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For other uses, see Anglo-Saxon (disambiguation).

The Anglo-Saxons were the population in Britain partly descended from the Germanic tribes who migrated from continental Europe and settled the south and east of the island beginning in the early 5th century. The Anglo-Saxon period denotes the period of English history after their initial settlement through their creation of the English nation, up to the Norman conquest; that is, between about 550 and 1066.[1][2] The term Anglo-Saxon is also used for the language, today more correctly called Old English, that was spoken and written by the Anglo-Saxons in England (and parts of south-eastern Scotland) between at least the mid-5th century and the mid-12th century, after which it is known as Middle English.[3]

The Benedictine monk Bede, writing in the early 8th century, identified the English as the descendants of three Germanic tribes:[4]

Their language, Anglo-Saxon or Old English, which derived from Ingvaeonic West Germanic dialects, transformed into Middle English from the 11th century. The language was divided into four main dialects: West Saxon, Mercian, Northumbrian and Kentish.


The term Anglo-Saxon can be found in documents produced in the time of Alfred the Great, who seems to have frequently used the titles rex Anglorum Saxonum and rex Angul-Saxonum (king of the English Saxons).[7] The terms ænglisc ('Angle-kin') and Angelcynn ('gens Anglorum') had already lost their original sense of referring to the Angles, as distinct from the Saxons, when they are first attested. In their earliest sense they referred to the nation of Germanic peoples who settled eastern Britain from the 5th century. The indigenous Britons, who wrote in both Latin and Welsh, referred to these invaders as 'Saxones' or 'Saeson' – the word Saeson is the modern Welsh word for 'English people';[8] the equivalent word in Scottish Gaelic is Sasannach and in the Irish language, Sasanach.

The term Angli Saxones seems to have first been used in continental writing nearly a century before Alfred's time, by Paul the Deacon, historian of the Lombards, probably to distinguish the English Saxons from the continental Saxons (Ealdseaxe, literally, 'old Saxons').

The Angles (Old English: Engle, Angle), took their name from their ancestral home in Jutland, Angul (modern Angeln), which has an area in the shape of a hook (Old English: angel, angul "fishhook", anga "hook").


The history of Anglo-Saxon England broadly covers early medieval England, from the end of Roman rule and the establishment of numerous Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the 5th century until the Norman conquest of England by the Normans in 1066.

Origins (400–600)

Further information: Ingaevones

The migration of Germanic peoples to Britain from what is now northern Germany, the northern part of the Netherlands and southern Scandinavia is attested from the 5th century (e.g. Undley bracteate). Based on Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, the intruding population is traditionally divided into Angles, Saxons and Jutes, but their composition was likely less clear-cut and may also have included peoples such as the Frisii and the Franks. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle may contain the first recorded indications of the movement of these Germanic tribes to Britain.

Heptarchy (600–800)

Main article: Heptarchy

Christianisation of the Anglo-Saxons began in Britain in 597 and was at least nominally completed in 686. Throughout the 7th and 8th centuries, power fluctuated between the larger kingdoms. Bede records Aethelbert of Kent as being dominant at the close of the 6th century, but power then seems to have shifted northwards to the kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria.

Aethelbert and some of the later kings of the other kingdoms were recognised by their fellow kings as Bretwalda (ruler of Britain). The so-called 'Mercian Supremacy' dominated the 8th century, though again it was not constant. Aethelbald and Offa, the two most powerful kings of this period, achieved high status.

This period has been described as the Heptarchy, though this term has now fallen out of academic use. The word arose on the basis that the seven kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, Kent, East Anglia, Essex, Sussex and Wessex were the main polities of south Britain. More recent scholarship has shown that theories of the 'heptarchy' are not grounded in evidence, and it is far more likely that power fluctuated between many more 'kingdoms'. Other politically important 'kingdoms' across this period include: Hwicce, Magonsaete, Kingdom of Lindsey and Middle Anglia.

Viking Age and the Norman Conquest (800–1066)

Main articles: Viking Age and Danelaw

In the 9th century, the Viking challenge grew to serious proportions. Alfred the Great's victory at Edington, Wiltshire, in 878 brought intermittent peace, but with their possession of Jorvik, the Danes gained a solid foothold in England.

