views updated May 23 2018

Anglo-Saxons is the name collectively applied to the descendants of the Germanic people who settled in Britain between the late 4th and early 7th cents. and to their ancestors. Their backgrounds varied. Some came as mercenaries, others as invaders. They included, besides Angles and Saxons, Jutes and other groups. Some had experience of Frankish Gaul and hence some acquaintance with Roman institutions and culture. The eventual use of the name ‘English’ and ‘England’ for people and territory probably owes something to the influence of Bede, whose History of the English People dealt with the whole. He followed Pope Gregory I, who knew the people as Angles.

Much about the invasion and settlement period is obscure, but for most of its history Anglo-Saxon England is one of the best-documented early medieval European societies. Besides Bede's History, historical sources include a number of saints' lives, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Many letters survive, those of the Anglo-Saxon missionary to the continent, Boniface, of particular importance in our knowledge of the 8th-cent. church. Poetry, in the vernacular (Old English) and in Latin, religious and secular, can convey historical fact, religious ideal, ethics, and values. Some poets are anonymous, others, like Aldhelm and Cynewulf, are known. A great body of evidence relates to royal ideology, government, and administration: vernacular law codes (beginning with that of Æthelbert of Kent), charters, writs, and wills. Historians also benefit from the study of the language of vernacular texts, from that of place-names, of art (including sculpture), and of architecture. Art was often didactic, and choice of particular styles might indicate values and allegiances, as, perhaps in the cases of the Codex Amiatinus, and Wilfrid's churches. Archaeology, of burials, settlements, towns, kings' halls (for example Yeavering, Cheddar), monasteries, and churches, is critically important. Yet uncertainties remain. Gaps in the evidence, problems of its interpretation and of reconciling different types, generate lively debate. It is salutary to realize how important subjects depend on chance survivals or discoveries—the ship-burial at Sutton Hoo (mound 1) and the poem Beowulf for example.

From obscure beginnings the Anglo-Saxons formed a number of kingdoms. The 7th-cent. trend was a shift in the balance of power from south and east (Kent and East Anglia) to north and west (Northumbria, Mercia, Wessex), and the take-over of smaller kingdoms by larger ones, the so-called Heptarchy. The 8th cent. was a period of Mercian dominance and Northumbrian independence, the 9th of the rise of Wessex, and of the threat of the Vikings, who established their own kingdoms of East Anglia and Northumbria. In the 10th cent. Wessex united England.

To the forging of one people and one state Alfred, Athelstan, and Edgar made significant contributions. Encouragement of its desirability was to be found in the pages of Bede and in the needs of the church and the principles of its organization. Its cause was furthered by the leaders of the 10th-cent. reform movement. But the England of 1066 was not inevitable. Quite different borders could have been established. In the late 7th cent., for example, one kingdom south of the Humber and another north, including southern Scotland, was a possibility; in the 10th a kingdom pushing into Wales rather than the Scandinavian-held north. The 11th cent., marred by the unsuccessful Æthelred II (the Unready), the conquest by the Danish Cnut, Edward the Confessor, and the Norman Conquest, is not properly representative of the history, culture, and achievements of the Anglo-Saxons.

Society and culture changed over time. Anglo-Saxon paganism is not fully known. The great period of conversion was the 7th cent., an age of saints, especially in Northumbria (the missionary Aidan, the home-grown Wilfrid, Cuthbert, and others) and monastic foundations (including Lindisfarne, Whitby, Ripon, Hexham, Monkwearmouth-Jarrow) which were to be very rich. A stratified society, in which, for example ceorls and gesiths (royal companions) had different Wergelds, its political life was dominated by the aristocracy, and it was subject to certain tensions. That between the bonds of lordship and of kinship was in-built. Historical development brought a growth in royal power and authority in a society wherein freedom and the participation in government of free men had a long history. On some issues—marriage and war, for example—the new religion might conflict with traditional values. Some features of Anglo-Saxon society seem alien, even incomprehensible, to some modern eyes: the practice of blood-feud, the institution of the retinue (war-band), both of which could contribute to a high level of violence and instability in élite society, the combination of genuine piety with ferocity in warfare, and its condoning by clerics. Yet others seem modern: the status of women has been seen as comparatively high, some queens and royal ladies, particularly Æthelfleda, lady of the Mercians, and abbesses, notably Hilda and Ælfflæd of Whitby, played an important part in political and religious life. Many aspects of government have, from Alfred onwards, a recognizably modern flavour.

