Saxons were a people who inhabited
Great Britain from the
5th century. They comprise people from
Germanic tribes who migrated to
the island from continental Europe, their descendants, and indigenous
British groups who adopted some aspects of
Anglo-Saxon culture and
language. Historically, the
Anglo-Saxon period denotes the period in
Britain between about 450 and 1066, after their initial settlement and
up until the Norman conquest. The early
Anglo-Saxon period includes
the creation of an English nation, with many of the aspects that
survive today, including regional government of shires and hundreds.
During this period, Christianity was established and there was a
flowering of literature and language. Charters and law were also
established. The term
Anglo-Saxon is popularly used for the
language that was spoken and written by the Anglo-
Saxons in England
Scotland between at least the mid-
5th century and the
mid-12th century. In scholarly use, it is more commonly called Old
The history of the Anglo-
Saxons is the history of a cultural identity.
It developed from divergent groups in association with the people's
adoption of Christianity, and was integral to the establishment of
various kingdoms. Threatened by extended Danish invasions and military
occupation of eastern England, this identity was re-established; it
dominated until after the Norman Conquest. The visible Anglo-Saxon
culture can be seen in the material culture of buildings, dress
styles, illuminated texts and grave goods. Behind the symbolic nature
of these cultural emblems, there are strong elements of tribal and
lordship ties. The elite declared themselves as kings who developed
burhs, and identified their roles and peoples in Biblical terms. Above
Helena Hamerow has observed, "local and extended kin groups
remained...the essential unit of production throughout the Anglo-Saxon
period." The effects persist in the 21st century as, according to a
study published in March 2015, the genetic makeup of British
populations today shows divisions of the tribal political units of the
Use of the term
Anglo-Saxon assumes that the words Angles,
Anglo-Saxon have the same meaning in all the sources. This term began
to be used only in the 8th century to distinguish "Germanic" groups in
Britain from those on the continent (Old Saxony in Northern
Germany).[a] Catherine Hills summarised the views of many modern
scholars in her observation that attitudes towards Anglo-Saxons, and
hence the interpretation of their culture and history, have been "more
contingent on contemporary political and religious theology as on any
kind of evidence."
Anglo-Saxon history (410–660)
2.1 Migration (c.410–c.560)
2.2 Development of an
Anglo-Saxon society (560–610)
2.3 Conversion to Christianity (590–660)
Anglo-Saxon history (660–899)
3.1 Mercian supremacy (626–821)
3.2 Learning and monasticism (660–793)
3.3 West Saxon hegemony and the Anglo-Scandinavian Wars (793–878)
3.4 King Alfred and the rebuilding (878–899)
Anglo-Saxon history (899–1066)
4.1 Reform and formation of
4.2 Athelred and the return of the Scandinavians (978–1016)
4.3 Conquest England: Danes, Norwegians and Normans (1016–1066)
5 After the Norman Conquest
6 Life and society
6.1 Kingship and kingdoms
6.2 Religion and the church
6.3 Fighting and warfare
6.4 Settlements and working life
6.5 Women, children and slaves
8 Contemporary meanings
9 See also
12 Further reading
13 External links
Old English ethnonym "Angul-Seaxan" comes from the Latin
Angli-Saxones and became the name of the peoples
Gildas calls Saxones.
Anglo-Saxon is a term that
was rarely used by Anglo-
Saxons themselves; it is not an autonym. It
is likely they identified as ængli, Seaxe or, more probably, a local
or tribal name such as Mierce, Cantie, Gewisse, Westseaxe, or
Norþanhymbre. Also, the use of
Anglo-Saxon disguises the extent to
which people identified as Anglo-Scandinavian after the
Viking age, or
as Anglo-Norman after the Norman conquest in 1066.
The earliest historical references using this term are from outside
Britain, referring to piratical Germanic raiders, 'Saxones' who
attacked the shores of Britain and
Gaul in the 3rd century AD.
Procopius states that Britain was settled by three races: the Angiloi,
Frisones, and Britons. The term Angli Saxones seems to have first
been used in continental writing of the 8th century; Paul the Deacon
uses it to distinguish the English
Saxons from the continental Saxons
(Ealdseaxe, literally, 'old Saxons'). The name therefore seemed to
mean "English" Saxons.
The Christian church seems to have used the word Angli; for example in
the story of
Pope Gregory I
Pope Gregory I and his remark, "Non Angli sed angeli"
(not English but angels). the terms ænglisc ('the language') and
Angelcynn ('the people') were also used by West Saxon King Alfred to
refer to the people; in doing so he was following established
practice. The first use of the term
Anglo-Saxon amongst the
insular sources is in the titles for Athelstan: Angelsaxonum
Denorumque gloriosissimus rex (most glorious king of the Anglo-Saxons
and of the Danes) and rex Angulsexna and Norþhymbra imperator
paganorum gubernator Brittanorumque propugnator (king of the
Saxons and emperor of the Northumbrians, governor of the pagans,
and defender of the Britons). At other times he uses the term rex
Anglorum (king of the English), which presumably meant both
Saxons and Danes.
Alfred the Great
Alfred the Great used Anglosaxonum Rex.
The term Engla cyningc (King of the English) is used by Æthelred.
King Cnut in 1021 was the first to refer to the land and not the
people with this term: ealles Englalandes cyningc (King of all
England). These titles express the sense that the Anglo-Saxons
were a Christian people with a king anointed by God.
Common Brittonic speakers referred to Anglo-
Saxones or possibly Saeson (the word Saeson is the modern Welsh word
for 'English people'); the equivalent word in
Scottish Gaelic is
Sasannach and in the Irish language, Sasanach. Catherine Hills
suggests that it is no accident, "that the English call themselves by
the name sanctified by the Church, as that of a people chosen by God,
whereas their enemies use the name originally applied to piratical
Anglo-Saxon history (410–660)
Anglo-Saxon period covers the history of medieval Britain
that starts from the end of Roman rule. It is a period widely known in
European history as the Migration Period, also the
Völkerwanderung ("migration of peoples" in German). This was a
period of intensified human migration in
Europe from about 400 to
800.[b] The migrants were
Germanic tribes such as the Goths,
Vandals, Angles, Saxons, Lombards, Suebi,
Frisii and Franks; they were
later pushed westwards by the Huns, Avars, Slavs,
Alans. The migrants to Britain might also have included the Huns
By the year 400, southern Britain – that is Britain below Hadrian's
Wall – was a peripheral part of the western Roman Empire,
occasionally lost to rebellion or invasion, but until then always
eventually recovered. Around 410, Britain slipped beyond direct
imperial control into a phase which has generally been termed
Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain
The migrations according to Bede, who wrote some 300 years after the
event; there is archeological evidence that the settlers in England
came from many of these continental locations
The traditional narrative of this period is one of decline and fall,
invasion and migration; however, the archaeologist Heinrich Härke
stated in 2011:
It is now widely accepted that the Anglo-
Saxons were not just
transplanted Germanic invaders and settlers from the Continent, but
the outcome of insular interactions and changes.
Writing c. 540
Gildas mentions that, sometime in the 5th century, a
council of leaders in Britain agreed that some land in the east of
southern Britain would be given to the
Saxons on the basis of a
treaty, a foedus, by which the
Saxons would defend the Britons against
attacks from the
Scoti in exchange for food supplies. The
most contemporaneous textual evidence is the Chronica Gallica of 452
which records for the year 441: "The British provinces, which to this
time had suffered various defeats and misfortunes, are reduced to
Saxon rule."  This is an earlier date than that of 451 for the
"coming of the Saxons" used by
Bede in his Historia ecclesiastica
gentis Anglorum, written around 731. It has been argued that Bede
misinterpreted his (scanty) sources, and that the chronological
references in the
Historia Britonnum yield a plausible date of around
Gildas recounts how a war broke out between the
Saxons and the local
population – Higham calls it the "War of the Saxon Federates" –
which ended shortly after the siege at 'Mons Badonicus'. The
back to "their eastern home".
Gildas calls the peace a "grievous
divorce with the barbarians". The price of peace, Nick Higham
argues, is a better treaty for the Saxons, giving them the ability
to receive tribute from people across the lowlands of Britain. The
archaeological evidence agrees with this earlier timescale. In
particular, the work of Catherine Hills and Sam Lucy on the evidence
Spong Hill has moved the chronology for the settlement earlier than
450, with a significant number of items now in phases before Bede's
This vision of the Anglo-
Saxons exercising extensive political and
military power at an early date remains contested. The most developed
vision of a continuation in sub-Roman Britain, with control over its
own political and military destiny for well over a century, is that of
Kenneth Dark, who suggests that the sub-Roman elite survived in
culture, politics and military power up to c. 570. However, Nick
Higham seems to agree with Bede, who identified three phases of
settlement: an exploration phase, when mercenaries came to protect the
resident population; a migration phase, which was substantial as
implied by the statement that Anglus was deserted; and an
establishment phase, in which Anglo-
Saxons started to control areas,
implied in Bede's statement about the origins of the tribes.
Scholars have not reached consensus on the number of migrants who
entered Britain in this period. Heinrich Härke suggests that the
figure is around 100,000, based on the molecular evidence. But,
archaeologists such as Christine Hills and Richard Hodges
suggest the number is nearer 20,000. By around 500 the Anglo-Saxon
migrants were established in southern and eastern Britain.
What happened to the indigenous Brittonic people is also subject to
question. Heinrich Härke and Richard Coates point out that they
are invisible archaeologically and linguistically. But based on a
Anglo-Saxon figure (200,000) and a low Brythonic one
(800,000), Brythonic people are likely to have outnumbered
Saxons by at least four to one. The interpretation of such
figures is that while "culturally, the later Anglo-
Saxons and English
did emerge as remarkably un-British, . . . their genetic, biological
make-up is none the less likely to have been substantially, indeed
predominantly, British". The development of
Anglo-Saxon culture is
described by two processes. One is similar to culture changes observed
in Russia, North Africa and parts of the Islamic world, where a
powerful minority culture becomes, over a rather short period, adopted
by a settled majority.
The second process is explained through incentives. Nick Higham
summarized in this way:
Bede later implied, language was a key indicator of ethnicity in
early England. In circumstances where freedom at law, acceptance with
the kindred, access to patronage, and the use and possession of
weapons were all exclusive to those who could claim Germanic descent,
Old English without
Latin or Brittonic inflection had
The Tribal Hidage, from an edition of Henry Spelman's Glossarium
By the middle of the 6th century, some Brythonic people in the
lowlands of Britain had moved across the sea to form Brittany, and
some had moved west, but the majority were abandoning their past
language and culture and adopting the new culture of the Anglo-Saxons.
As they adopted this language and culture, the barriers began to
dissolve between peoples, who had earlier lived parallel lives.
The archaeological evidence shows considerable continuity in the
system of landscape and local governance, which was inherited from
the indigenous community. There is evidence for a fusion of culture in
this early period. Brythonic names appear in the lists of
Anglo-Saxon elite. The
Wessex royal line was traditionally founded by
a man named Cerdic, an undoubtedly Celtic name ultimately derived from
Caratacus. This may indicate that Cerdic was a native Briton, and that
his dynasty became anglicised over time. A number of Cerdic's
alleged descendants also possessed Celtic names, including the
'Bretwalda' Ceawlin. The last man in this dynasty to have a
Brythonic name was King Caedwalla, who died as late as 689.
Development of an
Anglo-Saxon society (560–610)
In the last half of the 6th century, four structures contributed to
the development of society; they were the position and freedoms of the
ceorl, the smaller tribal areas coalescing into larger kingdoms, the
elite developing from warriors to kings, and Irish monasticism
developing under Finnian (who had consulted Gildas) and his pupil
Anglo-Saxon farms of this period are often falsely supposed to be
"peasant farms". However, a ceorl, who was the lowest ranking freeman
Anglo-Saxon society, was not a peasant but an arms-owning
male with the support of a kindred, access to law and the wergild;
situated at the apex of an extended household working at least one
hide of land. The farmer had freedom and rights over lands, with
provision of a rent or duty to an overlord who provided only slight
lordly input.[c] Most of this land was common outfield arable land (of
an outfield-infield system) that provided individuals with the means
to build a basis of kinship and group cultural ties.
Tribal Hidage lists thirty-five peoples, or tribes, with
assessments in hides, which may have originally been defined as the
area of land sufficient to maintain one family. The assessments in
the Hidage reflect the relative size of the provinces. Although
varying in size, all thirty-five peoples of the
Tribal Hidage were of
the same status, in that they were areas which were ruled by their own
elite family (or royal houses), and so were assessed independently for
payment of tribute. [d] By the end of the sixth century, larger
kingdoms had become established on the south or east coasts. They
include the provinces of the
Jutes of Hampshire and Wight, the South
Saxons, Kent, the East Saxons, East Angles, Lindsey and (north of the
Deira and Bernicia. Several of these kingdoms may have had as
their initial focus a territory based on a former Roman civitas.
By the end of the sixth century, the leaders of these communities were
styling themselves kings, though it should not be assumed that all of
them were Germanic in origin. The
Bretwalda concept is taken as
evidence of a number of early
Anglo-Saxon elite families. What Bede
seems to imply in his
Bretwalda is the ability of leaders to extract
tribute, overawe and/or protect the small regions, which may well have
been relatively short-lived in any one instance. Ostensibly
"Anglo-Saxon" dynasties variously replaced one another in this role in
a discontinuous but influential and potent roll call of warrior
elites. Importantly, whatever their origin or whenever they
flourished, these dynasties established their claim to lordship
through their links to extended kin ties. As Helen Peake jokingly
points out, "they all just happened to be related back to Woden".
