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St. Bede

Early England

Angles Saxons Jutes


ANGLO SAXON c. 440 - c. 1016

  After the withdrawal of the Roman forces, about the beginning of the 5th century A.D., the South Britons or inhabitants of what is now called England were no longer able to withstand the attacks of their ferocious northern neighbours, the Scots and Picts. They applied for assistance to Aetius, but the Roman general was too much occupied in the struggle with Attila to attend to their petition. In their distress they appear to have sought the aid of the Saxon; and according to the Anglo-Saxon narratives three ships containing 1,600 men, were dispatched to their help under the command of the brothers Hengest and Horsa. Vortigern, a duke or prince of the Britons, assigned them the isle of Thanet for habitation, and, marching against the northern foe, they obtained a complete victory.

TIME LINE Anglo Saxon

The date assigned to these event, by the later Anglo-Saxon chronicles is 449 A.D., the narratives asserting further that the Saxons finding the land desirable, turned their arms against the Britons, and, reinforced by new bands, conquered first Kent and ultimately the larger part of the island.

From the graves of their pagan cemeteries, archaeological research has indicated that Germanic warriors were in Britain under Roman rule, they were certainly in Gaul in the fifth century, and had been making a series of pirate raids on the coast.Whatever the credibility of the story of Vortigern, it is certain that in the middle of the 5th century the occasional Teutonic (Germanic) incursions gave place to persistent invasion with a view to settlement.

Anglo-Saxon, is the name commonly given to the nation or people formed by the amalgamation of the, Angles Saxons & Jutes who settled in Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries after Christ. From the Angles the whole country came to be called England, that is, the land of the Angles (Angle-land) or English .

These Teutonic invaders were Low German tribes from the country about the mouths of the Elbe and the Weser, the three most prominent being the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes .They are said to have landed in 449, and to have been led by Hengist and Horsa. In the south, along the Downs there were many British ' camps ' or forts. Hengist, to turn the Britons, persuaded Vortigern, to give him Lincolnshire, he said he only wanted as much land as could be covered by an ox-hide, so taking the biggest ox he could find, he soaked and re-soaked and stretched the hide, cut it into thongs, and built on the land thus craftily obtained, Thongceaster or Caister, near Grimsby. However the same story is told by Ivar the Boneless the Viking and King of Northumbria and may have come from a story told of Dido in Cartage and heard when with the Romans.

The Germanic
invasion differed from the Roman conquest, though neither extended beyond the Forth and Clyde. The Romans allowed the natives to remain as a subject population in the conquered territory, whereas the Germans took possession of the whole of the land over which they extended their power, and expelled from it most of the Britons, who were driven into the western parts of the island, especially the Britons into Wales, while others emigrated to Armoric Gaul, the north-west of France, which thence came the name of Brittany; Those that remained in the Saxon parts were made slaves. The population was thus totally changed in a large part of the country and within these limits the British tongue was extinguished.

Between Britons and Saxons there could be no peace; year after year saw the Britons squeezed, first into the centre of the country, and then by degrees steadily westwards: the Britons were falling back towards the mountainous country where they had fought their last fight against the Romans.

The west remained in possession of the Britons, who formed five Kingdoms, Damnonia or West Wales (Cornwall and Devonshire), Cambria (Wales), Corn-bria (Cumberland), Estmoreland, (Lancashire, and part of Yorkshire), Reged (Dumfries, Kirkcudbright, Wigton, and Ayr), and Strathclyde (Dumbarton, Renfrew, and part of Lanarkshire), with Dumnbarton, Alclyde as capital.

Occasionally the British kingdoms formed a federation, under a ruler called
Pendragon. North of the Forth the Picts, or aboriginal Caledonians, still dwelt, under a state, while the western Highlands were held by the Scots, or Dalriads, who, since their immigration from Ireland, had been ruled by the dynasty of Fergus, their leader.

The hostility of the Britons and the Picts and Scots compelled the several kingdoms frequently to form a union, of all or the majority, for purposes of mutual defence, the chieftain who was recognised as the common king being designated the Bretwalda.


During the early Anglo Saxon period there were many chiefs who controlled large sections of England the most powerful kingdoms to emerge were Wessex, Mercia , East Anglia and Northumbria .

