Who did the Anglo-Saxons think they were?

19 mins read

Exploring identity in early medieval England

How did the Anglo-Saxons see themselves? Bede suggests that Kent was settled by the Jutes, and the area’s 5th-/6th-century inhabitants wore jewellery reinforcing this claim, such as these gold ‘bracteate’ pendants from women’s graves at Buckland, Dover. The one on the right may be imported from Jutland; the others are Kentish copies. [CREDIT: Canterbury Archaeological Trust]

In English history, the years AD 410-1066 are traditionally called the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ period. How far is this an appropriate description, and how far can that name also be applied to the inhabitants of early medieval England? More pertinently, how did these people view themselves? John Hines explores the evidence.

The current global situation is a sharp reminder of the virtues and value of goodwill and responsible cooperation by which everyone does what they can for others. Another constructive use of the total pause that the pandemic has imposed is to reflect on whether it is valid to include the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ within the category of seriously contested heritage (see CA 355 and ‘Sherds’ in CA 360).

The meaning of ‘Anglo-Saxon’, and its appropriateness as a historical descriptor, have recently been the subject of debate. Reliable and comprehensive factual information is clearly badly needed, and CA has invited me to explain what terms were used at that time. Compared with many other areas in the period, England is well provided with information. But that does not tell us everything we would like to know: the sources have to be evaluated, and interpreted in models of how group and political identities developed and were expressed.

The criticism that the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ period (c.410-1066) was ‘too long and too diverse’ to be treated as a unit will apply to any major archaeological period from the Palaeolithic to the Modern, anywhere. Nor is it relevant that the area concerned was politically heterogeneous for most of that time. Political nationhood is far from the only form of identity to respect.


There is no single ‘true’ name for the population of the area that, by 1066, had evolved over more than six centuries into the kingdom of England. The inhabitants were diverse in origin and situation. Most people have multiple identities, with different aspects relevant to different contexts. It was certainly significant to someone living in Fife or Moray in the 8th century that they belonged to a particular community which imposed a role, expectations, and conventions on them. But it may never have concerned them that their group was known to its Old English- and Gaelic-speaking neighbours as Peohtas or Cruithne – and whatever its name was in Pictish (see CA 364). That does not make any of those identities false.

Just after 730, the Venerable Bede collated and effectively set in stone traditions that the English population (gens Anglorum) traced its origins to settlers from three ‘peoples’, of whom Angles and Saxons occupied the larger part of England, while Jutes settled in Kent and around the Solent. Archaeology shows that southern and eastern England were subject to massive influence from different areas in northern Germany in the 5th and 6th centuries. What that means in terms of levels of migration and the dynamics of colonisation has long been (rather fruitlessly) debated; modern laboratory study of isotopes and DNA in human skeletal remains will soon provide much fuller information about demographic history. There was also substantial input from other sources, including indigenous cultures, in the creation of new norms of material life in Britain, while the division between the Anglian and Saxon areas was a broad transitional zone, not a sharp breakline.

The division of England into three primary zones based on the most conspicuous costume fittings worn by women then, and coinciding strongly with Bede’s idea of Anglian, Saxon, and Jutish zones. [CREDIT: John Hines, based on analysis by Karen Høilund Nielsen]

Bede uses the term Angli in two senses: of ‘Angles’, but also for ‘the English’ as a whole. The context is usually unambiguous. When quoting Old English place-names, Bede consistently identifies them as Anglian or Saxon according to where they are. Not so in Kent. Some have stated, not entirely light-heartedly, that ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is inappropriate because it excludes the Jutes. But there is a significant point here: although people in Kent maintained the belief that they were of Jutish descent, and reasserted that by copying Jutlandic gold bracteates in the 6th century, they seem never to have called themselves ‘Jutes’ in the same way as Angles and Saxons self-identified in England. The names – Cantware, Wihtware, and Meonware – took ancient area-names and added a Germanic suffix meaning ‘people’.

In the Celtic languages of Britain, ‘Saxon’ was the root adopted for a general name for the English – Saesonin Welsh; Sassannaich in Gaelic. The Old English preference for Engle (from Germanic Angli-) may be explained by the fact that there was no longer a population on the Continent calling itself ‘Anglian’. Because of contemporary missionary projects, Bede was well informed about the populations of that part of Europe in his day, and knew of no such group. He therefore inferred that their German homeland, Angeln, had been deserted.

But there was still a major group in northern Germany identified as ‘Saxon’; Bede refers to them as Old Saxons (antiqui Saxones). By the late 8th century, Continental Latin sources show that Angli and Saxones were being compounded to differentiate between England and Saxony in phrases and words such as Anglorum Saxonia (‘the Saxony of the English’) and Anglisaxones (‘Anglo-Saxons’). The terms also joined naturally in an ‘either/or or both’ expression. When Bishop Willibald – based in Bavaria, but originally from Wessex – recorded the Old English name for London, he described it in this way: Anglorum Saxonumque vocabulo appellatur Lundenwich, ‘it is called Lundenwich in the name used by the Angles and Saxons’.


This was before the outbreak of the Viking period, which in the 9th century brought huge disruption to life and institutions in Britain. By the end of that century, the one surviving kingdom in England, Wessex, appears purposefully to have adopted this European term in official expressions of self-identification. The Welsh monk Asser, who joined Alfred the Great’s court in Winchester, calls the monarch Angul-Saxonum rex, ‘King of the Anglo-Saxons’, in his biography. For a king of Wessex now claiming sovereignty over all the English, a term that combined ‘Angle’ and ‘Saxon’ had real practical value. The term continues to appear regularly (but not profusely) in titles through to the beginning of the 11th century.

