10 Fascinating Facts About Anglo-Saxon England that Will Impress Your Friends
10 Fascinating Facts About Anglo-Saxon England that Will Impress Your Friends

10 Fascinating Facts About Anglo-Saxon England that Will Impress Your Friends

Khalid Elhassan - April 29, 2018

The Anglo-Saxons established themselves in England in the 5th century, and gave their name to the country and to an era that stretched from roughly 449 to 1066. It was during this Anglo-Saxon period that the English language was first born, in the form of what we know today as Old English, and England as a country first came into being.

Following are ten of the most interesting things from the history of Anglo-Saxon England.

The Anglo-Saxon Era Saw the Development of the English Language and the Creation of England

The Anglo-Saxons were a Germanic people formed from three different tribes: the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. Their settlements gave rise to future kingdoms: the Saxons peopled Essex, Wessex, and Sussex; the Angles East Anglia, Middle Anglia, Nurthumbria, and Mercia; and the Jutes established themselves in Kent. The Angles and Saxons got their names preserved in history. The Jutes, however, were treated like an unwanted stepchild or a third wheel, and their name did not get enshrined in history like that of their partners. Perhaps “Anglo-Saxon-Jutes” was just too much of a mouthful.

In the 300s, the Anglo-Saxons began raiding the Roman province of Britain. From raiding, they progressed to conquest, starting with settlements in the 400s, followed by outright warfare in which they defeated and displaced the native Romano-Britons. By the 500s, the invaders had conquered most of what is now England, which is named after the Angles.

10 Fascinating Facts About Anglo-Saxon England that Will Impress Your Friends
Anglo-Saxon clothing throughout the Medieval era. Wikimedia

The Anglo-Saxon period, from the mid 5th century to the Norman conquest in 1066, saw the creation of England. The Anglo-Saxons arrived as pagans, and reintroduced paganism to what had been a Christian Roman Britain. They began converting to Christianity in the 6th century, after which they experienced a flowering of language and literature, and developed one of Europe’s most vibrant and advanced cultures.

Starting in the late 8th century, it was the turn of the now-Christian, settled, and civilized Anglo-Saxons, to experience at the hands of the Vikings what their ancestors had subjected the Britons to. History seemed to be repeating itself, as the Vikings suddenly erupted with terrifying raids that devastated England, followed by a campaign of conquest and displacement.

By the 870s, the Anglo-Saxons seemed to be on the verge of following the Britons into near oblivion. They were saved by a strong leader, Alfred the Great, who rallied a resistance that halted the Vikings, then pushed them back in a reconquesta that eventually united the Anglo-Saxons lands under a single king. It was in that crucible of resistance to the Vikings that England was forged. The Anglo-Saxons would lose their independence following the Norman conquest in 1066. However, by then the outline of England as a country had already been formed, and would continue on as a going concern, under new management.

10 Fascinating Facts About Anglo-Saxon England that Will Impress Your Friends
The end of Roman rule in Britain, 383 to 410 AD. Wikimedia

The Anglo-Saxons Wrested England From the Romano-British

After the Roman conquest of Britain in the 1st century AD, they formed a province comprised of England, Wales, and parts of eastern Scotland, which experienced centuries of peace, stability, and prosperity. Roman troops from across the Empire were garrisoned in the towns, and many married local Britons. By the 4th century AD, Roman soldiers and their families in Britain numbered about 125,000, out of an estimated population of 3.6 million.

There were also thousands of Roman officials, businessmen, artisans, and other professionals, who descended upon the province, often bringing their families with them. Together with the Roman military, they formed a sizeable Roman core that transformed Britain and Romanized the native Britons. Hitherto Celtic in language and customs, the indigenous population melded with their conquerors to form a Romano-British culture.

While the bulk of Roman Britain’s population was rural, there was a sizeable urban population numbering in the hundreds of thousands, and the province’s capital, Londinium, had a population of about 60,000. Londinium was a cosmopolitan and ethnically diverse city, inhabited by Britons, as well as people from North Africa, the Middle East, the Rhineland, and the rest of the Roman and Mediterranean world.

