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A map showing the general locations of the major Anglo-Saxon kingdoms

The Anglo-Saxons were a group of Germanic tribes from Angeln, a peninsula in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, protruding into the Baltic Sea, and what is now Lower Saxony in Northern Germany, who achieved dominance in southern Britain from the mid-5th century to the mid-11th century, forming the earliest basis for the modern English nation, language and culture.


Origins of the word

The term "Anglo-Saxon" goes back to the time of King Alfred the Great, who seems to have frequently used the title rex Anglorum Saxonum or rex Angul-Saxonum. The origin of this title is not quite clear. It is generally believed to have arisen from the final union of the various kingdoms under Alfred in 886. Bede (Historia Ecclesiae i. 15) states that the people of the more northern kingdoms (East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria, &c.) belonged to the Angli, those of Essex, Sussex and Wessex were sprung from the Saxons, while those of Kent and southern Hampshire from the Jutes. Other early writers do not bear out consistent distinctions, though in custom Kent presents most remarkable contrasts with the other kingdoms. Still more curious is the fact that West Saxon writers regularly speak of their own nation as a part of the Angelcyn and of their language as Englisc, while the West Saxon royal family claimed to be of the same stock as that of Bernicia in the north. On the other hand, it is by no means impossible that the distinction drawn by Bede was based solely on the names Essex (East Seaxan), East Anglia, &c. We need not doubt that the Angli and the Saxons were different nations originally; but from the evidence it seems likely that they had practically coalesced in very early times, perhaps even before the invasion. At all events the term Angli Saxones seems to have first come into use on the continent, nearly a century before Alfred's time, in the writings of Paul the Deacon, historian of the Lombards. There can be little doubt, however, that there it was used to distinguish the Teutonic inhabitants of Britain from the Old Saxons of the continent.

The Anglo-Saxon Invasions

Main article: Sub-Roman Britain

In 410, the Emperor Honorius replied to a petition for help, reputedly from the inhabitants of Roman Britain—although there is now some dispute as to where the request originated—that they should "look to their own affairs"; from this brief mention, historians have assumed that effective Roman rule in Britain ended. Some scholars find signs of local authorities maintaining Roman patterns in the following years; this remains speculative. Nevertheless, with the withdrawal of the Roman army and the cessation of coinage, Roman administration of the British Isles was autonomous from the early fifth-century. This is highly demonstrable in the archaeology of "Sub-Roman Britain" in which the Roman way of life is overcome by an arguably more primitive and "barbarian" one. Until the latter twentieth century scholars were still referring to this period as the "Dark Ages", not least due to the lack of written records, but also due to the nature of the archaeological record: roads ceased to be maintained and some urban centres were abandoned; the circulation of coinage ceased abruptly, though not, it now appears, did trade with the Continent; manufactured goods became cruder with the reversion from wheel- to hand-thrown methods of pottery; and even the means of disposing of the dead changed also, with the practise of extramural burial—burial outside the city walls—being neglected. Most recent archaeology tends to find more Roman continuity in some sites than previously thought.

Into this apparent power vacuum, the Anglo-Saxons came and settled in the island, primarily on the east and south coasts. The exact details of their arrival are unclear, although their migration was part of the widespread movement of Germanic tribes on the mainland of Europe at this time, called the "Migrations period".

Where reliable history fails, legend offers us a narrative, and many have argued that there is some kernel of truth in the legend. At least as early as Bede, the tradition relates how at a council of war, Vortigern, leader of the effectively self-governing Britons, granted Thanet in Kent to the Jutish warrior leader Hengist (or Hengest) as a permanent possession, in return for his followers' help in defending the region against Germanic and Celtic raiders from beyond its borders. Archaeological explorations have indicated that Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were established in Kent, Sussex, Middlesex, and Essex in the latter part of the 5th century, as well as East Anglia, Lindsey (now Lincolnshire), Deira (now East Yorkshire) and the Isle of Wight.

Organised British resistance, first led by Ambrosius Aurelianus (according to Gildas), and then possibly by King Arthur, culminated in the Battle of Mons Badonicus. This succeeded in halting the invasion. The leaders who fought with Arthur at this and other battles may have given rise to his fabled "Knights of the Round Table."

The fate of Britain was still in the balance as late as 590, with King Urien of Rheged besieging Lindisfarne, the stronghold of Bernicia, and other Celts victorious in 584 at the Battle of Fethanleag (Stoke Lyne, 5km north of Banbury in Oxfordshire). In the previous 120 years, the Anglo-Saxons had added only Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire to the area under their firm control. But Urien was murdered by a rival among his compatriots, and Anglo-Saxon control of most of what is now England was cemented over the next 70 years. Perhaps in memory of this eventual defeat by the Anglo-Saxons, the modern Welsh word for England, "Lloegyr", means "the lost lands".

