The famous parade helmet found at Sutton Hoo, probably belonging to King Raedwald of East Anglia circa 625. Based on a Roman parade helmet design (of a general class known as spangenhelm), it has decorations like those found in contemporary Swedish helmets found at Old Uppsala.
The famous parade helmet found at Sutton Hoo, probably belonging to King Raedwald of East Anglia circa 625. Based on a Roman parade helmet design (of a general class known as spangenhelm), it has decorations like those found in contemporary Swedish helmets found at Old Uppsala.

The Anglo-Saxons were a culturally related people living inBritain from around the mid-5th century AD. Germanic peoples, including the Angles, Saxons, Frisians and Jutes, migrated to southern Britain, beginning after the end of Roman rule, though it is not known whether they substantially replaced the existing population. Over time the different peoples coalesced into a more unified culture.Perhaps under Offa of Mercia, and certainly under Alfred of Wessex and his successors, a kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons existed, which developed into the kingdom ofEngland in the 10th century, one of the main developments of Anglo-Saxon history.


Origins of the word

The term "Anglo-Saxon" is from Latin writings going back to the time of King Alfred the Great, who seems to have frequently used the title rex Anglorum Saxonum or rex Angul-Saxonum.

Bede, writing in the early 8th century in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, (I.15) suggests that:

  • the people of the more northern kingdoms (East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria) belonged to the Angles, who derive their name from the peninsula of Angeln in Schleswig-Holstein, presently located in northern Germany
  • those of Essex, Sussex and Wessex were sprung from the Saxons, who came from the region of Old Saxony.
  • those of Kent and southern Hampshire were from the tribe of the Jutes

Other early writers do not bear out consistent distinctions, though in custom the Kingdom of Kent presents the most remarkable contrasts with the other kingdoms. 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 names such as Essex (East Saxons) and East Anglia (East Angles). That Bede could envisage one English people (gentis Anglorum) at least demonstrates that the Anglo-Saxons could be thought of in such terms in the 8th century.

The term Angli Saxones seems to have first come into use byLatin writers 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 inhabitants of Britain from the Old Saxons of the continent.

Modern usages

By 1800 "Anglo-Saxon" was the term used for the Old English language. It was the language spoken inEngland before the arrival of the French-speaking Normans who conquered England in 1066. In the 19th century the term was widely used in philology. English scholars at the mid-19th century, such as Edward Freeman, argued that the roots of certain English political ideas and values could be found in pre-Norman, that is, Anglo-Saxon, England. Numerous researchers explored possible long-term survivals, but by the 1890s most scholars gave up that quest and decided that English legal rights emerged from later developments like the Magna Carta of the 13th century.

It is still a matter of debate as to whether the term "Anglo-Saxon" can be used as a synonym for ethnic or racial groups who lived in England. On one hand there is the argument that says that there were further influxes of people into England such as theDanes, Normans, and Celts who migrated to England from the other parts of the British Isles, so the term is no longer valid. The other side of this argument is to say these people were relatively small in number and, particularly in the case of Danes and the Normans, were of similar ethnic origins as the Anglo-Saxons themselves, and so became immersed into the Anglo-Saxon "tribe".

In popular usage in Canada and the United States, the term "Anglo-Saxon" (as in "White Anglo-Saxon Protestant" or "WASP") has evolved into a politicized term with little connection to its academic definition. Until about 1960 the term was mostly used and popularized by Irish Catholics and French-Canadians. Since 1960 it has had more general usage, but exactly who it designates has become a matter of individual opinions and context, ranging from people of English descent to any North American of European origin who fits a certain socio-economic and/or ethnic profile.

"Anglo-Saxon" is still used by linguists to 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.

For over a hundred years, the French have used "Anglo-Saxon" to refer to the Anglophone societies of Britain and the United States, and sometimes (rarely) including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. It supposedly describes their intellectual traditions and national character, as opposed to "Celtic," "Gallic", "Lusitanic" or "Hispanic". It is a wide-ranging term, taking in the English-speaking world's language, culture, technology, wealth, influence, markets and economy.

