The Anglo-Saxons

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.

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.

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

  • the Angles, who probably came from Angeln (in modern Germany): Bede wrote that their whole nation came to Britain,[5] leaving their former land empty. The name England (Old English: Engla land or Ængla land) originates from this tribe;[6]
  • the Saxons, from Lower Saxony (in modern Germany; German: Niedersachsen) and the Low Countries;
  • the Jutes, possibly from the Jutland peninsula (in modern Denmark; Danish: Jylland).

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 is a relatively modern one. It refers to settlers from the German regions of Angeln and Saxony, who made their way over to Britain after the fall of the Roman Empire around AD 410.

The Roman armies withdrew from Britain early in the fifth century because they were needed back home to defend the crumbling centre of the Empire. Britain was considered a far-flung outpost of little value.

At this time, the Jutes and the Frisians from Denmark were also settling in the British Isles, but the Anglo-Saxon settlers were effectively their own masters in a new land and they did little to keep the legacy of the Romans alive. They replaced the Roman stone buildings with their own wooden ones, and spoke their own language, which gave rise to the English spoken today.

The Anglo-Saxons also brought their own religious beliefs, but the arrival of Saint Augustine in 597 converted most of the country to Christianity.

The Anglo-Saxon period lasted for 600 years, from 410 to 1066, and in that time Britain’s political landscape underwent many changes.

The Anglo-Saxon period stretched over 600 years, from 410 to 1066…

The early settlers kept to small tribal groups, forming kingdoms and sub-kingdoms. By the ninth century, the country was divided into four kingdoms – Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex.

Wessex was the only one of these kingdoms to survive the Viking invasions. Eric Bloodaxe, the Viking ruler of York, was killed by the Wessex army in 954 and England was united under one king – Edred.

Most of the information we have about the Anglo-Saxons comes from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a year-by-year account of all the major events of the time. Among other things it describes the rise and fall of the bishops and kings and the important battles of the period. It begins with the story of Hengist and Horsa in AD 449.

Anglo-Saxon rule came to an end in 1066, soon after the death of Edward the Confessor, who had no heir. He had supposedly willed the kingdom to William of Normandy, but also seemed to favour Harold Godwinson as his successor.

Harold was crowned king immediately after Edward died, but he failed in his attempt to defend his crown, when William and an invading army crossed the Channel from France to claim it for himself. Harold was defeated by the Normans at the Battle of Hastings in October 1066, and thus a new era was ushered in.

Overview: Anglo-Saxons, 410 to 800

By Professor Edward James

From barbarian invaders to devout Christian missionaries, the Anglo-Saxons brought four hundred years of religious evolution and shifting political power to the British Isles.


In 410 the Roman emperor, Honorius, told the local authorities in Britain that he could not send any reinforcements to help them defend the province against ‘barbarian’ attacks.

The Roman armies on the continent were overstretched, fighting both the tribes who had come over the Rhine and Danube frontiers and also the Roman generals (including some from Britain) who wanted to control the empire themselves.

The term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ did not become common until the eighth century, when people on the continent started using it.

Roman Britain was being attacked from three directions. The Irish (called ‘Scotti’ by the Romans) attacked from the west; the Picts from the north; and various Germanic-speaking peoples from the east, across the North Sea. The latter included the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, who were all from northern Germany or southern Denmark.

The continental invaders were generally called ‘Saxons’ by their neighbours. England is still called ‘Sasana’ in Gaelic, and its inhabitants are ‘Sassenachs’.

The term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ did not become common until the eighth century, when people on the continent started using it to distinguish between the inhabitants of Britain and the Saxons who remained in northern Germany.

The Anglo-Saxons themselves had by then begun to use the word ‘Angli’ or ‘English’ to refer to themselves.

The Romano-Britons defended themselves against the invaders as best they could, with successful military leaders including Ambrosius Aurelianus and the possibly entirely legendary figure of Arthur.

New kings emerged to rule different kingdoms within the former Roman province. One hundred and fifty years after the end of Roman rule, some were still taking Roman names like Constantine and Aurelius.

Settlers and missionaries

Helmet fragment from the Sutton Hoo treasure, dated seventh century AD ©

Helmet fragment from the Sutton Hoo treasure, dated seventh century AD ©

By 500 AD, many of the invaders had settled. There were Irish settlements in western Britain, including a powerful Irish kingdom called Dal Riata (or Dalriada), in modern Argyll and Bute in Scotland.

