The Anglo-Saxon invasions

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.

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.

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 Ring, Dorset, an Iron Age hill fort 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.

A typical Saxon hut with thatched roof.

The Development of the the Anglo-Saxon monarchies

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).

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

Anglo-Saxon warriors were equipped with javelins and throwing axes as well as swords and shields. A "scramasax" - a single-bladed dagger - was used for close-quarter fighting. Needless to say, such weapons could inflict deadly wounds.

Gesiths (serving-men and companions to the king) fought for their hlaford (lord/ breadgiver). Freemen were rewarded for their military service with (at first generally temporary) grants of land. The need to obtain more land for distribution encouraged policies of conquest, and the kings of Wessex were particularly successful because they were able to expand into Cornish territory.

Prisoners of war were enslaved and provided the labor to work the land.

Anglo-Saxon social structure

Anglo-Saxon society was not egalitarian. "Eorls" (high noblemen) outranked "thegns" who in turn stood above "ceorls" (ordinary freemen).


The lowest rank was that of "theow" (slave). Slaves did have some minimal rights - including the possibility of earning money and eventually buying their freedom.In the early Anglo-Saxon period, slaves were generally British captives - a common Anglo-Saxon term for a slave was "wealh" (from which we get "Welsh;" it also meant "foreigner.") There were also slaves by "wite-theow" (penal enslavement), and people sometimes sold themselves or their children into slavery in order to settle their debts.The Christian Church urged the manumission of slaves as a pious act (in part perhaps because only freemen had to pay tithes). On manumission the slave was generally given a small plot of land to support himself and family.A freed slave was still essentially under his lord's control, but was no longer his responsibility.A "gebur" was not quite a slave, but had to work unpaid for his lord, and any land he farmed returned to the lord at the gebur's death.


A ceorl's wergild was a sixth of a nobleman's, and in legal proceedings the word of a thegn counted for as much as that of six ceorls. However, ceorls were freemen.

Ceorls were liable for military service in the fyrd (army), but by the 8th Century kings seem to have preferred to levy noblemen who were better trained and equipped.

During the Anglo-Saxon period, the status of ceorl gradually declined. During the 9th and 10th Centuries, most ceorls became bound to work on their lords' lands.


Eorls or gesiths (companions to the king) stood at the top of the social scale. Just below them were thegns - royal servants.

The Anglo-Saxon period lasted for 600 years, from 410 to 1066, and in that time Britain's political landscape underwent many changes.

The early settlers kept to small tribal groups, forming kingdoms and sub-kingdoms. By the ninth century, the country was divided into seven kingdoms - Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Sussex, Kent and Wessex.

Wessex was the only one of these kingdoms to survive the Viking invasions. Eric Bloodaxe, the Viking ruler of York, was killed by the Wessex army in 954 and England was united under one king - Edred.

Anglo-Saxon expansion gradually pressed the British westward and divided them into separate kingdoms - Dumnonia in the South West; Strathclyde in the western lowlands of Scotland; and the "Welsh" kingdoms - Dyfed, Powys and Gwynedd. It was the Anglo-Saxons who called the Britons wealhas (which meant foreigners, and later slaves) - this became corrupted to Welsh. The earliest Welsh poetry expresses the same tribal values and warrior ethics as that of the very same Anglo-Saxons whom the Britons had so long resisted. Although the British in Wales retained their independence for many more centuries, virtually all Roman culture had disappeared.
[Contemporary DNA testing in western Wales shows virtually no Anglo-Saxon DNA - only ancient British].

Anglo Saxon Runes

When the Anglo-Saxons became Christians, they began to use the Roman alphabet for writing (as we still do today). Before that time, they wrote in runes.

Each rune had a name, such as 'joy' or 'ash tree'

The runes were all made of straight lines, which made them easier to carve. Runes were often carved on precious objects - like an ivory box - or on stone monuments. Sometimes runes told the maker's name.

The word RUNE means secret or mystery. Runes had a religious meaning and were used in religious ceremonies. They were a charm or a spell as well as a way of writing messages.

This is why TO SPELL (meaning to put down the right letters in the right order) and A SPELL (as in a magic spell) are the same word in English. The Anglo-Saxons believed that if you used the right runes in the right order, they could have magical powers. For example, a prisoner could magically release himself by carving certain runes.

