Category: Introducing the Anglo-Saxons

The Heptarchy (7th-9th century)

Map of the Heptarchy
Figure 1 Map of Britain showing Heptarchy c. 800 CE

By the early 7th century the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms had merged and grown to form seven areas: Northumbria; Mercia; East Anglia; Essex; Kent; Sussex; and Wessex. The idea of the Heptarchy first appears in the writings of Henry of Huntingdon in the 12th century. The kingdoms themselves date back to an earlier foundation but were identified as the ones which gradually absorbed neighbouring kingdoms during the middle of the Anglo-Saxon period and prior to the final emergence of England as a single kingdom in the late 10th century.

However, the idea of the Heptarchy was not one recognised by the people of those kingdoms at the time, and may even obscure the differences and complexities of relationship if taken too literally.

However, we will take a very brief look at the history if each of the kingdoms below.

Northumbria

The kingdom of Northumbria formed out of two separate kingdoms: Deira (at the centre and east of modern Yorkshire) centred on York; and Bernicia (from the Tees up to Edinburgh) centred on Bamburgh.

While there is archaeological evidence the Anglo-Saxons had reached Eboracum (Eoforwīc) by 500 CE and Ripon some time in 5th century, their expansion to the west delayed by the British kingdom of Elmet.   Burial places suggest that during earliest period they settled mostly around the Yorkshire Wolds.  

With two kingdoms and two dynasties much of early Northumbrian history is a story of rivalry and internal conflict. However, the Bernician house was almost always more powerful, except for the period 616-632 CE when Edwin of Deira was king of Northumbria and Bretwalda (overlord) of all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

This was the beginning of the time when Northumbria was at its peak in the 7th century. Its “Golden Age” was the kingdom’s major contribution to Anglo-Saxon history and culture religious, with a flowering of artistic and intellectual achievements including the Lindisfarne Gospels and the works of Bede.

Edwin’s father Aelle is Deira’s first recorded king but according to tradition, following his death around 588 CE, Athelric of Bernicia took Deira and Athelfrith (Athelric’s son) united Northumbria into a single kingdom 592-616 CE and married Aelle’s daughter Acha. Meanwhile, Edwin went into exile.

Traditionally Ida was the first Bernician king and began his reign in 547 CE and it was his grandson Athelfrith who united Northumbria.

At the Battle of Chester (c. 613/616 CE) Athelfrith attacked and defeated the Britons under the leadership of the king of Powys. Before the battle Athelfrith’s men, by his orders, slaughtered a group of monks from Bangor, who had come to pray for the British victory. The battle brought the English to the Irish Sea and separated Britons in Wales from those to the north.   

However, Edwin was still seeking a return to power and with the support of Raedwald of East Anglia he defeated Athelfrith and became king of Northumbria and, after Raedwald’s death, the first northern Bretwalda. He expanded Northumbrian power significantly as well as converting with his kingdom to Christianity.

Edwin was defeated in battle in 632 CE and succeeded eventually by his nephew, Oswald, who was the son of Athelfrith and Edwin’s sister Acha. Oswald in turn was succeeded by his brother Oswiu, and both of them were also Bretwaldas.

After Oswiu died in 670 CE there was an extended period of chaos and conflict. In fact, 14 different kings reigned between 705-806 CE. There is reference to Ecgbert of Wessex accepting the submission of Northumbria at Dore in Derbyshire in 829 CE but the extent of this “submission” is not entirely clear.

The Viking raid in Lindisfarne in 793 CE saw the beginning of extended Viking attacks during the 9th century culminating in the establishment of the Viking Kingdom of York in 866 CE. Deira remained under Scandinavian control but Bernicia separated and continued to be ruled by Anglo-Saxon kings until 927 CE when it submitted to King Athelstan, grandson of Alfred.

The Kingdom of York changed hands back and forth until it was finally overthrown in 954 CE by King Eadred.

Mercia

Founded by the Iclingas people along the Trent valley, Mercia lay between other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to the east and the British kingdoms of modern day Wales to the west. The name of “Mercia” means “Kingdom of the Boundary (or Mark)” and it originally covered the modern day Midlands counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Rutland, Leicestershire, Staffordshire and Warwickshire. It came to dominance after the fall of Northumbria until the early 9th century following the death of its great king, Offa. At its greatest extent it expanded to include Northamptonshire and Huntingdonshire, Hertfordshire and Worcestershire, Cheshire, Shropshire, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Middlesex and Lincolnshire.

