Anglo-Saxons

   Germanic peoples who invaded England in the fifth century, the Anglo-Saxons formed enduring institutions and cultural and religious traditions that remained an important part of English society even after their ultimate defeat by William the Conqueror in 1066. Coming from various points on the European continent, the bands that formed the Anglo-Saxon people entered England during the mid-fifth century. The exact details of the invasions and conquest of England by the Anglo-Saxons, however, remain uncertain and shrouded in legend. Indeed, one of the greatest legends of English history, the legend of King Arthur, is rooted in the history of the invasions. Although the details of the origins of the Anglo-Saxons in England are unclear, the later details of their history are not. In brief, they formed a number of smaller kingdoms that gradually coalesced into a more unified realm. They welcomed Christianity, developed sophisticated political and cultural traditions, faced the challenge from the Danes, and, finally, submitted to the Normans.
   According to the Anglo-Saxon historian and monk Bede who wrote in the eighth century, the origins of the Anglo-Saxons are to be found in northern Europe. Bede identifies three main groups of invaders in his history of the English church and people: Angles, Jutes, and Saxons. He notes that the Jutes came from parts of modern Denmark and inhabited the kingdom of Kent and the Isle of Wight. The Saxons were from lands between the Elbe and Ems Rivers and established kingdoms in Essex, Sussex, and Wessex. The Angles settled in the kingdoms of East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria and came originally from lands lying between those of the Jutes and Saxons. Although these three groups are traditionally recognized as the conquerors of Roman Britain, they were most likely accompanied by other Germanic peoples. The Frisians, who lived along the coast of northern Europe, were probably among those who joined the invaders. Indeed, it is likely that many people living along the coast from the modern Netherlands to Denmark were involved in the invasions, a group that may have even included the Swedes.
   The invasion of Britain began in the confusion that attended the Roman withdrawal from the island and the collapse of the Western Empire. According to the earliest accounts, those of Gildas (d. mid-sixth century) and, especially, Bede, the invasions were part of the religious history of the island. For Gildas the invaders were ignorant barbarians who were to be opposed by faithful Christians, but for Bede, they were punishment sent by God to chastise the natives of Britain. In any event, the invasions most likely began in the mid-fifth century, about a generation after the withdrawal of imperial troops from England in 410. Shortly after that withdrawal, the people of England had become subject to raids by Scots and Picts to the north. In order to deal with these raids, according to the traditional account, the British leader Vortigern invited groups of Angles or Saxons to come to England to serve as mercenaries in defense of the region from outsiders. But once having expelled the raiders, the Angles and Saxons, led by the brothers Hengist and Horsa, turned against their masters and began the conquest of England.
   Over the course of the next century, Angles, Saxons, and other groups gradually took control of the island, despite the possible appearance of a leader of resistance, later to be known as King Arthur. Indeed, by the late fifth century the various tribes had established themselves throughout most of the eastern half of the island, from the Humber River in the north to the Thames in the south. It was at this point that "King Arthur" may have appeared and slowed down the process of Anglo-Saxon penetration of the island. But this was at most a temporary setback for the Anglo-Saxons, who were not only successful warriors but also farmers and shepherds who laid claim to the land and slowly colonized England at the same time that they fought the native population. During the sixth century the various groups of Anglo-Saxons formed what is traditionally termed the heptarchy. The famed seven kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England - Kent, Sussex, Essex, Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria - struggled for predominance throughout the Anglo-Saxon period, and from time to time a ruler of one of these kingdoms managed to establish hegemony over the other six. For a time the kingdom of Mercia predominated, and later the kingdom of Wessex provided leadership and unified much of the island, in part due to its most important ruler, Alfred the Great.
   Although the traditional designation of heptarchy suggests a degree of equality among the seven kingdoms, such equality seldom existed, and there were smaller units, like the subkingdom of Deira, which formed part of Northumbria, that were greater than some of the kingdoms of the heptarchy. Moreover, the kingdoms of Essex and Sussex were negligible powers, and already in the seventh century, the kingdom of Mercia had become the leading power of the south. Indeed, under its great king, Penda, Mercia undertook a belligerent and expansive policy that culminated in Mercian hegemony in England. He successfully extended Mercian power over parts of central England and even exacted tribute from the king of Northumbria, Oswy. His death in battle against Oswy slowed, but did not stop, the expansion of the kingdom. In the generation after his death, Christianity was established in Mercia, and Northumbrian overlordship was ended.
