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For their language, see Anglo-Saxon language.

Anglo-Saxon is the term usually used to describe the invading tribes in the south and east of Great Britain from the early 5th century AD, and their creation of the English nation, to the Norman conquest of 1066. The Benedictine monk, Bede, identified them as the descendants of three Germanic tribes:

  • The Angles, who may have come from Angeln, and Bede wrote that their whole nation came to Britain , leaving their former land empty. The name 'England' or 'Aenglaland' originates from this tribe.
  • The Saxons, from Lower Saxony (German: Niedersachsen, Germany)
  • The Jutes, from the Jutland peninsula.

They spoke closely related Germanic dialects and may have traced a common heritage to the Ingvaeones as described by the Roman historian Tacitus. Place names seem to show that smaller numbers of some other Germanic tribes came over: Frisians at Fresham, Freston, and Friston; Flemings at Flempton and Flimby; Swabians at Swaffham; perhaps Franks at Frankton and Frankley.


The term "Anglo-Saxon" is from Latin writings going back to the time of King Alfred the Great, who seems to have frequently used the title rex Anglorum Saxonum or rex Angul-Saxonum (king of the Angles and Saxons).

The Old English terms ænglisc and Angelcynn ("Angle-kin", gens Anglorum) when they are first attested had already lost their original sense of referring to the Angles to the exclusion of the Saxons, and in their earliest recorded sense refers to the nation of Germanic peoples who settled England in and after the 5th century.

The indigenous British people, who wrote in both Latin and Welsh, referred to these invaders as Saxones or Saeson - the latter is still used today in the Welsh word for 'English' people.

The term Angli Saxones seems to have first been used in continental writing nearly a century before Alfred's time by Paul the Deacon, historian of the Lombards, probably to distinguish the English Saxons from the continental Saxons.

There is a theory that the name of the Angles came from the Germanic and Indo-European root ang- = "narrow", i.e. "the people who live by the Narrow Water (i.e. the Schlei inlet)".

Anglo-Saxon history

The history of Anglo-Saxon England broadly covers early medieval England from the end of Roman rule and the establishment of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the 5th century until the Conquest by the Normans in 1066.

Origins (AD 400–600)

Migration of Germanic peoples to Britain from what is now northern Germany and southern Scandinavia is attested from the 5th century (e.g. Undley bracteate). Based on Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, the intruding population is traditionally divided into Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, but their composition was likely less clear-cut and may also have included Frisians and Franks. The Parker Library holds the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which contains text that may be the first recorded indications of the movement of these Germanic Tribes to Britain. The Angles and Saxons and Jutes were noted to be a confederation in the Greek Geographia written by Ptolemy in around AD 150.

Heptarchy (600–800)

Christianization of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms began around 600 and was essentially complete by the mid 8th century. Throughout the 7th and 8th centuries, power fluctuated between the larger kingdoms. Bede records Aethelbert of Kent as being dominant at the close of the 6th century, but power seems to have shifted northwards to the kingdom of Northumbria. The so-called 'Mercian Supremacy' dominated the 8th century, though again it was not constant. Aethelbald and Offa, the two most powerful kings, achieved high status. This period has been described as the Heptarchy, though this term has now fallen out of academic use. The word arose on the basis that the seven kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, Kent, East Anglia, Essex, Sussex and Wessex were the main polities of south Britain. More recent scholarship has shown that several other kingdoms were politically important across this period: Hwicce, Magonsaete, Lindsey and Middle Anglia.

Viking Age (800–1066)

In the 9th century, the Viking challenge grew to serious proportions. Alfred the Great's victory at Edington in 878 brought intermittent peace, but the Danes with the foundation of Jorvik gained a permanent foothold in England.

An important development of the 9th century was the rise of the Kingdom of Wessex, and by the end of his reign Alfred was recognized as overlord by several southern kingdoms. Æthelstan was the first king to achieve direct rulership of what is considered "England".

Near the end of the 10th century, there was renewed Scandinavian interest in England, with the conquests of Sweyn of Denmark and his son Canute. After various fluctuations, by 1066 there were several people with a claim to the English throne, resulting in two invasions and the battles of Stamford Bridge and Hastings, giving rise to the High Medieval Anglo-Norman rule of England.



Early Anglo-Saxon buildings in Britain were generally simple, constructed mainly using timber with thatch for roofing. Generally preferring not to settle in the old Roman cities, the Anglo-Saxons built small towns near their centres of agriculture. In each town, a main hall was in the centre.

There are few remains of Anglo-Saxon architecture, with no secular work remaining above ground. At least fifty churches are of Anglo-Saxon origin, with many more claimed to be, although in some cases the Anglo-Saxon part is small and much-altered. All surviving churches, except one timber church, are built of stone or brick and in some cases show evidence of re-used Roman work.

The architectural character of Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical buildings ranges from Coptic influenced architecture in the early period; basilica influenced Romanesque architecture; to in the later Anglo-Saxon period, an architecture characterised by pilaster-strips, blank arcading, baluster shafts and triangular headed openings.


Anglo-Saxon art covers the period from the time of King Alfred (871–899), with the revival of English culture after the end of the Viking raids, to the early 12th century, when Romanesque art became the new movement. Prior to Alfred there had been the Hiberno-Saxon culture (the fusion of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic techniques and motifs) which ceased with the Vikings.

