercise wide-ranging supremacy over much of the country from their seats in the Midlands.

 

Anglo-Saxon Society

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An early Anglo-Saxon square-headed brooch, 6th century CE, via the British Museum

 

Much of what we know about Anglo-Saxon society comes from key sources such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and the Domesday Book. Various charters and manuscripts, as well as the earliest law code, written for King Æthelberht of Kent (550 – 616 CE), also offer us a peek into Anglo-Saxon life and social organization.

 

The Anglo-Saxons maintained a hierarchical societal structure. The king and members of his family remained at the top of society, closely followed by the nobility, including the warrior elite, and the church. The coalescing of smaller tribal areas into larger kingdoms also provided the opportunity for members of the elite to progress from warriors to kings. Unfree members of society were at the other extreme, with the vast majority of society comprising the peasantry.

 

What Was the Language of the Anglo-Saxons?

beowulf manuscript
A page from the original manuscript of Beowulf, c. 1000 CE,  via the British Library

 

The Anglo-Saxons spoke Old English, the earliest form of the current English language. Old English evolved mainly from other Germanic languages, including Old Friesian, and Old High German. Old Norse, which also originated from Proto-Germanic, also influenced the language considerably. This was particularly the case following the frequent Viking invasions that occurred primarily in the 9th century. It is believed that Common Brittonic and British Latin was spoken in southern England prior to the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons had little influence on Old English.

 

Surviving manuscripts such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the epic poem Beowulf demonstrate that distinctive dialects were spoken within the various kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxons. The four major dialects included Mercian, spoken in the Midlands, and Northumbrian, spoken North of the Humber. Kentish was spoken in Kent, while West Saxon was spoken across the south and southwest of England.

 

Certain learned members of Anglo-Saxon society also spoke a number of other languages. Latin and Greek, the languages of learning, were spoken by some, while Cornish and Irish continued to be spoken in Cornwall and Ireland respectively. Irish was spoken by many of the missionaries who came from Ireland to help bring Christianity to the Anglo-Saxons.

 

The Arrival of Christianity

augustine preaching aethelberht
Augustine preaching to King Æthelberht, by James E. Doyle, 1864, via the Royal Academy of Arts, London

 

The Anglo-Saxons who first settled in England during the fifth and sixth centuries brought with them the pagan religious beliefs of their Scandinavian-Germanic heritage. Although we know relatively little about these beliefs, we can glean some insight from later Christian writings, as well as the nature of their burial practices. Excavations of early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries have revealed that they probably believed in an afterlife, as their dead were sometimes buried with grave goods.

 

Pagan Anglo-Saxons worshipped at a number of natural geographic features across the English landscape, as well as at some specially built temples. Great significance was attributed to animals and the natural world, but especially to the horse, which was believed to be associated with the gods. They played a central role in rituals and funerary practices were a prominent symbol of fertility and were central to much spiritual symbolism. Pagan symbolism is also abundant in Anglo-Saxon poetry and literature, demonstrating the merging of former pagan beliefs with later Christian ones.

 

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The remains of Lindisfarne Priory, via English Heritage

 

Late in the sixth century, two particular events catalyzed the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. In 565 CE, an Irish monk named Columba (521 – 597 CE) reached the Island Monastery of Iona in Scotland. Having studied at the monastic school of Moville, he established an abbey at Iona and he is credited with spreading Christianity in Scotland. In 635 CE, a missionary from Iona, Aidan (590 – 651 CE), was invited by the Anglo-Saxon King Oswald (604 – 642 CE) to convert the people of his kingdom of Northumbria to Christianity. He chose to establish his new bishopric at the island of Lindisfarne, which became known as “the Holy Island”.

 

Around the time of Columba’s death in 597 CE, an Italian monk named Augustine (early 6th century – 604 CE) was sent by Pope Gregory the Great to convert King Æthelberht of Kent to Christianity. Æthelberht’s wife, Bertha of Kent (565 – 601 CE), was already a Christian, so Æthelberht was probably chosen because of the influence that she was expected to have over him. Following Æthelberht’s own conversion, the Anglo-Saxons adopted the Christian faith over the course of the next century. With only some small pockets of resistance, the work of Irish monks and Roman missionaries was crucial in influencing the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons.

