A HISTORY OF ANGLO SAXON AND VIKING ENGLAND
By Tim Lambert
THE ANGLO SAXON CONQUEST OF ENGLAND
The Anglo Saxon conquest of England began in the middle of the 5th century. At that time England was inhabited by the Celts. For more than 360 years the Romans had ruled them. However Roman rule in England was really only superficial. After the Roman army left in 407 Roman civilisation faded away. Towns were abandoned. Villas in the countryside were also abandoned. The Celts returned to living in hill forts, protected by ditches, earth ramparts and wooden stockades.
Meanwhile the Saxons began raiding England in the 3rd century. However as the Roman Empire collapsed they turned to conquest.
By the 5th century the Romano-Celts had broke up into separate kingdoms but a single leader called the Superbus tyrannus had emerged. At that time and possibly earlier they were hiring Germanic peoples as mercenaries. According to tradition the Superbus tyrannus brought Jutes to protect his realm from Scots (from Northern Ireland) and Picts (from Scotland). According to Gildas he was also afraid the Romans might invade Britain and make it part of the Empire again. The Superbus tyrannus may have been called Vortigern. At any rate he wanted Britain to remain independent. He installed the Jutish leader, Hengist, as king of Kent. In return the Jutes were supposed to protect Britain.
However after about 7 years the Jutes and the Romano-Celts fell out. They fought a battle at Crayford and the Jutes won a decisive victory. The war went on for several more years but the Celts were unable to dislodge the Jutes.
According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle Saxons led by their ruler Aelle landed in Sussex in 477. (Some historians think this date is wrong and it was actually 457). At any rate the Celts resisted them bitterly but after about 15 years the Saxons had conquered all of Sussex. They gave the county its name. It was the kingdom of the south Saxons.
Meanwhile at the end of the 5th century or the very beginning of the 6th century more Jutes landed in eastern Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. At the same time Saxons landed in western Hampshire. They founded the kingdom of Wessex (the West Saxons).
Then in the late 5th century a great leader and general arose among the Celts. We know him as Arthur. Very little is known about him but he defeated the Saxons in several battles. His victories culminated in the battle of Mount Badon, about 500 AD. (We do not know exactly where the battle took place). The Saxons were crushed and their advance was halted for decades.
Meanwhile in the early 6th century the West Saxons, of western Hampshire, annexed the Jutes of eastern Hampshire. About 530 they also took over the Isle of Wight.
Then in 552 the West Saxons won a great victory somewhere near modern Salisbury and they captured what is now Wiltshire. In 577 they won another great victory. This time they captured Bath, Cirencester and Gloucester. They also cut off the Celts of southwest England from the Celts of Wales.
Meanwhile in the mid-6th century other Saxons invaded Essex. (The kingdom of the East Saxons). A people called the Angles landed in East Anglia. Obviously they gave East Anglia its name. They also gave England its name (Angle land).
Other Angles landed in Yorkshire. Also in the later 6th century Saxons sailed up the Thames and landed in what is now Berkshire. They gave Middlesex its name. (The land of the middle Saxons). They also landed on the south bank of the River Thames. They called the area suth ridge, which means south bank. In time the name changed to Surrey.
The Conquest of Western England
So by the late 6th century eastern England was in the hands of Angles and Saxons. In the 7th century they continued their relentless advance. In 656 the Anglo Saxons of the east Midlands won a battle on the River Wye and captured the west Midlands.
Further South in 658 the West Saxons won a great battle and drove the Celts back to the River Parret in Somerset. In 664 they won yet another battle. This time they captured Dorset.
By about 670 AD the West Saxons had captured Exeter.
Then in 710 Saxons from eastern Somerset invaded western Somerset. At the same time Saxons from southeast Devon marched north and west. The two groups advanced in a pincer movement and soon occupied Devon and western Somerset.
However the Anglo Saxons never gained effective control of Cornwall. So Cornwall kept its own Cornish language.
The English Kingdoms
By the 7th century there were 9 kingdoms in what is now England. In the south there were Kent, Sussex and Wessex (Hampshire and Wiltshire). In the early 9th century Wessex gained control of Sussex and Kent.
Eastern England was divided into Essex, East Anglia and a kingdom called Lindsey roughly modern Lincolnshire.
The Midlands was ruled by a kingdom called Mercia. In the late 8th century a great king called Offa ruled Mercia. He built a famous dyke (ditch) to keep out the Welsh. He also absorbed the kingdom of Lindsey (roughly Lincolnshire).
