Angles, Saxons, and Jutes

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In book 1 of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum), completed in a.d. 731, the Northumbrian cleric Bede reported that the Germanic settlers of Anglo-Saxon England came from "three very powerful Germanic tribes, the Saxons, the Angles and the Jutes." From the coastal region of northern Germany, now Lower Saxony, came the East Saxons, South Saxons, and West Saxons. The East Angles, Middle Angles, Mercians, Northumbrians, and other Anglian peoples were descended from the people of Angeln, probably in the eastern part of Schleswig-Holstein. The Jutes, who settled Kent, the Isle of Wight, and the area of the West Saxon mainland facing Wight, came from the peninsula of Jutland (in present-day Denmark).

Writing in the middle of the second century a.d., the Roman geographer Ptolemy placed the Saxons at the neck of the Cimbric peninsula, which comprises Jutland in the north and Schleswig-Holstein (present-day Germany) in the south. Fourth- and fifth-century historical sources do not distinguish consistently between the Saxons and Franks, however, by the eighth century these groups had distinct political systems. From the mid-sixth century, the Continental Saxons expanded their territory until its incorporation into the Carolingian empire after the wars of a.d. 772–799.

In Lower Saxony longhouse settlements located on man-made mounds in coastal marshes, such as Feddersen Wierde (figs. 1 and 2) and Flögeln, were in use until the fifth century. A range of building types, including farmhouses, granaries, barns, and outbuildings, were excavated at the Carolingian settlement of Warendorf in Westphalia. In Lower Saxony and extending toward the Rhine, a unique native metalwork style, as demonstrated by supporting-arm and equal-arm brooches decorated with chip-carved surfaces, incorporated Roman influences. The sites at Westerwanna, Issendorf, and Liebenau, dating to the fourth and early fifth centuries, exemplify large Continental cremation cemeteries, which originally appeared in the first century. Inhumation, which emerged in the fourth century, had replaced cremation by the ninth century.

Early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries in England have produced ceramics identical to those found in the Saxon homeland identified by Bede. Fifth-century pottery vessels with "standing arch" designs or bosses from eastern and southern England parallel contemporary ceramics from the traditional homeland of the Saxons. Indeed, the similarity between face masks appearing on vessels from Wehden (Niedersachsen) and Markshall (Norfolk) has led to the suggestion that they were created by the same potter.

Procopius, a sixth-century Byzantine writer, claimed that the Frisians, people living along the coast of Lower Saxony, and Angles settled Britain. In chapter 40 of his account Germania, written in the late first century a.d., the Roman historian Tacitus cited the Anglii among the Germanic tribes. From the fourth century, cruciform and small-long brooches characterized a distinctive material culture extending beyond the bounds of modern Angeln. Cremation was the predominant burial practice during the fourth and fifth centuries. According to book 2 of Bede's Ecclesiastical History, migration across the channel had depopulated Angeln, a claim that has found some archaeological support. Archaeological evidence indicates that by the sixth century, the large Continental cremation cemeteries were no longer in use, and settlement activity disappeared between the fifth and eighth centuries. A few sixth- and seventh-century hoards, stray finds, and burials, however, argue against Bede's claim of total abandonment. Significant language replacement indicates repopulation in Angeln after the eighth century.

Design motifs on ceramics from the Continental Anglian cremation cemeteries appear on vessels found in southern and eastern England. Pots with horizontal grooves or corrugations around the neck, vertical grooves or bosses ringing the shoulder, and a wider, shallower profile than those from the Elbe-Weser region are found both on the Continent at Hammoor (Germany) and Sørup (Denmark) and in England at Caistor-by-Norwich (Norfolk). Cross-headed small-long brooches with spatulate feet and cruciform brooches provide a connection between Angeln and England. Moreover, similarities in the range of artifacts and their proportional occurrence noted between the large cemeteries at Spong Hill (Norfolk) and Bordesholm and Süderbrarup in Schleswig-Holstein have been explained tentatively as the result of migration from the Continent.

Eastern Kent and western Jutland are similarly linked through ceramic and metalwork types. Unlike the areas of England traditionally ascribed to the Angles and Saxons, however, Jutish Kent lacks early burials representative of the earliest settlers. Indeed, burials dating to the fifth and sixth century in Jutland generally are unfurnished. Consequently, little evidence exists for the direct import into Kent of Jutish types of ceramics, bracteates (thin metal plates), and cruciform brooches.

The artifactual diversity of the contact-period Anglo-Saxon cemeteries nonetheless indicates that the Germanic migrants were not culturally homogeneous. Although fifth-century archaeological parallels between England and the Continent are evident in ceramics and metalwork, it is from the late fifth and sixth centuries in England that ethnic redefinition, manifested by women's dress styles, approximated the Anglian, Saxon, and Jutish groupings described by Bede. Anglian women's primary garment was a tunic dress (peplos) secured at both shoulders by small, generally similar brooches. Although the classic peplos was sleeveless, the presence of wrist clasps indicates that, in England, Anglian women wore either a long-sleeved version of this dress or a sleeved underdress beneath the sleeveless variant. A third, often larger brooch at the neck, shoulder, or chest either fastened the undergarment to the tunic or closed a heavier outer cloak. In early Anglo-Saxon England, annular, small-long, and cruciform brooches traditionally are associated with women living in the area attributed by Bede to the Angles.

In the Saxon area of England, women's Germanic-type costume incorporated supporting-arm brooches, equal-arm brooches, and saucer brooches similar to those of their Continental homelands, as well as disk brooches. In Kent and the Isle of Wight, the regions traditionally connected with Jutish settlement, women followed a distinctive Continental-influenced dress style that featured a centrally closing garment secured by inlaid brooches. The continuation of these Continental associations into the sixth century is indicated by the importation into Kent of brooches decorated with a southern Scandinavian art style and bracteate pendants. In the late sixth and seventh centuries, access to the wealth of the Frankish kingdom enabled elite women in Kent and the Isle of Wight to adopt other Continental fashions, such as crystal ball amulets and gold-braid headbands (vittae).

Today, it is recognized that Bede was describing not the political landscape of the Anglo-Saxon migration, as he claimed, but that of his own time. The Germanic origin myths that legitimized these cultural identities were remembered and exploited into the eighth century.

See alsoAnglo-Saxon England (vol. 2, part 7); Spong Hill (vol. 2, part 7).


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Pohl, Walter. "Ethnic Names and Identities in the British Isles: A Comparative Perspective." In The Anglo-Saxons from the Migration Period to the Eighth Century: An Ethnographic Perspective. Edited by J. Hines, pp. 7–40. Woodbridge, U.K.: Boydell Press, 1997.

Pohl, Walter, and Helmut Reimutz, eds. Strategies of Distinction: The Construction of Ethnic Communities, 300–800. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 1988.

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Wood, Ian. "Before and after the Migration to Britain." In The Anglo-Saxons from the Migration Period to the Eighth Century: An Ethnographic Perspective. Edited by J. Hines, pp. 41–54. Woodbridge, U.K.: Boydell Press, 1997.

Genevieve Fisher