Anglo-Saxons

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The famous helmet found at Sutton Hoo probably belonged to King Raedwald of East Anglia, about 625 AD. Based on a Roman parade helmet design, it has decorations like those on contemporary Swedish helmets found at Old Uppsala (from the British Museum).
The main Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms circa AD 600
First page of Beowulf.

The Anglo-Saxons were the dominant people living in England from the mid-5th century AD to the Norman conquest in 1066. They spoke Germanic languages and are identified by Bede as the descendants of three powerful tribes. These were the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. Their language, Anglo-Saxon or Old English, came from West Germanic dialects. It changed into Middle English from about the 11th century. Old English was divided into four main dialects: West Saxon, Mercian, Northumbrian and Kentish. The Anglo-Saxons partially displaced the Celtic tribes which had lived in the British Isles before they came. However, they never conquered Wales, Scotland or Ireland,[a]

Anglo-Saxon migration[change | edit source]

It isn't known how many Anglo-Saxons actually came to Britain between the 4th and 6th centuries AD. Many theories said large numbers of Anglo-Saxon settlers arrived.[1] That they forced the mass moving of the British people into Wales.[1] Others Britons moved to Western Europe. Theorists say this is supported by many of the names of places as evidence. The language of the Anglo-Saxons, Old English, became the language of the English kingdoms. A few Celtic words are also part of the language.

The majority of recent archaeological and historical research indicates that the majority of the population of Anglo-Saxon England were Britons.[2] Instead of being driven off somewhere, the Anglo-Saxons merged with the Britons.[2] The evidence of British names in Anglo-Saxon families and royalty support this theory.[b] Migration may also have been more a function of the ruling class and the people living on the land were not affected.[3]

Angles and Saxons and Jutes[change | edit source]

It was Bede who identified the invaders as Angles, Saxons and Jutes. But he sometimes used the names Angli and Saxones for the same people in different parts of his writings. In Book I, Chapter 15 he said that by invitation of King Vortigern "Angles or Saxons" came to Britain in three longships.[4] Modern authorities confirm that Angles, Saxons, Frisians and some Jutes did come to England during this migration time period.[5] The differences in England between tribes of Angles and Saxons was not significant. Kent was different in culture than other parts of England and was home to Jutes. But Kent had later contact with the regions they had come from in Europe and that could explain some of the differences.[6]

Certain styles of jewelry are recognized by archaeologists as being typical of Anglian, Saxon and Jutish areas in Northern Europe. But why the name England came to be used for the country and English for the language is not clear.[7] In Old English the people call themselves Engle. In Latin it was Angli. Nothing suggests the Angles made up a larger percentage of the Germanic peoples.[7] The name Englaland, which became 'England' was regularly used by the 11th century.[7]

Celtic words for the Anglo-Saxons[change | edit source]

The native British people, who wrote in both Latin and Welsh (a Celtic language), referred to these invaders as Saxones or Saeson. The latter name is still used today in the Welsh word for English people.[8] In the Scottish Gaelic language The word for English people is saesonach and in Irish the word is Sasanach.

Art[change | edit source]

Anglo-Saxon jewellery.
The Pentney hoard: early 9th century silver broaches

Anglo-Saxon art before the time of Alfred (ruled 871–899) is a mixture of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic techniques and styles. The Sutton Hoo treasure is an excellent example of very early Anglo-Saxon metalwork and jewellery. It came from from a royal grave of the early 7th century. The period between Alfred and the Norman Conquest saw a distinct Anglo-Saxon style in art. This was due in part to the revival of the English economy and culture after the end of the Viking raids. This later style appears to have been in touch with trends in western Europe.

Anglo-Saxon art is mainly known today through illuminated manuscripts. Manuscripts were not the only Anglo-Saxon art form, but they have survived in much greater numbers than other types of objects. People in Europe at the time regarded Anglo-Saxon goldsmithing and embroidery as especially fine. The most common example of Anglo-Saxon art is their coins. Anglo-Saxon artists also worked in fresco, ivory, stone carving, metalwork and enamel, but few of these pieces have survived.

Literature[change | edit source]

Old English literary works include epic poetry, biography, sermons, Bible translations, legal works, chronicles, riddles and others. In all there are about 400 surviving manuscripts from the period.

A very famous work from this period is the poem Beowulf. It has achieved national epic status in Britain. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a collection of important early English history. Cædmon's Hymn from the 7th century is the earliest attested literary text in (Old) English. One of the most valuable and important sources on Anglo-Saxon history is Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation.[5]

Notes[change | edit source]

  1. Except they did get to part of south-east Scotland.
  2. The population of Britain in 400 is unknowable, but was probably substantial. It is thought to be unlikely that such a large population was all together killed or displaced between the 5th century and sixth century. Disease epidemics very much could have reduced the population of Britain. There is recent analysed evidence for multiple events of plague and famine - e.g. Irish Annals, Gildas, and Bede's account of the plague in his youth - which are also known from Mediterranean sources.

References[change | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 The Oxford Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology, eds. Helena Hamerow; David A. Hinton; Sally Crawford (Corby: Oxford University Press 2010), p. 32
  2. 2.0 2.1 Thomas Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons: Lincolnshire AD 400-650 (Lincoln: History of Lincolnshire Committee, 2012), p. 2
  3. J. C. Russell, 'Late Ancient and Medieval Population', Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series, Vol. 48, No. 3 (1958), p. 3
  4. Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans. Leo Sherley Price, revsd. R. E. Latham (London; New York: Penguin, 1990), p. 62
  5. 5.0 5.1 Peter Hunter Blair; Simon Keynes, An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 10
  6. Frank Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 10
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Peter Hunter Blair; Simon Keynes, An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 11
  8. John Davies, The history of Wales (London; New York: Penguin Books, 1993), p. 57

Other websites[change | edit source]