anglo saxonism us history
The Roman armies withdrew from Britain early in the fifth century because they were needed back home to defend the crumbling centre of the Empire. Britain was considered a far-flung outpost of little value.
At this time, the Jutes and the Frisians from Denmark were also settling in the British Isles, but the Anglo-Saxon settlers were effectively their own masters in a new land and they did little to keep the legacy of the Romans alive. They replaced the Roman stone buildings with their own wooden ones, and spoke their own language, which gave rise to the English spoken today.
The Anglo-Saxons also brought their own religious beliefs, but the arrival of Saint Augustine in 597 converted most of the country to Christianity.
The Anglo-Saxon period lasted for 600 years, from 410 to 1066, and in that time Britain's political landscape underwent many changes.
The Anglo-Saxon period stretched over 600 years, from 410 to 1066.
The early settlers kept to small tribal groups, forming kingdoms and sub-kingdoms. By the ninth century, the country was divided into four kingdoms - Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex.
Wessex was the only one of these kingdoms to survive the Viking invasions. Eric Bloodaxe, the Viking ruler of York, was killed by the Wessex army in 954 and England was united under one king - Edred.
Most of the information we have about the Anglo-Saxons comes from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a year-by-year account of all the major events of the time. Among other things it describes the rise and fall of the bishops and kings and the important battles of the period. It begins with the story of Hengist and Horsa in AD 449.
Anglo-Saxon rule came to an end in 1066, soon after the death of Edward the Confessor, who had no heir. He had supposedly willed the kingdom to William of Normandy, but also seemed to favour Harold Godwinson as his successor.
Harold was crowned king immediately after Edward died, but he failed in his attempt to defend his crown, when William and an invading army crossed the Channel from France to claim it for himself. Harold was defeated by the Normans at the Battle of Hastings in October 1066, and thus a new era was ushered in.
Historians use the term "Anglo-Saxonism" to describe a loose assembly of cultural assumptions that influenced Anglo-American political and intellectual life in varying ways from the seventeenth century into the twentieth century. In its most general form, Anglo-Saxonism extolled the traditions of the English people before the Norman conquest, who were themselves usually understood to be the descendants of old Germanic tribes of northern Europe: a people superior to others by virtue of their cultural possession of ethical values, legal principles, and governmental structures founded on a bedrock of liberty and democracy. Early American Anglo-Saxonists (like Thomas Jefferson, an enthusiastic student of old English language and law) invoked the attractive figure of the sturdy preconquest English yeoman, and Anglo-Saxonism thus connected itself readily to seminally American, antiaristocratic ideals of political and juridical localism and of the rights of small landholders. An Anglo-Saxon heritage, then, was from very early on one important component of America's conceptualizing of a national character, often invoked as a kind of ruggedly homespun counterpoint to the high classical culture derived from Greece and Rome.
THE RISE OF ANGLO-SAXONISM IN THE LATE NINETEENTH CENTURY
In the late nineteenth century Anglo-Saxonism attained a particularly prominent place in public or popular discourses of nation, for several reasons. First and perhaps most important, the century's proliferating racial theories in both Europe and the United States—generally taxonomic attempts at scientifically naturalizing the political histories of empire and slavery—shifted Anglo-Saxonism's terms, emphasizing the old English virtues as racial rather than localized in a cultural history. Seen through the lenses of Darwinian evolutionary thought and, in the early twentieth century, Mendelian genetics, these virtues seemed indisputably heritable as well; thus the moral characteristics of a people could perpetuate themselves in a bloodline—or dissipate through racial admixture.
Moreover, the tempting language of hierarchy and teleology entwined with Charles Darwin's evolutionary thought—a language of higher and lower, of success and failure—permitted the development, on both sides of the Atlantic, of a pervasive, powerful rhetoric of racial fitness and ultimate domination. This rhetoric in turn lent easy support to doctrines of imperial necessity in England, of Manifest Destiny in the United States. The Anglo-Saxons, in the popular terms of racial determinism, were naturally vigorous adventurers and leaders whose expansion over the face of the earth was a simple matter of biological inevitability. Such historical thinking, buttressed by an increasing fashionableness of "Teutonic" approaches to history in American universities, led by the 1880s to the vigorous apocalyptic language of the clergyman Josiah Strong, who wrote in his immensely popular Our Country (1885) of white Christendom's coming crisis: "the final competition of races, for which the Anglo-Saxon is being schooled. . . . And can any one doubt that the result of this competition will be 'survival of the fittest?'" (p. 214). Citing Darwin's Descent of Man, Strong noted that the uncivilized non-Aryans of the world "are now disappearing before the allconquering Anglo-Saxons. . . . Whether the extinction of inferior races before the advancing Anglo-Saxon seems to the reader sad or otherwise, it certainly appears probable" (p. 215).
A few years later the young Theodore Roosevelt could write with similar extravagance (although without Strong's genocidal complacency) in the opening pages of The Winning of the West that "the day when the keels of the low Dutch sea-thieves first grated on the British coast was big with the doom of many nations. . . . The sons of the unknown Saxon, Anglian, and Friesic warriors now hold in their hands the fate of the coming years" (pp. 20–21). In his later political career, Roosevelt would come to see the hybrid American experience as an advance on the simple racial determinism implicit here, with "American-ness" itself—a political identification and allegiance rather than an immutable biological category—more telling than simpler racialized versions of Anglo-Saxonism. But in the 1880s, for Strong, Roosevelt, and others, the century's end seemed the fulfillment of humankind's greatest ethnic adventure, the flowering of racial strength and destiny that the American Sinophile and military writer Homer Lea would call, a generation later, simply "The Day of the Saxon."
