What do you think of when you think of the Anglo Saxons? This is a trick question so please don’t say nothing! The general idea appears to be an all conquering race from continental Europe-shout out to the ancient van Emdens across the sea-a group of soldiers who put their imprint on the natives of England before being thoroughly wiped out by Big Billy and the rest of those pesky Normans, right? Wrong! History is never this black and white. Somewhere along the line, we have somewhat romanticised the Saxons into a plucky downtrodden race of monks with a fondness for scythes and fancy embroidery. This in some parts is thanks to Alfred the Great, one of the figureheads of British monarchy but also due to films and pop culture. Alfred was somewhat of an anomaly in the ancient kings of Wessex, he was cultured, interested in literature and a peace bringer. Alfred united the warring kingdoms of England into an uneasy state, an early blueprint of England. However the early Saxons, especially their warlords, where not all like Alfred. They were warlike, violent and ruthless as all invaders are. When we compare them to their main enemy the Vikings, the Saxons look pretty tame, but that does not mean the Saxons did not give as good as they got!
To understand the makers of Britain, it’s important to see where they came from. In this blog I’ve focused on the death of Saxon England with regards to the Norman invasion, but there are generations of Saxon history I’ve left untouched.
The famed Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is composed long after the reports it documents and one of the earliest mentions of what we’d perceive as ‘Saxon’ come in the early 400s with mention of European mercenaries hired by the leader of a small group of kingdoms, Wyrtgeorn, a Romanized English native. Wyrtgeorn called upon the Saxons to help fight the Scottish Picts and Irish marauders who had landed on the west coast and near the Cotswolds : the central part of Wyrtgeorn’s kingdom. The decision to call the Saxons was one of desperation, the Picts were said to landed in Norfolk and were already heavily camouflaged to match their environment. Roman historians are not kind about the arriving Saxons, they worshipped the false Gods of Wodin and Thor, they drank blood and practiced human sacrifice. The Saxons’ appearance was equally dreadful, they grew their hair long at the back and shaved the back so that their heads may look bigger on the battlefield. Of course these histories are much embellished and this is not the first time Romans have used the excuse of ‘human sacrifice’ as a way to blacken a reputation, Carthaginians anyone? The bands of warrior Saxons were ruled by chieftains who worshipped the moon and sun, they were violent pagans and the crumbling Roman empire feared their new mercenaries. One chronicler said of the continental Saxons:
‘[The Saxon] surpasses all others in brutality. He attacks unforeseen, he slips away. If he pursues, he captures: if he flees, he escapes.’
These mercenaries were stationed in Kent, Norfolk, Lincolnshire and the island of Thanet in the Thames estuary. Wyrtgeorn placed the Saxons in important, vital spaces of territory and this did not sit well with his allies and subjects. In protest and poverty they refused to pay the Saxons, yet Wyrtgeorn invited more Saxons to England. After the first threat was pushed back by the Saxons, Wyrtgeorn’s allies finally put their foot down and refused to pay up. Now, any history nerd/historian/reader of books, knows that not paying your mercenaries never ends well. The Saxons’ revenge was swift and deadly. The attacks started in East Anglia quickly moving down through the Thames, as they pillaged they enslaved the natives and captured the land they’d been defending. Worse still for the native English, the island of Thanet which had been handed to the Saxons, was goldmine, a huge granary, and a source of power for the Saxons. Worse still, the Saxons were now used to the prosperous land they’d been protecting and now they were calling their Germanic brothers to come to England and seek their fortune. So, thanks to Wyrtgeorn the Germanic immigrants came to England in fresh waves, mainly built up of four tribes:
Angles from Schleswig
Saxons from the area around the river Elbe
Frisians from the northern coast of The Netherlands: shout out to my Dutch brethren!
Jutes from the coast of Denmark
Note there is no mention of a tribe called ‘the Anglo Saxons’ this name is not invented until the 6th century, thought up by a-you guessed it-Roman historian. Soon this tribes scattered themselves around England, spreading their influence.