The Angles, Saxons and Jutes had taken over most of the area east of a line from the Humber to the Isle of Wight.

The process by which the invaders settled down is very obscure. The only written source of any length from the period is a vague and generalised account from a British monk, Gildas, who saw the coming of the Anglo-Saxons as God’s punishment for the sins of the Britons.

The Christian church had been well-established and it suffered greatly from the invasions.

Archaeology has revealed a good deal about the Anglo-Saxons, particularly through their cemeteries, where weapons and other personal possessions were placed in graves.

The most famous of these graves is Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, probably the royal cemetery of the kings of East Anglia. A 30-foot oak ship was buried here, and some of the many objects buried with it suggest that Swedes may have been involved in the settlement of that area.

The Christian church had been well-established in Roman Britain by the early fifth century, and it suffered greatly from the invasions.

But it did survive in those parts of Roman Britain that escaped the Anglo-Saxon invasions. From that church came two missionaries who started to bring Christianity beyond the former imperial frontiers in Britain.

St Nynia (or Ninian) was the first missionary in Scotland. Almost the only thing we know about him was that he founded a church at Whithorn (Dumfries and Galloway).

St Patrick was the first known missionary in Ireland. He had been captured as a boy by Irish raiders, but managed to escape from his slavery. At some point he decided to go back to Ireland.

We do not know his dates or anything about where he worked, but he seems to have been buried at Downpatrick (County Down) in the late fifth century, although later on it was the church in Armagh that claimed him as its own.

Numerous churches and monasteries were founded in the generations after St Patrick’s death. Probably the most important founder was St Columba, who founded Derry and Durrow in Ireland and, after deciding to leave Ireland in 565 AD, founded the monastery of Iona on an island west of the Isle of Mull in Scotland.

The Venerable Bede

Portrait of English monk, historian and theologian St Bede (673-735 AD) ©

Portrait of English monk, historian and theologian St Bede (673-735 AD) ©

The Venerable Bede (died 735 AD), whose ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’ is our major source for the history of Britain from the late sixth to the early eighth century, blames the Britons for not trying to convert the Anglo-Saxons.

For Bede the important thing about the faith of the Britons was that it came straight from Rome, and was therefore pure and orthodox.

Bede tells how Gregory the Great (pope from 590 to 604 AD) decided to send a missionary called Augustine to England to found major churches in London and York. When Augustine arrived in the south east of England in 597 AD, he found that Æthelberht, king of Kent, was the most powerful king in the south east.

Thanks to Bede’s work, the new Anglo-Saxon kingdoms come into the light of history.

Æthelberht gave him land in Canterbury to build a church, and thus by accident Canterbury, rather than London, became the main centre for English Christianity.

Æthelberht and his court converted, and several neighbouring kings as well. The last surviving member of Gregory’s mission was Paulinus, who baptised Edwin, king of Northumbria, in York in 627 AD.

Thanks to Bede’s work, the new Anglo-Saxon kingdoms come into the light of history at the beginning of the seventh century.

In the south there were the kingdoms of Kent, of the South Saxons (Sussex), and the West Saxons (Wessex); to the east were the kingdoms of the East Angles (East Anglia) and the East Saxons (Essex); in the Midlands was the kingdom of the Mercians, which (like some others) was an amalgamation of several smaller kingdoms; and north of the Humber were Deira (Yorkshire) and Bernicia (north of the Tees). These last two kingdoms were joined together as Northumbria in the early seventh century.

Northumbria swallowed up a number of other kingdoms in the early seventh century, such as Elmet (West Yorkshire) and Rheged (Lancashire and Cumbria). Wessex and Mercia (whose name means ‘the frontier kingdom’) also benefited from their ability to expand westwards.

Some British kingdoms remained independent, including Cornwall and Devon in the south west, Gwynedd and Powys in modern Wales, and Strathclyde, in what is now the region of Glasgow.

In northern Ireland there were numerous small kingdoms, although the most powerful dynasty was that of the Uí Néill, the supposed descendents of the great king, Niall of the Nine Hostages.

A divided church

When Edwin, king of Northumbria, was killed by an alliance between a Christian king, Cadwalla of Gwynedd, and a pagan king, Penda of Mercia, in 632 AD, the newly established church in Northumbria was in danger.

And when Oswald, king of Northumbria, had reclaimed his throne he turned not to Rome, but to the Irish monastery of Iona, where he had spent time in exile.

King Oswiu called the synod of Whitby to settle the issue of when Easter should be celebrated.