The centre of the kingdom was originally at Lichfield, while the king had an important royal site at Tamworth. 

Cearl, a king of unknown ancestry, gave his daughter in marriage to Edwin of Deira (part of Northumbria) around 615 CE. He seems to have been succeeded by Penda (d. 655 CE); Penda was the king responsible for considerable Mercian expansion and a fantastically successful warlord. He killed Kings Edwin and Oswald of Northumbria, as well as Kings Anna, Ecgric and Sigeric of East Anglia. Mercian expansion continued under Wulfhere and Athelred. Later Athelbald (r. 716-757) gained control of London. Following his assassination by his own bodyguard, his cousin Offa eventually took control of the kingdom (r. 757-796 CE), and under his rule the kingdom reached its zenith.

Offa is remembered today for the earthworks known as Offa’s Dyke, separating Mercia from Wales. The construction of this earthwork alone demonstrates significant power and control of resources were available to the king. However, Offa is also known for corresponding with Charlemagne over trade and minting a robust coinage. His relationship with the Church was somewhat difficult as he attempted to exercise wider control and he was even able to establish a third Archbishopric at Lichfield towards the end of his reign. After Offa’s death Mercia suffered internal conflict between competing dynasties and was eventually overcome by Ecgbert of Wessex in the early 9th century.

Under the rule of Alfred the Great in Wessex, his daughter Athelflaed married Athelred who was the Ealdormann of Mercia, its ruler under the power of the Wessex king. Following the death of Athelred, Athelflaed took over the kingdom under the title “Lady of the Mercians”. She worked alongside her brother Edward the Elder of Wessex to push back the Viking control in the Danelaw. When she died in 918 CE she was succeeded by her daughter, Alfwynn, the only female ruler to succeed her mother in English history. King Edward then annexed Mercia fully under Wessex and sent his royal niece to a convent.

The Staffordshire Hoard, a huge hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork, primarily military in nature, was unearthed in a field near Lichfield, in Staffordshire on 5th July 2009. The artefacts were discovered in what was the heartland of Mercia and have been dated to the 7th century during the early Mercian expansion.

East Anglia

The Anglo-Saxons settled firstly in the north of East Anglia, where the earliest evidence of their arrival has been unearthed dating to the 5th century, succeeding the Roman civitas of Venta Icenorum. East Anglia primarily covered the counties of Norfolk, occupied by the North Angle Folk and Suffolk, the territory of the South Angle Folk.

Wuffa founded the kingdom of the East Anglia circa 575 CE as a result of the uniting of the North and South Folk. Bede tells us that his descendants were known as the Wuffingas (‘wolf-people’ or ‘wolflings’) and that there was a royal palace at Rendlesham, which is about 4 miles from Sutton Hoo at the estuary of the River Deben, near Woodbridge, where the famous ship burial was discovered in 1939.

Wuffa was the grandfather of Radwald, who was the 4th overlord of the southern English around 616-624 CE. It is commonly suggested that the Sutton Hoo ship burial, was for him. Raedwald achieved military success against Athelfrith of Northumbria in support of Edwin, although his eldest son was killed in the battle. Edwin maintained contact with the kingdom and supported its conversion to Christianity which had been ambivalent under Raedwald.

The rise of Mercia under Penda ended East Anglia’s independence by the end of the 7th century although its dynasty did continue to issue coins during the 8th century. The East Anglians were able to overthrown the Mercian control in the early 9th century with the help of Ecgbert of Wessex, but at the price of accepting Wessex overlordship instead.

Viking raids impacted the area dramatically, although there are relatively few place names if Scandinavian origin. In 865 CE the Great Army of the Vikings wintered at Thetford where King Edmund of East Anglia attacked them and was defeated and killed. Eventually Guthrum became the ruler there under agreement with Alfred of Wessex until it was finally taken back under Wessex by Edward the Elder in his campaigns of the early 10th century.

Essex

The region of the East Saxons was settled from around 500 CE, north and east of London. It comprised the modern counties of Essex, Hertfordshire and Middlesex, which included London. However, a Saxon population existed in the area from the late 4th century being the descendants of Roman foederati (mercenaries). Unusually for Anglo-Saxon dynasties, the kings traced their descent from the god Seaxnet rather than Woden, via a king names Sledd, who was father of Saebert.

