Who were the Anglo-Saxons?

Until recently, if you asked who the Anglo-Saxons were the answer would’ve been that they were people from two northern European tribes who invaded England during the fifth and sixth centuries and then put down roots and stayed. They pushed the Britons (mostly Celts who’d been Romanized) to the corners of the island and formed a shifting set of small kingdoms in the island’s middle. 

The kingdomlets eventually became one full-size kingdom, which was in turn overthrown by the Norman invasion in 1066. 

Sic transit gloria mundi, which is Latin from Do whatever you like, in the end it all goes wrong anyway. It’s a run-on sentence, but you can blame the ancient Romans.


The Jutes and the complications

To complicate the picture (I can never resist a complication), you can also tell the traditional story so that there were three tribes, the Angles and the Saxons plus the Jutes. But the Jutes are always getting dropped from the discussion because they wouldn’t spend money on a publicity agent. So the Anglo-Saxons are the folks we know about. If you care what posterity thinks of you,  you’ll find a lesson in there somewhere. 

On the other hand, by the time posterity either remembers or forgets you, you won’t be around to care, so the Jutes may have been wise to spend their money on other things. 

Irrelevant photo: I can’t remember the name of this, but if you have one you suddenly find you have a thousand and you’re pulling them up everywhere.

What evidence we have says the Jutes came from Scandinavia–probably from what’s now Jutland–and that the tribal members who didn’t migrate got absorbed by the Danes. 


Where does the traditional story come from?

Two of the main sources of information about the period are Gildas and the Venerable Bede, and both wrote about battles between the Britons and the Anglo-Saxons. But Bede lived in the seventh and eight centuries, so he’s not a contemporary source. And Gildas lived in the sixth century, so although he’s earlier than Bede he’s not a contemporary either. Gildas also considered the Anglo-Saxons God’s punishment for the British leaders’ depravity, and sorry, no, I don’t have any details, but that does kind of mark him as something less than an unbiased narrator.

So grain of salt, please, with both of those. Some archeologists have begun to notice that no one has yet found evidence of those battles, and that calls their version of the story into question.

In addition, the dividing lines between Angles, Saxons, and Jutes may not have been as clear in real life as they were in Bede’s history. Still, their names have been preserved in assorted place names, showing that they were used. The English counties that end in -sex (settle down there in back; we’ve all heard the word sex before or we wouldn’t recognize it) were Saxon. Wessex is from West Saxons; Essex from East Saxons, Middlesex from Middle Saxons. The North Saxons, as was pointed out by someone who has a better grasp of British geography and history than I do, did not leave behind a place called Nosex. 

The Angles, however, left us East Anglia and England. Not to mention the word English

The Jutes (probably) left us Jutland, and it’s in the wrong country. See why they keep getting dropped from the conversation?

The Anglo-Saxons, somewhat irrelevantly, didn’t call themselves Anglo-Saxons. The word turns up for the first time in the eighth century. 


The unknowns and the new interpretations

One of the things we don’t know about the period is whether the Anglo-Saxons invaded in hordes or trickled in in small numbers and settled among the existing population. Bede and Gildas make the incomers sound like invading hordes who replaced the Romano-Celts, either killing them or driving them to the corners of the island. Until recently that’s been accepted as fact.


You’ve heard the complaints that Black Lives Matter protesters are rewriting history? Well, here’s history being rewritten with no political agenda at all. Because history’s constantly getting rewritten. New ideas crop up, and new ways of looking at things, and new technologies (social history, for example, or women’s history), and new information. They change the picture. So here’s how it’s changing at the moment:

Archeologists from Sydney and Vancouver have been rummaging through Anglo-Saxon bones from the fifth through eleventh centuries and they say the Anglo-Saxons weren’t from a genetically unified group of people. They were (much like the inhabitants of modern Britain) a mix of migrants and local people.

What sort of a mix are we talking about? Between 66% and 75% of the early Anglo-Saxons had ancestors from continental Europe. The remainder had local ancestors. And Anglo-Saxon here means people who lived in what archeologists identify as Anglo-Saxon settlements–people who lived a certain way, buried their dead a certain way, and had identifiable types of jewelry or goods buried with them.