The process from warrior to cyning –
Old English for king – is
described in Beowulf:
Modern English (as translated by Seamus Heaney)
Oft Scyld Scéfing – sceaþena þréatum monegum maégþum –
meodosetla oftéah• egsode Eorle – syððan aérest wearð
féasceaft funde – hé þæs frófre gebád• wéox under wolcnum
– weorðmyndum þáh oð þæt him aéghwylc – þára ymbsittendra
ofer hronráde – hýran scolde, gomban gyldan – þæt wæs gód
There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,
A wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.
This terror of the hall-troops had come far.
A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on
As his powers waxed and his worth was proved.
In the end each clan on the outlying coasts
Beyond the whale-road had to yield to him
And begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.
Conversion to Christianity (590–660)
Æthelstan presenting a gospel book to (the long-dead) St Cuthbert
(934); Corpus Christi College Cambridge MS 183, fol. 1v
In 565, Columba, a monk from
Ireland who studied at the monastic
Moville under St. Finnian, reached
Iona as a self-imposed
exile. The influence of the monastery of
Iona would grow into what
Peter Brown has described as an "unusually extensive spiritual
empire," which "stretched from western
Scotland deep to the southwest
into the heart of
Ireland and, to the southeast, it reached down
throughout northern Britain, through the influence of its sister
In June 597
Columba died. At this time, Augustine landed on the Isle
of Thanet and proceeded to King Æthelberht's main town of Canterbury.
He had been the prior of a monastery in
Rome when Pope Gregory the
Great chose him in 595 to lead the
Gregorian mission to Britain to
Kingdom of Kent
Kingdom of Kent from their native Anglo-Saxon
Kent was probably chosen because Æthelberht had married a
Christian princess, Bertha, daughter of
Charibert I the King of Paris,
who was expected to exert some influence over her husband. Æthelberht
was converted to Christianity, churches were established, and
wider-scale conversion to Christianity began in the kingdom.
Æthelberht's law for Kent, the earliest written code in any Germanic
language, instituted a complex system of fines.
Kent was rich, with
strong trade ties to the continent, and Æthelberht may have
instituted royal control over trade. For the first time following the
Anglo-Saxon invasion, coins began circulating in
Kent during his
In 635 Aidan, an Irish monk from
Iona chose the Isle of
establish a monastery and close to King Oswald's main fortress of
Bamburgh. He had been at the monastery in
Iona when Oswald asked to be
sent a mission to Christianise the Kingdom of
Northumbria from their
Anglo-Saxon paganism. Oswald had probably chosen
after his father had been killed he had fled into south-west Scotland
and had encountered Christianity, and had returned determined to make
Northumbria Christian. Aidan achieved great success in spreading the
Christian faith, and since Aidan could not speak English and Oswald
had learned Irish during his exile, Oswald acted as Aidan's
interpreter when the latter was preaching. Later, Northumberland's
patron saint, Saint Cuthbert, was an abbot of the monastery, and then
Bishop of Lindisfarne. An anonymous life of
Cuthbert written at
Lindisfarne is the oldest extant piece of English historical writing.
[e] and in his memory a gospel (known as the St
Cuthbert Gospel) was
placed in his coffin. The decorated leather bookbinding is the oldest
intact European binding.
In 664, the
Synod of Whitby
Synod of Whitby was convened and established Roman
practice as opposed to Irish practice (in style of tonsure and dates
of Easter) as the norm in Northumbria, and thus "brought the
Northumbrian church into the mainstream of Roman culture." The
episcopal seat of
Northumbria was transferred from
York. Wilfrid, chief advocate for the Roman position, later became
Bishop of Northumbria, while
Colmán and the Ionan supporters, who did
not change their practices, withdrew to Iona.
Anglo-Saxon history (660–899)
By 660 the political map of Lowland Britain had developed with smaller
territories coalescing into kingdoms, from this time larger kingdoms
started dominating the smaller kingdoms. The development of kingdoms,
with a particular king being recognised as an overlord, developed out
of an early loose structure that, Higham believes, is linked back to
the original feodus. The traditional name for this period is the
Heptarchy, which has not been used by scholars since the early 20th
century as it gives the impression of a single political structure
and does not afford the "opportunity to treat the history of any one
kingdom as a whole".
Simon Keynes suggests that the 8th and 9th
century was period of economic and social flourishing which created
stability both below the Thames and above the Humber. Many areas
flourished and their influence was felt across the continent, however
in between the
Humber and Thames, one political entity grew in
influence and power and to the East these developments in Britain
Mercian supremacy (626–821)
Main article: Mercian Supremacy
A political map of Britain c650 (the names are in modern English)
Middle-lowland Britain was known as the place of the Mierce, the
border or frontier folk, in
Mercia was a diverse area of
tribal groups, as shown by the Tribal Hidage; the peoples were a
mixture of Brythonic speaking peoples and "Anglo-Saxon" pioneers and
their early leaders had Brythonic names, such as Penda. Although
Penda does not appear in Bede's list of great overlords it would
appear from what
Bede says elsewhere that he was dominant over the
southern kingdoms. At the time of the battle of the river Winwæd,
thirty duces regii (royal generals) fought on his behalf. Although
there are many gaps in the evidence, it is clear that the
seventh-century Mercian kings were formidable rulers who were able to
exercise a wide-ranging overlordship from their Midland base.
Mercian military success was the basis of their power; it succeeded
against not only 106 kings and kingdoms by winning set-piece
battles, but by ruthlessly ravaging any area foolish enough to
withhold tribute. There are a number of casual references scattered
throughout the Bede's history to this aspect of Mercian military
policy. Penda is found ravaging
Northumbria as far north as Bamburgh
and only a miraculous intervention from Aidan prevents the complete
destruction of the settlement. In 676 Æthelred conducted a
similar ravaging in
Kent and caused such damage in the Rochester
diocese that two successive bishops gave up their position because of
lack of funds. In these accounts there is a rare glimpse of the
realities of early
Anglo-Saxon overlordship and how a widespread
overlordship could be established in a relatively short period. By the
middle of the 8th century, other kingdoms of southern Britain were
also affected by Mercian expansionism. The East
Saxons seem to have
lost control of London,
Hertfordshire to Æthelbald,
although the East Saxon homelands do not seem to have been affected,
and the East Saxon dynasty continued into the ninth century. The
Mercian influence and reputation reached its peak when, in the late
8th century, the most powerful European ruler of the age, the Frankish
king Charlemagne, recognised the Mercian King Offa's power and
accordingly treated him with respect, even if this could have been
Learning and monasticism (660–793)
Map of Britain in 802
Michael Drout calls this period the "Golden Age", when learning
flourishes with a renaissance in classical knowledge. The growth and
popularity of monasticism was not an entirely internal development,
with influence from the continent shaping
life. In 669 Theodore, a Greek-speaking monk originally from
Tarsus in Asia Minor, arrived in Britain to become the eighth
Archbishop of Canterbury. He was joined the following year by his
colleague Hadrian, a Latin-speaking African by origin and former abbot
of a monastery in Campania (near Naples). One of their first tasks
Canterbury was the establishment of a school; and according to Bede
(writing some sixty years later), they soon "attracted a crowd of
students into whose minds they daily poured the streams of wholesome
learning". As evidence of their teaching,
Bede reports that some
of their students, who survived to his own day were as fluent in Greek
Latin as in their native language.
Bede does not mention Aldhelm
in this connection; but we know from a letter addressed by
Hadrian that he too must be numbered among their students.
Aldhelm wrote in elaborate and grandiloquent and very difficult Latin,
which became the dominant style for centuries. Michael Drout states
Latin hexameters better than anyone before in England
(and possibly better than anyone since, or at least up until Milton).
His work showed that scholars in England, at the very edge of Europe,
could be as learned and sophisticated as any writers in Europe."
During this period, the wealth and power of the monasteries increased
as elite families, possibly out of power, turned to monastic life.
Anglo-Saxon monasticism developed the unusual institution of the
"double monastery", a house of monks and a house of nuns, living next
to each other, sharing a church but never mixing, and living separate
lives of celibacy. These double monasteries were presided over by
abbesses, some of the most powerful and influential women in Europe.
Double monasteries which were built on strategic sites near rivers and
coasts, accumulated immense wealth and power over multiple generations
(their inheritances were not divided) and became centers of art and
Aldhelm was doing his work in Malmesbury, far from him, up in
the North of England,
Bede was writing a large quantity of books,
gaining a reputation in
Europe and showing that the English could
write history and theology, and do astronomical computation (for the
dates of Easter, among other things).
West Saxon hegemony and the Anglo-Scandinavian Wars (793–878)
Viking Age and Danelaw
Oseberg ship prow,
Viking Ship Museum, Oslo, Norway.
The 9th century saw the rise of Wessex, from the foundations laid by
King Egbert in the first quarter of the century to the achievements of
Alfred the Great
Alfred the Great in its closing decades. The outlines of the
story are told in the
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, though the annals
represent a West Saxon point of view. On the day of Egbert's
succession to the kingdom of Wessex, in 802, a Mercian ealdorman from
the province of the
Hwicce had crossed the border at Kempsford, with
the intention of mounting a raid into northern Wiltshire; the Mercian
force was met by the local ealdorman, "and the people of Wiltshire had
the victory". In 829 Egbert went on, the chronicler reports, to
conquer "the kingdom of the Mercians and everything south of the
Humber". It was at this point that the chronicler chose to attach
Egbert's name to Bede's list of seven overlords, adding that "he was
the eighth king who was Bretwalda".
Simon Keynes suggests Egbert's
foundation of a 'bipartite' kingdom is crucial as it stretched across
southern England, and it created a working alliance between the West
Saxon dynasty and the rulers of the Mercians. In 860 the eastern
and western parts of the southern kingdom were united by agreement
between the surviving sons of King Æthelwulf, though the union was
not maintained without some opposition from within the dynasty; and in
the late 870s King Alfred gained the submission of the Mercians under
their ruler Æthelred, who in other circumstances might have been
styled a king, but who under the Alfredian regime was regarded as the
'ealdorman' of his people.
Coin weight. Material is lead and weighs approx
36 g. Embedded with a sceat dating to 720-750 AD and minted in
Kent. It is edged in dotted triangle pattern. Origin is the Danelaw
region and dates late 8th to 9th century.
The wealth of the monasteries and the success of
attracted the attention of people from continental Europe, mostly
Danes and Norwegians. Due to the plundering raids that followed, the
raiders attracted the name
Viking – from the
Old Norse víkingr
meaning an expedition – which soon became used for the raiding
activity or piracy reported in western Europe. In 793, Lindisfarne
was raided and while this was not the first raid of its type it was
the most prominent. A year later Jarrow, the monastery where Bede
wrote, was attacked; in 795 Iona; and in 804 the nunnery at Lyminge
Kent was granted refuge inside the walls of Canterbury. Sometime
around 800, a Reeve from Portland in
Wessex was killed when he mistook
some raiders for ordinary traders.
Viking raids continued until in 850, then the
Chronicle says: "The
heathen for the first time remained over the winter". The fleet does
not appear to have stayed long in England, but it started a trend
which others subsequently followed. In particular, the army which
arrived in 865 remained over many winters, and part of it later
settled what became known as the Danelaw. This was the "Great Army", a
term used by the
England and by Adrevald of Fleury on the
Continent. The invaders were able not only to exploit the feuds
between and within the various kingdoms, but to appoint puppet kings,
Mercia in 873, 'a foolish king's thane' (ASC), and perhaps
Northumbria in 867 and East Anglia in 870. The third
phase was an era of settlement; however, the 'Great Army' went
wherever it could find the richest pickings, crossing the Channel when
faced with resolute opposition, as in
England in 878, or with famine,
as on the Continent in 892. By this stage the
assuming ever increasing importance as catalysts of social and
political change. They constituted the common enemy, making the
English the more conscious of a national identity which overrode
deeper distinctions; they could be perceived as an instrument of
divine punishment for the people's sins, raising awareness of a
collective Christian identity; and by 'conquering' the kingdoms of the
East Angles, the Northumbrians and the Mercians they created a vacuum
in the leadership of the English people.
Danish settlement continued in
Mercia in 877 and East Anglia in
879—80 and 896. The rest of the army meanwhile continued to harry
and plunder on both sides of the Channel, with new recruits evidently
arriving to swell its ranks, for it clearly continued to be a
formidable fighting force. At first, Alfred responded by the offer
of repeated tribute payments. However, after a decisive victory at
Edington in 878, Alfred offered vigorous opposition. He established a
chain of fortresses across the south of England, reorganised the army,
"so that always half its men were at home, and half out on service,
except for those men who were to garrison the burhs" (A.SC s.a.
893), and in 896 ordered a new type of craft to be built which
could oppose the
Viking longships in shallow coastal waters. When the
Vikings returned from the Continent in 892, they found they could no
longer roam the country at will, for wherever they went they were
opposed by a local army. After four years, the Scandinavians therefore
split up, some to settle in
Northumbria and East Anglia, the remainder
to try their luck again on the Continent.