The Anglo-Saxon burial at Prittlewell is considered to be of a member of the ruling East Saxon royal family, although agreement on which is the most likely candidate remains elusive.

The East Saxon bishopric of St Pauls was founded in London in 604 CE during Saebert’s rule, following conversion under the dominance of Athelbert of Kent. His son and successor rebelled against both Kent and Christianity but the kingdom was converted again under Sigebert with pressure this time from King Oswiu of Northumbria in 653 CE. A final brief lapse followed in 663/4 but this time Mercia ensured the conversion became permanent.

From the beginning of the 7th century London was the main town of the kingdom and it had also extended its boundaries further south of the Thames where they came into conflict with Wessex for the control of Surrey. Mercia also sought control of London, wanting its trading links, and managed to detach it form Essex in the early 8th century. In 825 CE King Ecgbert of Wessex defeated the Mercians at the Battle of Ellandun and took London and at around this time Essex also became a dependency of Wessex.

Sussex

Sussex is another kingdom about which very little is known until 675 CE when Athelwalh converted to Christianity. It was centred on the Forest of Andred and Bede says that its King Aelle was the first Bretwalda in Anglo-Saxon history (c. 500 CE). The foundation legend for the kingdom says that in 477 CE Aelle arrived at Cymenshore in three ships with his three sons: Cissa, Cymen and Wlencing. He then slew the local defenders and engaged in numerous battels with the British. However, there is no archaeological evidence for the foundation of Sussex. In fact there is evidence for Germanic settlement earlier in the 5th century and may even represent territory which was granted to the Saxons by the local Romano-British. Certainly the Saxons there became the dominant culture, although relatively isolated by the geography of the Sussex Weald from neighbouring kingdoms. Little is known of their kings, and it appears that there were multiple rulers, who may have represented fragmented smaller kingdoms. The South Saxons were the last to convert to Christianity in the latter part of the 7th century.

Sussex was ruled at interchangeably by Mercia under Wulfhere (d. 674 CE), Athelbald (720s/730s CE) and Offa (d. 796 CE), and by Wessex under Cadwalla and Ine in the late 7th and early 8th centuries, then Ecgbert in 827 CE, who took it back from Mercia and permanently absorbed it into Wessex.

Kent

There is evidence of Germanic settlement in the Romano-British period in the late 4th century

Their foundation legend tells the story of brothers Hengest (“Stallion”) and Horsa (“Horse”) who were the ancestors of the Oiscingas through Hengest’s son Oisc. They were invited to Britain by Vortigern, a British ruler, and may be a memory of a negotiated settlement of mercenaries rather than invasion especially as the name Cantware, which they took, was derived from a British name. They are also traditionally described as Jutes in origin, rather than Angles or Saxons, and in general the kingdom demonstrates a number of differences from other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in terms of art, material culture and inheritance traditions and land measurements.

Late 6th century artefacts from Kent are more accomplished than other English kingdom and the material culture is closely related to the Frankish Rhineland, and its geography provided it with excellent trading links to the Continent.  Athelberht of Kent (d. 616 CE) married Bertha, a Christian princess from Paris. Bede tells us that Athelberht, one of the Bretwaldas, ‘extended the boundaries of his dominion as far as the great river Humber by which the southern and northern peoples of the English are separated’.

In 597 CE Augustine’s mission from the Pope in Rome arrived in Kent and Bertha persuaded him to allow Augustine to set up a base in Kent at Canterbury, the kingdom’s centre. The arrival of Christian clergy introduced written record-keeping along with attempting to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons (the British were often already Christians dating back to the Roman period). Athelberht was able to record his Law Code in writing, and this document represents not only the first recorded Germanic law code but also the earliest document in a vernacular language, as it was written in Old English rather than Latin.

The kingdom was at its height under Athelberht but retained its own kings until the early 9th century, although recognising Mercian overlordship of Athelbald in the first half of the 8th century and subordinate to Offa at the end of the 8th century. Along with other Mercian dominions Kent fell under the control of Ecgbert of Wessex in the 9th century.

