Anglo Saxon England





The Anglo-Saxon invasions

bullet Even before the final break with Rome, foreign mercenaries had been hired to protect Britain. Burgundians and Vandals had been brought to Britain by the Emperor Probus (276-282), and mercenaries from the defeated Alamanni played a role in Constantius' campaigns in 306.
bullet From the 450s onwards, Germans began invading Britain in large numbers. Since the Germans were themselves illiterate, and Roman culture was collapsing, there are no contemporary written descriptions of these invasions. The best available account was written about a century later (c. 540) by a British monk, Gildas the Wise. His De excidio et conquestu Britanniae [The Overthrow and conquest of Britain] was written as a diatribe against corruption and a call to Christian repentance - not as a balanced and objective history.
bullet Gildas states that a "proud tyrant" (Vortigern) invited "fierce and impious Saxons, a race hateful both to God and men, to repel the invasions of the northern nations."
Gildas also said that in the year of his birth (about 500 AD), the British - led by a great warrior (King Arthur?) - defeated the Saxons in a great battle at Mons Badonicus (Mynydd Baddon, Mount Badon.)

Badbury Rings - an Iron Age hill fort in Dorset that is one of many possible sites of the Battle of Mons Badonius.


Bede's History of the English People mentions Angles, Jutes and Saxons as the main invading tribes, but Frisians (Friesians) and Swedes - who shared the same broad Germanic culture - may also have taken part.

These Germanic tribes were advancing across the whole of Northwest Europe not merely Britain. [See Map].


bullet Bede stated that the Jutes settled in the South and South-East; the Saxons in the South and Midlands, and the Angles in East Anglia, the Midlands and the North.

bullet One of the most famous archaeological sites in Britain - the Sutton Hoo grave of a 7th century king of East Anglia - contained treasures from Gaul and Sweden. A nearby sixth-century graveyard strongly suggests the North German origins and links of the local inhabitants.


The Development of the the Anglo-Saxon monarchies

bullet The main wave of Anglo-Saxon invasion was between 450 and 600. They settled the eastern part of the country first and then they drove steadily westward.

Place names are one of the ways that the Anglo-Saxon settlement can be tracked.
The suffix "ing" meaning "son of" or "part of" is often found: so Hastings is where Haesta's children lived.
A "ham" was an enclosure or farm:  so Waltham was the farm near the wood (weald/ walt). (The two - ing and ham - are combined in many cases, e.g. Nottingham, Wokingham, Birmingham).
An "over" was a shore, hence Andover, Wendover &c. "Stoke" was a place with a stockade, and this was sometimes corrupted to Stow. (Again the elements were sometimes combined - e.g. Walthamstow.)
A "ton" was a place surrounded by a hedge or palisade and is one of the commonest endings, as is "wick," a word used for a village or a marsh, or anywhere salt was found (Droitwich).



bullet Anglo-Saxon tribes or "kin" (cynn)  were led by a king (cyning). A king rewarded his followers with land and plunder if they were victorious.
bullet Warriors were expected to show complete loyalty both to the king in person and to his family, but a king too old, weak, or ill to lead was deserted. English kings claimed descent from the God, Woden.

A sceat - a coin of early Anglo-Saxon East Anglia (c.725)


bullet Initially, the invaders were divided into a number of independent tribes or kingdoms - only later was the name Angel-cynn (English) applied to all the Germanic settlers.
bullet The most important source on the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. As it was compiled from earlier sources during the last years of the 9th Century, it is difficult to be sure of its accuracy on many points.
The family of the earliest Anglo-Saxon kings of Wessex is called the House of Cerdic because of this entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 495:

"This year came two leaders into Britain, Cerdic and Cynric his son, with five ships, at a place that is called Cerdic's-ore. And they fought with the Welsh the same day. Then he died, and his son Cynric succeeded to the government, and held it six and twenty winters."

[A strange point is that "Cerdic" is a British, not a Germanic name; it has been suggested that he was a British ruler who employed Anglo-Saxon mercenaries].


bullet East Anglian kings were called Wuffings, after King Wuffa; the Kentish dynasty of Oiscings were descended from Oisc. The Southern Saxons' kingdom became Sussex and the Western Saxons' Wessex.
Anglo-Saxon carving

bullet In the North-East of England was the kingdom of Deira, and in the Midlands (on the frontier or "marches" of the remaining British territory) that of Mercia.
Some days of the week are named for Anglo-Saxon gods. Tuesday - Tiw/Tew, the god of darkness and sky.
Wedesday - Woden/Odin, the god of battle.
Thursday - Thor/Tor - son of Odin and the god of air and thunder.
Friday - Frigg/Frea/Frija - wife of Odin and the goddess of motherhood, fertility and wisdom.

bullet The goddess of dawn/sun-rise, Eostre  gave her name to the Christian festival of Easter.


