THE ANGLO SAXON
The arrival of the Anglo Saxons in Britain
signaled the beginning of the English
language. The more sophisticated
conquerors of the Britons were the Romans.
In 55 B.C., Julius Caesar hastily invaded this
country. (Claudius was the emperor).
Caesar wrote a book called Commentaries,
which mentioned the Celts and Britons.
The Romans made several contributions to
the Britains, such as paved roads. The
Romans also brought with them their skills in
warfare, yet they failed to teach the Britons
much about self defense. While the Romans
were there, nobody invaded them as they
were the most powerful nation in the world at
that time. Because Rome was being invaded
on their homeland, the Roman legions pulled
out of Britain in 407 AD.
The next people to invade England were the
Anglo Saxons. They were ferocious
seafaring people who came ashore and built
their camps, eventually taking over the whole
The first Angles, Saxons, and Jutes
transferred to England their highly organized
tribal units. Each tribe was ruled by a king,
who was selected by the witan, or council of
elders. Each community had four distinct
1. Earls—ruling class of warlords who owed
their position to the king.
2. Freemen—were allowed to own land and
engage in commerce. This class included
thanes, who were the early barons who were
granted their status as a reward for military
3. Churls or serfs—bonded servants who
worked the land for military protection.
4. Thralls or slaves—lowest class, usually
military prisoners or people being punished.
Invading groups set up numerous small
kingdoms. The Anglo Saxon communities
traded with one another and the men married
women from different tribes. The kingdoms
gradually absorbed one another until seven
larger tribes remained.
All of this intermingling produced a new
language. We call it Anglo-Saxon or Old
English to distinguish it from our modern
The Anglo-Saxons brought to England their
own pagan beliefs. Because of the ever
present dangers of death, these people took
a rather dim view of life. They believed that
every human life was in the hands of fate,
which they called wyrd.
The early Anglo-Saxons worshiped ancient
Tiu—god of war and the sky
Woden—chief of the gods
Fria—Woden’s wife and goddess of the
These gods were abandoned with the
coming of Christianity, even so, their
names survive in our words-Tuesday,
Wednesday, and Friday.
THE COMING OF
During the fourth century, the Romans had
accepted Christianity and introduced it to the
Britons. A century later when the Celts fled
the Anglo Saxons, they took their Christian
faith with them. This faith lived on in Wales.
From there it spread to Ireland, assisted by
the legendary St. Patrick. In 563 a group of
Irish monks set sail for
Scotland. Led by a man named Columba,
they established a Christian monastery on the
island of Iona.
From there, Columba and his monks moved
across northern Britain in hopes of winning
additional souls for the faith.
They won acceptance among many Scots,
then among Angles and Saxons. Their
conversion led to the establishment of many
monasteries in the north.
In 597 the Roman, St. Augustine, quickly
converted king Ethelbert of Kent to
Christianity. Augustine set up a missionary at
To win over a kingdom, St. Augustine and his
followers needed only to convert the king,
who would then make Christianity the religion
of the realm.
By the year 650, England was mostly
The new religion had a profound effect on the
Anglo-Saxon civilization as it softened the
ferocity of a warring people and improved the
conduct of the faithful. By providing counsel
to quarreling rulers, the church promoted
The church brought to England two elements
of civilization that had been missing since the
departure of the Romans.
Education and written literature
Christian leaders established schools in
monasteries. Monks worked as scribes, who
recorded and duplicated manuscripts, or
books written by hand. At first, they worked
only in Latin, the language of the church
Often these monks labored for years to
complete a single manuscript. These volumes
were elaborately painted and illuminated in
gold and silver.
From such monastic training emerged a
monk later considered the “father of English
history.” Today we know him as the
Venerable Bede ( 673-735). Bede was a
master of thorough research, tracking down
information by studying earlier documents
and interviewing people who
Had witnessed or taken part in past events.
Bede’s most famous volume was The
Ecclesiastical History of the English
People, a monumental work that offers the
clearest account we have of early Anglo-
Although Christianity did temper Anglo-Saxon
civilization, the Anglo-Saxons remained a
hard and fearless group. Later they were to
come face to face with the Vikings.
THE FIRST DANISH
Between the 8th and 12th centuries, a growing
restlessness overtook the region of northern
Europe known as Scandinavia.
