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Hundreds of years ago the people who lived in Britain belonged to several different nations. The people who are sometimes called the ancient Britons were not at all the same as those known as Anglo-Saxons, though many British people today are descended from both these races. Britain's name comes from the Britons, but the name England means "Angle-land", the land of the Angles.
Who were the Angles and Saxons, now known by the one name Anglo-Saxons? They were peoples who lived in the lands that are now Germany, and they and other people, among them Jutes and Frisians, first came to Britain more than 1,500 years ago. The reasons why they came are not fully known. It appears from early histories that as the Roman army gradually left Britain to fight against raiders on the continent, Angles and Saxons were employed in its place by British chieftains. They were to protect Britons in the south from attacks by northern Pictish tribes. In return the Angles and Saxons were given land, and, as they grew in strength, they rebelled. They gradually took over more land for themselves and drove the Britons away into the northwest, into Wales and Cornwall. According to tradition, among the earliest mercenaries were Hengist and Horsa.
In time, the Angles and Saxons settled down, and the land they had conquered became several small kingdoms, each ruled by a separate royal family. The names of the three most important of the small kingdoms were Northumbria, in the north of England, Mercia in the middle and Wessex in the southwest.
The rest of this article describes what life was like in Anglo-Saxon times, which stretch from about A.D. 400 to the time when William the Conqueror came from Normandy in 1066.
Life in an Anglo-Saxon Village
The houses of the Anglo-Saxons were usually made of wood, thatch and wattle, and daub. (Wattle is made with twigs woven together and daubed with mud or clay, which goes hard and makes a solid roof or wall.) Such materials decay easily, but the ground-plans of many houses have been discovered from excavations and it is possible to reconstruct their general appearance from written descriptions. The ordinary people probably lived in little oblong houses with steep roofs of wattle and thatch. Inside there was only one room, in the middle of which was the fire for cooking and keeping the family warm, with a hole in the roof above it to let out the smoke. The windows were just holes too, for glass was not used for windows in houses until a long time after this. The noblemen lived in greater houses, or halls, but they would not be considered very comfortable now, even though the walls were sometimes hung with rich cloths woven with golden thread and the princes drank out of silver cups. The lord and his followers had their meals in the hall off trestle tables, and when the tables were cleared away they slept in the hall too. The lady had a separate building, called a "bower", for herself and there were also separate buildings for the servants to live in and for kitchens and storehouses.
Although in some ways their lives were rough, the Anglo-Saxon kings and nobles used many beautiful things in their houses, like silver drinking-cups and bowls and spoons, and carefully made glasses. The bowls, pots and pans of the ordinary people were made of earthenware.
The Anglo-Saxons usually wore woollen clothes, the men wearing coats, long trousers and cloaks, and sometimes tunics down to their knees. Kings had belts with'gold or silver buckles, and everyone liked to fasten his cloak with a big brooch. The women wore long tunics and cloaks over their shoulders, with strings of beads made of glass and amber, and brooches, clasps and rings made of bronze.
Although the Romans had built many fine towns in England, the Anglo-Saxons seem to have preferred living outside than in villages or farms. The villagers worked at growing crops and keeping animals, for they had to provide all their food for themselves. They grew corn and fruit and vegetables, and in nearly every village there was a mill for grinding the corn. Cattle and sheep were kept on the common land belonging to the village, and pigs were kept in the woods where they could root about for the nuts they liked to eat. Bees were very important, too, for in those days no one had any sugar, so everything had to be sweetened with honey. Farmers and sometimes whole villages had to pay rents to their lord "in kind"... that is, with goods instead of with money. A village rent might include some oxen, sheep, geese and hens, barrels of ale, honey and corn, and cheese and butter.
Courts, Laws and Wars
An Anglo-Saxon king had a council or court, called a witan, which was made up partly of the young warriors of noble blood who served the king in battle and lived with him in his court, and partly of older men in official positions whom the king called together from time to time. Although the king would probably consult the witan about important affairs of state, he was not bound to follow its advice.
Two main ideas were very important in the Anglo-Saxons' laws. The first of these was that a man's loyalty to his lord or his king was just as binding as any law: a man was expected to obey his lord in anything, and in return the lord protected and was responsible for his men. If one was murdered, the dead man's family would appeal to the lord to punish the murderer.