Even our words READ and WRITE are connected with runes. The Anglo-Saxon wordswritan (= to carve runes) and ridan (= to interpret runes) became our words write and read.

The most popular form of entertainment was music and storytelling. It was a social skill that few of us today can muster, however a thousand years ago it was the expected norm at any gathering what ever it's size. There were many stories of ancient heroes such as the tale of 'Beowulf' or the Norse Sagas. Few of these survive today as they were generally passed on by word of mouth and were very rarely written down. Most of those which were recorded are in the form of a poem. Often these poems were composed to record a particular event such as 'The Battle of Maldon', others, such as 'Widsith' and 'Deor' appear to be fiction or folklore. Much history and custom was passed on by word of mouth. It is easier to remember things exactly when in the form of poetry than as prose. Therefore history was often recorded in the form of poetry.

In Saxon England there were professional storytellers, called 'scops', who would travel from village to village telling tales in return for food, lodging and money. A good scop was a respected member of the community and could be well rewarded for his skill. A scop could also use music to emphasise parts of the story, or as 'background music'. Indeed, another word for a poet or storyteller was 'hearpere' (harper), implying the use of this instrument (or the lyre it developed from) for this person.

Even today we still use the phrase 'to harp on' when someone is being particularly verbose. The surname Harper may also date back to this period. It is even quite likely that many of the 'heroic lays' were actually told by singing or chanting, rather than just speaking them. A particular feature of much Anglo-Saxon verse is the use of 'kennings'. A kenning is almost like a riddle within the verse, describing an object in an unusual way, for example the sea becomes the 'swan's road', a ship is a 'steed of the waves', the human body is a 'bone-house', etc..

Singing and music were prized skills even without the telling of stories or poetry, and again there were professional musicians, called 'gleemen', who like the scop would travel from place to place and play and sing in return for pay. Like the scop, a skilled gleeman might be appointed as a court musician. It seems that skill at music was also regarded as a good kingly skill, with musical instruments included in many royal burials of the pagan period, and representations of King David playing the harp being a popular theme in Anglo-Saxon art.

A bard

Christianity, like Roman culture, largely disappeared during the Anglo-Saxon invasions.

In the course of the 7th Century, virtually all of England was converted to Christianity by Christian missionaries from Rome and Ireland. The Roman missionaries were sent by Pope Gregory the Great who had earlier encountered English pagans in Rome. Gregory hoped Augustine would convert the whole of England to Christianity, but Augustine's mission made progress only in Kent and Essex. He established the first Archbishopric in Canterbury.

Alfred was born at Wantage in Oxfordshire in 849, fourth or fifth son of Aethelwulf, king of the West Saxons. Following the wishes of their father, the sons succeeded to the kingship in turn. At a time when the country was under threat from Danish raids, this was aimed at preventing a child inheriting the throne with the related weaknesses in leadership. In 870 AD the Danes attacked the only remaining independent Anglo-Saxon kingdom, Wessex, whose forces were commanded by Alfred's older brother, King Aethelred, and Alfred himself.

In 871 AD, Alfred defeated the Danes at the Battle of Ashdown in Berkshire. The following year, he succeeded his brother as king. Despite his success at Ashdown, the Danes continued to devastate Wessex and Alfred was forced to withdraw to the Somerset marshes, where he continued guerrilla warfare against his enemies. In 878 AD, he again defeated the Danes in the Battle of Edington. They made peace and Guthrum, their king, was baptised with Alfred as his sponsor. In 886 AD, Alfred negotiated a treaty with the Danes. England was divided, with the north and the east (between the Rivers Thames and Tees) declared to be Danish territory - later known as the 'Danelaw'. Alfred therefore gained control of areas of West Mercia and Kent which had been beyond the boundaries of Wessex.

Alfred built up the defences of his kingdom to ensure that it was not threatened by the Danes again. He reorganised his army and built a series of well-defended settlements across southern England. He also established a navy for use against the Danish raiders who continued to harass the coast.

As an administrator Alfred advocated justice and order and established a code of laws and a reformed coinage. He had a strong belief in the importance of education and learnt Latin in his late thirties. He then arranged, and himself took part in, the translation of books from Latin to Anglo-Saxon.

By the 890s, Alfred's charters and coinage were referring to him as 'king of the English'. He died in October 899 AD and was buried at his capital city of Winchester.