Though many textbooks would like history to be in neat packages with clearly defined dates, this is rarely the case. Thus, though conventionally the Roman period in Britain is said to end in 410 when the Emperor Honorius told the Britons they had to defend themselves, the Saxons had already mounted a significant attack on the island in 367, along with Picts and Scots.
Evidence is sketchy, but it is known that Roman forces in Britain included soldiers of Germanic origin, some at senior levels. Whether these were Angles (from Southern Denmark) or Saxons (from part of Germany's North Sea Coastal region) is not clear, but given the term Anglo-Saxon tends to incorporate Jutes from Jutland, Frisians from Northern Holland and Germany, and even Norwegians and Franks, it matters little. Germanic tribes and kingdoms were well aware of a land of significant resources and wealth to their west.
The first two centuries after Rome departed are hazy, our knowledge coming mostly from archaeological finds, with much additional colour coming from a British priest, Gildas, writing in the mid 6th century, though his views are naturally biased (from a racial viewpoint and religious, as the Saxon Kings were pagan, unlike their British counterparts), and his narrative lacking in hard facts.
The father of English history‚ Bede, used Gildas among others as his sources for the history of England until 596. After that date original sources inform Bede's works, most significant of which is his The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. St Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury , arrived in England in 597, landing on the Isle of Thanet before hastening to Canterbury, where King Ethelbert of Kent made his capital. Ethelbert had married a Christian princess from Gaul, an opportunity Pope Gregory wished to exploit. Before his death in 604 Augustine founded bishoprics in Rochester and London , and the Kingdom of Kent saw mass conversions in his lifetime.
Bede, a monk in the Northumbrian monasteries of St Paul in Jarrow and St Peter in Monkwearmouth (part of modern Sunderland ), left in the 400 pages of his greatest work a history of England up to 731, when aged 59 he finished it, four years before his death. A remarkable figure in his own, or any age, Bede's remains are kept in Durham Cathedral , a scholarly link to an age when scholarship was not at its height in Britain.
The power vacuum in Britain left by Rome's abandonment of the land did not precipitate immediate invasion. However, to protect themselves against the Picts, Scots and Irish, the Britons seemingly employed Anglo-Saxon mercenaries, as their Roman masters had before them. These mercenaries, who came with their families, were paid partly in land, establishing tenure and perhaps a sense of permanence in their own minds. At some point they are thought to have mutinied (Gildas states this as fact), demanding greater reward. The realisation may have dawned that the master-servant relationship could be reversed. More settlers arrived, in a pattern delineated in broad terms as: Jutes in the Isle of Wight and parts of the English mainland opposite, including Kent; Angles in (unsurprisingly) East Anglia, and also most of the North; Saxons in the South and West. The Celtic Britons were pushed to the edges, in Wales, Cornwall , and Scotland.
Britain had been a centralised state under the Romans, administered from London and York . London post-410, without that administrative function, and probably with much reduced trade, descended to a shadow of its Roman pomp, though only for a short time. Britain now fractured into various kingdoms warring against one another, their external boundaries unstable and their internal power structures equally so, unsuccessful kings being bloodily replaced and even successful ones unable to ensure the succession of their sons.
The major kingdoms were East Anglia, Mercia (roughly the Midlands), Northumbria , and Wessex, with smaller rivals in Kent, Sussex , and Essex .
In the 7th century, though the picture was a shifting one, Northumbria was the dominant power. In the next century, however, one of the great figures of the age emerged, Offa, king of Mercia. He felt able to call himself king of the English, having beaten Wessex, Sussex, and Anglia in battle, and with his daughter married to Aethelred of Northumbria having some sway over that kingdom too (another daughter married Beorhtric, king of Wessex). Offa corresponded with Charlemagne, the two arranging trade questions and certain religious matters between them, surely a sign of Offa's standing.
What demonstrated Offa's authority and organisational power most visibly, however, was the construction of Offa's Dyke . There is much debate over the true extent of Offa's construction, with questions raised about whether it did indeed run the 150 miles from the Severn to the Dee; or for far less; or if it linked with other similar barriers; or even if Offa ordered it to be erected. But given that parts are still easily visible it was a remarkable project whoever built it, and its name passed through history seems reason enough to ascribe it to Offa.
The Offa's Dyke Centre at Knighton in Shropshire offers a good overview of the construction, with remains within two or three minutes on foot (in all there are something like 80 miles of the barrier still recognisable). The basic configuration was of a ditch about 6 feet deep to the west side, and a bank using the soil from the ditch on the east, plus more, as the bank reaches more than 20 feet high, and the whole barrier from west to east covers roughly 60 feet. The bank was topped by walls made of wood or stone. Always winding round hills to the west, to retain a clear field of vision of Wales for the guards who manned it, the dyke was probably not garrisoned like Hadrian's Wall had been, instead offering lookout points and beacon sites, though it would of course have been the obvious rallying and defensive point for soldiers once the signal had been given from any section of it.
Offa ruled from 758 to 796, but it seems his power was personal as soon after his death Egbert of Wessex restored that kingdom's reputation and authority.
Far more significant in the 9th century, however, was the arrival of Norse invaders in the Great Army of 865, whose raiding predecessors had sacked Lindisfarne in 793 and Iona a year later. The Vikings had good intelligence about their enemies; were able to land at the coast or travel upriver to attack; and had their fearsome double headed axe, the strike weapon of its day. Large numbers also had short swords for close fighting, and chain-mail. If their axe-men broke the enemy lines the Vikings had major advantages in hand-to-hand combat. The Saxon weapons of choice were long stabbing spears for the lower ranking fighters, and heavy iron swords for the nobles, both sections using round wooden shields covered with leather. The Ashmolean Museum has an impressive example of a Saxon sword, found at the Finglesham cemetery site in Kent.