Thinking of this kind, combining elements of white supremacy, optimistic progressivism, and a sense of impending crisis, had immediate psychic value for the historical circumstances of the United States in the years before and after the turn of the twentieth century. The new immigration of the 1890s created great (and unruly) "foreign" underclasses in the nation's major cities; the continental frontier "closed," in the historian Frederick Jackson Turner's famous formulation; the "Negro problem," unresolved by emancipation, haunted the exhausted agrarian South and the North's industrial centers. For all of these, the legend of a dominating, pioneering Anglo-Saxon race at the very core of the American experience provided a framing perspective that was also, for some anxious white Americans, a consolation. But the high-water mark of American Anglo-Saxonism coincided most clearly with the nation's own direct experiment in imperial expansion: the Spanish-American War of 1898, which also sealed the growing political rapprochement of Britain and the United States. In early 1899, in that war's aftermath, Rudyard Kipling issued his famous transatlantic poetic challenge (in the New York Sun, the New York Tribune, and McClure's Magazine) to a nation feeling its new international strength and the duties of its Anglo-Saxon heritage: "Take up the White Man's burden." The plea was at once both immediately political and deeply racial.
ANGLO-SAXONISM AND THE READING PUBLIC
For the American reading public, Anglo-Saxonism manifested itself in a number of ways, including a resurgent interest in Sir Walter Scott's chivalric romances and other medieval revivals, like Howard Pyle's illustrated children's fantasies. Kipling himself, England's self-aware literary spokesperson for Anglo-Saxonism and empire, married an American, lived in Vermont, and enjoyed remarkable American adulation in the 1890s and on into the new century. His famous poem "The White Man's Burden" provided the subtitle for the first of Thomas Dixon Jr.'s popular works, The Leopard's Spots: A Romance of the White Man's Burden 1865–1900 (1902), an openly racist romance of the post–Civil War South (remembered mainly as one of the sources for D. W. Griffith's epic 1915 film Birth of a Nation). Like Kipling and others, Dixon understood the late nineteenth century as a climactically decisive chapter in white racial history: "The future American must be an Anglo-Saxon or a Mulatto," says his senior protagonist, and "the future of the world depends on the future of this Republic" (p. 200). His novel's happy ending, a triumphal reassertion of racial separatism, is made possible by the Spanish-American War and a corresponding international rediscovery of Anglo-American race pride: "[The war's] sudden union of the English-speaking people in friendly alliance disturbed the equilibrium of the world, and confirmed the Anglo-Saxon in his title to the primacy of racial sway" (p. 412).
Rudyard Kipling's "The White Man's Burden," shown here in its first American periodical appearance in February 1899, clearly aligned Anglo-Saxonist sentiments with modern imperialism.
Other authors before and after the turn of the century deployed Anglo-Saxonism in various ways, although seldom with Dixon's single-minded enthusiasm. Frank Norris, for example, invoked racial destiny with a characteristically confusing mixture of irony and fervor at the end of The Octopus (1901), as the great wheat ship sails from California for India. "We'll carry our wheat into Asia yet," says the capitalist Cedarquist, "The Anglo-Saxon started from there at the beginning of everything and it's manifest destiny that he must circle the globe and fetch up where he began his march. . . . The irrepressible Yank is knocking at the doors" (p. 648). Some writers more or less openly satirized Anglo-Saxonism's simple nostalgia, like Mark Twain in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889). Finley Peter Dunne, the Chicago humorist and celebrant of a distinctly non-Anglo-Saxon immigrant world, mocked the naïveté of rallying the polycultural, polyethnic United States around a myth of racial homogeneity. "I tell ye," his persona Mr. Dooley observed dryly in 1898:
whin th' Clan an' th' Sons iv Sweden an' th' Banana Club an' th' Circle Francaize an' th' Rooshian Sons of Dinnymite an' th' Benny Brith an' th' Coffee Clutch that Schwartzmeister r-runs an' th' Turrnd'ye-mind an' th' Holland society an' th' Afro-Americans an' th' other Anglo-Saxons begin f'r to raise their Anglo-Saxon battle-cry, it'll be all day with th' eight or nine people in th' wurruld that has th' misfortune iv not bein' brought up Anglo-Saxons. (P. 56)
JACK LONDON AND PROGRESSIVE RACISM
The American who came closest to rivaling Kipling as his nation's literary spokesperson for Anglo-Saxonism was his admirer Jack London, who famously peopled his work with masterful Nordic blonds enacting their violent destinies at the edges of the civilized world. London wrote vividly and explicitly about the non-Western challenges facing "our own great race adventure" in essays like his well-known 1904 piece on the Russo-Japanese War, "The Yellow Peril," and in stories like "The Unparalleled Invasion" (1907) and "The Inevitable White Man" (1908), whose aptly named protagonist Saxtorph murderously explores the proposition that "the white man's mission is to farm the world. . . . the white has to run the niggers whether he understands them or not. It's inevitable. It's fate" (p. 1558). In 1910 he vigorously led the openly racist call for Jim Jeffries, the "great white hope" of professional boxing, to take down Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion.
