The Anglo-Saxons are a people who have 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 re-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 and eastern Scotland between at least the mid-5th century and the mid-12th century. In scholarly use, it is more commonly called Old English.
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 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 all, as 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 make up of British populations today shows divisions of the tribal political units of the early Anglo-Saxon period.
Use of the term Anglo-Saxon assumes that the words Angles, Saxons or Anglo-Saxon have the same meaning in all the sources. Assigning ethnic labels such as “Anglo-Saxon” is fraught with difficulties. This term began to be used only in the 8th century to distinguish the “Germanic” groups in Britain from those on the continent.[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.”
The Old English ethnonym “Angul-Seaxan” comes from the Latin Angli-Saxones and became the name of the peoples Bede calls Anglorum and 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 the conquest of 1016, or as Anglo-Norman after the Norman conquest.
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 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 Anglo-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 Anglo-Saxons and Danes. 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.
The indigenous Common Brittonic speakers referred to Anglo-Saxons as Saxones or possibly Saeson (the word Saeson is the modern Welsh word for ‘English people’); the equivalent word in Scottish Gaelic is Sasannachand 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 raiders”.
Early Anglo-Saxon history (410–660)
The early 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, Bulgars and Alans.
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 “sub-Roman”.
The traditional narrative of this period is one of decline and fall, invasion and migration; however, Heinrich Härke states:
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 Picts and 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.
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 Saxons go 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 of Spong Hill has moved the chronology for the settlement earlier than 450, with a significant number of items now in phases before Bede’s date.
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 fairly high Anglo-Saxon figure (200,000) and a low Brythonic one (800,000), Brythonic people are likely to have outnumbered Anglo-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:
As 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, then speaking Old English without Latin or Brittonic inflection had considerable value.
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 Wessexroyal 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 Columba.
The Anglo-Saxon farms of this period are often falsely supposed to be “peasant farms”. However, a ceorl, who was the lowest ranking freeman in early 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.
The 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 Humber) 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:
|Old English||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 cyning.
|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)
In 565, Columba, a monk from Ireland who studied at the monastic school of 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 monastery Lindisfarne.”
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 Christianise the Kingdom of Kent from their native Anglo-Saxon paganism. 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 reign.
In 635 Aidan, an Irish monk from Iona chose the Isle of Lindisfarne to 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 native Anglo-Saxon paganism. Oswald had probably chosen Iona because 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 was convened and established Roman 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 Lindisfarne to 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.
Middle 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 attracted attention.
Mercian supremacy (626–821)
Middle-lowland Britain was known as the place of the Mierce, the border or frontier folk, in Latin Mercia. 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 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 Æthelredconducted 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, Middlesex and 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 just flattery.
Learning and monasticism (660–793)
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 Anglo-Saxon monastic 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 at 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 and Latin as in their native language. Bede does not mention Aldhelm in this connection; but we know from a letter addressed by Aldhelm to 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 “Aldhelm wrote 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 learning.
While 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).
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 King 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.
The wealth of the monasteries and the success of Anglo-Saxon society 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 Chronicle in 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, Ceolwulf in Mercia in 873, ‘a foolish king’s thane’ (ASC), and perhaps others in 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 Vikings were 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)
More important to Alfred than his military and political victories were his religion, his love of learning, and his spread of writing throughout England. 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 Care”)
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 Care”)
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 Pastoral Care”)
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 than Latin in Anglo-Saxon culture.
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”)
Late 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 documented periods”.
Reform and formation of England (899–978)
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 of Wessex became the ruling house of England.
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 in 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.
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 kingdom of 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.
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 practiced at beer parties.
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 Cnut’s.
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 practice 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.
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 Anglo-Saxon 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 1087. Many Anglo-Saxon nobles fled to Scotland, Ireland, and Scandinavia. The 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.
The chronicler 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 following the Harrying of the North (1069–1070), where William, according to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle utterly “ravaged and laid waste that shire”.
Many 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 tri-lingual situation: Anglo-Saxon for the common people, Latin for 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 Conquest, 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 of 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 verbs.
