In the year 43 CE, the Romans under Emperor Claudius arrived in Britain to bring some semblance of civilization to the savage people of this island. They left in 410 and in the centuries which followed much of the enduring political shape of Britain was formed and new languages emerged.
Following the withdrawal of the Romans from Britain, various German-speaking groups—Angles, Saxons, and Jutes—began to settle in what is now England. The Celtic-speaking British peasants do not appear to have been pushed out, but most likely intermarried with the new-comers. Over a few generations Old English replaced British as their language.
Archaeology has suggested that the Germanic-speaking groups which settled in England had their homelands in what is now northern Germany and along the North Sea coast, Jutland and the southern Danish peninsula and islands. Their homelands extended along the coast from northwest Holland to Denmark. Writer and television producer Alistair Moffat writes in his book Before Scotland: The Story of Scotland Before History:
“England is so called after the Angles, who came originally from Angeln, an area of southern Denmark, and the name gained wide currency after 731 with the publication of The Ecclesiastical History of the English People by the monkish historian Bede of Jarrow.”Angeln is an area located on the Baltic Sea in which is now Schleswig-Holstein in Germany. According to Bede, the Angles split up and founded the kingdoms of Nord Angelnen (Northumbria), Mittlere Angelnen (Mercia), and Ost Angelnen (East Anglia).
The Saxons came to Britain from Lower Saxony in what is now Germany and from the Netherlands.
The Jutes, according to Bede, came to Britain from the Jutland peninsula in what is now Denmark. Some historians have identified the Jutes as being the Saxones Eucii who were associated with the Saxons.
In addition to the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, the Germanic migration to Britain during the fifth and sixth centuries probably included other groups such as the Frisii and the Franks.
The Britons, writing in both Latin and Welsh, referred to the invading Germanic peoples as “Saxones” or “Saeson.”
In the post-Roman world of Europe, the Romance languages—Spanish, Italian, French, Catalan—emerged from the Latin used for Roman administration. In England, however, the language which now emerged was not based on Latin, but on German, the language of the Angles.
With regard to architecture, there is a shift from the earlier round houses to rectangular timber houses similar to those found in Denmark and northern Germany. However, the mainland pattern of houses which were occupied by both people and their livestock was not used in Britain. In Britain, the houses tended to be wider and larger, which some archaeologists interpret as a blending with local traditions.
Shown above is a reconstruction of an Anglo-Saxon palace in Cheddar.
The Germanic groups did not settle in the old Roman towns and villages, but formed their own small communities.
With regard to religion, the Anglo-Saxons were polytheistic pagans. However, during the seventh century the Anglo-Saxons were converted to Christianity by missionaries who were sent from Rome by Pope Gregory the Great and by Celtic monks from Ireland.
By 600 CE, England was divided into seven kingdoms—four of these are generally considered major kingdoms and three petty kingdoms. In addition there were a number of smaller groupings. While this has often been called a heptarchy, this description is probably an over simplification: there were many different kingdoms, including Hwicce, Magonsaete, the Kingdom of Lindsey, and Middle Anglia.
Politically, the various kingdoms jockeyed for power among themselves. The king’s royal war band did not fight for country or freedom or for their own people: they fought for their lord and their loyalty was to their lord.
One source of information about this era comes from graves and grave goods. On top of the white cliffs of Dover, for example, excavations during the development of a modern housing site uncovered five Anglo-Saxon burials. One grave contained the remains of a man who had been laid out to rest with his shield placed over his face. He had also been buried with a spear and a knife.
In another burial, a mature woman was buried with a large disc brooch and a necklace made of glass beads and copper-alloy trinkets.
One of the kings at this time was King Raedwald who died about 624. Some archaeologists believe that the king was buried in a ship that was 90 feet in length and 15 feet in width. This is, of course, the famous Sutton Hoo burial ship. Buried with the king was a stone scepter, a hanging bowl embellished with Celtic patterns of colored glass, dishes, bowls, spoon, a pattern-welded sword, an iron ax, and a coat of chain mail.
To the left of the king’s head was a crested and masked helmet (shown above) which resembles those found in eastern Sweden. The Sutton Hoo helmet, however, is of much better craftsmanship.
While nothing remained of the wood from the ship, stains in the sand preserved many of its construction details. The hull was constructed in clinker-fashion (that is, it used over-lapping planks) with nine planks on either side. There seem to have been positions for forty oarsmen.
Shown above is a model of the ship.
Sutton Hoo was a pagan cemetery at a time when the nearby River Deben formed part of a busy trading and transportation network. The cemetery, used for people with exceptional wealth or prestige, contained about twenty barrows. In Mound 17, a young man was buried with his horse. In addition to his horse, the man was buried with a pattern welded sword, a firesteel, and a leather pouch containing rough garnets. Placed around his oak coffin were two spears, a shield, a small cauldron and a bronze bowl, a pot, an iron-bound buck and some animal ribs.
Shown above are some of the grave goods from Mound 17.
Like the later Vikings, the Anglo-Saxons also used the runic alphabet for writing. The writing that is known today comes primarily from coffins, caskets, crosses, and scabbards.
In the seventh century, Anglo-Saxon England was a politically and militarily turbulent region. Part of the evidence of these turbulent times comes from an archaeological find known as the Staffordshire Hoard. The hoard consists of 3,500 pieces, all of which were military in character: there are no domestic or feminine artifacts. The objects in the hoard show evidence of deliberate mutilation: they were wrenched apart, bent, and folded with determined effort. The typical object in the hoard was made in the seventh century. While we don’t know why this pile of expensive broken military hardware was buried, there are some who suggest that this was some type of religious offering.
Some of the items from the Staffordshire Hoard are shown above.
The Later Anglo-Saxon period is characterized by the Viking raids and settlements in England. The Anglo-Saxon era ends with the Norman conquest in 1066.