BY THE END of the 8th century, Britain's people, known as the Anglo-Saxons, had created a rich culture, which included masterpieces of jewellery, architecture, and literature. Originally these people had come
from northern Germany and southern Denmark, where they were known as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. In the 3rd and 4th centuries, these tribes travelled to various parts of the Roman Empire, including Gaul, or present-day France, where their influence was short-lived. They travelled to Britain in the 5th century, where they settled, and formed several separate kingdoms. Eventually the kingdom of Wessex became
the dominant power.
There was always a struggle for supremacy among the kingdoms formed by the settlers. Northumbria was the earliest one to dominate under Edwin
(d. 633). Then it was Mercias turn under Aethelbald (d. 757) and Offa (d. 796). Finally, Wessex dominated under Alfred the Great. When Vikings from Denmark attacked and occupied northern England, Alfred stopped them from pushing farther south, and the Anglo-Saxons reconquered the north in the 10th century.
King Canute the Great
By 1016, the Danes ruled all England under the popular Canute (c.995-1035). Canute's sons inherited England, but the Anglo-Saxon Edward the Confessor (c. 1003-1066) regained the country in 1042. He had no children and, when he died, an unsettled England was vulnerable to conquest by the Normans.
Cultural life centred on the monasteries and on the royal court. Alfred the Great gathered scholars and artists around him, and he himself translated many of the Latin classics into Anglo-Saxon, or Old English.
Anglo-Saxon churches, like the one at Earls Barton, England, often have square towers decorated with stone relief. This pattern may be based on timber buildings of the period, which have all perished.
Monks produced quality manuscripts. One monk wrote the work, while a
second illustrated it with figures, such as St Dunstan (c.909-988) kneeling before Jesus, and a third decorated it.
This jewel is inscribed "Alfred ordered me to be made" and may have belonged to Alfred the Great. The inscription and animal-head decoration are finely worked in gold; the portrait, perhaps of the king himself, is made of enamel.
In the 7th century, missionaries from mainland Europe, such as St Augustine of Canterbury, converted the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. The creation of monasteries meant that more people learned to read and write. Monks produced historical works, such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which today give insights into the events of the period.
In the ninth century, Alfred the Great ordered the Chronicle, a year-by-year account of the history of England. It covers the lives of kings and church leaders, military history, and major events, such as the Viking invasions, and was last updated in 1154.
Bede, an English monk and teacher in Jarrow, wrote A History of the
English Church and People, one of the most important sources of our knowledge of Anglo-Saxon times.