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The Anglo-Saxons were a group of Germanic tribes who achieved dominance in southern Britain from the mid-5th century, forming the basis for the modern English nation.


Origins of the word

The term "Anglo-Saxon" goes back to the time of King Alfred, who seems to have frequently used the title rex Anglorum Saxonum or rex Angul-Saxonum. The origin of this title is not quite clear. It is generally believed to have arisen from the final union of the various kingdoms under Alfred in 886. Bede (Hist. Eccl. i. 15) states that the people of the more northern kingdoms (East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria, &c.) belonged to the Angli, those of Essex, Sussex and Wessex were sprung from the Saxons, while those of Kent and southern Hampshire from the Jutes. Other early writers, however, do not observe these distinctions, and neither in language nor in custom do we find evidence of any appreciable differences between the two former groups, though in custom Kent presents most remarkable contrasts with the other kingdoms. Still more curious is the fact that West Saxon writers regularly speak of their own nation as a part of the Angelcyn and of their language as Englisc, while the West Saxon royal family claimed to be of the same stock as that of Bernicia. On the other hand, it is by no means impossible that the distinction drawn by Bede was based solely on the names Essex (East Seaxan), East Anglia, &c. We need not doubt that the Angli and the Saxons were different nations originally; but from the evidence at our disposal it seems likely that they had practically coalesced in very early times, perhaps even before the invasion. At all events the term Angli Saxones seems to have first come into use on the continent, where we find it, nearly a century before Alfred's time, in the writings of Paulus Diaconus (Paul the Deacon). There can be little doubt, however, that there it was used to distinguish the Teutonic inhabitants of Britain from the Old Saxons of the continent.

The Anglo-Saxon Invasions

In 410, the Roman emperor Honorius had replied to a petition for help from the inhabitants of Britain that they should "look to their own affairs"; from this brief mention, historians have assumed that Roman rule in Britain ended, although some experts claim to have found some signs that the Roman authorities briefly returned to the island in the following years. Into this vacuum, the Anglo-Saxons came and settled in the island, primarily on the east and south coasts. The exact details of their arrival are unclear, although their migration was part of the widespread movement of Germanic tribes on the mainland of Europe at this time (see Migrations Period).

Where reliable history fails us, legend offers us a narrative, and many have argued that there is some kernel of truth in the legend. At least as early as Bede, the tradition relates how at a council of war, Vortigern, leader of the by then effectively self-governing Britons, granted Thanet in Kent to the Jutish warrior leader Hengist (or Hengest) as a permanent possession, in return for his followers' help to defend the province against Germanic and Celtic raiders from beyond its borders. Archeological explorations have indicated that Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were established in Kent, Sussex, Middlesex, and Essex in the later part of the 5th century, as well as East Anglia, Lindsey (now Lincolnshire), Deira (now East Yorkshire) and the Isle of Wight.

Organised British resistance, first led by Ambrosius Aurelianus (according to Gildas), and then possibly by King Arthur culminated in the Battle of Mons Badonicus. This succeeded in halting the invasion. The leaders who fought with Arthur at this and other battles may have given rise to his fabled "Knights of the Round Table."

The fate of Britain was still in the balance as late as 590, with King Urien of Rheged besieging Lindisfarne, the stronghold of Bernicia, and other Celts victorious in 584 at the Battle of Fethanleag (Stoke Lyne , 5km N of Banbury in Oxfordshire). In the previous 120 years, the Anglo-Saxons had added only Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire to the area under their firm control. But Urien was murdered by a rival among his compatriots, and Anglo-Saxon control of most of what is now England was cemented over the next 70 years. Perhaps in memory of this eventual defeat by the Anglo-Saxons, the modern Welsh word for England, "Lloegyr", means "the lost lands".

The process by which they came to occupy this island is known as the Saxon conquest, although this is perhaps a misnomer: other tribes, such as the Angles, Jutes, Frisians and perhaps the Franks, are known to have taken part. The various tribes established a large number of kingdoms in what today is known as England, which were popularly described to have later consolidated into seven states known as the Heptarchy.

According to tradition, Kent was established first by the Jutes under Hengist. Another Jutish king, Horsa, may have taken part; he may have been Hengist's brother.

East Anglia's beginnings are unknown and very little record survives of its foundation or of the fate of the native Britons, the once mighty Iceni tribe, who had dwelt there before. The name Mercia may mean "marches" and related to the name of the River Mersey: a frontier area facing the Celtic Romano-British or Welsh. Deira and Bernicia appear to be Anglian corruptions of older British geographical names and the two states merged to form the kingdom of Northumbria.

