The Anglo-Saxons Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

With the end of Roman rule over the British Isles occurring with the withdrawal of the remaining legions by order of Emperor Constantine in 410 c.e., the local populations of Britain were left to govern themselves until the Angles and Saxons arrived forty years later.

Political Considerations

With the end of Roman rule over the British Isles occurring with the withdrawal of the remaining legions by order of Emperor Constantine in 410 c.e., the local populations of Britain were left to govern themselves until the Angles and Saxons arrived forty years later. The indigenous people of Britain;indigenous peoplesBritain were left without recourse to Rome for assistance. As a result of their successful invasion, the Anglo-Saxon peoples filled the political and social vacuum left by the implosion of the Roman Empire. Through their many kingdoms, the Anglo-Saxons established the political, social, and economic systems referred to collectively as the Feudalismfeudal system. Rather than being governed by the familiar system of oligarchy that would develop later, with its single king and numerous lords, dukes, and earls, Anglo-Saxon England had a complicated set of sometimes conflicting allegiances between local manor lords, known as Princip (manor lord)princips; regional powers, or kings; and seven overlords (kings of East Anglia, Kent, Lindsey, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex, and Wessex), who held the allegiance of the regional kings in their area.Anglo-Saxons[Anglo Saxons]Anglo-Saxons[Anglo Saxons]

A Freemenfreeman, a person who owned land and slaves, ruled over a small village and could move up in a number of ways. If freemen gained wealth, they could become Thegnsthegns. Thegns could attain higher status through birth (with the laws of Primogeniture;Anglo-Saxon primogeniture passing down the possession of large amounts of land) but also through service to the regional king. The companions Gesiths (gesiths) obtained their wealth and status by service to the king. In time, this latter group of royalty became manor lords and other Vassals vassals. These vassals became the landed aristocracy; their interests were primarily local. They evolved into magistrates and interpreters of the king’s law. The basic fact of political life, however, was that one freeman’s power grew through his gaining the fealty of less powerful freemen. Successful thegns could expand their influence by alliances with other vassals, through conquest of other thegns, and through intermarriage. This extended to kingship as well. During the sixth and seventh centuries, a king’s claim to his throne was usually based as much on the Patronage patronage he had built as on patrilineal descent and succession. In fact, patronage could lead to a more secure claim in the long run, as fictitious claimants to the throne were often numerous and having the backing of one’s vassals was a good way to ensure a long reign. It was not until Alfred the GreatAlfred the Great (king of Wessex) Alfred the Great’s reign over Wessex and Kent during the tenth century, just a century before the Norman Conquest, that a monarchy, with the backing of the Church and the military, brought about a more unified state.

The Sheriffs;Anglo-Saxonsheriff coordinated the links between political divisions known as the kingdom, shire, and hundred. He was responsible for justice and collected fees and fines for the crown. The shire had its own system, functioning under inflexible legal procedures. A smaller subdivision, the hundred (a term of Germanic origin), had military implications: It supported one hundred warriors and their families. King Canute I the GreatCanute I the GreatCanute I the Great (r. 1016-1035), a Viking, reinstated the laws of Edgar (962-963), Anglo-Saxons[Anglo Saxons];lawAnglo-Saxon Laws;Anglo-Saxonlaws designed to ease common grievances. Canute said that non-noble freemen, or PeasantsCeorlespeasants (ceorles), were the basis of Anglo-Saxon society and referred to them as “trustworthy.” Even Serfs serfs, the lowest element of society, had a Wergeld wergeld (a monetary value, literally, “man worth”). Although a serf was totally dependent on his lord, the lord could not, theoretically, abuse him. The serf could marry, could not be sold, and had to pay for the land he held subject to his producing food for the nobility.

Military Achievement

Warfare was a constant part of life in Anglo-Saxon England. Whether it was, as during the fifth through eighth centuries, warfare between vassals in quests for greater power, or, as during the ninth through eleventh centuries, warfare against an ever-increasing threat from the VikingsVikings, in many important ways warfare defined the parameters of Anglo-Saxon life. That said, characterizing the military arrangements of the entire Anglo-Saxon era is impossible, because it was constantly changing and took different forms in different shires, vassalages, and kingdoms. Early vassalage relationships revolved around warriors seeking out leaders who gave them the greatest chance for advancement.

