Useful Notes / Anglo-Saxons

Chapter 1: Anglo-Saxon (or, "Whatever happened to the Jutes?")

In the fifth century, after the evacuation of Roman troops, the Anglo-Saxons came to Britain. These were a cluster of Germanic tribes, notably the Angles (from what is now Schleswig-Holstein in Germany), the Saxons (mostly from what is now Lower Saxony in modern Germany), and the Jutes (from the Jutland Peninsula in modern Denmark), who all shared a culture vaguely resembling that of the Vikings.

They settled down and after a while converted to Christianity. They struggled among themselves for supremacy, forming what is called (for the sake of neat organization and poetic phrasing) the seven kingdoms (sometimes the "Heptarchy") of the Saxons: East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex, Wessex, Mercia, and Northumbria.note  These kingdoms vied for supremacy until the arrival of the Danes made their quarrels seem petty.

The Danes settled in Britain and in a few generations, conquered almost all the Anglo-Saxon lands. However, Wessex had a recovery under Alfred the Great and his descendants which continued until they had reconquered all the Danish-occupied lands (now called the Danelaw). This made the House of Wessex ruler over all the Angles' lands, hence the term "England". The Wessex house lost its grip and was overthrown by Norse invaders under Cnut the Great, the King of Denmark and Norway; although the House of Wessex got the throne back after Cnut's sons Harald Harefoot and Harthacanute died without surviving legitimate issuenote , England nevertheless became a combined Saxon-Scandinavian nation, which was an easy fit once the wars had been forgotten because they had very similar cultures. After Harthacanute's successor Edward the Confessor also died without issue, Harold Godwinson, of the powerful Godwin family, claimed the throne by agreement of the Witenagamot (see below), but he was overthrown by the Duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror. This is considered the end of Anglo-Saxon England and the beginning of Norman England, and the shift of the main external influence on England from the Nordic countries to France.

The Anglo-Saxons are noted for their poetry and their art. Examples of Anglo Saxon art are illuminated scriptures such as those made at Lindisfarne Abbey (many of whom were lost when it was sacked), and the royal hoard from the Sutton Hoo burial ship. References to Saxon poetry are found on TV Tropes as well.

Their law system has also been admired. Much of it was based on webs of oaths and patronage and even hostage-exchange between nobles; somewhere between a clannish system and a feudal one. However they are also considered to be in some ways the founders of English Parliamentary government because of their system of Moots (councils) that led from the small village moot to the Witanagemot (Council of Wise Men) — Witan for short — which advised the King.

The resemblance of this system to a modern democracy has been exaggerated in the past. While it wasn't a democracy, neither was it an absolute rule, and the King was wise to listen to the Witan. Moreover, the Witan had a considerable say in the succession to the crown, even though the previous king's influence may have been strongest. The Anglo-Saxons also instituted a number of other elements of English government, including the office of sheriff. "Sheriff," by the way, comes from "shire reeve," "reeve" being like a magistrate and "shire" like a county.

The term "Angle" by the way, is said to mean "fishhook", although it could also mean "narrows" or "tight bay" (the Angles were from Angeln, a part of eastern Schleswig bounded on the south by the Schlei inlet and bounded on the north by the "Firth of Flensburg"—both narrows of the Baltic Sea). Saxon comes from seax, a Machete-like chopping blade much in vogue among them for both war and for peaceful purposes.

See Alfred The Great, Æthelflæd, and St. Edmund of East Anglia for notable Anglo-Saxons. See Beowulf, The Battle of Maldon and Dream of the Rood for examples of Anglo-Saxon poetry.

Related to White Anglo-Saxon Protestant only in the sense that a number of these were descended from Anglo-Saxons and that Anglo-Saxons were what we would consider white today. They were of course not Protestants.

Depictions in fiction:

  • The 9th century Historia Brittonum recounts, in a combination of history and legend, the invasion of the Anglo-Saxons from a Celtic-British perspective, with King Hengist as the main villain. Among the leaders of the British who opposed them is none other than King Arthur, though he isn't called a king but rather dux bellorum ("leader of battles" or warchief). Later works like Historia Regum Britanniae retold and embellished these events further with Arthur becoming a king. Though as Arthurian legend further developed and became more and more of an Anachronism Stew, the Anglo-Saxons' role was obscured. In Le Morte D Arthur they are not mentioned, but Saracens are.
  • Parts of Heimskringla, Snorri Sturluson's history of the kings of Norway, are concerned with the history of late Anglo-Saxon Britain; notably the Danish conquest, the Danish kings of England, and the unsuccessful Norwegian invasion of 1066.
  • Cerdic of Wessex and his Saxon army are the villains in the 2004 film King Arthur
  • Ivanhoe portrays the perpetuation of cultural friction between pure-blooded Saxon families and the ruling Normans in England, though in real life the two cultures had long since assimilated by this point.
  • The novelist Bernard Cornwell has written several books set around this time period;
    • The Warlord Chronicles trilogy (The Winter King, Enemy of God and Excalibur: A Novel of Arthur) which is about King Arthur attempting to set up a kingdom by being threatened by invasion from the Anglo-Saxons.
    • The Saxon Stories which is an ongoing series of novels about Alfred the Great and his uneasy ally Uhtred who is raised as a viking.
  • The invading Saxons are the antagonists of the middle novels of Rosemary Sutcliff's The Eagle of the Ninth series – The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Sword at Sunset, and Dawn Wind.
  • The unearthing of an Anglo-Saxon crown is the catalyst of Montague Rhodes James's ghost story A Warning to the Curious.

