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!
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.
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.