European Middle Ages
The Anglo-Saxons

   The Saxon invasion of England in the sixth century was part of a larger series of Germanic migrations that had begun several centuries earlier. These migrations saw the invasion of Rome by two major waves of Germanic invasions, the establishment of the first northern European monarchies, and then later the wave of Scandinavian raids and migrations that would produce the Normans, the Icelanders, and even the blindingly brief settlement of America by Europeans.

   According to English legend, the Saxons first came to England at the behest of Vortigern, the Celtic king of a loosely united group of tribes in southern England. In a classic about-face, the Saxon mercenaries imported by Vortigern to fight against Pictish and Scottish invaders soon turned against the Celts and began to aggressively conquer the south of England for themselves. In reality, the Saxon invasion of England was probably non-systematic as were most of the German migrations. Arriving sometime at the end of the fifth century, the Saxons soon overran most of southern England and pushed the Celtic nobility and some Celts into Wales, northern England, and Ireland.

   As the Germans did in other places, the Saxons established a series of more or less independent kingdoms throughout England. Never united under a single king, these independent kingdoms were often at war with one another or with neighboring Celts.

   Perhaps one of the most significant events in Anglo-Saxon history was the importation of Roman Christianity at the end of the sixth century under the mission of Augustine, not to be confused with the patristic Augustine of the fifth century. Augustine introduced episcopal Christianity to the Anglo-Saxons—this was the Roman form of Christianity which organized regions of people under a single bishop. The Anglo-Saxons, however, would also have monastic Christianity introduced into their culture by the Irish. This introduced Celtic elements into Anglo-Saxon culture in social organization, art, and literature and provide one of the strongest lines of inheritance of Celtic culture into European mono-culture.

   The Scandinavians began to raid England in the 700's and actively began to claim territory at the end of that century. Finding the Anglo-Saxons disunited, the Scandinavians made dramatic conquests and eventually controlled a large part of the north of England, the Danelaw. In the late ninth century, the Anglo-Saxons were united under the king, Alfred, surnamed "The Great" (871-899), and drove back the Scandinavians

   Alfred and his immediate heirs took on themselves the immensely difficult task of inventing a centralized government using political models that emphasized small kingdoms and local autonomy. This, of course, was the central political problem of the early and even the later middle ages—you might say that political history in the early middle ages is primarily about building centralized government off of highly decentralized government and political principles. Alfred set about this task by sponsoring Christianity as a culturally unifying political ideology, emphasizing education to incorporate the Anglo-Saxon world into a larger European culture, and by reorganizing the army.

   The difficulty, however, is that the model the Anglo-Saxons built eventually reproduced local autonomy and independence under a system of earls. In early Germanic culture, the "eorl" was a retainer of a king who was bound by oath and honor to protect that king. The economy of earldom was primarily reciprocal—the king owed the earl a series of obligations and the earl owed another set of obligations back to the king. Under the Anglo-Saxons, however, the earls were spread across a vast territory and given large tracts of land to administer, financially and otherwise. By the end of the tenth century, Anglo-Saxon England had degenerated into what was more or less a series of independent kingdoms, just as it had been in the seventh and eighth centuries. The Anglo-Saxon experiment with a centralized monarchy was, then, a dead end.

   The poltical disunity of the Anglo-Saxon monarchy allowed for the Scandinavians to reassert themselves in the Danelaw and ultimately led to the fall of the Anglo-Saxon monarchy to the Norman invasion of 1066. Because William, the Norman duke who led the invasion and seized the English crown, wished to assert his central authority, he destroyed the Anglo-Saxon earls systematically throughout his reign. Because of this, Anglo-Saxon domination of England came to an end as did, for the most part, Anglo-Saxon culture. The culture that would dominate England for the next couple centuries would be Norman—except for a couple sporadic exceptions, Anglo-Saxon ideas, art, and literature pretty much faded out of the picture. By the time English culture emerges as its own force in the larger trajectory of European culture, it is primarily a culture built off of French, Italian, and classical models with very little of its Anglo-Saxon and Celtic backgrounds. This, again, was a significant step in the creation of European mono-culture.

Richard Hooker

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©1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 10-1-97