What was England like?
England looked very different 1,600 years ago when the Anglo-Saxons came to our shores.
- Much of the country was covered in thick oak forests.
Most of England's one million people lived in the countryside where they made a living from farming.
There were many kings, each one ruling over a different area of England.
Why did the Romans abandon England?
The Romans had invaded England and ruled over England for 400 years. In 410, the Romans left England because their homes in Italy were being attacked by fierce tribes and every soldier was needed.
The people of England were sad when the Romans left because they had no professional soldiers of their own to protect them from the sea-raiders, who were growing bolder in their attacks upon the coast.
The Dark Ages
The Dark Ages describe the centuries after the end of the Roman rule. It is a time in history we have less evidence from. It is the time in history when the Saxons and Vikings came to Britain.
England is invaded again!
With the breakdown of Rome's control of Britain it became possible for the Angles, Saxons and Jutes from across the North Sea who had been raiding the coast of Britain for a hundred years to increase their pressure. Instead of raiding and then withdrawing, by about 450 A.D they were beginning to settle here. The invasion consisted of a series of attacks on different parts of the country over a period of years and under a number of leaders.
Two British men fighting a Saxon
The Saxon chieftains Hengist and Horsa led a massive attack on Kent in about the year 455. They marched from Thanet through Faversham to Canterbury and eventually arrived at Aylesford, near Maidstone, where a fierce battle took place.
British man jumping on two Saxons trying to stop the Saxons.
When the Romans left Britain, the country was divided up into a lot of smaller kingdoms and sub-kingdoms that often fought with each other and against any invaders who tried to take over.
By the 800s, there were four main kingdoms in England: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex.
One of the most well-known kings from Merica was Offa. He declared himself the first ‘king of the English’ because he won battles involving kings in the surrounding kingdoms, but their dominance didn’t really last after Offa died. Offa is most remembered for Offa’s Dyke along the border between England and Wales – it was a 150-mile barrier that gave the Mericans some protection if they were about to be invaded.
Religion changed quite a bit in Anglo-Saxon times. Many people were pagans and worshipped different gods who oversaw different things people did – for instance, Wade was the god of the sea, and Tiw was the god of war.
In 597, a monk named St. Augustine came to England to tell people about Christianity. The Pope in Rome sent him there, and he built a church in Canterbury. Many people became Christians during this time.
Everyone in Anglo-Saxons villages had to work very hard to grow their food, make their clothes, and care for their animals. Even children had to help out by doing chores such as collecting firewood and feeding the livestock.
There are nine versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles still around today – this is because copies of the original were given to monks in different monasteries around England to keep up-to-date with information about the area where they lived. Nobody has ever seen the original Anglo-Saxon Chronicles that the copies were made from.
Beowulf is an Anglo-Saxon heroic poem (3182 lines long!) which tells us a lot about life in Anglo-Saxon times (though it is not set in England but in Scandinavia). Beowulf is probably the oldest surviving long poem in Old English. We don't know the name of the Anglo-Saxon poet who wrote it, but it was written in England some time between the 8th and the early 11th century.
The Anglo-Saxons minted their own coins – they made different designs that were pressed onto the face of a coin, so archaeologists who find those coins today know when they were used. The coins changed depending on the region where they were made, who was king, or even what important event had just happened.
Vikings from the east were still invading England during the time of the Anglo-Saxons. Sometimes, instead of fighting the Vikings, people would pay them money to leave them in peace. This payment is called Danegeld.
Alfred the Great was based in the kingdom of Wessex, and his palace was in Winchester. He won battles against invasion by the Danes, and he improved England’s defences and armies. Alfred established a strong legal code, and began the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles as a way of recording annual events. He also thought education was very important and had books translated from Latin into Anglo-Saxon so more people could read them and learn.
Canute the Great was the first Viking king of England. A famous story about Canute is that he proved to his courtiers that he wasn’t all-powerful just because he was King. They would flatter him by telling him that he was “so great, he could command the tides of the sea to go back”. Canute knew this wasn’t true, but he also knew that he’d have to prove it to stop his courtiers saying such things. Canute had his courtiers carry his throne onto the beach, by the surf, and Canute commanded that the tide stop coming in. It didn’t work, and the courtiers finally admitted that Canute was not all-powerful. Canute said, “Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings. For there is none worthy of the name but God, whom heaven, earth and sea obey.”
Names to know (Anglo-Saxon kings of England, listed in order)
Egbert (King from 802-839) – Egbert is the first king to rule all of England.
Ethelwulf (King from 839-856)
Ethelbald (King from 856-860)
Ethelbert (King from 860-866)
Ethelred (King from 866-871)
Alfred the Great (King from 871-899) – Alfred the Great is remembered for his victories against Danish invasion, his belief in the importance of education, and his social and judicial reform.
Edward I, the Elder (King from 899-924)
Athelstan (King from 924-939)
Edmund I (King from 939-946)
Edred (King from 946-955)
Edwy (King from 955-959)
Edgar (King from 959-975)
Edward II, the Martyr (King from 975-979)
Ethelred II, the Unready (979-1013, 1014-1016)
Sweyn (King from 1013-1014)
Edmund II, Ironside (King in 1016)
Canute the Great (King from 1016-1035) – Canute was a Viking warrior, and the first Viking king of England. He won a battle against Edmund II that divided their kingdoms, but when Edmund died Canute ruled both kingdoms.
Harold Harefoot (King from 1035-1040)
Hardicanute (King from 1035-1042)
Edward III, The Confessor (King from 1042-1066) – Edward the Confessor had Westminster Abbey built.
Harold II (King in 1066) – Harold II was the last Anglo-Saxon king of England. He died during the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
Edgar Atheling (King in 1066) – Edgar Atheling was declared King after King Harold II died during the Battle of Hastings, but never took the throne. The next king was William the Conqueror, a Norman.