 

The Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings

lindisfarne gospels interlacing
A page showing Anglo-Saxon interlacing illustration from the Lindisfarne Gospels, created by the Bishop of Lindisfarne, around 715 – 720 CE, via the British Library

 

The growing wealth and success of the Anglo-Saxons and their Christian monasteries soon attracted unwanted attention from mainland Europe, particularly from Danish and Norwegian Vikings. Numerous raids had already taken place by the time the Vikings raided Lindisfarne Monastery in 793 CE, but the attack on the Holy Island marked a significant turning point. It was the most prominent up until that point and triggered a series of violent attacks on numerous Anglo-Saxon monasteries and nunneries. The monasteries in Jarrow and Iona were raided in 794 and 795 CE respectively, while a nunnery at Lyminge Kent was granted refuge inside the walls of Canterbury in 804 CE.

 

Vikings continued to raid Anglo-Saxon England until 850 CE, after which they began to remain for longer. They were able to exploit the feuds between and within the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and appoint puppet kings. This led to a phase of Viking partial-settlement in Anglo-Saxon England and catalyzed a period of great social and political change among the Anglo-Saxons. The Vikings became a common enemy for all Anglo-Saxons, making them more conscious of a national and common Christian identity that outweighed their differences.

 

Alfred the Great

alfred the great statue
A statue of the Anglo-Saxon king Alfred the Great in Winchester, England, via Encyclopaedia Britannica

 

Alfred the Great (848 – 899 CE) was King of the West Saxons from 871 until 886 CE. During this time, Viking settlement continued in the kingdoms of Mercia and East Anglia, while they continued to plunder both sides of the English channel. Once he had ascended the throne, Alfred spent years fighting off numerous Viking invasions. One of his greatest victories involved defeating the Vikings at the Battle of Edington in 878 CE, after which he converted their leader Guthrum (835 – 890 CE) to Christianity. He recaptured London and established a boundary between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings, creating what was known as the Danelaw.

 

Alfred further strengthened his kingdom against the Vikings by establishing a highly competent army and by creating a series of fortresses known as burghs. He is also credited with starting the English navy, by building ships against attacks from the Vikings at sea. By defending his kingdom against Viking attempts at conquest, he eventually became the dominant ruler in England.

 

In addition to his success on the battlefield, Alfred the Great was also known as a gracious and merciful man, who improved the quality of life for his people. He was highly learned, encouraged education in Old English, and improved the legal system and military structure for the benefit of his people.

 

The Battle of Hastings

bayeux tapestry harold
The defeat of the Anglo-Saxon king Harold depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry,11th century, via the Bayeux Museum, Bayeux

 

The end of the Anglo-Saxon period came when a conquest by William of Normandy (1028 – 1087) took place in 1066. Although the Danish king Cnut (997 – 1035 CE) had also conquered the Anglo-Saxons in 1016, he and his sons reigned only until 1042 CE. The conquest that took place in 1066, however, put a permanent end to Anglo-Saxon rule in England.

 

At the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the last Anglo-Saxon king, Harold Godwinson (1022 – 1066), was apparently slain by an arrow to the eye. Leaderless, Harold’s army was soon defeated by the Duke of Normandy and his forces, ushering in a new Norman dynasty in England. Anglo-Saxons remained the largest portion of the population after 1066, however, many landholders and churches lost substantial parts of their estates. In fact, most of the nobility were exiled or forced to join the ranks of the peasantry. French became the official language of the law and royal court, although books continued to be written in English. Many from the subsequent generations were also able to learn English at home, thanks to the survival of the matriarchs of Anglo-Saxon nobility.



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By Luisa HageleBA Archaeology, MA Int’l Heritage & Museum CulturesLuisa is a writer and archaeologist who has worked for museums in the UK and Switzerland. She holds an MA in International Heritage Management from the University of Birmingham, a PGCert in Museum Cultures from Birkbeck University, and a BA in Archaeology from University College London.