For the middle Anglo-Saxon period (that’s several hundred years after the original migrants arrived), 50% to 70% percent had local ancestors and the rest had ancestors from continental Europe. That may mean local people adopted the Anglo-Saxon culture, that the rate of migration changed, or both.“Instead of wholesale population replacement,” they say, “a process of acculturation resulted in Anglo-Saxon language and culture being adopted wholesale by the local population. . . . It could be this new cultural package was attractive, filling a vacuum left at the end of the Roman occupation of Britain. “

The archeologists speculate that “being Anglo-Saxon was more likely a matter of language and culture, not genetics.”

Separate studies of DNA and of tooth enamel back up their findings, with incomers being identifiable only by high-tech scientific study. They were buried the same way as local people and in the same places. 


The Anglo-Saxon economy

The established belief has been that when the Romans left the economy went into a sharp decline. Basically, Britain fell apart. But enthusiasts waving metal detectors have added new evidence about the period, and in Building Anglo-Saxon England, John Blair uses it (and other evidence) to argue that the economy was just fine, thanks. It produced goods. It traded with other countries. It didn’t collapse.

Susan Oosthuizen’s The Anglo-Saxon Fenland and The Emergence of the English make a different version of the same argument. The early Anglo-Saxon years weren’t the gang warfare we’ve come to think they were. She looks at the way the land was used and sees continuity. The Roman withdrawal from Britain, she thinks, created stability, not chaos.  

Both households using privately held land and communities using common land continued very much the way they had. A violent transformation, she argues, would’ve overwritten field layouts. A conquering horde wouldn’t have settled into the boundaries, property rights, and land management patterns of the people they’d dispossessed.

Instead, she sees incomers and local people living beside each other, with no evidence that the earlier people became subject to the incomers. She goes as far as arguing that the period shouldn’t be called Anglo-Saxon, because that overlooks both the Britons and the immigrants from North Africa, the Mediterranean, Ireland, and parts of Europe other than where the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes came from. They  formed, she says, a common culture with a common language. 

The number of non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants was small but may have been culturally or economically significant. But (unsubstantiated theory warning) everything from “may have” is just me speculating.


But didn’t Britain collapse when the Romans left?

When the Romans left, Rome’s constant demand for taxes left with them, which may have taken pressure off the local economy. In places, arable land was converted to pasture. That can be taken as a sign of collapse or a sign that, without the need to shovel surpluses to Rome, people could afford to do this.

In 429, the bishop of Auxerre visited Britain and described it as “this very opulent island.” It “enjoyed peace with security on several fronts,” he said. And St. Patrick’s reminiscences apparently also paint a picture of a stable country, not one torn by wars and invasion.

Even Gildas–remember him? one of the sources of the war and chaos tale?–describes early sixth-century Britain as a country with  a functioning legal system, a church hierarchy, monastic houses, and a military command structure and administration that were still organised along Roman lines. 

A review of Oosthuizen’s book says, “What Gildas most disliked was the evidence he saw for new administrative, legal, social, religious, and political structures emerging and diverging from Roman norms, not the lack of such structures.”

The idea that historians should be neutral–or at least try to look neutral–was still centuries away.


Yeah, but the language–

But wasn’t Old English brought by the Anglo-Saxons and imposed on the country?

Not necessarily. There’s no evidence that it arrived in Britain as a fully formed language–it would’ve been, at the least, a variety of dialects– or that it was imposed. In eighth-century Britain–that’s well after the Anglo-Saxons first arrived–Bede says people spoke Old English, British Celtic, Irish, Pictish, Church Latin, and vernacular (meaning everyday spoken) Latin. A lot of them would have known two or three languages, and he says almost everyone could speak vernacular Latin.

English might have gobbled down several of those, using both a Germanic and British base for its syntax and a vocabulary that was stolen from everyone within hearing range. 

Linguists–at least some of them–are now calling English a contact language, meaning not that flies stick to it but that it grew out of the interaction of various languages. That’s in contrast to a language that’s imposed by a dominant class, as English was (by way of an example) in Britain’s colonies.


The Ikea hypothesis

I can’t leave you without talking about the map of Ikea stores in Oosthuizen’s book. (It’s reproduced in the review. The link’s above.) She argues that future archeologists could mark a map with all the Ikea stores that are close to rivers leading to the North Sea, and from that theorize that Sweden colonized Britain in the late twentieth century. 

