Who were the Anglo-Saxons?
The Anglo-Saxons were a Germanic people made chiefly from the Angles and the Saxons. This group subsumed the Jutes who had also migrated to Britain during the same time period. The Anglo-Saxon peoples would eventually become known as the English from the Anglo part of their name. The Saxon part of their name can still be seen in the names of many English Counties or county groups along the south coast as well as up the East coast of England.
The Anglo-Saxons are one of the groups that thrived during the dark ages although the origins of the tribes that came together to make this group were seen during the Roman period. The rule of the Anglo-Saxons in England was ended by the invasion of the Normans in 1066. Before this time, the Anglo-Saxons (often termed as simply Saxons) had ruled at first as separate kingdoms but at around the time that the Vikings were starting to settle and rule the north of England, they began to unite as one group.
The Anglo-Saxons are often regarded as the true English people with invasions counted from 1066. In truth, they settled the British Isles during the early 6th century pushing the British tribes to the edges of the Isles including Wales, the North of England and Cornwall. They believed that they arrived in Britain as raiding parties. These parties were led by Hengist and Horsa if we are to believe the Anglo-Saxon origin myth. It is more likely that as the Western Roman Empire collapsed they were pushed to cross the channel by tribes migrating across the Rhine. There is some suggestion that they were in the British Isles earlier during the 5th century and while plausible there is very little evidence to back up this claim. The Saxon shore forts are often pointed to as evidence that the Saxons (with the Angles and Jutes) were raiding much in the same way as the Vikings.
There is a large debate about how they settled Britain with the original concept being an invasion. This has been revised now to suggest a more peaceful migration as the tales of invasion often hinge on the tale of Hengist and Horsa. The practical evidence used for the claim is the writings of Britons (what few we have) although now we have little if any archaeological evidence to back up this historic claim so it may well just be propaganda. Either side you fall on it is clear that the Saxon peoples became dominant with what is now England as they created the Kingdoms of the Heptarchy and are generally accepted as rulers of England when the Normans invaded.
The name Anglo-Saxon is interesting in and of itself. As mentioned above the Angles and the Saxons were originally separate tribes and settled in separate places within England. (see the image to the left) The Saxons (as a term) is often used to describe earlier Germanic peoples and comes from the distinctive knife that the carried called the Seax. A distinction does need to be drawn between these Saxons who came to the British isles and those that stayed on the continent in what is now Germany. There are Saxons that still exist as they live in Saxony. Indeed, the original name for the Windsor family was Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Two of those words strike obvious chords as they are similar to the names of Dark age Germanic tribes. However, I digress.
The Anglo-Saxons that settled in Britain were pagan with gods similar to those seen in Norse mythology which people are often more familiar with. Over time, through marriage or alliances, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were converted to Christianity. This was often due to the influence of the Romano-British people who were still living on the Island.
The Anglo-Saxons were, at first, much like any of the tribes that inhabited Europe at the time. They were a sedentary people with basic structures and pottery. They had tribal leaders and were often farmers although they did have a certain warrior mentality with the right and expectation of carrying a spear noticeable throughout parts of the culture. As they developed and settled in larger communities towns emerged and a hierarchical system developed and solidified with laws, such as those by Ine, showing the definitions of the various levels of society.
We have a lot of evidence for the Anglo-Saxon people through archaeology. The Issue we have is that there is very little in the way of written records. We have scribes like Bede or Assar, we also have land charters and some records of a similar nature. These records are often later with the early Saxon period often shrouded in myth or told by scribes living many years after the events that they describe. We have many Saxon graves as inhumation was commonly used. These graves, when they contain grave goods such as spears or beads, can give us a tantalising glimpse into the look of the early Anglo-Saxons.
Many of the Saxon buildings no longer exist as they were built from wood. In much the same way as we have little evidence of the earlier Norman castles. These edifices were often replaced with stone buildings as the years passed. With churches, this was often over the top of the original structure destroying much of the evidence. We can, however, piece together much of this data to create a fuller picture.
All of these aspects and much more make the Anglo-Saxon people fascinating to study. (We haven’t even talked about their connections with the continent as one example).