The first overlord (Bretwalda) was Aelle of Sussex, in the late 5th century, he landed in Sussex where they developed settlement units, and expanded trade links with Europe, foreign gold coins circulated in England , by c.600 silver coins had started to appear minted by the various kings. It was the Mercian kingdom that was to dominate the late Anglo Saxon period with Offa the first ruler to use the title King of the English he was to introduce the penny which was to gain a wide circulation throughout the whole country

The second was Ceawlin of Wessex, who died in 593. The third overlord, Æthelberht (
Ethelbert) of Kent, held power in 597. the fourth such overlord was Raedwald of East Anglia 620. The Northumbrian expansion westwards led the Welsh under Cadwallon the king of Britain to make an aliance with Penda of Mercia in 632, but this was to be of little avail as Edwin 616 and Oswald 633 were to become powerful rulers.

The struggle continued 150 years, and at the end of that period the whole southern part of Britain, with the exception of Strathclyde, Wales, and West Wales (Cornwall), was in the hands of the Teutonic tribes. This conquered territory was divided among a number of small states or petty chieftaincies, seven of the most conspicuous of which are often spoken of as the Heptarchy. These were :-

1. The kingdom of Kent ; founded by Hengest in 455 :- ended in 828.
2. Kingdom of South Saxons, containing Sussex and Surrey; founded by Ælla in 477 :- ended in 689.
3. Kingdom of East Angles, containing Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridge, Ely (Isle of) :- founded by Uffa. 571 or 575 :
  ended in 792
4. Kingdom of West Saxons, containing Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Wilts, Hants, Berks, and part of Cornwall :--
  founded by Cerdic 519; swallowed up the rest in 827.
5. Kingdom of Northumbria, containing York, Durham, Cumberland, Westmoreland, Northumberland, and the east
  coast of Scotland to the Firth of Forth :- founded by Ida 547; absorbed by Wessex in 827.
6. Kingdom of East Saxons, containing Essex, Middlesex, Hertford (part); founded by Erchew in 527 :- ended in 823.
7. Kingdom of Mercia, containing Gloucester, Hereford, Worcester, Warwick, Leicester, Rutland, Northampton,
  Lincoln, Muntingdon, Bedford, Enckingham, Oxford, Stafford, Derby, Salop, Nottingham, Chester, Hertford (part) :-
  founded by Cridda about 584; absorbed by Wessex in 827.

Each state was, in its turn, annexed to more powerful neighbours; and at length, in 827, Egbert, by his valour and superior capacity, united in his own person the sovereignty of what had formerly been seven kingdoms, and the whole came to be called England, that is Angle-land.

It is clear that the Anglo-Saxons where not an urban people they turned England into a land of villages, the oldest villages are not, those with names ending in -ingas but rather those ending in -ham and -ingham. English towns, whose names often end in -wich, from the Latin vicus ( " village " ), were also developed in the Middle Saxon period .


Anglo-Saxon life, was a village community of between ten and thirty families, The village had its thane, the noble war-chieftain with rights to levy dues in kind or labour. In these primitive times social classes are simple and ill-defined, beneath the noble is the freeman, owing nothing to the noble for his lands except the trinoda necessitas, that is, service under arms, the upkeep of roads and bridges.

Agriculture, including especially the raising of cattle, sheep, and swine, was the chief occupation of the Anglo-Saxons. Gardens and orchards are frequently mentioned, and vineyards were common in the southern counties. The forests were extensive, and valuable both for food for the swine, and from the beasts of the chase which harboured there. Hunting was a favourite recreation among the higher ranks, both lay and clerical. Fishing was largely carried on, herrings and salmon being the principal fish caught; and the Anglo-Saxon whaling vessels used to go as far as Iceland.

Industries were small, iron was made, cloth, and salt works were numerous. The English were famous over Europe for embroidery and working in gold. There was a considerable trade at London, which was frequented by Normans, French, Flemings and the merchants of the Hanse towns.

The Anglo-Saxon's were notorious for their excess in eating and drinking, and in this respect formed a strong contrast to the Norman conquerors. Ale, mead, and cider were the common beverages, wine being limited to the higher classes, Pork and eels were favourite articles of food. They lived in primitive style homes, often richly furnished and hung with fine tapestry. The dress of the people was loose and flowing, composed chiefly of linen, and often adorned with embroidery. The men wore their hair long and flowing over their shoulders.


