10 Important Facts You Should Know About The Anglo-Saxons

Below you can read a list of 10 important historical facts on the Anglo-Saxons, one of the most significant Germanic peoples of the Middle Ages.

10. The origins of the Anglo-Saxons and the Anglo-Saxon period

The Anglo-Saxons were a confederation of Germanic peoples who initially lived in contemporary northern Germany, southern Denmark, and the northern Netherlands, and sailed across the North Sea to Britain during the Dark Ages.

In British historiography, the Anglo-Saxon period is commonly referred to as the timeline between the mid 5th century (when they built the first settlements in the Albion) to the mid-late 11th century. The end of this historical period coincides as such with the Norman conquest of England which took place in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings.

According to ‘Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum’ (‘The Ecclesiastical History of the English people’) written by Saint Bede the Venerable, an important early medieval historian, the Anglo-Saxons were largely descended from the Angles (who came from Schleswig), the Saxons (who also lived in ancient times in Schleswig and around the Baltic coast), and the Jutes (from Jutland, modern day Denmark). It is very likely that Frisians also settled Britain following the Roman withdrawal in circa 410 AD.

9. The language of the Anglo-Saxons

It is still debatable among historians whether or not the Angles and Saxons spoke the same language when they came to Britain during the mid 5th century. However, the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ commonly refers to the language spoken by them in England as well as eastern Scotland, from the 5th century to the 12th century. Scholarly, Old English is the preferred denomination for the language though. The Old English language was written in insular (Gaelic) script or in Anglo-Saxon (Futhorc) runes from the 5th century to the 12th century.

Excerpt from the Lindisfarne Gospels, a fine work of Insular (Hiberno-Saxon) Art. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

8. The correct usage of the term Anglo-Saxon

When referring in a historical context the term Anglo-Saxon, one must bear in mind the fact that ethnically it may denote equally Angles and Saxons, but the Anglo-Saxons didn’t call themselves as such. Instead, they referred to themselves separately as either ‘Ængli’ (i.e. Angles) or ‘Seaxe’ (i.e. Saxons).

Furthermore, it was only during the 8th century that the term Anglo-Saxon was firstly attested, but only to make a clear discrepancy between the Saxons who settled in Britain and those from continental Europe. Thus, in the works of Saint Bede the Venerable, the latter were called ‘Antiqui Saxones’ (i.e. ‘Old Saxons’). This denomination was actually part of an important hierarchic title, namely ‘rex Angul-Saxonum’ (i.e. ‘King of the Anglo-Saxons’).

7. Early Anglo-Saxon Age

The early Anglo-Saxon Age in Britain started right after the end of the Roman rule. In the wake of the ever prolonged decadence of the Roman Empire at the round of the 5th century, Britain was relatively long regarded as a peripheral province. It is generally agreed that by the mid 500’s the Romans lost any sort of authority in Britannia.

So it is that during the Migration Era — which took place during the early Middle Ages in Europe and was mainly triggered by the expansion of migratory peoples, among which were also various Germanic tribes — the Romano-Britons initially harshly opposed the territorial expansion of the Germanic invaders, being led by prominent legendary figures as Arthur or Vortigern (whose real identities are hardly documented), but were ultimately defeated and subdued by the beginning of the 7th century.

6. Anglo-Saxon kingdoms

After successfully settling Britain, the Anglo-Saxons founded four important kingdoms which will eventually form the basis for the Kingdom of England. These were East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria, and Wessex. There were also three additional noteworthy ones known as Essex, Kent, and Sussex. The latter were conquered by the neighbouring kingdoms at some point in history.

Detailed map depicting the seven Saxon kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England by John Speed in ‘Theatre of the Empire of Great Britanie’ (17th century). Image source: Wikimedia Commons

In addition, other Anglo-Saxon polities also existed, but were to a smaller extent worthy to play an important part in early medieval Britain. Some of them were Isle of Wight, Lindsey or Surrey. Most importantly, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex, and Wessex were identified as forming the heptarchy (a term to have first appeared in the work ‘Historia Anglorum’ by Henry of Huntingdon during the 12th century).

5. Anglo-Saxon helmets

Only four Anglo-Saxon helmets have been unearthed to date. Among these artefacts, the most notable ones are the Coopergate helmet (which was discovered in York), and the one excavated at Sutton Hoo, an archaeological site situated near Woodbridge, East Anglia. The first dates from the 8th century, while the second possibly belonged to a 7th century Anglo-Saxon nobleman.

