Anglo-Saxon Culture

Anglo-Saxon Culture
Anglo-Saxon Culture

The Anglo-Saxons were Germanic barbarians who invaded Britain and took over large parts of the island in the centuries following the withdrawal of the Roman Empire. They were initially less gentrified than other post-Roman barbarian groups such as the Franks or Ostrogoths because they had less contact with Mediterranean civilization.

The Anglo-Saxons were originally pagan in religion. The main group, from northwestern Germany and Denmark, was divided into Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. German tribal affiliations were loose and the original invaders included people from other Germanic groups as well.

Although some of the early Anglo-Saxon invaders had Celtic-influenced names, such as Cedric, the founder of the house of Wessex, the Anglo-Saxons had a pronounced awareness of them-selves as different from the peoples already inhabiting Britain. Their takeover led to the integration of Britain into a Germanic world. Unlike other groups such as the Franks they did not adopt the language of the conquered Celtic and Roman peoples, but continued speaking a Germanic dialect.


The early Anglo-Saxons highly valued courage and skill in battle, as reflected in the most significant surviving Anglo-Saxon poem, Beowulf. Their pagan religion was marked by a strong sense of fatalism and doom, but also by belief in the power of humans to manipulate super-natural forces through spells and charms. They shared a pantheon with other Germanic peoples, and many Anglo-Saxon royal houses boasted descent from Woden, chief of the Gods. Their religion was not oriented to an afterlife, although they may have believed in one.

The Anglo-Saxons strongly valued familial ties—the kinless man was an object of pity. If an Anglo-Saxon was killed, it was the duty of his or her family to attain vengeance or a monetary payment, weregild, from the killer. Anglo-Saxon kinship practices differed from those of the Christian British, adding to the difficulty of the assimilation of the two groups. For example, British Christians were horrified by the fact that the Anglo-Saxons allowed a man to marry his stepmother on his father’s death. Anglo-Saxons also had relatively easy divorce customs.

The cultural differences between the Britons and the Anglo-Saxons were particularly strong in the field of religion, as British Christians despised Anglo-Saxon paganism. The Anglo-Saxons reciprocated this dislike and did not assimilate as did continental Germanic groups. The extent to which the Anglo-Saxons simply displaced the British as opposed to the British assimilating to AngloSaxon culture remains a topic of debate among historians and archeologists of post-Roman Britain.

The conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity owed more to missionary efforts from Ireland and Rome than it did to the indigenous British Church. Paganism held out longest among the common people and in the extreme south, in Sussex and the Isle of Wight.

Some Anglo-Saxons were not converted until the middle of the eighth century. Some peculiar relics of paganism held out for centuries. For example Christian Anglo-Saxon kings continue to trace their descent from Woden long after conversion. The church waged a constant struggle against such surviving pagan Anglo-Saxon customs as men marrying their widowed stepmothers.

anglo-saxon army
anglo-saxon army

Reconciling Irish and Roman influences was also a challenge, fought out largely on the question of the different Irish and Roman methods of calculating the date of Easter. Not until the Synod of Whitby in 664 did the Anglo-Saxon church firmly commit to the Roman obedience.

Conversion led to the opening of Anglo-Saxon England, until then a rather isolated culture, to a variety of foreign influences, particularly emanating from France and the Mediterranean. The leader of the missionary effort sent by Rome to Kent to begin the conversion, Augustine, was an Italian, and the most important archbishop of Canterbury in the following decades, Theodore, was a Greek from Cilicia in Asia Minor. Pilgrimages were also important in exposing Anglo-Saxons to more developed cultures.

The first recorded visit of an Anglo-Saxon to Rome occurred in 653 and was followed by thousands of others over the centuries. Since pilgrims needed to travel through France to get to Italy and other Mediterranean pilgrimage sites, pilgrimage also strengthened ties between Gaul and Britain.

Anglo-Saxon churchmen found out about innovations or practices in other places, such as glass windows in churches, and came back to England eager to try them out. Despite these influences, Anglo-Saxon Christianity also drew from Germanic culture.

Like other Germanic peoples the Anglo-Saxons tended to view the Bible and the life of Christ through the lens of the heroic epic. Christ was portrayed as an epic hero, as in one of the greatest Anglo-Saxon religious poems, The Dream of the Rood. The Dream of the Rood recounts the Crucifixion from the seldom-used point of view of the cross itself, and represents Christ as a young hero and the leader of a group of followers resembling a Germanic war band.

Another remarkable example of the blending of Germanic and Christian traditions is the longest surviving Anglo-Saxon poem, the epic Beowulf. Telling of a pagan hero in a pagan society, the epic is written from an explicitly Christian point of view and incorporates influences from the ancient Roman epic, Virgil’s Aeneid.

As the Anglo-Saxon Church moved away from dependence on outside forces, Irish or Roman, in the seventh and eighth centuries, the Christian Anglo-Saxon kingdoms produced their own saints, mostly from the upper classes. Anglo-Saxon saints such as Cuthbert (d. 687), a monk and hermit particularly popular in the north of England, attracted growing cults.