450-600 Westward Expansion

bullet During the later 5th and 6th centuries the Anglo-Saxons moved westwards across the country, driving the Britons before them.
[Modern DNA analysis shows that the English have virtually the same genes as modern Frisians, suggesting that the native British population was all killed or fled westward].
bullet In 552, Cynric of Wessex (the Gewisse) defeated the British near Salisbury; with his son Ceawlin he gained another victory at Barbury Hill in Wiltshire in 556.
bullet Ceawlin became king of the Gewisse in 560; he united them with the West Saxons to form the kingdom of Wessex.

Ceawlin's other important achievement was to defeat the British at the Battle of Dyrham (Derham) in 577, enabling him to seize Gloucester, Cirencester, and Bath. This split the Britons living in Wales from those in the Southwest peninsula.


bullet In 568 Ceawlin and his brother Cutha defeated Æthelberht of Kent at Wibbandun. Æthelberht had briefly controlled much of Eastern England south of the Humber, but Wessex now became the strongest kingdom. At the end of the 500s, the power of Æthelberht of Kent began to grow, though it was in decline again by his death in 616.

This church, St Martin's, Canterbury, may well have been in continuous use since Bertha worshipped there.

Æthelberht had married a daughter of the Frankish king, Charibert. Bertha was a Christian, and this was probably why Pope Gregory decided to send his missionary Augustine to Kent in 597. This began the conversion of the English to Christianity.

bullet In the Northwest of Britain (now Scotland) the kingdom of Dál Riata (Dalriada) emerged. The Scots established it; traditionally, they are said to have invaded western Scotland in the post-Roman period; but they may have settled there earlier.
bullet In Northeast England Æthelfrith, king of Bernicia defeated Aidan, king of Dál Riata, at Degsastan in 603. He also defeated the Britons at Chester in 615. (This divided the British in Wales from those in the North).
bullet The power of Raedwald, king of East Anglia had grown as Æthelberht's declined. He allied with Edwin of Deira and the two defeated Æthelfrith in 616. Edwin took over power in Bernicia, creating a united Northumbria (Bernicia plus Deira; the two split apart again on Edwin's death in 633, but were finally reunited in 651).

Consolidation and expansion 600-700

bullet In 7th Century England, political power was in a state of continual flux. By 626, Edwin of Northumbria was recognized a overlord by all the kings in England with the exception of Eadbald of Kent; in 633 he was defeated and killed by Cadwallon of Gwynedd (allied with Penda of Mercia) at the Battle of Hatfield Chase (Meicen).
bullet King Penda took advantage of his alliance with Cadwallon to expand the power of Mercia in central England. In 642, Oswald King of Northumbria attacked Mercia, but was killed. In the next ten years, Penda asserted supremacy over Wessex and attacked East Anglia. He was finally defeated in 655 at the Battle of Winwaed by Northumbria's new king, Oswiu (Oswy).
bullet Northumbrian ascendancy did not last long. King Penda's sons soon began to reestablish the power of Mercia.

bullet Mercian power increased under Wulfhere (659-75), but Wessex preserved its independence. Caedwalla, King of Wessex from 685 to 688, and his son Ine (688-726) successfully attacked Kent and Sussex. Wessex also made progress westwards against the British territory of Dunmonia (Devon/ Cornwall); Devon was captured in 682, but Wessex's expansion was interrupted by a significant defeat in 722.
Under constant pressure from the Anglo-Saxons, many Britons emigrated to Armorica (Brittany).
bullet Northumbria, after a brief sally against Mercia which ended in defeat at the Battle of Trent (679), turned its attention northwards. King Ecgfrith was killed in 685 fighting the Picts.

"In the year 685 King Ecgfrith rashly led an army to waste the province of the Picts, although many of his friends opposed it…and through the enemy’s feigning flight he was led into the defiles of inaccessible mountains, and annihilated, with great part of his forces he had brought with him".

(Chronicle of Holyrood)