   In the eighth century, Mercia reached its greatest heights of power under the kings Æthelbald (r. 716-757) and, especially, Offa. Although he only gradually established his control in Mercia and the rest of England after the murder of Æthelbald, Offa created the most impressive realm before Alfred. He brought much of England from the Humber River to the English Channel under his control, subjugated lesser kings to his authority, and married daughters to kings in Northumbria and Wessex. He built an extensive dyke along the frontier with Wales, reformed the coinage, issued laws, and enjoyed good relations with and the respect of Charlemagne and Pope Hadrian I. Following his death in 796, however, the kingdom fell into gradual decline under the assault of the Vikings and the rise of the power of Wessex.
   As Mercian power declined in the wake of Offa's death, the ascendancy of Wessex began. In the early ninth century, Egbert (r. 802-839) ended Mercian dominance of Wessex and expelled the Mercians from parts of Wessex. He defeated the Mercian king Beornwulf in battle in 825 and broke the power of the rival kingdom. He managed to extend his authority over Essex, Sussex, and Kent, and even conquered and controlled Mercia for a short time. His successors, however, faced an even greater challenge than that posed by the kings of Mercia. Indeed, even before Egbert's death, Danes began raiding the English countryside. Over the next several generations the raids turned into large-scale invasions, and the Danes conquered large sections of England. Wessex withstood the onslaught, and its kings forged marriage pacts with their defeated rivals in Mercia to better withstand the assault. In 865, the situation became critical, as Danish pressure increased and Danish armies seized much of England outside Wessex.
   The efforts of Æthelred I (r. 865-871) and, especially, Alfred halted the Danish advance. Indeed, after some initial setbacks, Alfred took back control of much of England below the Humber from the Danes and was recognized as king of all the English not subject to the Danes. In the early tenth century, Edward the Elder completed his father's struggle with the Danes and rid the island of their influence for much of the tenth century. Alfred not only enjoyed success against the Danes but also restructured English defense and military organization. He was a great patron of learning and personally translated a number of important religious texts. He also worked closely with the church and elevated the ideal of kingship. One of the greatest of all English kings, Alfred unified England under the authority of the kingdom of Wessex, and his dynasty ruled England until the Anglo-Saxon defeat at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and the conquest of England by the Normans.
   Political division and eventual unification characterized Anglo-Saxon history before the Norman conquest, and it was matched by division and unification in religion. Like many of the peoples who established kingdoms in the former Roman Empire, the Anglo-Saxons converted to Christianity, but only after an internal struggle between traditional religion and the new faith. They also faced divisions within Christianity, although their division was between Irish and Roman Catholic Christianity instead of the struggle faced by the Franks and Goths between Arian and Catholic Christianity. Although the island had received Christianity while under imperial rule, its loss of contact with the continent contributed to the breakdown of the church. During the sixth and seventh centuries, efforts to Christianize the island were launched from both Rome and Ireland.
   The conversion of the Anglo-Saxons was begun in earnest at the end of the sixth century by St. Augustine of Canterbury, who had been sent on his mission by Pope Gregory I, traditionally referred to as the Great. Augustine established himself in Canterbury in 597, where he became archbishop and introduced Roman institutional structures. His greatest success came with the conversion of Aethelberht, the king of Kent, whose wife, Bertha, was a Merovingian Frank and a Christian. In a great outdoor ceremony, Aethelberht, who was greeted by a procession of monks singing psalms and carrying the cross, accepted Christianity and allowed the mission to continue. Bede notes that more churches were built, including one at Canterbury by Aethelberht, and that the king's subjects also came to the faith. The conversion of Aethelberht aided in the conversion of other parts of Anglo-Saxon England, including the northern kingdom of Northumbria, whose king, Edwin, married a daughter of Aethelberht.
   Edwin only gradually came to the faith and needed the approval of a royal council before accepting baptism. Although there was a pagan reaction in the generation after Edwin's death, his conversion brought Christianity to the north, and it survived both his death and the pagan reaction. The conversion of Northumbria, however, was further complicated by the influence of Irish Catholic Christianity, which maintained a unique organizational structure; Irish Catholics also calculated the date of Easter and tonsured their clergy in their own way, rather than following the practice of the Roman church. Irish missionaries were active in England and the continent in the seventh century and offered an attractive alternative to Roman Christianity. At the great Synod of Whitby in 664, however, King Oswy accepted the teachings and organization of the Roman church. His decision had a great impact on the church and people of England in the generations to come.
