Medieval England: History, Society and the Old English Language #1


Welcome back to round two of my Medieval England Short Series!

This time I will go a little bit further back in time to Anglo-Saxon England. I will tell you some more about the history, society and the Old English language from roughly 450-1100 AD, starting with the Anglo-Saxon invasion and ending with the battle of Hastings.

I will do what I did last time: I will divide the information into 6 posts, for your convenience and my own, to create structure and keep the information manageable. Every post will have a small recap about the previous post and a list with the contents. There will be links to website I recommend you to visit (especially when it’s about language or a page that is able to explain a subject of interest in great detail) or references to books.
Before I start I want to thank my tutors for providing me with a lot of the information and I want to add that most information on the Old English language comes from An Introduction to Old English (3rd edition) by Baker.


Historical overview

  • Timeline of Britain (in short) +-7000 BC until +-450 AD
  • Anglo-Saxon Invasion
  • Vikings
  • 1000-1066

There will be images involved! (Because it is useful and just because I can :’))

Timeline of Britain

This is a compact timeline from 7000 BC until around 450 AD. It shows who (which people) was in Britain at what time.

Cheddar man: – 7000 BC. Remains have been found from around 9000 BC or even older, but this man’s skeleton dates from about 7000 BC. If you click on this link, you will be directed to a fragment of the documentary about Cheddar Man. Mick Aston will give some information about life during this time period. (If you are interested: here’s a link to an archaeological excavation of the cave in which Cheddar Man was found. The program is called Time Team and I used to love it as a child! Very interesting, so please check it out!)

Indo-Europeans: +- 5000 BC. These people started to migrate around 8000 BC and arrived on the ‘island’ at approximately 5000 BC. These people build the Stone Age structures such as the ‘Hunnebedden’ in the Netherlands and Stonehenge.

Celtic tribes: 600-500 BC. These people came to Britain and Ireland from the continent. The Briton tribe will be encountered later in this time line. These tribes influenced, among other things, place names like Albion, a result from the word Albo from the white cliffs of Dover. (Time Team: Boudica’s Lost Tribe, about the resistance of the Celtric tribe against the Romans)

Romans: Julius Caesar first attempted to control Britain around 55-54 BC, but he did not succeed. Claudius did in 43 AD, making the island a Roman Province from 43-410 AD. The Romans constructed stone buildings, roads and Hadrian’s Wall. They also introduced the Celtic tribes to Christianity. The Romans left Britain around 410 AD.( Time Team: Digging the Roman Invasion)

Anglo-Saxons: the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians came to Britain about 443 AD. I will give more information about these people and the invasion later on. These people fought against the Picts and Irish, then settled in Britain for a long time. They brought their ‘heathen’ faith with them and would eventually create the seven kingdoms of Britain: Wessex, Sussex, Essex, East-Anglia, Kent, Mercia and Northumbria. Their pagan belief influences the names of the week (containing the names of their gods), place names and festivals (Yule and Easter).

Anglo-Saxon Invasion

(If you click on the heading you’re redirected to a website. You can find a lot of information there about anything, so for a very detailed account you can click the link).

Gildas, a Celtic monk from the sixth century AD, and he wrote about The Ruin of Britain. The Anglo-Saxon invasion has been included and Gildas mentions that the invasion was a form of divine punishment by God for the sin of the British.
Bede, a monk from the eight century, mentions the same thing in his The Ecclesiastical History of the English People.  It is a fact that Bede used the information provided by Gildas as a basis for his works, but both men nearly tell the same story.

The Romans left and Britain was defenceless against attacks from the Picts and the Irish. Mercenaries were invited to deal with the attackers, but because the people of Britain were too weak (according to Gildas and Bede) the Germanic tribes took the chance to not only get rid of the attackers from the north, but also settle on the island. Even though Bede makes it seem as if three ships which were filled with men came and took the island without breaking a sweat, it took the Anglo-Saxons about 250 years to settle. The process was slow and not at all unified. They first founded small settlements, these grew to small kingdoms, which were slowly swallowed by the bigger kingdoms and these would eventually form the 7 kingdoms of Bede’s time.

Anglo-Saxon invasion map overview of settlement
As you can see, it first started with one small green blob (representing the invaders) and eventually the green controls most of the island. The three tribes each controlled several of the large kingdoms in the end. The Angles: East-Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria, the Saxons: Essex, Sussex and Wessex, and the Jutes Kent. This take over by the Anglo-Saxons can also be referred to as the British genocide.