Offa is the first ruler whose charters use the simple title of King of the English, the new king was not always the direct and nearest heir of the late king, but one of the royal family whose abilities and character recommended him for the office. The king (cyning, cyng) was at the head of the state; he was the highest of the nobles and the chief magistrate. He was not looked upon as ruling by any divine right but by the will of the people, as represented by the witan (wise men) or great council of the nation.

He rewarded followers with grants of land, probably at first for their lifetime, the need to provide permanent endowment for the church brought into being a type of land that was free from most royal dues and that did not revert to the king. From the latter part of the 7th century such land was sometimes conferred by charter, it then became common to make similar grants by charter to laymen. Land was reckoned in Hides, often grouped into twenties, a small peasant farmer would consider himself fortunate to have one hide of land, calves, foals even honey, mead and grain were measured and used to pay dues.

The kings lived in a large Mead Hall, where a fire would burn in the centre he would regularly hold feasts with his ealdormen and thegns, they were expected to witness his actions and would live and die for him. He had the right of maintaining a standing army of household troops, the duty of calling together the witena-gemot or parliament (lit. meeting of the wise). Its members, who were not elected, comprised the æthelings or princes of the blood royal, the bishop and abbots, the ealdormen, the thanes, the sheriffs.

Next in rank and dignity to the king were the ealdormen, who were the chief witan or counsellors and without whose assent laws could not be made, altered, or abrogated. They were at the head of the administration of justice in the shires, possessing both judicial and executive authority, and had as their officers the scir-gerefan or sheriffs. The ealdorman led the fyrd or armed force of the county, and the ealdorman, as such, held possession of certain lands attached to the office, and was entitled to a share of fines and other moneys levied for the king's use and passing through his hands. The eldorman and the king were both surrounded by a number of followers called the thegnas or thanes, who were bound by close ties to their superior. The king's thanes were the higher in rank, they possessed a certain quantity of land, smaller is amount than that of an ealdorman and they filled offices connected with the personal service of the king or with the administration of justice.

The scir-gerefa (shire reeve or sheriff) was also an important functionary, he presided at the court along with the ealdorman and bishop, or alone in their absence; and he had to carry out the decisions of the courtand levy fines, and collect taxes.

The shire was composed of hundreds (groups of one hundred families, or groups furnishing one hundred soldiers) and tithings, the latter consisting of ten heads of families, who were jointly responsible to the state for the good conduct of any member of their body, and these in turn were made up of tuns or townships.

Administation came from the moot, or ' tun ' royal manor house, where the appointment of the village reeve, who was mayor and an administrator of the common domain; A small assembly meeting would determine the partition of the fields, the number of cattle which may properly be grazed on the common meadows. In the sixth century, these divisions were vague, and became definite only after several centuries of organization

The various classes, varying with locality and period, but with the common feature that the men belonging to them pay in kind or service. The whole Anglo-Saxon community was frequently spoken of as consisting of the eorls and the ceorls, or the nobles and common freemen. The former were the men of property and position, the latter were the small landholders, craftsmen, who generally placed themselves under the protection of some nobleman, who was hence termed their hláford or lord. The wood reeve, looked after the woods; and the ploughman, the common arable land.

Besides these there was the class of the serfs or slaves (theowas), who disappear in the tenth and eleventh centuries. They may have been born slaves or freemen who had forfeited their liberty by their crimes, or whom poverty or the fortune of war had brought into this position. They served as agricultural labourers on their masters estates, and were mere chattels, as absolutely the property of their master as his cattle.


Æthelberht (Ethelbert) set down in writing a code of laws; although it reflects Christian influence, the system of laws were already old, brought over from the Continent. Anglo-Saxon laws confined the buying and selling of goods to cities and towns, and required the presence of witnesses (see the ancient laws and Institutes of England 1840 ) The law shows the characteristics of a crude, brutal society . The commonest crimes were homicide, robbery under arms, and violent quarrels. Penalties rose with the numbers of offenders.

