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Anglo-Saxons – An Overview

The English Before They Were English

The Angles, Jutes and Saxons most probably lived in Jutland and northern Germany (P. H. Blair 9).

The Roman writer Tacitus refers to a tribe called the Anglii.  The Anglii and six other Germanic tribes were notable for adhering to a religious confederation that honored the terrestrial goddess Nerthus.  The geographer Ptolemy places the Anglii as an inland tribe, but most scholars think he erred, and that the Anglii were a sea-fearing people (Nerthus’ sanctuary was located on an island, after all) (P. H. Blair 8-9). 

Saxons would harass Britain during its Roman occupation, and the Romano-British would raise coastal defenses in response (P. H. Blair 9). Archaeology reveals that some Saxons utilizing late Roman dress and equipment were being settled in Britain around 400 CE, probably as allied mercenaries (Todd 222-223).

Unlike some of its more Continental neighbors who were aggregating into large tribes capable of matching Roman armies (see below section “The Roman Empire and the Germanic Peoples”), the Saxons seemed to have had no strong central leadership.  They were organized by a loose confederation of war bands. It is not even entirely clear if “Saxon” was a definite cultural identity, or a term loosely applied by Roman observers to any Germanic sounding individual who harassed the British coast (Todd 216-217), (P. H. Blair 6).

The lands of the Anglii were deserted, suggesting their entire peoples had relocated with the invasion of Britain; their ancestral lands were taken over by Danes and Slavs. Enough Saxons remained on the Continent to retain a powerful state and identity until later pacified by Charlemagne (Todd 218).

While there are some differences between the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, on the whole their language, customs and material remains seem broadly similar (J. Blair 4).   The phrase “Anglo-Saxons” was first used by continental Latin sources to describe the invaders of sub-Roman Britain.  It was a deliberate contrast to the remaining Saxon peoples who had remained on the Continent, whom Bede referred to as “Old Saxons.” While the term “Anglo-Saxon” was not especially popular in Britain itself, native writers seem to use the terms “Angles” and “Saxons” interchangeably at times, suggesting that the invaders had grown into one culture (P. H. Blair 10-11) .  

 

Britain Before It Was England

The earliest infiltration of hominids into the British Isles does not concern us here. Perhaps the most well-known achievements of those pre-historic peoples are iconic stone henges.

By the time of the Iron Age, Britain is dominated by a variety of local tribal groups. These groups are usually labeled as “Celtic,” though identifying those tribes with that term is not totally devoid of debate.

Julius Caesar launched expeditions into Britain in 55 and 54 BCE, bringing the land into the Roman consciousness. Roman emperor Claudius invaded Britain in 43 CE with four legions (a considerable number of troops for such a small territory).  Despite some periodic resistance from natives (re: Bodicca), the southern and western ends of the island fell to the Roman advance by 77 CE. They sealed off the northern border with the ferocious Picts by constructing Hadrian’s Wall in the 120s CE.  (An attempt to extend the border further north some years later with the Antonine Wall failed quickly and was abandoned) (Britannia.com).

The British province was eventually divided into four provinces under a reorganized British diocese. It became a prosperous realm; the wealthy British built great county estates called villas (Heather 291).  Britain was subject to endemic raids from tribes along the North Sea, and Picts from the north, seeking to plunder its resources.   A “Saxon Shore” system of coastal forts was erected to slow their advance (Heather 285-286).

The town of Londinium in the south east flourished, becoming an integral part of the empire.  However, the extent of Romanization outside of London is debatable: it seems most of the population spoke their native, pre-Roman languages (J. Blair 11).  This bears repeating: the majority of Britons were probably closer to the later Anglo-Saxons than to the Romans, sharing with the Anglo-Saxons as they did a heroic, tribal culture (J. Blair 12).

 

The Roman Empire and the Germanic Peoples

In the first few centuries of contact with the Roman Empire, Germanic peoples had sent raiding expeditions into Roman lands. Sometimes these groups were successful in causing depredation and pillaging. They were known for stealing everything in a home that wasn’t nailed down or hidden (Heather 82).  In the long term, however, the Roman Empire and its army was able to marshal greater resources and men than their adversaries, ultimately annihilating or expelling the Germanic raiders from Roman lands. 

Something happened, however, to change the balance.  By the fourth century, the old tribes and their noble leaders started falling by the wayside.  Tribes amalgamated into larger confederations under warlike kings (Heather 39).  Judging by the increase of weapons burials in grave goods among males, German society had become increasingly martial in scope (Heather 65).

