Anglo-Saxon England: 10 Little-Known Facts From History

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In the course of the 5th and 6th centuries, the once-unified Roman province of Britain was split into a collection of petty kingdoms, barbarians Saxon in the South and east, Celtic in the West and North. Celts were the people living in the British Isles at the time of the Roman conquest. They spoke languages that were the ancestors of modern Breton, Welsh, Scots Gaelic and Irish.

Saxons (and their neighbours the Angles and Jutes) started arriving in the British Isles from about the 5th century AD. They were the first people to be called ‘English’, a group of closely related Germanic tribes that began migrating to eastern and southern Britain, from southern Denmark and northern Germany, in the 5th century AD, after the Romans had withdrawn from Britain.

Thus, begin the Anglo-Saxon settlement in England, that describes the process which changed the language and culture of most of what became England from Romano-British to Germanic.

This post highlights 10 little-known cultural facts from the Anglo-Saxon settlement in England, and provide details related to its architecture, art, language, and literature from modern archaeological research:

10. The “Saxon Shore” Forts

The Anglo Saxon forts, shown here in a Roman map, were part of a system built in the 3rd century to protect south and east coasts of Roman Britain from raids by barbarians. Some of these forts may have been manned by Saxons who stayed after the Roman withdrawal.

9. The 5th Century Invasions (England)

The 5th century is the time period from 401 to 500 in accordance with the Julian calendar in Anno Domini / Common Era. The 5th Century Invasions in England came from the far coasts of the North Sea.

The Saxons were from Germany between the Elbe and Weser rivers, the Angels from Denmark and Franks from the Rhineland. Other tribes came from Frisia. They had been driven from their by tribes from the east.

8. Early Anglo-Saxon Pots

The Early Anglo-Saxon pots survive in large numbers because they were used for the burial of cremated bodies. They were often clumsy and badly fired, although elaborately decorated.

The Continental ancestors of the settlers also used these pots, so they can now aid in tracing the various tribes in Britain. The Continental Angles made pots with linear grooved patterns, while the Saxons preferred bizarre bossed and stamped decoration.

With the spread of Christianity, burial rather than cremation in pots become the rule. Use of the Romano-British potter’s wheel died out by 500.

7. Anglo-Saxon England (Sutton Hoo Ship)

An Anglo-Saxon Ship found at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, in 1939, was the cenotaph or memorial of a great kind, and contained much glorious jewellery and many domestic utensils.

It is not certain which ship commemorated, but he may have been Raedwald of East Anglia. It dates from before the final acceptance of Christianity in the kingdom (c.650).

The Sutton Hoo Ship, which was almost 29m in length, is the best example of the boats they used. It was primarily a rowing boat but may have had a sail. It probably had an elaborately carved figurehead on the prow.

6. Kingdom of East Anglia

East Anglia is a geographical area in the East of England. The area included has varied but comprises the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, and Cambridgeshire, including the City of Peterborough unitary authority.

East Anglia was settled earlier and more densely than any other region in England, being the part of Britain closest to the invaders’ homelands.

From the pattern of 5th-century burial grounds in England, it appears that immigrants sailed up the rivers and settled along the valleys and Roman roads.

The Kingdom of East Anglia soon became wealthy as can be seen by the treasures found in the Sutton the Ship burial of c. 625.

5. The Franks Casket

The Franks Casket, a small whale-bone box, was made in Northumbria c. 700. Its decorative carvings include pagan and Christian myths, and its inscriptions are in both Latin script and Germanic runes.

The Anglo-Saxons often added Christian elements to their existing myths, as can be most clearly seen in the epic poem, Beowulf, probably written after 700.

But the Church was important in secular affairs by the 7th century, and many kings gave land and wealth to monasteries.

4. Bronze gilt belt-set (Anglo-Saxon England)

This Bronze gilt belt-set was found in a grave in Mucking, Essex. It belongs to a type currently in the late Roman army but is in a style found only in England, indicating there was a close relationship between the barbarians and the Roman army.

3. St Cuthbert

St Cuthbert (d.687) was one of the best-loved Irish or Celtic churchmen of Anglo-Saxon England. He is seen here being presented with a book by King Athelstan.

Although he had a Celtic training, he supported the decisions of the Synod of Whitby which ended the confusion over the date of Easter.

A holy man known for his piety and humility, he was Bishop of Lindisfarne. Miracles were said to occur at his tomb, now in Durham Cathedral. His history was recorded by the Venerable Bede (see point 1).

2. The Kingdoms of Heptarchy

The Kingdoms of Heptarchy is a collective name applied to the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of the south, east, and central England during late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, conventionally identified as seven: East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex, and Wessex.

The Kingdoms of Heptarchy were often in conflict with one another and sometimes seek help from the Celtic kingdoms of Gwynedd in Wales or Dalriada in Scotland. The centre of power altered quickly.

1. The Venerable Bede (Anglo-Saxon England) Historian

The Venerable Bede an English monk at the monastery of St. Peter and its companion monastery of St. Paul in the Kingdom of Northumbria of the Angles, (673 AD – 735 AD). He wrote the best surviving account of the early Anglo-Saxon England period and is widely regarded as the greatest of all the Anglo-Saxon scholars.

Working in the early 8th-century, he aimed to tell the story of the Church in England. He tried to be more critical of the sources he used (such as earlier chronicles as well as legends and hagiographies) than previous writers and is considered to have been the first English historian.

Writing at Jarrow in his native kingdom of Northumbria, he tended to regard Celtic Christianity as heretical, but he admired its great men, especially St. Columba (d. 597) who brought Irish Christianity to Scotland, and St Aidan (d. 651), bishop of Lindisfarne.