Wessex

Bede tells us that originally the West Saxons were known as the Gewisse, based in the Upper Thames Valley. Their foundation legend tells the story of Cerdic

The early period if the kingdom is very obscure. In the 7th century they took over the Jutish kingdoms in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight under the leadership of King Cadwalla. He was succeeded by Ine (r. 688-726 CE) under whom the situation stabilised. However, the succession after him was confused and stability was really only regained under Ecgbert (r. 802-839 CE). It was Ecgbert who expanded the territory of the kingdom, and took Kent, Sussex, Surrey and Essex from Mercian control.

Conversion to Christianity took place under Cynegils (c. 640 CE) as a requirement of King Oswald of Northumbria who was the Bretwalda. The kingdom’s first bishopric was at Dorchester-on-Thames but later moved to Winchester, which was also the kingdom’s capital.

Ecgbert was succeeded by his son Athelwulf, then his son Alfred, Alfred’s son Edward and grandson Athelstan, who was the first King of all the English.

England eventually emerged as a single nation at the coronation of King Edgar, the first king to be crowned as King of England in 973 CE, and whose Coronation Oath is the basis for the one in use today.

Anglo-Saxon England (10th-11th century)

Athelstan “the Glorious” fought a great battle at Brunanburh in 937 CE. It was such an important battle that the writer of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a contemporary annal, was moved to compose a poem rather than just a simple record of events. It begins:

“Her Aethelstan cyning, eorla dryhten,

beorna beag-giefa, and his brothor eac,

Eadmund aetheling, ealdor-langetir

geslogon aet saecce sweorda ecgum

ymbe Brunanburh.”

“In this year, King Athelstan, lord of earls,
ring-giver of warriors, and his brother as well,
Eadmund atheling [prince] achieved everlasting glory
in battle, with the edges of swords
near Brunanburh.”

(Trans. Copyright © 2021 Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey)

The poem describes the battle between an army of Wessex and Mercia against the Vikings of the Kingdom of York with their allies from Dublin, Strathclyde, the Scots and the Welsh, and took an historic victory. Afterwards, he styled himself as “King of All Britain” on his coinage and.

York and Bernicia did not accept their fate entirely quietly and it wasn’t until 954 CE that Eadwig (r. 955-959 CE) was able to take York back under English control.

Edgar “Pacificus” (or Peacemaker) was king of Northumbria and Mercia during his brother Eadwig’s reign (957-959 CE) and then succeeded to the full kingdom of England on Eadwig’s death, ruling until 975 CE. Rather unusually Edgar had a spectacular consecration of his kingship in 973 CE, when he was crowned as “King of England” – the first time the title was used. Before then Athelstan and his successors had been called (among other titles) simply King of the English.

Edgar’s coronation was significant for a number of reasons. He used a new Coronation Oath, which is still broadly the one used by Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 at her coronation; he also was crowned alongside his wife, who was the first anointed Queen of England. The event took place at the Roman city of Bath, rather than the more traditional Kingston-on-Thames. The Edgar went to Chester where a number of client kings rowed him along the river Dee while he sat and guided the boat from the tiller.

Even at this stage, the nation of England was not inevitable. Edgar’s son Athelred “Unrede” (the Ill-advised) was the longest serving of English monarchs, reigning from 1078-1013 and again from 1014-1016 after a period of exile caused by the invasion of Swein Forkbeard. When Swein died a few weeks after his victory, Athelred was asked back by his counsellors. Swein’s son Cnut continued to fight for the throne, and eventually in 1016 after Athelred’s death and a number of battles between his son, Edmund “Ironside”, and Cnut the country was again split into two territories.  Edmund died in November 1016 and Cnut then merged England back into a single nation, which it remained.

After Cnut’s two sons both died without heirs, the throne reverted to Wessex in the person of Edward the Confessor, who ruled 1042-5th January 1066. Again, there followed a succession crisis, and although the Witan (Counsellors) chose Harold Godwinson as King, his reign was tragically short-lived. He was crowned on 6th January 1066, the day after Edward’s death, and died on 14th October in the same year at Senlac Hill fighting William of Normandy. He had already defeated Harald Hardrada of Norway at Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire on 25th September.

