Anglo-Saxons is the name given to the Germanic peoples who invaded and conquered England after Roman Britain collapsed in the 5th-century ad. Most of the invaders were Angles and Saxons from northern Germany, but there were also Jutes and other peoples from around the coast of the North Sea. By the end of the 6th century, the Anglo-Saxons had kingdoms across the whole of England. Anglo-Saxon kings ruled until the Norman Conquest of 1066.
The invaders brought with them different styles of dress and decoration, but in England, these soon merged into a single Anglo-Saxon style. Their different languages also merged into a single language that became an early form of English.
The Anglo-Saxons were pagans when they invaded England. They were converted to Christianity following the visit of St Augustine to Kent in ad 597, and by the missionary work of Irish monks. Even after they became Christians, the Anglo-Saxons did not completely abandon their pagan past. The names of their gods are commemorated by some of the days of the week—for example, Wednesday (Woden’s day) and Thursday (Thor’s day).
At first, the Anglo-Saxon invaders had little use for writing. They used their traditional rune alphabet to write a few inscriptions and magic spells. There were 24 letters in the rune alphabet, and these letters had completely different shapes to those of the Roman alphabet. After their conversion to Christianity, they began to use the Roman alphabet to write their own language as well as the Latin language used by the Church.
Although they could be fierce warriors, the Anglo-Saxons were mainly farmers. They set up a network of small farms, villages, and towns across most of England. They also built fine churches, some of which are still in use today.
WHAT WAS ANGLO-SAXON ENGLAND LIKE?
During the early part of the Anglo-Saxon period, there were more than 30 separate kingdoms in England, some large and some small. Some of the early kings grew very rich through raising taxes and trading with other kingdoms. The treasures found in the royal burial mounds at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk show both the wealth of the king and the skill of Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths.
The number of kingdoms decreased as the strong conquered the weak, and by the beginning of the 8th century, there were just seven—sometimes known as the Heptarchy. From north to south these were: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex, and Wessex. Northumbria was the largest, and at first was also the most powerful. During the 8th century, Mercia, under King Offa, became the strongest Anglo-Saxon kingdom. Mercia’s power was ended by the Viking invasions in the 9th century. Mercia was then replaced by Wessex under King Alfred the Great and his sons, who drove out the Danish Vikings.
Afterwards, the kings of Wessex ruled the whole of England, apart from a short period when the country became part of the Danish Empire ruled by King Cnut (Canute II). The last Anglo-Saxon king of England was Harold II. He was killed in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings, fighting against William of Normandy.
Did you know?
• London was important to the Anglo-Saxons as a major port, but it was not their capital. Each Anglo-Saxon kingdom had its own capital. Winchester, in Wessex, became the first capital of England.
• Wessex (land of the West Saxons) no longer exists, but Sussex (South Saxons) and Essex (East Saxons) are still used as the names of English counties. The present-day region of East Anglia was the land of the East Angles.
• The Anglo-Saxons introduced taxation to England. In 991 King Ethelred II introduced the Danegeld, which was needed to pay the Danish invaders to keep out of his kingdom. Previously, the Danes had been granted an area of England known as the Danelaw, and although this had been reconquered by the Anglo-Saxons by 955, they tried to return there several times.