London's case is instructive in its complexity, suggesting Anglo-Saxonism's protean functioning in the intellectual currents of his time. He saw himself as (and in most senses was) a politically progressive or radical thinker and an activist for human justice. Largely self-educated, he drew his politics from voracious reading in social theory and philosophy, from Darwin and Karl Marx to Friedrich Nietzsche but with special attention to Herbert Spencer, the father of Social Darwinism, who had wholeheartedly adapted evolutionism to social and historical analysis. London enthusiastically endorsed the utopian possibilities of modern "scientific" thought (as fantasies like "Goliah" and "The Unparalleled Invasion" attest) and aligned himself sympathetically with the culture of manly vigor espoused by imperialists like Roosevelt and Kipling, with the international eugenics movement, and with world socialism. By his mid-twenties he had also shipped as a sailor to Asia, hoboed across the United States, run as a Socialist-Labor candidate in the Oakland, California, municipal elections, joined the great Klondike gold rush, and explored urban industrial poverty in the slums of London. Thus London's version of Anglo-Saxonism, again something like Roosevelt's or Kipling's, is probably best understood as one expression of naively progressive, internationalist thinking—based in old ideas of Manifest Destiny, modernized by a simple "scientific" determinism, drawing its vocabulary from the racial discourse of the preceding fifty years, and made theatrical by an appeal to popular Orientalism. For London (as for Kipling and other great British imperialists) the brotherhood of man and the white man's burden, progressivism and racism, could and did coexist in a single political philosophy.
THE WANING OF ANGLO-SAXONISM IN THE MODERNIST WORLD
But even at the peak of Anglo-Saxonist optimism, such a philosophy seemed to many Americans willfully blind to its own brutal underpinnings. Along with its accolades, for example, "The White Man's Burden" elicited an immediate scattering of counterresponses in the United States, like William Walker's sardonic March 1899 Life cartoon, where brown and black bearers struggle beneath the imperial bulk of Uncle Sam and John Bull. And through the 1910s and 1920s, as the American racial, economic, and international experiences grew more complicated, the triumphant myth of the Anglo-Saxon available to Josiah Strong and Teddy Roosevelt in the 1880s seemed to most serious writers not only doomed to disappointment but in fact also comically inadequate to the modern world and its cultural ironies. By 1925 a social theorist like Lothrop Stoddard, whose The Rising Tide of Color (1920) gloomily announced the international triumph of black, yellow, red, and brown, could be satirically dismissed as a crank by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby (1&25); in 1929 William Faulkner (in The Sound and the Fury) similarly mocked Jason Compson's hayseed, all-American anti-Semitism. These high modernist white writers (and others like Ernest Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Willa Cather) were themselves hardly freer of their culture's deeply entrenched racial attitudes than had been their predecessors. It can be powerfully argued, in fact, that high modernism's nostalgic neoclassicism, its formalism, and its frequent appeals to myth carried forward in a subtler form the raw expression of white power that energized the Anglo-Saxonism of the previous generation. But the innocent exuberance of Roosevelt, London, and the early Kipling, their simple confidence in Anglo-Saxon culture, virtue, and progress, disappeared almost without a trace into the complications of post–World War I America.
Dixon, Thomas, Jr. The Leopard's Spots: A Romance of the White Man's Burden 1865–1900. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1902.
Dunne, Finley Peter. "On the Anglo-Saxon." In his Mr. Dooley in Peace and in War. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1899.
Kipling, Rudyard. "The White Man's Burden." McClure's Magazine, February 1899.
London, Jack. The Complete Short Stories of Jack London. Edited by Earle Labor, Robert C. Leitz III, and I. Milo Shepard. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1993.
London, Jack. "The Yellow Peril." In his Revolution and Other Essays. New York: Macmillan, 1910.
Norris, Frank. The Octopus. New York: Doubleday, Page, 1901.
Roosevelt, Theodore. The Winning of the West. Vol. 1. New York: Putnam, 1889.
Strong, Josiah. Our Country. 1885. Edited by Jurgen Herbst. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963.
Anderson, Stuart. Race and Rapprochement: Anglo-Saxonism and Anglo-American Relations, 1895–1904. East Brunswick, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1981.
Horsman, Reginald. Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.
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For many centuries there was no agreed collective name for the Germanic peoples who settled in Britain. By the time of the Norman Conquest (1066), English had emerged for the peoples and their language, but when the Normans began to call themselves English the older sense of the word was obscured and the identification of English with post-Conquest England was strengthened. The mass of the people were classed by their overlords as SAXON. Medieval Latin chroniclers used Anglo-Saxones and Angli Saxones to refer to both Angles and Saxons, a practice that became universal after 1600 for anything before the Conquest. In 1884, James Murray noted in the OED entry Anglo-Saxon that this practice had led ‘to an erroneous analysis of the word, which has been taken as = Angle + Saxon, a union of Angle and Saxon; and in accordance with this mistaken view, modern combinations have been profusely formed in which Anglo- is meant to express “English and …”, “English in connexion with …”, as “the Anglo-Russian war”; whence, on the same analogy, Franco-German, Turko-Russian, etc.’
An extension of the term to mean the people of England and (loosely) Britain developed in the 19c, for example when the journalist Walter Bagehot referred in a speech to wealth as ‘the obvious and national idol of the Anglo-Saxon’. In 1956, the novelist Angus Wilson revived a phrase of Lewis Carroll's as the title of his satirical novel Anglo-Saxon Attitudes . The term Anglo-Saxon now refers to anyone in any way linked with England, the English language, and their traditions: in France, anglo-saxon has been used, often negatively, for shared ‘Anglo-American’ attitudes and culture, while in 1975 the Tanzanian writer Ali Mazrui coined Afro-Saxon to describe Black Africans who adopt English as the language of the home and with it cultural attitudes and values which in effect make them Black Englishmen.
In Victorian times, the term was associated with the Germanic element in English vocabulary, especially by such purists as William Barnes. Its use as a label for direct and often coarse language marks a perception of OLD ENGLISH 1 as a medium that called a spade a spade. This view contrasts a simple, vigorous vernacular with an effete Latinate style little understood and seldom used by the people at large. For those who hold this view, smell and sweat are plainer, briefer, and better than odour and perspiration. More pointedly still, the term is used for vulgar expressions. Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1966) gives Anglo-Saxon word as a synonym of four-letter word, and Charles Berlitz has observed: ‘In general, almost all the polysyllabic words in English are of French-Latin origin while the one-syllable words come from Anglo-Saxon’ ( Native Tongues , 1982). There are, however, many Anglo-Saxon polysyllables, such as bloodthirstily and righthandedness. See PLAIN, RUNE.
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A warrior band from the time of Sutton Hoo
The Anglo-Saxon settlement of England was no overnight affair. 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. Vortigern, the post-Roman Kentish King, is often left to take the blame, but he was no doubt only one of several leaders who took this course. The fifth and sixth centuries saw increased Germanic settlement although the balance of local power fluctuated between Britons and Saxons. Ultimately, even in areas such as Northumbria, where Germanic settlement was sparse, the English language became the predominant one and the celtic language and lifestyles became marginalised to Wales, Cornwall and northern Scotland.
The end of the sixth century saw another major new influence on the Germanic invaders – Christianity. Although the Romano-British Church survived and the Anglo-Saxons would have had contact with indigenous Christians, the Church initially existed only on the fringes of English settlement, as paganism remained strong. In 597 a Christian mission sent by Pope Gregory the Great and led by Augustine landed in Kent. Its initial success was dramatic. The prompt conversion of King Æthelberht of Kent (?560-616) and the kings of Essex and East Anglia, then the baptism of Æthelberht's son-in-law King Edwin of Northumbria (617-33) by his bride's Roman chaplain Paulinus established Christianity within the highest eschelons of English society. Sees were established at Canterbury, Rochester, London and York.
The four kingdoms soon relapsed into paganism, and initially only Kent was reconverted. The evangelistic initiative passed to the Scottish church based on Iona, founded by the Irishman, Columba, in 563. King Oswald of Northumbria (634-42) was converted while in exile among the Scots and invited Iona to send him a mission: the result was Aidan's foundation of Lindisfarne in 635. The Irish bishops of Lindisfarne consolidated Christianity in Northumbria; their fellow countrymen Duima and Ceollach, and their English pupils, Cedd and Trumhere, re-established the religion in Essex and introduced it to Mercia and the Middle Angles, whose King, Penda (?610-55), was the last great pagan ruler. In none of these kingdoms was there any significant relapse but Iona was out of line with Rome on the methods of calculating the date of Easter. In 663 Bishop Colman was defeated on the issue at the Synod of Whitby and withdrew to Iona, leaving the way clear for the organisation of the English Church by Theodore of Canterbury (669-90). Although the Church of Iona found favour with some of the later kings it was generally the Roman church that was dominant.
Of the seven Saxon Kingdoms (the Heptarchy), the first one to achieve supremacy was Northumbria, whose high culture during the seventh century is reflected in such works as the Lindisfarne Gospels. They ruled the whole area between Derby and Edinburgh and their central territories of Yorkshire and Northumberland remained independent until the Vikings took York in 866, whilst the lordship of Bamburgh continued as an Anglian enclave throughout the tenth century.
The eighth century saw the rise of Mercia who pushed back the Northumbrians and West Saxons and took control of East Anglia and Kent. The peak of Mercian domination came under Offa (died 796), though it remained a potent force until the abdication of Burgred in 874.
A warrior from the period of Offa
The year 793 marked a major change for England with the first major raid by Vikings on the Northumbrian monastery at Lindisfarne (although there is evidence of a small raid four years earlier in Devon). The next decade saw major raids along most of the southern and eastern coasts of England. Most of the raiders were Danes, but the common tongue of the Scandinavians enabled them all to work together. Remember, specific references to Danes and Norsemen are to be treated with caution.
The first part of the ninth century saw the Vikings concentrating on Ireland and the north and west of England and Scotland, until 835 when the Danes began a series of major raids on the whole of England. These culminated in the 'Great Army' of 865 which wintered on the Isle of Thanet before commencing on a twelve year campaign ranging from Exeter to Dumbarton. This finally ended in an agreement with the West Saxon king which left them in control of half of the country.
The house of Wessex also began its rise during the ninth century, commencing with Egbert who defeated the Mercians in 825 (it is ironic that the founder of the West Saxon fortunes actually ruled Sussex, Essex and Kent and based his mint at Canterbury!). It is noteworthy that his son, Æthelwold, was the first King of Wessex to inherit the throne from his father since the seventh century. Æthelwold's four sons succeeded him in turn and the youngest, Alfred, eventually fought the Vikings to a standstill at Edington which produced the Treaty of Wedmore in 878. This led to an uneasy peace and the establishment of the Danelaw.
