English history opens with the Anglo-Saxons. They were the first people we would describe as English: they gave their name to England (the ‘land of the Angles’); modern English began with, and developed from, their speech; the English monarchy stretches back to the 10th century; and England was unified, or created, throughout the 600 years that they dominated Britain.
They did, however, have to wrestle with the Vikings to retain control of their lands during that period, and were sometimes forced to concede power to Danish kings – including Canute (aka Cnut), who ruled an empire in England, Denmark and Norway.
The Anglo-Saxon era ended with William of Normandy’s triumph at the battle of Hastings in 1066, which ushered in a new era of Norman rule.
Here are 20 facts about this fascinating historical period:
1. The Anglo-Saxons were immigrants
Around 410, Roman rule in Britain faltered, leaving a power vacuum that was filled by incomers arriving from northern Germany and southern Scandinavia.
As soon as Roman power began to wane, the Roman defences to the north (such as Hadrian’s wall) started to degrade, and in AD 367 the Picts smashed through them.
Gildas, a 6th century monk, says that Saxon war tribes were hired to defend Britain when the Roman army left. So the Anglo-Saxons were originally invited immigrants.
Bede, a monk from Northumbria writing some centuries later, says that they were from some of the most powerful and warlike tribes in Germany.
2. But some of them took control by murdering their hosts
A man called Vortigern was appointed to lead the British, and he was probably the person who recruited the Saxons.
But at a conference between the nobles of the Britons and Anglo-Saxons [likely in AD 472, although some sources say AD 463] the Anglo-Saxons produced concealed knives and murdered the British.
Vortigern was left alive, but he had to cede large parts of the southeast. He essentially became ruler in name alone.
3. The Anglo-Saxons were made up of different tribes
Bede names 3 of these tribes: the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. But there were probably many other peoples who set out for Britain in the early 5th century.
Batavians, Franks and Frisians are known to have made the sea crossing to the stricken province of ‘Britannia’.
4. They didn’t just stick to the southeast of England
The Angles, Saxons, Jutes and other incomers burst out of the southeast in the mid-5th century and set southern Britain ablaze.
Gildas, our closest witness, says that a new British leader emerged from the onslaught, called Ambrosius Aurelianus.
5. There was a mighty battle between the Saxons and the Britons
A great battle took place, supposedly sometime around AD 500, at a place called Mons Badonicus or Mount Badon, probably somewhere in the southwest of today’s England.
The Saxons were resoundingly defeated by the Britons. A later Welsh source says that the victor was ‘Arthur’ but it was written down hundreds of years after the event, when it may have become influenced by folklore.
6. But Gildas might have spoken of Arthur in code…
Gildas does not mention Arthur, but there are theories as to the reason why.
One is that Gildas did refer to him in a sort of acrostic code, which reveals him to be a chieftain from Gwent called Cuneglas.
Gildas called Cuneglas ‘the bear’, and Arthur means ‘bear’. Nevertheless, for the time being the Anglo-Saxon advance had been checked by someone, possibly Arthur.
7. England wasn’t one country at this point
‘England’ as a country did not come into existence for hundreds of years after the Anglo-Saxons arrived.
Instead, seven major kingdoms were carved out of conquered areas: Northumbria, East Anglia, Essex, Sussex, Kent, Wessex and Mercia.
All these nations were fiercely independent, and – although they shared similar languages, pagan religions, and socioeconomic and cultural ties – they were absolutely loyal to their own kings and deeply distrusting of each other.
8. They didn’t call themselves the Anglo-Saxons
The term seems to have been first used in the 8th century to distinguish Germanic-speaking peoples who lived in Britain from those on the continent.
In 786, George, bishop of Ostia, travelled to England to attend a church meeting, and he reported to the Pope that he had been to ‘Angul Saxnia’.
9. One of the most fearsome warrior-kings was Penda
Penda, who was from Mercia and ruled from AD 626 until 655, killed many of his rivals with his own hands.
As one of the last pagan Anglo-Saxon kings, he offered up the body of one of them, King Oswald of Northumbria, to Woden.
Penda ransacked many of the other Anglo-Saxon realms, amassing exquisite treasures as tribute and the discarded war-gear of fallen warriors on the battlefields.
10. The Anglo-Saxon period witnessed the growth of Christianity in England
Religion changed a lot throughout the Anglo-Saxon period. Many people were initially pagans and worshipped different gods who oversaw different things people did – for instance, Wade was the god of the sea, and Tiw was the god of war.
In c.596, a monk named Augustine arrived on England’s shores; Pope Gregory the Great had sent him on a Christian mission to convert Britain’s Anglo-Saxons.
