The Anglo-Saxons were not called Anglo-Saxons when they first arrived in Britain by force in 449 AD. These skilled warriors were farmers from foreign lands, much like the Vikings were 340 years later. Some were already living in Britain, during the Roman occupation of Britannia (43 – 410 AD) as subjects of Rome.
When the Roman armies left Britain in 410 AD, the native Britons, remaining Romans and some Anglo-Saxons lived as best they could together. This period is now called the Dark Ages, namely because there was little historical records made at the time.
Little did the inhabitants of Britain know, large numbers of invading ships from overseas would soon arrive on British shores to change Britain forever.
Who were the Anglo-Saxons?
The Anglo-Saxons were both farmers and skilled fighters, seeking to invade Britannia after the Roman army departed. Some came peacefully, hoping to find new lands to farm which would not flood, unlike their lands back home. Others came for conquest, seeing Britain as an easy target after the Roman’s departure. A few were actually invited, to help the native Britons fight the Picts and the Scots.
Bede, a Northumbrian monk (who documented much of this period), wrote that Anglo-Saxons belonged to the three largest tribes in Northern Germany, the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes. Other smaller tribes include the Franks, Batavians and Frisians.
Where did the Anglo-Saxons come from?
The Anglo-Saxons came from Northern Germany and Denmark mostly, with some smaller tribes coming from Holland.
Historians have since grouped these tribes by the collective name Anglo-Saxons.
The Angles came from the northern Germanic area called Angeln, which is located on the southern part of the Jutland peninsula, where Germany borders Denmark. This area is in between the territories of the Saxons and the Jutes.
The Saxons came from the northern Germanic coast line of Old Saxony. The Saxons not only invaded and settled in Britain, but also pushed north over the North Sea, and south west down to the Franks.
The Jutes came from the northern part of the Jutland peninsula, which today is Denmark’s mainland.
Anglo-Saxon Occupation of Britain
During the Anglo-Saxon occupation of Britain, the three invading tribes set about creating their own kingdoms. Pushing the native Britons further west into Wales, Cornwall and further north towards Scotland.
The Angles split up and founded the kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia. They gave their name to Angle-land, which eventually be England.
The Saxons settled in Essex (East Saxons), Sussex (South Saxons), Middlesex (Middle Saxons) and Wessex (West Saxons) which today is roughly Hampshire and Wiltshire. The large Saxon presence in the areas around Wessex, gradually drove out the existing Jutes who had settled there.
The Jutes settled in Kent, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. Although, probably because of the dominant presence of Saxons in the area, the Jutes did not remain long in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.
With this vast invasion and settlement, the local Britons began to adopt the Anglo-Saxon way of life, gradually speaking their language and learning their customs and beliefs.
Most of the Anglo-Saxon settlers were farmers, who usually farmed their own land (hide) to feed their family. They were known as a Ceorl, and with their family lived in wooden thatched houses. An Anglo-Saxon who owned more than five hides of land was known as a Thegn.
Thegn’s lived in great halls, and could be summoned for military service by the king. Even farmers would have to be prepared to fight when required. Thegns are similar to barons of the Norman period, and this Anglo-Saxon hierarchy has echoes of the Norman Feudal system.
Anglo-Saxon food was basic but practical, with stew, eggs, cheese, meat, honey, fruit and bread commonplace, washed down with ale, mead or milk. Their clothing consisted mainly of loose tunics, belted at the waist. Men would wear leggings, and thick cloaks provided warmth through winter.
Jewellery was incredibly detailed for those who could afford it. Sophisticated brooches and highly detailed buckles were just some of the intricate pieces worn by the wealthy, especially kings or renowned warriors.
The Anglo-Saxons buried their once rich and powerful dead, with treasures for the after-life. Sometimes the burial included a warrior’s horse, or even a ship.
A fine example of this is Sutton Hoo, Suffolk. Here there are 18 burial mounds, with barrows for Anglo-Saxon East Anglian royalty. The most famous of all, is the barrow for King Raedwald of East Anglia, who was buried in 625 with a huge hoard of riches, including his ship and this magnificent helmet.
Anglo-Saxon Religion and Christianity
The Anglo-Saxon warriors were Pagans, while Britain was a Christian country. During the invasion, Christianity was largely oppressed by the Pagan Anglo-Saxons. However, during the 6th century, while relative peace was established, Christian leaders in Rome and Ireland seized the opportunity to reinstate Christianity. Christian monks arrived as missionaries, to spread the Christian message and attempt to convert the Anglo-Saxon kings.
One of the first successful missionaries was Columba, an Irishman who founded a monastery on the island of Iona, in 563. He was allowed safe passage by the Christian Scottish King, and set about converting the Picts from Paganism to Christianity. Meanwhile in the south, a monk from Rome called Augustine, was sent to meet King Aethelbert of Kent, by Pope Gregory in 597. After initial scepticism, King Aethelbert was converted to Christianity, and Augustine founded a monastery at Canterbury. He became the first Archbishop of Canterbury.
The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms were vast areas of land, each ruled by their own Anglo-Saxon king.
In total, there were seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, collectively know as the Heptarchy. These kingdoms were East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex and Wessex.
Each of the seven would eventually unify together under the overlordship of Egbert of Wessex in 829.
The king could become overlord of other kingdoms, and would be known as Bretwalda, an old English word from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The term Bretwalda was given to rulers of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms who had overlordship of some or all other kingdoms. In other words, a Bretwalda was ruler of Britain.
The first of these was King Aelle of the South Saxons, in 477. King Aella was quick to destroy a Roman-Briton garrison near Pevensey, West Sussex. According to chronicler Bede, Aella soon established control of the South Saxon kingdom. Aella was the first king to be recognised as the ruler of Britons, and overlord over the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
The second Anglo-Saxon Bretwalda, was Ceawlin king of Wessex from 560 to 592. He was the grandson of the founding Saxon, Cerdic of Wessex, whom according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was leader of the first Saxons to land in Wessex. King Ceawlin’s kingdom of Wessex would become the most powerful of all Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
A List of 7 Kings by Bede
Aelle of South Saxons (Sussex, 488 – 514)
Ceawlin of West Saxons (Wessex, 560 – 592)
Aethelbert of Kent (590 – 616)
Raedwald of East Anglia ( 600 – 624)
Edwin of Deira (616 – 633)
Oswald of Northumbria (633 – 642)
Oswy of Northumbria (642 – 670)
The term Bretwalda was never used by Bede himself. The above were taken from Bede’s book of Historia Ecclesiastica, Book II Chapter 5.
A Later List of Bretwaldas
Egbert of Wessex (829 – 839)
Alfred of Wessex (871 – 899)
Other Bretwalda claimants
Aethelstan of Wessex (927-939)
Anglo-Saxon Texts, Books and Poetry
Christianity’s popularity among Anglo-Saxons began to rise by the 7th century. Christian monasteries were being built across Britain, where monks could dedicate much of their time crafting manuscripts and illuminations from religious books. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore founded a school to provide classes on poetry, astronomy and literature in 668. This started the Anglo-Saxon period of learning and enlightenment.
Through this new learning, poetry was now being documented. Both the Anglo-Saxons and the Britons had long traditions of story-telling and poetry, recounting famous tales of heroism. The most famous being the story of Beowulf. The hero who fought monsters with his bare hands, including the terrible monster Grendel.
Anglo-Saxons used rune carvings to write their own futhorc, which is the collective name for the runes. From around the 7th century, the runes were gradually phased out, and the Latin alphabet was used instead. Each rune has a particular meaning and an associated name in Old English. Here is a message for you to decipher:
The Runes roughly correspond to the alphabet as follows: