Saxons and Angles

Who were the Saxons and Angles?

The Saxons were a tribe of Germanic people who originally came from the area of current northern Germany. They invaded Britain during the time of Roman occupation. Similarly the Angles came from the area of northern Germany and Denmark. The Jutes and Frisians were other tribes of Germanic people. The Jutes also invaded England but over time were either driven out of the country or merged with the Saxons and Angles.

This is how the Romans saw Britain and Ireland in A.D. 150.

At first small numbers of raiders came to Britain attacking and plundering settlements close to the shore. They then returned home to their native lands with thier stolen goods. After the Romans left Britain in 410 the country was not properly defended as the regions were ruled by different people who were too busy fighting amongst themselves to care about invaders. Over time the Saxons and Angles spent more time in Britain creating settlements in the clearings along the rivers. Eventually they moved further inland fighting for land with the Britons. The Anglo-Saxon invaders were led by many different chieftains and once Britain was conquered they created many separate states in which they ruled.

Each separate state had a king and council known as a witan which advised the king. The witan was made up from important nobles of the state. Like the Britons before them the Anglo-Saxons fourght amongst themselves. When an Anglo-Saxon king defeated the king of another state, the conquered state was either completely taken over or remained independant but had to pay a fee to remain so. During the hundreds of years of the Early Middle Ages the states were fought over many times. Several times during those many years a king came to power with the strength of conquer the majority of the other states and become the ruler of England. These overlords were known as Bretwalda.

From 616 to 632 Edwin ruled Northumbria. He was able to conquer much of northern England and combined the two Northumbrian states of Bernica and Deira.

Where did they settle?

This map shows how Britain was organised in around 550 AD

When the Saxons and Angles invaded Britain they had to defeat the native Britons. This is the era of King Arthur who, legend states, defended Britain against the invaders. The Saxons managed to defeat the Britons and take control of the country. The Saxons settled mainly in the south of England, while the Angles settled mainly on the east coast.

Some key term
Bretwalda
Ruler of Britain. An overlord of several of the Anglo-Saxon states.
Burh
A fortified area used by the Saxons (or burgh)
Ealdorman
An Anglo-Saxon nobleman who had control over a local area and exercised the king's authority
Fyrd
An army consisting of free men who were summonsed by the king in times of trouble
Housecarl
A military person in the employment of an Anglo-Saxon or Danish king. Possibly a bodyguard
Thegn
A high-ranking member of the Anglo-Saxon king's family or followers
Witan
A group of Ango-Saxon councillors who used their wisdom to advise the king

Some Key Events

641/2 - Oswald defeated by King Penda
The Northumbrian Christian king Oswald was defeated at the battle of Maserfield by the pagen king Penda of Mercia. After the battle Penda had Oswald's body dismembered and stuck on a tree. The theory is that from this event the town of Oswestry got its name.

664 - Synod of Whitby
King Oswy of Northumbria was a follower of Celtic Christianity. When he married the daughter of King Edwin she brought with her the Roman Chistian tradition. The conflicts between the two traditions led to a meeting at Whitby where a new monastery had been recently founded. After several days of discussion the King chose to adopt the Roman traditions.
669 - Theodore of Canterbury
Theodore of Tarsus arrived in England to become the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Under Theodore's leadship the structure of the English Church was changed. Lands were donated and new dioceses were created. Before this time bishops had a monastery but had no defined areas of their own and were missionaries. It was at around this time that the rule of St. Benedict was introduced into the country.

Seven Main Anglo-Saxon States in the 7th Century

674 - Wearmouth-Jarrow Monastery
A bishop called Benedict Biscop, originally coming from Northumbria, had accompanied Theodore of Canterbury from Rome. Under Biscop's guidance the twin monasteries at Wearmouth and Jarrow for monks and nuns was founded. The monasteries became an important centre for learning and Biscop made several journeys to Rome to bring back books for the libraries at his monasteries. One of Biscop's pupils was Bede who was one of the most important scholar of his time. Bede wrote the Ecclesiastical History of the English People. This work detailed the history of the Anglo-Saxon people and has given us an understanding of the times that he lived in.

What are Saxon Shore Forts?

Portchester Castle The Romans built a series of forts along the east and south coasts of Britain to protect the country against invasion from the Saxons. These forts have become known as 'Saxon Shore Forts' because a document from the time refers to the commander of the forts as the 'Count of the Saxon Shore'. Generally these forts were large rectangular enclosures surrounded by a high stone wall and ditches. Most of these forts have been destroyed over the years by erosion but some remain. A good example is Portchester Castle. Porcester Castle is situated in a strategic location within Portsmouth harbour. The castle was later refortified by the Normans. Henry I built a Norman keep in the north-west corner and the outer walls were repaired and strengthened.