King Alfred and the rebuilding (878–899)
A royal gift, the Alfred Jewel
More important to Alfred than his military and political victories
were his religion, his love of learning, and his spread of writing
Simon Keynes suggests Alfred's work laid the
foundations for what really makes
England unique in all of medieval
Europe from around 800 until 1066. What is also unique is that we
can discover some of this in Alfred's own words:
Thinking about how learning and culture had fallen since the last
century, he wrote:
...So completely had wisdom fallen off in
England that there were very
few on this side of the
Humber who could understand their rituals in
English, or indeed could translate a letter from
Latin into English;
and I believe that there were not many beyond the Humber. There were
so few of them that I indeed cannot think of a single one south of the
Thames when I became king. (Preface: "Gregory the Great's Pastoral
Alfred knew that literature and learning, both in English and in
Latin, were very important, but the state of learning was not good
when Alfred came to the throne. Alfred saw kingship as a priestly
office, a shepherd for his people. One book that was particularly
valuable to him was Gregory the Great's Cura Pastoralis (Pastoral
Care). This is a priest's guide on how to care for people. Alfred took
this book as his own guide on how to be a good king to his people;
hence, a good king to Alfred increases literacy. Alfred translated
this book himself and explains in the preface:
...When I had learned it I translated it into English, just as I had
understood it, and as I could most meaningfully render it. And I will
send one to each bishopric in my kingdom, and in each will be an
æstel worth fifty mancuses. And I command in God's name that no man
may take the æstel from the book nor the book from the church. It is
unknown how long there may be such learned bishops as, thanks to God,
are nearly everywhere.(Preface: "Gregory the Great's Pastoral
What is presumed to be one of these "æstel" (the word only appears in
this one text) is the gold, rock crystal and enamel Alfred Jewel,
discovered in 1693, which is assumed to have been fitted with a small
rod and used as a pointer when reading. Alfred provided functional
patronage, linked to a social programme of vernacular literacy in
England, which was unprecedented.
Therefore it seems better to me, if it seems so to you, that we also
translate certain books ...and bring it about ...if we have the peace,
that all the youth of free men who now are in England, those who have
the means that they may apply themselves to it, be set to learning,
while they may not be set to any other use, until the time when they
can well read English writings. (Preface: "Gregory the Great's
This set in train a growth in charters, law, theology and learning.
Alfred thus laid the foundation for the great accomplishments of the
tenth century and did much to make the vernacular was more important
I desired to live worthily as long as I lived, and to leave after my
life, to the men who should come after me, the memory of me in good
works. (Preface: "The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius")
Anglo-Saxon history (899–1066)
A framework for the momentous events of the 10th and 11th centuries is
provided by the
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. However charters, law-codes and
coins supply detailed information on various aspects of royal
government, and the surviving works of Anglo-
Latin and vernacular
literature, as well as the numerous manuscripts written in the 10th
century, testify in their different ways to the vitality of
ecclesiastical culture. Yet as
Simon Keynes suggests "it does not
follow that the 10th century is better understood than more sparsely
Reform and formation of
Silver brooch imitating a coin of Edward the Elder, c. 920, found in
Rome, Italy. British Museum.
During the course of the 10th century, the West Saxon kings extended
their power first over Mercia, then into the southern Danelaw, and
finally over Northumbria, thereby imposing a semblance of political
unity on peoples, who nonetheless would remain conscious of their
respective customs and their separate pasts. The prestige, and indeed
the pretensions, of the monarchy increased, the institutions of
government strengthened, and kings and their agents sought in various
ways to establish social order. This process started with Edward
the Elder – who with his sister, Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians,
initially, charters reveal, encouraged people to purchase estates from
the Danes, thereby to reassert some degree of English influence in
territory which had fallen under Danish control. David Dumville
suggests that Edward may have extended this policy by rewarding his
supporters with grants of land in the territories newly conquered from
the Danes, and that any charters issued in respect of such grants have
not survived. When Athelflæd died,
Mercia was absorbed by Wessex.
From that point on there was no contest for the throne, so the house
Wessex became the ruling house of England.
Edward the Elder
Edward the Elder was succeeded by his son Æthelstan, who Simon Keynes
calls the "towering figure in the landscape of the tenth century".
His victory over a coalition of his enemies – Constantine, King of
the Scots, Owain ap Dyfnwal, King of the Cumbrians, and Olaf
Guthfrithson, King of Dublin – at the battle of Brunanburh,
celebrated by a famous poem in the
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, opened the
way for him to be hailed as the first king of England.
Æthelstan's legislation shows how the king drove his officials to do
their respective duties. He was uncompromising in his insistence on
respect for the law. However this legislation also reveals the
persistent difficulties which confronted the king and his councillors
in bringing a troublesome people under some form of control. His claim
to be "king of the English" was by no means widely recognised. The
situation was complex: the Hiberno-Norse rulers of Dublin still
coveted their interests in the Danish kingdom of York; terms had to be
made with the Scots, who had the capacity not merely to interfere in
Northumbrian affairs, but also to block a line of communication
between Dublin and York; and the inhabitants of northern Northumbria
were considered a law unto themselves. It was only after twenty years
of crucial developments following Æthelstan's death in 939 that a
unified kingdom of
England began to assume its familiar shape.
However, the major political problem for Edmund and Eadred, who
succeeded Æthelstan, remained the difficulty of subjugating the
north. In 959 Edgar is said to have "succeeded to the kingdom both
Wessex and in
Mercia and in Northumbria, and he was then 16 years
old" (ASC, version 'B', 'C'), and is called "the Peacemaker". By
the early 970s, after a decade of Edgar's 'peace', it may have seemed
that the kingdom of
England was indeed made whole. In his formal
address to the gathering at Winchester the king urged his bishops,
abbots and abbesses "to be of one mind as regards monastic usage . . .
lest differing ways of observing the customs of one Rule and one
country should bring their holy conversation into disrepute".
Athelstan's court had been an intellectual incubator. In that court
were two young men named
Dunstan and Æthelwold who were made priests,
supposedly at the insistence of Athelstan, right at the end of his
reign in 939. Between 970 and 973 a council was held, under the
aegis of Edgar, where a set of rules were devised that would be
applicable throughout England. This put all the monks and nuns in
England under one set of detailed customs for the first time. In 973,
Edgar received a special second, 'imperial coronation' at Bath, and
from this point
England was ruled by Edgar under the strong influence
of Dunstan, Athelwold, and Oswald, the Bishop of Worcester.
Athelred and the return of the Scandinavians (978–1016)
The reign of King Æthelred the Unready witnessed the resumption of
Viking raids on England, putting the country and its leadership under
strains as severe as they were long sustained. Raids began on a
relatively small scale in the 980s, but became far more serious in the
990s, and brought the people to their knees in 1009–12, when a large
part of the country was devastated by the army of Thorkell the Tall.
It remained for Swein Forkbeard, king of Denmark, to conquer the
England in 1013–14, and (after Æthelred's restoration)
for his son Cnut to achieve the same in 1015–16. The tale of these
years incorporated in the
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle must be read in its
own right, and set beside other material which reflects in one way
or another on the conduct of government and warfare during Æthelred's
reign. It is this evidence which is the basis for Simon Keynes's
view that the king lacked the strength, judgement and resolve to give
adequate leadership to his people in a time of grave national crisis;
who soon found out that he could rely on little but the treachery of
his military commanders; and who, throughout his reign, tasted nothing
but the ignominy of defeat. The raids exposed tensions and weaknesses
which went deep into the fabric of the late
Anglo-Saxon state and it
is apparent that events proceeded against a background more complex
than the chronicler probably knew. It seems, for example, that the
death of Bishop Æthelwold in 984 had precipitated further reaction
against certain ecclesiastical interests; that by 993 the king had
come to regret the error of his ways, leading to a period when the
internal affairs of the kingdom appear to have prospered.
Cnut's 'Quatrefoil' type penny with the legend "CNUT REX ANGLORU[M]"
(Cnut, King of the English), struck in London by the moneyer Edwin.
The increasingly difficult times brought on by the
Viking attacks are
reflected in both Ælfric's and Wulfstan's works, but most notably in
Wulfstan's fierce rhetoric in the Sermo Lupi ad Anglos, dated to
1014. Malcolm Godden suggests that ordinary people saw the return
of the Vikings, as the imminent "expectation of the apocalypse", and
this was given voice in Ælfric and Wulfstan writings, which is
similar to that of
Gildas and Bede. Raids were signs of God punishing
his people, Ælfric refers to people adopting the customs of the
Danish and exhorts people not to abandon the native customs on behalf
of the Danish ones, and then requests a 'brother Edward', to try to
put an end to a 'shameful habit' of drinking and eating in the
outhouse, which some of the countrywomen practised at beer
In April 1016 Æthelred died of illness, leaving his son and successor
Edmund Ironside to defend the country. The final struggles were
complicated by internal dissension, and especially by the treacherous
acts of Ealdorman Eadric of Mercia, who opportunistically changed
sides to Cnut's party. After the defeat of the English in the battle
of Assandun in October 1016, Edmund and Cnut agreed to divide the
kingdom so that Edmund would rule
Wessex and Cnut Mercia, but Edmund
died soon after his defeat in November 1016, making it possible for
Cnut to seize power over all England.
Conquest England: Danes, Norwegians and Normans (1016–1066)
In the 11th century, there were three conquests and some Anglo-Saxon
people would live through it: one in the aftermath of the conquest of
Cnut in 1016; the second after the unsuccessful attempt of battle of
Stamford Bridge in 1066; the third after that of William of Normandy
in 1066. The consequences of each conquest can only be assessed with
hindsight. In 1016, no-one was to know that whatever cultural
ramifications were felt then, they would be subsumed half a century
later; and in 1066 there was nothing to predict that the effects of
William's conquest would be any greater or more lasting than those of
In this period and beyond the
Anglo-Saxon culture is changing.
Politically and chronologically, the texts of this period are not
'Anglo-Saxon'; linguistically, those written in English (as opposed to
Latin or French, the other official written languages of the period)
are moving away from the late West Saxon standard that is called 'Old
English'. Yet neither are they 'Middle English'; moreover, as Treharne
explains, for around three quarters of this period, "there is barely
any 'original' writing in English at all". These factors have led to a
gap in scholarship implying a discontinuity either side of the Norman
Conquest, however this assumption is being challenged.
At first sight, there would seem little to debate. Cnut appears to
have adopted wholeheartedly the traditional role of Anglo-Saxon
kingship. However an examination of the laws, homilies, wills,
and charters dating from this period suggests that as a result of
widespread aristocratic death and the fact that Cnut did not
systematically introduce a new landholding class, major and permanent
alterations occurred in the Saxon social and political
structures. Eric John has remarked that for Cnut "the simple
difficulty of exercising so wide and so unstable an empire made it
necessary to practise a delegation of authority against every
tradition of English kingship". The disappearance of the
aristocratic families which had traditionally played an active role in
the governance of the realm, coupled with Cnut's choice of thegnly
advisors, put an end to the balanced relationship between monarchy and
aristocracy so carefully forged by the West Saxon Kings.
Edward became king in 1042, and given his upbringing might have been
considered a Norman by those who lived across the English Channel.
Following Cnut's reforms, excessive power was concentrated in the
hands of the rival houses of Leofric of
Mercia and Godwine of Wessex.
Problems also came for Edward from the resentment caused by the king's
introduction of Norman friends. A crisis arose in 1051 when Godwine
defied the king's order to punish the men of Dover, who had resisted
an attempt by Eustace of Boulogne to quarter his men on them by
force. The support of Earl Leofric and
Earl Siward enabled Edward
to secure the outlawry of Godwine and his sons; and William of
Normandy paid Edward a visit during which Edward may have promised
William succession to the English throne, although this Norman claim
may have been mere propaganda. Godwine and his sons came back the
following year with a strong force, and the magnates were not prepared
to engage them in civil war but forced the king to make terms. Some
unpopular Normans were driven out, including Archbishop Robert, whose
archbishopric was given to Stigand; this act supplied an excuse for
the Papal support of William's cause.
Depiction of the
Battle of Hastings
Battle of Hastings (1066) on the Bayeux Tapestry
The fall of
England and the Norman Conquest is a multi-generational,
multi-family succession problem caused in great part by Athelred's
incompetence. By the time William from Normandy, sensing an
opportunity, landed his invading force in 1066, the elite of
England had changed, although much of the culture and
society had stayed the same.
Ða com Wyllelm eorl of Normandige into Pefnesea on Sancte Michæles
mæsseæfen, sona þæs hi fere wæron, worhton castel æt
Hæstingaport. Þis wearð þa Harolde cynge gecydd, he gaderade þa
mycelne here, com him togenes æt þære haran apuldran, Wyllelm him
com ongean on unwær, ær þis folc gefylced wære. Ac se kyng þeah
him swiðe heardlice wið feaht mid þam mannum þe him gelæstan
woldon, þær wearð micel wæl geslægen on ægðre healfe. Ðær
wearð ofslægen Harold kyng, Leofwine eorl his broðor, Gyrð eorl
his broðor, fela godra manna, þa Frencyscan ahton wælstowe geweald.
Then came William, the Earl of Normandy, into Pevensey on the evening
of St.Michael's mass, and soon as his men were ready, they built a
fortress at Hasting's port. This was told to King Harold, and he
gathered then a great army and come towards them at the Hoary Apple
Tree, and William came upon him unawares before his folk were ready.