Some of the earliest arrivals of invaders came in the form of small groups or companies of Danish heritage. It is widely believed they left their homelands for more religious freedom as they did not like Christianity being forced upon them. There was no prior indication for them being there before their arrival and thus little resistance if any at all from locals. They attacked various locations in England, and they were seemingly sporadic. For example these raiders attacked three different locations; Hampshire, Thanet, and Cheshire around 980, but no raids were recorded afterwards for another six years. The most notable event to come from these raids however was, that it was the first time that England came into contact with any form of diplomacy from Normandy.[9]

They became hostile towards one another by summer in the year 990. Their feud became so great that Pope John XV had to send an envoy with a treaty in order to settle their quarrel. It was a Christmas Day in the year 990 the commission was presented to King Æthelred the Unready, and soon the council drew up a set of terms which were sent to the Duke of Normandy. The doctrine stated that neither shall befriend the others enemies, and that they should accept a reparation from any damage which either could sustain from the other nation.[10]

An important development in the 9th century was the rise of the Kingdom of Wessex; by the end of his reign Alfred was recognised as overlord by several southern kingdoms. Æthelstan was the first king to achieve direct rule over what is considered "England".

Near the end of the 10th century, there was renewed Scandinavian interest in England, with the conquests of Sweyn of Denmark and his son Cnut the Great. By 1066 there were three lords with claims to the English throne, resulting in two invasions and the battles of Stamford Bridge and Hastings. The latter, which heralded the Norman conquest of England, resulted in the overthrow of the Anglo-Saxon polity and its replacement with Norman rule.

After the Norman Conquest

Following the conquest, the Anglo-Saxon nobility were either exiled or joined the ranks of the peasantry.[11] It has been estimated that only about 8 per cent of the land was under Anglo-Saxon control by 1087.[12] Many Anglo-Saxon nobles fled to Scotland, Ireland, and Scandinavia.[13][14] The Byzantine Empire became a popular destination for many Anglo-Saxon soldiers, as the Byzantines were in need of mercenaries.[15] 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.[16] 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.[17]



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.[18]

There are few remains of Anglo-Saxon architecture, with but one secular work remaining above ground – a 10m. x 5m. houscarl's dwelling re-using local Roman materials.[where?] This is still completely standing as an undivided single room with a single central north-facing door, belonging to the Godwin estates, so can be dated 1018–1066. At least fifty churches are of Anglo-Saxon origin, with many more claimed to be, in part from their dedication to local Anglo-Saxon saints, although in some cases the Anglo-Saxon part is small and much-altered. All surviving churches, except one timber church, are built of stone or brick and in some cases show evidence of re-used Roman work.

The character of Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical buildings ranges from Celtic influenced architecture in the early period; basilica influenced Romanesque architecture; to in the later Anglo-Saxon period, an architecture characterised by pilaster-strips, blank arcading, baluster shafts and triangular headed openings.


Main article: Anglo-Saxon art

Early Anglo-Saxon art developed Continental Germanic styles in jewellery and other metalwork, and culminates in the exceptional finds from the royal ship burial at Sutton Hoo, deposited on the cusp of Christianization in about the 620s. Christianity brought influences from Celtic art through Irish missionaries to Nothumbria, and from Italy and the Christian continent through Gregory and his successors in the South. Northumbria was crucial in the development of the Insular style of Northern Britain and Ireland, which fused Anglo-Saxon and Celtic techniques and motifs in applying them to forms of objects imported with Christianity, such as books, stone sculpture and ecclesistical metalwork. This also influenced the south, which was also developing its own style. Secular survivals are mostly jewellery, for both sexes and including fittings for warriors and their weapons, the main contents of the over 3,500 pieces in the Staffordshire Hoard discovered in 2009, probably dating to the 7th and 8th centuries. The Anglo-Saxons preferred round brooches throughout the period, unlike Continental fibula types or the Celtic penannular brooches.

The disruption caused by the period of Viking invasions greatly reduced artistic production, and the style that emerged afterwards was driven by southern centres, and increasingly aware of Continental art. Towards the end of the period artistic patronage, mostly for monasteries, by the elite became very lavish, with metalwork the most highly regarded form of art, though none of the larger objects in precious metals recorded have survived.

Anglo-Saxon art is mainly known today through metalwork and illuminated manuscripts, including the Benedictional of St. Æthelwold (British Library) and Leofric Missal (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodl, 579), masterpieces of the late "Winchester style", which drew on Hiberno-Saxon art, Carolingian art and Byzantine art for style and iconography, and combined both northern ornamental traditions with Mediterranean figural traditions. The Harley Psalter was a copy of the Carolingian Utrecht Psalter — which was a particular influence in creating an Anglo-Saxon style of very lively pen drawings.

