Medieval Monday: Who Were the Anglo-Saxons?

In my discussion about who the Vikings were and weren’t last week I talked a bit about their conflicts in the British isles with the Anglo-Saxons.  But who exactly were the Anglo-Saxons?  I’ve always been a bit baffled by who these people that added their heritage to that lovely old term W.A.S.P. (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) were.  They couldn’t possibly have been the country club set that they lend their name to, that’s for sure.  So I decided to investigate….

The story of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain begins with the Roman Empire.  Britannia was a major province of the Roman Empire.  The Romans had conquered the island and Romanized its earlier inhabitants, the Celts and the Britons.  It was a thriving province.  Sure, it had to endure the occasional attack from the Scots and the Picts, but it did pretty well.

That all changed in 378.  The Visigoths defeated the Roman emperor Valens at Adrianople.  This caused a series of problems with long-lasting results.  The Romans packed up and left Britannia as troops were recalled from the provinces to protect Rome itself.  This left the peaceful native inhabitants of the Britannia vulnerable to attacks from all directions.  The Visigothic attacks on the European mainland also meant that various other Germanic tribes were being attacked and pushed out of their traditional lands.  Man, those Visigoths caused all sorts of trouble!

Venerable Bede

The Anglo-Saxons were some of those Germanic tribes.  Writing in the 8th century, the monk Bede described them as three peoples.  First were the Angles who came from the area of Angeln in what is modern Germany.  Second were the Saxons who came from lower Saxony.  Third were the Jutes who came from Jutland, which is now part of Denmark.  They migrated into the former Roman province of Britannia slowly but surely through the first couple of centuries after the Romans left.

Of course it’s not as simple as all that.  The migration started out as raids here and there along the coast.  The Romans were a wealthy people, after all, and the inhabitants of Britain had profited from it.  The Anglo-Saxon tribes rushed in at first and took what they wanted before going home.  That was all well and good, but after a couple of raids the tribal leaders stopped to think “Hey wait a minute, it’s pretty nice over there.  And they don’t have Visigoths breathing down their necks!”

As Bede tells it, the entire nation of the Angles moved from the continent to the land that they would give their name to, England, in one mass.  Warriors, women, and children, they picked up and left their traditional homeland.  Bede reports that their previous land was left completely empty by the mass migration.  An entire people just moving to a new place across a sea!  Pretty impressive.

Of course not everyone was happy about this.  The native Britons and Celts were forced out as these new tribes moved in.  The Celts headed west to Wales and across to Ireland while the Britons crossed the Channel and settled in Brittany.  And the newly settled Anglo-Saxons, including the Jutes, had to fend off attacks from their new Scottish and Pictish neighbors.  It was an unsettled time as tribes collided.

And that’s what the Arthurian legend is about, by the way.  Those stories began to be conceived of and told at this time in response to the turmoil.  Arthur was the king of the Britons, the people who had lived in the land since before recorded history.  The enemy in these stories are those rascally Saxons who pushed in and took over.

The discovery of hoards of Anglo-Saxon artifacts, like the one in Staffordshire where these were found, have been in the news lately.

Well, Arthur or no Arthur, it was the Anglo-Saxons who won out in the end.  But they were not a nation or a kingdom in the way we think of nations and kingdoms nowadays.  No, in fact they were a collection of tribes who claimed land here and there.  Their borders were ever-shifting and alliances came and went as generations moved on.  Historians traditionally refer to the period between 600 and 800 as the Heptarchy.  During this time the Anglo-Saxon tribes were largely Christianized.  The balance of power varied between the seven kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, Kent, East Anglia, Essex, Sussex and Wessex.  Things were still very tribal.  Now and then a ruler would show up who had the authority to unite and command all of the kingdoms, like Aethelbert of Kent towards the beginning of this time.  But things fluctuated and recorded history fades in and out through this time.

And then our good friends the Vikings began to show up around 800.  We talked last week about how they settled in the land and asserted their authority over the Anglo-Saxons, how the two nationalities of people warred back and forth for several centuries, each side coming to power for a while only to lose it.

Okay, but what happened to the Anglo-Saxons after that?  I mean, for a while they were the supreme rulers of the area that came to be known as England after them.  Things seemed pretty good between them and the Vikings after a while.  Then what happened?

William the Conqueror is what happened.  In 1066 William, who was from the area of Normandy, gathered an army and crossed the Channel to stake his claim to the English throne.  As we all know, he succeeded.  England entered a whole new era.  So what did he do with all those Anglo-Saxon lords and kings?  Well, he killed a lot of them.  He wasn’t about to have anyone challenging his power and authority.  The rest of them were reduced in rank and blended into the peasantry.

Yes!  My Medieval peasants that I love so well!  That’s what happened to the Anglo-Saxons.  After William the Conqueror most of the nobility of England were those who had fought with him and were granted land and titles as a reward.  In other words, they were Norman.  Which is why the medieval version of French was spoken at court for hundreds of years to come.  But the Anglo-Saxons were still there.

So if you think about it, the Medieval class system of noble and peasant makes sense on a whole new level if you also consider that each class had its roots in a different people.  As has happened so many times before in history, the conquered people became vassals while the conquerors became their lords.  That’s how things remained for many generations to come until those tribal and racial lines blurred with time.

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9 thoughts on “Medieval Monday: Who Were the Anglo-Saxons?