The fate of the Romano-British population is a matter of conjecture. At one point, historians believed the account of Gildas uncritically, and thought that the invaders slaughtered all whom they encountered in an act of genocide. More recent historians, such as H.P.R. Finberg, have argued that they largely survived, and lived under the Anglo-Saxon invaders as slaves or serfs. By the time reliable historical records begin once again, it is clear that the territory of the native inhabitants had been reduced to just Cornwall and Wales in the west of the island and Strathclyde, which itself, like most of Scotland, was experiencing similar migration and displacement at the hands of the Scots from Ireland. Recent genetic testing of the inhabitants of England, Wales and the Low Countries does seem to show, according to some specialists, a large scale displacement of the earlier British populations out of England at some point in time in favor of people who are very closely related to the people inhabiting Jutland(Kent), Schleswig-Holstein(East Anglia), Lower Saxony(Wessex) and by proxy, Friesland.

Controversies regarding the nature of the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons

In recent times, some historians have taken issue with the notion of a "Saxon conquest", claiming that there is a marked lack of archaeological evidence for a major invasion. They make the interpretation instead that a gradual change occurred in favour of the Anglo-Saxons, comprising mainly benign migration and resulting in a mixture with an existing population who absorbed the cultural and linguistic influences of the migrants.

One posited theory is that most sources for a "Saxon conquest" originated with historians partisan in presenting an English identity [1].

Studies to show ethnic origins of the people have varied in their conclusions and there are some linguistic patterns in the development of Old English that compromise with Celtic traditions in a way that suggests gradual adoption.

Anglo-Saxon Religion

The Anglo-Saxon mythos was a Germanic mythology and closely related to Norse mythology.

Christianity (both Celtic and Roman forms) replaced the old gods in England around the 8th and 9th centuries AD. The Synod of Whitby settled the choice for the Roman form. As the new clerics became the chroniclers, the old religion was lost before it was recorded and today our knowledge of it is sketchy. One of the few recorded references is that a Kentish King would only meet the missionary St Augustine in the open air (where he would be under the protection of the sky god, Woden). Written Christian prohibitions on acts of pagan worship are one of our main sources of information on pre-Christian beliefs,

Remnants of the Anglo-Saxon gods remain in the English language names for days of the week:

Anglo-Saxon language

Main article: Old English language

Anglo-Saxon, also called Old English, was the language spoken under Alfred the Great and continued to be the common language of England(non-Danelaw) until after the Norman Conquest of 1066 when, under the influence of the Anglo-Norman language spoken by the Norman ruling class, it changed into Middle English. Anglo-Saxon is far closer to early Germanic than Middle English, i. e. it is less latinized, and retains many morphological features (nominal and verbal inflection) that were lost during the 12th to 14th centuries.

Before literacy, the Runic alphabet, called the futhorc (also known as futhark), was used for inscriptions. When literacy arrived with the reintroduction of Christianity to the English lands a form of Latin script was used with a few letters derived from the futhork; 'eth', 'wynn'.

The letters regularly used in printed and edited texts of OE are the following:

  • a ę b c d š e f g h i l m n o p r s t ž u w x y

with only rare occurrences of k, z.

Use of the term "Anglo Saxon" today

In contemporary usage, the term "Anglo-Saxon" (expected to subsume Jute by implication) is occasionally used to refer to the English as an ethnic group within the United Kingdom, as opposed to "Danish", "Norman", "Celtic", "Scottish", "Irish", "Welsh" and "Cornish". In comparison, in Canada and the United States, the term "Anglo-Saxon" (often as White Anglo-Saxon Protestant or WASP) is used to describe people of English, Scottish and more recently, German, Scandinavian and other people of Northern European ethnicity; used predominantly to separate these populations from the Irish-Catholic cultural group, and French Canadians, and later Eastern and Southern European immigrants and their cultures. In recent times it has been used in the United Kingdom by political parties of the far-right as a divisive term to refer to English people who are neither immigrants nor descended from recent immigrants. This usage is despite the fact that there was considerable immigration into England throughout the many hundreds of years between the Anglo-Saxon invasions and the 20th century, so that those to whom the term is applied are by no means of 'pure' Anglo-Saxon ancestry.

For over a hundred years, "Anglo-Saxon" has been used as pertaining to the Anglophone cosmopolitan societies of predominantly Western character, (the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the British Isles) describing their intellectual traditions and national characters, as opposed to "Gallic", "Lusitanic", "Hispanic". Such usage is especially common in France.

"Anglo-Saxon" can also mean the original West Germanic component of the English language, as opposed to the especially large addition of Danish (deep into the East Coast of England), Bokmal Norse (from Vikings of the Viken who settled on the West Coast of England) and many loanwords the language has obtained, especially from Romance languages. (see also Old English language)

See also

Last updated: 10-24-2005 03:01:44
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