Who Were the Anglo Saxons? | History Hit

Who Were the Anglo Saxons?

Anglo Saxon brooches from the Pentney Hoard, Norfolk
Image Credit: Public Domain

Early English history can be confusing – full of warring chieftains, invasions, and turmoil. In between the Romans leaving and William the Conqueror arriving, the rich and varied Anglo Saxon period is frequently skated over in favour of what came before and after.

But what happened in these intervening 600 years? Who were the Anglo Saxons, and how did they shape what England has become today?

The Anglo-Saxon period is vital for the formation of England and the UK as we know it but is a difficult era to fully understand. The departure of the Romans left a power vacuum that was filled by warlords with violence, foreign invasion, occupation and religious strife being endemic. But out of this turbulent period the foundation of what we now call England came into being. Dan is joined by Marc Morris one of the most distinguished medieval historians in the world and author of a new book called The Anglo-Saxons: A History of the Beginnings of England. Marc guides us through these difficult centuries separating truth from legend and illuminating this dark period in history.
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1. The Anglo-Saxons didn’t completely displace the local population

The Anglo-Saxons, as we call them, were a mix of all kinds of peoples, but were mainly formed by immigrants from Northern Europe and Scandinavia – predominantly from the tribes of the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes.

The collapse of Roman power in Britain left something of a power vacuum: these new peoples settled in the east of England and moved their way west, fighting, occupying and incorporating existing peoples and land into their new society.

2. They certainly didn’t live in the ‘Dark Ages’

The term ‘Dark Ages’ has increasingly fallen out of favour with modern historians. Generally this term was applied across Europe following the fall of the Roman Empire – in Britain in particular, the economy went into freefall and warlords replaced previous political structures.

Map of Anglo SAxon homelands and settlements based on Bede’s Ecclesiastical History

Image Credit: mbartelsm / CC

Part of the ‘vacuum’ of the 5th and 6th centuries in particular stems from the lack of written sources – in fact, in Britain, there’s only one: Gildas, a 6th century British monk. It’s thought many of the libraries pre-dating this were destroyed by the Saxons, but also that there wasn’t the demand or skill to be producing written histories or documents during this period of turbulence.

3. Anglo-Saxon Britain was made up of 7 kingdoms

Known as the heptarchy, Anglo-Saxon Britain was formed of 7 kingdoms: Northumbria, East Anglia, Essex, Sussex, Kent, Wessex and Mercia. Each nation was independent, and all vied for supremacy and dominance through a series of wars.

4. Christianity became Britain’s dominant religion during this period

Roman occupation had helped bring and spread Christianity to Britain, but it was only with the arrival of Augustine in 597AD that there was a renewed interest – and increased conversions – to Christianity.

Whilst some of this may have stemmed from faith, there were also political and cultural reasons for leaders to convert. Many early converts kept a hybrid of Christian and pagan customs and rituals rather than committing to one side fully.

5. The first precursor to English was spoken during this period

Old English – a Germanic language with origins in Old Norse and Old High German – developed during the Anglo-Saxon period, and it was at around this time the famous epic poem Beowulf was written.

6. It was a culturally rich period

Barring the first two hundred years after the collapse of Roman rule, the Anglo-Saxon period was incredibly culturally rich. Hoards like those found at Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard evidence the craftsmanship being executed at the time, whilst surviving illustrated manuscripts show that no expense was spared in the creation of texts and art.

Whilst our knowledge of the intimate details of the Anglo-Saxon period is somewhat hazy, the evidence we have shows that this was a period rich with artisans and craftsmen.

For 600 years the Anglo-Saxons came to dominate England. This period of English history has sometimes been perceived as one of little cultural development and the Anglo-Saxons as an unsophisticated people. However, there is plenty of evidence to negate this view, as Dr Janina Ramirez explains.
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7. We know little about lots of areas of Anglo-Saxon life

The lack of written sources mean that historians and archaeologists have a lot of grey areas over Anglo-Saxon life. Women, for example, are something of a mystery and it’s hard to understand their role or what life might have been like for a woman in this period because there are simply no records or indicators – although to some, the absence of mentions of women speaks volumes.

8. The Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings fought for supremacy

Vikings arrived at Lindisfarne in 793, and from then on, began to tussle with the Anglo-Saxons for control of Britain. Some Vikings settled in the east of Britain in an area known as the Danelaw, but disputes between the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings continued, with Anglo-Saxon Britain coming under the rule of the Vikings for periods.

Both Anglo-Saxon and Viking rule was brought to an abrupt end by the defeat of Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings in 1066: the Normans then began their reign.

Sarah Roller