Christianity arrived in the 3rd century. Saint Alban, one of its early adherents and martyrs, was beheaded in the Roman town of Verulamium, which was eventually renamed Saint Alban. The new faith caught on and spread like wildfire, and within a century, the province of Britain, like much of the rest of the Roman world, had become Christian.

Roman citizenship was granted to a steadily growing number of native Britons, and in 212, Roman citizenship was granted to all free men throughout the Roman Empire, and all free Britons became Romans. By the 4th century, Britain had been transformed into one of the most loyal provinces of the Roman Empire. Then the bottom fell out, when the Romans abruptly left the island, and told the natives to take care of and look out for themselves.

10 Fascinating Facts About Anglo-Saxon England that Will Impress Your Friends
Saxon warriors. Realm of History

The Saxons Were Brought to England as Mercenaries

As the Roman Empire came under mounting pressure from barbarians, the authorities had a correspondingly greater need for all the soldiers they could get to protect the Roman heartland. The province of Britain, for all its loyalty, was as far away from the Roman world’s most populous and wealthiest territory, in the eastern half of the Empire, as one could get.

In 383, the Western Roman Emperor, Magnus Maximus, began withdrawing Roman troops from western and northern Britain, and left local warlords in charge. This occurred at a time when the province was experiencing raids from Picts to the north, Scoti from Ireland, and Saxons from the continental mainland. The troop drawdown, which continued at a steady pace over subsequent years, led to a massive increase in the frequency and intensity of those raids.

By 410, the Romano-British had grown exasperated with the Roman authorities’ failure to protect Britain from attacks by increasingly bold barbarians. So that year, they expelled the officials of a Roman usurper, then wrote the emperor Honorius, seeking aid. Honorius, however, was hard pressed at the time by the Visigoths – who would soon sack Rome. His reply to the Romano-British, known as the Rescript of Honorius, told them he had no troops to spare, and advised them to see to their own defense.

Unfortunately for the locals, they proved incapable of uniting to govern themselves or organize a common defense. Of the barbarian raiders, the ones wreaking the most havoc and causing the most alarm were the Picts and Scoti, from Scotland and Ireland, respectively. So somebody had the idea of using one group of barbarians to fight off other barbarians, and a bargain was accordingly struck with some Saxon chieftains from the continental mainland.

It was an arrangement common in the Late Roman Empire and known as foederati, whereby barbarians were settled in imperial territory in exchange for military service. The Saxons were thus brought to Britain and settled in the eastern parts, in exchange for fighting off the Picts and Scoti. It did not work out well for the Romano-Britons, however. The Saxons, once they got themselves settled, liked their new land, and viewing their Briton hosts and patrons as soft weaklings who needed other men to fight for them, decided to help themselves to everything.

10 Fascinating Facts About Anglo-Saxon England that Will Impress Your Friends
Anglo-Saxon migration. Wikimedia

Saxon Mercenaries Seized England From the Native Britons

The Saxons had been raiding the Roman province of Britain throughout much of the 4th century. Then, in one of history’s worst “it takes a thief to catch a thief” brainstorms, the locals struck a deal to settle the Saxons on British soil, in exchange for Saxon promises to defend the rest of the province from other barbarians. It did not take the Saxons long to turn on the locals.

Much of what we know about the Saxons’ displacement of the Romano-Britons comes from De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (“On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain”), penned circa 510 – 530 by a British cleric, Saint Gildas. Another valuable source on the subject is the Venerable Bedes’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written about 731.

According to Gildas, the Saxons began by complaining that the Romano-Britons had skimped on the monthly supplies they had been promised. A conference meeting was arranged between Briton nobles led by a Vortigern, and the Saxons led by two chieftains named Hengist and Horsa, to resolve the dispute. However, the Saxons’ idea of resolving the dispute was to suddenly pull out daggers during the meeting, and murder the Britons. Only Vortigern was spared.

The Saxon declared that the locals had rendered the treaty void by failing to live up to its terms, and launched a massive onslaught that engulfed Roman Britain “from sea to sea”. Eventually, Hengist and Horsa forced Vortigern, whom they had reduced to a puppet, to enter into a treaty that ceded large swaths of southeastern England to the Saxons.

