The Anglo-Saxon World: From Roman Retreat to Norman Takeover

The Anglo-Saxon period witnessed the birth of the English people, the establishment of Christianity, and the development of the English language. With an extraordinary cast of characters (Alfred the Great, the Venerable Bede, King Cnut), a long list of artistic and cultural achievements (‘Beowulf’, ‘the Sutton Hoo ship-burial’ finds, the ‘Bayeux Tapestry’), and multiple dramatic events (the ‘Viking invasions’, the Battle of Hastings’), the Anglo-Saxon era lays legitimate claim to having been one of the most important in Western history.

In this authoritative work, N. J. Higham and M. J. Ryan reexamine Anglo-Saxon England in the light of new research in disciplines as wide-ranging as historical genetics, palaeobotany, archaeology, literary studies, art history, and numismatics. The following article is an extract from the Introduction to The Anglo-Saxon World by Nicholas J. Higham and Martin J. Ryancomplimented by a gallery of images which can be found on the Yale University Press, London Facebook page.

English history opens with the Anglo-Saxons. For our own convenience, we generally divide history into periods: for England the Anglo-Saxon period is the first, therefore, the starting point. Running from the fifth century though to the eleventh, it is also the longest. From a twenty-first-century viewpoint, though, there can be a feeling that it all happened a very long time ago. Since the last Anglo-Saxon monarch, King Harold II, fell at the Battle of Hastings some 40 generations have been born and died, great plagues and wars have come and gone, and the pace of technological change has been such that the world we live in now is very different.

Given all that, do the Anglo-Saxons still have relevance? Do they really matter? A little surprisingly, perhaps, there are many indications that they do. In important ways, the Anglo_Saxons were the first English; they gave their name to England (ultimately, ‘land of the Angles’), and the adjective ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is used today to describe a vast array of cultural phenomena, ethnic markers and character traits believed to be particular to Britain, the United States and other pats of the English-speaking world. It is clear that for many people now living in England, and indeed, elsewhere, the Anglo-Saxons are still recognised as an historic form of ‘us’ or ‘we’ in ways that other historic groups simply are not. Beginnings matter.

There are numerous dimensions to this assertion. Modern English, one of the most important and widely used languages in the world, began with an developed from the speech of the Anglo-Saxons, which we call Old English or Anglo-Saxon. That does not mean to say that Old English is still easily understood in the modern day, for it is not, but nonetheless the English we speak today is its direct descendant.

So, too, was England unified, or created, in the Anglo-Saxon period. The English monarchy dates back to the tenth century and the shape of England has changed comparatively little since. English Christianity dates back even earlier, beginning with a process of conversion in the late sixth and seventh centuries, with key centres of authority established at Canterbury (rather than London) and York. Though there are today many more dioceses than there were in the Anglo-Saxon period, the oldest, such as Rochester, Lichfield and Winchester, all began in the seventh century with their parish boundaries already in place; indeed, some retain structural details centuries older than that.

The whole system of English regional government, through shires and hundreds, originated in the Anglo-Saxon period. Look at the shires of the Domesday Book entries for 1086 and you see very much the same structure as lasted up to the re-organisation of local government in 1974. Even much of the settlement pattern of England derives from the Anglo-Saxon period. It is tempting to look back to the Romans for the foundation of Britain’s pre-industrial towns, but the major centres of Roman Britain had fallen into ruin and were deserted by AD 500. They were only revived as urban nodes in the later Anglo-Saxon period, when they were refortified against the Vikings. Many reused old Roman walls but plenty more, like Hereford, and Shrewsbury, were built from scratch. And the relationship between towns and shires dates to this period, with particular centres linked to the running of the wider county and sharing the name, hence Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Cheshire (Chester-shire) and Herefordshire.

Not only the towns but also many villages and dispersed townships date back to this period and many English manors or country estates originated then. Study a map and look up local parish or township names in the Domesday book and, like as not, you will find them listed, discover who held them in 1066, how much land there was of what kind, and how much tax was owed. England is an old country, therefore, and many of its basic structures and its local geography were sketched out, at least, in the Anglo-Saxon period.

But there is more to it than that. There are issues around national identity, that sense of social cohesion and belonging centred on a shared history and perspective on the world, which rest on Anglo-Saxon foundations. In November 2005 the British government introduced a written test for those applying for citizenship or for indefinite leave to remain in the UK. The test consisted of twenty-four multiple-choice question, to be answered in forty-five minutes, and covered aspects of British society, culture, government and law. When the test was first mooted a few years earlier, there was a debate as to whether it should include a section of British history and various possible historical questions circulated, including ‘When was Britain last invaded?’ The ‘official’ answer to this question was 1066, when Duke William of Normandy (‘the Conqueror’) defeated and killed King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings, in other words the date which we use to close the Anglo-Saxon period. Predictably enough newspaper columnists and correspondents countered with a range of objections and alternative answers – 1940 when Germany occupied the Channel Islands; 1797 when the French attacked Fishguard in south Wales; the Jacobite Rising 1745; the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 when William of Orange overthrew King James II, and so on/ Perhaps partly in response, historical questions were dropped from the test.

Nevertheless, when a study guide was compiled to aid those sitting the test, entitled Life in the United Kingdom: A Guide to Citizenship, it included a survey of British history which begins with the construction of Stonehenge and concludes with the late twentieth century. The description of events in the fifth and early sixth centuries is as follows:

As the Roman Empire gradually became weaker, new tribes invaded [Britain] from Northern Europe looking for a better land. These were called the Jutes, Angles and Saxons. These people spoke dialects which later became the basis of English. The people of Britain fought against these new invaders and were led for a while in the sixth century by the legendary King Arthur. Eventually, however, the invaders took over all of southern and eastern Britain, setting up their own kingdoms and pushing the Britons to the west and to the north.

The people whose origins are described here are, of course, the Anglo-Saxons and they dominated what is now England and parts of lowland Scotland until the battle in 1066 that may or may not have marked the last time Britain was invaded. the British government in the early twenty-first century considered that this was needful for British citizens to know.

It is there Anglo-Saxons, then, and their interactions with the wider world of which they were a part, who are the subjects of this book. Most of the individuals featured in the following pages would recognise the story told in the guide – with the exception of its reference to King Arthur – and many would certainly feel comfortable that it offered the story of their own origins. Indeed, the description quoted rests heavily on the account written in the early eighth century by the Venerable Bede.

Yet this passage is noteworthy less as a witness to the longevity of one particular vision of the fifth century than for what it tells us about modern ideas and attitudes towards the Anglo-Saxons. the Anglo-Saxons are, the guide implies, important in a way that, say, the Beaker Culture of the Bronze Age is not; the Anglo-Saxon are therefore included whereas the Beaker Culture is excluded. Their presence in a brief and very general guide to upwards of five thousand years of British history marks the perceived significance of the Anglo-Saxon period and the continuing interest it holds for modern audiences….

– from the Introduction to Anglo-Saxon World by Nicholas J. Higham and Martin J. Ryan

Buy The Anglo-Saxon World | More History on the Yale Books blog

The Anglo-Saxon World

Share this

You must be logged in to post a comment