Although the Bede the VenerableBede the VenerableVenerable Bede puts the Anglo-Saxon conquest[Anglo Saxon conquest]Anglo-Saxon conquest in 449 c.e., it was actually a process that began prior to Bede’s date and took more than sixty years before it was completely successful. As late as 516, Britons defeated the Anglo-Saxons at Mount Badon, but by that time the Anglo-Saxons controlled much of the southeastern section of the island. The changes taking place were not just military, though; in 597, the Anglo-Saxon king of Kent, ÆthelbertÆthelbert[Aethelbert]Æthelbert, invited Augustine, SaintAugustine, SaintAugustine to establish a monastery at Canterbury, beginning a very quick conversion of the island to the newly introduced religion. It did not take long for the new religion to impact warfare. In 642,OswaldOswald (king of Northumbria)Oswald, the king of Northumbria, fought PendaPenda (king of Mercia)Penda, the king of Mercia, in Oswestry, Battle of (642)battle at Oswestry, dying in battle and gaining martyrdom in the eyes of the Church. However, religion was not always the cause of conflict. The desire for military power was always present among the Anglo-Saxon kings. In 685, EcgfrithEcgfrith (king of Northumbria)Ecgfrith, the king of Northumbria, invaded Scotland, only to be defeated by an army of Picts under the leadership of his cousin. Henceforth, Anglo-Saxon power would remain confined to England.

In 789, a VikingsViking attack in Dorset marked the beginning of nearly three hundred years of continual raids and warfare between the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons. However, the Anglo-Saxon kings did not present a united front. In 829, EgbertEgbert (king of Wessex)Egbert, king of Wessex, already the most powerful king in southern England, conquered Mercia and forced Northumbria into submission. It would be Egbert’s grandson, Alfred, who consolidated the monarchy into a single institution over all of England. However, Anglo-Saxon hegemony was anything but sure. By the late 860’s, the Vikings had stepped up the level of the conflict, going from small raiding parties to a large invading army, taking York in Northumbria, and killing both the kings of Northumbria and East Anglia. By 871, the Viking army had engaged the armies of Wessex, under the leadership of their king ÆthelredÆthelred (king of Wessex)[Aethelred]Æthelred (or Ethelred) and his brother Alfred. Æthelred was killed, and Alfred became king. In 878, the Vikings took Wessex, forcing Alfred into hiding for eight years. By 886, Alfred had signed a treaty with the Vikings to divide England into two kingdoms, one Anglo-Saxon and one Viking. Peace between the two groups lasted until 937, when King ÆthelstanÆthelstan (king of Wessex)[Aethelstan]Æthelstan of Wessex retook York from the Vikings. Ten years later, the Vikings attacked Wessex once again. At the mammoth Battle of Brunanburh, Battle of (937)Brunanburh, Æthelstan of Wessex won a crushing defeat against the invading army.

In 1013, another Viking invasion army landed, under the command of the Danish leaderSweyn ISweyn I[Sweyn 01]Sweyn Forkbeard. Taking London, he forced the Anglo-Saxon king, Æthelred, to flee. Sweyn died the following year, seemingly opening the door for Æthelred to return, but he died two years later. The successor to the Anglo-Saxon throne, Edmund IronsideEdmund IronsideEdmund Ironside, made a truce with Canute I the GreatCanute I the GreatCanute, resulting in a divided kingdom again. However, Edmund died shortly thereafter, leaving Canute as king of all England. In 1042, Edward the ConfessorEdward the Confessor (Anglo-Saxon king)Edward the Confessor became king of England, beginning a period of increasing Norman influence.