Tropes associated with the Anglo-Saxons are:

  • An Axe to Grind: In the later Saxon period, the elite Huscarls famously wielded the fearsome long-axe.
  • Badass Boast: As shown in the epic of Beowulf, badass boasting played an important role in Anglo-Saxon societal interactions. It was important, however, that one actually be able to back up what one is boasting.
  • Badass Beard: Beards and mustaches were quite popular facial adornments among men. The famous Sutton Hoo helm even has a stylized beard on its mask!
  • Beard of Barbarism: Subverted. While facial hair was common among Anglo-Saxon men, they were worn neatly trimmed and groomed, often with gold, silver, or other precious metals as decoration (and generally worn rather short).
  • Bling of War: The Anglo-Saxon warrior culture produced many beautiful works of art. Weapons finds at Sutton Hoo, Staffordshire Hoard, and other sites throughout Britain and the continent have unearthed sword-hilt fittings of solid silver or gold, gold decorated with garnet cloisonne or silver and/or copper inlay, and other precious or semi-precious stones or glass. Similar fittings have been found for seax finds, and even axe-heads inlaid with silver and gold. Then of course is the famed Sutton Hoo helm.
  • Buy Them Off: As did many Germanic cultures, the Anglo-Saxons practiced wergild as a means of punishing criminals and making restitution to an injured party in a dispute. This would usually be a payment of money or physical goods. Those who were unable to pay the determined price could instead sell themselves (or family members) into slavery until the debt was repaid and they could buy back their freedom (slavery among the Saxons was much more accurately a form of indentured servitude). Specific crimes and offenses even had a preestablished price. The system was instituted to prevent destructive blood feuds, which is not to say they didn't happen anyway, but it at least limited them.
  • Cultured Bad Ass: Poetry, tales and songs were an important part of Saxon culture, and the scop was an important part of a lord's household.
  • The Dung Ages: Thoroughly averted. Like all Germanic tribes, the Anglo-Saxons prided themselves on their cleanliness, bathed regularly, and kept their hair and beards neatly groomed. People of all classes wore the brightest colors they could afford, and some evidence suggests Anglo-Saxon architecture was brightly (if not garishly, by modern eyes) painted.
  • Fair for Its Day: While still ruled by a warrior/noble elite, the Anglo-Saxons were nonetheless quite socially progressive for the time. Unlike the later feudal period, all free men (including commoners) had the right to carry arms and participate in the wítan. Even slaves (who were more accurately indentured servants) could buy, own and sell property of their own. Women could buy, sell, own and inherit property, and even work at trades independently of their husbands, and noblewomen could even inherit authority in their own right. Much of this, particularly the freedoms granted to women, were curtailed by the Normans following the Conquest.
  • Heroes Prefer Swords: Swords were extremely expensive and difficult to make during the Migration Era, so are therefore among the rarest grave finds, associated with particularly wealthy nobility. Surviving Saxon literature such as Beowulf depict swords as highly-prized, and almost invariably magical.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Guaranteed that if there's a work of fiction set during the Anglo-Saxon migrations into Britain they'll be depicted as savage, brutal, and duplicitous invaders. doubly so if the work is a retelling of Arthurian myth. The truth is far more complex, as all surviving written sources (the Anglo-Saxons used the futhark, as did many Germanic peoples, but left few written records at the time more extensive than sparse inscriptions in stone) are hostile, while archaeology shows that only the Briton ruling class was displaced, while the native population was largely assimilated. (On the other hand, works set during the Viking period make the Anglo-Saxons the good guys, and even more for works set during or after the Norman Conquest.)
  • Knife Nut: An important part of Anglo-Saxon dress was the seax knife, a particular form of straight, single-edged knife which all free men and women were permitted to wear. These knives ranged significantly in size from small utility tools up to nearly sword-length weapons of war.
  • Norse Mythology: The pagan Anglo-Saxons followed the same religion as the Norse.
  • Zerg Rush: While true prior to the Migration Era, by the time the Anglo-Saxons arrived in Britain this was thoroughly averted, and the Anglo-Saxons possessed a highly-organized and disciplined semi-professional military (possibly developed following contact with the Romans).