They could back up the theory by pointing to the amount of Ikea furniture in people’s homes and decide that the 100,000 Swedes who lived in London in 2018 had moved there to work for Ikea. 

Which is entirely possible.

53 thoughts on “Who were the Anglo-Saxons?

  1. Rose campion is probably the name you’re after for that plant.
    Angels, Saxons, Jutes a few Roman from the wrong side of the blanket. Plus some treavelling Celts.and some randy Normans
    We are a mixed bag!

    Liked by 3 people

    • You are–but then so many of the world’s ethnic groups are. It’s a joke on the ethnic-purity people, because there ain’t much purity to be had among humans. Hell, we’re not even purely human. A whole lot of us are part Neanderthal.

      Liked by 4 people

  2. When the Romans left, King Arthur came along and saved the day, when he wasn’t too busy worrying about what Queen Guinevere was up to with Sir Lancelot :-) . Or so medieval historians would have us believe. It’s a better story than Ikea, anyway, Ikea hasn’t got a wizard or a sword in a stone.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I love the Ikea hypothesis. Not only is ours on a river, but it’s also by the docks. Perhaps future archeologists will speculate that this was their point of landing and they spread out across the country from here.

    I’m fairly sure that I was taught at school that English is a hodgepodge of other languages. You only have to learn a bit of French and German to see their influence on English. I also remember the Jutes getting a mention in school history lessons, but it obviously made no impression on me, because I can’t remember what was said about them.

    I think ” A conquering horde wouldn’t have settled into the boundaries, property rights, and land management patterns of the people they’d dispossessed” is a bit of an odd statement, as I’m fairly certain that that’s more or less what the Normans did, although I think the property rights bit went out of the window.

    The thing about being a member of such a mixed race is that I’m always wondering how my ancestors got here. We have a Celtic and Mediterranean heritage, as well as the more obvious Saxon, but does that go back to the nineteenth century or the ninth? I like to think of an ancestor coming over as part of a Roman legion, but perhaps a more recent a few times great-grandmother got a bit too friendly with a foreign sailor. I’ll never know.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Most of us will never know–and I sometimes wonder if the people who seem to know their histories know as much as they think. Families often had official stories and real stories–or so I’m told.

      I wondered about the Normans myself and decided to defer to someone with more expertise than I have. (it wouldn’t be hard to have more….) One difference in the two situations that I can come up with is that the Normans replaced only the top level of society, leaving the people who actually tilled the soil in place to do what they’d always done. So the knowledge of uses and boundaries and which field was good for what had some continuity. If the Anglo-Saxons came in, though, as a replacement people, pushing the Celts off the land (which is the earlier belief), they wouldn’t have had that.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You’re right, there is a difference.

        I’m farirly sure that all families have an official story and the real story/ies, but there’s also the evidence of birth certificates. We did a bit of research into family history a few years ago. Assuming we got a bit of it right (a real assumption given how common my surname is in these parts) there are a couple of dead ends where there are no father’s name recorded on the birth certificate. Since most of my nineteenth century ancestresses were in domestic service, that’s not really a surprise.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I don’t know about this language thing.

    40 years ago, I was staying in a youth hostel in Dover. Yeah, 40 years ago, I was somewhat of a “youth”. Anyways, it was during the era of soccer hooligans and two groups of “youth” were facing off, shouting insults at each other across the dorm in a preface to an inevitable slugfest.

    I turned to a fellow observer and ask, “I recognize those guys as German, but the other group, I got no idea what language they are using.”

    “What do you guess?” he asked.

    “Basque maybe…something exotic.”

    He grinned, “They’re from Edinburgh.”

    That was a long time ago and maybe now the “youth” from Edinburgh speak English or at least yell it – but all I know is that after Dover, I went on to Wales and couldn’t understand a thing there… I suspect neither could the guys from Edinburgh.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Around here, the Glasgow accent is generally considered hard to follow, which is probably why all the call centers are located there. Edinburgh, though, doesn’t register on the hard-for-everyone-else-to-follow scale. Neither does the Welsh, as far as I know. On the other hand, Americans use a different scale to measure that. I expect it has something to do with the metric system.

      I love the story about the youth hostel, though.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Who were the Anglo-Saxons? — Notes from the U.K. – Historytalker

  6. Really – all the call centers are in Glasgow ? Shoot ! I’m always asking them how the weather is in Uttar Pradesh.
    The Ikea theory is fascinating. Given the differences in “English” maybe the researchers should follow Starbucks locations.