Manuscripts were far from the only Anglo-Saxon art form, but they have survived in much greater numbers than other types of object. Contemporaries in Europe regarded Anglo-Saxon goldsmithing and embroidery (Opus Anglicanum) as especially fine. 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. The most common example of Anglo-Saxon art is coins, with thousands of examples extant. 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.


Main article: Old English

Old English, sometimes called Anglo-Saxon, was the language spoken under Alfred the Great and continued to be the common language of (non-Danelaw) England 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 roughly between 1150–1500.

Old English is far closer to early Germanic than Middle English. It is less Latinised and retains many morphological features (nominal and verbal inflection) that were lost during the 12th to 14th centuries. The languages today which are closest to English are the Frisian languages, which are spoken by a few hundred thousand people in Friesland in the Netherlands, Saterland in Lower Saxony, Germany, and in North Firesland in southwest Denmark.

Before literacy in the vernacular Old English or Latin became widespread, a runic alphabet, the futhorc, was used for inscriptions. When literacy became more prevalent, a form of Latin script was used with a couple of letters derived from the futhorc: 'thorn' ‹þ› and 'wynn' ‹ƿ› (generally replaced with ‹w› in modern reproductions).

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

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

with only rare occurrences of j, k, q, v, and z.


Main article: Anglo-Saxon laws

Very few law codes exist from the Anglo-Saxon period to provide an insight into legal culture beyond the influence of Roman law and how this legal culture developed over the course of time. The Saxons chopped off hands and noses for punishment (if the offender stole something or committed another crime). If someone killed a Saxon, he had to pay money called wergild, the amount varying according to the social rank of the victim.


Old English literary 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. Cædmon's Hymn from the 7th century is the earliest attested literary text in English.


The indigenous pre-Christian belief system of the Anglo-Saxons was a form of Germanic paganism and therefore closely related to the Old Norse religion, as well as other Germanic pre-Christian cultures.

Christianity gradually replaced the indigenous religion of the English around the 7th and 8th centuries. Celtic Christianity was introduced into Northumbria and Mercia by monks from Ireland, but the Synod of Whitby settled the choice for Roman Christianity. As the new clerics became the chroniclers, the old religion was partially lost before it was recorded, and today historians' knowledge of it is largely based on surviving customs and lore, texts, etymological links and archaeological finds.

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 paganism are one of historians' main sources of information on pre-Christian beliefs.

Despite these prohibitions, numerous elements of the pre-Christian culture of the Anglo-Saxon people survived the Christianisation process. Examples include the English language names for days of the week:

  • Tiw, the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of Tyr: Tuesday
  • Woden, the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of Odin: Wednesday
  • Þunor, the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of Thor: Thursday
  • *Fríge, the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of Frigg: Friday

Contemporary meanings

"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. 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[19] and Edward A. Freeman[20] 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.[21]

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.[22]

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", Polish "anglo-saksoński", Italian "anglosassone", Catalan "anglosaxó", Japanese "Angurosakuson" and Ukrainian "aнглосакси" (anhlosaksy). As with the English language use of the term, what constitutes the "Anglo-Saxon" varies from speaker to speaker.

See also

Anglo-Saxon England portal

Modern concepts:



  • Oppenheimer, Stephen. The Origins of the British (2006). Constable and Robinson, London. ISBN 1-84529-158-1

Further reading

  • Clark, David, and Nicholas Perkins, eds. Anglo-Saxon Culture and the Modern Imagination (2010)
  • F.M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, 3rd edition, (Oxford: University Press, 1971)
  • J. Campbell et al., The Anglo-Saxons, (London: Penguin, 1991)
  • E. James, Britain in the First Millennium, (London: Arnold, 2001)
  • M. Lapidge et al., The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999)
  • Donald Henson, The Origins of the Anglo-Saxons, (Anglo-Saxon Books, 2006)

Primary sources

  • D. Whitelock, ed. English Historical Documents c.500–1042, (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1955)
  • Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans. L. Sherly-Price, (London: Penguin, 1990)

External links

  • Photos of over 600 items found in the Anglo-Saxon Hoard in Staffordshire Sept. 2009
  • Anglo-Saxon gold hoard September 2009: largest ever hoard officially declared treasure
  • Huge Anglo-Saxon gold hoard found, BBC News, with photos.
  • Fides Angliarum Regum: the faith of the English kings
  • Malcolm Todd
  • Simon Keynes' bibliography of Anglo-Saxon topics

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