The Saxons were not content with those gains, however, and continued attacking the Britons. They launched a war of conquest that sought to seize the entire province, displace the local inhabitants, and replace them with Germanic settlers. The Saxons were joined by the Angles, from today’s Schleswig-Holstein, between Germany and Denmark, and Jutes, from today’s Jutland in Denmark, and Lower Saxony in Germany.

The onslaught lasted for 20 or 30 years, until the hard-pressed Britons won a crucial victory at the Battle of Mons Badonicus, sometime around 500. For some time at least, that stopped the invaders, who by then had overrun about half of what had been the Roman province. It was this period of warfare that gave rise to the stories of King Arthur, the heroic leader of legend who led the Britons against the Saxons.

While King Arthur is a figure of myth, archaeology does support a Saxon setback around 500. The pattern of Saxon settlement steadily expanding westward and replacing the Britons, suddenly reversed, and Briton settlements began expanding eastwards, displacing the Saxons and reclaiming previously lost lands. Thus, accounts of a major Briton victory sometime around 500 are probably true.

That stabilized the border between the Britons and Saxons, and their allied Angles and Jutes. For decades afterwards, the Britons held on to a region west of a crescent running roughly from Dorset on the English Channel to the Derwent River in Yorkshire, with salients jutting north and west of London, and south of St. Albans. For at least some undefined period, the Anglo-Saxons were also made to pay to tribute to the Britons.

The Britons’ reprieve proved only temporary, however. The Anglo-Saxons recovered, and resumed their expansion at the expense of the Britons, eventually conquering and settling nearly all of what is now England. The indigenous Britons lost their most productive lands, and their last independent remnants were pushed into the peripheral regions of Cornwall and Wales.

10 Fascinating Facts About Anglo-Saxon England that Will Impress Your Friends
Stained glass window in Worcester Cathedral depicting Penda of Mercia’s death in battle. Wikimedia

The Anglo-Saxons Divided Their Conquest Into Seven Kingdoms

The Anglo-Saxons created England and gave her their language, but England did not come into being as a country until several hundred years after the Anglo-Saxons’ arrival. In the meantime, they divided their conquered territory amongst themselves into small statelets, which eventually coalesced into seven major kingdoms that came to be known collectively as the “Heptarchy”.

The peoples of those kingdoms – Kent, Sussex, Essex, Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia, and Northumbria – shared a common language, culture, socio-economic conditions, and a pagan religion. However, the similarities did not keep those kingdoms from being fiercely independent, jealously guarding their own prerogatives, and seeking gains at their neighbors’ expense.

At first, the Anglo-Saxons were focused upon their common enemy, the indigenous Britons, and exerted their energies towards further conquests and expansion at the natives’ expense. Once the initial wave of conquests slowed down, and the borders with the Britons had stabilized, the kingdoms of the Heptarchy began vying amongst themselves for dominance.

Warring against each other became something of a national pastime amongst the Anglo-Saxons, until a king Penda of Mercia (reigned 626 – 655) emerged as the fiercest and of the competing warrior kings. One of the last pagan Anglo-Saxon kings, Penda defeated and personally killed some of his rival kings, and sacrificed the Christian king Oswald of Northumbria to the pagan god Woden.

Penda gave rise to a period known as “The Mercian Supremacy”, during which Mercia dominated the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, without uniting the various kingdoms into a single entity, however. That unification would not arrive until more than a century later, when the catastrophe of the Viking descent upon the Anglo-Saxons, and the resistance it engendered, forged what would become “England”.

10 Fascinating Facts About Anglo-Saxon England that Will Impress Your Friends
Augustine before Ethelbert and Bertha. Educational Technology Clearing House, University of South Florida

Saint Augustine of Canterbury Converted the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity

The Roman province of Britain had been largely Christian before it was overrun by the pagan Anglo-Saxons, whose conquered lands reverted to paganism. It was one of the few examples in history of a monotheistic faith getting rolled back from a territory in which it had gained a foothold, to be replaced by paganism. For more than a century after the Anglo-Saxon descent, the only predominately Christian areas in Britain were the lands still controlled by the indigenous Britons. Throughout the rest of the island, paganism was the dominant religious practice.

The re-Christianization of what had once been Roman Britain commenced in 565, when an Irish monk named Columba founded a monastery in the island of Iona, off the western coast of Scotland. That monastery began exerting a spiritual influence over the surrounding pagans, and Christianity gradually spread down the western coast of Scotland, and into northern Britain.

In 595, Pope Gregory the Great selected a Benedictine monk named Augustine, the prior of a monastery in Rome, to lead a mission of Christianization into the lands of the Anglo-Saxons. Augustine was sent to the kingdom of Kent, which dominated southwestern Britain and was ruled by a king Ethelbert, whose wife Bertha was a Christian. It was expected that she would aid the efforts to convert her husband and his people.

Bertha was the daughter of a Frankish king of Paris, and as one of the conditions of her marriage, had brought a bishop to Kent with her. Although a pagan himself, king Ethelbert allowed his wife freedom of worship, and the queen and her bishop restored a church in Canterbury that dated to Roman times. Thus, Christianity already had a toehold in Kent and the Kentish court when Augustine arrived in 597.

King Ethelbert allowed Augustine to preach in his capital of Canterbury, and within the year, Augustine had succeeded in converting the king. That led to the establishment of churches throughout Kent, and large scale conversions to Christianity. From Kent, Christianity spread to the neighboring Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in southern Britain. Augustine, considered an “Apostle to the English”, was later canonized as Saint Augustine of Canterbury, and is deemed to be the founder of the Catholic Church in England.

Farther to the north, a king Oswald of Northumbria asked the monastery of Iona in 635 to send a mission to Christianize his kingdom. Oswald had once been forced to flee Northumbria, and found refuge in the Christian enclaves of southwest Scotland. He converted, and determined to convert his kingdom upon regaining it. Iona sent him a monk named Aidan who could not speak English, but with the king acting as interpreter, the duo succeeded in converting the kingdom.

Oswald would eventually fall to king Penda of Mercia, when the latter rose to dominate the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. After defeating and capturing the proselytizer king, Penda sacrificed Oswald to the pagan god, Woden. However, Christianity had already taken hold in Northumbria by then, thanks to Oswald, who ended up getting canonized as a saint.

10 Fascinating Facts About Anglo-Saxon England that Will Impress Your Friends
Viking raiders. Learning History

The Vikings Nearly Brought the Anglo-Saxon Era to a Premature End

Anglo-Saxon England breathed a collective sigh of relief upon Penda’s death in 655. The era of widespread warfare ushered in by the Mercian king, was followed by one of relative peace, that came to be seen as an Anglo-Saxon golden age. It was a period of economic expansion, which produced a surplus that helped fund a growing number of monasteries – centers of learning in the early Medieval period.

In 669, the Archbishop of Canterbury founded a school in his city – the first school in England. The Venerable Bede would describe it about 60 years later as having “attracted a crowd of students into whose minds they daily poured the streams of wholesome knowledge“. Some of them, who survived into Bede’s own day, were as fluent in Greek and Latin as they were in their native English.

That and other learning institutions produced scholars and poets who wrote in Latin, and one of them, Aldhelm, pioneered a grandiloquent style that became the dominant Latin style for centuries to come. Anglo-Saxon scholars were the most highly respected throughout Europe during this period, and Bede himself was one of the foremost scholars and men of letters in Christendom.

The peoples of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had initially spoke distinctive dialects. However, those different strains melded into each other over time, and evolved to form a common language, known as Old English, which lent itself to an exceptionally rich vernacular literature. Examples include the epic poem Beowulf, and a collection of manuscripts covering the early history of England, known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.

Unfortunately for the Anglo-Saxons, the very prosperity and plenty that fueled their golden age would result in its sudden ending. Anglo-Saxon England’s wealth, and especially the wealth of its monasteries, would attract the covetous attention of Viking raiders. Erupting from Scandinavia in the late 8th century to terrorize Europe and the Mediterranean world, those seaborne raiders nearly brought the Anglo-Saxon era to a premature end.