When Edward died in January, 1066, the succession was in question. Harold IIHarold II (king of Wessex)[Harold 02]Harold Godwinson Harold, earl of Wessex, became king (Harold II) but faced claims from William, duke of Normandy, and Harold III HardradaHarold III Hardrada (king of Norway)[Harold 03 Hardrada]Harold Hardrada, king of Norway. In September, 1066, Harold Hardrada invaded England, defeating Harold II’s forces at the Battle of Fulford Gate, Battle of (1066)Fulford Gate, taking York, but later that month Harold II killed Harold Hardrada at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, Battle of (1066)Stamford Bridge, sending his army back to Norway. While Harold II was dealing with Harold Hardrada in the north, William the ConquerorWilliam the Conqueror (king of England)William of Normandy landed on the southern coast of the country, setting the stage for the cataclysmic Battle of Hastings, Battle of (1066)Hastings. On October 14, 1066, William’s Norman forces defeated Harold II’s Anglo-Saxon armies. Harold and many of his nobles were killed, and the Norman Conquest brought an end to the Anglo-Saxon era.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

The Anglo-Saxons employed a wide range of weapons, depending on their purpose, including spears, axes, missile weapons, swords, mail armor, nail armor, helmets, and shields. Spears;Anglo-SaxonsSpears and Javelins;Anglo-Saxonsjavelins were light, with long shafts and barbs on the tip. One would aim the device at the enemy and shoot the blade in his shield to limit the shield bearer’s movements. The thrusting spear (winged) was stronger, could be thrown a greater distance than the javelin, and would penetrate mail and padding.

The British Isles, c. 885

Most warriors carried a single-edged knife called a Scramasax (sword)scramasax. This was the symbol of a freeman; it served in everyday work as well as war, appearing in several varieties. The small hand ax Francisca (ax) (francisca) was an attack instrument used for close quarters. It had a heavy blade and did not travel fast. The intended could catch it and throw it back against the initiator of combat. Less favored, at least early on, were the Bows and arrows;Anglo-Saxons bow and arrow, whose major purpose was to hammer down the opponent’s shield. The Slings;Anglo-Saxons sling, although primarily a hunting tool, was used to attack unprotected parts of the body, such as the head. Later in the period, Swords;Anglo-Saxons swords began to serve as a mark of status and became the most prized weapons, especially those with well-decorated Hilts hilts. The pummel diverted an opponent’s sword. Neither opponent wished to hit the other’s sword, fearing that his own weapon could be broken or dulled. Swords could be used to breach armor, but their main purpose was to incapacitate the enemy by breaking bones and destroying internal organs. Shields made of linden, alder, or poplar wood were almost universally carried.

Although Armor;Anglo-Saxonnot all soldiers could afford it, the most common form of body armor was Chain mail;Anglo-SaxonMail;Anglo-Saxonmail, which was made by putting small links of iron together into sheets and then creating mail shirts that extended just below the waist and were short-sleeved. Later in the period, mail shirts became longer, reaching the knees and elbows. As the mail could stop the cutting edge of weapons but not the blunt crushing effects, a padded garment was usually worn beneath the mail shirt. Mail coifs, or headpieces, covered everything but the face.

Military Organization

After the beginning of the ninth century, the threat of invasion by the Vikings was an increasing reality for Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Military service had always been a part of the vassalage arrangement, but its particular forms varied greatly. By the beginning of the Viking raids, the forms of military service became more standard. Although there were still professional soldiers in service of the king and a good number of mercenaries, the basic military unit became the Fyrd (Anglo-Saxon army)fyrd, or army, which was constituted by drawing one man for each small-to-medium-sized unit of land. The particular arrangements were set out in the land-grant agreements that a thegn would have with his sponsoring lord, but normally each thegn was required to provide one fyrdsman.