Feuds were common, with battle and conquest often changing the boundaries of the various kingdoms. The institution of a strong community was based on a social bond of kinship; every freeman was dependant on his kindred for protection status was judged by the amount of their wergild, a sum, paid either in kind or in money, was placed upon the life of every freeman, according to his rank or status.

(Every man had to have another as surety, who should be responsible for him if he could not be brought to justice)

This sum must be paid to his family if he should be killed, and which he himself might have to pay to the King as the price of his own life. A corresponding sum was settled for every wound that could be inflicted upon his person; for nearly every injury that could be done to his civil rights, his honour, or his domestic peace. From the operation of this principle no one from king to peasant was exempt, the wergild of a noble was six times that of a freeman, and his oath was of correspondingly higher value. Wergild is the sign of a society in which the tribe, the blood-group, is more important that the individual: friendship.

A man who fought in the King's house could lose all his property, and his life; fighting in a church involved a fine of one hundred and twenty shillings, and in the house of an ealdorman, the same sum, payable to King and ealdorman in equal parts. Fighting in the house of a peasant was punished by payment of one hundred and twenty shillings to the King and six to the peasant.

The laws of the Saxon, in the late seventh century, laid it down that men were ' thieves ' if their group consisted of seven or fewer; - from seven to thirty-five constituted a ' band ' ; - over thirty-five, an ' army '. Crimes were also deemed to be more serious if they violated the King's Peace, that is to say, if committed in his presence or neighbourhood.

For the trial and settlement of minor causes there was a hundred court held once a month. Justice was in the hands of an assembly, the shire court, and not, as under the Romans, of a magistrate representing the central power.

The scales of justice at this stage weighed oath against oath, not proof against proof. Plaintiff and defendant had to bring men prepared to swear in their favour. The worth of the oath was proportionate to the extent of the witness's property. A man accused of robbery in a band was obliged, if he were to clear himself, to produce sworn oaths to the total value of one hundred and twenty ' hides ' (a ' hide ' being the unit of land necessary to produce a family's living). Failing proof by a witnesses, trial was held by ordeal, such as by water (the accused man being bound hand and foot and flung into a pool of water, previously blessed, and regarded as innocent if he sank straight down, because the water consented to accept him), or by red-hot iron (which he had to carry a certain distance, his guilt or innocence being determined by the appearance of the burns after a certain number of days).


The Anglo-Saxon language, which is simply the earliest form of English. claims kinship with Dutch, Icelandic, Danish, Swedish, and German, especially with the Low German dialects (spoken in North Germany). It was not called Anglo-Saxon by those who spoke it, but Englisc (English), and many condemn the former name as a misnomer. The existing remains of Anglo-Saxon literature show different dialects, of which the northern and the southern were the principal. The former was the first to be cultivated as a literary language, but afterwards it was supplanted in this respect by the southern or that of Wessex. It is in the latter that the principal Anglo Saxon works are written.

The Anglo-Saxon alphabet was substantially the same as that which we still use, except that some of the letters were different in form, while it had two characters either of which represented the sounds of th in thy and in thing. Nouns and adjectives are declined much as in German or in Latin The pronouns of the first and second person had a dual number, ' we two ' or ' us two ' and 'you two,' besides the plural for more than two. The infinitive of the verb is in -an, the participle in -ende, and there is a gerund somewhat similar in its usage to the Latin gerund. The verb had four moods - indicative, subjunctive, imperative, and infinitive, but only two tense; the present (often used as a future) and the past. Other tenses and the passive voice were formed by auxiliary verbs. Anglo-Saxon words terminated in a vowel much more frequently than the modern English. and altogether the language is so different that it has to be leaned quite like a foreign tongue. Yet notwithstanding the large number of words of Latin or French origin that our language now contains, and the changes it has undergone, its framework, so to speak, is still Anglo-Saxon.


The Saxon's of the first two centuries were considered, less civilised than the Romans, the masses possibly illiterate which would account for the lack of any documentary evidence.

