Introduction to The Anglo-Saxon World

The Anglo-Saxon period, stretching from the fifth century to the late eleventh, begins with the Roman retreat from the Western world and ends with the Norman takeover of England. Between these epochal events, many of the contours and patterns of English life that would endure for the next millennium were shaped. In The Anglo-Saxon World, Nicholas Higham and Martin Ryan re-examine 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.

 In this extract, Higham and Ryan explore the tricky question of identity, tracing the far-from-inevitable emergence of England and the English.

On Being Anglo-Saxon

 A book with the title The Anglo-Saxon World makes at the outset a central assumption, namely that the Anglo-Saxons constitute a meaningful and discrete object of study. That is, the Anglo-Saxons were, in sufficiently significant ways, distinct and different from the other inhabitants of, say, the island of Britain or the Atlantic Archipelago in the Early Middle Ages. The application of ethnic labels – such as ‘Anglo-Saxon’ – to peoples and groups in the Early Middle Ages is fraught with difficulties and the nature of early medieval ethnicity today remains the subject of intense debate. To apply any label to the past is necessarily to simplify and to homogenise, emphasising similarity and continuity at the expense of difference and complexity. Yet it is clear that the people we now label Anglo-Saxons were seen by themselves and by other as representing, in important ways, a distinct and identifiable group.

            Such did not preclude competition, enmity or rivalry between different groups of Anglo-Saxons – far from it.  Nor did it mean that Anglo-Saxons would necessarily be hostile to the other peoples of Britain; indeed, Anglo-Saxons and Britons would sometimes ally against other Anglo-Saxons or against other Britons. Likewise, it should not be assumed that this shared identity was fixed or stable, meaning the same thing at all times. One of the recurring themes in this book is the way in which collective identities have been refashioned and reactivated in numerous different contexts and for multiple purposes. Nevertheless, despite such qualifications and complexities, ‘Anglo-Saxon’ remains a meaningful, albeit imperfect, label.

            ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is, however, a modern label and one that would not have been easily understood, if understood at all, by many of those to whom it is now applied. The compound noun ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and variants thereof was first used by writers on the Continent in the mid eighth century, seemingly to distinguish Germanic-speaking peoples living in lowland Britain from the Saxons (sometimes called the Old Saxons) living in northern Continental Europe. By the end of the ninth century, ‘Anglo-Saxon’ was being used by King Alfred the Great to describe the extent of his power; he was ‘king of the Anglo-Saxons’. In this context, the term signified Alfred’s rule over his own kingdom of the West Saxons (including ‘Saxon’ Sussex and Essex and ‘Jutish’ Kent) and also Mercia, a kingdom supposedly founded by Angles. It did not include Northumbria, beyond the Humber, but in the mid-tenth century Alfred’s successors took over much of this more northerly Anglian realm as well. They still employed the royal style ‘king of the Anglo-Saxons’ but the term gradually fell out of use and was used only sparingly of kings in the eleventh century. It was only in the sixteenth century that the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ was again routinely employed, being used in roughly its modern sense to describe the inhabitants of England, or what would become England, before the Norman Conquest.

            Contemporaries, however, employed a number of different terms to describe the people we would now call Anglo-Saxons. Roman writers used the term ‘Saxon’ to refer to the barbarian peoples of northern Europe who attacked Britain by sea in the fourth and fifth centuries and this terminology was similarly employed by the British writer Gildas in his account of the recruitment and rebellion of Germanic mercenaries in Britain. Gildas’s usage seems to have influenced subsequent references in Welsh, Irish and Scottish sources, where the Anglo-Saxons are most commonly referred to as ‘Saxons’, though ‘Angles’ does occur on occasion. The usage persists to this day as Celtic languages use ‘Saxon’ to refer to the English, witness ‘Saeson’ in Modern Welsh or ‘Sasanaigh’ in Irish Gaelic. Other writers employed different ethnic terminology. In the mid-sixth century, the Byzantine author Procopius of Caesarea described the island of Britain as being inhabited by three peoples, the Angles, the Frisians and the Britons, while at the end of the sixth century Pope Gregory I (‘the Great’) employed the term Angles.

            Gregory’s use of ‘Angles’ was perhaps what encouraged Bede’s adoption of the term in his magnum opus The Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum). Though Bede recorded the story of the settlement in Britain of three tribes, the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes, when referring to these people collectively Bede tended to label them ‘Angles’ and their language, despite different dialects, as ‘English’. Bede’s terminology would prove highly influential.

