This is part of the Medieval European History mtanode.

Dear old England was abandoned. The Roman legions had pulled out by the year 412, leaving the Celts defenseless. Angles, Saxons, and Jutes invaded from mainland Europe fairly continuously from 450 to 600 (with a break in the invasions from 500-550, when some theorize that King Arthur held the invaders at bay). Eventually, the raids became settlements, and the old Roman towns disappeared.

Seven Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms resulted from the invasions:

1. East Anglia (Angles)
2. Mercia (Angles)
3. Northumbria (Angles)
4. Essex (Saxons)
5. Sussex (Saxons)
6. Wessex (Saxons)
7. Kent (Jutes)

Usually, these kingdoms were split, but sometimes an aggressive king could become Bretwalda, or High King. Ethelbert of Kent was a Bretwalda, who was converted to Christianity in 897 by Augustine of Canterbury (see The Rise of Christianity). His people also converted.

Alfred (the Great) (871-899) was the greatest of the Anglo-Saxon monarchs. He defended his kingdom from the Danish invaders by building up the navy, reorganizing the fyrd (army), and instituting the burg system (fortifications for local villages). He instituted a new law code in an attempt to prevent blood feuds. He also had a great interest in learning; he imported teachers, founded schools for the clergy and nobles, and had many books translated into Anglo-Saxon (Early English).

England had strong rulers for 75 years after Alfred's death. Then, in 978, Ethelred the Unready became king. He could not organize a strong defense against Danish invaders. After a strong wave of invasions in 980, Ethelred decided to massacre all of the Danes living in his kingdom. After he killed the Danish King Swein's sister, Swein decided he'd had enough. A decade of warfare followed, and both Ethelred and his only son died in 1016. The witan (council of nobles) elected a Danish King, Cnut, in 1017.

Cnut was a very good king. He married Ethelred's young widow, adopted English customs, and had a fairly uneventful reign until his death in 1035. Both of his sons died within a year of each other, and the witan elected Edward the Confessor, son of Ethelred the Unready, to be king in 1042.

Edward's reign was characterized by conflicts with the four earls. He had grown up on the continent, and thus had no natural power base. Godwin, the Earl of Wessex, was the most powerful of the earls. He aspired to be king, and after he refused to obey a direct order from Edward, he and his sons were exiled to Flanders. Meanwhile, Edward invited an influx of Normans; he appointed a Norman Archbishop of Canterbury and gave Normans positions in the royal court. There was much grumbling and resentment among the locals, and Godwin took adavantage of this to return in 1052. There was such a backlash that Edward granted Godwin titles and land and dismissed the Normans. When Edward died in 1066, the witan elected Harold Godwinson (son of Godwin Earl of Wessex) king. However, William Duke of Normandy also claimed the throne.

William had the support of the Pope, who was angry at Harold for ousting a Bishop without approval. While Harold was busy fighting the Danes in the north, William crossed the English Channel with an army and landed unopposed. Harold and his army marched down to meet him without rest, and they met at the Battle of Hastings on 14 October 1066. The English army had only an infantry, while William's army had archers and horsemen. The battle raged on until nightfall, and it appeared to be a draw until a stray arrow happened to hit Harold in the eye, killing him. William won and was crowned on Christmas Day in 1066. He introduced new organization to the government, and compiled the Domesday Book.


Literature during the Anglo-Saxon period was about their cultural hardships. There were wars to be fought, and food to be farmed, all to serve the higher glory of the nobles, lords, and Kings. Religious literature had little effect upon the masses because of their Pagan beliefs which required no literacy to read Christian values from the Bible. Illiteracy was rampant, reading did not help one survive. In these Dark Ages a kingdom would more likely be at war than at peace with constant power struggles.

Riddles were popular with the Saxons: "Of honey laden bees I was first born, but in the forest grew my outer coat; My tough back comes from shoes (the leather thongs), An iron point in artful windings cuts a fair design, and leaves long twisted furrows like a plough." This riddle describes the production and use of a wax tablet or wax book. Surviving collections of these riddles include examples by contemporaries such as Aldhelm, Abbot of Malmsbury and Bishop of Sherborne c.640 - 709 A.D., Tatwine, Archbishop of Canterbury (died 734 A.D.) and 'Eusebius', possibly Hwaetherht, Abbot of Wearmouth and friend of Bede c.680 - 747 A.D.. (Regia)

Books and manuscripts were written on vellum, a preparation of calf, goat and sheep skins. The majority of codex, or scripts, used a great number of hides, anywhere up to 800 for the greater books. (Regia) Therefore the production of these scripts was very expensive procedure and the books were mainly produced for kings and the Church and often required a scribe to produce them. Journals, biographies, and copies of the bible were the most common forms of written literature, although they were scarce.