Introducing the Anglo-Saxons

About the Anglo Saxons

Plated disc brooch form Kent, 6-7th century
Plated disc brooch from Kent, 6-7th c ref 32952001 (c) Trustees of the British Museum

According to Bede, writing in the early 8th century, the Anglo-Saxons comprised a number of Germanic tribes including the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Danes and Frisians who started to migrate to the island of Britain after the departure of the Romans (although there is evidence that some had already settled having served in the Roman Army).

Famous Anglo-Saxon people include Hengist, King Offa of Mercia, St Edmund of East Anglia (the first saint of England, before George), Alfred the Great, Athelstan (first King of All England), Æthelred the “Unready” (from “unraed” which means “ill-advised”), Edward the Confessor and Harold Godwinson.

Other secular and religious Anglo-Saxons known to history include Alcuin of York (who was instrumental in the Carolingian Renaissance of Charlemagne), St Æthelthryth of East Anglia (founder of Ely Abbey), Æthelflæd (daughter of Alfred and Lady of the Mercians), Bede (Northumbrian monk and scholar of international repute), Boniface (missionary to Germany), St Cuthbert (Northern England’s “patron saint”), Hereward (fighter in the Norman Resistance) and St Wilfrid (Bishop of Hexham, York and more).

The Anglo-Saxons spoke “Old English” from which modern day English directly descends and the majority of today’s English towns, villages and landscape features have names of Old English origin. The technology of the Anglo-Saxons enabled them to develop their agriculture and fishing, minerals and trade; their ships enabled movement of their people and goods internally and throughout Europe. Initially pagan, the Anglo-Saxons converted to Christianity and subsequently sent missionaries abroad; especially to Germany and the Low Countries. The Anglo-Saxons created what became Europe’s oldest, best organised and certainly one of its richest kingdoms; it was this organisation and wealth that attracted so many invaders towards the end of the period.

Anglo-Saxon documents were written in Latin or Old English, and many survive. These include not only in religious texts but also in extensive law codes, charters and writs as well as poetry and riddles. King Æþelbert’s law code of Kent was both the first record of English law and also the earliest surviving written piece of English. Bede’s scientific text, “The Reckoning of Time”, gave us “Anno Domini” as a method of dating, which he derived from Isidore of Seville. The Anglo-Saxons were the first people to record chronologically the history of these islands through works such as the “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” and “The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle”. The Domesday Book, although written in 1086 and commissioned by a Norman King, gives us a detailed account of who owned what in mid eleventh century England. Richly illustrated Anglo-Saxon manuscripts survive including the “Lindisfarne Gospels”, “The Harley Psalter” (illustrations of the text heading of each psalm), and the Julius Work Calendar (illustrating daily tasks for each month). Poetry survives in works such as

The Anglo-Saxons established a comprehensive system of central and local government with a degree of representation and accountability. To assist in government, trade and commerce they established taxation systems and an extensive number of closely regulated mints which produced a consistently good quality of coinage. Both centrally and nationally the Anglo-Saxons organised the army and the navy, and enhanced local defence through fortified townships (the “burhs”) and important earthworks such as Offa’s Dyke. Their written laws and punishments were the foundations for our modern legal system.

The Anglo-Saxons produced a distinctive artistic style in their arts and crafts which is reflected in many artefacts which survive today. These include jewellery such as brooches, buckles, wrist-clasps, clothing pins and beads; arms and armour such as helmets, swords, spear-heads, shield bosses, axes and knives; coins, some with a portrait of the king, gold and silver pennies, silver, copper or brass sceattas; glass used for vessels, for windows and beads; musical instruments; fragments of textiles and clothing; personal items such as bone combs and toilet items; and domestic and personal metalwork, woodwork and leatherwork items. Some of the more famous artefacts include: The Alfred Jewel, The Fuller Brooch, The Franks Casket, and the treasures of Sutton Hoo, the Staffordshire Hoard and the Prittlewell Prince, as well as the sculptured stone crosses at Bewcastle, Gosforth, Ruthwell and Sandbach.  Examples of Anglo-Saxon church architecture and sculpture survive in a great number of their churches.

Some of the great Anglo-Saxon battles are commemorated at Edington, Maldon, Stamford Bridge and Senlac Ridge (Hastings). Much of our language and most of our place names come from this time. You only have to look and you will still see the Anglo-Saxons all around you!

You can read more about the people, places, language and literature, beliefs, events and archaeology on our website.

We also have a short video about the Anglo-Saxons with some facts which you might not know, so take a look.