At the end of the ninth century, King Alfred and the scholars close to his court were experimenting with ideas of a unified English people, employing the term ‘Angelcynn’ to designate this group, whilst Alfred’s tenth-century successors would increasingly claim to be kings of the English (’rex anglorum’), with the word ‘Englalonde’ (whence, ultimately, England) in use by the late tenth or early eleventh centuries. Though Angle or English eventually emerged as the preferred term, there was no simple linear progression from the vocabulary of Bede to the vocabulary of the tenth and eleventh centuries. Nor was usage even consistent at the time. Bede’s near contemporary, Stephen of Ripon, described Wilfrid of York as bishop of the Saxons, despite his diocese being in what Bede termed ‘Anglian’ Northumbria. Likewise, a Canterbury scribe writing in the late 820s could describe the participants at an English Church synod as having come from various parts of Saxony, meaning not Continental Saxony but the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in Britain. Even during the reign of Æthelstan (d. 939), the first ruler to routinely use the royal style ‘rex anglorum’, a poet could describe the king’s realm as ‘this Saxonia now made whole’. The Englishness of the English was, therefore, only one of a number of possible identities that were in circulation across the Anglo-Saxon period.

            Similar complexities surround the use of geographical or territorial terminology, including England itself. A unified English kingdom stretching from the River Tweed to the Channel and from the North Sea to the Dee and Severn estuaries, with its political, cultural and governmental foci in the south, was only one of several possible configurations. Throughout the Early Middle Ages other polities and groupings were imaginable and, indeed, in some cases actively pursued. Nor were what now seem obvious natural barriers – the Irish Sea or the English Channel, say – necessarily thought of such by the early medieval inhabitants of the Atlantic Archipelago. Both Britons and Anglo-Saxons settled in Continental Europe, and there were considerable Irish settlements in western Britain which retained strong links with their homelands for many generations.

            By the 630s, the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Bernicia (eventually incorporated in Northumbria) extended to the Firth of Forth, in which is now lowland Scotland. In the mid-seventh century Northumbrian kings ruled south-west Scotland and Fife and were pushing ever northwards until a disastrous defeat in 685 put paid to their ambitions. On at least one occasion a Northumbrian army crossed the sea into what is now County Meath in Ireland, taking hostages and causing much destruction. A kingdom embracing territory from the North Sea to the Boyne Valley and from the Humber to the Moray Firth may have seemed achievable at the Northumbria court in the early 680s.

            Similarly, the boundary between Wales and the English Midlands was far from constant. English Mercia expanded at the expense of both English and British kingdoms across the seventh century, then late eighth and early ninth century Mercian kings pursued widespread conquest of their western neighbours. English armies right up to the 1060s were intervening decisively in Wales. In practice, the modern boundary lies further east than at any period between 700 and 1066.

            The creation of a kingdom of England was likewise less about the unification of all the English people than the use and promotion of a supposed common English identity to justify the territorial ambitions and achievements of West Saxon kings. Significant ‘English’ areas could be found outside later Anglo-Saxon England: Lothian, for example, an area that had long been under Anglo-Saxon control and even in the twelfth century would be recognised as a region peopled by the English, passed under the kings of Scotland in the later tenth century and was never recovered; northern Cumbria (Cumberland) lay outside England until after the Norman Conquest despite its inclusion in pre-Viking Northumbria, and such ‘Northumbria’ regions as Galloway, Cunningham and Kyle were never recovered by a unified England centred predominantly south of the Thames.

            Older identities could also prove resilient even within England. Cornwall came under Anglo-Saxon control over the course of the ninth to (probably) eleventh centuries, but the Cornish language continued in use as did the sense that the Cornish were a people separate from the English. In the sixteenth century the Italian scholar Polydore Vergil could write of Britain being divided into four parts, one inhabited by the English, another by the Scots, the third by the Welsh and the fourth by the Cornish; today such groups as Mebyon Kernow continue to campaign for greater political autonomy for Cornwall and to promote its distinct cultural heritage and history.

            Nor was the emergence of a single ‘English’ kingship obligatory, or even always very likely. Even given the impetus by resistance to the Vikings, it was in part at least a series of dynastic accidents that led across the tenth and eleventh centuries to the repeated re-imposition of a single monarch over a land which otherwise showed strong signs of regional self-determination. While it is fair to say that the English saw themselves as bound together in a single polity in the mid-eleventh century, England had been divided between rival political claimants to the throne in 924 (Ælfweard, Æthelstan), 955 (Eadwig, Edgar), 1016 (Cnut, Edmund), and as recently as 1035 (Harthacnut, Harold I). Had such divisions at any point persisted, they could easily have set down strong roots.

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