But the king nevertheless withstood him very strongly with fighting
with those men who would follow him, and there was a great slaughter
on either side. Then Harald the King was slain, and Leofwine the Earl,
his brother, and Gyrth, and many good men, and the Frenchmen held the
place of slaughter.
After the Norman Conquest
Following the conquest, the
Anglo-Saxon nobility were either exiled or
joined the ranks of the peasantry. It has been estimated that
only about 8 per cent of the land was under
Anglo-Saxon control by
Anglo-Saxon nobles fled to Scotland, Ireland, and
Byzantine Empire became a popular
destination for many
Anglo-Saxon soldiers, as the Byzantines were in
need of mercenaries. The Anglo-
Saxons became the predominant
element in the elite Varangian Guard, hitherto a largely North
Germanic unit, from which the emperor's bodyguard was drawn and
continued to serve the empire until the early 15th century.
However, the population of
England at home remained largely
Anglo-Saxon; for them, little changed immediately except that their
Anglo-Saxon lord was replaced by a Norman lord.
Orderic Vitalis (1075 – c. 1142), himself the product
of an Anglo-Norman marriage, wrote: "And so the English groaned aloud
for their lost liberty and plotted ceaselessly to find some way of
shaking off a yoke that was so intolerable and unaccustomed". The
inhabitants of the North and
Scotland never warmed to the Normans
Harrying of the North
Harrying of the North (1069–1070), where William,
according to the Anglo Saxon
Chronicle utterly "ravaged and laid waste
Anglo-Saxon people needed to learn Norman French to communicate
with their rulers, but it is clear that among themselves they kept
speaking Old English, which meant that
England was in an interesting
Anglo-Saxon for the common people,
the Church, and Norman French for the administrators, the nobility,
and the law courts. In this time, and due to the cultural shock of the
Anglo-Saxon began to change very rapidly, and by 1200 or so,
it was no longer
Anglo-Saxon English, but what scholars call early
Middle English. But this language had deep roots in Anglo-Saxon,
which was being spoken a lot later than 1066. Research in the early
twentieth century, and still continuing today, has shown that a form
Anglo-Saxon was still being spoken, and not merely among uneducated
peasants, into the thirteenth century in the West Midlands. This
was J.R.R. Tolkien's major scholarly discovery when he studied a group
of texts written in early
Middle English called the Katherine Group,
because they include the Life of St. Katherine (also, the Life of St.
Margaret, the Life and the Passion of St. Juliana, Ancrene Wisse, and
Hali Meithhad—these last two teaching how to be a good anchoress and
arguing for the goodness of virginity). Tolkien noticed that a
subtle distinction preserved in these texts indicated that Old English
had continued to be spoken far longer than anyone had supposed. In Old
English there is a distinction between two different kinds of
Germanic language spoken by the Anglo-Saxons, Old English, had
always been a central mark of their cultural identity. With the
passing of time, however, and particularly following the Norman
conquest of England, this language changed significantly, and although
some people (for example the famous scribe known as the Tremulous Hand
of Worcester) could still read
Old English in the thirteenth century,
it soon became impossible for people to read Old English, and the
texts became useless. The precious Exeter Book, for example, seems to
have been used to press gold leaf and at one point had a pot of
fish-based glue sitting on top of it. For Michael Drout this
symbolises the end of the Anglo-Saxons.
Life and society
The larger narrative, seen in the history of
Anglo-Saxon England, is
the continued mixing and integration of various disparate elements
Anglo-Saxon people. The outcome of this mixing and
integration was a continuous re-interpretation by the Anglo-
their society and worldview, which Heinreich Härke calls a "complex
and ethnically mixed society".
Kingship and kingdoms
Anglo-Saxon king with his witan. Biblical scene in the Illustrated Old
English Hexateuch (11th century)
The development of
Anglo-Saxon kingship is little understood but the
model proposed by Yorke, considered the development of kingdoms
and writing down of the oral law-codes to be linked to a progression
towards leaders providing mund and receiving recognition. These
leaders who developed in the sixth century, were able to seize the
initiative and to establish a position of power for themselves and
Anglo-Saxon leaders, unable to tax and coerce
followers instead extracted surplus by raiding and collecting food
renders and 'prestige goods'. The later sixth century saw the end
of a 'prestige goods' economy, as evidenced by the decline of
accompanied burial, and the appearance of the first princely graves
and high-status settlements. These centres of trade and
production reflect the increased socio-political stratification and
wider territorial authority which allowed seventh-century elites to
extract and redistribute surpluses with far greater effectiveness than
their sixth-century predecessors would have found possible.
Anglo-Saxon society, in short, looked very different in 600 than it
did a hundred years earlier.
By 600, the establishment of the first
Anglo-Saxon 'emporia' was in
prospect. There seem to have been over thirty of such units, many of
which were certainly controlled by kings, in the parts of Britain
which the Anglo-
Saxons controlled. Bede's use of the term imperium has
been seen as significant in defining the status and powers of the
bretwaldas, in fact it is a word
Bede used regularly as an alternative
to regnum; scholars believe this just meant the collection of
tribute. Oswiu's extension of overlordship over the
Scots is expressed in terms of making them tributary. Military
overlordship could bring great short-term success and wealth, but the
system had its disadvantages. Many of the overlords enjoyed their
powers for a relatively short period.[f] Foundations had to be
carefully laid to turn a tribute-paying under-kingdom into a permanent
acquisition, such as Bernician absorption of Deira. The smaller
kingdoms did not disappear without trace once they were incorporated
into larger polities; on the contrary their territorial integrity was
preserved when they became ealdormanries or, depending on size, parts
of ealdormanries within their new kingdoms. An obvious example of this
tendency for later boundaries to preserve earlier arrangements is
Sussex; the county boundary is essentially the same as that of the
West Saxon shire and the
Anglo-Saxon kingdom. The Witan, also
called Witenagemot, was the council of kings; its essential duty was
to advise the king on all matters on which he chose to ask its
opinion. It attested his grants of land to churches or laymen,
consented to his issue of new laws or new statements of ancient
custom, and helped him deal with rebels and persons suspected of
By 800 only five
Anglo-Saxon kingdoms are definitely known to have
been still in existence, and a number of British kingdoms in the west
of the country had disappeared as well. The major kingdoms had grown
through absorbing smaller principalities and the means through which
they did it and the character their kingdoms acquired as a result are
one of the major themes of the Middle Saxon period. Beowulf, for all
its heroic content, clearly makes the point that economic and military
success were intimately linked. A 'good' king was a generous king who
through his wealth won the support which would ensure his supremacy
over other kingdoms. King Alfred's digressions in his translation
of Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy, provided these observations
about the resources which every king needed:
In the case of the king, the resources and tools with which to rule
are that he have his land fully manned: he must have praying men,
fighting men and working men. You know also that without these tools
no king may make his ability known. Another aspect of his resources is
that he must have the means of support for his tools, the three
classes of men. These, then, are their means of support: land to live
on, gifts, weapons, food, ale, clothing and whatever else is necessary
for each of the three classes of men.
This is the first written appearance of the division of society into
the 'three orders'; the 'working men' provided the raw materials to
support the other two classes. The advent of Christianity saw the
introduction of new concepts of land tenure. The role of churchmen was
analogous with that of the warriors waging heavenly warfare. However
what Alfred was alluding to was that in order for a king to fulfil his
responsibilities towards his people, particularly those concerned with
defence, he had the right to make considerable exactions from the
landowners and people of his kingdom. The need to endow the
church resulted in the permanent alienation of stocks of land which
had previously only been granted out on a temporary basis and
introduced the concept of a new type of hereditary land which could be
freely alienated and was free of any family claims.
Probably no one living in the eighth century would have predicted that
the great Mercian empire would be destroyed and that the West Saxons
with their poor track record for feuds and infighting within the royal
house would emerge as the dominant kingdom in the ninth century. The
nobility under the influence of Alfred became involved with developing
the cultural life of their kingdom. As the kingdom became one
they brought the monastic and spiritual life of the kingdom under one
rule and stricter control. However the Anglo-
Saxons believed in 'luck'
as a random element in the affairs of man and so would probably have
agreed that there is a limit to the extent one can understand why one
kingdom failed while another succeeded. They also believed in
'destiny' and interpreted the fate of the kingdom of
Biblical and Carolingian ideology, with parallels, between the
Israelites, the great European empires and the Anglo-Saxons. Danish
and Norman conquests were just the manner in which God punished his
sinful people and the fate of great empires.
Religion and the church
The right half of the front panel of the seventh century Franks
Casket, depicting the pan-Germanic legend of
Weyland Smith also
Weyland The Smith, which was apparently also a part of Anglo-Saxon
The first of King Alfred's three-fold
Anglo-Saxon society are praying
men; people who work at prayer. Although Christianity dominates the
religious history of the Anglo-Saxons, life in the 5th/6th centuries
was dominated by 'pagan' religious beliefs with a Scando-Germanic
Anglo-Saxon society attached great significance to the horse; a
horse may have been an acquaintance of the god Wodan, and/or they may
have been (according to Tacitus) confidants of the gods. Horses were
closely associated with gods, especially
Odin and Freyr. Horses played
a central role in funerary practices as well as in other rituals.
Horses were prominent symbols of fertility, and there were many horse
fertility cults. The rituals associated with these include horse
fights, burials, consumption of horse meat, and horse sacrifice.
Hengist and Horsa, the mythical ancestors of the Anglo-Saxons, were
associated with horses, and references to horses are found
Anglo-Saxon literature. Actual horse burials in
England are relatively rare and "may point to influence from the
continent". A well-known
Anglo-Saxon horse burial (from the
sixth/seventh century) is Mound 17 at Sutton Hoo, a few yards from the
more famous ship burial in Mound 1. A sixth-century grave near
Lakenheath, Suffolk, yielded the body of a man next to that of a
"complete horse in harness, with a bucket of food by its head."
Saxons worshipped at a variety of different sites across
their landscape, some of which were apparently specially built temples
and others that were natural geographical features such as sacred
trees, hilltops or wells. According to place name evidence, these
sites of worship were known alternately as either hearg or as wēoh.
Almost no poem from before the Norman Conquest, no matter how
Christian its theme, is not steeped in pagan symbolism and their
integration into the new faith goes beyond the literary sources. Thus,
as Lethbridge reminds us, "to say, 'this is a monument erected in
Christian times and therefore the symbolism on it must be Christian,'
is an unrealistic approach. The rites of the older faith, now regarded
as superstition, are practised all over the country today. It did not
mean that people were not Christian; but that they could see a lot of
sense in the old beliefs also"
Bede's story of Cædmon, the cowherd who became the 'Father of English
Poetry' represents the real heart of the conversion of the
Saxons from paganism to Christianity.
Bede wrote, "[t]here was
in the Monastery of this Abbess (Streonæshalch – now known as
Whitby Abbey) a certain brother particularly remarkable for the Grace
of God, who was wont to make religious verses, so that whatever was
interpreted to him out of scripture, he soon after put the same into
poetical expressions of much sweetness and humility in Old English,
which was his native language. By his verse the minds of many were
often excited to despise the world, and to aspire to heaven." The
Cædmon illustrates the blending of Christian and Germanic,
Latin and oral tradition, monasteries and double monasteries,
pre-existing customs and new learning, popular and elite, that
characterizes the Conversion period of
Anglo-Saxon history and
Cædmon does not destroy or ignore traditional Anglo-Saxon
poetry. Instead, he converts it into something that helps the Church.
England finds ways to synthesize the religion of the
Church with the existing "northern" customs and practices. Thus the
conversion of the Anglo-
Saxons was not just their switching from one
practice to another, but making something new out of their old
inheritance and their new belief and learning.
An 8th-century copy of the Rule of St. Benedict
Monasticism, and not just the church, was at the centre of Anglo Saxon
Christian life. Western monasticism, as a whole, had been evolving
since the time of the desert fathers, but, in the seventh century,
England confronted a dilemma that brought to question
the truest representation of the Christian faith. The two monastic
traditions were the Celtic and the Roman, and a decision was made to
adopt the Roman tradition. Monasteria seem to describe all religious
congregations other than those of the Bishop.
In the 10th century,
Dunstan brought Athelwold to Glastonbury, where
the two of them set up a monastery on Benedictine lines. For a number
of years this was the only monastery in
England that strictly followed
the Benedictine Rule and observed complete monastic discipline. What
Mechthild Gretsch calls an "
Aldhelm Seminar" developed at Glastonbury,
and the effects of this seminar on the curriculum of learning and
England were enormous. Royal power was put
behind the reforming impulses of
Dunstan and Athelwold, helping them
to enforce their reform ideas. This happened first at the Old Minster
in Winchester, before the reformers built new foundations and
refoundations at Thorney, Peterborough, and Ely, among other places.
Benedictine Monasticism spread throughout England, these became
centers of learning again, run by people trained in Glastonbury, with
one rule, the works of
Aldhelm at the center of their curricula but
also influenced by the vernacular efforts of Alfred. From this mixture
sprung a great flowering of literary production.