Besides Angles, Saxons and Jutes, Frisians and perhaps the Franks, are known to have taken part in the "invasions". The various tribes established a large number of kingdoms in what today is known as England, which were popularly described to have later consolidated into seven states known as the Heptarchy.

According to tradition, Kent was established first by the Jutes under Hengist. Another Jutish king, Horsa, may have taken part; he may have been Hengist's brother.

East Anglia's beginnings are unknown and very little record survives of its foundation or the fate of the native Britons, the once mighty Iceni tribe, who had dwelt there before. The name Mercia may mean "marches" and be related to the name of the River Mersey: a frontier area facing the Celtic Romano-British or Welsh. Deira and Bernicia appear to be Anglian corruptions of older British geographical names; the two states subsequently merged to form the kingdom of Northumbria.

The fate of the Romano-British population is a matter of conjecture. At one point, historians believed the account of Gildas uncritically, and thought that the invaders slaughtered all whom they encountered in an act of genocide. More recent historians, such as H.P.R. Finberg, have argued that they largely survived, and lived under the Anglo-Saxon invaders as slaves or serfs. By the time reliable historical records begin once again, it is clear that the territory of the native inhabitants had been reduced to just Cornwall and Wales in the west of the island and Strathclyde, which itself, like most of Scotland, was experiencing similar migration and displacement at the hands of the Scots from Ireland. Recent genetic testing of the inhabitants of England, Wales and the Low Countries does seem to show, according to some specialists, a large scale displacement of the earlier British populations out of England at some point in time in favour of people who are very closely related to the people inhabiting Jutland(Kent), Schleswig-Holstein(East Anglia), Lower Saxony(Wessex) and, by proxy, Friesland.

"Saxon conquest"

In recent times, some historians have taken issue with the notion of a "Saxon conquest", claiming that there is a marked lack of archaeological evidence for a major invasion. They make the interpretation instead that a gradual change occurred in favour of the Anglo-Saxons, comprising mainly benign migration and resulting in a mixture with an existing population who absorbed the cultural and linguistic influences of the migrants.

One posited theory is that most sources for a "Saxon conquest" originated with historians with a partisan agenda in presenting an English identity [1] (

Studies to show ethnic origins of the people have varied in their conclusions and there are some linguistic patterns in the development of Old English that compromise with Celtic traditions in a way that suggests gradual adoption.

Anglo-Saxon culture

Anglo-Saxon architecture

Main article: Anglo-Saxon architecture

Anglo-Saxon architecture describes a period in the history of architecture in England, and parts of Wales, from the mid-5th century until the Norman Conquest of 1066.

There are few remains of Anglo-Saxon architecture, with no secular work remaining above ground. At least fifty churches are of Anglo-Saxon origin, with many more claiming to be, although in some cases the Anglo-Saxon part is small and much-altered, or confined to foundations and crypts.

Distinctive features of Anglo-Saxon architecture include rough brickwork, extremely thick walls and mostly arch windows, with a few square- or triangular-headed windows. Particularly in earlier examples, reused Roman work is common. The vast majority of buildings were wooden, but only a single example survives.

Anglo-Saxon art

Anglo-Saxon art covers the period from the time of King Alfred (871-899), with the revival of English culture after the end of the Viking raids, to the early 12th century, when Romanesque art became the new movement. Prior to King Alfred there had been the Hiberno-Saxon culture (the fusion of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic techniques and motifs) which had ceased with the Vikings.

Anglo-Saxon art is mainly known today through illuminated manuscripts. It includes the Benedictional of St. thelwold manuscript, which drew on Hiberno-Saxon art, Carolingian art and Byzantine art for style and iconography. A "Winchester style" developed that combined both northern ornamental traditions with Mediterranean figural traditions, and can be seen in the Leofric Missal (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodl, 579). The Harley Psalter was a knockoff of the Carolingian Utrecht Psalter—all of which underscore the larger trend of an Anglo-Saxon culture coming into increasing contact with, and under the influence of, a wider Latin Mediaeval Europe.

Manuscripts were not the only Anglo-Saxon art form, although they are the most numerous to have survived. Perhaps the best known piece of Anglo-Saxon art is the Bayeux Tapestry which was commissioned by a Norman patron from English artists working in the traditional Anglo-Saxon style. Anglo-Saxon artists also worked in fresco, ivory, stone carving, metalwork (see Fuller brooch for example]) and enamel, but few of these pieces have survived.