Life and Lifestyle as an Anglo-Saxon:

British life during the Anglo-Saxon period from 597 AD to 1066 AD (Britannia) was one of paganism, superstition, and strict social class levels which included slavery. There were seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (Heptarchy) that coexisted together: Northumberland, East Anglia, Mercia (Angles), Kent (Jutes), Essex, Sussex, Wessex (Saxons). The Anglo-Saxon settlement of England did not occur overnight. The late-Roman army had many Germanic elements and from the fourth century they and their families had settled in Britain. It is, therefore, not surprising that after the withdrawal of the legions at the beginning of the fifth century, individual towns looked to Germanic mercenaries to maintain their security. The fifth and sixth centuries saw increased Germanic settlement although the balance of local power fluctuated between Britons and Saxons. (Regia)

The crops most frequently grown were wheat, oats, rye, and barley (both as a cereal and as the base for beer). Peas, beans, and lentils were also common. Honey was the only sweetener in use, and it was used to make the alcoholic beverage mead. Pigs were a major food animal, as were cattle, goats, and sheep. Horses and oxen were raised for heavy farm labor and transportation, though the stirrup had yet to make an appearance from the far east. (Britainexpress)

Clothing style was worn depending upon class, gender, and area. The robe or tunic gathered at the waist was the common garment for a man, completed by hose and soft shoes. For a woman the robe or dress extended to the feet. The usual materials were linen and woolens, the more expensive outfits being marked by colorful dyes and exotic borders. Broaches were used to fix clothing by rich and poor, and amulets of stones were worn for luck. (Britannia) During wartimes very little armor was worn for protection when compared to the Vikings. Usually the Saxons wore a simple circle shield and equipped with a spear while the Vikings wore chain mail and helmets, and short stabbing swords which were useful in close quarters, as well as the fearsome double headed battle axe. Only the Anglo-Saxon nobility used swords which were around thirty inches long.

Society was divided into several social classes, which might vary from place to place. At the top was the king. He was essentially a war leader. He was expected to provide opportunities for plunder and glory for his followers. Below the king were the eoldermen, the ruling nobility.

The eolderman was the king's 'viceroy' in a shire, responsible for administration and justice, for calling out the fyrd and leading its forces in the field. (Regia) Next there were two levels of freemen, the upper class thanes and the lower class ceorls (churls). The division between the two was strictly in terms of land owned. A man could only be a thane if he owned at least five hides of land (a hide was defined as the amount of land necessary to provide a living for one family). Aside from the ownership of land, a ceorl could actually be a richer man than the thane. Below the thanes and ceorls were the slaves. Slavery was one of the biggest commercial enterprises of Dark Age life, and much depended on this involuntary labor force. Later much of this land was consolidated into the large estates of wealthy nobles. Ceorls might work the land in return for service or produce, or they might work the lord's land a given number of days per year. As time went on more and more of these large estates were established as integrated commercial enterprises, complete with a water mill to grind the grain. (Britainexpress)

In the countryside the vast majority of the people lived by farming. At first most of the farms were owned outright. The ceorls worked co-operatively, sharing the expense of a team of oxen to plough the large common fields in narrow strips that were shared out alternately so that each farmer had an equal share of good and bad land. (Britainexpress)


The Anglo-Saxons were pagans when they came to Britain. They worshiped gods of nature and held springs, wells, rocks, and trees in reverence. Religion was not a source of spiritual revelation, it was a means of ensuring success in material things. For example, they might pray to a particular goddess for a successful harvest, or for victory in battle. A few of the main Anglo-Saxon gods were Tiw, Wodin (Odin), Thor, and Friya, whose names are remembered in the days of the week Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. Religious observance consisted of invocations and charms to ensure the gods' help in securing a desired outcome in the material world, though the presence of grave goods indicates a belief in an afterlife. There is a possibility that female slaves may have been sacrificed on the death of a male owner and included in the grave to accompany him in the next world. (Britainexpress)

Monarchal problems:

For a ruler such as a king to stay in power they often had to provide plunder, which resulted in many wars. There are numerous examples where the nobility, family, and others dethroned their ruler for power struggles or because there was a lack in riches, power, or slaves: In 656 the murder of King Peada of Middle Anglia through the treachery of his wife. In 660 King Sigeberht II of Essex is murdered by his brothers, Swithelm and Swithfrith, and other kinsmen for being "too ready to pardon his enemies" that is to say, the Christians. In 697 Queen Osthryth of Mercia was murdered by her own noblemen. In 757 King Aethelbald of Mercia is murdered by his own household in a dynastic coup by one Beornred and then King Beornred is quickly ousted by Aethelbald's distant cousin, Offa. In 759 King Oswulf of Northumbria is murdered by his own household at Methel Wongtun. (Britannia) Power struggles resulting in death ceased in later years mainly due to the threat of the Vikings.

The land was divided into shires, mainly according to the territory of the first tribes, to be administered for the King. The shire was divided into hundreds, or in the Danelaw, wapentakes. To look after the king's interests (see that all the taxes were collected) and administer justice, were the ealdormen and shire-reeves (sheriffs). Within the shires were the towns, or burhs, which ranged in size from 5000 people at York to 500 at St. Albans. Initially only some of the towns were walled, and those often with earthworks reminiscent of the Bronze Age. (Britainexpress)

The Anglo-Saxon period was medieval in nature, warring was constant, illiteracy rampant, and the function of society benefitted a select few. Social classes often decided your life. This period that lasted roughly 500 years ended just as it started, beaten out by the competition.

Works Cited

Anglo-Saxon Resources Directory. Britannia Internet Magazine. August 2004.

Levick, Ben and Nicholson, Andrew. A Brief History of Anglo-Saxon England. Regia Anglorum. 31 March, 2003 Regia Anglorum Publications 2002. August 2004. Http://

Ross, David. Anglo-Saxon Life. English History. 2001. Ross and Britain Express. August 2004.

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