Fighting and warfare
The second element of Alfred's society is fighting men. The subject of
war and the Anglo-
Saxons is a curiously neglected one[citation
needed], however, it is an important element of the Anglo-Saxon
Firstly, the mustering of armies. For both offensive and defensive
war, and whether armies consisted essentially of household bands, as
seems to have been characteristic of the earlier period, or were
recruited on a territorial basis, soldiers had to be summoned. The
mustering of an army, annually at times, occupied an important place
in Frankish history, both military and constitutional. The English
kingdoms appear to have known no institution similar to this. The
earliest reference is Bede's account of the overthrow of the
Æthelfrith by Rædwald overlord of the southern English.
Rædwald raised a large army, presumably from among the kings who
accepted his overlordship, and 'not giving him time to summon and
assemble his whole army, Rædwald met him with a much greater force
and slew him on the Mercian border on the east bank of the river
Idle'. There is a more detailed account of raising an army in
878, when the
Danes made a surprise attack on Alfred at Chippenham
after Twelfth Night. Alfred retreated to Athelney 'after Easter' and
then seven weeks after Easter mustered an army at "Egbert's
stone". It is not difficult to imagine that Alfred sent out word
to the ealdormen of Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire, and to the
reeves, to call his men to arms. This may explain the delay, and it is
probably no more than coincidence that the army mustered at the
beginning of May, a time when there would have been sufficient grass
for the horses. There is also information about the mustering of
fleets in the eleventh Century. From 992 to 1066 fleets were assembled
at London, or returned to the city at the end of their service, on
several occasions. Where they took up Station depended on the quarter
from which a threat was expected: Sandwich if invasion was expected
from the north, or the Isle of Wight if it was from Normandy.
Replica of the
Sutton Hoo helmet
Once they left home these armies and fleets had to be supplied, not
only with food and clothing for the men but also forage for the horses
which gave them mobility and were fitting to their Station. Yet if
armies of the seventh and eighth centuries were accompanied by
servants and a supply train of lesser free men, Alfred found these
arrangements insufficient to defeat the Vikings. One of his reforms,
if he was responsible for them, was to divide his military resources
into three. One part manned the burhs and found the permanent
garrisons which would make it impossible for the
Danes to overrun
Wessex, although they would also take to the field when extra soldiers
were needed. The remaining two would take it in turns to serve. They
were allocated a fixed term of Service and brought the necessary
provisions with them. This arrangement did not always function
perfectly. On one occasion a division on Service went home in the
middle of blockading a Danish army on Thorney Island, its provisions
consumed and its term expired, before the king came to relieve
them. This method of division and rotation remained in force
right up to 1066. In 917, when armies from
Mercia were in
the field from early April until November, one division went home and
another took over. Again, in 1052 when Edward's fleet was waiting at
Sandwich to intercept Godwine's return, the ships returned to London
to take on new earls and crews. The importance of supply, vital
to military success, was appreciated even if it was taken for granted
and features only incidentally in the sources.
Military training and strategy are two important matters on which the
sources are more than usually silent. There are no references in
literature or laws to men training, and so it is necessary to fall
back on inference. For the noble warrior, his childhood was of first
importance in learning both individual military skills and the
teamwork essential for success in battle. Perhaps the games the
Cuthbert played ('wrestling, jumping, running, and every
other exercise') had some military significance. Turning to
strategy, of the period before Alfred the evidence gives the
Anglo-Saxon armies fought battles frequently. If this
is not solely due to the deficiencies of the sources, it would make
England a special case. Battle was risky and best avoided unless all
the factors were on your side. But if you were in a position so
advantageous that you were willing to take the chance, it is likely
that your enemy would be in such a weak position that he would avoid
battle and pay tribute. Unless, of course, he was Bede's Oswald and
trusted in God. Anyway, battle put the princes' lives at risk, as is
demonstrated by the Northumbrian and Mercian overlordships brought to
an end by a defeat in the field. Gillingham has shown how few pitched
Charlemagne and Richard I chose to fight.
A defensive strategy becomes more apparent in the later part of
Alfred's reign. It was built around the possession of fortified places
and the close pursuit of the
Danes to harass them and impede their
preferred occupation of plundering. Alfred and his lieutenants were
able to fight the
Danes to a standstill by their repeated ability to
pursue and closely besiege them in fortified camps at Nottingham,
Wareham, Exeter, Chippenham, Rochester, Milton, Appledore, Thorney,
Buttington, Chester and Hertford. It was only in the later part of
Edward the Elder's reign that we see a type of war which a twelfth
Century soldier would have recognised. In this phase of the war the
Saxons conquered land by building and holding burhs from which to
threaten and dominate Danish territory. The fortification of sites at
Witham, Buckingham, Towcester and Colchester persuaded the
the surrounding regions to submit. The key to this warfare was
sieges and the control of fortified places. It is clear that the new
fortresses had permanent garrisons, and that they were supported by
the inhabitants of the existing burhs when danger threatened. This is
brought out most clearly in the description of the campaigns of 917 in
the Chronicle, but throughout the conquest of the
Danelaw by Edward
Æthelflæd it is clear that a sophisticated and coordinated
strategy was being applied.
There was another means of dealing with military issues. In 973 a
single currency was introduced into
England in order to bring about
political unification, but by concentrating bullion production at many
coastal mints, the new rulers of
England created a honey-pot which
attracted a new wave of
Viking invasions, which came close to breaking
up the kingdom of the English. From 980 onwards the Anglo -Saxon
Chronicle records renewed raiding against England. At first the raids
were probing ventures by small numbers of ships' crews, but soon grew
in size and effect, until the only way of dealing with the Vikings
appeared to be to pay protection money to buy them off: "And in that
year  it was determined that tribute should first be paid to the
Danish men because of the great terror they were causing along the
coast. The first payment was 10,000 pounds." The payment of
Danegeld had to be underwritten by a huge balance of payments surplus;
this could only be achieved by stimulating exports and cutting
imports, itself accomplished through currency devaluation. This
affected everyone in the Kingdom.
Settlements and working life
Panorama of the reconstructed 7th century village
The third aspect of Alfred's society is the working man. Helena
Hamerow suggest the prevailing model of working life and settlement,
particularly for the early period, as one of shifting settlement and
building tribal kinship. The mid-Saxon period saw diversification, the
development of enclosures, the beginning of the toft system, closer
management of livestock, the gradual spread of the mould-board plough,
'informally regular plots' and a greater permanence, with further
settlement consolidation thereafter foreshadowing post-Conquest
villages. The later periods saw a proliferation of 'service features'
including barns, mills and latrines, most markedly on high-status
sites. Throughout the
Anglo-Saxon period as
Helena Hamerow suggests:
"local and extended kin groups remained...the essential unit of
production". This is very noticeable in the early period. However, by
the tenth and eleventh centuries, the rise of the manor and its
significance in terms of both settlement and the management of land,
which becomes very evident in the Domesday Book.
The collection of buildings discovered at Yeavering, formed part of an
Anglo-Saxon royal vill or king's tun. These 'tun' consisted of a
series of buildings designed to provide short-term accommodation for
the king and his household. It is thought that the king would have
travelled throughout his land dispensing justice and authority and
collecting rents from his various estates. Such visits would be
periodic and it is likely that he would visit each royal villa only
once or twice a year. The
Latin term villa regia which
Bede used of
the site suggests an estate centre as the functional heart of a
territory held in the King's demesne. The territory is the land whose
surplus production is taken into the centre as food-render to support
the king and his retinue on their periodic visits as part of a
progress around the kingdom. This territorial model, known as a
multiple estate or shire has been developed in a range of studies and
Colm O'Brien, in applying this to
Yeavering has proposed a
geographical definition of the wider shire of
Yeavering and also a
geographical definition of the principal estate whose structures
Hope-Taylor excavated. One characteristic that the king's tun
shared with some other groups of places is that it was a point of
public assembly. People came together not only to give the king and
his entourage board and lodging; they 'attended upon the king' in
order to have disputes settled, cases appealed, lands granted, gifts
given, appointments made, laws promulgated, policy debated, and
ambassadors heard and replied to. People also assembled for other
reasons, such as to hold fairs and to trade.
The first creations of towns are linked to a system of specialism at
individual settlements, which is evidenced in studying place-names.
Sutterton, 'shoe-makers' tun' (in the area of the
Danelaw such places
are Sutterby) was so-named because local circumstances allowed the
growth of a craft recognised by the people of surrounding places.
Similarly with Sapperton, the 'soap-makers' tun. While Boultham, the
'meadow with burdock plants', may well have developed a specialism in
the production of burrs for wool-carding, since meadows with burdock
merely growing in them must have been relatively numerous. From places
named for their services or location within a single district, a
category of which the most obvious perhaps are the Eastons and
Westons, it is possible to move outwards to glimpse component
settlements within larger economic units. Names betray some role
within a system of seasonal pasture, Winderton in Warwickshire is the
winter tun and various Somertons are self-explanatory. Hardwicks are
dairy farms and Swinhopes the valleys where pigs were pastured.
Settlement patterns as well as village plans in
England fall into two
great categories: scattered farms and homesteads in upland and
woodland Britain, nucleated villages across a swathe of central
England. The chronology of nucleated villages is much debated and
not yet clear. Yet there is strong evidence to support the view that
nucleation occurred in the tenth century or perhaps the ninth, and was
a development parallel to the growth of towns.
Women, children and slaves
Alfred's view of his society overlooks certain classes of people. The
main division in
Anglo-Saxon society was between slave and free. Both
groups were hierarchically structured, with several classes of freemen
and many types of slaves. These varied at different times and in
different areas, but the most prominent ranks within free society were
the king, the nobleman or thegn, and the ordinary freeman or ceorl.
They were differentiated primarily by the value of their wergild or
'man price', which was not only the amount payable in compensation for
homicide (see above, section 2), but was also used as the basis for
other legal formulations such as the value of the oath that they could
swear in a court of law. Slaves had no wergild, as offences against
them were taken to be offences against their owners, but the earliest
laws set out a detailed scale of penalties depending both on the type
of slave and the rank of owner.
A certain amount of social mobility is implied by regulations
detailing the conditions under which a ceorl could become a thegn.
Again these would have been subject to local variation, but one text
refers to the possession of five hides of land (around 600 acres), a
bell and a castle-gate, a seat and a special office in the king's
hall. In the context of the control of boroughs,
Frank Stenton noted
that, according to an 11th-century source, "a merchant who had carried
out three voyages at his own charge [had also been] regarded as of
thegnly status." Loss of status could also occur, as with penal
slavery, which could be imposed not only on the perpetrator of a crime
but on his wife and family. Some slaves may have been members of the
native British population conquered by the Anglo-
Saxons when they
arrived from the continent; others may have been captured in wars
between the early kingdoms, or have sold themselves for food in times
of famine. However, slavery was not always permanent, and slaves who
had gained their freedom would become part of an underclass of
freedmen below the rank of ceorl.
Anglo-Saxon women appear to have enjoyed considerable independence,
whether as abbesses of the great 'double monasteries' of monks and
nuns founded during the seventh and eighth centuries, as major
land-holders recorded in
Domesday Book (1086), or as ordinary members
of society. They could act as principals in legal transactions, were
entitled to the same wergild as men of the same class, and were
considered 'oath-worthy', with the right to defend themselves on oath
against false accusations or claims. Sexual and other offences against
them were penalised heavily. There is evidence that even married women
could own property independently, and some surviving wills are in the
joint names of husband and wife. Marriage comprised a contract
between the woman's family and the prospective bridegroom, who was
required to pay a 'bride-price' in advance of the wedding and a
'morning gift' following its consummation. The latter became the
woman's personal property, but the former may have been paid to her
relatives, at least during the early period. Widows were in a
particularly favourable position, with inheritance rights, custody of
their children and authority over dependants. However, a degree of
vulnerability may be reflected in laws stating that they should not be
forced into nunneries or second marriages against their will. The
system of primogeniture (inheritance by the first-born male) was not
England until after the Norman Conquest, so Anglo-Saxon
siblings — girls as well as boys — were more equal in terms of
status. The age of majority was usually either ten or twelve, when a
child could legally take charge of inherited property, or be held
responsible for a crime. It was common for children to be
fostered, either in other households or in monasteries, perhaps as a
means of extending the circle of protection beyond the kin group. Laws
also make provision for orphaned children and foundlings.
Reconstruction of the
Anglo-Saxon royal palace at Cheddar around 1000
Anglo-Saxon buildings in Britain were generally simple, not
using masonry except in foundations but constructed mainly using
timber with thatch for roofing. Generally preferring not to settle
within the old Roman cities, the Anglo-
Saxons built small towns near
their centres of agriculture, at fords in rivers or sited to serve as
ports. In each town, a main hall was in the centre, provided with a
Only ten of the hundreds of settlement sites that have been excavated
England from this period have revealed masonry domestic structures
and confined to a few quite specific contexts. The usual explanation
for the tendency of Anglo–
Saxons to build in timber is one of
technological inferiority or incompetence. However it is now accepted
that technology and materials were part of conscious choices
indivisible from their social meaning. Le Goff, suggests that the
Anglo-Saxon period was defined by its use of wood, providing evidence
for the care and craftsmanship that the Anglo–Saxon invested into
their wooden material culture, from cups to halls, and the concern for
trees and timber in Anglo–Saxon place–names, literature and
religion. Michael Shapland suggests:
The stone buildings imposed on
England by the Romans would have been
'startling' and 'exceptional', and following the collapse of Roman
society in the fifth century there was a widespread return to timber
building, a 'cultural shift' that it is not possible to explain by
recourse to technological determinism.