Because of rising population and limited
farmland, the people of Norway (the Norse)
and the people of Denmark (the Danes) took
to the seas.
The Norse set their sights on northern
England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales.
The Danes targeted southern England.
THE VIKING RAIDS
The Vikings sacked and plundered
monasteries, destroyed manuscripts, and
stole sacred objects. They burned entire
communities and put villagers to the sword.
Although the English fought back, the Danes
made broad inroads. By the middle of the 9th
century, most of northern, eastern, and
central England had fallen to the invaders.
They called their territory Danelaw.
ALFRED THE GREAT
In 871 a king, who had epilepsy, ascended to
the Wessex throne who would become the
only ruler in England’s history to be honored
with the epithet “the Great.” His name was
Alfred and he earned the title by resisting
the Danes. Under a truce in 886, England
was formally divided: The Saxons
acknowledged Dane rule in the east and
north, but the Danes agreed to respect Saxon
rule in the south.
As a result of Alfred’s doggedness to hold on
to Wessex and to succeed in doing so, Alfred
became a national hero.
Alfred was responsible for encouraging a
rebirth of learning and education.
To make literature and other documents more
readily available, he translated Bede’s
History of the Ecclesiastical of the English
People and other works from Latin into
Anglo-Saxon, the everyday language, which
is called vernacular.
The Danes became more peaceful and built
their Danelaw communities not only as a
military fortress, but also as trading centers.
One result was the growth of English
Like the Anglo-Saxons, the Danes spoke a
Germanic language so they were able to
communicate easily with the English. In fact,
many Norse words slowly crept into the
English vocabulary. The word law is Danish,
EDWARD THE CONFESSOR
AND THE NORMANS
In 1042 the line of succession returned to a
descendant of Alfred the Great. This king,
Edward, had gained the title of “the
confessor” because he was a deeply
religious Christian. Norman on his mother’s
side, Edward had developed a close
relationship with his cousin, William,
Normandy’s ruler. Once Edward took the
English throne, his association with the
Normans further weakened Saxon power.
Edward’s death in 1066 led directly to
a Norman conquest of England and
brought the end of the Anglo-Saxon
period of literature. Edward chose
Harold II as his successor, thus
angering William and causing the
Scholars now believe that the literature of the
British isles began with the Celtic Druids.
These priests assumed the function of story
telling, memorizing and reciting long heroic
poems about Celtic leaders and their deeds.
In the same way, Anglo-Saxon literature
began not with books, but with spoken verse
and incantations. Their purpose was to pass
along tribal history and values to an audience
that could not read.
Some Anglo-Saxons were familiar with
the written word. In the 3rd century in
northern Europe, they had devised an
alphabet of letters called runes. When
they came to Britain, they brought this
alphabet with them and used it until the
Latin alphabet we have today
ORIGINS OF ANGLO-SAXON
The reciting of poems often occurred on
ceremonial occasions such as the celebration
of a military victory. The performers were
usually professional minstrels, known as
scops. Their assistants were called
Scholars believe that these recitations took
place to the accompaniment of a harp.
The poems followed a set formula of
composition, which probably made them
easier to memorize. A rigid pattern of
word stresses gave off a sing-song
effect. Another part of the pattern was
alliteration, the repetition of sounds,
especially initial consonant sounds.
TYPES OF ANGLO-SAXON
Only about 30,000 lines of Anglo-Saxon
verse still exist. Almost all of it is found in four
works dating from about 975-1050 A.D.
The early verse falls into two categories:
Heroic poetry-which recounts the
achievements of warriors involved in great
battles and elegiac poetry-sorrowful laments
that mourn the deaths of loved ones and the
loss of the past.
THE BEOWULF LEGEND
Of the heroic poetry, the most important work
is Beowulf, the story of a great pagan warrior
renowned for his courage, strength, and
dignity. Beowulf is an epic, a long heroic
Because it is the first such work to be
composed in the English language, it is
considered the “national epic of England.”
Like most Anglo-Saxon poets, the author of
Beowulf is UNKNOWN. Although versions of
the poem were recited as early as the 6th
The text that we have today was
composed in the 8th century and not
written down until the 11th century.
Historians usually credit Alfred the
Great with having changed the course
of British literature.
The first English poet that we know by
name is Caedmon.