In 600 the north was divided into two kingdoms. Deira (roughly modern Yorkshire) and Bernicia further north. However in 605 the two were united to form one powerful kingdom called Northumbria.
So by the mid-9th century England was divided into just four kingdoms, Northumbria in the north, Mercia and East Anglia in the east and Wessex in the south.
THE ANGLO SAXONS ARE CONVERTED TO CHRISTIANITY
In 407 the last Roman soldiers left Britain. Over the following decades Roman civilisation broke down. In the 5th and 6th centuries Saxons, Angles and Jutes from Germany and Denmark invaded southern and eastern England and gradually conquered most of England.
In 596 Pope Gregory sent a party of about 40 men led by Augustine to Kent. They arrived in 597.
Aethelberht permitted the monks to preach and in time he was converted. Furthermore his nephew, Saeberht, the king of Essex was also converted. (The king of Kent was married to a Christian princess named Berta. It may have been partly due to her influence that Kent was converted to Christianity).
Meanwhile in 627 King Edwin of Northumbria (the North of England) and all his nobles were baptised. (He may have been influenced by his wife, Ethelburgh, who was a Christian). Most of his subjects followed. A man named Paulinius became the first Anglo Saxon Bishop of York. Paulinius also began converting the kingdom of Lindsey (Lincolnshire).
However things did not go smoothly in Northumbria. King Edwin was killed at the battle of Hatfield in 632 and afterwards most of Northumbria reverted to paganism. They had to be converted all over again by Celtic monks from Scotland.
Further south in 630 a Christian called Sigeberht became King of East Anglia. He asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to send men to help convert his people. Meanwhile Pope Honorious sent a man named Birinus to convert the West Saxons (who lived in Hampshire).
Missionaries also preached in the kingdom of Mercia (The Midlands) In 653 King Paeda of Merica was converted and baptised and gradually the realm was converted.
The last part of England to be converted to Christianity was Sussex. It was converted after 680 by St. Wilfrid.
Finally by the end of the 7th century all of England was at least nominally Christian. However some people continued to secretly worship the old pagan gods as late as the 8th century.
THE VIKINGS IN ENGLAND
In 787 three Danish ships landed at Dorset. A royal official called a reeve went to meet them. He assumed the strangers had come to trade. Instead they killed him and sailed away.
Then in 793 when Norsemen (possibly Norwegians) raided a monastery at Lindisfarne. There followed a respite until 835 when the Danes descended on the Isle of Sheppey.
However although the Viking raiders were fearsome they were not invincible. In 836 the Danes joined forces with the Celts of Cornwall. However they were defeated by Egbert, King of Wessex, at Hingston Down.
Nevertheless the Danes continued raiding England. In 840 a force of Saxons from Hampshire crushed a Danish force at Southampton. However the same year Saxons from Dorset were defeated by the Danes at Portland.
In 841 the Danes ravaged Kent, East Anglia and what is now Lincolnshire. In 842 they sacked Southampton. Further Viking raids occurred in 843 and 845. In the latter year the Saxons defeated the Danes in a battle at the mouth of the River Parret in Somerset.
Then in 850-51 the Vikings spent the winter of the Isle of Thanet. In the spring they attacked the Mercians and defeated them in battle. However they were later defeated by an army from Wessex.
In 854 another Danish force wintered on the Isle of Sheppey before raiding England.
There then followed a relatively peaceful period in which the Vikings raided England only once.
However the Danes eventually stopped raiding and turned to conquest. In the autumn of 865 an army of Danes landed in East Anglia. In the following year, 866, they captured York. The Northumbrians attacked the Vikings occupying York in 867 but they were defeated. The Danes then installed a man named Egbert as puppet ruler of Northumbria.
The Danes then marched south and they spent the winter of 867 in Nottingham. In 869 they marched to Thetford in East Anglia. In the spring of 870 they crushed an army of East Anglians.
The Danes were now in control of Northumbria, part of Mercia and East Anglia. They then turned their attention to Wessex. At the end of 870 they captured Reading. The men of Wessex won a victory at Ashdown. However the Danes then won two battles, at Basing and at an unidentified location.
Then in the spring of 871 Alfred became king of Wessex. He became known as Alfred the Great. The Saxons and the Danes fought several battles during 871 but the Danes were unable to break Saxon resistance so they made a peace treaty and the Danes turned their attention to the other parts of England.