The highest point of Anglo-Saxon Christian culture was the Northumbrian Renaissance, an astonishing flowering of culture and thought in a poor borderland society. Northumbria was a kingdom in the north of the area of Anglo-Saxon settlement, an economically backward and primitive society even compared to the rest of early medieval Europe. It was also a place where Continental and Irish learning met.

The Northumbrian Renaissance was based in monasteries, and its most important representative was the monk Bede, a historian, chronographer, and hagiographer. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People is the most important source for early Anglo-Saxon history. Another Northumbrian was Caedmon, the first Anglo-Saxon Christian religious poet whose works survive.

Northumbria also displayed a rich body of Christian art, incorporating Anglo-Saxon and Celtic artistic influences, and some from foreign countries as far away as the Byzantine empire. An enormous amount of monastic labor went into the production of manuscripts.

Despite the importance of Northumbrian Renaissance, Northumbria was not the only place where Christian culture reached a high point. Another area was the West Country, where the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex encroached on the British territories of Devon and Cornwall. Curiously, Kent, still headquarters of the archbishop of Canterbury who claimed primacy over all the “English,” became a cultural backwater after the death of Archbishop Theodore in 690.

The influence of Anglo-Saxon Christianity and the Northumbrian Renaissance spread to continental Europe. Anglo-Saxons, in alliance with the papacy, were concerned to spread the Christian method to culturally related peoples in Germany.

The principal embodiment of this effort was the missionary Wynfrith, also known as St. Boniface (680–754), who was born in Wessex. His religious efforts began with assisting a Northumbrian missionary in an unsuccessful mission to the Frisians. He then went to Rome to receive authority from the pope.

Boniface made many missionary journeys into Germany, where he became known for converting large numbers of Germans, and for a physical, confrontational missionary style that included chopping down the sacred trees that were a feature of Germanic paganism. Many English people followed Boniface to Germany, where they exerted a strong influence on the development of German Christianity.

Boniface was also responsible for a reorganization of the Frankish Church to bring it more firmly under papal control. On another journey to Frisia angry pagans killed him. Anglo-Saxons, along with other people from the British Isles, were also prominent in the circle of learned men at the court of Charlemagne. The leading scholar at Charlemagne’s court, Alcuin of York, was a Northumbrian.

This high point of Anglo-Saxon Christian culture was terminated by the series of Viking raids and invasions beginning in the late eighth century. Unlike Christian Anglo-Saxon warriors, who usually respected monasteries, the pagan Vikings saw them as rich repositories of treasure, and monastic life virtually disappeared from the areas under Scandinavian control.

By the ninth century the leader of the English resurgence, King Alfred the Great of Wessex, lamented the passing of the golden age of English Christianity, claiming that there was hardly any one in England who could understand the Latin of the mass book. Alfred, an unusually learned king who had visited the European continent, made various attempts to restore English monasticism and learned culture.

He gathered in his court scholars from throughout the British Isles and the continent, as well as writing his own translations, such as that of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. Alfred also sponsored the translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History and other works from Latin into Anglo-Saxon. The period also saw the beginnings of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a record of current events kept in Anglo-Saxon, eventually at monasteries.

Like the political unification of England by Alfred’s descendants, the creation of this body of Anglo-Saxon literature contributed to the creation of a common Anglo-Saxon or English identity. There was very little parallel for this elsewhere in Christian Europe at the time, when learned writing was almost entirely restricted to Latin. Alfred’s patronage of men of letters was also important for the creation of his personal legend.

The unification of England did not end the Scandinavian impact on English culture, which revived with the conquest of England by the Danish king Canute in the 11th century. Canute, a Christian, respected the church and English institutions, and his reign was not destructive as the early Viking conquests had been. Scandinavian influence was particularly marked on the English language.

Since it was already similar to the Scandinavian tongues, Anglo-Saxon or Old English adopted loanwords much more easily than did Celtic languages such as Irish. Since it was necessary to use English as a means of communication between people speaking different Germanic tongues, many complex features of the language were lost or simplified. English would make less use of gender and case endings than other Germanic or European languages.

Although Alfred had hoped to revive English monasticism, the true recreation of monastic communities would only occur in the 940s, with royal patronage and under the leadership of Dunstan, a man of royal descent who became archbishop of Canterbury and a saint.

The English monastic revival was associated with the revival of Benedictine monasticism on the Continent, and the new monasteries followed the Rule of St. Benedict. Monasteries dominated the church in the united Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, with most bishops coming from monastic backgrounds and often serving as royal advisors.

The church generally prospered under the Eglish kings—large cathedrals were built or rebuilt after the damage of the Scandinavian invasions. The copying and illumination of manuscripts was also revived, and reached a high degree of artistic excellence in Winchester. Continental influences preceded the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. The penultimate Anglo-Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, who had spent many years in France, built Westminster Abbey in a Norman Romanesque style.

Although Anglo-Saxon culture was displaced from its position of supremacy after the Norman Conquest of 1066, it did not disappear. At least one version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle continued to be compiled for nearly a century, and Anglo-Saxon poetry continued to be composed.