Anglo-Saxon language

Main article: Old English language

Anglo-Saxon, also called Old English, was the language spoken under Alfred the Great and continued to be the common language of England(non-Danelaw) until after the Norman Conquest of 1066 when, under the influence of the Anglo-Norman language spoken by the Norman ruling class, it changed into Middle English. Anglo-Saxon is far closer to early Germanic than Middle English, i. e. it is less latinized, and retains many morphological features (nominal and verbal inflection) that were lost during the 12th to 14th centuries.

Before literacy, the Runic alphabet, called the futhorc (also known as futhark), was used for inscriptions. When literacy arrived with the reintroduction of Christianity to the English lands a form of Latin script was used with a few letters derived from the futhork; 'eth', 'wynn'.

The letters regularly used in printed and edited texts of OE are the following:

  • a b c d e f g h i l m n o p r s t u w x y

with only rare occurrences of k, z.

Anglo-Saxon literature

Main article: Anglo-Saxon literature

Anglo-Saxon literature (or Old English literature) encompasses literature written in Old English during the 600-year Anglo-Saxon period of Britain, from the mid-5th century to the Norman Conquest of 1066. These works include genres such as epic poetry, hagiography, sermons, Bible translations, legal works, chronicles, 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 most famous works from this period include the poem Beowulf, which has achieved national epic status in Britain. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a collection of important early English history. The poem Hymn from the 7th century is the oldest surviving written text in English.

Anglo-Saxon religion

Main article: Anglo-Saxon mythology

The Anglo-Saxon mythos was a Germanic mythology and closely related to Norse mythology.

Christianity (both Celtic and Roman forms) replaced the old gods in England around the 8th and 9th centuries AD. The Synod of Whitby settled the choice for the Roman form. As the new clerics became the chroniclers, the old religion was lost before it was recorded and today our knowledge of it is sketchy. One of the few recorded references is that a Kentish King would only meet the missionary St Augustine in the open air, where he would be under the protection of the sky god, Woden. Written Christian prohibitions on acts of pagan worship are one of our main sources of information on pre-Christian beliefs.

Remnants of the Anglo-Saxon gods remain in the English language names for days of the week:

Use of the term "Anglo Saxon" today

In contemporary usage, the term "Anglo-Saxon" (expected to subsume Jute by implication) is occasionally used to refer to the English as an ethnic group within the United Kingdom, as opposed to "Danish", "Norman", "Celtic", "Scottish", "Irish", "Welsh" and "Cornish". In comparison, in Canada and the United States, the term "Anglo-Saxon" (often as White Anglo-Saxon Protestant or WASP) is used to describe people of English, Scottish and more recently, German, Scandinavian and other people of Northern European ethnicity; used predominantly to separate these populations from the Irish-Catholic cultural group, and French Canadians, and later Eastern and Southern European immigrants and their cultures. In recent times it has been used in the United Kingdom by political parties of the far-right as a divisive term to refer to English people who are neither immigrants nor descended from recent immigrants. This usage is despite the fact that there was considerable immigration into England throughout the many hundreds of years between the Anglo-Saxon invasions and the 20th century, so that those to whom the term is applied are by no means of 'pure' Anglo-Saxon ancestry.

For over a hundred years, "Anglo-Saxon" has been used as pertaining to the Anglophone cosmopolitan societies of predominantly Western character, (the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the British Isles) describing their intellectual traditions and national characters, as opposed to "Gallic", "Lusitanic" or "Hispanic". Such usage is especially common in France.

"Anglo-Saxon" can also mean the original West Germanic component of the English language, often called Old English, as opposed to the especially large addition of Old Danish (eastern England), Old Norwegian (from Vikings of the Viken who settled on the West Coast of England) and many loanwords the language has obtained, especially from Romance languages.

On the European continent, the term "Anglo-Saxon" is shorthand for the English speaking world and its language, culture, technology, wealth, influence, markets and economy, primarily those of the United Kingdom, the United States, and also to a lesser extent, Canada and Australia. France tightly controls its language whose reach has been slipping relative to English, and pursues a socialist economy different than the 'Anglo-Saxon' market or capitalist economy. Although the UK is part of the EU, it retains its own currency and international diplomacy, and has special ties to the United States apart from Europe. Because recent genetic research shows that Germanic genes did not displace pre-existing British and Celtic genes, and since much of France is descended from the Franks, a germanic people, it is more than a little ironic that the French refer to England as a germanic people, when in fact the Franco-Germanic peoples are more closely related.

See also


de:Angelsachsen nl:Angelsaksen ja:アングロ・サクソン人 no:Angelsakserne pl:Anglosasi fi:Anglosaksit sv:Anglosaxare


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