In 873 they attacked the unoccupied part of Mercia. The Mercian king fled and was replaced by a puppet ruler. Afterwards Wessex remained the only independent Saxon kingdom.
In 875 a Danish army invaded Wessex again. However they were unable to conquer Wessex so in 877 they withdrew to Gloucester. In 878 they launched a surprise attack on Chippenham. King Alfred was forced to flee and hide in the marshes of Atheleney. Alfred fought a guerrilla war for some months then took on the Danes in battle. The Danes were routed at the battle of Edington. Afterwards Guthrum, the Danish leader, and his men were baptised and made a treaty with Alfred. They split southern and central England between them. Guthrum took London, East Anglia and all the territory east of the old Roman road, Watling Street. Later this Danish kingdom became known as the Danelaw. Alfred took the land west of Watling Street and southern England. However in 886 Alfred’s men captured London.
A statue of King Alfred in Winchester
Moreover the wars with the Danes were not over. In 892 some Danes who had been attacking France turned their attention to Kent. In 893 the Anglo Saxons defeated them and they withdrew into Essex (part of the Danelaw). Meanwhile in 893 another group of Danes sailed to Devon and laid siege to Exeter. They withdrew in 894. They sailed to Sussex and landed near Chichester. This time the local Saxons marched out and utterly defeated them in battle.
War with the Danes continued in 895-896. Danes from the Danelaw marched into what is now Shropshire but they were forced to withdraw.
There then followed a few years of peace.
To read more about the Vikings click here.
During his reign Alfred reorganised the defence of his realm. He created a fleet of ships to fight the Danes at sea. (It was the first English navy). He also created a network of forts across his kingdom called burhs. Finally Alfred died in 899. And he was succeeded by his son Edward.
LATE ANGLO SAXON ENGLAND
In the mid-9th century there were 4 Saxon kingdoms, Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex. By the end of the century there was only one left, Wessex. In the 10th century Wessex gradually expanded and took over all the Danish territory. So a single united England was created.
The process began under King Edward. The treaty of Wedmore in 879 gave King Alfred control over western Mercia. In time the people merged with the people of Wessex. Meanwhile in 915-918 King Egbert defeated the Danes of Eastern England. He took control of all England south of the River Humber.
By 954 all of England was ruled by Alfred the Great’s descendants.
In the late 10th century England enjoyed a respite from Danish raids. England was peaceful although a young king, Edward, was murdered at Corfe in Dorset in 978. His brother Aethelred replaced him.
Despite this in the late 10th century there was a religious revival. A man named Dunstan (c.1020-1088) was Archbishop of Canterbury. He reformed the monasteries. Many new churches and monasteries were built.
Then in 980 the Danes returned. They attacked Thanet, Southampton and Cheshire. In 981 they raided Devon and Cornwall and in 983 they attacked Dorset.
The Danes continued to raid England. They returned in 991, 992, 993 and 994. In 997 a Danish army came and systematically raided southern England over a period of 3 years. The Danes sailed to Normandy in 1001 but they returned to England in 1002.
A Saxon church in Chichester
Meanwhile in 1002 King Aethelred married the sister of the Duke of Normandy. This was the beginning of Norman influence in Anglo Saxon England.
Afterwards the Danes continued to raid England. In 1003 they raided the southwest and in 1004 they plundered East Anglia. In 1006 they raided southeast England. In 1009-1012 they ravaged eastern England.
The Anglo Saxons paid the Danes to stop raiding and return home. However the amount the Danes demanded increased each time. In 991 they were paid 10,000 pounds to go home. In 1002 they were paid 24,000 pounds in 1007 they were paid 36,000 pounds. England was drained of its resources by paying these huge sums of money called Danegeld (Dane gold).
King Aethelred or Ethelred also, stupidly, enraged the Danes by ordering the massacre of Danes living in his realm. He was persuaded they were plotting against him and he ordered his people to kill them on 13 November (St Brice’s Day) 1002. This terrible crime, the St Brice’s Day Massacre ensured that the Danes had a personal hostility towards him.
Eventually the Danes turned to conquest. In 1013 the Danish king Swein invaded England. His fleet sailed up the Humber and along the Trent to Gainsborough and the people of northern England welcomed him. Swein marched south and captured more and more of England so King Ethelred fled abroad. The English accepted Swein as king but he died in February 1014.
