Anglo-Saxon England

This page is the work of UTA master's student Kim Woods.

England before the Germanic migration

Back to the Syllabus

Before the Germanic invasions

Celts - Prior to the Germanic invasions Britain was inhabited by various Celtic tribes who were united by common speech, customs, and religion. Each tribe was headed by a king and was divided by class into Druids (priests), warrior nobles, and commoners. The lack of political unity made them vulnerable to their enemies. During the first century, Britain was conquered and subjugated by Rome. During the next three hundred years, Rome legions provided the politically discordant Britons the protection necessary to secure the country from attack.

Migration of the Germanic speaking people

When Britain gained "independence" from Rome in the year 410ce, the Roman legions withdrew leaving the country vulnerable to invaders. Soon after the withdrawal of Roman troops, inhabitants from the north began attacking the Britons. In response to these attacks, individual towns sought help from the Foedarati, who were Roman mercenaries of German origin, for the defense of the northern parts of England. As the legend has been told, a man named Hengest arrived on the shores of Britain with "3 keels" of warriors in 450ce. This event is known in Latin as the "adventus Saxonum," or the coming of the Saxons. At this time, the Foedarati stopped defending Britain and began conquering the territories on the southern and eastern shores of the country. These invaders drove the Britons to the north and west. The Saxons called the native Britons, 'wealas', which meant foreigner or slave, and from this term came the modern word Welsh. Eight to ten years later many British aristocrats (Celts) and city dwellers began migrating to Brittany, an event known as the second migration.

Although there were many different Germanic tribes migrating to England, several stood out from among the others, such as the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Frisians, and Franks. (Anglo-Saxon map) The Angles migrated from Denmark and the Saxons from northern Germany. There is some debate as to the exact origin of the Jutes, since linguistic evidence suggests that they came from the Jutland peninsula, while archaeological evidence suggests an origin from one of the northern Frankish realms near the mouth of the Rhine river. The Frisians and Franks migrated mainly from the low countries and north-western Germany.

During the sixth and seventh centuries these Germanic invaders started to carve out kingdoms, fighting both the native Britons and each other for land. First called Saxons, the German invaders were later referred to as Angles, and in the year 601ce the pope referred to Aethelbert of Kent as Rex Anglorum ("king of the Angles"). As time passed, the differences between the Germanic tribal cultures gradually unified until eventually they ceased referring to themselves by their individual origins and became either Anglo-Saxon or English. (map of England 650-750)

As Old English began to evolve, four major dialects emerged which were Kentish, spoken by the Jutes, West Saxon, the Saxon dialect, and Northumbrian and Mercian, subdivisions of the dialect spoken by the Angles. By the 9th century, partly through the influence of King Alfred, the West Saxon dialect became prevalent in literature which aided the dialect's dominance among scholars.

Soon after the Germanic invasions, the inhabitants gave their settlements new names. The most common Saxon place names are those ending in -ton (fenced area), -wick (dwelling), -ham (home), -worth(homestead), -den(pasture), -hurst(wooded hill), and -burn(stream). Some settlement names began with more than one word which either stated personal possession or described a physical description of the area and would later evolve into one word. One example of this evolution would be the word Chatham which was originally Ceatta's Ham (Ceatta's home).

Conversion to Christianity - By the year 550ce, the native Britons had been converted to Christianity and the religion became firmly established within their culture. Attempts by the Britons to convert the Anglo-Saxon pagans were futile. At the end of the sixth century through the successful efforts of a Christian mission led by Augustine, a representative of the Roman church, Christianity was established within the highest echelons of English society by the prompt conversion of the kings of Essex, East Anglia, Northumbria, and Kent. Sees were then established at Canterbury, Rochester, London and York. However, the four kingdoms soon relapsed into paganism, and initially, only Kent was reconverted. The evangelistic initiative then passed to the Scottish church and by the end of the seventh century, England had been reconverted.

