The Anglo-Saxons have been in the news lately, but not in a good way. A proposal to form a Congressional Caucus to promote “Anglo-Saxon values” turned out to be a bit too explicit a nod to White Supremacists, even for the current iteration of the GOP. White Supremacists have sadly co-opted the term Anglo-Saxon, making it a divisive buzz word rather than simply the name of a period of English history. Lets look at Anglo-Saxon history and values. I have several books on my shelves to refresh my memory. A lovely illustrated edition of the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People written in the 8th century and a battered paperback of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a collection of narratives compiled in the 9th century reign of Alfred the Great. There’s also several books about archeological discoveries, including a hoard of gold treasure and the famous Sutton Hoo ship burial, and of course a copy of Beowulf.
The Angles and the Saxons came from Northern Europe to Britain in the 5th century. They took advantage of the power vacuum left as the Romans withdrew from the island they had ruled for over 500 years. At first the Anglo-Saxons came in small raiding parties in search of treasure and goods to take back to their homelands. Meeting little resistance they gradually formed permanent settlements on the east coast and along rivers. Then they came in waves driving out the indigenous Romano-Britons. In an interesting example of climate change influencing history, recent research shows that rising sea levels in Northern Europe drove the migrations, which left large swaths of the Northern European coastal area deserted by 450. Here’s how one historian describes the Anglo-Saxon takeover of Britain:
Through invasion, extermination, slavery, and forced resettlement the Anglo-Saxons defeated the Britons and consequently their culture and language prevailed.Edward Freeman
The Romano-Britons were pushed to the margins, Wales and Cornwall, where the ancient languages are still spoken, and some fled to Brittany in Gaul. The Breton language is similar to Welsh and Cornish. More recent scholarship, based on genetic studies of the British population, suggests that while some of the indigenous population were pushed out, others remained, subjugated by an Anglo-Saxon elite.
The adoption of the language—as well as the material culture and traditions—of an Anglo-Saxon elite by large numbers of the local people seeking to improve their status within the social structure is the key to understanding the transition from Romano-British to Anglo-Saxon.Nick Higham
Anglo-Saxon England was a volatile society of rival warring kings and chieftains. It was a warrior culture glorying in tales of heroic deeds. A 10th century poem extolls the conquest of Briton:
Engle and Seaxe upp becomon
ofer brad brimu. Britene sohton,
wlance wig-smithas, Wealas ofercomon,
eorlas ar-hweate eard begeaton.
Angles and Saxons came upfrom The Battle of Brunanburh
over the broad sea. Britain they sought,
proud war-smiths who overcame the Welsh,
glorious warriors they took hold of the land.
Let’s see – first they came in small treasure hunting parties, then formed settlements on the east coast and along rivers, then came in waves driving out and subjugating the indigenous peoples. They fashioned heroic tales from this history. Why it sounds exactly like the European takeover of America. Americans really do share Anglo-Saxon values!
There is one crucial difference. The Anglo-Saxons were pagans. But Christianity had already reached Britain, perhaps as early as the 2nd century, as it spread through the Roman Empire. The Romano-Britons followed a mix of Christian and pagan beliefs and practices. It was a Romano-Briton who converted Ireland in the early 5th century. A young Christian boy from the west of Briton was captured and enslaved by the Irish. He grew up to be St. Patrick!
The story of who converted the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity has some surprises.
In 595 Pope Gregory the Great selected Augustine, a Roman monk, to lead a mission to the Angles. (He became the first Archbishop of Canterbury and a saint, not to be confused with St. Augustine of Hippo who lived two centuries earlier).
Augustine established a pattern of converting kings, like Aethelberht of Kent, so they would impose the new religion on their people. Some kings ordered the destruction of pagan shrines and banned pagan customs, but the common people were more resistant to the new faith. Not all conversions were for spiritual reasons. Some of the pagan kings agreed to convert if the Christian God would grant them victory over their enemies. Some hedged their bets. King Raedwald of East Anglia built a temple with a Christian altar and a pagan idol.