Anglo–Saxon building forms were very much part of this general
building tradition. Timber was 'the natural building medium of the
age': the very Anglo–Saxon word for 'building' is 'timbe'.
Unlike in the Carolingian world, late Anglo–Saxon royal halls
continued to be of timber in the manner of
Yeavering centuries before,
even though the king could clearly have mustered the resources to
build in stone. Their preference must have been a conscious
choice, perhaps an expression of 'deeply–embedded Germanic identity'
on the part of the Anglo–Saxon royalty.
The major rural buildings were sunken-floor (Grubenhäuser) or
post-hole buildings, although
Helena Hamerow suggest this distinction
is less clear. Even the elite had simple buildings, with a
central fire and a hole in the roof to let the smoke escape and the
largest of which rarely had more than one floor, and one room.
Buildings vary widely in size, most were square or rectangular, though
some round houses have been found. Frequently these buildings have
sunken floors; a shallow pit over which a plank floor was suspended.
The pit may have been used for storage, but more likely was filled
with straw for winter insulation. A variation on the sunken floor
design is found in towns, where the "basement" may be as deep as 9
feet, suggesting a storage or work area below a suspended floor.
Another common design was simple post framing, with heavy posts set
directly into the ground, supporting the roof. The space between the
posts was filled in with wattle and daub, or occasionally, planks. The
floors were generally packed earth, though planks were sometimes used.
Roofing materials varied, with thatch being the most common, though
turf and even wooden shingles were also used.
Anglo-Saxon pilaster strips on the tower of All Saints'
Church, Earls Barton
Stone could be used, and was used, to build churches.
Bede makes it
clear in both his Ecclesiastical History and his Historiam Abbatum
that the masonry construction of churches, including his own at
Jarrow, was undertaken morem Romanorum, 'in the manner of the Romans,'
in explicit contrast to existing traditions of timber construction.
Even at Canterbury,
Bede believed that St Augustine's first cathedral
had been 'repaired' or 'recovered' (recuperavit) from an existing
Roman church, when in fact it had been newly constructed from Roman
materials. The belief was "the Christian Church was Roman therefore a
masonry church was a Roman building".
The building of churches in
England essentially began with
Augustine of Canterbury
Augustine of Canterbury in
Kent following 597; for this he probably
imported workmen from Frankish Gaul. The cathedral and abbey in
Canterbury, together with churches in
Kent at Minster in Sheppey
(c.664) and Reculver (669), and in Essex at the Chapel of St
Peter-on-the-Wall at Bradwell-on-Sea, define the earliest type in
southeast England. A simple nave without aisles provided the setting
for the main altar; east of this a chancel arch separated off the apse
for use by the clergy. Flanking the apse and east end of the nave were
side chambers serving as sacristies; further porticus might continue
along the nave to provide for burials and other purposes. In
Northumbria the early development of Christianity was influenced by
the Irish mission, important churches being built in timber. Masonry
churches became prominent from the late 7th century with the
Ripon and Hexham, and of
Benedict Biscop at
Monkwearmouth-Jarrow. These buildings had long naves and small
rectangular chancels; porticus sometimes surrounded the naves.
Elaborate crypts are a feature of Wilfrid's buildings. The best
preserved early Northumbrian church is Escomb Church.
From the mid-8th century to the mid-10th a number of important
buildings survive. One group comprises the first evidenced aisled
churches: Brixworth, the most ambitious
Anglo-Saxon church to survive
largely intact, Wareham St Mary's, and Cirencester; also the
Canterbury Cathedral. These buildings may be compared
with aisled churches in the Carolingian empire. Other lesser churches
may be dated to the late eighth and early ninth centuries on the basis
of their elaborate sculptured decoration and have simple naves with
side porticus. The tower of Barnack (near Peterborough) takes the
picture forward to the West Saxon reconquest in the early 10th
century, when decorative features that were to be characteristic of
Anglo-Saxon architecture were already developed, such as narrow
raised bands of stone ('pilaster strips') to surround archways and to
articulate wall surfaces, as at Barton-upon-
Humber and Earls Barton.
In plan, however, the churches remained essentially conservative.
From, the monastic revival of the second half of the tenth century
only a few documented buildings survive or have been excavated, for
example: the abbeys of Glastonbury; Old Minster, Winchester; Romsey;
Peterborough Cathedral. The majority of churches that
have been described as
Anglo-Saxon fall into the period between the
late 10th century and the early 12th. During this period many
settlements were first provided with stone churches, but timber also
continued to be used; the best wooden survival is
Greensted Church in
Essex, no earlier than the 9th century, and no doubt typical of many
parish churches. On the Continent during the eleventh century was
developed a group of interrelated Romanesque styles, associated with
the rebuilding of many churches on a grand scale, made possible by a
general advance in architectural technology and mason-craft.
The first fully Romanesque church in
England was Edward the
Confessor's rebuilding of
Westminster Abbey (c.1050s and following),
while the main development of the style only followed the Norman
Conquest. However, at
Stow Minster the crossing piers of the early
1050s are clearly 'proto-Romanesque'. A more decorative interpretation
of Romanesque in lesser churches can be dated only somewhere between
the mid and late 11th century, e.g.
Hadstock (Essex), Clayton and
Sompting (Sussex); this style continued towards the end of the century
as at Milborne Port (Somerset). At St Augustine's Abbey in Canterbury
Abbot Wulfric aimed to retain the earlier churches while
linking them with an octagonal rotunda: but the concept was still
Anglo-Saxon churches of all periods would
have been embellished with a range of arts, including
wall-paintings, some stained glass, metalwork and statues.
St Peter-in-the-Wall, Essex: A simple nave church of the early style
Brixworth, Northants: monastery founded c. 690, one of the largest
churches to survive relatively intact
Barnack, Peterborough: Lower tower c. 970 – spire is later
Sompting Church, Sussex, with the only
Rhenish helm tower
to survive, c. 1050
Anglo-Saxon art, as it survives, is seen mostly in decorated
jewellery, like brooches, buckles, beads and wrist-clasps, some of
outstanding quality. Characteristic of the
5th century is the quoit
brooch with motifs based on crouching animals, as seen on the silver
quoit brooch from Sarre, Kent. While the origins of this style are
disputed, it is either an offshoot of provincial Roman art, Frank, or
Jute art. One style flourished from the late 5th century, and
continued throughout the 6th, and is on many square-headed brooches,
it is characterised by chip-carved patterns based on animals and
masks. A different style, which gradually superseded it is dominated
by serpentine beasts with interlacing bodies.
Shoulder clasp (closed) from the
Sutton Hoo ship-burial 1, England.
By the later 6th century the best works from the south-east are
distinguished by greater use of expensive materials, above all gold
and garnets, reflecting the growing prosperity of a more organised
society which had greater access to imported precious materials, as
seen in the buckle from the
Taplow burial and the jewellery from that
at Sutton Hoo, c.600 and c.625 respectively. The possible
symbolism of the decorative elements like interlace and beast forms
that were used in these early works remains unclear, it is clear.
These objects were the products of a society that invested its modest
surpluses in personal display, who fostered craftsmen and jewellers of
a high standard, and a society where the possession of a fine brooch
or buckle was a valuable status symbol and possible tribal emblem –
in death as much as in life.
Staffordshire Hoard is the largest hoard of
Anglo-Saxon gold and
silver metalwork yet found[update]. Discovered in a field near the
village of Hammerwich, near Lichfield, in Staffordshire, England, it
consists of over 3,500 items that are nearly all martial in
character and contains no objects specific to female uses.
It demonstrates that considerable quantities of high-grade goldsmiths'
work were in circulation among the elite during the 7th century. It
also shows that, superb though individual pieces may be in terms of
craftsmanship, the value of such items as currency and their potential
roles as tribute or the spoils of war could, in a warrior society,
outweigh appreciation of their integrity and artistry.
The coming of Christianity revolutionised the visual arts, as well as
other aspects of society. Art had to fulfil new functions, and whereas
pagan art was abstract, Christianity required images clearly
representing subjects. The transition between the Christian and pagan
traditions is occasionally apparent in 7th century works; examples
include the Crundale buckle and the
Canterbury pendant. In
addition to fostering metalworking skills, Christianity stimulated
stone sculpture and manuscript illumination. In these Germanic motifs,
such as interlace and animal ornament along with Celtic spiral
patterns, are juxtaposed with Christian imagery and Mediterranean
decoration, notably vine-scroll. The Ruthwell Cross, Bewcastle Cross
Easby Cross are leading Northumbrian examples of the Anglo-Saxon
version of the Celtic high cross, generally with a slimmer shaft.
The jamb of the doorway at Monkwearmouth, carved with a pair of
lacertine beasts, probably dates from the 680s; the golden,
garnet-adorned pectoral cross of St
Cuthbert was presumably made
before 687; while his wooden inner coffin (incised with Christ and the
Evangelists' symbols, the Virgin and Child, archangels and apostles),
Lindisfarne Gospels, and the
Codex Amiatinus all date from c.700.
The fact that these works are all from
Northumbria might be held to
reflect the particular strength of the church in that kingdom during
the second half of the century. Works from the south were more
restrained in their ornamentation than are those from Northumbria.
Lindisfarne was a very important centre of book production, along with
Ripon and Monkwearmouth-Jarrow. The
Lindisfarne Gospels might be the
single most beautiful book produced in the Middle Ages, and the
Echternach Gospels and (probably) the
Book of Durrow
Book of Durrow are other
products of Lindisfarne. A
Latin gospel book, the
are richly illuminated and decorated in an Insular style that blends
not only Irish and Western Mediterranean elements but, incorporates
imagery from the Eastern Mediterranean, including Coptic Christianity
as well. Produced in the north of
England at the same time was
Codex Amiatinus, which has been called "the finest book in the
world." It is certainly one of the largest, weighing 34
kilograms. It is a pandect, which was rare in the Middle Ages:
all the books of the
Bible in one volume. The
Codex Amiatinus was
produced at Monkwearmouth-Jarrow in 692 under the direction of Abbot
Bede probably had something to do with it. The production
Codex shows the riches of the north of
England at this time. We
have records of the monastery needing a new grant of land to raise two
thousand more cattle to get the calf skins to make the vellum to make
the manuscript. The
Codex Amiatinus was meant to be a gift to the
Ceolfrith was taking it to
Rome when he died on the way. The
copy ended up in Florence, where it still is today – a ninth-century
copy of this book is even today the personal
Bible of the Pope.
Book of Cerne, evangelist portrait of Saint Mark
In the 8th century,
Anglo-Saxon Christian art flourished with grand
decorated manuscripts and sculptures, along with 'secular' works which
bear comparable ornament, like the Witham pins and the Coppergate
helmet. The flourishing of sculpture in Mercia, occurred slightly
later than in
Northumbria and is dated to the second half of the 8th
century. Some fine decorated southern books, above all the Bible
fragment, can be securely assigned to the earlier 9th century, owing
to the similarity of their script to that of charters from that
Book of Cerne
Book of Cerne is an early 9th century Insular or
Latin personal prayer book with
Old English components.
This manuscript was decorated and embellished with four painted
full-page miniatures, major and minor letters, continuing panels, and
litterae notibiliores. Further decorated motifs used in these
manuscripts, such as hunched, triangular beasts, also appear on
objects from the
Trewhiddle hoard (buried in the 870s) and on the
rings which bear the names of King Æthelwulf and Queen Æthelswith,
which are the centre of a small corpus of fine ninth-century
There was demonstrable continuity in the south, even though the Danish
settlement represented a watershed in England's artistic tradition.
Wars and pillaging removed or destroyed much
Anglo-Saxon art, while
the settlement introduced new Scandinavian craftsmen and patrons. The
result was to accentuate the pre-existing distinction between the art
of the north and that of the south. In the 10th and 11th
Viking dominated areas were characterised by stone
sculpture in which the
Anglo-Saxon tradition of cross shafts took on
new forms, and a distinctive Anglo-Scandinavian monument, the
'hogback' tomb, was produced. The decorative motifs used on these
northern carvings (as on items of personal adornment or everyday use)
echo Scandinavian styles. The Wessexan hegemony and the monastic
reform movement appear to have been the catalysts for the rebirth of
art in southern
England from the end of the 9th century. Here artists
responded primarily to continental art; foliage supplanting interlace
as the preferred decorative motif. Key early works are the Alfred
Jewel, which has fleshy leaves engraved on the back plate; and the
stole and maniples of Bishop
Frithestan of Winchester, which are
ornamented with acanthus leaves, alongside figures that bear the stamp
of Byzantine art. The surviving evidence points to Winchester and
Canterbury as the leading centres of manuscript art in the second half
of the 10th century: they developed colourful paintings with lavish
foliate borders, and coloured line drawings.
