The Rise of the Anglo-Saxons in England

The Saxon settlements in England, which emerged and evolved from around the 5th to the 11th centuries, reflect a period of significant transformation in the country’s history.

These settlements, established during the Anglo-Saxon era following the departure of the Romans and the influx of Germanic tribes, including the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, were foundational in shaping the cultural, social, and physical landscape of medieval England.

This era saw various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms emerge, which were united as the Kingdom of England by King Æthelstan in 927. The kingdom later became part of the North Sea Empire under Cnut the Great in the 11th century, which was a personal union of England, Denmark, and Norway.

The Anglo-Saxons, migrating from mainland northwestern Europe, began settling in Britain after the Roman withdrawal at the start of the 5th century.

This marked the start of a period known as sub-Roman Britain, leading to the formation of several Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the 5th and 6th centuries. These included the seven principal kingdoms: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex, and Wessex.

The 7th century saw the Christianisation of these kingdoms, the 8th and 9th centuries faced Viking invasions and Danish settlements, and the 9th and 10th centuries witnessed the gradual unification of England under Wessex control. This period culminated in the Norman Conquest led by William the Conqueror in 1066.

Roman Withdrawal

As the Roman occupation of Britain was drawing to a close, Constantine III pulled the remnants of the army back in response to the Germanic invasion of Gaul following the Crossing of the Rhine in December 406.

This left the Romano-British leaders grappling with increased security threats from seaborne raids, particularly by the Picts on England’s east coast.

The solution devised by the Romano-British was to employ Anglo-Saxon mercenaries (referred to as foederati) and grant them lands in return for their defense.

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Around 442, the Anglo-Saxons revolted, reportedly due to unpaid dues. In response, the Romano-British sought assistance from the Roman commander of the Western empire, Magister militum Aetius, through a plea known as the Groans of the Britons.

This appeal was made despite the Western Roman Emperor Honorius advising the British civitas around 410 to manage their own defense.

This led to several years of conflict between the Britons and the Anglo-Saxons. The hostilities persisted until around 500, culminating at the Battle of Mount Badon, where the Britons delivered a decisive defeat to the Anglo-Saxons.

Formation of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms

Records indicate Germanic infiltration into Britain before the Roman Empire’s collapse. It’s believed that the earliest Germanic visitors were eight cohorts of Batavians attached to the 14th Legion, part of the original invasion force under Aulus Plautius in AD 43.

A recent hypothesis suggests some native tribes identified as Britons by the Romans might have been Germanic-language speakers, although most scholars dispute this due to the scant record of local languages in Roman-period artifacts.

Rome commonly augmented its legions with foederati from the German homelands, a practice extending to the army in Britain. The graves of these mercenaries and their families are identifiable in Roman cemeteries from the period.

Migration continued with the Roman army’s departure when Anglo-Saxons were recruited to defend Britain, including during the Anglo-Saxon rebellion of 442.

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If we trust the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that eventually merged to form England were founded when small fleets of three to five ships of invaders landed around England’s coast, fought the sub-Roman British, and conquered their lands.

The language of the migrants, Old English, gradually became dominant across what is now England, supplanting British Celtic and British Latin.

The Anglo-Saxons’ arrival in Britain forms part of the broader Migration period (also known as the Barbarian Invasions or Völkerwanderung), a general movement of Germanic peoples across Europe from 300 to 700.

This period also saw migrations of Britons to the Armorican peninsula (modern-day Brittany and Normandy) initially around 383 during Roman rule and later around 460, in the 540s and 550s, with the 460s migration likely a response to the conflicts during the Anglo-Saxon mutiny from about 450 to 500. Another migration occurred to Britonia (modern-day Galicia, in northwest Spain) around the same time.

Historian Peter Hunter-Blair traditionally viewed the Anglo-Saxon arrival in Britain as a mass immigration, with newcomers fighting and pushing the sub-Roman Britons to the western extremities of the islands and into the Breton and Iberian peninsulas.

This perspective, based on sources like Bede, describes the Britons facing slaughter or “perpetual servitude”. However, more modern views, such as those proposed by Härke, suggest coexistence between the British and the Anglo-Saxons, largely based on the Laws of Ine, which provide different wergild levels for Britons, indicating that although Britons could be wealthy freemen in Anglo-Saxon society, they generally held a lower status than Anglo-Saxons.

Debate continues over the scale of migration, whether it involved a small elite band of Anglo-Saxons who took over governance, or a mass migration that overwhelmed the Britons.

An emerging view suggests that both scenarios may have occurred simultaneously, with large-scale migration and demographic changes in the settlement core areas and elite dominance in peripheral regions.

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According to Gildas, initial robust British resistance led by Ambrosius Aurelianus saw fluctuating victories between the two peoples until a “final” victory for the Britons at the Battle of Mount Badon around 500, which might have temporarily stemmed Anglo-Saxon migration.