Iona sent Aidan to Northumbria as its bishop, and he founded his see at Lindisfarne (Northumberland), not the traditional metropolitan centre of York. For the Anglo-Saxon monk Bede, the Irishman Aidan was the great hero of the early English church.

Lindisfarne became a training centre for the Irish and English missionaries who went further south to convert Mercians, East Angles, East Saxons and South Saxons.

The Roman church’s mission in England had, to a large extent, failed, but the Irish missionaries succeeded spectacularly. At the same time, Irish monks from Iona were founding churches along the western coast of Scotland and the Isles.

Those in northern Britain who had been converted by the Irish monks tended to remain loyal to Iona and its traditions. By the middle of the seventh century, however, these traditions came to be seen as divisive. In particular, the rest of the church in England and Ireland had adopted new Roman methods of calculating the date of Easter.

In the early 660s AD, the Northumbrian court had the unedifying spectacle of King Oswiu and his followers celebrating Easter in the Ionan way, and his Kentish wife Eanflæd and son Alhfrith holding their ceremonies in a different week.

Oswiu called the synod of Whitby to settle the issue, and himself decided for St Peter (Rome) over St Columba (Iona). Irish influence on the English church waned from that point, and still more after the forging of new links with Rome.

In 668 AD, Pope Vitalian appointed Theodore, who came from Tarsus in Asia Minor, as archbishop of Canterbury. Theodore did much to unite the church in England, to introduce new learning (especially in Greek), and to create new dioceses. He also assisted in the deposition of those who opposed his schemes, such as St Wilfred of York.

Northumbria dominant

The monasteries founded by the Irishman Columbanus in both France and Italy inspired many imitations and other Irishmen followed him to the continent. Most of these Irishmen went abroad in self-exile, as a religious penance.

It was different for the English, who (according to Bede) were inspired by Egbert to go abroad to save their Germanic cousins from paganism.

Northumbria was at a cultural crossroads between Ireland, England and Rome.

Egbert was a Northumbrian who had lived for many years in Ireland. At his instigation, Wihtbert and Willibrord went to convert the Frisians (in the Netherlands and North Germany), and two men, both called Hewald, went to convert the Saxons.

The greatest English missionary was Boniface, a West Saxon, who reorganised the church in central Germany and Bavaria, and who led the reform of the Frankish church.

In 751 AD, he presided at the coronation and anointing of the first king of a new dynasty of Frankish kings, later called the Carolingians. He died in 754 AD, murdered by a band of Frisians.

Northumbria was not as powerful in the early eighth century as it had been earlier. The devastating defeat of King Ecgfrith’s army at the hands of the Picts at Nechtansmere (Dunnichen, in Angus) in 685 AD put an end to northern expansion, and the rising power of Mercia in the south curbed ambitions in that direction.

Nevertheless, Northumbria’s position at a cultural crossroads between Ireland, England and Rome brought about great achievements.

In the seventh century Benedict Biscop, the founder of Bede’s monastery of Jarrow and Monkwearmouth (Tyne and Wear), had travelled to the continent to collect books on five occasions.

The library he created was one of the best north of the Alps, and it was partly thanks to this collection of books that Bede became the greatest scholar in Europe in the early eighth century.

Northumbria produced outstanding works of sculpture, like the Ruthwell Cross (Dumfries and Galloway) and one of the most beautiful books of all time, the ‘Lindisfarne Gospels’ (now in the British Library).

Northumbria also produced the first known English poet at this time, Cædmon, who lived on the estates of the monastery of Whitby (North Yorkshire).

The last product of the Northumbrian Renaissance was Alcuin of York, a scholar and Latin poet, who was recruited in 782 AD by Charlemagne, king of the Franks, to lead the educational revival on the continent.

Mercia dominant

Offa's Dyke Path, Clwyd, Wales ©

Offa’s Dyke Path, Clwyd, Wales ©

After the battle of Nechtansmere, Mercia was in an undisputed position as the most powerful English kingdom. Æthelbald, king of Mercia from 716 to 757 AD, called himself ‘king of Britain’.

His murder by his own bodyguard suggests serious internal problems, and it was his equally long-lived successor Offa (king from 757 to 796 AD) who witnessed the greatest expansion of Mercian power.

Offa dominated other English kingdoms more successfully than previous English kings.

He is best known for the building of Offa’s Dyke, a 90-mile long earthwork marking the boundary between Mercia and Wales. This may have been a response to the growing power of the kings of Gwynedd, who were also styling themselves ‘kings of the Britons’ at just the time that Offa began calling himself ‘king of the English’.

