|Anglo-Saxon is a collective term usually used to describe the culturally and linguistically similar peoples living in the south and east of the island of Great Britain (broadly corresponding to modern England) from around the mid-5th century AD to the Norman conquest of 1066. They spoke Germanic dialects (that eventually coalesced as Old English) and are identified by Bede as the descendants of three powerful tribes, Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. |
It is a matter of some debate as to whether the Anglo-Saxons represent a mass migration and complete displacement of the existing population of southern and eastern Great Britain, or merely an integration with it. Linguistic evidence (there is very little Celtic influence on the Old English language) is often suggested to imply a significant migration, although other explanations for this have recently been postulated, for example that Germanic languages are in fact ancient in certain parts of England, and so no Celtic influence would be expected. Genetic studies suggest that the aboriginal population were not, as previously believed, substantially displaced in southern and eastern Great Britain, although the amount of genetic input from the invaders is higher in some parts of England than others. The largest continental genetic transgression is found in the area of East Anglia and Central England (also possibly due to the significant Viking settlements in the area from 8th-11th C. AD) 
It is known, however, that Germanic auxiliary troops had been used for centuries by Rome. If Germanic garrison soldiers had retained their language and culture, this may have facilitated any migration. Over time the different peoples coalesced into a more unified cultural and political group. Perhaps under Offa of Mercia (reigned 757-796), and certainly under Alfred the Great (reigned 871-899) and his successors, a kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons existed, which developed into the kingdom of England in the 10th century, one of the main developments of Anglo-Saxon history.
The Roman Empire was under attack! Having no choice but to withdraw from Britain to defend the homeland, the Romans left Britain defenceless and the Saxons soon moved in. True Saxons were from Germany, but their culture included people from Denmark as well. All in all, they were a mixed bunch of Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Frisians and Franks and as the differences between them grew less, they became jointly known as the Anglo-Saxons. Once this happened, you were either Anglo-Saxon or English.
The Saxons lands were fairly poor and not being happy with them, they decided they needed more. So why not conquer Britain? Britain's main enemies at the time were the Picts from Scotland. Between them and the Saxon raids, Britain was having a devil of a time. The high king of Britain during this period was a man known as King Vortigen. In an attempt to protect what he had, Vortigen struck a deal with two Saxon chieftains, Hengest and Horsa. In return for protecting his land, the Saxons would receive land that they could settle upon and farm.
Saxons being the people that they were soon grew unhappy with Vortigen's deal and after building up a large enough force they conquered Britain completely. Horsa was killed in battle; while Hengest went on to found the kingdom of Kent. The complete domination of Britain didn't occur immediately, but over a period of time. It is said that by 815 A.D. when Egbert, King of Wessex won his battle, the Anglo-Saxon victory over Britain was complete.
After a peaceful Roman period, Britain was in for a shock! The Anglo-Saxons were not a peace-loving race and they brought much war and upset with them. After taking the cities available to them, they began to turn on one another, always fighting to gain land. Their main goal in life was to see what they could own or could gain from war, a Saxon king had to prove that he could fight and win battles. It was important that he be powerful and could protect his kingdom from attack. Anything less was seen as a sign of weakness, and any sign of weakness usually meant that a king wasn't a king for very long!
What the Romans had established, the Saxons threw aside. Britain once of Christian religion, now dealt with a pagan culture. Pagans worshipped nature, but rather than praying to their Gods for peace, Saxons prayed for success in battle. The fine buildings built by the great engineers of Rome began to fall to rubble and the magnificent villa system introduced by Roman culture disappeared completely. Perhaps the saddest part of Saxon rule was their lack of keeping records. Many were unable to read and write and there were few documents left behind for historians to treasure. Still, we see proof of their existence everyday in modern England, for with the coming of Saxon culture, they paved the way for many English villages that we know today.
Next Time - Life in Saxon Times.