Anglo-Saxons: a brief history


Last updated: 28th February 2018

This period is traditionally known as the Dark Ages, mainly because written sources for the early years of Saxon invasion are scarce. It is a time of war, of the breaking up of Roman Britannia into several separate kingdoms, of religious conversion and, after the 790s, of continual battles against a new set of invaders: the Vikings.

Climate change had an influence on the movement of these new invaders to Britain: in the centuries after 400 AD Europe's average temperature was 1°C warmer than we have today, and in Britain grapes could be grown as far north as Tyneside. Warmer summers meant better crops and a rise in population in the countries of northern Europe.

At the same time melting polar ice caused more flooding in low areas, particularly in what is now Denmark, Holland and Belgium. These people eventually began looking for lands to settle in that were not so likely to flood. After the departure of the Roman legions, Britain was a defenceless and inviting prospect.

A short history of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain

Anglo-Saxon mercenaries had for many years fought in the Roman army in Britain, so they were not total strangers to the island. Their invasions were slow and piecemeal, and began even before the Roman legions departed.

When the Roman legions left Britain, the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians began to arrive in small invading parties at first, but soon in increasing numbers. Initially they met little firm resistance from the defenceless inhabitants of Britannia. Around 500 AD, however, the invaders were resisted fiercely by the Romano-British, who might have been led by King Arthur, if he existed - and there is no hard evidence that he did. However, the Saxon monk Gildas, writing in the mid-sixth century, talks about a British Christian leader called Ambrosius who rallied the Romano-British against the invaders and won twelve battles. Later accounts call this leader Arthur. See Saxon Settler

The Celtic areas of Britain regarded the Saxons as enemies and foreigners on their borders: their name became Sassenachs to the Scottish and Saesneg to the Welsh.

The various Anglo-Saxon groups settled in different areas of the country. They formed several kingdoms, often changing, and constantly at war with one another. These kingdoms sometimes acknowledged one of their rulers as a ‘High King', the Bretwalda. By 650 AD there were seven separate kingdoms, as follows.

Anglo-Saxon kingdoms

1. Kent, settled by the Jutes. Ethelbert of Kent was the first Anglo-Saxon king to be converted to Christianity, by St Augustine around 595 AD.

2. Mercia, whose best-known ruler, Offa, built Offa's Dyke along the border between Wales and England. This large kingdom stretched over the Midlands.

3. Northumbria, where the monk Bede (c. 670-735) lived and wrote his Ecclesiastical History of Britain.

4. East Anglia, made up of Angles: the North Folk (living in modern Norfolk) and the South Folk (living in Suffolk). The Sutton Hoo ship burial was found in East Anglia (see below).

5. Essex (East Saxons). Here the famous Battle of Maldon was fought against the Vikings in 991.

6. Sussex: the South Saxons settled here.

7. Wessex (West Saxons), later the kingdom of King Alfred, the only English king ever to have been called ‘the Great', and his equally impressive grandson, Athelstan, the first who could truly call himself ‘King of the English'.

By 850 the seven kingdoms had been consolidated into three large Anglo-Saxon kingdoms: Northumbria, Mercia, and Wessex. The Anglo-Saxons had become a Christian people.

Areas worth examining

Poetry - three poems give excellent insights into the Anglo-Saxons.
The anonymous poem written about the ruin and decay of a Roman town. See The end of Roman Britain

Beowulf, about the great hero who fought and killed the monster Grendel and his mother, became a great king and met his death fighting an enraged dragon. There are several versions of the poem for children, as well as a cartoon film. The best version is Rosemary Sutcliff's.

The Battle of Maldon, about the Saxons' heroic defence against a force of raiding Vikings in Essex.

Sutton Hoo ship burial: This burial of an East Anglian king provides a rich case study from which we can draw inferences about kingship, religion, warfare, trade, craftsmanship. See the Saxon Ship Burial
 and Sutton Hoo lessons, and the Sutton Hoo objects exemplar.

Daily life, in both villages and monasteries (Coming: 'Saxon farming year' trading exemplar)

King Alfred, called ‘the Great' because he:

  • defeated the Vikings in the Battle of Edington in 878, then converted their leader Guthrum to Christianity;
  • recaptured London from the Vikings and established a boundary between the Saxons and the Vikings - the area ruled by the Vikings was known as the Danelaw;
  • strengthened his kingdom's defences by creating a series of fortresses (burhs) and a decent army;
  • built ships against Viking sea attacks, so beginning the English navy;
  • had books translated into English and promoted learning;
  • founded monasteries;
  • commissioned the writing of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a historical record of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain.

There is more about Alfred in the Viking section.

After 793, the history of the Anglo-Saxons becomes entangled with that of the Vikings. In many ways they were similar: in language, religion, Northern European origins, yet they are not the same. The very fact that they invaded Britain at different times makes them two very distinctive peoples in our history.



Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings lessons

Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings: overview

Romans: a brief history

Vikings: a brief history

Britain and the wider world in Tudor times

Key concepts

Monastic life