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11 min
Anglo-Saxons
450 - 1066

Anglo-Saxons

Words: nono umasy


Anglo-Saxon England was early medieval England, existing from the 5th to the 11th centuries from the end of Roman Britain until the Norman conquest in 1066. It consisted of various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms until 927 when it was united as the Kingdom of England by King Æthelstan (r. 927–939). It became part of the short-lived North Sea Empire of Cnut the Great, a personal union between England, Denmark and Norway in the 11th century.






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400 Jan 1

Prologue

England


Prologue


The early Anglo-Saxon period covers the history of medieval Britain that starts from the end of Roman rule. It is a period widely known in European history as the Migration Period, also the Völkerwanderung ("migration of peoples" in German). This was a period of intensified human migration in Europe from about 375 to 800. The migrants were Germanic tribes such as the Goths, Vandals, Angles, Saxons, Lombards, Suebi, Frisii, and Franks; they were later pushed westwards by the Huns, Avars, Slavs, Bulgars, and Alans. The migrants to Britain might also have included the Huns and Rugini. Until AD 400, Roman Britain, the province of Britannia, was an integral, flourishing part of the Western Roman Empire, occasionally disturbed by internal rebellions or barbarian attacks, which were subdued or repelled by the large contingent of imperial troops stationed in the province. By 410, however, the imperial forces had been withdrawn to deal with crises in other parts of the empire, and the Romano-Britons were left to fend for themselves in what is called the post-Roman or "sub-Roman" period of the 5th century.


410 Jan 1

End of Roman rule in Britain

England, UK


End of Roman rule in Britain
Roman-Briton villa
End of Roman rule in Britain


The end of Roman rule in Britain was the transition from Roman Britain to post-Roman Britain. Roman rule ended in different parts of Britain at different times, and under different circumstances. In 383, the usurper Magnus Maximus withdrew troops from northern and western Britain, probably leaving local warlords in charge. Around 410, the Romano-British expelled the magistrates of the usurper Constantine III. He had previously stripped the Roman garrison from Britain and taken it to Gaul in response to the Crossing of the Rhine in late 406, leaving the island a victim to barbarian attacks. Roman Emperor Honorius replied to a request for assistance with the Rescript of Honorius, telling the Roman cities to see to their own defence, a tacit acceptance of temporary British self-government. Honorius was fighting a large-scale war in Italy against the Visigoths under their leader Alaric, with Rome itself under siege. No forces could be spared to protect distant Britain. Though it is likely that Honorius expected to regain control over the provinces soon, by the mid-6th century Procopius recognised that Roman control of Britannia was entirely lost.


420 Jan 1

Migration

Southern Britain


Migration
Migration


It is now widely accepted that the Anglo-Saxons were not just transplanted Germanic invaders and settlers from the Continent, but the outcome of insular interactions and changes. Writing c. 540, Gildas mentions that sometime in the 5th century, a council of leaders in Britain agreed that some land in the east of southern Britain would be given to the Saxons on the basis of a treaty, a foedus, by which the Saxons would defend the Britons against attacks from the Picts and Scoti in exchange for food supplies.


500 Jan 1

Battle of Badon

Unknown


Battle of Badon
Battle of Badon Hill


The Battle of Badon also known as the Battle of Mons Badonicus was a battle purportedly fought between Celtic Britons and Anglo-Saxons in Britain in the late 5th or early 6th century. It was credited as a major victory for the Britons, stopping the encroachment of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms for a period.

560 Jan 1

Development of an Anglo-Saxon society

England


Development of an Anglo-Saxon society
Anglo-Saxon village
Development of an Anglo-Saxon societyDevelopment of an Anglo-Saxon societyDevelopment of an Anglo-Saxon societyDevelopment of an Anglo-Saxon societyDevelopment of an Anglo-Saxon society


In the last half of the 6th century, four structures contributed to the development of society:


  1. the position and freedoms of the ceorl
  2. the smaller tribal areas coalescing into larger kingdoms
  3. the elite developing from warriors to kings
  4. Irish monasticism developing under Finnian (who had consulted Gildas) and his pupil Columba.


The Anglo-Saxon farms of this period are often falsely supposed to be "peasant farms". However, a ceorl, who was the lowest ranking freeman in early Anglo-Saxon society, was not a peasant but an arms-owning male with the support of a kindred, access to law and the wergild; situated at the apex of an extended household working at least one hide of land. The farmer had freedom and rights over lands, with provision of a rent or duty to an overlord who provided only slight lordly input. Most of this land was common outfield arable land (of an outfield-infield system) that provided individuals with the means to build a basis of kinship and group cultural ties.


597 Jun 1

Conversion to Christianity

Canterbury


Conversion to Christianity
Augustine Preaching Before King Ethelbert


Augustine landed on the Isle of Thanet and proceeded to King Æthelberht's main town of Canterbury. He had been the prior of a monastery in Rome when Pope Gregory the Great chose him in 595 to lead the Gregorian mission to Britain to Christianise the Kingdom of Kent from their native Anglo-Saxon paganism. Kent was probably chosen because Æthelberht had married a Christian princess, Bertha, daughter of Charibert I the king of Paris, who was expected to exert some influence over her husband. Æthelberht was converted to Christianity, churches were established, and wider-scale conversion to Christianity began in the kingdom.