  1. Some of the Celts were still there too, as were the descendants of some of the stone age people who’d been there when the Celts first arrived. Remember how they found some stone age remains in a cave some years back and genetically matched the DNA to some guy living in the local village?

    Also, I would highly recommend Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories series. It’s all about Alfred the Great’s attempts to drive out the Danish invaders and unify the surviving Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

  2. And also, the inhabitants of Brittania ASKED the Angles/ Saxons to come over and defend them. They asked the mercenaries and trained soldiers to come over to protect them from the raiders, so IMO the settlement by the Anglo Saxons was less violent than the Viking one. But of course everything was violent in those days, so it was six of one and half a dozen of the other.

    Also of interest to me is the position of women in Norse and Anglo Saxon societies. It seems that they were far more equal to men: they held property and could divorce their husbands for unreasonable behaviour. They had rights…. then along came the Normans, who made women inferior to men and totally messed up the whole country. Did you know the 2nd or 3rd most common surname in Britain is ‘Williams’? I can imagine it was because everyone was so terrified of William and the Normans that they quickly identified themselves as ‘Williams’ men’. Either that or the non Williams men were quickly killed off.

    Another thing I read was that the Norse were far more attractive than the native Anglo Saxons. There are apparently contemporary accounts accusing the Norse of being too clean and handsome, and coming over here to make off with the native women, who it seemed, preferred them. They bathed once a week, vast numbers of combs and razors and personal grooming tools have been found in their graves, so they must have been very fussy about their appearance. Ibn Fadlan, the 10th century Arab who met some Norsemen and wrote about them, said they were perfect physical specimens, so no wonder they were popular with other societies.

    That was rather a lecture, sorry!

    • Oh I love a good lecture! Thanks!

      Things were so tribal back then that I can imagine that some of the native inhabitants of Britannia would have begged the Anglo-Saxons to come over and others probably would have protested. Yeah, I think a lot of that would have depended on whether or not Norsemen were breathing down their necks.

      That’s also interesting about the cleanliness thing because I remember reading somewhere that various Scandinavian societies were the only ones in Europe who DIDN’T bathe frequently. Now I’m curious & have to dive back into my books. Incidentally, you might enjoy the post I wrote a while ago about how, in fact, Medieval people DID bathe a lot more frequently than pop-culture gives them credit for: http://wp.me/p1GrJf-8p 😉

  3. I just go by the fact that archaeologists found so many combs and grooming tools, like ear spoons, in Norse graves. Far more than other races, apparently. And also I’ve read that the Norsemen always bathed on Saturdays, leading other tribes to sometimes plan their attacks to coincide, so they’d be without their weapons while bathing in the lake. It seems that Scandinavian languages still call Saturday ‘bath day’, i.e. Lordag. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saturday, so it does imply they got the word from somewhere. Apparently the Norsemen also invented saunas and would have those too sometimes.

    My favourite bit is that it seems some of the contemporary accounts were pure jealousy- here come the Norse looking pretty, damn them. lol. Even good old Ibn Fadlan has been revealed as exaggerating when he says they were disgusting in their washing habits.

    Another thing was that the head of Britain during the Roman times (can’t remember his name) apparently wrote a letter to the British tribes explaining why they had to pull out of Britain and that they were now on their own. Which is kind of awful and sweet at the same time.

  4. I’d be slow to accept the word of Bede as he was writing many years after the events in question. To tell the truth, nobody knows with any certainty what went on in Britain after the departure of the Romans. Certainly, the Celts were not pushed West into Wales or Cornwall. That may be true of their culture but genetically it is not. Saxon settlements have been discovered IN Wales. In many areas of England, Brythonic (British language) continued to be in use for hundreds of years. This is certainly true of Cumbria, Lancashire, Devon and my area of Yorkshire. Also, due to the lack of written records, we can’t be sure what the population at large spoke in wider England. There were over 500 years between the arrival of the Germanic people and the invasion of the Normans. Bede himself says that Latin was spoken in Britain, so if we trust him we must large tracts of society were no longer Celtic speaking anyway.

    A new theory on the English language is also gathering acceptance in the academic world. Our language shows evidence of Celtic speakers learning English and changing the way we say our words, rather than the words themselves. The leap between the Old English of ‘Beowulf’ and Middle English gives vital clues in the development of English.This would agree with the theory that the Romano-British changed their culture to fit in with a new ruling elite and modest immigration.

    It is also not feasible that a wholesale population movement took place while committing genocide. There are NO mass graves from this period. What we see is a continuation of settlement but with a large scale shift in culture from the Romano-British culture to a Germanic one.

    Put it this way. It would be like France invading Britain, all the Brits moving to Ireland to escape them and all the French moving to Britain. Not likely, huh?

  5. Further to my last reply. There is no difference between the Celts and the Britons. The Celts were the Britons and vice versa. It is also technically wrong to call the Britons ‘Celts’. They never were ‘Celtic’. They were Britons
    with a Celtic language and a vague Celtic culture. The real Celts were a Central European peoples, called ‘Keltoi’ by the Greeks.

    It is not true that Britons went to Brittany and the Celts went to Wales.

    In terms of culture and language:

    British language survived in Wales, Brittany & Cornwall (also other areas of England temporarily) and Galicia (Northern Spain)
    +
    English language triumphs in England
    +
    Irish language becomes spoken in Scotland, replacing British

    THEN

    Norse impacts English in Northern England and Scotland, being spoken as a first language in many places.

    THEN

    Norman French changes large parts of English

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