    The people writing history, I suspect, even if they have no bias – probably feel the need to make order out of chaos, while those of us on the ground in the midst of the chaos only try to muddle through and leave the categorizing to history, They may not even have realized their lives were “nasty, brutish and short.”
    Fascinating as usual !

    Liked by 1 person

    • I believe you’re right about making order from chaos. You spin a theory, then you back it up. That necessarily means ignoring whatever doesn’t fit it. Unlike in science, you can’t test whether it works. The best of the theories give us some useful way to see the past, the present, and the future. The rest–I don’t know. Either they sit around doing nothing or they cloud our minds about the past, present, and future.

      I should’ve said the call centers that aren’t in India are in Glasgow.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. The Jutes definitely needed a social media manager! When I was in uni, I had to take a course on Anglo-Saxon poetry and grammar and we learned to speak it (kind of). I can still recite Caedmon’s Hymn!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Since Pretty and I have been watching Downton Abbey for a second time the past few days, your post fills in a few blanks for us. But then it also muddies a few waters, too.
    We won’t hold you responsible – have a good weekend!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Rose campion is a useful plant in dry places. It blooms even in somewhat shady spots. Thing is–you have to snip off each little flower as it goes limp and shrivels up. That keeps ’em blooming all summer instead of producing billions of seeds. It is a somewhat tedious task, but if you have a reasonable number of plants that are easy to reach, it’s sort of a meditative activity.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I see it mostly in the Cornish hedges here–a.k.a. the stone walls. It must spread happily in them, because in places it covers them and it’s gorgeous. We don’t have a Cornish hedge and I planted some on the flat–so I guess I’ve planted a weed. Oh, well, it’s a gorgeous one.

      Rose campion just might be an easier name to remember than the formal one (which finally came back to me): erigeron.

      Liked by 1 person

    • The hard thing about knowing what happened is that we weren’t there–and let’s face it, most of us would be unreliable witnesses anyway. However. Even though we don’t know how to connect the dots, we do have more dots than we used to. I think that’s worth a book or three.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think anyone can argue that they weren’t. Although interestingly enough, they weren’t a replacement population, the way earlier theories held that the Anglo-Saxons were. They replaced the ruling class, but that was it.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. The “scholarly” theory on evidence supporting that invasion by Ikea is brilliant stuff. It reminds me of accounts of mysterious ancient astronauts “proven” by researchers. It fits the modus operandi, does it not?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Reblogged this on billziegler1947 and commented:
    From the inimitable Ellen Hawley, who publishes many wonderful things that you’ve unlikely encountered elsewhere. An excerpt:

    “I can’t leave you without talking about the map of Ikea stores in Oosthuizen’s book. (It’s reproduced in the review. The link’s above.) She argues that future archeologists could mark a map with all the Ikea stores that are close to rivers leading to the North Sea, and from that theorize that Sweden colonized Britain in the late twentieth century.

    They could back up the theory by pointing to the amount of Ikea furniture in people’s homes and decide that the 100,000 Swedes who lived in London in 2018 had moved there to work for Ikea.”

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I was just thinking today I should re-read my British history for this big “bucket list” trip I want to make in a year or two. I started flipping through some books online and remembered how grisly the death sentences could be, so I decided against that. Then I started reading some of your history posts. I can handle this! I just want to refresh my memory enough to know the “conqueror” guy from the “unready” guy, etc. without having to read about boiling people or hacking off body parts one at a time. And you are very entertaining, which is how I like my history, anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m also, unfortunately, entirely episodic–in other words, I leave these huge gaps. A large part of my motivation is to fill in a few of the gaps in my own knowledge of British history, but early on I pretty much gave up on the idea of British even and focused on English history. For the sake of simplicity and clean lines, because otherwise I was scrambling off in all directions. But as long as we’re all having fun, even if I leave blanks it’s better than leaving the whole thing blank.

      I just the other day got my hands on James Hawes’ The Shortest History of England (Old Street Press). I haven’t broken into it yet, so I don’t know how it is, or whether it gives in to the fascination with gruesome deaths, but it might be worth a look. Stay tuned.

      It’s not actually the shortest, but it’s still a nifty title.

      Liked by 1 person

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