Later, naval service was introduced on a similar basis. Larger areas, called ship-sokes, were required to provide sixty Sokesmensokesmen, or warrior seamen, and to pay for the construction and maintenance of a warship. During peacetime, fyrdsmen had to serve four months out of the year in order to keep a sizable military force on hand in case of raids and to act as a police force. By the early eleventh century, Canute I had created a small, elite band of soldiers called Huscarls huscarls. Although their relationship was still based on the feudal obligation, these professional soldiers lived at the king’s court and received pay for their services. Huscarls were well armed and heavily armored. As they constituted a small standing army, huscarls continued in service during peacetime, performing nonmilitary duties such as collecting taxes and witnessing royal charters.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

The fyrds’ Tactics;Anglo-SaxonStrategies;Anglo-Saxonstrategies, like their composition, evolved over the Anglo-Saxon period. However, some general comments are possible, especially about the later period of conflict with the Vikings and the Normans, about which more information is available. After the time of Alfred, when a truly national force became a reality, the English army consisted of various forces from the eolderdoms, shires, hundreds, private sokes, and personal forces of the king and nobles. Naval forces would have been similarly derived, including the king’s warships, private warships provided by eolderdoms, and ship-sokes.

The Hastings, Battle of (1066)Battle of Hastings offers a case study in the ultimate form of the strategy and tactics of Anglo-Saxon warfare. The front line of the English army consisted of the king’s huscarls. These were the elite warriors of the day and would have been able to blunt any advance by NormansNorman cavalry. However, many of them were cut down by Norman spears, and this shortened their lines, as they did not want to allow lesser soldiers to weaken their lines. When the fyrdsmen failed and began to flee, the huscarls closed ranks around the king, until Norman infantry and knights broke their ever shrinking lines, killing King Harold and ending the Anglo-Saxon era at the same time.

Ancient Sources

There are a large number of primary sources on Anglo-Saxon England, most prominently the Bede the VenerableBede the VenerableVenerable Bede’s widely published Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Bede) Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731; English translation, 1723).

In addition, the Knýtlinga saga[Knytlinga saga] Knýtlinga saga details Canute’s invasion of England in 1015-1016. AsserAsser (Welsh monk)Asser’s Life of King Alfred (Asser) Vita Ælfredi regis Angul Saxonum (Asser)Asser’s Vita Ælfredi regis Angul Saxonum (893; Asser’s Life of King Alfred, 1906) and Annales Cambriae (Asser) Annales Cambriae (c. 1200; Annales Cambriae (The Annals of Wales) in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 1912) cover wide swaths of life in Anglo-Saxon England, which largely revolved around warfare. The seventy-three-line poem "Battle of Brunanburh, The" (poem)[Battle of Brunanburh] “The Battle of Brunanburh,” which details the 937 English victory under King Æthelstan over a Norse-Celtic army, is contained in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, held at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.Anglo-Saxons[Anglo Saxons]

Books and Articles
  • Campbell, James. The Anglo-Saxon. New York: Penguin Press, 1991.
  • Giles, J. A. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger, 2007.
  • Harrison, Mark. Anglo-Saxon Thegn A.D. 449-1066. New York: Osprey, 1993.
  • Hindley, Geoffrey. A Brief History of the Anglo-Saxons. Philadelphia: Running Press Books, 2006.
  • Pollington, Stephen. The English Warrior from Earliest Times till 1066. Norfolk, Hockwald-cum-Wilton, Norfolk, England: Anglo-Saxon Books, 1996.
  • Scragg, Donald, ed. Edgar, King of the English, 957-975. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press, 2008.
Films and Other Media
  • Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxons. Documentary. Arts Magic, 2006.
  • The Dark Ages. Documentary. History Channel, 2007.
  • A History of Britain: The Complete Collection. Documentary. British Broadcasting Corporation, 2008.
  • King Arthur. Feature film. Touchstone Pictures, 2004.
  • Kings and Queens of England, Vol. 1: From the Dark Days of Anglo-Saxon Times to the Glorious Reign of Elizabeth I. Documentary. Kultur Video, 2006.
  • Living in the Past: Life in Anglo-Saxon Times. Documentary. Kultur Video, 2006.


The Franks and the Holy Roman Empire

The Lombards

The Magyars

The Vikings

Armies of Christendom and the Age of Chivalry

Crusading Armies of the West

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