By the early 11th century, these two traditions had fused and had
spread to other centres. Though manuscripts dominate the corpus,
sufficient architectural sculpture, ivory carving and metalwork
survives to show that the same styles were current in secular art, and
became widespread in the south at parochial level. The wealth of
England in the later tenth and eleventh century is clearly reflected
in the lavish use of gold in manuscript art as well as for vessels,
textiles and statues (now known only from descriptions). Widely
admired, southern English art was highly influential in Normandy,
Flanders from c.1000. Indeed, keen to possess it, or
recover its materials, the Normans appropriated it in large quantities
in the wake of the Conquest. The Bayeux Tapestry, probably designed by
Canterbury artist for Bishop Odo of Bayeux, is arguably the swansong
Anglo-Saxon art. Surveying nearly 600 years of continuous change,
three common strands stand out: lavish colour and rich materials; an
interplay between abstract ornament and representational subject
matter; and a fusion of art styles reflects
England was linked in the
Sutton Hoo purse-lid c. 620
Codex Aureus of
Ruthwell Cross c.750
Trewhiddle style on silver ring c.775–850
St Oswald's Priory Cross c.890
Main article: Old English
The first lines of the poem, the Wanderer
Old English (Ænglisc, Anglisc, Englisc) or
Anglo-Saxon is the early
form of the
English language that was spoken and written by the
Saxons and their descendants in parts of what are now England
and southern and eastern
Scotland between at least the mid-5th century
and the mid-12th century.
Old English is a West Germanic language
closely related to
Old Frisian and Old Saxon. It had a grammar similar
in many ways to Classical Latin. In most respects, including its
grammar, it was much closer to modern German and Icelandic than to
modern English. It was fully inflected with five grammatical cases
(nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, and instrumental), three
grammatical numbers (singular, plural, and dual) and three grammatical
genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter). The dual forms occurred in
the first and second persons only and referred to groups of two.
Some of the characteristics of the language were: adjectives, pronouns
and (sometimes) participles that agreed with their antecedent nouns in
case, number and gender; finite verbs that agreed with their subject
in person and number; and nouns that came in numerous declensions
(with deep parallels in Latin,
Ancient Greek and Sanskrit). Verbs came
in nine main conjugations (seven strong and two weak), each with
numerous subtypes, as well as a few additional smaller conjugations
and a handful of irregular verbs. The main difference from other
ancient Indo-European languages, such as Latin, is that verbs can be
conjugated in only two tenses (vs. the six "tenses" – really
tense/aspect combinations – of Latin), and have no synthetic
passive voice (although it did still exist in Gothic). Gender in nouns
was grammatical, as opposed to the natural gender that prevails in
Many linguists believe that
Old English received little influence from
the local insular languages especially
Common Brittonic (the language
that may have been the majority language in Lowland Britain).
Linguists such as
Richard Coates have suggested there could not have
been meaningful contact between the languages, which is reasonable
argued from the small amount of loanwords. Recently a number of
linguists have argued that many of the grammar changes observed in
English were due to a Brythonic influence.
John McWhorter suggests
that the language changes seen later in English were always there in
vernacular speech and this was not written, especially since those who
did the writing were educated individuals that most likely spoke a
standard form of Old English. The speech of an illiterate ceorl, on
the other hand, can not be reconstructed. The progressive nature
of this language acquisition, and the 'retrospective reworking' of
kinship ties to the dominant group led, ultimately, to the "myths
which tied the entire society to immigration as an explanation of
their origins in Britain".
What survives through writing represents primarily the register of
Anglo-Saxon, and this is most often in the West Saxon dialect. Little
is known about the everyday spoken language of people living in the
Old English is a contact language and it is hard to
reconstruct the pidgin used in this period from the written language
found in the West Saxon literature of some 400 years later. Two
general theories are proposed regarding why people changed their
Old English (or an early form of such): either, a person
or household changed so as to serve an elite; or, a person or
household changed through choice as it provided some advantage
economically or legally. Over time,
Old English developed into
four major dialects: Northumbrian, spoken north of the river Humber;
Mercian, spoken in the Midlands; Kentish, spoken in
Kent in the far
southeastern part of the island; and West Saxon, spoken in the
southwest. All of these dialects have direct descendants in modern
England, and American regional dialects also have their roots in the
dialects of Old English. "Standard" Modern English (if there is such a
thing), or at least modern English spelling, owes most to the Anglian
dialect, since that was the dialect of London.
Near the end of the
Old English period the
English language underwent
a third foreign influence, namely the Scandinavian influence of Old
Norse. In addition to a great many place names, these consist mainly
of items of basic vocabulary, and words concerned with particular
administrative aspects of the
Danelaw (that is, the area of land under
Viking control, which included extensive holdings all along the
eastern coast of
England and Scotland). The Scandinavians spoke Old
Norse, a language related to
Old English in that both derived from the
same ancestral Proto-Germanic language. It is very common for the
intermixing of speakers of different dialects, such as those that
occur during times of political unrest, to result in a mixed language,
and one theory holds that exactly such a mixture of
Old Norse and Old
English is thought to have accelerated the decline of case endings in
Old English. The influence of
Old Norse on the lexicon of the
English language has been profound: responsible for such basic
vocabulary items as sky, leg, the pronoun they and hundreds of other
Nick Highham has provided a summary of the importance of language to
Bede later implied, language was a key indicator of ethnicity in
early England. In circumstances where freedom at law, acceptance with
the kindred, access to patronage, and the use of possession of weapons
were all exclusive to those who could claim Germanic descent, then
Old English without
Latin or Brittonic inflection had
Helena Hamerow has made an observation that in
"local and extended kin groups remained...the essential unit of
production throughout the
Anglo-Saxon period". "Local and extended kin
groups" was a key aspect of
Anglo-Saxon culture. Kinship fueled
societal advantages, freedom and the relationships to an elite, that
allowed the Anglo-Saxons' culture and language to flourish.
The ties of loyalty to a lord, were to the person of a lord, not to
his station; there was no real concept of patriotism or loyalty to a
cause. This explains why dynasties waxed and waned so quickly, a
kingdom was only as strong as its leader-king. There was no underlying
administration or bureaucracy to maintain any gains beyond the
lifetime of a leader. An example of this was the leadership of
Rædwald of East Anglia
Rædwald of East Anglia and how the East Anglian primacy did not
survive his death. Kings could not, except in exceptional
circumstances, make new laws. Their role instead was to uphold and
clarify previous custom and to assure his subjects that he would
uphold their ancient privileges, laws, and customs. Although the
person of the king as a leader could be exalted, the office of
kingship was not in any sense as powerful or as invested with
authority as it was to become. One of the tools kings used was to tie
themselves closely to the new Christian church; through the practice
of having a church leader anoint and crown the king; God and king were
joined in peoples' minds.
The ties of kinship meant that the relatives of a murdered person were
obliged to exact vengeance for his or her death. This led to bloody
and extensive feuds. As a way out of this deadly and futile custom the
system of 'wergilds' was instituted. The 'wergild' set a monetary
value on each person's life according to their wealth and social
status. This value could also be used to set the fine payable if a
person was injured or offended against. Robbing a thane called for a
higher penalty than robbing a ceorl. On the other hand, a thane who
thieved could pay a higher fine than a ceorl who did likewise. Men
were willing to die for the lord and to support their 'comitatus';
their warrior band. Evidence of this behavior (though it may be more a
literary ideal than an actual social practice), can be observed in the
story, made famous in the
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 755, of
Cynewulf and Cyneheard, in which the followers of a defeated king
decided to fight to the death rather than be reconciled after the
death of their lord.
This emphasis on social standing affected all parts of the Anglo-Saxon
world. The courts, for example did not attempt to discover the facts
in a case; instead, in any dispute it was up to each party to get as
many people as possible to swear to the rightness of their case;
"oath-swearing". The word of a thane counted for that of six
ceorls. It was assumed that any person of good character would be
able to find enough people to swear to his innocence that his case
Anglo-Saxon society was also decidedly patriarchal, but
women were in some ways better off than they would be in later times.
A woman could own property in her own right. She could and did rule a
kingdom if her husband died. She could not be married without her
consent and any personal goods, including lands, that she brought into
a marriage remained her own property. If she were injured or abused in
her marriage her relatives were expected to look after her
The initial page of Rochester Cathedral Library, MS A.3.5, the Textus
Roffensis, which contains the only surviving copy of Æthelberht's
The most noticeable feature of the
Anglo-Saxon legal system is the
apparent prevalence of legislation in the form of law codes. The early
Saxons were organised in various small kingdoms often
corresponding to later shires or counties. The kings of these small
kingdoms issued written Laws, one of earliest of which is that
attributed to Ethelbert, king of Kent, ca.560–616. The
Anglo-Saxon law codes follow a pattern found in continental Europe
where other groups of the former Roman empire encountered government
dependent upon written sources of law and hastened to display the
claims of their own native traditions by reducing them to writing.
These legal systems should not be thought of as operating like modern
legislation, rather they are educational and political tools designed
to demonstrate standards of good conduct rather than act as criteria
for subsequent legal judgment.
Although not themselves sources of law,
Anglo-Saxon charters are a
most valuable historical source for tracing the actual legal practices
of the various
Anglo-Saxon communities. A charter was a written
document from a king or other authority confirming a grant either of
land or some other valuable right. Their prevalence in the Anglo-Saxon
state is a sign of sophistication. They were frequently appealed to
and relied upon in litigation. Making grants and confirming those made
by others was a major way in which
Anglo-Saxon kings demonstrated
The royal council or witan played a central but limited role in the
Anglo-Saxon period. The main feature of the system was its high degree
of decentralisation. The interference by the king through his granting
of charters and the activity of his witan in litigation are exceptions
rather than the rule in
Anglo-Saxon times. The most important
court in the later
Anglo-Saxon period was the
Shire Court. It is of
interest that many shires (such as
Kent and Sussex) were in the early
days of the
Anglo-Saxon settlement the centre of small independent
kingdoms. As the kings first of
Mercia and then of
extended their authority over the whole of
England they left the Shire
Courts with overall responsibility for the administration of law.
Shire met in one or more traditional places, earlier in the open
air and then later in a Moot or meeting hall. The meeting of the Shire
Court was presided over by an officer, the shire reeve or sheriff,
whose appointment came in later
Anglo-Saxon times into the hands of
the king but had in earlier times been elective. The sheriff was not
the judge of the court, merely its president. The judges of the court
were all those who had the right and duty of attending the court, the
suitors. These were originally all free male inhabitants of the
neighbourhood but, over time, suit of court became an obligation
attached to particular holdings of land. The sessions of a
resembled more closely those of a modern local administrative body
than a modern court. It could and did act judicially but this was not
its prime function. In the
Shire Court, charters and writs would be
read out for all to hear.
Below the level of the shire each county was divided into areas known
as hundreds (or wapentakes in the north of England). These were
original groups of families rather than geographical areas. The
Hundred Court was a smaller version of the shire, presided over by the
hundred bailiff, formerly a sheriff's appointment, but over the years
many hundreds fell into the private hands of a local large landowner.
We are not well-informed about Hundred Court business, which must have
been a mix of the administrative and judicial, but they remained in
some areas an important forum for the settlement of local disputes
well into the post-Conquest period. The
Anglo-Saxon system put an
emphasis upon compromise and arbitration: litigating parties were
enjoined to settle their differences if at all possible. If they
persisted in bringing a case for decision before a
Shire Court then it
could be determined there. The suitors of the court would pronounce a
judgment which fixed how the case would be decided: legal problems
were considered to be too complex and difficult for mere human
decision and so proof or demonstration of the right would depend upon
some irrational, non-human criterion. The normal methods of proof were
oath-helping or the ordeal.
Oath-helping involved the party undergoing proof swearing to the truth
of his claim or denial and having that oath reinforced by five or more
others, chosen either by the party or by the court. The numbers of
helpers required and the form of their oath differed from place to
place and upon the nature of the dispute. If either the party or
any of the helpers failed in the oath, either refusing to take it or
sometimes even making an error in the required formula, the proof
failed and the case was adjudged to the other side. It appears
surprising to moderns that so important a matter might be settled by
one and his friends falsely swearing an oath. In a society in which
each was known to his neighbour and in which religious emphasis was
placed upon the sanctity of an oath, the system was probably more
satisfactory. As 'wager of law' it remained a way of determining cases
in the common law until its abolition in the 19th century.
The ordeal offered an alternative for those unable or unwilling to
swear an oath. The two most common methods were the ordeal by hot iron
and by cold water. The former consisted in carrying a red-hot iron for
five paces: the wound was immediately bound up and if, on unbinding,
it was found to be festering the case was lost. In the ordeal by water
the victim, usually an accused person, was cast bound into water: if
he sunk he was innocent, if he floated, guilty. Although for perhaps
understandable reasons the ordeals became associated with trials in
criminal matters they were in essence tests of the truth of a claim or
denial of a party and appropriate for trying any legal issue. The
allocation of a mode of proof and who should bear it was the substance
Shire Court's judgment or doom and perhaps followed known
customary rules of which we have no knowledge. Some measure of
discretion must have existed in the determining of the outcome of an
ordeal by hot iron but result of the cold water and the oath-helping
would have been obvious to all.