What came to be known as the Viking Age began in 793, when raiders struck the great monastery at Lindisfarne, massacring the monks and seizing the riches. After generations of peace, the destruction of Lindisfarne was a shock probably equivalent to Pearl Harbor and 9/11 rolled into one. And unlike the US, the Anglo-Saxons lacked the means to strike back, and were unable to even defend their shores from further raids.

Anglo-Saxon England was wholly unprepared for the Viking onslaught, which, ironicallyy, was quite similar to the Anglo-Saxon onslaught upon Roman Britain centuries earlier. In the decades after destroying Lindisfarne, the Vikings continued raiding England, in assaults marked by a wanton savagery, and gratuitous destructiveness that terrorized all and sundry.

For decades, the raiders had always retreated after striking, wintering in their homeland before returning the following spring. By 850, however, they had had grown sufficiently disdainful of Anglo-Saxon resistance to overwinter in England for the first time, in the island of Thanet off Kent. They would repeat that in subsequent years until, in 865, they switched from raiding to outright conquest.

That year, Vikings gathered into what came to be known as “The Great Heathen Army”, landed in East Anglia, then marched northward into Northumbria. There, they established the Viking community of Jorvik – the first Viking settlement in England. The Anglo-Saxons were unable to invaders, and by 867, the Vikings had conquered what came to be known as the Danelaw – a territory eventually stretching from London and the Thames to north of York, into Northumberland. In 871, the Great Heathen Army, reinforced by a newly arrived Viking army known as the “Great Summer Army”, invaded Wessex, the last independent Anglo-Saxon kingdom.

10 Fascinating Facts About Anglo-Saxon England that Will Impress Your Friends
Viking raiders vs Anglo-Saxons. AliExpress

Alfred the Great and His Son Defeated the Vikings and Unified England

For centuries after settling in Britain, the Anglo-Saxons had divided their lands into disparate kingdoms, often competing and warring against each other. It took the invading Vikings, who extinguished some of those kingdoms outright and brought the rest to the brink of extinction, to unify the Anglo-Saxons into the single country of England.

That unification was conducted by Alfred the Great (849 – 899) and his successors. Alfred was the youngest son of king Aethelwulf of Wessex, who set up a succession whereby the throne would get inherited by each of his sons, from oldest to youngest. It was a departure from the usual system of primogeniture, where the throne passed from father to son, not from brother to brother. However, Wessex was facing an existential threat from the Vikings, and Aethelwulf’s system sought to prevent a child from inheriting the throne in such a dangerous time.

Accordingly, Aethelwulf was succeeded in turn by Alfred’s elder brothers Aethelbard, then Aethelbert, then Aethelred. In 868, king Aethelred of Wessex and his younger brother Alfred tried, and failed, to keep the Vikings’ “Great Heathen Army” from overrunning the neighboring kingdom of Mercia. By 870, Wessex was the last independent Anglo-Saxon kingdom, when it was attacked by the largest Viking army assembled to date.

King Aethelred and his brother, Alfred led the defending forces in a series of battles with varying outcomes. Victory in an opening skirmish was followed by a severe defeat a few days later, which in turn was followed by a brilliant victory in the Battle of Ashdown, January 8th, 871, in which Alfred played a leading role. Ashdown was followed by two defeats, king Aethelred died soon thereafter, and Alfred finally became king of Wessex.

The new king’s reign commenced inauspiciously, with two defeats. The second defeat in particular, at Milton in May of 871, was a bad one, and it smashed all hopes of driving the Vikings from Wessex by force of arms. Alfred was thus forced to make peace with the invaders, paying them a hefty sum to withdraw from his kingdom – which they did, by the autumn of 871.

The Vikings returned in 876, and Alfred was forced to make a new peace with them, whose terms the invaders soon violated. In 878, the Vikings launched a sudden attack which overran Wessex, and forced Alfred to flee to the marshes of Somerset. He led a guerrilla resistance, before emerging in May of 878 to rally the surviving Wessex forces and lead them to a decisive victory at the Battle of Edington. Alfred then pursued and besieged the Vikings at Chippenham, starved them into surrender, and forced their leader, Guthrum, to convert to Christianity.

