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Anglo-Saxon History & Culture

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

For many people, England's history really begins with the Anglo-Saxons. But how much do you really know about them? In this lesson, we'll cover Anglo-Saxon history and check out some major aspects of their culture as well.

The Anglo-Saxons

If a country adopts British customs, we say they've become Anglicized. Wars between England and other nations are known as 'Anglo-' wars. Even the Church of England is often called the Anglican Church. What's with all the angles? Much of British history, and in fact the name of England itself, descends from the Anglo-Saxons, a group who moved into the British Isles in the early medieval period and began to transform England into the nation we know it as today. This is a fascinating period in English history, one defined as much by myths and legends as fact. Does that mean we can't really understand it? Of course not. We just have to find the right angle.

The Arrival of the Anglo-Saxons

In the early 5th century CE, Britain was a Roman province on the remote edges of the empire. The island, mainly inhabited by Celtic tribes and kings, wasn't really that important to the Romans. So, when Rome itself began to fracture and divide, the Romans basically abandoned Britain to secure the empire. With the Romans gone, Britain suddenly became open to other invaders. The Jutes came into Britain from Denmark, while the Angles and Saxons, Germanic tribes, invaded the island from what is now northern Germany. The rough date of their arrival, and what historians consider to be the beginning of England's Anglo-Saxon period, was 410 CE.

The Anglo-Saxons in England (410-1066)

The Jutes, Angles, and Saxons moved into Britain, pushing the Celtic tribes north into what is now Scotland, west into Ireland, and south into Wales. The territory they occupied would eventually become known as England, roughly meaning the 'land of the Angles.' There are some important moments in British history to come from this time. For example, the semi-legendary King Arthur is possibly based on a real Celtic king who fought the Angle invasion.

Over time, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes merged together and formed a series of small towns, which turned into kingdoms. By the 9th century, England had been unified into four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, and Wessex. Egbert became the first king to claim control over all of England. Around this same time, England became the prime focus of Viking raids, and nearly all of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were conquered, except one. Wessex remained, and fought to rid England of the Vikings. Around 954, the Viking ruler of conquered England, Eric Bloodaxe, was killed. Wessex quickly united all of England under a single leader, Edred.

Britain by the 9th century was divided into areas controlled by Celts (green) and those controlled by Anglo-Saxons (pinks)
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Anglo-Saxon kings would rule over England for six centuries. However, in the 11th century, the last Anglo-Saxon king (Edward the Confessor), died without an heir. A succession crisis ensued, which was resolved by another foreign invasion. William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy and cousin of Edward, invaded England from France in 1066, eventually winning the throne and introducing Norman rule. It was the end of the Anglo-Saxon era, and the start of a new period in English history.

Anglo-Saxon Culture

As the group to really unify England into a single, medieval kingdom, it should be no surprise that the Anglo-Saxons left some pretty big impacts on British culture. Let's look at a few elements of Anglo-Saxon culture, but keep in mind that this is the early medieval world; even the most unified of cultures contained infinite localized variations.

Language

Let's start with their language. The Anglo-Saxons introduced Germanic languages into Britain, forming the ancestor to the language you're reading right now. We call the Anglo-Saxon language Old English, and many people are surprised by the fact that it's almost impossible for modern English speakers to read. Old English was a purely Germanic language, while modern English is a Germanic language heavily influenced by French vocabulary (thanks to the Normans). Basically, Old English is a different language from what we speak today. In their Old English, the Anglo-Saxons wrote some of England's first great works of literature, most notably the epic poem Beowulf.

Beowulf, written in Old English by an Anglo-Saxon scribe
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