The Anglo-Saxon arrival had ended Britain's involvement with Roman culture and institutions, but this was recreated in the late 6th cent. Christianity, purveyed to the Anglo-Saxons almost entirely by non-British teachers, from the Irish, from Frankish Gaul, and from Rome (beginning with the mission of Augustine), brought England into the Mediterranean, Christian, Roman world, to which in the 8th cent. the English themselves contributed. Missionaries worked amongst the Anglo-Saxons' still pagan continental kin. Boniface was also prominent in Frankish church reform and functioned as representative of the pope to the Franks. Anglo-Saxon veneration of the papacy was strong and contributed to the growth of papal authority in the West. Alcuin of York was adviser to Charlemagne and a leading figure in the Carolingian Renaissance. After the disintegration of the Carolingian empire, Athelstan, who involved himself with foreign dynasties and politics, was perhaps the most powerful monarch in the West.

But England owed much to Europe. The books collected on the continent by Benedict Biscop, and the school of Canterbury, established by Archbishop Theodore, himself from Tarsus, brought her Christian culture and scholarship. From an early period Frankish support and influence were factors in English dynastic politics, most clearly visible in Charlemagne's support for some of Offa of Mercia's enemies, and in his involvement in Northumbrian affairs, but continuing in the 9th cent. Carolingian ideas concerning church reform and kingship, Carolingian administrative and governmental institutions and practices, Carolingian coinage, and Carolingian art all had an impact in the 8th cent. Alfred learned much from Carolingian example. The 10th-cent. reformers worked under the influence of continental ones, particularly the houses of St Peter's, Ghent, and of Fleury-sur-Loire. Government in the 10th and 11th cents. has much about it that seems Carolingian. Involvement with Normandy came in the late 10th cent. Trade, especially in slaves in the early period and wool in the later, brought great wealth, probably the main attraction for Cnut and William the Conqueror.

The Anglo-Saxon achievement was cultural, religious, economic, and political. Art, architecture, vernacular and Anglo-Latin writing, and scholarship are all remarkable. There were tensions between tradition and Christianity, but there were also compromises and accommodations, a fusion of cultures. Not, originally, an urban people, Scandinavian activity and the development of Alfred's burhs lay behind their 10th- and 11th-cent. towns. Coinage was firmly under royal control, changed, after the great reform of Edgar, at regular intervals. Prosperity sustained the frequent collection of large Danegelds. Government had in fact been well organized and ambitious quite early, as the Tribal Hidage and Offa's Dike testify. By the 11th cent., with its hundreds, shires, ealdormen and reeves, law courts, and tax-collecting, Anglo-Saxon England was, by European standards, remarkably sophisticated and advanced. There was no capital, but Winchester was almost a capital city. The country was united, though it was not uniform in every particular, and there are hints of lingering separatism in Northumbria. The compilation of William I's Domesday Book, which offers much information about late Anglo-Saxon England, would not have been possible without Anglo-Saxon administrative genius. This genius, largely West Saxon, is visible elsewhere, in the rational distribution of mints in the 10th cent., and in the shire system, almost unchanged until 1974.

In administration and, ultimately, in language, the Anglo-Saxon legacy was long-lasting. Anglo-Saxon legal developments may have contributed to the English common law of the 12th cent. and may explain some of the differences between England and the other territories ruled by (the Angevin) Henry II, even after his legal reforms.

Anglo-Saxon history was of interest to some 12th-cent. scholars, for example Henry of Huntingdon and William of Malmesbury. In the 16th cent. it was studied for possibilities of precedent and justification for rejecting papal authority, in the 17th for advancing the claims of Parliament and people against despots, as descendants of witans and free assemblies. It was popular again in the Victorian period, as an important element in constitutional history and a theatre for national heroes and empire-builders.

There are many gaps and puzzles to stimulate and delight the modern enquirer, like the condition of the upper peasantry, minsters, and the origins of the parish system; the major overlordship attained by some kings, now popularly referred to as bretwaldas, and its role in the unification of England; continuity from the Romano-British past and into the Norman period, including the vexed matter of ‘feudalism’ and its origins; and, of course, why the Normans won.

A. E. Redgate


Campbell, J. (ed.), The Anglo-Saxons (Oxford, 1982);
Hill, D. , An Atlas of Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford, 1981);
Whitelock, D. (ed.), English Historical Documents c.500–1042 (2nd edn. London, 1979).


views updated May 29 2018

ANGLO-SAXON. Originally a name for the Saxons who with the Angles invaded and settled in Britain (5–7c), to contrast them with the Old Saxons of Germany. The name was later given both to the Angles and Saxons, also known as the Old English (Anglo-Saxon law) and to their language, also known as Old English (Anglo-Saxon grammar). More broadly and recently, it has served to identify a culture, spirit, style, heritage, or ethnic type associated with England, Britain, the British Empire, and/or the US: Anglo-Saxon civilization. It is also used to label vernacular English, especially when considered plain, monosyllabic, crude, and vulgar: Anglo-Saxon words.