Anglo-Saxon history

The history of Anglo-Saxon England is the history of early medieval England from the end of Roman Britain and the establishment of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the 5th century until the Conquest by the Normans in 1066. The 5th and 6th centuries are known archaeologically as Sub-Roman Britain, or in popular history as the "Dark Ages"; from the 6th century larger distinctive kingdoms are developing, still known to some as the Heptarchy; the arrival of the Vikings at the end of the 8th century brought many changes to Britain, and relations with the continent were important right up to the 'end' of Anglo-Saxon England, traditionally held to be the Norman Conquest.

Anglo-Saxon migration

The main Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms circa A.D. 600
The main Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms circa A.D. 600

There is considerable debate as to the extent of Anglo-Saxon migration from the fourth to the sixth centuries. The nature of our sources is such that it is unlikely that any single model for migration will receive academic consensus.

Earlier interpretations saw large numbers of Anglo-Saxon settlers arrive, essentially killing or displacing the British people living in southern and eastern Britain at the time. A minority ofthe Romano-British fled to Brittany and Galicia in northern Spain. Britain was perceived in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as the home of liberty, and it was believed that this love of liberty arrived with the Anglo-Saxons, who were held to have been essentially free. Arguments for this were based primarily on the literary evidence. The (probably) early sixth-century monk Gildas, in his De Excidio Britanniae, told of the English defeating the British as a punishment from God. A similar narrative appeared in Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, written in the early eighth century, which drew heavily on Gildas. Later Anglo-Saxon and British (Welsh) documents followed this tradition of cataclysm, focussing on differences between the English and the Welsh. Such an interpretation finds support in the linguistic and place-name evidence. Linguistically, few p-Celtic words find their way into old English, though some have argued for greater input than was previously thought. The apparent rarity of obviously Brythonic place-names has been used to downplay continuity, but such names may be difficult to identify rather than absent.[1] A genetic study by a team at UCL that included samples from those living in modern England, Wales, Friesland and the Basque Country, and based on the analysis of Y-chromosomes gives some support to the theory that there was a substantial migration to central and eastern England. [2]

More recently the focus has shifted towards continuity, trying to place Britain in the context of European Late Antiquity. Some of this argument is based on scale. The population of Britain in 400 is unknowable, but is estimated, based on land usage, to have been around 4 million. It is considered unlikely that such a large population was significantly killed or displaced between the fifth and sixth centuries, although examinations of land usage do suggest that the population dropped significantly in this time.[3] Much of the argument for continuity is based onarchaeological evidence, such as investigations of graves and settlements, which suggest that the British population was not killed or displaced, but rather came to adopt Anglo-Saxon culture. Some major Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, such as Bernicia, Deira, Kent and Lindsey, have names that stem from existing political structures. In the laws of king Ine, a late seventh- and early eighth- century king of Wessex, there were Welsh communities living within Wessex who had specific stipulations regarding their legal position. A more complete genetic analysis by the same UCL department as above, again based on Y-chromosome analysis, has also added weight to this view. [4] Ultimately it is unlikely, at least with the current evidence, that this matter will be resolved. Over the course of the Anglo-Saxon period Welshmen living in Wessex, such as those outlined in Ine’s law code, came to be regarded as Anglo-Saxons; no mention of separate stipulations for Welsh communities is provided in Alfred’s ninth-century code, for instance, although he does append Ine’s code to his. It is worth bearing in mind that the extent of Anglo-Saxon migration would have differed considerably across Britain.

Anglo-Saxon culture

Anglo-Saxon architecture

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

Early Anglo-Saxon buildings in Britain were generally simple, constructed mainly using timber with thatch for roofing. Preferring not to settle in the old Roman cities, the Anglo-Saxons built small towns near their centres of agriculture. In each town, a main hall was in the centre, surrounded by the huts of the townspeople.