First page of the epic Beowulf
Old English literary works include genres such as epic poetry,
Bible translations, legal works, chronicles,
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, riddles and others. In all there are
about 400 surviving manuscripts from the period, a significant corpus
of both popular interest and specialist research. The manuscripts use
a modified Roman alphabet, but
Anglo-Saxon runes or futhorc are used
in under 200 inscriptions on objects, sometimes mixed with Roman
This literature is remarkable for being in the vernacular (Old
English) in the early medieval period: almost all other written
literature was in
Latin at this time, but due to Alfred's programme of
vernacular literacy, the oral traditions of
up being converted into writing and preserved. We owe much of this
preservation to the monks of the tenth century, who made – at the
very least – the copies of most of the literary manuscripts that
still exist. Manuscripts were not common items. They were expensive
and hard to make. First, cows or sheep had to be slaughtered and
their skins tanned. Then people had to decide to use this leather for
manuscripts rather than for any of the other things leather can be
used for. The leather was then scraped, stretched, and cut into
sheets, which were sewn into books. Then inks had to be made from oak
galls and other ingredients, and the books had to be hand written by
monks using quill pens. Every manuscript is slightly different from
every other one, even if they are copies of each other, because every
scribe had different handwriting and made different errors. We can
sometimes identify individual scribes from their handwriting, and we
can often guess where manuscripts were written because different
scriptoria (centres of manuscript production) wrote in different
styles of hand.
There are four great poetic codices of
Old English poetry (a codex is
a book in modern format, as opposed to a scroll): the Junius
Manuscript, the Vercelli Book, the Exeter Book, and the Nowell Codex
Beowulf Manuscript; most of the well-known lyric poems such as The
Wanderer, The Seafarer,
The Ruin are found in the Exeter
Book, while the
Vercelli Book has the Dream of the Rood, some of
which is also carved on the Ruthwell Cross. The
Franks Casket also has
carved riddles, a popular form with the Anglo-Saxons. Old English
secular poetry is mostly characterized by a somewhat gloomy and
introspective cast of mind, and the grim determination found in The
Battle of Maldon, recounting an action against the
Vikings in 991.
This is from a book that was lost in the
Cotton Library fire of 1731,
but it had been transcribed previously.
Rather than being organized around rhyme, the poetic line in
Anglo-Saxon is organised around alliteration, the repetition of
stressed sounds, any repeated stressed sound, vowel or consonant,
could be used.
Anglo-Saxon lines are made up of two half-lines (in
old-fashioned scholarship, these are called hemistiches) divided by a
breath-pause or caesura. There must be at least one of the
alliterating sounds on each side of the caesura.
hreran mid hondum hrimcealde sæ[g]
The line above illustrates the principle: note that there is a natural
pause after 'hondum' and that the first stressed syllable after that
pause begins with the same sound as a stressed line from the first
half-line (the first halfline is called the a-verse and the second is
There is very strong evidence that
Anglo-Saxon poetry has deep roots
in oral tradition, but, keeping with the cultural practices we have
seen elsewhere in
Anglo-Saxon culture, there was a blending between
tradition and new learning. Thus while all
Old English poetry has
common features, we can also identify three strands: religious poetry,
which includes poems about specifically Christian topics, such as the
cross and the saints; Heroic or epic poetry, such as Beowulf, which is
about heroes, warfare, monsters, and the Germanic past; and poetry
about "smaller" topics, including introspective poems (the so-called
elegies), "wisdom" poems (which communicate both traditional and
Christian wisdom), and riddles. For a long time all
was divided into three groups: Cædmonian (the biblical paraphrase
poems), heroic, and "Cynewulfian," named after Cynewulf, one of the
only named poets in Anglo-Saxon.The most famous works from this period
include the epic poem Beowulf, which has achieved national epic status
There are about 30,000 surviving lines of
Old English poetry and about
ten times that much prose, and the majority of both is religious. The
prose was influential and obviously very important to the Anglo-Saxons
and more important than the poetry to those who came after the
Anglo-Saxons. Homilies are sermons, lessons to be given on moral and
doctrinal matters, and the two most prolific and respected writers of
Anglo-Saxon prose, Ælfric and Wulfstan, were both homilists.
Ælfric also wrote the 'Lives of Saints' which very popular and were
highly prized. Almost all surviving poetry is found in only one
manuscript copy, but there are a number of different versions of some
prose works, especially the
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was
apparently promulgated to monasteries by the royal court. Anglo-Saxon
clergy also continued to write in Latin, the language of Bede's works,
monastic chronicles, and theological writing, although Bede's
biographer records that he was familiar with
Old English poetry and
gives a five line lyric which he either wrote or liked to quote –
the sense is unclear.
Symbolism was an essential element to
Anglo-Saxon culture. Julian D.
Richards suggested that in societies with strong oral traditions,
material culture is used to store and pass on information and stand
instead of literature in those cultures. This symbolism is less
logical than literature and more difficult to read. Anglo-
symbolism, not just to communicate, but as tools to aid their thinking
about the world. Symbols were also used to change the world,
Saxons used symbols to differentiate between groups and people,
status and role in society.
The visual riddles and ambiguities of early
Anglo-Saxon animal art,
for example has been seen as emphasing the protective roles of animals
on dress accessories, weapons, armour and horse equipment, and its
evocation of pre-Christian mythological themes. However Howard
Williams and Ruth Nugent have suggest that the number of artefact
categories that have animals or eyes; from pots to combs, buckets to
weaponry was to make artefacts 'see' by impressing and punching
circular and lentoid shapes onto them. This symbolism of making the
object seems to be more than decoration.
Conventional interpretations of the symbolism of grave goods revolved
around religion (equipment for the hereafter), legal concepts
(inalienable possessions) and social structure (status display,
ostentatious destruction of wealth). There was multiplicity of
messages and variability of meanings characterised the deposition of
Anglo-Saxon graves. In Early
Anglo-Saxon cemeteries, 47% of
male adults and 9% of all juveniles were buried with weapons, some of
which were very young. The proportion of adult weapon burials is much
too high to suggest that they all represent a social élite. The
usual assumption is that these are 'warrior burials', and this term is
used throughout the archaeological and historical literature. However,
a systematic comparison of burials with and without weapons, using
archaeological and skeletal data, suggests that this assumption is
much too simplistic and even misleading.
Anglo-Saxon weapon burial
rite involved a complex ritual symbolism: it was multi-dimensional,
displaying ethnic affiliation, descent, wealth, élite status, and age
groups. This symbol continued until c.700 when it ceased to have the
symbolic power that it had before. Heinrich Härke suggests this
change was due to the changing structure of society and especially in
ethnicity and assimilation implying the lowering of ethnic boundaries
Anglo-Saxon settlement areas of England, towards a common
The word bead comes from the Anglo Saxon words bidden (to pray) and
bede (prayer). The vast majority of early
Anglo-Saxon female graves
contain beads, which are often found in large numbers in the area of
the neck and chest. Beads are also sometimes found in male burials,
with large beads often associated with prestigious weapons. A variety
of materials other than glass were available for
including; amber, rock crystal, amethyst, bone, shells, coral and even
metal. These beads are usually considered to have a social or
Anglo-Saxon glass beads show a wide variety of bead
manufacturing techniques, sizes, shapes, colours and decorations.
Various studies have been carried out investigating the distribution
and chronological change of bead types. The crystal beads
which appear on bead strings in the pagan
Anglo-Saxon period seems to
have gone through various changes in meaning in the Christian period,
which Gale Owen-Crocker suggests was linked to symbolism of the Virgin
Mary, and hence to intercession. John Hines has suggested that
the over 2000 different types of beads found at
Lakenheath show that
the beads symbolise identity, roles, status and micro cultures within
the tribal landscape of the early
Symbolism continued to have a hold on the minds of
into the Christian eras. The interiors of churches would have glowed
with colour, and the walls of the halls were painted with decorative
scenes from the imagination telling stories of monsters and heroes
like those in the poem Beowulf. Although nothing much is left of the
wall paintings, evidence of their pictorial art is found in Bibles and
Psalters, in illuminated manuscripts. The poem, 'The Dream of the
Rood', is an example how symbolism of trees was fused into Christian
symbolism. Richard North suggests that the sacrifice of the tree was
in accordance with pagan virtues and "the image of Christ's death was
constructed in this poem with reference to an Anglian ideology of the
world tree". North suggests that the author of The Dream of the
Rood "uses the language of the myth of Ingui in order to present the
Passion to his newly Christianized countrymen as a story from their
native tradition". Furthermore, the tree's triumph over death is
celebrated by adorning the cross with gold and jewels.
The most distinctive feature of coinage of the first half of the 8th
century is its portrayal of animals, to an extent found in no other
European coinage of the Early Middle Ages. Some animals, such as lions
or peacocks, would have been known in
England only through
descriptions in texts or through images in manuscripts or on portable
objects. The animals were not merely illustrated out of an interest in
the natural world. Each was imbued with meanings and acted as a symbol
which would have been understood at the time.
Anglo-Saxon in linguistics is still used as a term for the original
West Germanic component of the modern English language, which was
later expanded and developed through the influence of
Old Norse and
Norman French, though linguists now more often refer to it as Old
Throughout the history of the Anglo-
Saxons studies producing a
dispassionate narrative of the people has been difficult. In the early
Middle Ages the views of Geoffrey of Monmouth produced a personally
inspired history that wasn't challenged for five hundred years. In the
reformation, churchman looking for signs of an English church
Anglo-Saxon Christianity. In the 19th century the term
Anglo-Saxon was broadly used in philology, and is sometimes so used at
present. In Victorian Britain, some writers such as Robert Knox, James
Anthony Froude, Charles Kingsley and Edward A. Freeman used
Anglo-Saxon to justify racism and imperialism, claiming that
the "Anglo-Saxon" ancestry of the English made them racially superior
to the colonised peoples. Similar racist ideas were advocated in the
19th-century United States by
Samuel George Morton
Samuel George Morton and George
Fitzhugh. These views have influenced how versions of early
English history are embedded in the sub-conscious of people
"re-emerging in school textbooks and television programmes and still
very congenial to some strands of political thinking."
Anglo-Saxon is sometimes used to refer to peoples descended
or associated in some way with the English ethnic group, but there is
no universal definition for the term. In contemporary Anglophone
cultures outside Britain, "Anglo-Saxon" may be contrasted with
"Celtic" as a socioeconomic identifier, invoking or reinforcing
historical prejudices against non-English British immigrants. "White
Anglo-Saxon Protestant", i.e. WASP, is a term especially popular in
the United States that refers chiefly to old wealthy families with
mostly English ancestors. As such, WASP is not a historical label or a
precise ethnological term, but rather a (often derogatory) reference
to contemporary family-based political, financial and cultural
power— e.g., The Boston Brahmin. The French often use "Anglo-Saxon"
to refer to the combined power of Britain and the US today.
Outside Anglophone countries, both in
Europe and in the rest of the
world, the term
Anglo-Saxon and its direct translations are used to
refer to the Anglophone peoples and societies of Britain, the United
States, and other countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand
– areas which are sometimes referred to as the Anglosphere. The term
Anglo-Saxon can be used in a variety of contexts, often to identify
the English-speaking world's distinctive language, culture,
technology, wealth, markets, economy, and legal systems. Variations
include the German "Angelsachsen", French "Anglo-Saxon", Spanish
"anglosajón", Portuguese "Anglo-saxão", Russian
"англосаксы", Polish "anglosaksoński", Italian
"anglosassone", Catalan "anglosaxó" and Japanese "Angurosakuson". As
with the English-language use of the term, what constitutes the
"Anglo-Saxon" varies from speaker to speaker.
Anglo-Saxon military organization
Anglo-Saxon settlement in Britain
^ Throughout this article
Anglo-Saxon is used for Saxon, Angles, Jute,
or Frisian unless it is specific to a point being made; "Anglo-Saxon"
is used when specifically the culture is meant rather than any
ethnicity. But, all these terms are interchangeably used by scholars
^ The delimiting dates vary; often cited are 410, date of the Sack of
Rome by Alaric I; and 751, the accession of Pippin the Short and the
establishment of the Carolingian dynasty.
^ There is much evidence for loosely managed and shifting cultivation
and no evidence of "top down" structured landscape planning.
^ Confirmation of this interpretation may come from Bede's account of
the battle of the river Winwæd of 655, where it is said that Penda of
Mercia, overlord of all the southern kingdoms, was able to call upon
thirty contingents, each led by duces regii – royal commanders.
^ From its reference to "Aldfrith, who now reigns peacefully" it must
date to between 685 and 704.
^ Oswiu of
Northumbria (642–70) only won authority over the southern
kingdoms after he defeated Penda at the battle of the Winwæd in 655
and must have lost it again soon after Wulfhere regained control in
Mercia in 658.
^ Example from the Wanderer
^ a b c Higham, Nicholas J., and Martin J. Ryan. The Anglo-Saxon
World. Yale University Press, 2013.
^ Higham, Nicholas J., and Martin J. Ryan. The
Anglo-Saxon World. Yale
University Press, 2013. p. 7
^ Richard M. Hogg, ed. The Cambridge History of the English Language:
Vol 1: the Beginnings to 1066 (1992)
^ Higham, Nicholas J., and Martin J. Ryan. The
Anglo-Saxon World. Yale
University Press, 2013. pp. 7-19
^ Hamerow, Helena. Rural Settlements and Society in Anglo-Saxon
England. Oxford University Press, 2012. p166
^ Sarah Knapton (18 March 2015). "Britons still live in Anglo-Saxon
tribal kingdoms, Oxford University finds". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved
19 March 2015.
^ Higham & Ryan 2013:7"The
^ Hills, Catherine. Origins of the English. Duckworth Pub, 2003. p21
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^ Procopius, History of the Wars, III.2.38
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List of ancient Germanic peoples
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