For many centuries there was no agreed collective name for the Germanic peoples who settled in Britain. By the time of the Norman Conquest (1066), English had emerged for the peoples and their language, but when the Normans began to call themselves English the older sense of the word was obscured and the identification of English with post-Conquest England was strengthened. The mass of the people were classed by their overlords as SAXON. Medieval Latin chroniclers used Anglo-Saxones and Angli Saxones to refer to both Angles and Saxons, a practice that became universal after 1600 for anything before the Conquest. In 1884, James Murray noted in the OED entry Anglo-Saxon that this practice had led ‘to an erroneous analysis of the word, which has been taken as = Angle + Saxon, a union of Angle and Saxon; and in accordance with this mistaken view, modern combinations have been profusely formed in which Anglo- is meant to express “English and …”, “English in connexion with …”, as “the Anglo-Russian war”; whence, on the same analogy, Franco-German, Turko-Russian, etc.’


An extension of the term to mean the people of England and (loosely) Britain developed in the 19c, for example when the journalist Walter Bagehot referred in a speech to wealth as ‘the obvious and national idol of the Anglo-Saxon’. In 1956, the novelist Angus Wilson revived a phrase of Lewis Carroll's as the title of his satirical novel Anglo-Saxon Attitudes. The term Anglo-Saxon now refers to anyone in any way linked with England, the English language, and their traditions: in France, anglo-saxon has been used, often negatively, for shared ‘Anglo-American’ attitudes and culture, while in 1975 the Tanzanian writer Ali Mazrui coined Afro-Saxon to describe Black Africans who adopt English as the language of the home and with it cultural attitudes and values which in effect make them Black Englishmen.

Plain usage

In Victorian times, the term was associated with the Germanic element in English vocabulary, especially by such purists as William Barnes. Its use as a label for direct and often coarse language marks a perception of OLD ENGLISH 1 as a medium that called a spade a spade. This view contrasts a simple, vigorous vernacular with an effete Latinate style little understood and seldom used by the people at large. For those who hold this view, smell and sweat are plainer, briefer, and better than odour and perspiration. More pointedly still, the term is used for vulgar expressions. Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1966) gives Anglo-Saxon word as a synonym of four-letter word, and Charles Berlitz has observed: ‘In general, almost all the polysyllabic words in English are of French-Latin origin while the one-syllable words come from Anglo-Saxon’ (Native Tongues, 1982). There are, however, many Anglo-Saxon polysyllables, such as bloodthirstily and righthandedness. See PLAIN, RUNE.


views updated May 23 2018


Christianity came to Britain about a.d. 200. Britain was an ordinary part of the Church, organized on diocesan lines; it sent three bishops to the Council of Arles in 314, from London, York, and probably Lincoln. Between the middle of the fifth and the end of the sixth century, Christianity in eastern and southern England was almost completely wiped out by the invasion of the heathen Angles and Saxons. The remnant of British Christianity, centering in Devon and Cornwall, Wales, and Strath-clyde, remained in isolation after Augustine of Canterbury failed to establish communication with them.

In a.d. 597 the Roman mission sent by Pope gregory i and led by Augustine landed in Kent where it began the conversion of the English and the organization of the English Church according to the directions sent by the Pope in 601. The growth of the English mission is the story of the conversion of one heathen people after another and the establishment of dioceses for them. The earliest of these dioceses were Canterbury, London, Rochester, and York. The mission to York, under Paulinus, collapsed with the defeat of King Edwin at Hatfield in 632, but the work was begun again within a few years by Irish monks who came from Iona to lindis farne on the coast of Northumbria. At the Synod of whitby in 663, King Oswiu settled in favor of Rome the conflict between the Irish and Roman missions over the date of Easter and certain ecclesiastical customs. In May of 669 Theodore of Tarsus, a Greek monk consecrated in Rome for the vacant see, arrived at Canterbury. Between then and his death in 690 he established dioceses, appointed bishops, held councils, founded monasteries for both men and women, and greatly fostered learning and culture.

Theodore began a quarrel with Wilfrid, Bishop of York, that lasted for many years, over the erection of new sees in Northumbria. However, Gregory, Theodore's successor, virtually completed his own plan with the appointment of the twelfth suffragan bishop of Canterbury. Although the projected 12 suffragans for York never materialized, the work begun by Augustine came to a successful conclusion in 735 with the conferral of the pallium on Egbert, Archbishop of York.