The very presence of the Roman Empire had helped change the Germanic peoples along the frontier.  Trade, diplomacy (which often involved bribery in the form of “gifts”) and military service with the Romans had boosted the German “economy” and whetted their appetite for war and plunder (Heather 73,75). As the old tribes merged together, they formed new group identities to replace old ones (Heather 205).  These larger, more warlike, and more cohesive Germanic forces were better able to take on Roman armies in the field, and – more to the point – better able to plunder Roman wealth (Heather 171). 

It was no longer a matter of stealing everything one could from a Roman town and high-tailing it back to the frontier before a Roman army could intercept; instead the Germans had come to take over Roman lands wholesale.   The invasions have been termed “predatory migration” where the Germans sought to forcefully appropriate Roman wealth by occupying their lands (Heather 170). 

 Rome, distracted by internal divisions, civil wars, and the threat of Persia in the east, found itself on the defensive along its German frontiers.  This was a gradual process. As the Germans took over lands in the west, Roman tax revenues decreased, and thus too did their armies lessen.  Less military power only encouraged greater German advance, leading to a vicious cycle (Heather 340-341).

In 410 CE, what was left of the Roman imperial state in the west told the beleaguered Britons that they were on their own as far as defenses (Heather 266).  With no great Roman field armies to save them, it was only time until the Germanic tribesmen who had habitually raided British coasts would return – not to pillage, but to settle (Heather 287).

 

Invasions – Adventus Saxonum

The two centuries from sub-Roman Britain looking to its own defenses to the rise of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms is a “dark age.”  There is not much in the literary record to serve us, and what exists is sometimes dubious.  Fortunately, archaeological advances fill in the picture somewhat.

The following are a chain of events described by Gildas. Britain had survived an onslaught of Scots and Picts from its northern territories, but the threat soon resurfaced.  In response, the Britons under the leadership of a “tyrant” adopted a late Roman practice of inviting in a Germanic people as a foedus, an allied group to settle in their lands in exchange for providing defense for the country.  The Saxons were thus invited to be these foederati. But the Saxons soon complained they were not fairly compensated for their services and revolted (probably their intent all along).  

Bede (writing in 731 CE) adds some details.  The leader of the Britons (the tyrant) who invited the Saxon foederati was called Vortigern.  The leaders of the Saxon contingent were Hengest and Horsa (Stallion and Horse) (P. H. Blair 15-16), whose names seem to recall a tradition of divine horse-riding twins that existed in the Indo-European world.  Hengest and Horsa were said to be the grandsons of Woden.

After some time, the Saxons were defeated at Mons Badonicus (by Aurelius Ambrosius, whom later generations would ennoble in legend as “King Arthur”), at about 517 CE.  This lead to a short-term halt of the Saxon advance until about 550 CE (Heather 279-280), (P. H. Blair 13-14).

By 597, however, a Roman mission arriving in Britain noted that most of Britain south of Scotland had been taken over by Germanics. Thus, something substantial happened in the intervening 50 years. Bede reports that there was massive immigration from Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Frisians, Rugi and the Danes to Britain. Archaeological evidence seems to agree with some kind of flow of immigrants in this period (Heather 280-282).

The conquest of Britain by Germanic immigrants has sometimes been painted as a type of “ethnic cleansing” where the Saxons killed or forcibly removed the indigenous population (Heather 268).  However, the population of sub-Roman Britain has been calculated as surprisingly too large for an ancient army to accomplish such extreme measures (Heather 269).

Instead of ethnic cleansing, many scholars now prefer a theory of “elite transfer,” where an invading group becomes the dominant force in culture, and the indigenous population culturally acclimates to their new overlords (Heather 18, 23). Rather than depopulation, the Saxon hordes forcefully became the new landowning class of Britain.  The Britons would then have had every incentive to culturally acclimate to the Anglo-Saxons by adopting their language, dress and customs, and laws.  We noted earlier that for much of the native Britons, the culture of the Germanic invaders was closer to them that of the earlier Roman occupiers.

 

The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

Unlike on the Continent where Germanic tribes had to unify in the face of large Roman armies, sub-Roman Britain was an easier target, not requiring as large a degree of unity from the invaders (Heather 283).  And so, in place of one land, the invaders initially erected many kingdoms and sub-kingdoms ruled over by various kings and over-kings.

In the year 600 CE there were at least twelve kingdoms and sub-kingdoms (P. H. Blair 199). The seven major kingdoms, referred to as the Heptarchy, are as follows:

  • East Anglia
  • Essex
  • Kent
  • Sussex
  • Mercia
  • Wessex
  • Northumbria

A detailed study of war and politics between these lands is outside the scope of this article.  In general, the balance of power shifted among Wessex, Mercia and Northumberland being the dominate kingdoms in the realm.