The second important idea in Anglo-Saxon law was that a man's family and relations would support and stand by him in any need. If something had been stolen from him, he would get his family together to punish the thief. To kill a kinsman was the most dreadful crime a person could commit.
If a man was killed, a certain sum of money had to be paid to his relations by whoever was responsible to make up for their loss. The amount of this money, or wergild, was decided according to what class of society the man belonged to; whether he was a prince, or a landholder, or a servant with no possessions at all.
In wars the real fighting was probably left to the king and his noblemen and men who owned land; while the poorer people no doubt built stockades and bridges, carried stores and performed other necessary tasks. Anglo-Saxon armies had foot-soldiers whose main weapons were swords and spears, while for defence they carried shields and wore helmets and coats of mail. Helmets and shields and the hilts of swords were often beautifully decorated with carved patterns.
Religion and Learning of the Anglo-Saxons
When the Anglo-Saxons first came to Britain, they brought with them their pagan, or heathen, religion. Some of their gods are still remembered in the names of the days of the week : Tuesday comes from Tiw, or Tyr, the god of war; Wednesday from Woden, the king of the gods. Thursday from Thor, the thunder god; and Friday from the goddess Frigg.
In the year A.D. 597, however, the Pope sent missionaries from Rome, led by St. Augustine, to bring the Christian religion to England. St. Augustine and his 40 companions landed in Kent, where the king let them rebuild the little church at Canterbury which had belonged to the Britons. A little later, other missionaries came from the island of lona, off the west coast of Scotland. Gradually these missionaries spread the Christian faith through England. Churches were built and monasteries were set up.
The monks were the learned men of the time, for very few of the ordinary people then could either read or write. At first the only schools there were belonged to the monasteries and were for boys who were going to become monks. Many monasteries also had nuns who played an important part in teaching. King Alfred, however, wanted all free-born boys in England to go to school at least until they could read English writing. He started a school at his own court, but it was not until hundreds of years later that his dream of schools for all English children came true.
One of the most famous of the learned monks was the Venerable Bede, who wrote several books including a history of the English people.
Some of the books other monks wrote were histories too, but some were sermons, some were the life-stories of saints, some were poems. They were written in Latin more often than in English, but the Anglo-Saxons also had poetry in their own language. The best known poem tells of the deeds of Beowulf, about whom there is a separate article. Another old English poem describes the courage of the Anglo-Saxons at the Battle of Maldon. Poets and minstrels used to sing or recite the stories of brave warriors and noble deeds to kings and noblemen as they sat feasting.
Changes in Anglo-Saxon England
The Anglo-Saxons experienced many changes in their way of life between A.D. 400 and 1066. One of the earliest of these was the coming of Christian missionaries. Not everyone was converted at once to Christianity, however, and several powerful kings during this time were pagan.
All was not peaceful between the kingdoms either, and a great deal of fighting went on between them. During the 8th century one of them became very powerful and controlled many of the others in southern England. This was the kingdom of Mercia under King Off a, who called himself "rex Anglorum", or "king of the English", instead of only king of Mercia. He built a great dyke, or ditch, as a boundary between his lands and the lands of the Britons in Wales, and those parts of it that can be seen today are still known as "Offa's Dyke".
The Anglo-Saxons, who were invaders themselves, were later invaded by other peoples, called Vikings, or Northmen, or Danes. The Danes began by raiding the coast and going home with their spoils, but later they came to stay. Everywhere they went they brought misery and hardship to the Anglo-Saxons, and it was not until the greatest of the Anglo-Saxon kings, Alfred the Great, came to the throne of Wessex in 871 that anyone was able to resist them. King Alfred managed to drive the Danes out of his kingdom, and built fortified towns for defence along his borders. He also built and manned a navy to make his defence against the seafaring Northmen even stronger.
For a time after Alfred's reign the Danes were held back, but later during the loth century more and more of them came over and the plight of the Anglo-Saxons became more desperate than ever. Now there was no Alfred to defend the country, and in the end a Danish king came to rule over England. His name was Canute, and he became a wise and strong ruler.
After his death in 1035 there was no king as strong as he had been to follow him. His sons died soon after him, and another Anglo-Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, came to the throne. He had no sons, and when he died in 1065 Harold, the son of a powerful English earl, became king. His reign lasted only for a few months, for in the next year yet another invasion swept over England, and William, Duke of Normandy, was crowned king of England. The period of Anglo-Saxon history was over.