After the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, problems arose with the Celtic Christians (or the Britons). The Celtic church had ceased communication with Roman church for almost two centuries and did not practice the new theological ideas brought to the Anglo-Saxons by Augustine. In particular, they used an older method of calculating the date on which Easter was to be held. Representatives from the two churches met with Oswiu, the king of Northumbria, who was then asked to choose between the two missions. Oswiu chose Rome. Although the Celtic church found favor with some of the later kings, the Roman church was the more dominant of the two. The largest number of Latin words was introduced as a result of the spread of Christianity, such as altar, mass, priest, psalm, temple, kitchen, palm, and pear.

The 8th century and the beginning of the Viking raids - The first major raid by Vikings occurred in the year 793 at the Northumbrian monastery at Lindisfarne. The Vikings would continue major raids along most of the southern and eastern coasts of England for a decade. About 40 Scandinavian (Old Norse) words were introduced into Old English during this period. Words acquired during this period pertained to the sea and the Scandinavian administrative system. Some examples of these borrowings are law, take, cut, anger, wrong, freckle, both, ill, ugly, as well as, the verb form 'are'. They also introduced many new names as they founded new settlements with endings such as -scale, -beck, -by, and -fell. One example of a settlement name would be Portinscale or 'Prostitute's hut'.

English Surnames - Anglo-Saxons distinguished between two people with the same name by adding either the place they came from or the job they did to their first name. Modern surnames such as Baxter, Baker, Weaver, Fisher, Fowler, Hunter, and Farmer are Anglo-Saxon in origin. The Vikings had a different way of distinguishing between people of the same name. They added the name of the person's father or mother to the child's name. As an example, Harald, the son of Erik would be known as Harald Erik's son, or as we would say it today, Harald Erikson. Often Viking families alternated the name of the eldest so that Arn Gunnarsson might be the father and son of Gunnar Arnsson, and the grandfather and grandson of Arn Gunnarson.

The 9th century - During the ninth century, the Danes began a series of major raids on the whole of England. This ended in an agreement which left the Danes in control of half of the country. Alfred the Great eventually fought the Vikings to a standstill at Edington which produced the Treaty of Wedmore in 878ce. This led to an uneasy peace and the establishment of the Danelaw. The fighting would continue, and in 886ce, Alfred captured London from the Danes. The name Engla lande ("the land of the Angles") was used at the end of this century.

The 10th century

The Aristocracy - The Anglo-Saxon territory was divided into seven separate kingdoms commonly referred to as the heptarchy. Each kingdom was ruled by a king, the king's sons who were called aethlings and the ruling nobility known as the eoldermen. (Anglo-Saxon village) The basic unit of land was called the hide which was enough land to support one family and varied in size from 40 acres to 4 square miles. Approximately one hundred hides formed the unit known as the 'hundred', and each village or shire contained many hundreds. (another Anglo-Saxon village) For each hundred, one leader known as the 'hundred eolder' was responsible for administration, justice, and supplying military troops, as well as, leading its forces. The office was not hereditary, but by the tenth century the office was selected from among a few outstanding families.

The thane, similar to the knight, stood at the lowest echelon of the aristocracy. Good service by a thane resulted in gifts, the granting of lands, and elevation to eolderman. Members of the clergy held the title of thane as they were considered one of 'God's thanes', and bishops generally held the position of eolderman.

The Middle Class - The middle class was divided into three main classes of freemen, also known as ceorls: The geneatas, a peasant aristocracy who paid rent to their overlord, the kotsetlas, and the geburs, or lower middle class. All ceorls had the right and duty to serve in the fyrd, which was the Anglo-Saxon military. Ceorls won promotion through economic prosperity or military service. If a ceorl possessed five hides of land, he became entitled to the rights of a thane, but could not be elevated to the position of thane or eolderman.

The lower class - At the lowest end of the social strata was the slave or bondsmen, also known as the theow. Although they were slaves or bondsmen, they were entitled to certain provisions, such as grain. The slaves were allowed to own property and could earn money in their spare time which allowed them to buy their freedom. When times were difficult people sold themselves into slavery to ensure they were provisioned.

The early Anglo-Saxon society was organized around clans or tribes and was centered around a system of reciprocity called comitatus. The eoldorman expected martial service and loyalty from his thanes, and the thanes expected protection and rewards from the lord. By the middle of the ninth century the royal family of Wessex was universally recognized as the English royal family and held a hereditary right to rule. Succession to the throne was not guaranteed as the witan, or council of leaders, had the right to choose the best successor from the members of the royal house.

