Who were the Anglo-Saxons?

A whistle-stop tour of Anglo-Saxon England: who were the Anglo-Saxons; where did they come from; what languages did they speak?

The Anglo-Saxons were migrants from northern Europe who settled in England in the fifth and sixth centuries. Initially comprising many small groups and divided into a number of kingdoms, the Anglo-Saxons were finally joined into a single political realm – the kingdom of England – during the reign of King Æthelstan (924–939).

They remained the dominant political force until the last king of Anglo-Saxon England, Harold II, was killed by the Normans at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

Where did the Anglo-Saxons come from?

Writing in the eighth century, the Northumbrian monk Bede (died 735) described the arrival of these migrants in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People

The Venerable Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People)f.60v

Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People was created in 731. It tells the story of the conversion of the English people to Christianity.

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They came from three very powerful Germanic peoples, the Saxons, Angles and Jutes. The people of Kent and the inhabitants of the Isle of Wight are of Jutish origin and also those opposite the Isle of Wight, that are part of the kingdom of Wessex which is still today called the nation of the Jutes.


From the Saxon country, that is, the district know known as Old Saxony, came the East Saxons, the South Saxons and the West Saxons.


Besides this, from the country of the Angles, that is, the land between the kingdoms of the Jutes and the Saxons, which is called Angulus, came the East Angles, the Middle Angles, the Mercians, and all of the Northumbrian people (that is those people who dwell north of the River Humber) as well as the other Anglian peoples. Angulus is said to have remained deserted from that day to this.

Bede’s testimony is supported to an extent by archaeological evidence. Excavations of cemeteries in eastern England, such as at Spong Hill in Norfolk, have revealed similarities between early Anglo-Saxon burial practices and those of other Germanic peoples in the regions bordering the North Sea.

For example, the recently-discovered Binham Hoard shows that people living in East Anglia in the fifth and sixth centuries wore jewellery with similar designs to those found in Scandinavia and the area that is now Germany.

Spong Man

Norwich Castle Museum, 1994.192.1

This urn lid was found during excavations at Spong Hill, North Elmham, Norfolk, within the largest known Anglo-Saxon cremation cemetery.

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Where did the Anglo-Saxons settle?

Evidence suggests that the Anglo-Saxons settled originally in eastern England, before moving westwards and northwards to occupy territory formally inhabited by the Britons. Wales remained a British stronghold, and Cumbria (the name of which derives from the same root as ‘Cymru’, the Welsh name for Wales) perhaps held out against the invaders for longer than other parts of northern England. Cornwall also retained its independence until the 10th century.

Gildas and Bede, writing from the perspective of a Briton and a Northumbrian respectively, present a picture of a series of conflicts between the Anglo-Saxons and native Britons in the early centuries. Gildas suggested that the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons was a punishment from God for the depraved behaviour of certain British leaders.

Although the division of the Anglo-Saxons into groupings of Angles, Saxons and Jutes was perhaps less clear-marked than stated by Bede, their continental connections were preserved in the names of some kingdoms: ‘Saxon’ kingdoms appeared in southern and western England (Wessex or West Saxons, Sussex or South Saxons, Middlesex or Middle Saxons and Essex or East Saxons) and Angles in the North, East and Midlands (East Anglia, Northumbria and Mercia).

Why were the Anglo-Saxons called Anglo-Saxons?

The Anglo-Saxons did not call themselves ‘Anglo-Saxons’. This term seems to have been used first in the eighth century to distinguish the Germanic-speaking peoples who lived in Britain from those on the continent.

In 786, George, bishop of Ostia, travelled to England to attend a church meeting, and he reported to the Pope that he had been to ‘Angul Saxnia’.

Today, historians use this term as a shorthand for referring to the period between the Roman occupation of Britain and the Norman Conquest of England.

What language did the Anglo-Saxons speak?

The Anglo-Saxons spoke the language we now know as Old English, an ancestor of modern-day English. Its closest cousins were other Germanic languages such as Old Friesian, Old Norse and Old High German.

Surviving Anglo-Saxon manuscripts from Anglo-Saxon England show that there were different dialects spoken in different parts of the country, such as West Saxon, Northumbrian and Mercian. The oldest English poem, Cædmon’s Hymn, was composed in the Northumbrian dialect of English.

The story of Cædmon's Hymn

Caedmon's Hymn

The earliest named English poet was a cowherd named Cædmon who lived at the Abbey of Whitby, as Bede describes.

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A number of other languages were spoken or understood by certain individuals in Anglo-Saxon England, including Latin (the language of the Church and learning), Greek, Cornish and Irish (the latter being the language of many early missionaries). 

From the time of the Viking invasions of England, starting in the 9th century, Old Norse was spoken across many parts of northern and eastern England, as is evident in many surviving place-names: for instance, modern York is derived from the Scandinavian name, Jorvik.

Were the Anglo-Saxons literate?

Although levels of literacy in Anglo-Saxon England may not have been as high as in later centuries, many members of Anglo-Saxon society were able to read and write. Almost 1,000 books written or owned in England before the year 1100 have survived, along with hundreds of Anglo-Saxon charters (documents written on single sheets of parchment). These books and charters include:

  • manuscripts made for religious purposes (including Bibles, psalters and prayer-books) 
  • saints’ Lives and biographies (the unique medieval manuscript of Asser’s Life of King Alfred was sadly destroyed by fire in 1731) 
  • monastic records (such as the Ely farming memoranda).