By 877 only Wessex was resisting the Vikings, with King Alfred desperately defending his last stronghold at Athelney in the Somerset Marshes. The much-told tale of Alfred burning the cakes symbolises how low he, and Wessex, had come at around this time, a king travelling incognito, and derided by a poor peasant woman.
Eventually, after victories over the Danish King Guthrum at Edington and Chippenham, the peace of Wedmore (Somerset) was reached in 878, pushing the Vikings back into Anglia.
Alfred built on his success, retaking London in 886, and consolidating his hold on the western side of England. He established a navy to meet the Vikings head on; and he may have, according to some sources, established Oxford University. He certainly had a policy of promoting the development of burhs, settlements with some degree of fortification, giving lad to those who made their homes there, and provided a ready-made defence force in the locale.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of Alfred was the idea of a united country facing a common enemy - in the worst of times before Edington some of the other kingdoms had preferred cooperation with the Danes rather than their regional rivals. Alfred also created a dynasty and thus some continuity of power, his son Edward the Elder ruling from 901 to 925, and Edward's three sons succeeding him in turn: Athelstan ruling until 940, Edmund 946, and Edred until 955.
Alfred's grandson Edred brought his work to completion, uniting all England, with Winchester as the nominal capital and royal seat, and London the actual centre of authority, but the brief reign of Edwy, from 955 to 959, saw the country slip backwards, his borders shrinking back to the Thames. The Danes took control of England again after the rule of Ethelred the Unready (Unraed actually means ill-advised), Canute and his two sons ruling until the accession of Edward the Confessor in 1042.
With The Confessor history's habit of blurring the edges arises again. He was a Saxon ruler, but had been brought up in Normandy, and in his reign he introduced powerful Norman clerics into the English church, and Norman advisors at court, much to the annoyance of the increasingly powerful Saxon nobility. When Edward died on January 5 1066 Harold Godwinson seized the throne. But William of Normandy had a claim to it, supposedly promised the English crown by Edward; but then Harold said the same, and so did his brother Tostig, who allied with the Viking Harald Hardraada, also demanding the throne via a very tenuous claim.
The Saxon era in Britain came to an end in the first and only year of Harold's reign: his army beat Tostig and Harald at Stamford Bridge on September 25, just five days after their victory at Fulford. Three days later William landed in Kent, unopposed, and rested his army while Harold made a forced march the length of England, inexplicably taking on the fresh Norman troops at Hastings on October 14 without pausing to recover. The two armies met at Battle.
The Saxon strategy, partly dictated by the tiredness of their troops, partly by the superior Norman cavalry and archers, was to form a defensive mass and invite William to attack, which he did with little profit. One Norman retreat in disarray proved too great a lure for some of the Saxons, however, who broke ranks, charged, and were cut to pieces. The invaders adopted the feigned rout as a tactic, and the tide was turned. Harold's death, shot through the eye in a hail of Norman arrows, merely confirmed the extent of the victory. And with him died the cream of the Saxon warriors, rendering further resistance to William impotent.
On Christmas Day 1066, Westminster Abbey saw William of Normandy crowned as King William of England. The Norman age had begun.
The legacy left by the Anglo-Saxons is complex: above all our language owes its form, and much of its vocabulary, to the Saxons, rather than the Romans or Celts before them, or the Normans after.
The Saxons constructed domestic buildings of wood, even the large halls occupied by their kings, so other than on the archaeological scale the monuments we still have to their age are ecclesiastical. Many Saxon churches were replaced by, or incorporated in, Norman buildings, but some wonderful examples remain: Brixworth Church in Northamptonshire is one such, an impressively large building with blank Saxon arches along the nave, possibly dating from the 8th century; the lovely little church at Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire , probably built two centuries later, though minute in comparison is incredibly fine; and there are many others dotted around the land: another miniscule version at Escomb in County Durham ; and of huge historical significance because of their link with the Venerable Bede, St Peter's at Monkwearmouth and St Paul's in Jarrow; and St Mary's in Breamore in Hampshire , rather typical of the Saxon style, squat and sturdy with a practical tower topping the nave.
The Saxons gave us the church tower, and there can be few finer than that at Earls Barton in Northamptonshire, whose external strip work is strikingly beautiful, though St Peter's at Barton-on-Humber is certainly a close rival. The ancient church in Deerhurst, Gloucestershire , has a narrow Saxon tower almost Roman in design.
Smaller Saxon religious monuments remain too in the form of crosses and gravestones, the majority of the crosses for some reason found in the North: perhaps the best known being the Ruthwell Cross from Dumfriesshire, with equally fascinating examples to be found at Bewcastle in Cumbria, Bishop Auckland in County Durham, or Hexham Abbey in Northumberland.
Most alluringly of all, the Saxons left us treasure. We have learned much from the graves of ordinary people, and of the great. And from goods buried in times of conflict and never recovered by their owners. Gold and silver, and jewels aplenty have been unearthed from Saxon times, but somehow more meaningful and more beautiful are the glass objects: claw-beakers and drinking glasses, some perhaps imported, others made locally, possibly in Kent.
The greatest of these finds, of course, is the Sutton Hoo treasure, from the burial mound of a great figure found near Woodbridge in Suffolk in 1939. This fabulous collection of artefacts is now housed at the British Museum in London, and it shows that, though the Saxon period was often violent, it also produced gifted craftsmen capable of producing such wonders as the iconic Sutton Hoo helmet, or the finely and incredibly accurately worked gold belt-buckle found there. Coins from Gaul, a great silver dish from Byzantium, and a bronze bowl from Egypt, all found at Sutton Hoo, remind us if needs be that Saxon Britain was not cut off from the rest of the world, just as it still extends its hands to us today.
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