   The conversion of Northumbria, which completed the conversion of all of Anglo-Saxon England, was of great and lasting significance. Indeed, until the Reformation England and Rome maintained a special relationship. The Anglo-Saxon church promoted this tie, and as a result the tie greatly influenced cultural and political events in the eighth and ninth centuries. One of the more significant results of the conversion of England was the development of literary culture that followed it. The greatest expression of this culture was the so-called Northumbrian Renaissance of the seventh and eighth century. Associated with the monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow and their founder, Benedict Biscop, the revival had as its most important figure was the man known as the Venerable Bede, one of the most influential historians of the Middle Ages as well as a noted Christian scholar. Bede's work on time was very popular among Christian scholars in the Middle Ages; his history of the English church and people was one of the first great national histories and remained an influential work throughout the Middle Ages. The renaissance influenced Carolingian culture because of the numerous books collected by Benedict Biscop, Bede, and others for their monasteries, many of which found their way to the Frankish kingdom through Alcuin. Alcuin also introduced many of the ideals of the renaissance to his fellow Carolingian scholars and ecclesiastics.
   The Latin literary tradition of Bede, Alcuin, and others is matched by an equally impressive and important literary tradition in the Anglo-Saxon tongue, which includes both secular and religious material. The most famous example of Old English literature, of course, is Beowulf, which is preserved in a single manuscript from around the year 1000. It is a 3,182-line epic poem that recounts the heroic life and death of its main character, Beowulf, the great king of the Geats, who defeated three terrible monsters and ruled his people wisely after rescuing the king of the Danes from Grendel and his mother. Although Christianized, the poem reveals many of the traditional virtues of the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons. Other important Old English literary works include The Battle of Brunanburh and The Battle of Maldon. The Battle of Brunanburh includes dramatic battle scenes and a panegyric to King Æthelstan (r. 924-939); it concerns an important battle in the unification of England. The Battle of Maldon exists only as a fragment, but it is celebrated for its depiction of warrior virtues maintained in adversity in its tale of an English loss to Viking invaders. Along with the secular verse tradition, there exists a body of Old English religious poetry. The most important example is The Dream of the Rood, in which the Rood, the Cross on which Christ was crucified, speaks of the importance of the crucifixion and of its own role and describes Jesus as a traditional Anglo-Saxon hero.
   The Anglo-Saxon literary corpus also contains a number of prose works. The most significant of these is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The chronicle, first compiled in the late ninth century, is one of the most valuable sources for the early history of England; it covers the entire period from the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in England to their defeat by William the Conqueror. Some manuscript traditions of the chronicle continue into the Norman period, extending into the 1120s. Other prose works include the many translations made by King Alfred or his court. Alfred was responsible for translations into English of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, as well as of various works by St. Augustine of Hippo and Pope Gregory I, known as the Great. He also sponsored translations of Gregory's Dialogues and Bede's history. Alfred himself was the subject of a biography, in Latin, by Asser, which is an important part of the Anglo-Saxon tradition of writing history and biography. Finally, in the late Anglo-Saxon period, the ecclesiastics Ælfric and Wulfstan composed a number of sermons in English that advocated reform, lamented the moral decay of the Anglo-Saxons, and expressed the belief that they were living in the Last Days.
   See also
   Bibliography
 ♦ Arnold, Christopher J. Roman Britain to Saxon Shore. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.
 ♦ Bassett, Steven, ed. The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. Leicester, UK: Leicester University Press, 1989.
 ♦ Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People with Bede's Letter to Egbert and Cuthbert's Letter on the Death of Bede. Trans. Leo Sherley-Price. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1991.
 ♦ Blair, Peter Hunter. The World of Bede. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
 ♦ Gildas. The Ruin of Britain and Other Works. Ed. and trans. Michael Winterbottom. London: Phillimore, 1978.
 ♦ Heaney, Seamus, trans. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2000.
 ♦ Higham, Nicholas J. The Convert Kings: Power and Religious Affiliation in Early Anglo-Saxon England. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1997.
 ♦ Howe, Nicholas. Migration and Mythmaking in Anglo-Saxon England. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.
 ♦ Keynes, Simon, and Michael Lapidge, trans. Alfred the Great: Asser's Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1983.
 ♦ Myres, John N. L. The English Settlements. Oxford: Clarendon, 1986.
 ♦ Sawyer, Peter H. From Roman Britain to Norman England. 2d ed. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.
 ♦ Stenton, Frank M. Anglo-Saxon England. 3d ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1971.
 ♦ Whitelock, Dorothy, ed. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1986.
 ♦ Yorke, Barbara. Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England. London: Seaby, 1990.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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