The early tenth century saw Norse encroachment from Ireland and the Western Isles into Cumbria, Lancashire and the Wirral peninsular. The rulers of Dublin were anxious to dominate York and the North, but the incoming Vikings were as much a threat to the now settled Danelaw as they were to Wessex. Æthelstan achieved a decisive victory for Wessex at Brunanburgh in 937, when a coalition of Irish, Norse, Scots and Northumbrians were defeated. Dublin continued to try to exert influence, and fighting continued sporadically until, under Eadred, Eric Bloodaxe was driven out of York and killed at Stainmoor in 954. With external threats temporarily removed King Eadgar, who came to the throne in 959, spent the next 18 years trying to weld the formerly disparate states of Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex into a single body.
The King's chief agents in this process were the eoldermen. In the ninth century each eolderman had governed only a single shire, but in the tenth century a trusted eolderman could find himself in charge of several shires. Eventually unification was achieved to a strong enough degree that the House of Wessex was universally accepted as the rightful royal family. Weak though it was in some areas, the administration was strong enough to impose a uniform royal coinage on England, and to reap the financial advantage from the country's growing economic prosperity. At the end of the tenth century, when the Viking attacks came again, the prize at stake was nothing less than the 'Kingdom of the English'.
During the reign of Æthelred (978-1016) the Viking attacks on England started again. In the 980's Viking raids along the Welsh coast were extended to include south-west England. At the same time attacks on London and the south-east began from the North Sea and Scandinavia. The 990's saw the operation of great armies under the leadership of Olaf, later King of Norway, and Swein, King of Denmark.
During this period of Viking attacks Æthelred's response was to appoint eoldermen to take control of important military areas. An attack on Essex in 991 was met by the local eolderman, Bryhtnoth, in an infamous encounter at Maldon. In 992 an English fleet assembled at London had some success against the Vikings. However, the time honoured methods of ransom, Danegeld and baptism of Viking leaders continued to be more successful. It has been estimated that between 990 and 1014 around 250,000 pounds (over 102 tons) of silver were paid in Danegeld to the Viking raiders in addition to food, livestock, etc., and any other wealth gained from raiding.
The Viking onslaught came mainly from King Swein of Denmark. From 1003 to 1006, and again in 1013, Swein led devastating attacks on England, while Thorkell the Tall campaigned in the south and east between 1009 and 1013. In 1007 Æthelred ordered the burning of ships and recreated the large eoldermanry of Mercia for Eadric in an attempt to co-ordinate English defences. Unfortunately the fleet assembled at Sandwich in 1009 fell prey to bad weather and English efforts had little effect against Thorkell's determined campaign. This culminated in the capture and murder of Ælfheah, Archbishop of Canterbury. Swein came to England in August 1013 secure in the expectation of conquest. At Gainsborough he received the submission of Northumbria, Lindsey and the Five Boroughs; Oxford, Winchester and south-west England soon followed. Finally, towards the end of the year, the last resistance collapsed, Swein was recognised as King of England and Æthelred fled to Normandy.
Swein died in 1014 after only a few months as king. The Viking fleet immediately proclaimed his son Cnut king, but the English councillors recalled Æthelred. In 1015 Æthelred's eldest son Edmund revolted against his father in an attempt to usurp the throne. This, coupled with the King's ill health and the enmity between Edmund and eolderman Eadric, divided the final stages of the English effort against the Danes.
Æthelred died in 1016 and, in spite of Eadric's defection to Cnut, Edmund held Cnut to a military stalemate. The division of England, giving Edmund Wessex and Cnut the North, was nullified by Edmund's death in 1016 so the Viking Cnut was left to rule all England.
The remains of a patrol are discovered as Edmund Ironside employs hit and run tactics against Cnut's rearguard
Cnut's conquest of England laid the foundation of a Northern Empire. After his coronation in 1018 and his marriage to Emma, Æthelred's widow (a marriage which ensured the goodwill of her brother, the Duke of Normandy) Cnut's position as king was secured. About a year later he acquired the Kingdom of Denmark after the death of his brother Harald.
During this period many Danes settled in England and Cnut gave some of them senior positions of authority. It was at this time the English title 'eolderman' was replaced by the Danish influenced 'eorl', although this change of name did not mean any change in the nature of the office or the powers of its holder.
Emma, Cnut's English wife was made regent of Norway for their eldest son Swein. Her reign was unpopular and even before Cnut's death she was driven out in favour of Magnus, Olaf's son. On the English side of the North Sea few of Cnut's Danish eorls outlasted the 1020's. At the end of his reign the kingdom was dominated by three eorls – an Englishman of the old aristocracy, Leofric of Mercia; an English newcomer, Godwin of Wessex, married to a Dane; and a Dane, Siward of Northumbria, married to an Englishwoman.
Cnut's empire collapsed after his death (1035). The rebellion of Magnus of Norway led to prolonged war between Norway and Denmark, and this prevented Hardacnut, Cnut's chosen heir (and son of Emma), from crossing to England. In his absence his half-brother Harold was chosen, first as regent and later as king.
After Harold's death in 1040 Hardacnut re-united the two kingdoms, but on his death in 1042 England reverted to the old West Saxon line. The short and troubled reigns of Cnut's sons saw the rise of powerful dynasties in England, most notably the family of Eorl Godwin. From obscure origins in Sussex, this family rose in two generations to the pinnacle of power in England. A turning point in the family's fortunes was the marriage in 1043 of Godwin's daughter Edith to King Edward the Confessor. The advancement of her kinsmen immediately followed; an eorldom was specially created for her eldest brother Swein, her second brother, Harold, became Eorl of East Anglia, and her cousin Beorn Estrithson received an eorldom in the east Midlands, apparently as Harold's subordinate.
Although powerful the Godwinsons were not the only powerful Eorls, and in 1045 half of the country was still not under their control. In the north Eorl Siward was strong and held the Scots at bay. When he died the Scots launched many attacks against the new eorl Tostig, and later against Morcar. Swein Godwinson was the black sheep of his family and his wilder exploits – including the rape and abduction of the Abbess of Leominster and the murder of his cousin Beorn &ndash led to his banishment in 1049, although he was later pardoned. Edward obviously resented his dependence upon Godwin and in 1051 the Eorl and his family were deprived of their titles and exiled, but the King had over-reached himself. In 1052 Godwin's family engineered a successful return, forcing the King to restore their land and titles.
Godwin died in 1053 and was succeeded by his son Harold who became Eorl of Wessex, yielding his East Anglian eorldom to Ælfgar, son of Leofric of Mercia. In 1055, on the death of Siward, Tostig Godwinson, the third brother, became Eorl of Northumbria. When, in 1057, both Leofric of Mercia and Eorl Ralph of Hereford died, Harold added Hereford to the Eorldom of Wessex, Gyrth Godwinson succeeded Ælfgar in East Anglia, and Leofwine Godwinson received an eorldom in the East Midlands. From this time Harold was the real ruler of England. His campaigns against the Welsh, culminating in the conquest of north Wales, added to his prestige and he was described by contemporaries as Subregulus (underking) and Dux Anglorum.
Edward was brought up in Normandy and during his reign many Normans came to England and gained important positions as advisors, church-men or military officers. In fact Edward seemed to favour foreigners unless they were Norse. During his reign much European culture was brought into the country. He was also responsible for a number of church reforms during this period.
The death of Edward in January 1066 left England without an adult male representative of the royal line. William 'the Bastard', Duke of Normandy, claimed that Edward had promised him the kingdom as early as 1051. Harold Godwinson, Eorl of Wessex and for many years the King's right hand man, claimed that Edward had 'committed the kingdom' to him on his deathbed. The Scandinavian kings often fished in troubled waters such as this, as Harald Hardrada of Norway did in September 1066, followed by Swein Estrithson of Denmark after the Conquest. Another factor in the equation was Harold's brother Tostig, exiled in 1065, who attempted to regain his eorldom by force of arms. When Edward died William started to build a fleet and gather an army in Normandy. In England, Harold and his nobles stationed an army along the south coast and a fleet off the Isle of Wight. But Tostig was first off the mark, raiding the south coast until frightened off by Harold, and the east coast until Eorl Edwin defeated him in Lindsey. Tostig fled to Scotland where he sheltered until joining with Harald of Norway.
Normans and Saxon Huscarls disputing a log pile
Harold watched the Channel from May until September. If William had sailed when he had hoped to, he would have run into a warm reception and his invasion may well have been remembered as just another battle amongst the many that year. William was lucky; the direction of the prevailing wind kept his fleet bottled up in port until the provisions of the English forces had been exhausted. In September Harold disbanded the Fyrd and returned to London where he learned the Norwegians had landed in Yorkshire. Within two weeks he raised an army and force-marched it from London to York. Before he could arrive, Edwin and Morcar stood against Harald Hardrada at Gate Fulford, two miles south of York. Their defeat after a hard battle meant that the local Fyrd could play little part in the events that followed. This left the invaders free to march on York, where men of the shire agreed to help Harald in the conquest of England. Five days later King Harold attacked the Norwegians at their camp at Stamford Bridge, taking them by surprise. The battle raged all day, and by nightfall on the 25th September Harald Hardrada and Tostig lay dead and the shattered remains of their army were in full flight. Harold had defeated one of the foremost warriors of the age. Tradition has it that he was at a feast celebrating his victory when the news arrived that William had landed with his army at Pevensey on the morning of the 28th of September.
Once more Harold was all energy; within 13 days he had completed the settlement of the restless north, marched 190 miles back to London, raised another army, and marched (rode on horseback like all his troops) a further 50 miles to a point within striking distance of Hastings where the Normans had established their base.
Harold has been accused of 'reckless and impulsive haste', and most chroniclers agree that he fought with an army smaller than it need have been. We cannot be certain why he chose to fight when he did. It is possible he was trying to fight before it became known amongst his men that William bore a papal banner and to fight against him could mean excommunication. Alternatively, he may have sought to take William by surprise, a tactic which had worked three weeks before. Whatever his reason, the Norman scouts warned of the English approach on the morning of the 14th of October, and it was the English who were taken by surprise.
It is generally said that each army numbered about 7,000 men, but the figures may have been lower. The English probably deployed about 4,000 Thegns and Huscarls, and 2-3,000 fyrdsmen recruited on the march through the home counties. The Normans fielded perhaps 5,000 infantry, including archers, and up to 2,000 knights.
The English took up position on a ridge near Hastings and waited for the Normans to make their move. The Huscarls probably formed the front rank with the lighter armed Fyrdsmen behind them. The Normans made several attacks all of which were repulsed. William tried to use his archers to break the shield wall but they were ineffective, and the battle became a war of attrition. The Norman's lucky break came when their Breton cavalry were routed at the same time as a rumour that William had been killed spread amongst both sides. The Saxon right flank broke and gave chase thinking they had won. William was not dead and rallied his troops, cut off and slew the pursuing Saxons. He was then able to manoeuvre some of his cavalry on to the hilltop and fight the Saxons on level ground. The English shield wall managed to survive the repeated attacks of the Norman knights and the archers until the death of Harold, at dusk. The English survivors then fled into the forests of the Weald, and the day belonged to William. Thus ended the 'Kingdom of the English'.