Monasticism had been a strong element in the Anglo-Saxon Church from the beginning. Canterbury, Glastonbury, Malmesbury, Melrose, Lindisfarne, Monk-wearmouth, Jarrow, and the nunneries at Whitby, Ely, and Barking were but a few of the foundations. Augustine and his companions and Theodore and his companion, Hadrian, were monks; Aidan, Colman, Fursey, and countless others were Irish monks; SS. Cedd and Chad, brothers educated by Aidan at Lindisfarne, as well as Cuthbert, Ceolfrith, Benedict Biscop, and Bede, shed luster on Northumbria. No less famous were the Abbesses Hilda at Whitby, Ethelburga at Barking, and Etheldreda at Ely.

The monasteries provided a refuge where the holiness could grow what once made England an island of saints, but they did more. They spread civilization and learning, gathered books, provided schools, and produced literary works in both Latin and the vernacular. Though

none of the monks reached the greatness of bede, who rose to a true conception of history and preserved much of what is known of early England, Aldhelm of Malmes-bury, a great teacher and writer, could claim at the beginning of the eighth century that it was no longer necessary to go to Ireland to get an education.

Art flourished along with letters, especially in North-umbria, and in the eighth century, Anglo-Saxon monks, missionaries, and teachers went to the Continent in the footsteps of the Irish to advance the cause of religion and learning. The most famous of the teachers was alcuin of York; the greatest of the missionaries was St. boniface, the apostle of Germany, who returned to convert the land of his fathers.

With the burning of Lindisfarne in 793, the Viking raids began, causing great damage to the Church, especially in eastern England. King alfred began the work of recovery; the invaders accepted the faith, and in the tenth century, St. dunstan initiated a reform that eliminated abuses and brought the English Church into closer contact with the Continent. In 1066, with the coming of the Normans, the Anglo-Saxon era came to a close.

Bibliography: f. barlow, The English Church, 10001066: A Constitutional History (Hamden, Conn. 1963). c. j. godfrey, The Church in Anglo-Saxon England (New York 1962). e. a. fisher, The Greater Anglo-Saxon Churches (London 1962). m. deanesly, The Pre-Conquest Church in England (New York 1961). d. m. wilson, The Anglo-Saxons (New York 1960). p. h. blair, An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England (Cambridge, Eng. 1959). bede, A History of the English Church and People, tr. l. sherley-price (Baltimore 1955). d. whitelock, The Beginnings of English Society (Baltimore 1952). f. m. stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford History of England, ed. g. n. clark [Oxford 1934] 2; 2d ed. 1947). w. levison, England and the Continent in the Eighth Century (Oxford 1946).

[c. p. loughran]


views updated Jun 08 2018

An·glo-Sax·on • adj. relating to or denoting the Germanic inhabitants of England from their arrival in the 5th century up to the Norman Conquest. ∎  of English descent. ∎  of, in, or relating to the Old English language. ∎ inf. (of an English word or expression) plain, in particular vulgar: using a lot of good old Anglo-Saxon expletives.• n. 1. a Germanic inhabitant of England between the 5th century and the Norman Conquest. ∎  a person of English descent. ∎  any white, English-speaking person.2. another term for Old English. ∎ inf. plain English, in particular vulgar slang.


views updated Jun 27 2018

Anglo-Saxons People of Germanic origin comprising Angles, Saxons, and other tribes who began to invade England from the mid-5th century, when Roman power was in decline. by ad 600 they were well established in most of England. They were converted to Christianity in the 7th century. Early tribal groups were led by warrior lords whose thegns (nobles) provided military service in exchange for rewards and protection. The tribal groups eventually developed into larger kingdoms, such as Northumbria and Wessex. The term Anglo-Saxon was first used in the late 8th century to distinguish the Saxon settlers in England from the ‘Old Saxons’ of n Germany, and became synonymous with ‘English’. The Anglo-Saxon period of English history ended with the Norman Conquest (1066).


views updated May 23 2018

Anglo-Saxon relating to or denoting the Germanic inhabitants of England from their arrival in the 5th century up to the Norman Conquest.
Anglo-Saxon attitudes behaviour regarded as typically English. The phrase was coined by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking-Glass (1872) as a description of the Messenger who approaches ‘skipping and wriggling’, and with his hands spread out fanlike from his sides: ‘He's an Anglo-Saxon Messenger—and those are Anglo-Saxon attitudes.’ (The image may reflect the depiction of figures in medieval manuscripts.) Angus Wilson borrowed the words for the title of his novel about a medieval archaeological forgery, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (1956).
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle an early record in English of events in England, from the beginning of the Christian era to 1154.


views updated May 23 2018

Anglo-Saxon XVII (P. Holland, tr. Camden's ‘Britannia’). — medL. Anglo-Saxones pl. (see prec.), earlier Angli Saxones (Paulus Diaconus, VIII) designation of Continental origin for the ‘English Saxons’ in distinction from the ‘Old Saxons’ of the Continent; cf. hybrid form Angulsaxones, after OE. Angelseaxe, -seaxan.

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