 

Christianity

From the year 600 CE to 700 CE, all the Anglo-Saxon kings had converted to Christianity.  When they were loose tribes they had been harder to convert; but a centralized kingdom was easier to convert, provided one could convince the King to accept baptism (J. Blair 23).

While Bishoprics and the like were established, more successful in the English landscape was the institution of the monastery. An abbot held a patriarchal position within his domain, and the kin-based Germans could readily appreciate this type of manufactured family and brotherhood (J. Blair 25).

But why would the kings – the descendants of Woden – abandon their ancestral faith?  A number of reasons can be proposed:

  • They actually believed in Christianity (ie, they had a genuine religious conversion). While this may be true in isolated cases, for the most part conversion among the elites seems to have happened for more expedient reasons. Which brings us to the reasons below.
  • Conversion to Christianity facilitated economic and political links with Christian kingdoms in the old Roman Empire (Heather 568).
  • Christianity could be used to ideologically bolster monarchs. The extent to which newly converted monarchs received legitimacy from society for converting is up to debate (Heather 569-570).
  • Christianity brought with it a literate clergy, and literacy in general. While this is true, literacy is  a long term development, probably not a consideration for the immediate future (Heather 569-570).
  • The upkeep of Christianity as a state religion requires various taxes, of which the monarchy could expect to receive a cut (Heather 569-570).
  • Polytheism was often a confused morass of various local and state cults of many different divine figures. Christianity theoretically promoted a unitary religion which rulers could theoretically control. More to the point, the militant theology of Christianity gave them license to eradicate competing religious cults (Heather 571-572).

Conversion, then, seemed mostly about power and money, at least at the elite level.

It is worth noting that the type of “Christianity” preached to the Germanic tribes was cynically manipulated to appeal to their society. The Christianity of the Greco-Roman lands had developed within an advanced culture of philosophy and mystery religions appealing to individuals seeking to transcend the world for salvation; Christianity was thus a “soteriological” religion for them.  The Germans, by contrast had a community-minded, world-affirming folk religion. Salvation was not their concern (Russell 177).

In a radical departure from previous eras, Pope Gregory instructed his missionaries to Anglo-Saxon lands to preach a Christianity that would “accommodate” the Heathen worldview (Russell 187).  The missionaries thus focused on “macro-religious” elements rather than soteriological ones (Russell 189) – Christ and the Saints could heal illnesses, grant victory in battle, help crops grow. Then, too, there was the great communal religious festivals with feasts and rituals.  It was this version of Christianity – not the one where people wallow in guilt of their sins and await the afterlife – that initially prevailed among the Germans.

 

The Norse Invasions and the Danelaw

in 789 CE, Viking ships had reached England; in the encounter, a local reeve was killed. In 793, they started raiding monasteries, beginning with Lindsfarne (J. Blair 39-40).  The Viking Age had begun. 

There are those who say the Vikings were motivated by a sense of religious revenge, a reaction to Charlemagne’s persecution of Heathens on the Continent. From this perspective, the Viking raids were an act of terrorism against a “soft target” (Ferguson 56). The Vikings, however, simply seemed more interested in plundering poorly guarded and highly mobile wealth: monasteries were easy pickings. The Vikings wanted plunder, and some of them could use the plunder to finance warrior retinues and political ambitions back home in Scandinavia (Haywood 11).

The Anglo-Saxons were ill-equipped to handle sea-born invasions from fast moving Viking vessels. Ironically, while the Saxons had been famous for coastal raids on Britain during the Roman era, they seemed to have lost much of their maritime ability once they had settled in Britain (P. H. Blair 63).

In 865 the “Heathen Great Army” led by Halfdan and Ivar the Boneless landed. Within three years Northumbria and East Anglia had fallen.  The kingdom of Wessex, united under capable rulership, was able to fend them off (J. Blair 41). In 871 another Danish army landed. Eventually they annexed Mercia and East Anglia.

Alfred the Great of Wessex stymied the Danish advance into his lands. He developed a series of burhs, or fortified towns, which were hard to capture. An invading Danish army could no longer run roughshod over the picturesque English landscape. The burhs pinned down the Danish troops, while Alfred’s field army advanced against them (Heather 461-462). A treaty developed where the Danish occupation of northern and eastern England was recognized (later called the Danelaw), and the Danish captains were baptized into Christianity (J. Blair 43).

Alfred shored up his defenses in Wessex and began rebuilding damaged sites.  His court was a center of learning (J. Blair 43-46); it wrote documents in the vernacular language, not in ecclesiastical Latin (J. Blair 46). In time, Alfred the Great would refer to his language as “English”  (P. H. Blair 10).  He was also the first to refer to his realm as Angelcynn, the land of the English folk (J. Blair 42).

