ALTHOUGH the largest contribution to the British gene pool was made by the fair-haired Celts, the so-called 'Anglo-Saxons' made the greatest cultural contribution to the development of British identity.
The term 'Anglo-Saxons' has been almost universally adopted by historians, but was not used by those described as such. The term 'Saxon' was a Roman generalisation for all the North Sea coastal peoples north of their imperial frontier, and the term 'Anglo-Saxon' was derived from the Latin 'Anglo-Saxonicus', which was used to distinguish English 'Saxons' from the 'Old Saxons' on the continent.
Most of these so-called Saxons who came to Britain described themselves as 'Englisce' (Englishmen), which Latin writers rendered as 'Angli' and from which we get 'Angles'. As stated by H. M. Chadwick in The Origin of the English Nation (Cambridge University Press, 1907): "The Angli ... doubtless formed the chief element in the invasion ..." (p. 184).
The Angles had occupied the Schleswig peninsula until pressure from other tribes had forced them to come over to Britain. Popular tradition has it that the whole population migrated leaving their original homeland empty. At any rate the Continental Angles soon disappeared from the pages of history as a distinct ethnic group.
There were, of course, also other settlers (such as Frisians and Franks) under the general description of 'Saxons', and by Christian times the terms 'Angles' and 'Saxons' had become interchangeable.
The successive waves of invaders who came from Schleswig and neighbouring areas of North-West Europe were all of the Nordid sub-race, spoke Germanic languages, and shared a common art and customs ― including the pagan Nordic religion.
It was once thought that these invaders, whom we will term the 'early English', came in large numbers, slaughtering and driving out the Romanised Celts. It is now believed that despite their wholesale cultural domination, they came in small numbers and fused with the existing population.
The Sutton Hoo purse lid. An early English purse lid with gold and garnet mounts recovered from the early seventh century Sutton Hoo royal burial ship. The designs in the bottom corners depict wolves swallowing the Sky Father.
Lloyd and Jennifer Laing in their book Anglo-Saxon England (Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1979) suggest "that only a tenth of the population of the sixth century could have been Anglo-Saxon" (p.43).
In his authoritative study Race (Oxford University Press, 1974) Dr. John R. Baker, F.R.S., summarises the existing state of knowledge:
"At one time it was widely believed that the Iron Age people of Great Britain (the descendants of the Celtae and Belgae, intermixed and hybridised with Mediterranids and Mediterranid/Beaker Folk hybrids) were in their turn driven out to remote districts or slaughtered by the Anglo-Saxon invaders; but opinion has changed. It is considered that too much stress was laid by the historians of the past on the partial dying-out of the Celtic place-names and language. Modern historians allow that while some withdrew to more remote districts and some were indeed killed by the Anglo-Saxons, others merged with the latter. Physical anthropologists, relying on evidence provided by the skulls of ancient and modern times, consider that the descendants of Iron Age people of Romano-British times continued to occupy the country during the period of Anglo-Saxon domination, and were so far from being driven away or exterminated that it might almost be said that it was they who eventually absorbed the Anglo-Saxons, while adopting the language of their conquerors. On this view the present-day population of England and much of Scotland is to a very considerable extent derived from the Celtae and Belgae of the Iron Age" (p.266).
It might further be added that those peripheral parts of the British Isles which form the so-called 'Celtic Fringe' and which so vociferously lay claim to a Celtic identity, are ― with their higher concentration of Mediterranid elements ― less racially typical of the original Celts than are the modern day 'English'.
Returning to the early English it must be recognised that whatever their exact numbers and impact, they were not significantly different in racial character from the Celts, and it would be totally erroneous to suggest that the mixture was an example of 'multiracialism' as some propagandists have suggested.
Turning to the actual history of the invasion, tradition suggests that the first stage of the incursion began during the fifth century with the employment of Germanic mercenaries. These mercenaries rebelled, and, calling in reinforcements from home, overran a good deal of the country. The native Britons, however, eventually won a great victory over them at Mons Badonicus (Mount Badon) somewhere around the year 500. This held up the English advance for over half a century, but it seems that about 571 a major English victory marked the renewal of the advance which led to the final establishment of Anglo-Saxon supremacy.
The principal social classes were the king, the thanes (noblemen), the churls (free peasants) and slaves.
Kinship was a ruling factor in the royal succession, but at no time did primogeniture become so. Succession was not automatic nor entirely elective, but lay somewhere between the two ― with royal birth as the most important qualification.
The noblemen were distinguished by property and birth, but the system was not entirely rigid. A prosperous peasant could become a nobleman, and if he owned sufficient land ― and if he and his descendants maintained the requirement for a certain time ― noble status became hereditary.
It was the churls who formed the backbone of society. These free peasants owned and inherited land, participated in the folk-moot and performed military service. Unlike the so-called free citizens of most modern 'democratic' societies, they were not only allowed to possess weapons but were duty bound to do so.
The boundaries of the slave class were also fluid to some extent. Although men could be born into slavery, they could also buy or be given their freedom, while others could become slaves as a punishment.
The early English were primarily farmers and farming formed the basis of the economy. In order to avoid exhausting the soil cultivation was organised on the three-field system. Each year one field was left fallow for pasture while the others were planted with crops. These village fields were divided into narrow strips which were allotted to the peasants so that they each took a share of both the best and the poorer land.
In the early part of the period crafts were centred on the household. Carpentry was the most important but there was also pottery ― often decorated with runes, swastikas and dragons ― and the women's crafts of spinning, weaving and embroidery.