Jutes: Kent, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight
Frisians: The South East with important influence in London
Angle: North-East, East England. Soon those in Yorkshire were wearing Anglican clothing.
These Germanic men split into smaller tribes, some were welcomed and others were not. As we can see, there was no full-scale Saxon invasion of England as there were with the Normans. The Saxons were already an established presence in England when they began to arrive in their droves. As England slowly fell Wrytgeorn was overthrown by another Romanized English leader named Ambrosius Aurelianus who would go on to fight the Saxons for ten years. It is around this moment in time that the legends of the mythological King Arthur begin to crop up, the early English works such as ‘Brut’ document the many battles of Arthur against the Romans and the Saxons. There are no records of magic and romance, this early Arthur is a fictionalised warlord who fights against the evil besieging his kingdom.
Eventually after Arthur’s ‘death’ a stalemate appeared to settle over the tiny island, the Saxons remained in areas such as East Kent, East Sussex and Norfolk. The Saxons set up their own trading markets outside London and respected the boundaries of the native’s lands. However, things abruptly changed in the 540s when the Romanized world was struck by a deadly plague, this bubonic plague was almost as deadly as it’s 14th century counterpart and wiped out huge chunks of the native English population. Remarkably the Angles and the Saxons weathered this storm while the native population fell by almost half. The plague coincided with a new Saxon desire to expand into the rest of England, and with English villages deserted the Angles combined with the Saxons to capitalise on the death that had inflicted itself on England. This marks the beginning of the ‘Anglo Saxons’ a civilisation built on death. The Anglo Saxon march on the rest of England was a slow one but still they marched, sparking a mass exodus on native English people to Amorica in France. There these mutual tribes created a new group of people-the Bretons and eventually the state of Brittany.
Back in England the Saxon tribes now created their own towns, ruled by warlords and marked by river territories. These ancient towns still hold modernised names, a permanent mark by the Anglo Saxons. For example: the followers of Haesta created what we now call Hastings, a town that’s more than a little iconic in Saxon history! Now somewhat settled, the Saxons were not as brutal as the Normans when it came to consolidating power. Like the Normans, the Saxons created a new social ladder, societies were based on rank each inspired by the various obligations of the overlord in control. At the bottom were the slaves and free landowners, then the coerls (head of household) and the thegns (noblemen). It was a harsh life for the native English who found themselves at the bottom of the new food chain, but the Anglo Saxons did not entirely wipe out British culture and outside the largely Germanic towns, Christianity thrived. Languages intermingled something we have proof of in British place names. The Germanic term ‘wahl’ meant Latin or Celt speaker, so we can infer that this was a reference to the native English, interestingly enough the term eventually comes to mean serf or slave…indicative of the times right? Soon wahl appears in surnames such as Walcott and Walson. This is from a period when a surname usually indicated a person’s career, so anyone called Wal-something, sorry your family were peasants once upon a time! Wahl also crops up in place names in early forms of areas such as Cornwall and Wales.
The Saxons expanded further, slowly creeping out of their smaller territories further across England and creating early foundations to what we’d later call Britain. We credit William I with the unification of England as a state and not a collection of small kingdoms, we give props to Henry II for introducing a vestige of law into a chaotic England, these are fair facts but without the early Saxons none of this would have been possible. That said, it isn’t until Alfred takes over and the house of Wessex comes into its prime, that England truly begins to unite.
The early Saxons are something of an enigma to a modern reader. As warlike as their Viking counterparts, these scattered Germanic tribes began a slow and steady invasion of England but unlike the Danish raiders, England invited the Saxons in. There was no brutal conquest, no fixed battle that led to Saxon dominance, it was years of integration and skirmishes that bought about almighty change. Vestiges of their culture still remains, hewn into our language, our culture and even our festivals. Despite many different noble families the Germanic grip on England would last for generations, and it would be a Saxon king who would end the bloodline once and for all. Next time I’ll go into this in more detail, focussing on the key figures in Saxon history but for now…
Over and out!