The prologue to Bishop Asser’s Life of King Alfred in a 16th-century copy of a manuscript that was lost in the 1731 Cotton Fire. In it, Asser describes Alfred the Great as ‘King of the Anglo-Saxons’ (the third and fourth words of line two). [CREDIT: Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge]

But it was not the only term generated then. Polities were typically thought of in terms of peoples, not territories, and an Old English term Angelcynn (‘Angle-kin’) was coined for ‘the English people’. The spellings show that the word’s origins were Latinate and learned. The earliest known examples are in a 9th-century Martyrology, where it is consistently used to translate gens Anglorum in the title of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. It occurs prominently in the earliest version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle from the 890s, and in Alfred the Great’s preface to the translation of Pope Gregory’s Cura Pastoralis.

Further back probably, and certainly from a different practical context, we can also trace the terms that have come down to us little changed as ‘Englishman’ and ‘Welshman’ (noting that, while society and its records were utterly male-centred, the element man meant a person of either sex). The earliest source is the law-code of King Ine of Wessex, which originated around 690, although these laws were modified over a 200-year period and the clauses in question are clearly additions. The same lexical template is used in other texts to identify Danes and Frisians. These terms typically appear in pairs or larger groups, contrasting different identities rather than being inclusive, and tend to be attached to lower-status individuals. Considering the practical legal context too, they probably reflect identity based on language, and were more colloquial in register.

The West Saxon court’s claim that Wessex, rather than Lindisfarne, had faced Viking assault first, is preserved in the Parker Chronicle entry for the year 787: ‘in [King Beorhtric’s] time three ships first came, and the reeve rode to the place, and desired to bring them to the king’s homestead because he did not recognise them, and he was slain. Those were the first ships of Danish men that attacked the land of Angelcynn.’ [CREDIT: Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge]

The name ‘England’ only appears surprisingly late. Sometime in the period 975-983 the Ealdorman Æthelweard referred to Anglia in a Latin version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that had first been compiled in the court of his great-great-great-uncle King Alfred. Around AD 1000, the profuse author Abbot Ælfric started using the phrase Engla lond (‘land of the English’), just, in fact, when spellings show that pronunciation of the word for ‘angel’, engel, had adopted the ‘soft g’ of the modern word from contemporary Latin. Previously, Engla lond would have been indistinguishable from ‘land of the angels’.

This illustration from the New Minster Book of Life represents multiple assimilations and shifts of identity: Cnut, the crowned King of England (Danish: Knútr), and his Queen Ælfgyfu (Norman birth-name: Emma; previously wife of Æthelred the Unready of Wessex), presenting an altar cross to the New Minster at Winchester. [CREDIT: British Library]

In both Latin and Old English sources, references to England become regular after the Danish rulers Sweyn and Cnut fought their way to the kingship. Following his conquest of 1016 (see CA 321), Cnut appears to have been – in the 1020s – the first ruler styled ‘King of England’, in a Latin formula declaring the extent of his empire: ‘King of all England and Denmark and Norway and some of the Swedes’. That the concept of ‘England’ was consolidated under a dynasty of international warlords who won power by military aggression hardly makes it an improper a term to use – but it is mistaken to imagine that the name had evolved in some organic way among the population. In fact, the contracted form England is the Norse name (as are Írland and Skotland).


Dusk on 14 October 1066 was nightfall on Anglo-Saxon England. But only political control changed hands overnight. England had then been ruled by Danish kings for more than half of the previous 50 years, and Edward the Confessor (1042-1066), although he was of the West Saxon dynasty, had been brought up in and thoroughly acclimatised to Normandy. Materially and culturally it was in the 12th century that a new ‘High Medieval’ period began.

During the reign of William the Conqueror’s youngest son, Henry I (1100-1135), a wave of interest in the pre-Conquest background of England produced important copies of Old English laws and substantial new histories – for instance, those of William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon, who used the older Chronicles as a source but frequently added to them. The author who had the greatest impact, however, was Geoffrey of Monmouth, who c.1136 used Welsh sources for his History of the Kings of Britain, our first substantial collection of legends of the British King Arthur and his knights.

Long-term, Geoffrey’s most influential move was to attribute the conquest of an ancient kingdom of Britain specifically to ‘Saxons’, and so to drive a wedge between the contemporary ‘English’ population and that past. Geoffrey conversely uses the term Angli to refer to the English of his time and their language (which also includes recording the name ‘Stonehenge’ for the first time). Historical references to Angli occur only where sources impose them, like the story of Pope Gregory’s mission to the ‘angelic-looking Angles’.

Geoffrey of Monmouth says this monument was called Stanheng by the English. Hencgen did not mean a circular ritual site but a frame of two uprights and a cross-beam. The word is used in religious texts for an instrument used to martyr saints; did the West Saxons associate the stones with their contemporary landscape of execution sites? [CREDIT: dtobias, Panoramio]

Meanwhile, the regular territorial name for England became Engle-lond in Middle English and Engle-terre in French. Engleterre is a French calque (a template-copy, not a translation) of either or both of the Old English and Norse variants. In the late 14th century, the major authors Chaucer and Gower habitually used Engelond, a three-syllable variant that was still probably encouraged by the similarity of its French counterpart. The shorter form England became the norm in the early 15th century, when English replaced French in government record-keeping, in the spellings of what is known as ‘Chancery Standard’. This established several Norse-derived northernisms as preferred usage, and the pronunciation ‘Ingland’ confirms that dialect background.

Thus the history of the names emphatically reflects cross-cultural competition for power and control, but in a very complex way. In an informed view, it is hard to see ‘Anglo-Saxon’ as inappropriate to the contexts to which it has been attached. Where a great deal has been set at stake, opinions worthy of respect must respect the integrity of factual evidence and not neglect relevant information and expertise.

This is article appeared in CA 366. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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