Of course there was resistance from the Britons, who moved to Wales and Cornwall (where nowadays they still speak a Celtic language). It is suggested that during this resistance the legend of King Arthur was born.


From roughly 790 AD the Vikings made their appearance and in 793 they attacked the holy island of Lindisfarne. The Viking raids were in three phases:

  1. 793-851 AD: coastal hit and run raids in the summer.
  2. 851-865 AD: winter settlements.
  3. 865-878 AD: conquering of the kingdoms, all except for Wessex.

The Vikings were farmers first and foremost. They were also traders and if you take a look at the map below, you can see the extent of their trading (and raiding) network.

They had more than one reason to search for refuge elsewhere; a trade recession, over population and one powerful king which caused many nobles to look for grounds elsewhere. Their raids were most effective because of several reasons. One of the reasons is that they were well informed (possibly because they received information from traders or because they were traders themselves) on where to strike and where to enemy was weakest. Secondly, the disorganized enemy and last, but certainly not least; the longships. These ships were magnificent vessels because they were lightly build (they could even be carried over land) and in such a way that they didn’t need deep water (meaning that the ships could easily go upriver and further inland). The front and back of the longships were also nearly identical and because of that the ship didn’t have to be turned around in order to get away.

There was only one kingdom able to keep the Vikings at bay and that was thanks to king Alfred the Great of Wessex. He has always been seen as the greatest king of England (even in his own time) and he defeated the Vikings in 878 at Edington. Alfred was the first to oppose the Vikings with a standing army, a new navy (with ships in Viking/Frisian design) and he created a military Burh system. (This link will provide you with more information on Alfred’s military reforms and fight against the Vikings).
After Edington, the treaty of Wedmore was signed with Guthrum (one of the Viking leaders who became a Christian after signing the treaty). The Dane Law was established, meaning that the northmen were allowed to settle on the island, but only on the other side of the border (which was a Roman road called Watling Street).

(Don’t fret, there will be more on Alfred later on).

After Alfred passed away, there was a time of reform and it was king Aethelstan who became the first king of all England after reconquering the area of the Dane Law.

If you are interested:
Here is a link of another archaeological excavation by Time Team. This one is a special about the Vikings.


England was finally one whole after the Vikings and there was a time of relative peace…
Aethelred Unraed (literally translated it means Aethelred the Unready) became king after the death of his half brother Edward the Martyr in 978 AD. Unfortunately, during his reign the Vikings returned and raided the south-east. This was easy to do because the Vikings already possessed Normandy at that time. Aethelred did, almost, everything what every other king would have done. He bribed them (Danegeld), married with Emma of Normandy and then decided to massacre the English Scandinavian inhabitants. However, being unready of course, he also murdered the sister of the king of Denmark.
Sweyn Forkbeard is already king of Norway and Denmark at the time and becomes king of England for a long reign… of five weeks. He dies in 1014.
After Sweyn’s death, Aethelred returns (promising to do better this time around). He dies in 1016 and his son Edmund Ironside becomes king after him.
During Edmund’s reign, the Vikings attack again, this time Cnut (Sweyn’s son) leads them. Cnut makes a pact with Edmund, who dies first gives his piece of the land to the other… Edmund dies and Cnut the Great becomes king of Denmark, Norway, England and parts of Sweden.
Cnut keeps the peace for quite some time. He keeps continuity and didn’t suddenly change the English ways. He marries Emma of Normandy, speaks Old English and supports the English saints and churches. Unfortunately, his he dies in 1035 and his sons die 7 years later without leaving an heir.
In 1042 Edward the Confessor becomes king. Edward dies in 1066, which results in the famous Battle of Hastings.

Thank you so much for visiting this post!
Next time:

Religious history of the English people after the Anglo-Saxon invasion



6 thoughts on “Medieval England: History, Society and the Old English Language #1

  1. Many congratulations on an excellent presentation.
    There’s quite a lot about Cheddar Man in ‘The Seven Daughters of Eve’ if you’re interested in genetics and DNA. The author, Bryan Sykes, did a lot of work with the remains.
    I look forward to reading some more of your study.

    Liked by 1 person

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