Asser's Life of King Alfred

Asser's Life of King Alfred

The earliest known source about an Anglo-Saxon king, a king often known today as ‘Alfred the Great’ (r. 871–899 CE).

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Ely Abbey farming memoranda

Add MS 61735

These parchment fragments contain notes about land management in the East Anglian fens, recorded in the early 11th century.

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The unique surviving manuscript of Beowulf, one of the greatest epic poems in the English language, was copied around the year 1000.

Beowulf

Beowulf - the sole surving manuscript.

Beowulf is the longest epic poem in Old English, the language spoken in Anglo-Saxon England before the Norman Conquest.

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Latin learning in Anglo-Saxon England is represented by writers such as Aldhelm and Bede, and by the school established by Archbishop Theodore (669–690) at Canterbury in the seventh century. 

King Alfred of Wessex (871–899) nonetheless remarked on the decline of learning in the ninth century, for which reason he instituted a programme for the translation of important Latin works into Old English.

What were the religious beliefs of the Anglo-Saxons?

The Anglo-Saxons who first settled in England in the fifth and sixth centuries were pagans. The relatively little insight we have into their religious practices comes from looking at their burial customs or from records in later, Christian writings.

Excavations of their earliest cemeteries show that the pagan Anglo-Saxons favoured cremation over inhumation, and that their dead were sometimes buried with grave goods, suggesting a possible belief in an afterlife. According to Bede, the Anglo-Saxon names for the months and days of the week had pagan origins, while in Anglo-Saxon mythology the rulers of the various kingdoms were all descended from the Germanic god, Woden.

Late in the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great (590–604) sent Augustine, an Italian monk, to convert King Æthelberht of Kent (died 616) to Christianity. The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms adopted the Christian faith – with pockets of resistance – over the course of the next century, under the influence of Roman missionaries and Irish monks.

As in Kent, royal support was crucial for the adoption of Christianity in Northumbria. Aidan, a missionary from Iona, was invited by King Oswald to convert the Northumbrians and he chose the island of Lindisfarne as the site of his new bishopric.

How was Anglo-Saxon society organised?

Anglo-Saxon society was hierarchical. At its head stood the king and members of the royal family, followed by the nobility, bishops and other churchmen. At the other extreme were unfree members of society, or slaves.

We can learn a substantial amount about the social organisation of Anglo-Saxon from two key sources: the earliest law-code, written for King Æthelberht of Kent (died 604); and Domesday Book. Æthelberht’s laws set out a complex system of compensation and punishment, based on the status of the offender and the injured party.

Law-code of King Æthelberht of Kent

Rochester, Cathedral Library, MS A. 3. 5

The opening of King Æthelberht’s law code.

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Great Domesday Book

National Archives: E 31/2/2

Page from Great Domesday Book showing the lands of Count Hugh and Robert, count of Mortain

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They also reveal that women had rights in Anglo-Saxon England, but that these were dependent on the individual’s marital status. Compensation could not be paid to a woman, but would instead be given to her father, husband or brother.

Domesday Book was commissioned by William the Conqueror (1066–1087) at Christmas 1085, being completed less than a year later. The survey describes landholding and other forms of property ownership in 11th-century England. Although compiled by the Normans, it was clearly based on the administrative system established by the Anglo-Saxons.

The division of English counties into shires, which lasted almost intact until 1974, was also based on Anglo-Saxon custom and is evidenced in Domesday Book.

What happened to the Anglo-Saxons in 1066?

During the 11th century, Anglo-Saxon England was conquered not once but twice. The Danish king, Cnut, ousted the native Anglo-Saxon dynasty in 1016, and he and his sons reigned in England until 1042.

Then, after an interlude during which Edward the Confessor (the son of Æthelred the Unready by Queen Emma) held power, Harold, the last Anglo-Saxon king, was killed at Hastings on 14 October 1066.

Harold’s successor as elected by the surviving English aristocracy was Edgar the Atheling (died 1125), but he never took power and was never crowned. The new Norman dynasty held sway in England for the best part of a century.

This is not to say that the Anglo-Saxons disappeared from sight in 1066.

Although Domesday Book testifies that many native English landholders and churches lost substantial portions of their estates between 1066 and 1086, the Anglo-Saxons remained the largest segment of the population.

Their language was displaced by French as the official language of the royal court and the legal system, but books continued to be written in English into the 12th century and beyond. In its annal for 1066, one manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle provides a pessimistic view of the outcome of the Norman Conquest for the Anglo-Saxons – ‘and ever after the Conquest things grew much worse’ – but Anglo-Saxon customs and the English language prevailed for centuries to come.

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle manuscript B

Cotton MS Tiberius A VI

An account of Æthelflaed’s victories from a 10th-century manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

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  • Julian Harrison
  • Julian Harrison is Lead Curator of Medieval Historical Manuscripts at the British Library, and lead curator of the Harry Potter exhibition. He also co-curated the Library’s major exhibition Magna Carta: Law Liberty, Legacy (2015) and the Our Shakespeare exhibition at the Library of Birmingham (2016).