Upon his arrival Augustine founded a church in Canterbury, becoming the settlement’s first Archbishop in 597. Gradually, Augustine helped Christianity gained a foothold in the southeast, baptising the local monarch in 601. It marked only the beginning.
Today we consider Saint Augustine the founder of the English Church: ‘the Apostle to the English.’
11. An African refugee helped reform the English church
Some Anglo-Saxon monarchs converted to Christianity because the church had proclaimed the Christian God would deliver them victory in battles. When this failed to happen, however, some Anglo-Saxon kings turned their back on the religion.
The two men chosen to keep them wedded to Christianity were an elderly Greek named Theodore of Tarsus and a younger man, Hadrian ‘the African’, a Berber refugee from north Africa.
After more than a year (and many adventures) they arrived, and set to work to reform the English church. They would stay for the rest of their lives.
12. One of the most well-known kings from Mercia was Offa, and remnants of his reign exist today
He declared himself the first ‘king of the English’ because he won battles involving kings in the surrounding kingdoms, but their dominance didn’t really last after Offa died.
Offa is most remembered for Offa’s Dyke along the border between England and Wales – it was a 150-mile barrier that gave the Mercians protection if they were about to be invaded.
13. Alfred the Great is one of England’s most important kings
Alfred, king of Wessex, stood strong against Viking threat and thereby paved the way for the future unity of England, which was brought to fruition under his son and grandsons.
By the mid-10th century, the England we are familiar with was ruled as one country for the first time.
14. But he had a crippling disability
As he grew up, Alfred was constantly troubled by illness, including irritating and painful piles – a real problem in an age where a prince was constantly in the saddle.
Asser, the Welshman who became his biographer, relates that Alfred suffered from another painful illness that is not specified.
Some people believe it was Crohn’s Disease, others that it may have been a sexually transmitted disease, or even severe depression.
15. Corfe witnessed a horrible Anglo-Saxon regicide…
In July 975 the eldest son of King Edgar, Edward, was crowned king. But Edward’s step-mother, Elfrida (or ‘Aelfthryth’), wanted Aethelred, her own son, to be king – at any cost.
One day in 978, Edward decided to pay Elfrida and Aethelred a visit in their residence at Corfe in Dorset.
But as Edward stooped to accept a drink upon arrival, the grooms grabbed his bridle and stabbed him repeatedly in the stomach.
There are several theories to who was behind the murder: Edward’s step-mother, Edward’s step-brother or Aelfhere, a leading Ealdorman
16. …and his body was only buried properly in 1984
Edward managed to ride away but bled to death, and was hastily buried by the conspirators.
Edward’s body was exhumed and reburied at Shaftesbury Abbey in AD 979. During the dissolution of the monasteries the grave was lost, but in 1931 it was rediscovered.
Edward’s bones were kept in a bank vault until 1984, when at last he was laid to rest.
17. England was ‘ethnically cleansed’
During Aethelred’s disastrous reign, he looked to make the Danes – who were by now respectable Christian citizens, who had been settled in the country for generations – into scapegoats.
On 13 November 1002, secret orders were sent out to slaughter all the Danes, and massacres occurred all over southern England.
18. And it partially led to the Anglo-Saxon’s downfall
One of the Danes killed in this wicked pogrom was the sister of Sweyn Forkbeard, the mighty king of Denmark.
From that time on the Danish armies were resolved to conquer England and eliminate Ethelred. This was the beginning of the end for Anglo-Saxon England.
19. Much of what we know about the Anglo-Saxons comes from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a collection of annals in Old English chronicling the history of the Anglo-Saxons. The original manuscript of the Chronicle was created late in the 9th century, probably in Wessex, during the reign of Alfred the Great (r. 871–899).
Multiple copies were made of that one original and then distributed to monasteries across England, where they were independently updated.
The Chronicle is the single most important historical source for the period. Much of the information given in the Chronicle is not recorded elsewhere. The manuscripts are also vital for our understanding of the history of the English language.
20. There are lots of archaeological sites of interest related to the Anglo-Saxons that have also helped us to learn about them
One famous example is Sutton Hoo, near Woodbridge, Suffolk, which is the site of two 6th and early 7th-century cemeteries.
One cemetery contained an undisturbed ship-burial, including a wealth of Anglo-Saxon artefacts of outstanding art-historical and archaeological significance.
Anglo-Saxons also minted their own coins, which helps archaeologists know when they were used. The coins changed depending on the region where they were made, who was king, or even what important event had just happened.