Manufacturing industries gradually developed, however, and these came to include lead and other forms of metal working, soapmaking, charcoal production, bellfounding, plumbing, and bone-, horn-and leather-working. In Christian times there was also advanced stone sculpture and book-making.
The Sutton Hoo helmet as newly reconstructed. Of Swedish origin, it bears a strong resemblance to those described in Beowulf, the early English epic poem.
Of all these crafts and industries iron-working was particularly important. The blacksmith was indispensable to any early English community, and Wayland Smith is a prominent mythological figure in English folklore.
In the early part of the period we know that glass, ceramics and oysters were traded. In later times silk, gems, gold, exotic textiles, spices, wine, oil, ivory, brass, copper, tin, sulphur and glass were imported, while exports included hunting dogs, furs, silver, linen, horses and weapons.
The early English preferred to build their own timber-and-thatch homes which were more practical than taking over the Roman housing. It used to be thought that their houses consisted of primitive sunken pits with earth floors and flimsy roofs. It is now believed, however, that they had suspended wooden floors and were altogether more substantial and more comfortable. Towards the end of the period there were two-storeyed buildings and window glass in domestic use.
Kings and noblemen enjoyed hunting and falconry, but less exalted forms of hunting were practised by ordinary men. There was also bear- and bull-baiting as well as trials of strength, athletics, swimming, horse-racing and horse-fighting, and archery.
As for music the early English had horns, trumpets, harps, reed-pipes, shawms, rebecs and probably bagpipes.
Communal eating and the drinking of mead, wine and beer, was a popular pastime for the aristocracy, and ― at least at festival time ― amongst the peasantry as well. A contemporary document, The Rights of Various People, reveals that workers customarily received a harvest feast for reaping the corn and a drinking feast for ploughing.
A game akin to draughts was known and riddles were popular.
The picture of the social life of the early English conjured up, for example, in the epic poem Beowulf is not so unlike that of their earlier Celtic cousins:
A bench was then cleared for the company of Geats
there in the beer-hall, for the whole band together.
The stout-hearted warriors went to their places,
bore their strength proudly. Prompt in his office,
the man who held the horn of bright mead poured out its sweetness.
The song of the poet again rang in Heorot.
The heroes laughed loud in the great gathering of the Geats and the Danes.
(Beowulf as translated by Michael Alexander, Penguin 1973).
Early English poetry belongs to an ancient oral tradition by which the poet functions as the repository of his kinsmen's history. At its best early English verse was highly accomplished, eloquent, intense and of epic quality.
In their book Anglo-Saxon England the Laings suggest that it was probably the subtle Northern light that has caused British artists to excel at drawing and delicate tinting, rather than in handling areas of strong colour. The tradition followed in Hogarth's penmanship, in Blake's drawings with pale washes, and in Turner's watercolours, was founded in early English drawing in an epoch in which English artists led the rest of Europe.
In his book The Lost Gods of England (Thames and Hudson, new edition 1974) Brian Branston concludes that the early English were practising heathens during their first five generations in England, and that they worshipped at least four divinities ― Woden, Thunor, Tiw and Frigg ― whose names survive in the days of the week.
Unlike Christianity Nordic paganism was not an intellectualised faith revolving around a transcendental god and a revulsion from the flesh, but a pantheistic regard for nature in which magic functioned as a sort of primitive science. An important aspect of this magic was the use of the runic alphabet common to the early northern barbarians. This was originally used for magical rather than literary purposes, and an example of its use is furnished by the sixth-century sword pommel found at Faversham in Kent which had the spearhead-shaped tyr rune nielloed upon it. This was almost certainly an invocation of the war god Tiw made in order to bring victory.
The pagan Nordic religion was not long established before the incursion of Christianity. Unlike the strong kinship-based tenets of Wodenism, Christianity ― at least in theory ― preached weakness and a sickly universalism. Its only mitigating factor was and is that it has been honoured more in the breach than in the observance, albeit at the price of guilt and hypocrisy.
Indeed, although Christianity gradually replaced the old religion, it did not do so without absorbing many of its symbols and traditions such as the festivals of Easter and Yuletide. The death and resurrection myth so central to Christianity obviously owed its appeal to the pre-existing ancient fertility beliefs.
Unlike their Romano-Celtic opponents the early English, from the time of their earliest incursions till the Norman Conquest, fought exclusively on foot ― though they did utilise horses for transport.
They were typically armed with an ash spear, a round leather-covered limewood shield, and a single-edged iron hacking sword - the scramasax (from which, incidentally, it was traditionally alleged the word 'Saxon' derived). Helmets and mail shirts were rare in the early period but became more common as time went on.
The Franks casket. The casket (named after its donor to the British Museum) was carved in Northumbria around 700 A.D. This scene which is carved on the lid depicts Egil ― a brother of Wayland Smith ― defending his home.
The original invaders were, presumably, small war-bands of adventurers. Once established in England the basis of the army was the obligation of every freeman to perform military service in the Fyrd. As most were untrained and ill-armed, however, a more select mobilisation was usually undertaken. This consisted mainly of thanes, but these were supplemented by richer peasants.
As well as the Fyrd levies, kings and important nobles had their own bodyguards. They could also employ Viking mercenaries, and these were the origin of the famous Huscarls who formed the nucleus of the English army at Hastings.
It can, therefore, be seen that far from being the uncultured barbarians dwelling in the gloomier recesses of the 'Dark Ages' portrayed by some earlier historians, the early English enjoyed a rich cultural life and a well-developed society.