Offa certainly dominated the other English kingdoms more successfully than previous English kings, and he was even able to portray himself as a major figure on the European stage.

The eighth century was a time of considerable prosperity in England, as excavations have shown in the first towns that emerged after the collapse of Roman urban life – Southampton, London, Ipswich and York.

It was a prosperity that was severely challenged by the arrival of the Vikings.

English and Norman Society

By Dr Mike Ibeji

Immigration and land

To speak of the ‘differences’ between English and Norman society is to start from the wrong standpoint. We should never forget that the Normans and the Anglo-Saxons came from the same basic stock.

At rock bottom, they were each Scandinavian immigrants who had settled in another land and taken over from its ruling aristocracy. It should therefore not surprise us that on a fundamental level, English and Norman social structures were very similar. What is interesting is the way these similarities received different shadings because of the time and place in which each side had finally settled down.

…it was a self-perpetuating dynamic fuelled by expansion and warfare…

For both societies, land was the defining currency. The Lord owned land, which he parcelled out amongst his followers in return for service. They in turn settled the land as minor lords in their own right, surrounded by a retinue of warriors to whom they would grant gifts as rewards for good service and as tokens of their own good lordship (of which the greatest gift was land).

Success in war generated more land and booty which could be passed around. If a lord wasn’t successful or generous enough, his followers would desert him for a ‘better’ lord. It was a self-perpetuating dynamic fuelled by expansion and warfare in which the value of a man was determined by his warlike ability: the lord led warriors; the warrior fought for his lord; they were both serviced by non-fighting tenant farmers who owed their livelihoods to the lord; and below them came the unfree slaves.

The hearth

The basic building block of the system was the hearth. On his land, the Lord owned a hearth-hall, within which he housed his retinue of warriors. His tenants brought their produce to this hall, feeding and maintaining the retinue. In return, the Lord provided all on his land with security. It was when he was unable to provide that security that the lord got worried: lack of security was the defining trait of ‘bad’ lordship.

This is best exemplified in the epic Saxon poem Beowulf, in which the adventurer Beowulf is drawn to the hearth of the Danish king Hrothgar by the king’s famed generosity. There, he rids Hrothgar of the monsters which are threatening the security of his hearth and is generously rewarded. Beowulf finally dies trying to win a treasure hoard from a dragon threatening his own land – a potent combination of security and gold, the two driving forces of lordship in his time.


…pre-Norman England had become the most organised state in Western Europe…

In 10th Century Anglo-Saxon England, this dynamic had been complicated by a highly chequered history. In administrative terms, it meant that pre-Norman England had become the most ‘organised’ state in Western Europe. The king controlled a land divided into shires and hundreds, on which taxation was assessed and levied. These taxes were collected in coin from the burhs and fresh coin was minted 3 times a year in 60 royal mints arranged throughout the country. In this respect, it was a very Roman system.

It is even likely (though not certain) that Edward the Confessor had a Chancery headed by the clerk Regenbald. The whole system was run by a set of royal officers, the shire reeves (sheriffs), with individual reeves looking after each hundred.

The Germanic system

An Anglo-Saxon Housecarl ©

An Anglo-Saxon Housecarl ©

Overlaid onto this was the old Germanic system of lordship and the hearth, but it had been altered almost beyond recognition by the demands of the previous two centuries.

Military service was still technically based on land ‘loaned’ from a lord in return for service. Yet by the 10th Century, this land had often been granted away in the form of ‘bookland’ which was a royal gift in perpetuity to a loyal retainer. Alfred and his successors had dealt with the problem by instituting the fyrd and military obligation was measured in hides.

…the Anglo-Saxon kings had bypassed the problem of lordship…

In essence, the Anglo-Saxon kings had bypassed the problem of lordship by imposing duties on the land itself. Large landowners were now expected to bring a retinue of thegns with them, based on the hideage of their land, and the very definition of a thegn was someone who could afford to arm himself as a warrior with the proceeds of his land. The more powerful thegns themselves had retinues of housecarls, old-style military retainers who served in the hope of being granted bookland and thegn status in return for their loyalty.

The Norman system

By contrast, the Norman system was much more basic. In Saxon terms, the Normans were second or third generation immigrants to Northern France. According to their own foundation myth, the land of Normandy was granted to their founder, Rollo c.911, and he and his successors ruled it as ‘marcher’ lords of the frontier on behalf of the Frankish king. Therefore, the Norman system was coloured by Frankish practice and was still firmly entrenched in the familia – the lord’s hearth.