The military organization - As stated above, the military organization was called the fyrd, which consisted of highly trained thanes chosen from each hundred. Thanes became 'professional' warriors because their position within the society depended upon it. In peace time the thanes had to serve one month out of every three in rotation, so there was always a sizeable force on call. Loyalty to a lord was the greatest virtue for the thane, and if their lord or king died in battle, his men were expected to die avenging his death, as it was considered dishonorable to leave the battlefield on which the military leader had been slain. Those who did were executed by their lord's successor for their disloyalty. The Fyrd also served as a police force when not at war.

Religion and the role of the church - (St Alpheges church) (St. Wereburg) Besides the spiritual functions of the church, the Church also fulfilled the functions of a 'civil service', and for the nobility, an educational system. The Church and the government needed men who could read and write in English and Latin to write letters and keep accounts. (illuminated manuscripts) The words 'cleric' and 'clerk' have the same origin, and every nobleman would have at least one priest to act as a secretary.

Economy - The economy of the early middle ages was not cash based. (Anglo-Saxon clothing) Even though coins were minted, their use was not widespread, and most goods were bartered. (jewelry and pottery) Trade relied upon transport to be effective, and water was the preferred method of transport. For this reason, the most successful markets were near rivers.

Slavery was an important part of the Anglo-Saxon economy. Almost all the slaves traded in the early middle ages were captured in raids or warfare. It seems to have been the practice to kill the leaders of the losing army and enslave the local villagers. The English conquest of Cornwall led to the enslavement of many of the indigenous Celts. At the Westminster Council of 1102ce, slavery was abolished.

Feasts and festivals - Feasts and festivals were very popular among the pagans, and despite religious reforms of the Christian church, these would continue among Christian Anglo-Saxons. A feast would be held every week in observance for the designated saint of that week. Halloween, a tradition handed down from the Celts and altered by the Romans, preceded the Christian feast of Hallowmas, or All Saints' Day. Halloween was the last evening of the year and was regarded as a propitious time for examining the portents of the future. Several of our modern festivals have Old English names. For example, the word Easter evolved from the name of the pagan Saxon goddess Eostre, whose festival was celebrated in April. The word Yule comes from the pagan midwinter celebration of Geol (pronounced 'Yule'). (Games)

Law and Order - When the Germanic tribes migrated from the continent, they brought with them a well developed legal system. The hundred court was the lowest echelon of the judiciary system and met every four weeks. Above the hundred court was the shire court which met twice a year, usually around Easter and Michaelmas (29 September). The officials presiding over the shire court were the eoldorman, the bishop and the king's shire-reeve (or sheriff).

During a lawsuit, the accused would be allowed to give an oath with the aid of oath-helpers to prove his innocence. This may seem comical today, but the Anglo-Saxon villages were so small that many of the villagers would have been aware of the circumstances of the crime. If the accused were actually guilty, oath helpers would have been difficult to find. If the defendant maintained his innocence, but was not able to gather enough oath helpers, he would be allowed to prove his innocence through 'trial by ordeal'.

Trial by Ordeal - The ordeal was administered by church officials, and before the trial began, the accused was given the opportunity to confess. If he did not confess, he was given the choice between two ordeals: water or iron. For the cold water ordeal, the accused was given holy water to drink and was then thrown into the river; the guilty floated; the innocent sank. During the hot water ordeal, the accused placed his hand into boiling water and retrieved a stone. For the iron ordeal, the accused carried a glowing iron bar nine feet. After the hot water and iron ordeals, the defendant's hand was bandaged after the ordeal. If the wound healed without festering, the guilty was presumed innocent.

As there were no jails or prison officers, there were only three options when passing sentence: fines, mutilation, or death. For crimes such as arson, obvious murder, and treachery to one's lord, no compensation could be offered . For these crimes, the only punishment was death and forfeiture of one's property to the king. The Church did not advocate capital punishment and preferred mutilation to death, as this allowed the guilty man to expiate his crime and save his soul.

 

Back to the Top