 

The Unification of England

Edward the Elder and his sister, Aethelflaed, began offensives to retake the Danelaw. Within half a century the country was reconquered – and unified under the control of Wessex (J. Blair 47).

The Vikings had been weakened not only by years of fighting, but by the fact they had become settlers rather than raiders.  They had homes and farms to defend, rather than be on the march in an army (Haywood 69).

A short-lived Viking “Kingdom of York” under Eirik Bloodaxe emerged due to various depredations and politics. It, too, was eventually conquered (Haywood 70).

In 1066 William the Conqueror of Normandy successfully invaded, closing the era of Anglo-Saxon England.  The Normans conducted an “elite transfer” whereby they became the lords and property owners – much as the Anglo-Saxons had done to the Britons four centuries earlier. The Normans brought with them their language which was forever to change English; but in matters of government not a great deal had changed, particularly on the local level (J. Blair 73-74). 

 

Government

Old English cyning gives us our modern word “king.” A cyning exercised authority over a cynedom or rice, both of which mean “kingdom”  (P. H. Blair 195).  A poetic phrase Bretwalda, or “Britain-Ruler,” was applied to some of the kings (P. H. Blair 201).    Woden is considered the divine progenitor of seven of the royal genealogies, and the intrinsically Saxon god Seaxnot stands behind the eighth (P. H. Blair 197).

We have notated above that during the Migration Era, Germanic tribes coalesced. Where hereditary nobles used to reign over petty tribes, amalgamated tribes of later eras were run by comitatus warlords and warlike kings.  The Anglo-Saxon kings continued this tradition (P. H. Blair 209). They owed their position to seizing wealth and power through armed conflict; the loyalty of their retainers rested on their ability to redistribute wealth (P. H. Blair 204).  This created an unstable dynamic; kings were continually upended in the quest for armed appropriation of wealth (J. Blair 16).

The king’s hall was the center of political, social and religious life for his kingdom.  There the king entertained his followers, or thegns, and rewarded their loyalty with gift-giving.  Anyone who has read Beowulf knows of the centrality of the hall to aristocratic life (J. Blair 18-20). 

The king was serviced by a council of the wise, known at the witan, who met in a witenagemot.  This consisted of secular and ecclesiastical officials who advised the king and helped him draft legislation (P. H. Blair 216-217).

One title for a royal counselor was runwita, or rune-knower. As “rune” means “secret” or “mystery,” this presumably meant said royal councilor was in command of some kind of esoteric knowledge. Whether this entailed the actual use of runes for writing or magic is not known (Pollington 39).

If at the level of kingdoms, politics was a tumultuous affair, local government proved more stable.

The shire was the basis of local government, and was firmly in place by the time of the Norman conquest (P. H. Blair 223).  Its local court was to meet twice a year to execute whatever matters were addressed to it by the king (P. H. Blair 228).

At first, the shires were led by ealdorman, or elders.   They were royal officials who were usually of noble blood. They presided over the shire courts, and were the local military leaders in times of war.  Eventually, their title became hereditary. Also, they soon came to amass tracts of land that sprawled beyond shire boundaries. The title of ealdorman transitioned to that of eorl, or Earl.  In their place was appointed the Shire-Reeve, or sheriff (P. H. Blair 229).

Shires were divided into hundreds (or wapentakes, in areas of Danish influence). These were ruled by a hundredesmann, or a Hundreth-Man.  Their chief duty seems to have been to prosecute thieves and round up stray cattle (P. H. Blair 232-233).  In the wapentakes, twelve thegns were appointed as deputies to assist the reeve in arresting criminals (P. H. Blair 233).

Land was portioned into “hides,” or tracts of land large enough to support a farmer and his family.  The Anglo-Saxon taxation system was based on the fiscal duties of hides to local governments (J. Blair 20).

 

Anglo-Saxon Heathenry

Anglo-Saxon Heathenry is discussed separately here.

 

Works Cited

Blair, John. The Anglo-Saxon Age: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.

Blair, Peter Hunter. An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England. 3rd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print.

Britannia.com. The Roman Period. n.d. 2nd July 2017. <http://www.britannia.com/history/romantime.html>.

Ferguson, Robert. The Vikings: A History. New York: Penguin, 2009. Print.

Haywood, John. The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings. new York: Penguin, 1995. Print.

Heather, Peter. Empire and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

Pollington, Stephen. Rudiments of Runelore. Anglo-Saxon Books, 2008. Print.

Russell, James. The Germanization Of Early Medieval Christianity: a Sociological Approach to Religious Transformation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Print.

Todd, Malcolm. The Early Germans. Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 1992. Print.

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