The Anglo-Saxons

Who / From Where: The Anglo-Saxons, made up of three tribes, the Angle, Saxon, and Jute tribes, were migrants from northern Europe who settled in England in the fifth and sixth centuries

Where: they settled south of Hadrian’s Wall, a long stone fortification, because they were lowland and were looking for farming land.

Anglo-Saxons lived in small villages near rivers or forests. Their society was founded on loyalty to the family or clan, and the centre of their communal life was the hall, which was the place where they gathered and swore loyalty to the chiefs in return for their protection.

For a long time, England wasn’t really one country – Anglo-Saxon kings ruled lots of little kingdoms across the land, each with its own royal family.

By the beginning of the 7th century the borders of the Anglo – Saxon kingdoms, known as the Heptarchy, or Seven Kingdoms, had formed. These were: NorthumbriaMerciaEast AngliaEssex, Kent, Sussex and Wessex

They continued without changing until 829, when the kingdom of Wessex became the most important.


While the Romans had introduced Christianity to Britain, the Anglo-Saxons partly reintroduced pagan values.

Pope Gregory I the Great decided to send the monk Augustine to bring Christianity back to England. This mission of Christianisation was successful. Augustine became the first Archbishop of Canterbury, which is still the most important role of the Church in England.

Consequently, England joined Europe’s ecclesiastical culture. The monasteries became important cultural centres, the Church educated the people and offered them efficient public administration.

In the monastery of Lindisfarne, the monks produced illuminated Gospels, a manuscript; these contain the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

In 685 a new monastery was founded at Jarrow where the scholar Venerable Bede wrote The Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

The Danes, Vikings

The Vikings, commonly called Danes, are people from Scandinavia that migrated and terrorized Europe from the eighth to the eleventh century. 

They left their homeland because they were looking for better places to farm.

They penetrated thanks to their strong and flexible long ships and their violent spirit

They are remembered for being crazed warriors, who attacked villages looking for treasure, cattle and slaves, but some of them came peacefully, to settle.

in 793 they sacked lindisfane, destroyed hundreds of manusript.

The name “Viking” comes from a language called “Old Norse” and means “a pirate raid”. The Norse had an alphabet made up of characters called runes. There are many words in the English language that come from Old Norse (window, ugly, happy…)

The Vikings were pagans, and Christian monasteries in Britain were easily conquered by the Vikings. 

They succeeded in conquering all England but Wessex, which was ruled by Alfred the Great. After years of fighting the Vikings and Alfred made a peace agreement: an imaginary dividing line was agreed to run across England. The Anglo-Saxon lands were to the west and the Viking lands, known as the Danelaw, were to the east. 

The most important city in the Danelaw was the city of York, or “Jorvik”. Many towns and cities in Britain that were founded by the Vikings end in -by, -Thorpe or -kirk.

Alfred the Great

Alfred was born in 849 and was the youngest son of Aethelwulf, king of Wessex. 

At the time, England was divided into several small kingdoms and Wessex was one of those, located in the southwest of England. Alfred’s older brother Aethelred became king after Aethelwulf, and when Aethelred died Alfred became king.

Alfred had to fight several battles against Danes. He reorganized the army of Wessex and built fortresses. 

He established his capital at Winchester and promoted education in his kingdom: he believed that all free-born English boys should receive an education and he set up a school at his court. He ordered the translation of various Latin works into Anglo – Saxon and encouraged the writing of “ The Anglo – Saxon Chronicle ”, a record of England’s early history.

In 886 Alfred went beyond Wessex and liberated London. All the English people who were not ruled by Danes then accepted him as king.

Alfred died in 899 and was succeeded by his son Edward. It would be his grandson Athelstan who would be called the first King of England.

In 1066, the Battle of Hastings changed the line of kings and queens in England completely. Harold Godwinson was crowned the last Anglo-Saxon king of England in 1066, but his rival, William, the Duke of Normandy, wanted his crown. At the Battle of Hastings, that took place on October 14, 1066Harold was dead and William of Normandy was the new king of England.

Anglo-Saxon literature

Anglo-Saxon literature was anonymous and oral. The poet, called a “scop”, entertained the noblemen in the halls of kings, often accompanied by a harp. 

The scop sang epics celebrating cultural values on occasions of great ceremonies and festivities. 

Many Anglo-Saxon poems were not written down until, in the 12th century, it was written down by church clerks. This was possible thanks to the programs of King Alfred and the Benedictine Revival. After their conversion to Christianity in the seventh century the Anglo-Saxons began to develop written literature; before that period, it had been oral. No poetry surely pre-Christian in composition survives. 

Main features of Anglo-Saxon poetry

The main formal aspects of Anglo-Saxon poetry were stress and alliteration. 

Stress: is the relative emphasis that may be given to certain syllables in a word, or to certain words in a phrase or sentence

Alliteration: is the repetition of the same letter or sound at the beginning of adjacent or closely connected words, 

Each line was divided into two halves by a break and has four stresses; alliteration was used to kink the two halves of the line.

Another important feature was the kenning, which is used in place of a name or noun.

Kenning: a two-word phrase that describes an object through metaphors.

The epic poem

Epic poetry is one of the main forms of poetry which tells the dramatic life and works of a heroic or mythological person or group of persons.

The major epic poems in the western tradition are the Iliad and the Odyssey, attributed to the Greek poet Homer, and later the Aeneid of Virgil and the Beowulf, written in Old English


·The hero in the poem is a figure of heroic stature or national significance. He is usually a warrior who faces opponents and performs courageous deeds that are valued by the nation.

·The setting of the poem is vast and could include land, seas, oceans, the world, or even the whole universe.

·It is usually long,

·Supernatural creatures such as gods, angels, or demons are introduced, and they play an active part in the actions of the heroic character.

·The style is elevated and the vocabulary very rich. Each line is divided into two halves by a break and has four stresses; alliteration links the two halves of the line.

·The poet tries to remain objective.

·The most used type-scenes are the banquet, the battle, the voyage and the funeral. 

·The society described is the aristocratic and military one.

The pagan elegy

The elegy is a lyrical poem, generally in the form of dramatic monologue, where an isolated speaker expresses his loss of friendship and favour and past splendour.

There are elements of personal experience and philosophic reflection offering a moving view of the human condition.

One of the favourite themes is the exile or ” wracca” which haunts the Anglo-Saxon imagination with its constant fear of a possible dissolution of the clan due to internal conflict or external attack. Outside the clan there’s a hostile world in which even the best men aren’t able to establish new relationships.

So, the main character of the elegy is the lone wanderer who is outside his natural context so that he becomes vulnerable.

In the elegy there’s a melancholic mood given by a vivid and descriptive language while the oral aspect is underlined by the frequent use of alliteration.