In 885, Vikings from East Anglia attacked Kent, but Alfred beat them back, then went on a counteroffensive that captured London. That victory led all Anglo-Saxons not then under Viking rule to accept Alfred as their king – a major step towards the unification of England. London acted as a springboard and base of operations for Alfred’s successor, his son Edward the Elder (reigned 899 – 924). By the end of his reign, Edward had decisively defeated the Vikings, and extended his authority over nearly all of today’s England.

10 Fascinating Facts About Anglo-Saxon England that Will Impress Your Friends
Edmund Ironside. Wikimedia

Edmund Ironside Led a Fierce Resistance Against Danish Invaders

One of the last heroic kings of the Anglo-Saxon era was Edmund II, AKA Edmund Ironside (circa 993 – 1016), England’s king from April 23 to November 30, 1016. He was the son of one of England’s worst kings: the weak and vacillating Ethelred the Unready. The son was a vast improvement over his father, and Edmund proved himself made of sterner stuff than his predecessor. He earned the surname “Ironside” for his staunch resistance to a massive invasion led by the Danish king Canute – the one whom legend describes as having ordered the sea’s waves to stop.

Starting in 991, Edmund’s father, Ethelred the Unready had unwisely sought to buy off the Danes, who were then occupying northern England. To get them to stop their nonstop raids into his kingdom, Ethelred decided to pay them a tribute known as the Danegeld, or “Danish gold”. Unsurprisingly, all that did was embolden the Danes. Seeing that they were dealing with a pushover, they starting upping their demands, insisting on ever greater tribute payments.

Worse for Anglo-Saxon England, Ethelred had set himself up for extortion without getting anything out of his people’s gold. They Danes collected the tribute, and continued raiding and plundering England, secure in the knowledge that they had little to fear from its weak king. Finally, after over a decade of bankrupting his kingdom and beggaring its people with the high taxes needed to pay the Danegeld, Ethelred snapped. In 1002, the Anglo-Saxon king ordered a massacre of all Danish settlers in his kingdom.

Understandably, that massacre upset the Danish settlers’ kin and countrymen. The result was an invasion by the Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard, who conquered England in 1013 and forced Ethelred to flee to Normandy. However, Sweyn died the following year, at which point Ethelred returned, and with his son Edmund playing a leading role, chased Sweyn’s son, Canute, out of England in 1014.

Canute returned the following year at the head of a large Danish army, and proceeded to pillage and devastate much of England. However, crown prince Edmund mounted a fierce Anglo-Saxon resistance, which stymied the Danish invaders. When Ethelred died in 1016, Edmund, who by now had earned the nickname “Ironside” because of his toughness and tenacity, succeeded him on the English throne as Edmund II.

Unfortunately for Anglo-Saxon England, their heroic king’s reign proved short lived, as Edmund died not long thereafter, in weird circumstances that demonstrated that even if the king’s sides were iron, his bottom was not. On the night of November 30th, 1016, Edmund went to the privy to answer a call of nature. Unbeknownst to him, however, an assassin was waiting in the cesspit for the royal bottom to show up. When Edmund sat down to do his business, the assassin stabbed upwards with a sharp dagger, then made his escape, leaving the weapon embedded in the king’s bowels.

10 Fascinating Facts About Anglo-Saxon England that Will Impress Your Friends
Norman mounted knights attacking the Saxon shield wall at the Battle of Hastings. Ancient Origins

The Anglo-Saxon Era Ended in 1066, at the Battle of Hastings

Edmund Ironside’s assassination left the path open for the Danish king Canute to become king of England and inaugurate a short lived Scandinavian dynasty. Canute ruled until his death in 1035. He was then followed on the throne of England by his sons Harold Harefoot (reigned 1035 – 1040), and Hartachanut (reigned 1040 – 1042).

Harthacanut’s death in 1042 triggered a succession crisis, and a struggle for the English throne between King Magnus the Good of Norway, and Edward the Confessor, Edmund Ironside’s half brother. A wily Anglo-Saxon, Godwin, Earl of Wessex, intervened, and playing kingmaker, secured the throne for Edward the Confessor – the second to last Anglo-Saxon king – and became the power behind the throne.