The Anglo-Saxons had always been defined very closely to the language, now this language gradually changed, and although some people (like the famous scribe known as the Tremulous Hand of Worcester) could read Old English in the thirteenth century. Soon afterwards, it 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 into one Anglo-Saxon people. The outcome of this mixing and integration was a continuous re-interpretation by the Anglo-Saxons of their society and worldview, which Heinreich Härke calls a “complex and ethnically mixed society”.
Kingship and kingdoms
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 their successors. 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 Picts and 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 disaffection.
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 England with 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 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 heritage.
Early 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 throughout 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.” Pagan Anglo-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 Anglo-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 story of 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 culture. Cædmon does not destroy or ignore traditional Anglo-Saxon poetry. Instead, he converts it into something that helps the Church. Anglo-Saxon 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.
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, monasticism in 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 study in Anglo-Saxon 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, however, it is an important element of the Anglo-Saxon society.
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 Northumbrian 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.
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 Wessex and 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 youthful 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 Impression that 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 battles successful 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 West 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 Danes of 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 and 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
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. England had trading connections with the continent, and a merchant who had travelled overseas three times at his own expense could similarly be raised to the rank of thegn. 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 introduced to 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.
Early 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 central hearth.
Only ten of the hundreds of settlement sites that have been excavated in 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.
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 Anglo-Saxon England essentially began with 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 foundations of Wilfrid at 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 rebuilding of 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 Late 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; Cholsey; and 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 c.1048–61 Abbot Wulfric aimed to retain the earlier churches while linking them with an octagonal rotunda: but the concept was still essentially Pre-Romanesque. 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 c. 650||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 Anglo-Saxon Rhenish helm tower to survive, c. 1050|
Early 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.
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.
The Staffordshire Hoard is the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork yet found. 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 and 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), the 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 are other products of Lindisfarne. A Latin gospel book, the Lindisfarne Gospels 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 the 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 Ceolfrith. Bede probably had something to do with it. The production of the 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 Pope, and 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.
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 period; The Book of Cerne is an early 9th century Insular or Anglo-Saxon 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 metalwork.
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 centuries, the 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 carvingand 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, France and 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 a Canterbury artist for Bishop Odo of Bayeux, is arguably the swansong of 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 11th century.
|Sutton Hoo Purse Lid c. 620||Codex Aureus of Canterbury c.750||Ruthwell Cross c.750||Trewhiddle style on silver ring c.775–850||St Oswald’s Priory Cross c.890|
Old English (Ænglisc, Anglisc, Englisc) or Anglo-Saxon is the early form of the English language that was spoken and written by the Anglo-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 modern English.
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 migration period. 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 language to 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 Mercian 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, the verb form are, and hundreds of other words.
Nick Highham has provided a summary of the importance of language to the Anglo-Saxon culture:
As 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 speaking Old English without Latin or Brittonic inflection had considerable value.
Helena Hamerow has made an observation that in Anglo-Saxon society “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 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 would prosper. 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 interests.
The most noticeable feature of the Anglo-Saxon legal system is the apparent prevalence of legislation in the form of law codes. The early Anglo-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 their authority.
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 Wessex slowly extended their authority over the whole of England they left the Shire Courts with overall responsibility for the administration of law. The 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 Shire Court 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 of the 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.
Old English literary works include genres such as epic poetry, hagiography, sermons, Bible translations, legal works, chronicles, mainly the 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 letters.
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 Anglo-Saxon England ended 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 or Beowulf Manuscript; most of the well known lyric poems such as The Wanderer, The Seafarer, Deor and 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 the b-verse).
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 Anglo-Saxon poetry 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 in Britain.
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, Ælfricand 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-Saxons used symbolism, not just to communicate, but as tools to aid their thinking about the world. Symbols were also used to change the world, Anglo-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 objects in 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 in the Anglo-Saxon settlement areas of England, towards a common culture.
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 Anglo-Saxon beads including; amber, rock crystal, amethyst, bone, shells, coral and even metal. These beads are usually considered to have a social or ritual function. 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 Anglo-Saxon world.
Symbolism continued to have a hold on the minds of Anglo-Saxon people 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 English.
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 reinterpreted 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 the term 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 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.”
The term 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 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 dress
- Anglo-Saxon military organization
- States in Medieval Britain
- Timeline of 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
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