Gildas noted that this battle marked both the arrival of the Saxons and the year of his birth, followed by a period of great prosperity.

Despite this, the Anglo-Saxons eventually gained control of areas including Sussex, Kent, East Anglia, part of Yorkshire, and founded a kingdom in Hampshire under Cerdic around 520. Further major advances by the Anglo-Saxons were halted for 50 years as the Britons were weakened by civil war and unrest, inspiring Gildas’s work, De Excidio Britanniae (The Ruin of Britain).

The next significant campaign against the Britons occurred in 577, led by Ceawlin, king of Wessex, who successfully captured Cirencester, Gloucester, and Bath in the Battle of Dyrham.

However, this expansion halted when internal conflicts forced Ceawlin back to his original territories, and he was replaced by Ceol, possibly his nephew, and killed the following year. Cirencester then came under the Anglo-Saxon kingdom dominated by the Mercians, rather than Wessex.


By the year 600, a new structure was emerging, characterised by a network of kingdoms and sub-kingdoms. The medieval historian Henry of Huntingdon introduced the concept of the Heptarchy, referring to the seven main Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The term Heptarchy itself comes from the Greek words ‘hept,’ meaning seven, and ‘archy,’ meaning rule.

The Heptarchy period, by convention, spanned from the end of Roman rule in Britain in the 5th century until most Anglo-Saxon kingdoms came under the overlordship of Egbert of Wessex in 829.

This roughly 400-year stretch of European history falls within what is often termed the Early Middle Ages or, more contentiously, the Dark Ages.

While the term “heptarchy” implies the existence of seven kingdoms, it serves more as a convenient label rather than denoting a stable group of exactly seven kingdoms. During this era, the number of kingdoms and sub-kingdoms varied considerably as kings vied for dominance.

In the late 6th century, the king of Kent emerged as a significant ruler in the south. The 7th century saw powerful rulers in Northumbria and Wessex, and in the 8th century, Mercia, particularly under the reign of Offa the Great, dominated the other surviving kingdoms.

Besides the seven principal kingdoms, several other political entities existed, such as the kingdoms or sub-kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira within Northumbria; Lindsey in what is now Lincolnshire; the Hwicce in the southwest Midlands; the Magonsæte or Magonset, a sub-kingdom of Mercia in present-day Herefordshire; the Wihtwara, a Jutish kingdom on the Isle of Wight, once as significant as the Cantwara of Kent; the Middle Angles, a group of tribes centred around modern Leicestershire, later overrun by the Mercians; the Hæstingas (around Hastings in Sussex); and the Gewisse.

The decline of the Heptarchy and the gradual formation of the kingdom of England unfolded over the 9th to 10th centuries. In the 9th century, the Danish enclave at York grew into the Danelaw, placing about half of England under Danish control.

Alfred the Great’s efforts to unify England were in response to this shared threat. In 886, Alfred recaptured London, leading to a declaration in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that “all of the English people (all Angelcyn) not subject to the Danes submitted themselves to King Alfred.”

The complete unification of the kingdom of England was only realised in the 10th century after the ousting of Eric Bloodaxe as the king of Northumbria. Æthelstan is recognised as the first to be crowned King of all England.


Christianity entered the British Isles during the Roman occupation, as the early Christian Berber author Tertullian noted in the 3rd century, stating that “Christianity could even be found in Britain.”

The Roman Emperor Constantine officially tolerated Christianity with the Edict of Milan in 313, and later, under Emperor Theodosius “the Great” (379–395), it became the official religion of the Roman Empire.

The extent to which Britons were Christian when the pagan Anglo-Saxons arrived remains somewhat uncertain. Pope Celestine I attempted to evangelise the Irish in 431, but it was Saint Patrick who is famed for converting the Irish en masse.

Following this, a Christian Ireland began evangelising the rest of the British Isles, with Columba founding a religious community in Iona, off the west coast of Scotland. Aidan, sent from Iona, established his see in Northumbria at Lindisfarne between 635 and 651, thus converting Northumbria through the Celtic (Irish) church.

Bede expressed strong criticism towards the indigenous British clergy in his “Historia ecclesiastica,” accusing them of “unspeakable crimes” and failing to preach the faith to the Angles or Saxons. Although Pope Gregory I sent Augustine in 597 to convert the Anglo-Saxons, Bede records that the British clergy refused to assist Augustine.

Despite Bede’s criticisms, historians now acknowledge that the Britons significantly contributed to converting the Anglo-Saxons. Upon his arrival in southeastern England in 597, King Æthelberht of Kent provided Augustine with land to build a church in Canterbury, where Augustine established the See.

Æthelberht himself was baptised by 601, and his mission to convert the English continued. The Irish Church had already evangelised most of northern and eastern England, but Sussex and the Isle of Wight remained largely pagan until Saint Wilfrid, the exiled Archbishop of York, converted Sussex around 681 and the Isle of Wight in 683.