Recommended Reading List

This is not an exhaustive list of books but will provide a good general introduction.

General background

Anglo-Saxon England, Sir Frank Stenton. The essential reference book.

The Beginnings of English Society,  Dorothy Whitelock. Essential reading.

The Anglo-Saxons, (ed) James Campbell. An introduction to the history of Anglo-Saxon England covering political, religious, cultural, social, legal and economic matters with reference to source material and with photographs and illustrations.

In Search of the Dark Ages, Michael Wood. An introduction to Sutton Hoo, Offa, Alfred the Great, Æthelstan, Eric Bloodaxe, and Æthelred the Unready.

The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England, (ed) Michael Lapidge et al. A general reference book with numerous articles by experts on a range of topics. This may be best accessed via a reference library as it is rather more expensive than most of the books on this list.

Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England, Sally Crawford. A discussion of the daily lives of ordinary men, women and children in Anglo-Saxon England. The book’s topics cover: The Anglo-Saxons in England; society, taxes and administration; housing and households; population density and life expectancy; food and drink; clothing and appearance; trade and travel; death and religion; health, sickness and survival; slaves, criminals and outcasts; and conquest and conclusions.

The Year 1000. An Englishman’s Year, Robert Lacy and Danny Danziger. An insight into the daily life of ordinary men and women in the year 1000 month by month with illustrations taken from the “Labour of the Months” the Julius calendar produced at Canterbury in Kent.

Original texts and literature

A History of the English Church & People, Bede (various editions and translations available, but Michael Swanton’s is very good).  Bede “set himself to examine all available records, to secure verbal or written accounts from reliable living authorities, to record local traditions and stories, to interpret significant events, and, in short, to compile as complete and continuous a history of the English Church and people as lay within his power.” The views and records of this Anglo-Saxon writer should not be too easily dismissed.

Byrhtferth’s Manual (A.D. 1011), (ed) S.J.Crawford. This is an 11th century work by a great scholar on rhetorical and grammatical subjects, a table of weights and measures, and three theological tracts.

The Anglo-Saxon World, an Anthology, (ed) Kevin Crossley- Holland. A collection of Old English texts-chronicles, laws, letters, charters, charms and poems – translated into modern English with an introduction.

A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse, (ed) Richard Hamer. Examples of Anglo-Saxon verse – The Battle of Maldon, The Dream of the Rood, The Wanderer, The Seafarer etc. – in Old English with parallel modern English translation.

Runic and Heroic Poems of the Old Teutonic Peoples, (ed) Bruce Dickins. Includes Runic Poems, Waldhere, Finn, Deor and Hildebrand.

Archaeology and material culture

1066. The Hidden History of the Bayeux Tapestry, Andrew Bridgford. Despite its superficial Norman viewpoint, the author reveals some of the hidden meaning of the Tapestry recording a very different story from the English viewpoint.

Anglo-Saxon Pottery and the Settlement of England, J.N.L.Myres. One of the most important books on a much-neglected subject.

Anglo-Saxon Crafts, Kevin Leahy. This book discusses the skills and techniques involved in creating the treasures of the Anglo-Saxons.

Anglo-Saxon Art, Leslie Webster. A discussion of Anglo-Saxon art in its wider cultural context, showing how it was shaped, transformed and given meaning.

Anglo-Saxon Animal Art and its Germanic Background George Speake. Anglo-Saxon Art of the 6th and 7th centuries. Mainly ‘the decoration of personal jewellery, belt-fittings, brooches, pendants, weapons,’ drinking horns etc.

Dress in Anglo-Saxon England, Gale Owen-Crocker. An encyclopedic study of Anglo-Saxon dress, from the 5th to 11th centuries based on evidence from archaeology, texts and art.

The Mead-Hall, Stephen Pollington. The Mead-Hall was the centre of early English culture.

Old English language

First Steps in Old English  Stephen Pollington. This “teach-yourself” book covers the essentials of vocabulary and grammar and has achieved something like classic status.

A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, J.R. Clark Hall. This provides Old English to Modern English vocabulary.

Wordcraft: New English to Old English Dictionary and Thesaurus. Stephen Pollington. The book provides a basic introduction to the vocabulary of Modern English into Old English aimed at those who wish to compose original work in Old English.