From the remains of fortified towers to elegant churches and early Christian crosses, we have scoured the land to bring you the finest Anglo-Saxon sites in Britain. Most of these remains are in England, although a few can be found on the Welsh and Scottish borders, and all of the sites date from between 550 AD to 1055 AD.
You can use our interactive map below to explore the individual sites, or scroll down the page for a full list. Although we have attempted to create the most comphrensive list of Anglo-Saxon sites available on the internet, we’re fairly certain that there are still a few missing! As such, we have included a feedback form at the bottom of the page so you can let us know if we’ve missed any out.
Burial Sites & Military Remains
This tower was probably constructed by King Edwin of Northumbria in around 630, and is built into the much earlier Roman city walls of York. There is, however, a great deal of controversy over how old this tower is, with estimates ranging from 400 to 700AD.
Built in the late 6th century by the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia, this earthwork was designed as a defensive measure against the Mercians to the west. Specifically, it was designed to protect the ancient Icknield Way which was a key line of communication and transport at the time.
Built by King Alfred the Great as part of his military reforms, this ancient sea fort sits almost 100 metres above the sea and would have acted as a defensive measure against marauding Vikings coming down the Bristol Channel. It is thought this fort once housed an Anglo-Saxon mint in the early 11th century.
One of a series of defensive earthworks in Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, Devil's Dyke was built by the kingdom of East Anglia some time in the late 6th century. It runs for 7 miles and crossed two Roman roads as well as the Icknield Way, allowing the East Anglians to control any passing traffic or troop movements. Today the Devil's Dyke route is a public footpath.
Much like Devil's Dyke, Fleam Dyke is a large defensive earthwork which was built to protect East Anglia from the kingdom of Mercia to the west. Today there is around 5 miles of the dyke remaining, with the majority of it open as a public footpath.
The famous Offa's Dyke runs almost the entirety of the English / Welsh border and was built by King Offa as a defensive border against the Kingdom of Powys to the west. Even today the earthwork spans almost 20 metres in width and 2 and a half metres in height. Visitors can walk the entire length of the dyke following the Offa's Dyke Path.
Only the outline of Winchester's Old Minster still remains, although it was fully excavated in the 1960s. The building would have been built in 648 by King Cenwalh of Wessex, and demolished soon after the Normans arrived to make way for a much larger cathedral.
Although not strictly an Anglo-Saxon building (it was in fact built by the Romans to protect themselves from Anglo-Saxon invaders!), they did make it their home after the Romans left England in the late 5th century.
Situated deep in the Suffolk countryside lies the Snape Anglo-Saxon burial site dating back to the 6th century AD. Featuring a ship burial, the site was more than likely built for East Anglian nobility.
Spong Hill is the largest Anglo-Saxon burial site ever excavated, and contains a whopping 2000 cremations and 57 burials! Before the Anglo-Saxons, the site was also used by the Romans and Iron Age settlers.
Perhaps the most famous of all Anglo-Saxon sites in England, Sutton Hoo is a set of two 7th century burial sites, one of which was excavated in 1939. The excavation revealed some of the most complete and well preserved Anglo-Saxon artifacts ever found, including the famous Sutton Hoo helmet which is now on show in the British Museum. The main tumulus is thought to have contained the remains of Rædwald, King of East Anglia, which was set within an undisturbed ship burial.
Before the discovery of Sutton Hoo in 1939, the Taplow burial ground had revealed some of the most rare and complete Anglo-Saxon treasures ever to be found. It is thought that the burial ground contains the remains of a Kentish sub-king, although due to it's location on the Mercia-Essex-Sussex-Wessex border this is up for debate.
This rather gruesome burial site contains the remains of 13 criminals, 10 of which had been decapitated for their crimes. The skulls of these decapitated corpses were also found nearby, albeit without their cheekbones as these were thought to have decayed whilst the heads were displayed on poles. Walking Wold is the most northerly Anglo-Saxon execution cemetery ever found.
Stretching for 35 miles through the countryside of Wiltshire and Somerset, this large defensive earthwork was built some 20 to 120 years after the Romans had left Britain. Set to a east-to-west alignment, it is thought that whoever built the dyke was defending themselves against invaders from the north. But who were these invaders.
Once considered even more sophisticated than Offa's Dyke, this 40 mile earthwork was probably constructed by King Coenwulf of Mercia to protect his kingdom from the Welsh. Unfortunately Wat's Dyke is nowhere near as well preserved as its counterpart, and rarely rises higher than a few feet.
Dating back to around 700AD and likely to have been founded by Saint Aldhelm, this beautiful church has had few if any alterations since the 10th century.
Dating from around 660 AD, this small church is also the 19th oldest building in England! The church was constructed using Roman bricks from a nearby abandoned fort.
One of the largest intact Anglo-Saxon churches in the country, All Saint's was built sometime around 670 using Roman bricks from a nearby villa.
Situated next to Corpus Christi College, St Bene't's is the oldest building in Cambridge and dates back to the early 11th century. Unfortunately only the tower of the Anglo-Saxon building still remains, with the rest being rebuilt in the 19th century.