…the Normans were second or third generation immigrants to Northern France…

Whilst technically the Norman Duke had the power to call out a general levy (much like the fyrd), he usually relied on his military familia, which was the complex set of family ties and loyalties he had established with the great magnates who occupied his land. By the time of William, this relationship had hardened from one of mutuality in which the Norman nobles were fidelis (faithful men), to one of dominance, in which the duke was dominus (lord). William himself had had a lot to do with that change. It was this familia which helped govern the country and owed personal loyalty to the duke.

Though Norman dukes controlled the coinage in their domain, no new coins had been minted since the time of William’s grandfather. The duke still called upon his nobles to provide an army when he wanted to go to war, and they obliged in the expectation of a share in the spoils of conquest.


In essence, both systems had a similar root, but the differences were crucial. The Norman system had led to the development of a mounted military élite totally focussed on war, while the Anglo-Saxon system was manned by what was in essence a levy of farmers, who rode to the battlefield but fought on foot. That is not to say that the English thegn was any less formidable than the Norman knight, as Hastings was to show. In the crucial months leading up to the Hastings campaign however, Harold was to be hamstrung by the limitations of the fyrd. On the 14th October 1066, much of Harold’s tiny force was made up of the housecarls of his most powerful magnates because the fyrd had been disbanded.


…Harold was to be hamstrung by the limitations of the fyrd…

Yet the similarities remain more important than the differences. On a macro level, they meant that William could come in and superimpose the Norman system onto the Saxon with virtually no problem – the thegns simply became Norman knights (or Norman knights became thegns, however you want to look at it). The emphasis of obligation returned to the old familia structure, which we used to call feudalism until it became a dirty word. The methods of Anglo-Saxon kingly control, the use of writs, courts and sheriffs became the instruments of dominance for the new Norman king, who also introduced the concept of justiciars and regents to represent the king when he was abroad in the rest of his land.

County society

On a micro level, the differences were even smaller. Look at Anglo-Saxon Jorvik or Norman Rouen, and the two are pretty indistinguishable. Both were emporia with similar social structures in terms of tenements and mercantile quarters dedicated to specific trades. In the countryside, the Domesday Book illustrates that the only thing which changed was the name of the landlord. Villages remained much the same as they had for hundreds of years: with villani and bordars, rights of sake and soke, woodland measured in the number of pigs it could support and mills and minor industries run on behalf of the lord by the local reeve. Perhaps one in every 100 villages was transformed by the appearance of a castle (a Norman innovation in England), but other than that, often even the thegn remained the same.

English law

…a final telling example of the cruder nature of the Conquerors.

Finally, the Normans introduced one major change into English law. Prior to the Conquest, cases were tried in front of juries selected from the hundred on the basis of Trial by Ordeal, or Trial by Oath Taking.

Oath Taking was a specifically Saxon process whereby a man would rely on the oaths of his lord and peers to vouch for his innocence and good name – the higher the status of your oath-helper, the better your chances of success. It relied on good lordship and reciprocity to make it work (and we can see it in action in the sworn testimonies of the Domesday Book).

These were complemented by the Norman practice of Trial by Battle, in which the judgement of God was determined not by the speed it took you to heal from the Ordeal, but by the success of your champion in battle. In this, it typified the military onus of Norman society and provides a final telling example of the cruder nature of the Conquerors.

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)
  • The Anglo-Saxons edited by James Campbell (Penguin, 1991)
  • After Rome: c.400-c.800 (Short Oxford History of the British Isles) edited by Thomas Charles-Edwards (Oxford University Press, 2003)
  • Britain in the First Millennium by Edward James (Edward Arnold, 2001)
  • Early Medieval Ireland, AD 400-AD 1200 by Dáibhí Ó Cróinín (Longman, 1995)
  • Scotland: Archaeology and Early History by Graham Ritchie and Anna Ritchie (Edinburgh University Press, 1991)
  • The Britons by Christopher A. Snyder (Blackwell, 2003)

About the authors

Edward James is Professor of Medieval History at University College Dublin. Previously he had been Senior Lecturer at the University of York and Professor of Medieval History at Reading. He has published a number of books and articles on early medieval France, including The Franks (Blackwell, 1988) and is currently writing a book called Europe’s Barbarians for Longman.

Dr Mike Ibeji is a Roman military historian who was an associate producer on Simon Schama’s A History of Britain.