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Anglo-Saxon England

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The history of Anglo-Saxon England covers the history of England from the end of Roman Britain and the establishment of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the fifth century until the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. The fifth and sixth centuries are known archaeologically as Sub-Roman Britain, or in popular history as the ' Dark Ages'; from the sixth century larger distinctive kingdoms are developing, still known to some as the Heptarchy. For most of this period England was split between areas controlled by the Anglo-Saxons and by the British. The arrival of the Vikings at the end of the eighth century brought many changes to Britain. Danish raiders attacked places throughout Britain but their later settlement was restricted to the eastern part of England, while Norwegian raiders (via Ireland) attacked the west coast of both England and Wales. Eventually the Anglo-Saxons gained control of the whole of England though there was a short intermission of Danish control. Relations with the continent were important right up to the end of Anglo-Saxon England, traditionally held to be the Norman Conquest.

Migration and the formation of kingdoms (400-600)

It is very difficult to establish a coherent chronology of events from Rome's departure from Britain, to the establishment of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The story of the Roman departure as told by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 12th century Historia Regum Britanniae is dubious, except as documenting Medieval legend. However it can be partially reconstructed from the other sources. The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Kent, Bernicia, Deira and Lindsey, it is usually argued, derive from a Celtic source, which could suggest some political continuity. The more westerly kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia show little sign of following existing boundaries.

Kingdoms and tribes in England and Wales at about AD 600.

The archaeological record of the final decades of Roman rule shows undeniable signs of decay, in stagnant urban and villa life. There are records of Saxon raids on Britain during the fourth century and a Count of the Saxon Shore was established with a number of "forts" around the south east coast of Britain. However, some scholars see these as trading posts where Saxons were established, rather than defences. Coins minted after 402 AD are rare, which suggests that there were no payments to the Roman Army. Constantine III was declared emperor by his troops in 407 AD, and crossed the channel with units of the British garrison. Constantine was killed in battle in 411 AD. In 410 AD the Emperor Honorius told the Romano-British to look to their own defence, yet in the mid-fifth century the Romano-British still felt they could appeal to the consul Aetius for help against invaders. Roman imperial control effectively ceased to exist, but a Romanised way of life may well have continued for several generations.

Roman Britannia seems to have broken up into a number of separate kingdoms but with an overall controlling council. Gildas relates that this council invited Saxon mercenaries to Britain to repel Scottish and Pictish raiders, and that the Anglo-Saxon conquest of England began when these mercenaries rebelled in consequence of their supplies and payment ceasing. Bede dates the Coming of the Saxons to 446 AD; but this is now doubted. A period of fighting resulted in victories both by the Saxons and British. Though one cannot be sure of dates, places or people involved, it does seem that in 495 AD, at the Battle of Mount Badon (Latin Mons Badonicus, Welsh Mynydd Baddon), possibly at Badbury rings, the Britons inflicted a severe defeat on the Anglo-Saxons. Archaeological evidence, coupled with the ambiguous source Gildas, suggests the Anglo-Saxon migration was temporarily stemmed. In the sixth century there was another Saxon landing in the Southampton area, with a further Saxon advance into the Cotswolds and Chilterns. In the seventh century the Saxons gained control of South-west England apart from Cornwall, the latter not coming under their full control until the tenth century. Although generally known to the British as "Saxons", there were other tribes who came to Britain, including Angles, Frisians and Jutes. The Saxons probably gave their name to Essex, Middlesex, Sussex and Wessex. The Angles were in East Anglia, Mercia, Bernicia and Deira, while the Jutes were in Kent and the Isle of Wight. There are records of Angles returning from Britain to Germany in the sixth century.

Archaeological finds show that the earliest "Saxon" artifacts are in the east of England, rather than in Kent as suggested by the historical documents. There are also early artifacts in the upper Thames valley. These have been interpreted as belonging to mercenaries of British kings. Gildas says that there was a period of civil war between the British. There were also wars between the various Saxon proto-states.

From the fifth century, Britons had migrated across the English Channel and started to settle in the large western peninsula ( Armorica) of Gaul (France), forming what is now Brittany. There seem to have been later phases of migration from Devon and Cornwall. Others migrated to northern Spain ( Britonia). The migration of the British to the continent and the Anglo-Saxons to Britain should be considered in the context of wider European migrations. However, some doubt, based on genetic and archaeological work, has been cast on the extent of Anglo-Saxon migration to Britain.

Heptarchy and Christianisation (600-800)

Britain about the year 802, showing the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in red/orange and the Celtic kingdoms in green.

Christianisation of Anglo-Saxon England began around AD 600, influenced by Celtic Christianity from the northwest and by the Roman Catholic Church from the southeast. The first Archbishop of Canterbury, Augustine, took office in 597. In 601, he baptised the first Christian Anglo-Saxon king, Aethelbert of Kent. The last pagan Anglo-Saxon king, Penda of Mercia, died in 655. The Anglo-Saxon mission on the continent took off in the eighth century, leading to the Christianisation of practically all of the Frankish Empire by AD 800.

Throughout the seventh and eighth centuries, power fluctuated between the larger kingdoms. Bede records Aethelbert of Kent as being dominant at the close of the sixth century, but power seems to have shifted northwards to the kingdom of Northumbria, which was formed from the amalgamation of Bernicia and Deira. Edwin probably held dominance over much of Britain, though Bede's Northumbria bias should be kept in mind. Succession crises meant Northumbrian hegemony was not constant, and Mercia remained a very powerful kingdom, especially under Penda. Two defeats essentially ended Northumbrian dominance: the Battle of the Trent (679) against Mercia, and Nechtanesmere (685) against the Picts.

