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.