The existing remains of Anglo-Saxon literature include compositions in prose and poetry, some of which must refer to a very early period, one or two perhaps to a time before the Angles and Saxons emigrated to England. The most important Anglo-Saxon poem is that called Beowulf, after its hero, extending to more than 6000 lines. Beowulf is a Scandinavian prince, who slays a fiendish cannibal, after encountering supernatural perils, and is at last slain in a contest with a frightful dragon. Its scene appears to be laid entirely in Scandinavia. Its date is uncertain; parts of it may have been brought over at the emigration from Germany, though in its present form it is much later than this.

The poetical remains include a number of religious poems, or poems on sacred themes; ecclesiastical narratives, as lives of saints and versified chronicles; psalms and hymns; secular lyrics; Allegories, gnomes, riddles, &c. The religious class of poems was the largest, and of these Cædmon's (about 660) are the most remarkable. His poems consist of loose versions of considerable portions of the Bible history, and treat of the creation, the temptation, the fall, the exodus of the Israelites, the story of Daniel, the incarnation, and the harrowing of hell, or release of the ransomed souls by Christ. Other most interesting poems are these ascribed to Cynewulf, the Christ, Elene, and Juliana, the subjects respectively being Christ, the finding of the cross by the Empress Helena, and the life of Juliana Rhyme was little used in Anglo-Saxon poetry, alliteration being employed instead, as in the older northern poetry generally. The style of the poetry is highly elliptical, and it is full of harsh inversions and obscure metaphors.

The Anglo-Saxon prose remains consist of translations of portions of the Bible, homilies, philosophical writings, history, biography, laws, leases, charters, popular treatises on science and medicine, grammars, &c. Many of these were translations from the Latin. The Anglo Saxon versions of the Gospels, next to the Moeso-Gothic, are the earliest scriptural translations in any modern language. The Psalms are said to have been translated by Bishop Aldhelm (died 709), and also under Alfred's direction; and the Gospel of St. John by Bede; but it is not known who were the authors of the extant versions. A translation of the first seven books of the Bible is believed to have been the work of Ælfric, who was Abbot of Ensham and flourished in the beginning of the eleventh century. We have also eighty homilies from his pen, several theological treatises, a Latin grammar, &c. King Alfred was a diligent author, besides being a translator of Latin works. We have under his name translations of Boethius De Consolatione Philosophiæ, the Universal History of Orosius, Bedes Ecclesiastical History, the Pastoral Care of Gregory the Great, &c. The most valuable to us of the Anglo-Saxon prose writings is the Saxon Chronicle, as it is called, a collection of annals recording important events in the history of the country, and compiled in different religious houses. The latest text comes down to 1154. A considerable body of laws remains, as well as a large number of charters..


While this work of conquest and of inter-tribal strife had been in progress towards the establishment of a united kingdom, certain important changes had occurred. The early chiefs were heathens who believed that they had descended from Gods, they worshipped Tiw (Tyr), Woden and Thor, from where the names Tuesday Wednesday and Thursday derive. The Britons were forced into Wales where Christianity survived, a number of monasteries were created along with the kingdoms of Gwynedd, Dyfed, Powys and Gwent .The conquest had been the slow expulsion of a Christian race by a purely heathen race, and the country had returned to something of its old isolation with regard to the rest of Europe

Christianity was introduced among the Anglo Saxons in the end of the sixth century by Augustine, who was sent by Pope Gregory the Great and became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. Before the close of the 6th century Christianity had secured a footing in the southeast of the island. Æthelberht (Ethelberht), king of Kent and suzerain over the kingdoms south of the Humber, married a Christian wife, Bertha, daughter of Charibert of Soissons, and this event indirectly led to the coming of Augustine. The conversion of Kent, Essex, and East Anglia was followed by that of Northumberland and then by that of Mercia, of Wessex, of Sussex, and lastly of Wight, the contest between the two religions being at its height in the seventh century.

The Anglo-Saxon Church long remained independent of Rome, notwithstanding the continual efforts of the popes to bring it under their power. It was not till the tenth century that this result was brought about by Dunstan. Many Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastics were distinguished for learning and ability, the Venerable Bede the most famous.

The legal and political changes immediately consequent upon the adoption of Christianity were not great, but there resulted a more intimate relation with Europe and the older civilizations, the introduction of new learning and culture, the formation of a written literature, and the fusion of the tribes and petty kingdoms into a closer and more lasting unity than that which could have been otherwise secured.