Early Anglo-Saxons (5th-7th century CE)

Gildas, De excidio Britanniae, 10th c. Cotton MS Vitellius A VI f15r, (c) British Library
Gildas, De excidio Britanniae, 10th c. Cotton MS Vitellius A VI f15r, (c) British Library

The early period of Anglo-Saxon history is obscure and difficult to make out. After the end of Roman rule, there was a long period with no written sources apart from British writers such as Gildas (who wrote ‘The Ruin of Britain’), who used the Anglo-Saxons as a way to criticise their own leadership. According to Gildas, the British invited the Anglo-Saxons to come to Britain as mercenaries and to defend the land against the Picts and other northern groups. However, they later rebelled when they felt their pay was not adequate and overthrew the British rules with great bloodshed.

From this, it is estimated that the first Anglo-Saxons arrive in the 470s CE although there is no agreed rate at which events moved between their first arrival and the establishment of permanent Anglo-Saxon led kingdoms. However, archaeological discoveries suggest permanent Anglo-Saxon settlements during the last quarter of 5th century. There is also some evidence for loss of town life, and for the movement of some people across the Channel to what became known as Brittany.

Bede (d. 735) later embellished this account and added the names of the key players. According to his “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” the first Saxons to arrive in Britain were: Hengest and Horsa, who were the sons of Wihtgils, the son of Witta, the son of Wecta, the son of Woden. Bede dates their arrival to around CE 450 and says that Horsa was later killed in battle by the Britons.

Bede also says that there were three powerful groups:

  • Saxones (East, West, South – the Saxons)
  • Angli (East, Middle, Northumbrian – the Angles)
  • Iutae (Isle of Wight – the Jutes)

Recent studies of linguistic and archaeological evidence has indicated that the distinction was not so clear. For example, although there is little evidence for differences between Anglian and Saxon areas, beyond some local costume variation, nevertheless Kent was different. These differences suggest early connections with the Continental Franks, and it has even been argued that Kent was at some time part of the wider kingdom of the Franks.

Place name evidence can also help to understand what was happening. From the 5th century, archaic names are related to early English dialect. For example, between the South Downs and the sea, along the rivers and east of Pevensey, names denoting groups of people (Beeding, Malling, Patching) all point to settlements.

However, there is a clear difference between peoples established north and south of the Humber. By 672 CE the peoples of the north were collectively called “Nordanhymborum gens” (the nation of the Northumbrians). Meanwhile, the areas south of the Humber were referred to as “Sutangli” (Southern English). The distinction is not clear from archaeology but is recorded by contemporary documents.

There is evidence of extensive settlements in central and eastern Yorkshire before the middle of the 6th century. Until the early 7th century, the British kingdom of Elmet (based around Leeds in modern West Yorkshire) separated the Angles of the northern Midlands from those of the plain of York and may have contributed to different traditions and identities evolving.

In the southern kingdoms, the people were normally subject to the authority of a common overlord who was referred to as a “Bretwalda”. There was a period in the 7th century when three successive Bretwaldas ruled both north and south of the Humber.  These overlords were recognised among the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, but rarely if at all by the British kingdoms.

Bede provides a list of the earliest Bretwaldas. He says that the first Bretwalda was Aelle of Sussex, who overran Southern Britain in the years before the battle of Mons Badonicus (c. 500 CE). By the end of the 7th century, the Bretwalda was ruling his subject kings just as a king would deal with nobility in his own kingdom; for example, he could transfer provinces from one to another and any grants of land given by a king should be approved by the Bretwalda.

When a king submitted to a Bretwalda, there was a personal relationship of lord/man. However,  there was no convention that the sub-kings would automatically give allegiance to their dead lord’s son or even continue to obey a lord whose luck had deserted him (for example, indicated by losing battles).

The number of kingdoms in Britain delayed the unification of the country. While on the Continent, most of the peoples settled within the Roman Empire gave unquestioned pre-eminence to a single ‘royal’ family, Britain was not taken over by tribes under tribal kings, but by bands of adventurers who, according to their own traditions, were drawn from three Germanic peoples. In Britain, kings were less a matter of political authority than of descent from gods and early royal genealogies emphasise the descent of almost all the later kings from the god Woden.

By the 7th century, definite kingdoms began to emerge until there were seven which ruled over the Anglo-Saxon portion of Britain until the late 9th century. These were known as the Heptarchy.