617 Jan 1

Kingdom of Northumbria

Kingdom of Northumbria


Kingdom of Northumbria


Northumbria was formed from the coalition of two originally independent states—Bernicia, which was a settlement at Bamburgh on the Northumberland coast, and Deira, lying to the south of it. Aethelfrith, ruler of Bernicia (593–616), won control of Deira, thereby creating the kingdom of Northumbria.

626 Jan 1

Mercian supremacy

Kingdom of Mercia


Mercian supremacy
Battle of Ellandun
Mercian supremacy


The Mercian Supremacy was the period of Anglo-Saxon history between c.626 and c.825, when the kingdom of Mercia dominated the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy. While the precise period during which the Mercian Supremacy existed remains uncertain, the end of the era is generally agreed to be around 825, following the defeat of King Beornwulf at the Battle of Ellandun (near present-day Swindon).

660 Jan 1

Heptarchy

England


Heptarchy
HeptarchyHeptarchyHeptarchy


The political map of Lowland Britain had developed with smaller territories coalescing into kingdoms, and from this time larger kingdoms started dominating the smaller kingdoms. By 600, a new order was developing, of kingdoms and sub-Kingdoms. The medieval historian Henry of Huntingdon conceived the idea of the Heptarchy, which consisted of the seven principal Anglo-Saxon kingdoms:


The four main kingdoms in Anglo-Saxon England were:

  • East Anglia
  • Mercia
  • Northumbria (Bernicia and Deira)
  • Wessex


Minor kingdoms:

  • Essex
  • Kent
  • Sussex

660 Jan 1

Learning and monasticism

Northern England


Learning and monasticism
The Early Monastery, Kilkenny, Co Kilkenny


Anglo-Saxon monasticism developed the unusual institution of the "double monastery", a house of monks and a house of nuns, living next to each other, sharing a church but never mixing, and living separate lives of celibacy. These double monasteries were presided over by abbesses, who became some of the most powerful and influential women in Europe. Double monasteries which were built on strategic sites near rivers and coasts, accumulated immense wealth and power over multiple generations (their inheritances were not divided) and became centers of art and learning. While Aldhelm was doing his work in Malmesbury, far from him, up in the North of England, Bede was writing a large quantity of books, gaining a reputation in Europe and showing that the English could write history and theology, and do astronomical computation (for the dates of Easter, among other things).

793 Jan 1

Fury of the Northmen

Lindisfarne


Fury of the Northmen
Vikings plundering


A Viking raid on Lindisfarne caused much consternation throughout the Christian west and is now often taken as the beginning of the Viking Age. There had been some other Viking raids, but according to English Heritage this one was particularly significant, because "it attacked the sacred heart of the Northumbrian kingdom, desecrating ‘the very place where the Christian religion began in our nation’".


793 Jan 1

West Saxon hegemony

Wessex


West Saxon hegemony
The rise of Wessex
West Saxon hegemony


During the 9th century, Wessex rose in power, from the foundations laid by King Egbert in the first quarter of the century to the achievements of King Alfred the Great in its closing decades.

825 Jan 1

Battle of Ellendun

near Swindon, England


Battle of Ellendun
The Battle of Ellandun (825), from 'Story of the British Nations' by Walter Hutchinson


The Battle of Ellendun or Battle of Wroughton was fought between Ecgberht of Wessex and Beornwulf of Mercia in September 825. Sir Frank Stenton described it as "one of the most decisive battles of English history". It effectively ended Mercian Supremacy over the southern kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England and established West Saxon dominance in southern England.


865 Jan 1

Great Heathen Army

Northumbria, East Anglia, Merc


Great Heathen Army
The Great Heathen Army | ©Victor Ambrus
Great Heathen Army


An enlarged army arrived that the Anglo-Saxons described as the Great Heathen Army. This was reinforced in 871 by the Great Summer Army. Within ten years nearly all of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms fell to the invaders: Northumbria in 867, East Anglia in 869, and nearly all of Mercia in 874–77. Kingdoms, centres of learning, archives, and churches all fell before the onslaught from the invading Danes. Only the Kingdom of Wessex was able to survive.


878 Jan 1

King Alfred and the rebuilding

Wessex


King Alfred and the rebuilding


More important to Alfred than his military and political victories were his religion, his love of learning, and his spread of writing throughout England. Keynes suggests Alfred's work laid the foundations for what really made England unique in all of medieval Europe from around 800 until 1066. This began a growth in charters, law, theology and learning. Alfred thus laid the foundation for the great accomplishments of the tenth century and did much to make the vernacular more important than Latin in Anglo-Saxon culture.