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. 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 architectural character of Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical buildings range from Coptic influenced architecture in the early period; basilica influenced Romanesque

architecture; and in the later Anglo-Saxon period, an architecture characterised by pilaster-strips, blank arcading, baluster shafts and triangular headed openings.

Anglo-Saxon art

The Alfred Jewel
The Alfred Jewel

Anglo-Saxon art covers the period from the time ofKing 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. Æthelwold manuscript, which drew onHiberno-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 Mediæval 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

Anglo-Saxon, also called Old English, was the language spoken under Alfred the Great and continued to be the common languageof 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 roughly between 1150-1500.

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. The languge today which is closest to Old English is Frisian, which is spoken by a few hundred thousand people in the northern part of the Netherlands and Germany.

Before literacy in the vernacular "Old English" or Latin became widespread, the Runic alphabet,

called the futhorc (also known as futhark), was used for inscriptions. When literacy became more prevalent a form of Latin script was used with a few letters derived from the futhork; 'eth', 'wynn', and 'thorn'.

The letters regularly used in printed and edited texts of OE 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.

Anglo-Saxon law

Numerous law codes exist from the Anglo-Saxon period, giving us an insight into legal culture beyond the influence of Roman law. How this legal culture developed over the course of the Anglo-Saxon period is important for understanding contemporary developments, and how law developed following the Norman Conquest.

Anglo-Saxon literature

First page of the epic Beowulf
First page of the epic Beowulf

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. Cædmon's Hymn from the 7th century is the oldest surviving written text in English.

Anglo-Saxon religion

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

Christianity (both Celtic and Roman) replaced the indigenous religion of the Saxons in England around the 8th and 9th centuries AD. The Synod of Whitby settled the choice for Roman Christianity. As the new clerics became the chroniclers, the old religion was systematically lost before it was recorded and today our knowledge of it is largely based on surviving 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 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:

  • Tiw, the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of Tyr, the god of war: Tuesday
  • Woden, the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of Odin, the one-eyed wise god of storms and the dead: Wednesday
  • Þunor, the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of Thor, the thunder god: Thursday
  • Frige, the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of Freya, the love-goddess: Friday


  1. ^ See, for example, the case of the apparently Old English place-name Rochester, Kent, OE Hrofaescaestre (Leslie Alcock, Arthur's Britain, pp. 194–195).
  2. ^ Y Chromosome Evidence for Anglo-Saxon Mass Migration (2002), Michael E. Weale, Deborah A. Weiss, Rolf F. Jager, Neil Bradman and Mark G. Thomas: Molecular Biology and Evolution 19:1008-1021.
  3. ^ Epidemics could certainly have reduced the population of Britain. There is contemporary annalistic evidence for multiple waves of plague - e.g. Irish Annals, and Bede's account of the plague in his youth - which also known from Mediterranean sources.
  4. ^ A Y Chromosome Census of the British Isles (2003), Cristian Capelli, Nicola Redhead, Julia K. Abernethy, Fiona Gratrix, James F. Wilson, Torolf Moen, Tor Hervig, Martin Richards, Michael P. H. Stumpf, Peter A. Underhill, Paul Bradshaw, Alom Shaha, Mark G. Thomas, Neal Bradman, and David B. Goldstein Current Biology, Volume 13, Issue 11, Pages 979-984 (2003).

Further reading

A good collection of the source material can be found in

  • D. Whitelock, English Historical Documents c.500-1042, (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1955)

For early contemporary understandings of what it meant to be 'Anglo-Saxon' or 'English' see

  • Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans. L. Sherly-Price, (London: Penguin, 1990)

For modern interpretations overviews can be found in

  • 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)

For an introduction to aspects of Anglo-Saxon culture, see the articles in

  • M. Lapidge et al, The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999)
  • For a full reading list, see Simon Keynes' bibliography

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