The Pope was not averse to bribery in the quest for souls. He sent King Eadwine of Northumbria a gold embroidered robe, a silver mirror, and a gilded ivory comb for his Queen as an inducement. Recent scholarship suggests that Bede’s account of the benign conversion of a willing people is not the whole story. Historian Marc Morris writes of “the violence that greased the wheels of conversion” and “the coming of the cross at the point of a sword.” A particularly violent episode occurred on the Isle of Wight. St. Wilfrid supported a pagan leader’s invasion and slaughter of the populace in return for land to use as a base for converting the survivors. Not a very saintly bargain.
Augustine’s progress in converting the Anglo-Saxons was short-lived. Once the first generation of newly Christian leaders died many people reverted to paganism. It would be left to others to spread the Gospel throughout Britain.
The story of the Irish missionaries who established monasteries on the islands of Iona and Lindisfarne is well known. Bede describes their conversion of Northumbria, Essex, and Mercia. The monasteries became centers of learning and produced marvels of manuscript art like the Lindisfarne Gospels.
Less well known is the story of the African missionary Hadrian. Bede refers to him as a “vir natione Afir.” He was born in Apollonia on Africa’s north coast, a town with four Byzantine churches. At the time North Africa was an important center of Christian faith and learning. Hadrian fled Africa as a refugee after the Arab invasion in 644. He settled in Naples where he became an abbot and a diplomat because of his language skills in Latin and Greek. In 670 Hadrian travelled to England to assist Theodore, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in establishing a center of learning at the Cathedral there. He arrived carrying manuscripts and teaching aids to educate the “wild and semi-pagan land” of the Anglo-Saxons. The school he founded became famous throughout Europe. He built a library, planned courses and lectures, and trained a new generation of Christian educators. Fragments of his teaching notes can be found in libraries all over Europe. One of his pupils, Aldhelm, boasted of being the first among Germanic peoples to understand Latin verse. Hadrian’s influence on Anglo-Saxon Christianity can be seen in the Lindisfarne Gospels and the devotion to saints from Naples and Africa, like St. Restituta of Carthage. Bede describes the years of Hadrian’s teaching as “the happiest time since the English first came to Britain.”
It might surprise some of today’s adherents to the myth of Anglo-Saxon superiority that this wild and pagan people owed the Christian faith and learning that distinguish later Anglo-Saxon culture to a bunch of Irishmen and a refugee from Africa!
Eventually history’s wheel of fortune would turn on the Anglo-Saxons. Those who once raided the English coast were now subjected to three centuries of Viking raids. Invasions followed and starting in the 9th century Vikings ruled half of England in an area known as the Danelaw. Their presence lingers on in English place names. For example names ending in -thorpe, -by, and -gate from Old Norse are common in Yorkshire.
The final coup de grace came in 1066 with the Norman invasion and defeat of the last Anglo-Saxon king, Harold II, who was killed at the Battle of Hastings. Like the Romano-Britons before them the Anglo-Saxons became a subjugated people. This is recorded in William the Conqueror’s survey of his new kingdom, the Domesday Book. The names of landowners changed from Anglo-Saxon in 1066 to Norman in 1086, the year of the survey. The Anglo-Saxons lost not only their land but their freedom. In Essex only 7% of the population were described as freemen in 1086. Norman French became the language of the elite, Latin the official language of government. Only the serfs spoke Anglo-Saxon. The Middle-English written and spoken by Chaucer’s time in the 14th century was a mishmash of old Anglo-Saxon English, Old Norse, and Norman French.
The true history of Anglo-Saxon England is a cautionary tale for those who would use history for contemporary political and cultural ends. History is always more complicated than the myths some would make of it. The Anglo-Saxons were pagan warriors, Christians who learned their new faith from missionaries of foreign cultures, invaders who subjugated an indigenous people, and who in their turn were subjugated. They made both violent warfare and beautiful religious manuscripts. Their name should not be taken in vain.