Incredibly some of the English invited Ethelred back (provided he agreed to rule more justly). When he arrived the Danes withdrew.
However they were soon back. In 1015 Swein’s son Canute or Cnut led an expedition to England. They landed at Poole Harbour and occupied southern England. Ethelred finally died in April 1016.
There was then a struggle between Canute and Ethelred’s son Edmund, known as Edmund Ironside. The people of the Danelaw accepted Canute as king but London supported Edmund. England was split between the two contestants. They fought at Ashingdon in Essex. Canute won the battle but he was not strong enough to capture all of England. Instead he made peace with Edmund. Canute took the north and midlands while Edmund took the south. However Edmund conveniently died in November 1016 and Canute became king of all England.
Canute turned out to be a good king. Under him trade grew rapidly and England became richer. When Canute died in 1035 England was stable and prosperous.
Canute divided England into four Earldoms, Northumbria, East Anglia, Mercia and Wessex. Each earl was very powerful.
Unfortunately after Canute's death there were seven years of fighting over who would rule England.
Then in 1042 Edward, known as Edward the Confessor became king. During his reign, which lasted until 1066 England grew increasingly prosperous. Trade grew and English towns flourished. England was stable and well governed. Edward also built Westminster Abbey.
However Edward's mother was Norman and Norman influence was increasing in England. The next king, Harold, was to be the last Saxon king.
Edward the Confessor died without leaving an heir. William Duke of Normandy claimed that Edward once promised him he would be the next king of England. He also claimed that Harold had sworn an oath to support him after Edward’s death. If Harold ever swore such an oath it was only because he had been shipwrecked off the Norman coast and was coerced into swearing an oath.
In Anglo Saxon times the crown wasn’t necessarily hereditary. A body of men called the Witan played a role in choosing the next king. Nobody could become king without the Witan’s support. In January 1066, after Edward's death, the Witan chose Harold, Earl of Wessex, to be the next king. Duke William of Normandy would have to obtain the crown by force.
THE END OF ANGLO SAXON ENGLAND
However William was not the only contestant for the throne. Harald Hardrada, king of Norway, also claimed it. He sailed to Yorkshire with 10,000 men in 300 ships. The Earls of Northumbria and Mercia attacked him but they were defeated. However King Harold marched north with another army. He took the Norwegians by surprise and routed them at Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066. That ended any threat from Norway.
Meanwhile the Normans built a fleet of ships to transport their men and horses across the Channel. They landed in Sussex at the end of September. the Normans then plundered English farms for food. They also burned houses.
Harold rushed to the south coast. He arrived with his men on 13 October.
The Anglo Saxon army was made up of the house-carles, the king's bodyguard. They fought on foot with axes. They wore coats of chain mail called hauberks. Kite shaped shields protected them. However most Anglo Saxon soldiers had no armour only axes and spears and round shields. They fought on foot. Their normal tactic was to form a 'shield-wall' by standing side by side. However the Anglo Saxons had no archers.
The Norman army was much more up to date. Norman knights fought on horseback. They wore chain mail and carried kite shaped shields. They fought with lances, swords and maces. Some Normans fought on foot protected by chain mail, helmets and shields. The Normans also had a force of archers.
The battle of Hastings was fought on 14 October 1066. The Anglo Saxons were assembled on Senlac Hill. The Normans formed below them. Both armies were divided into 3 wings. William also divided his army into 3 ranks. At the front were archers, in the middle soldiers on foot then mounted knights.
The Norman archers advanced and loosed their arrows but they had little effect. The foot soldiers advanced but they were repulsed. The mounted knights then charged but they were unable to break the Anglo Saxon shield wall. Then the Anglo Saxons made a disastrous mistake. Foot soldiers and knights from Brittany fled. Some of the Anglo Saxons broke formation and followed them. The Normans then turned and attacked the pursuing Anglo Saxons. They annihilated them. According to a writer called William of Poitiers the Anglo Saxons made the same mistake twice. Seeing Normans flee for a second time some men followed. The Normans turned and destroyed them.
The battle was now lost. Harold was killed with all his housecarles. The surviving Saxons melted away. William captured Dover and Canterbury. Finally he captured London and he was crowned king of England on 25 December 1066. The Anglo Saxon era was over.
Everyday life in Anglo Saxon England
A History of Roman Britain
A History of England in the Middle Ages