What Were The Anglo Saxons Really Like?


Jan 21, 2015 by Alex

The Anglo Saxons lived in Britain from the fifth century, with the Anglo Saxon era stretching from around 410 to 1066, and for many it seems to represent a 'golden age' of British history, when the nation was an agricultural wonderland, with many people enjoying greater freedom than they did for centuries subsequently - or even now.

Then, of course, the Normans invaded in 1066 and put an end to all that freedom. Or did they? Historians are beginning to question the traditional view of our forebears; it seems that they may have been more like their Norman conquerors than we realised.


Who were they?

The Anglo Saxon population was comprised of people from Germanic tribes that had arrived from the continent of Europe, in particular from the countries we now know as Denmark, Germany and The Netherlands, and their descendants, along with a number of indigenous British tribes. Most of the Germanic people came to Britain when the Romans left, and in terms of their religious beliefs and cultural practices, they had much in common with the Celts. However, with the arrival of St Augustine, most of Britain's population became Christian.

With Roman protection gone, many of the indigenous British people saw their Germanic visitors as useful, and paid them to fight off raiders and hostile invaders. Over time, the populations merged, into a largely farming population that tended to live in family groups.



For many years, students of history have seen the Anglo Saxons as being particularly liberated. To some extent this is true: Anglo Saxon women, for example, were allowed to hold and dispose of property - a right that they later lost - and were given property to hold in their own name upon marriage. However, as with many matters historical, the truth may differ somewhat from the traditional story.

In fact, the Anglo Saxons may well have been at least as hierarchical as their Norman conquerors. Then, as now, one of the most valuable assets in Britain was its land, and in Anglo Saxon times that was owned by a handful of extremely rich and powerful landowners, most being related to each other by blood or marriage. These very rich people flaunted their wealth through silks and jewellery and made sure that there was relatively little social mobility.

For the poor, in contrast, things were less rosy. Slavery was common in the early middle ages and although slaves were often freed, they, like many others in the ' lesser' social classes could not legally own property and were limited to the least desirable jobs.

For the Anglo Saxons, the value attributed to the word of a man depended on his social position: a landowner's oath was seen as several times more valuable than that of a lower status man, and a landowner was accordingly able to demand higher levels of compensation if a crime was committed against him.



When the Normans invaded, they did take away some of the Anglo Saxons' apparent freedoms, but there is plenty to suggest that many of these 'freedoms' were theoretical at best. The Normans may not have been the gentlest of invaders, but they did at least leave us some very nice buildings.