The so-called 'Mercian Supremacy' dominated the 8th century, though again was not constant. Aethelbald and Offa, the two most powerful kings, achieved high status; indeed, Offa was considered the overlord of south Britain by Charlemagne. That Offa could summon the resources to build Offa's Dyke is testament to his power. However, a rising Wessex, and challenges from smaller kingdoms, kept Mercian power in check, and by the end of the 8th century the 'Mercian Supremacy', if it existed at all, was over.

This period has been described as the Heptarchy, though this term has now fallen out of academic use. The word arose on the basis that the seven kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, Kent, East Anglia, Essex, Sussex and Wessex were the main polities of south Britain. More recent scholarship has shown that other kingdoms were politically important across this period: Hwicce, Magonsaete, Lindsey and Middle Anglia.

Viking challenge and the rise of Wessex (9th century)

Britain about the year 886, showing the Danish kingdoms in purple, Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in orange, and Celtic kingdoms in green.

The first recorded Viking attack in Britain was in 793 at Lindisfarne monastery as given by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. However, by then the Vikings were almost certainly well established in Orkney and Shetland, and it is probable that many other non-recorded raids occurred before this. Records do show the first Viking attack on Iona taking place in 794. The arrival of the Vikings, in particular the Danish Great Heathen Army, upset the political and social geography of Britain and Ireland. Alfred the Great's victory at Edington in 878 stemmed the Danish attack; however, by then Northumbria had devolved into Bernicia and a Viking kingdom, Mercia had been split down the middle, and East Anglia ceased to exist as an Anglo-Saxon polity. The Vikings had similar effects on the various kingdoms of the Irish, Scots, Picts and (to a lesser extent) Welsh. Certainly in North Britain the Vikings were one reason behind the formation of the Kingdom of Alba, which eventually evolved into Scotland.

After a time of plunder and raids, the Vikings began to settle in England. An important Viking centre was York, called Jorvik by the Vikings. Various alliances between the Viking Kingdom of York and Dublin rose and fell. Danish and Norwegian settlement made enough of an impact to leave significant traces in the English language; many fundamental words in modern English are derived from Old Norse, though of the 100 most used words in English the vast majority are Old English in origin. Similarly, many place-names in areas of Danish and Norwegian settlement have Scandinavian roots.

An important development of the ninth century was the rise of the Kingdom of Wessex. Though not without setbacks, by the end of Alfred's reign (899) the West Saxon kings came to rule what had previously been Wessex, Sussex and Kent. Cornwall (Kernow) was subject to West Saxon dominance, and several kings of the more southerly Welsh kingdoms recognised Alfred as their overlord, as did western Mercia under Alfred's son-in-law Æthelred.

English Unification (10th century)

Alfred of Wessex died in 899 and was succeeded by his son Edward the Elder. Edward, and his brother-in-law Æthelred of (what was left of) Mercia, fought off Danish attacks and began a programme of expansion, seizing territory from the Danes and establishing fortifications to defend it. Upon Æthelred's death, his wife (Edward's sister) Æthelflæd ruled as "Lady of the Mercians" and continued expansion in conjunction with Edward. By 918 Edward had gained control of the whole of England south of the Humber. In that year Æthelflæd died, and Mercia was fully integrated with Wessex into a single kingdom. Edward's son Æthelstan was the first king to achieve direct rulership of the whole of England, following his conquest of Northumbria in 927. The titles attributed to him in charters and on coins suggest a still more widespread dominance. He defeated an attempt to reverse the conquest of Northumbria by a combined Scottish-Viking army at the Battle of Brunanburh. However, after his death the unification of England was repeatedly contested. His successors Edmund and Eadred each lost control of Northumbria to fresh Norse attacks before regaining it once more. Nevertheless, by the time of Eadred's successor Edgar, who ruled the same expanse as Æthelstan, the unification of England had been permanently established.

England under the Danes and the Norman Conquest (978-1066)

There were renewed Norse attacks on England in the final decade of the 10th century, coinciding with the start of the reign of Æthelred "the Unready". Æthelred ruled a long reign (in all, 38 years), but ultimately lost his kingdom to the Viking Sweyn of Denmark, though he recovered it following the latter's death. However, Æthelred's eldest son Edmund II Ironside died shortly after him, allowing Canute, Sweyn's son, to become king of England, which then became part of a Viking empire stretching from Denmark to Ireland. It was possibly in this period that the Viking influence on English culture became ingrained, although Vikings had been settled in the Danelaw (England north of Watling Street) for at least a century earlier.

Rule over England fluctuated between the descendants of Æthelred and Canute for the first half of the 11th century. Ultimately this resulted, by 1066, in several people having a claim to the English throne. The most powerful Earl in England, Harold Godwinson, claimed the crown on 5th January, within a day of the death of Edward the Confessor, and was confirmed by the English Witan. However William of Normandy, who was a descendant of Æthelred and his second wife Emma, and also Harald Hardrada of Norway (who invaded Northumbria in 1066, two weeks before the Battle of Hastings, aided by Harold Godwinson's estranged brother Tostig) laid claim to the crown. Another claimant, Edgar the Ætheling, was prevented by his youth from playing a large part in the struggles of 1066.

Invasion was the result. Harold Godwinson defeated Harald of Norway and Tostig at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in October 1066 (the death of Harald Hardrada and the massacre of the Viking army was such a devastating defeat that England was never again menaced by the Vikings); but he fell in battle against William of Normandy at the Battle of Hastings a few days later.

William began a programme of consolidation in England, being crowned on Christmas Day 1066. However, his authority was always under threat in England, where there were repeated rebellions until 1071. The little space given to Northumbria in the Domesday Book is testament to the troubles there during William's reign.

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