Edward had grown up an exile in the court of the Dukes of Normandy, and was half Norman himself, his mother being the daughter of a Duke of Normandy. He thus had strong Norman ties and attachments, which would cause serious problems down the road and bring the Anglo-Saxon era to an end. Trouble began in 1051, when Edward’s reliance on Norman advisors led to a falling out with Godwin, Earl of Wessex. Godwin was banished and stripped of his lands, but he returned with an army and forced Edward to restore him to power.

After Godwin’s death in 1053, he was succeeded by his son Harold Godwinson as England’s most powerful figure. When Edward the Confessor died childless in 1066, Harold was crowned as king of England. The new king’s title was disputed, however, by his younger brother, Tostig, and by Duke William of Normandy. The latter was related to Edward the Confessor on his mother’s side, and claimed that he had been promised the English throne upon Edward’s death.

King Harold gathered his forces in readiness for a seaborne invasion from Normandy by Duke William, but contrary winds kept the Normans on the other side of the English Channel. It would be Harold’s brother, Tostig, who would strike first. Allied with the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada, Tostig landed with a largely Scandinavian army near York, in the north of England.

Harold, who had had been encamped in the south of England, waiting for an invasion from Normandy, led a forced march north to York, and surprised his brother and the Norwegian king by his unexpected arrival. In a hard fought battle at Stamford Bridge on September 25th, 1066, Harold won a decisive victory that claimed the lives of most of the invaders, including those of Tostig and Harald Hardrada. Of the 300 ships that had landed the invading army, only 24 were needed to carry the survivors back to Norway.

King Harold did not get to savor the victory for long, however: two days later, the Channel winds finally changed, allowing Duke William to finally land his army in southern England. So Harold assembled his weary troops, and retracing his steps, led them on another forced march back to the south of England, gathering reinforcements along the way as he rushed to meet the new invasion.

Harold approached Duke Williams at Hastings with about 7000 men – a force representing only half of England’s trained soldiers. Harold was advised to wait for reinforcements, but chose instead to offer battle immediately, in order to stop Williams from devastating the countryside. Thus, the Anglo-Saxons met the Norman invaders at the Battle of Hastings on October 14th, 1066.

The Anglo-Saxons assembled atop a protected ridge, where they formed a shield wall, with king Harold occupying the center of the line. However, their tactics and military doctrine, derived from their own Germanic tribal history and reinforced by generations of warfare against the Vikings who fought in similar fashion, were outdated. The Anglo-Saxons were an entirely infantry army, lacking archers and cavalry. Duke Williams had both, and that would eventually spell the Anglo-Saxons’ doom.

The battle commenced with mounted charges by Norman knights, which were beaten back by the Anglo-Saxon shield wall. However, a pair of feigned retreats drew sizeable numbers of Harold’s men from their battle lines into disastrous pursuits, that ended with the pursuers getting surrounded and destroyed. That thinned the Anglo-Saxon lines, and by late afternoon, Harold was hard pressed, when a random arrow struck him in the eye, killing him.

The leaderless Anglo-Saxons fought until dusk, then broke and scattered. The victorious William secured the countryside, then advanced upon and seized London. Now known as William the Conqueror, he was crowned as King William I on December 25th, 1066, bringing the Anglo-Saxon era to an end. The new king established the Norman Dynasty, and inaugurated a new era that reoriented England from the Scandinavian world to that of Continental Europe.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Sources & Further Reading

BBC History – Alfred the Great

Britain Express – Edward the Elder

Encyclopedia Britannica – Alfred, King of Wessex

Encyclopedia Britannica – Saint Augustine of Canterbury

English Heritage – What Happened at the Battle of Hastings

History Extra – 10 Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About the Anglo-Saxons

History Today Magazine, Vol. 49, Issue 10, November 1999 – Alfred the Great: the Most Perfect Man in History?

Realm of History – 10 Things You Should Know About the Anglo-Saxon Warriors

St. Columba Heritage Trail – Who Was Saint Columba?

Wikipedia – Anglo-Saxons

Wikipedia Anglo-Saxon Settlement of Britain

Wikipedia – Augustine of Canterbury

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