The term “conversion” often meant merely the baptism of a local king, without genuine adoption of Christian practices by him or his subjects. Churches built during this time often featured both pagan and Christian symbols, attempting to appeal to the pagan Anglo-Saxons rather than reflecting their conversion.

Even after Christianity was established in all Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, tensions persisted between followers of the Roman and Irish rites, particularly regarding the date of Easter and monastic tonsures. In 664, the Whitby Synod was convened to resolve these issues.

Saint Wilfrid advocated for the Roman rites and won, leading to Bishop Colmán and his followers returning to Ireland, deeply disappointed. The Roman rites were adopted across the English church, although the Irish Church did not universally accept them until the 12th century when Henry II of England invaded Ireland and enforced the Roman rites.

Viking Raids

Between the 8th and 11th centuries, raiders and colonists mainly from Denmark and Norway, known as Vikings, plundered Western Europe, including the British Isles. Originating from Scandinavia, these Vikings initially targeted wealthy churches and monasteries, with the first recorded raids happening in the late 8th century.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes that Vikings sacked the holy island of Lindisfarne in 793. Raiding paused for about 40 years but resumed regularly around 835.

In the 860s, the Vikings shifted from raiding to full-scale invasion. In 865, the Anglo-Saxons faced the arrival of the Great Heathen Army, soon bolstered by the Great Summer Army in 871. Within a decade, the Vikings had conquered Northumbria, East Anglia, and most of Mercia.

Only the Kingdom of Wessex withstood the onslaught. In March 878, King Alfred of Wessex, from a fortress at Athelney in the Somerset marshes, launched guerrilla attacks against the Vikings. In May, Alfred assembled forces from Somerset, Wiltshire, and Hampshire and defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Edington.

Following a siege, the Viking leader Guthrum capitulated, agreed to leave Wessex, and was baptised at Wedmore. This event led to a peace treaty that delineated the Danelaw boundaries and Wessex territories.

After Edington, Alfred transformed Wessex into a militarised society. He established a navy, reorganised the army, and founded a network of fortified towns or burhs, often refurbishing Roman cities. To support these and the army, Alfred introduced the Burghal Hidage tax system.

These burhs effectively prevented further Danish penetrations, as evidenced when Vikings failed to breach the burh at Chichester.

Besides serving as military bastions, these burhs became thriving commercial hubs, providing safe trading centres and housing for the king’s mints. A renewed wave of Danish invasions began in 891, sparking a war that persisted for over three years. However, Alfred’s robust defensive strategies eventually exhausted the Danes, who dispersed in 896.

Alfred was also a scholarly king. His court initiated the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a historical record written in Old English. Alfred himself was not only involved in translating texts but also in writing introductions and amending manuscripts, contributing significantly to the literary culture of his time.

Wareham Burh

Wareham rose to significance in 876 when a large Viking force captured it, intending to use it as a launchpad for an invasion of Wessex.

They took over the Priory, likely a nunnery at the time, and plundered the settlement until Alfred agreed to pay them to leave. Despite this agreement, the Vikings deceitfully moved their land army to Exeter instead, only leaving after losing 120 ships in a severe storm at Swanage.

These events underscore why Alfred chose Wareham as one of the key locations for his network of strongholds, designed to defend his realm against further Viking incursions. These fortified settlements, known as ‘burhs’, were strategically positioned about twenty miles apart — a day’s march — enabling mutual support in case of an attack.

Though not the largest, Wareham was one of the most crucial burhs due to its strategic position near the expansive Poole Harbour, making it an attractive target for invaders who could anchor their ships and penetrate inland using local tracks, roads, and rivers.

The town was manned by the fyrd, a local militia that saw able-bodied men serve in rotation, allowing half the force to continue agricultural and other essential work. According to the Burghal Hidage, Wareham could muster a formidable force of 1600 men.

Wareham is notable for its exceptionally well-preserved fortifications, though similar defensive structures are also evident in places such as Wallingford on the Thames and Cricklade in Wiltshire. The defensive layout of Wareham follows its original design: an earthen rampart surrounds the old town on the east, north, and west sides, with the southern boundary relying on the River Frome for protection.

Lasted for 600 Years

Much of what we know about the Anglo-Saxons is derived from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a detailed annual record of significant events during that era. This includes the ascension and decline of bishops and kings as well as major battles. The chronicle starts with the tale of Hengist and Horsa in AD 449.

Anglo-Saxon dominance ended in 1066, shortly after the death of Edward the Confessor, who left no heirs. Edward had reportedly bequeathed his kingdom to William of Normandy but appeared to have supported Harold Godwinson as his successor as well.

Following Edward’s death, Harold was quickly crowned king, but his reign was short-lived. He was unable to retain his crown against William, who invaded from France with his forces. The pivotal Battle of Hastings in October 1066 saw Harold’s defeat by the Normans, marking the beginning of a new chapter in history.