Built sometime in the 6th century AD, St Martin's Church in Canterbury is the oldest parish church still in use. It is also set within a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with Canterbury Cathedral and St Augustine's Abbey.
Built around 1055, this late Anglo-Saxon chapel was being used as a dwelling until 1865. It is now maintained by English Heritage.
This elaborately decorated church is situated only 200 metres away from Odda's Chapel, another Anglo-Saxon building in the village of Deerhurst. It is thought that St Mary's Priory was built sometime in the 9th or early 10th century.
Completed in either the 7th or 11th centuries although heavily restored by the Victorians, this historic church is set in the grounds of Dover Castle and even boasts a Roman lighthouse as its bell tower!
It is now thought that this church was once part of an Anglo-Saxon manor, although the only original part to survive is the church tower.
Built in 670 with stone from a nearby Roman Fort, this small but extremely ancient church is one of the oldest in England. Look out for a specific Roman stone on the northern side of the church which includes the markings "LEG VI".
The oldest wooden church in the world, some parts of Greensted date back to the 9th century AD. If you are visiting be sure to look out for the 'Leper's Squint' which is a small hole allowing lepers (who were not allowed into the church) to receive a blessing from the priest with holy water.
Built in the early 11th century, St Gregory's Minster is best known for its extremely rare Viking sundial written in Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons.
Widely considered as one of the most important Anglo-Saxon structures in Oxfordshire, this church was actually built after the Norman invasion but by skilled Saxon masons.
This church is Oxford's oldest structure and was built in 1040, although the tower is the only original part that still remains. John Wesley (founder of the Methodist Church) has his pulpit on view in the building.
Perhaps the most stunning of all of England's Anglo-Saxon churches, St Mary the Blessed Virgin boasts a pyramid-style gabled helm which sits on top of the church tower! The church was founded just before the Norman Conquest although some structural changes were carried out by the Knights Templar in the latter half of the 12th century.
Situated deep in the Lincolnshire countryside, Stow Minster was rebuilt on the site of a much older church in the late 10th century. Interestingly, Stow Minster boasts one of the earliest forms of Viking graffiti in Britain; a scratching of a Viking sailing ship!
Due to a rather disastrous Victorian restoration, only a few fragments from the original Anglo-Saxon structure still remain of Lady St. Mary's church, although there is an Anglo-Saxon cross and inscribed stones inside.
Although the church dates to 1035 AD, the only original parts that are still intact are the the nave and a small window to the north of the structure. If you are visiting be sure to look out for the red stars which have been painted onto some of the walls; these were added in the 1600s to commemorate plague deaths in the parish.
This charming little church was built in the 7th century AD for St Birinus on the site of a much older Roman church. In fact, Roman tiles can still be seen in the crypt!
Although the interior of this church underwent a major restoration in the 1870's, most of the original stonework was left intact and unaltered. The earliest parts of the church (the west wall and porch) date from 675AD, whilst the tower was added later in around 900AD.
Founded around 700AD, this church boasts an Anglo-Saxon window in the south wall as well as a good example of 'herring-bone' stone work in the north wall. The chancel was built some time later by the Normans, whilst the tower is from the 14th century.
Featuring the only Anglo-Saxon church tower in the northwest, it is thought to have been built between 1041 and 1055. It was raised to its current height in 1588.
Originally a wooden church built around 630AD, much of the current stone structure of St Mary's dates from the late 9th century. Perhaps the most astonishing part of this church are the rare wall paintings on the east wall of the nave, and in particular a rare image of the Holy Trinity dating from the 9th century AD. This is the earliest known wall painting of the Holy Trinity in all of Europe. The ruinous structure of the church was used by Satanists until a local resident called Bob Davey stepped in and began a restoration project in 1992..
Standing where it was originally placed over 1200 years ago, the Bewcastle Cross is set within the churchyard of St Cuthbert's Church in Bewcastle. This cross stands at around four and a half metres high and includes the earliest surviving sundial in England.
Dating back to the early 900s, the Gosforth Cross is full of carvings from Norse mythology as well as Christian depictions. If you are in London, you can see a full sized replica of the cross at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Even older than the Gosford Cross, this stone was carved some time in the 9th century AD and sits in the churchyard of St Paul's in Cumbria. Much like the Gosford Cross, a full sized replica can be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
After being moved umpteen times during its 1400-year history, it's quite amazing that the Eyam Cross is still almost complete! The cross would have been constructed by the kingdom of Mercia in the 7th century AD.
The Ruthwell Cross, situated in the Scottish Borders (then a part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria), is perhaps most famous for having been inscribed with the earliest known example of English poetry. In order to preserve the cross, it is now located inside Ruthwell church.
Anglo-Saxon Crosses (User Submitted)
Standing proudly in the market square in Sandbach, Cheshire, are two unusually large Anglo-Saxon crosses dating back to the 9th century AD. Unfortunately during the Civil War the crosses were pulled down and broken into separate parts, and it was not until 1816 when they were reassembled.
This 4 metre high, 9th century shaft of an Anglo-Saxon cross stands on the south side of the church. The highest and oldest site in central Wolverhampton, it is likely to have served as a preaching cross prior to the founding of the church building.
Although we've tried our hardest to list every Anglo-Saxon site in Britain, we're almost positive that a few have slipped through our net. that's where you come in!
If you've noticed a site that we've missed, please help us out by filling in the form below. If you include your name we'll be sure to credit you on the website.