Anglo-Saxon art is mainly known today through illuminated manuscripts. It includes the Benedictional of St. Æthelwold manuscript, which drew on Hiberno-Saxon art, Carolingian art and Byzantine art for style and iconography. A "Winchester style" developed that combined both northern ornamental traditions with Mediterranean figural traditions and can be seen in the Leofric Missal (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodl, 579). The Harley Psalter was a knockoff of the Carolingian Utrecht Psalter —all of which underscores the larger trend of an Anglo-Saxon culture coming into increasing contact with, and under the influence of, a wider Latin Mediæval Europe.

Manuscripts were not the only Anglo-Saxon art form, although they are the most well known to have survived. Perhaps the best known piece of Anglo-Saxon art is the Bayeux Tapestry which was commissioned by a Norman patron from English artists working in the traditional Anglo-Saxon style. The most common example of Anglo-Saxon art is coins, with thousands of examples extant. Anglo-Saxon artists also worked in fresco, ivory, stone carving, metalwork (see Fuller brooch for example) and enamel, but few of these pieces have survived.


Old English, sometimes called Anglo-Saxon, was the language spoken under Alfred the Great and continued to be the common language of England (non-Danelaw) until after the Norman Conquest of 1066 when, under the influence of the Anglo-Norman language spoken by the Norman ruling class, it changed into Middle English roughly between 1150–1500.

Old English is far closer to early Germanic than Middle English. It is less Latinized and retains many morphological features (nominal and verbal inflection) that were lost during the 12th to 14th centuries. The languages today which are closest to Old English are the Frisian languages, which are spoken by a few hundred thousand people in the northern part of the Netherlands and Germany.

Before literacy in the vernacular Old English or Latin became widespread, the Runic alphabet, called the futhorc (also known as futhark) was used for inscriptions. When literacy became more prevalent, a form of Latin script was used with a few letters derived from the futhork: 'Eth,' 'Wynn,' and 'Thorn.'

The letters regularly used in printed and edited texts of Old English are the following:

  • a æ b c d ð e f g h i l m n o p r s t þ u w x y

with only rare occurrences of j, k, q, v, and z.


Very few law codes exist from the Anglo-Saxon period to provide an insight into legal culture beyond the influence of Roman law and how this legal culture developed over the course of time. The Saxons choped off hands and noses for punishment (if they stole something or did a other crime)but if a person killed a Saxon. They had to pay money. The hight of the money depended on if the person killed a slave or a freeman.


Old English literary works include genres such as epic poetry, hagiography, sermons, Bible translations, legal works, chronicles, riddles, and others. In all there are about 400 surviving manuscripts from the period, a significant corpus of both popular interest and specialist research.

The most famous works from this period include the poem Beowulf, which has achieved national epic status in Britain. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a collection of important early English history. Cædmon's Hymn from the 7th century is the earliest attested literary text in English.


The indigenous pre-Christian belief system of the Anglo-Saxons was a form of Germanic paganism and therefore closely related to the Old Norse religion, as well as other Germanic pre-Christian cultures.

Christianity (particularly the Roman Catholic Church) gradually replaced the indigenous religion of the English around the 7th and 8th centuries. Christianity was introduced into Northumbria and Mercia by monks from Ireland, but the Synod of Whitby settled the choice for Roman Christianity. As the new clerics became the chroniclers, the old religion was partially lost before it was recorded, and today historians' knowledge of it is largely based on surviving customs and lore, texts, etymological links and archaeological finds.

One of the few recorded references is that a Kentish King would only meet the missionary St. Augustine in the open air, where he would be under the protection of the sky god, Woden. Written Christian prohibitions on acts of paganism are one of historians' main sources of information on pre-Christian beliefs.

Despite these prohibitions, numerous elements of the pre-Christian culture of the Anglo-Saxon people survived the Christianization process. Examples include the English language names for days of the week:

  • Tiw, the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of Tyr: Tuesday
  • Woden, the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of Odin: Wednesday
  • Þunor, the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of Thor: Thursday
  • *Fríge, the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of Frigg: Friday

Contemporary meanings

"Anglo-Saxon" is still used as a term for the original West Germanic component of the modern English language, which was later expanded and developed through the influence of Old Norse and Norman French, though linguists now more often refer to it as Old English. In the 19th century the term "Anglo-Saxon" was broadly used in philology, and is sometimes so used at present.

In popular usage in Canada and the United States, the term "Anglo-Saxon" (as in "White Anglo-Saxon Protestant" or "WASP") has evolved into a politicised term with little connection to its academic definition. Until about 1960 it described a person of European origin fitting a certain socio-economic and/or ethnic profile.

For over a hundred years, the French have used "Anglo-Saxon" to refer to the Anglophone societies of Britain and the United States, and sometimes (rarely) including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. It is a wide-ranging term, taking in the English-speaking world's influential language, culture, technology, wealth, markets, economy, and legal systems.

See also



  • Oppenheimer, Stephen. The Origins of the British (2006). Constable and Robinson, London. ISBN 1-84529-158-1

Further reading

  • D. Whitelock, English Historical Documents c.500–1042, (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1955)
  • Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans. L. Sherly-Price, (London: Penguin, 1990)
  • F.M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, 3rd edition, (Oxford: University Press, 1971)
  • J. Campbell et al, The Anglo-Saxons, (London: Penguin, 1991)
  • E. James, Britain in the First Millennium, (London: Arnold, 2001)
  • M. Lapidge et al, The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999)
  • Donald Henson, The Origins of the Anglo-Saxons, (Anglo-Saxon Books, 2006)

External links

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