878 May 1

Battle of Edington

Battle of Edington


Battle of Edington
Battle of Edington
Battle of Edington


At first, Alfred responded by the offer of repeated tribute payments to the Vikings. However, after a decisive victory at Edington in 878, Alfred offered vigorous opposition. He established a chain of fortresses across the south of England, reorganised the army, "so that always half its men were at home, and half out on service, except for those men who were to garrison the burhs", and in 896 ordered a new type of craft to be built which could oppose the Viking longships in shallow coastal waters.


When the Vikings returned from the Continent in 892, they found they could no longer roam the country at will, for wherever they went they were opposed by a local army. After four years, the Scandinavians therefore split up, some to settle in Northumbria and East Anglia, the remainder to try their luck again on the Continent.


899 Jan 1

First King of England

England


First King of England
The Battle of Brunanburh is one of the most significant battles in British history | ©Zvonimir Grbasic


During the course of the 10th century, the West Saxon kings extended their power first over Mercia, then into the southern Danelaw, and finally over Northumbria, thereby imposing a semblance of political unity on peoples, who nonetheless would remain conscious of their respective customs and their separate pasts. King Æthelstan, who Keynes calls the "towering figure in the landscape of the tenth century". His victory over a coalition of his enemies – Constantine, King of the Scots; Owain ap Dyfnwal, King of the Cumbrians; and Olaf Guthfrithson, King of Dublin – at the battle of Brunanburh, celebrated by a poem in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, opened the way for him to be hailed as the first king of England.

978 Jan 1

Return of the Vikings

England


Return of the Vikings
Return of the Vikings


Viking raids resumed on England, putting the country and its leadership under strains as severe as they were long sustained. Raids began on a relatively small scale in the 980s but became far more serious in the 990s, and brought the people to their knees in 1009–12, when a large part of the country was devastated by the army of Thorkell the Tall. It remained for Sweyn Forkbeard, king of Denmark, to conquer the kingdom of England in 1013–14, and (after Æthelred's restoration) for his son Cnut to achieve the same in 1015–16.


991 Aug 11

Battle of Maldon

Maldon, Essex


Battle of Maldon
The Battle of Maldon


The Battle of Maldon took place on 11 August 991 AD near Maldon beside the River Blackwater in Essex, England, during the reign of Æthelred the Unready. Earl Byrhtnoth and his thegns led the English against a Viking invasion. The battle ended in an Anglo-Saxon defeat. After the battle Archbishop Sigeric of Canterbury and the aldermen of the south-western provinces advised King Æthelred to buy off the Vikings rather than continue the armed struggle. The result was a payment of 10,000 Roman pounds (3,300 kg) of silver, the first example of Danegeld in England.


1016 Jan 1

Cnut becomes king of England

England


Cnut becomes king of England
The Battle of Assandun


The Battle of Assandun ended in victory for the Danes, led by Cnut the Great, who triumphed over the English army led by King Edmund Ironside. The battle was the conclusion to the Danish reconquest of England. Cnut ruled England for nearly two decades. The protection he lent against Viking raiders—many of them under his command—restored the prosperity that had been increasingly impaired since the resumption of Viking attacks in the 980s. In turn the English helped him to establish control over the majority of Scandinavia, too.


1066 Oct 14

Norman Conquest

Battle of Hastings


Norman Conquest
Battle of Hastings


The Norman Conquest (or the Conquest) was the 11th-century invasion and occupation of England by an army made up of Normans, Bretons, Flemish, and men from other French provinces, all led by the Duke of Normandy later styled William the Conqueror.


1067 Jan 1

Epilogue

England, UK


Epilogue


Following the Norman conquest, many of the Anglo-Saxon nobility were either exiled or had joined the ranks of the peasantry. It has been estimated that only about 8% of the land was under Anglo-Saxon control by 1087. In 1086, only four major Anglo-Saxon landholders still held their lands. However, the survival of Anglo-Saxon heiresses was significantly greater. Many of the next generation of the nobility had English mothers and learnt to speak English at home.


Some Anglo-Saxon nobles fled to Scotland, Ireland, and Scandinavia. The Byzantine Empire became a popular destination for many Anglo-Saxon soldiers, as it was in need of mercenaries. The Anglo-Saxons became the predominant element in the elite Varangian Guard, hitherto a largely North Germanic unit, from which the emperor's bodyguard was drawn and continued to serve the empire until the early 15th century.


However, the population of England at home remained largely Anglo-Saxon; for them, little changed immediately except that their Anglo-Saxon lord was replaced by a Norman lord.





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References



  • Donald Henson, The Origins of the Anglo-Saxons, (Anglo-Saxon Books, 2006)
  • F.M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, 3rd edition, (Oxford: University Press, 1971)
  • Hills, Catherine (2003), Origins of the English, London: Duckworth, ISBN 0-7156-3191-8
  • Stenton, Sir Frank M. (1987) [first published 1943], Anglo-Saxon England, The Oxford History of England, II (3rd ed.), OUP, ISBN 0-19-821716-1
  • Yorke, Barbara (1990), Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England, B. A. Seaby, ISBN 0-415-16639-X


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