Sutton Hoo helmet replica on display at the British Museum in London, UK. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

4. The Norse invasions of Anglo-Saxon England

Due a to a number of debated reasons, the Norsemen started to raid the eastern and southern coastlines of Britain as early as 789, when a group of Norwegian Vikings from Hordaland landed on the Isle of Portland, in the English Channel.

However, the date often given as the start of the Viking Age in England is 793, when another convoy of Norwegian Vikings plundered the Catholic abbey of Lindisfarne, located less than one mile off the north-eastern coast of the Kingdom of Northumbria, now northern England.

During the Viking Age, both Danish and Norwegian Vikings attacked much of the British archipelago, and eventually established kingdoms as well. The Danes established the Danelaw, while the Norwegians controlled the Kingdom of the Isles.

3. The Anglo-Saxons were related to the Vikings

Both the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes were genetically related to the Norsemen, having as such a common Germanic ethnic origin. Since their homelands were northern modern day Germany and the Netherlands, as well as southern modern day Denmark, it goes without saying that their languages also retained a mutual degree of intelligibility over the years that passed their exodus towards Britain.

As in the case of the Vikings, one of the important causes which explains the migration of the Anglo-Saxons to the west is the fact that they needed good farming soils. In Britain, they initially engaged in agriculture after pushing the Celtic-speaking populations northward and westward.

Map depicting the homelands of the Anglo-Saxons coloured in blue (for Jutes), orange (for Angles), red (for Saxons), and yellow (for Frisians). Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

Map depicting the homelands of the Anglo-Saxons coloured in blue (for Jutes), orange (for Angles), red (for Saxons), and yellow (for Frisians). Image source: Wikimedia Commons

2. Anglo-Saxon architecture

Generally, the houses built by the Anglo-Saxons were quite simplistic in design. They were constructed using timber with thatch for roofing. When they initially landed in Britain, they preferred to live in small rural communities. Nonetheless, some of them opted to build wooden houses within the walls of the former towns erected by the Romans.

Buildings with thatched-roofs from West Stow Anglo-Saxon village in West Suffolk, England. Image source: Wikimedia Commons by Midnightblueowl

1. Anglo-Saxon coins

It is also quite interesting to note the fact that between 991 and 1018, the Anglo-Saxon kings of England paid an important economic tribute to the Viking invaders worth circa 2.8 million troy oz in silver coins. This explains why today there are still more Anglo-Saxon silver coins in Denmark than in England.

Image source: www.blog.gainesvillecoins.com

Additional small note: Artistic licence was used for the horns designed on the helmets worn by these Vikings. The Vikings didn’t worn horned or winged helmets in reality. Image source: www.blog.gainesvillecoins.com

Documentation sources and external links:

Liked it? Take a second to support Victor Rouă on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

5 Responses to 10 Important Facts You Should Know About The Anglo-Saxons

  1. Karla says:

    To complete it:

    Anglo-Saxon fashion history. England c. 460 to 1066. – http://world4.eu/anglo-saxon/

    Britannia Saxonia – http://world4.eu/britannia-saxonica/


  2. ole hjordt-vetlesen says:

    Good evening,

    I have looked at your page about the Anglo-Saxon invasion.

    It is full of information, but at the very beginning I have some doubts.

    The identification of Bede’s Iuti with inhabitants of the peninsula of Jutland (in Danish Jylland) is extremely doubtful. The page seems to take Bede’s words for good, although there is an entire literature on the subject, that, to be sure, does not attribute much credibility to Bede’s description, written 300 years after the Anglo-Saxon invasion. The invaders spoke a West-Germanic language, similar to Frisian. There is no evidence of the presence of people speaking such a language in the history of the peninsula of Jutland. Bede’s Iuti cannot have come from Jutland. In fact there have been proposed many other solutions to the problem.

    Ole Hjordt-Vetlesen
    [email protected]

  3. Anne VanDeuson says:

    Thank you, Victor, for a fine introduction.

    As to housing (and buildings in general), I would add that the Anglo-Saxons did increasingly use stone for the construction of churches, beginning at Jarrow and spreading throughout England. However, most Anglo-Saxon churches were torn down by the Normans or substantially altered into early Gothic structures. In the late Anglo-Saxon period, the highest ranking ealdormen were also using stone for their great halls, as at Northampton. See https://www.british-history.ac.uk/rchme/northants/vol5/pp27-71#h3-0006

    In nearly 500 years, they had come a long way from Beowulf.

    • Victor Rouă says:

      Hello Anne,

      Thank you very much for this comment, your appreciation, your readership, and your time spent on The Dockyards. Also, thank you for this little history lesson and for the link you have shared here. Have a great day! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.