Anglo-Saxons or Angelcynn (Angle-kind) were ancestors of modern English people and, though largely of the same ethnic stock as the Scandinavian Norsemen, were themselves the frequent victims of Viking raids and invasions between the 8th-11th centuries.
History and Background
The ancestors of the Anglos-Saxons who came to Britain originated from the Angle and Saxon tribes of northwestern Germany, the Frisians of the Netherlands, and the Jutes from Denmark. These tribes would emigrate in small bands to mainland Britain and soon fell into conflict with the Celtic locals known as the "Britons." Though they met fierce Brittonic resistance, the Anglo-Saxons expanded across Britain and established a number of kingdoms. By the 8th century CE, nascent Anglo-Saxon kingdoms controlled most of what is now England and southern Scotland, though present day Wales, Cornwall, and a few other western territories remained under Brittonnic control.
By the middle of the 7th century CE, missionaries from both the Celtic monks of Ireland and the Roman Catholic Church had succeeded in converting the Anglo-Saxons kings and nobility to the Christian faith. Anglo-Saxon language and culture evolved into a mix of Germanic, Britonnic, Roman, and Norse influences that would eventually define latter-day England.
By the dawn of the Viking Age, the region known today as England was dominated by four major Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. These were Wessex in the southwest of England, East Anglia in the east, Northumbria located between the Humber River in the south to the shores south of the Firth of Forth in what is now Scotland (at the time Scotland was dominated by the Celtic Kingdom of Pictland). And dominating much of England between Wales and the North Sea was Mercia, the largest of the Anglo-Saxon realms. Prior to the 9th century, in a period of early English history called the Heptarchy, other kingdoms, such as Essex, Sussex, and Kent remained prevalent in the southeast of England before they succumbed to the rising states of Mercia and Wessex.
Wessex, or Westseaxna Rice (West Saxon Kingdom), was founded by Cerdic who, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, was a chieftain of a Saxon-derived sub-tribe called the Gewisse which carved out a territory from the upper Thames valley regions of Berkshire, Wiltshire, and Oxfordshire in the north to the southern coasts of Hampshire and Devon in the south and the Bristol Channel coast of Somerset in the west. Judging by the name of Cerdic, which is related to the Welsh names of Ceretic or Caradog, it could be that the first king of Wessex may have had Celtic (Welsh) ancestry. If that was the case, then the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle may be wrong in suggeting that Cerdic and his clan came to the future lands of Wessex as immigrant-invaders rather than a mixed tribe of Saxon-British heritage who established their own territorial dominance. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle would claim that Cerdic and his kin were the descendants of the Germanic god Woden (Odin) and the antidiluvian patriarchs of the Bible, though this is certainly a fabricated genealogy. The West Saxon realm would in time include the Isle of Wight off the southern coast of England, which was itself previously colonized by Jutish tribesmen from Denmark and would, by the early 9th century CE, absorb the smaller eastern kingdoms of Kent, Sussex, and Essex. Prior to the Viking Danelaw era, Wessex's main territorial rival was Mercia. During the Danelaw era, Wessex was the only Anglo-Saxon realm to successfully defeat numerous assaults from the Danes and would eventually conquer and unify England under the suzerainty of its King Aethelstan during the early 10th century. The historical capitals of Wessex were Winchester and Kingston-on-Thames.
Northumbria ("north of Humber") was formed from a union of two smaller Anglo-Saxon realms in the year 654 CE during the reign of King Oswiu. The previous kingdoms of Deira in the south (Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, and Co Durham) and Bernicia (north of the Tees in Co Durham to the Firth of Forth in Lothian in Scotland) in the north were both territories founded by Angle and Frisian tribesmen during the 6th century CE. The kingdoms had been previously unified under the leadership of the King Edwin (616-633 CE), who became very powerful during his lifetime that he briefly extended his realm to include the Isle of Mann in the Irish Sea and the Welsh kingdoms of Elmet (now West Riding of Yorkshire) and Gwynedd (northern Wales), achieving the status of Bretwalda (Anglo-Saxon: 'ruler of Britain'). Edwin would convert to the Christian faith in 627 CE, as part of the agreement he made to King Eadbald of Kent, then the most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom in the south, to marry his sister, Aethelburh. Edwin's reign did much to shape the destiny of Northumbria, which despite losing it's preminence in the north as well as dominion over Mann and Gwynedd, would annex the Welsh kingdom of Rheged (Cumbria and Lancashire) under the reign of King Oswald (634-640 CE) who also permanently made the future realm of Northumbria into a Christian state. The Angle Kingdom of Lindesege (Lindsey), located in Lincolnshire, was also absorbed into Northumbria during the 7th century. Eoforwic (York) was the capital of Northumbria, and was also the second of the two Christian archdiocese in all of England, with St Paulinus, who converted King Edwin in 627 CE, as its first archbishop.
Mercia, named for the Mierce/Myrce or "border-people," would emerge as a dominant force during the Eighth Century CE. The formation of the Mercian kingdom is considered to be more obscure than the other Anglo-Saxon realms, as Mercia was the last kingdom to convert to Christianity. The Mercians were largely derived from the Angle tribes that settled in western and central Britain amidst the native Britons. Their territory was mainly comprised of the modern regions of Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire. They would also absorb the Anglo-Saxon realm of Hwicce which dominated the lands of Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and part of Shropshire. Their name Mierce signified that they bordered the Celtic Welsh lands which remained unconquered by the Germanic Anglo-Saxons, whose lands were known by the Welsh as Lloegyr, or 'the lost lands'. The traditional capital was the town of Tamworth in Staffordshire. King Croeda is believed to be the first ruler of Mercia. Croeda was the scion of a powerful Angle clan known as the Iclingas, which was founded by a chieftain called Icel, whose forbear was believed to be Woden. Mercia enjoyed a period of great power under kings such as Penda (625-655 CE), the last Pagan ruler among the Anglo-Saxons, and King Offa (756-796 CE), whom led Mercia before the rise of Wessex and the builder of Offa's Dyke, an earthen boundary to safeguard the realm of Mercia from Welsh raiders.
East Anglia or East Engla Rice (Kingdom of the East Angles) was formed during the 6th century CE from a union of the two Angle tribes of the Norfolk and the Suffolk, under the leadership of a royal clan known as the Wuffingas ('descendents of the wolf'). The East Angle ruler Raedwald (599-624 CE), who was powerful enough to be considered a Bretwalda in his own right, was the first of his nation to convert to Christianity and patronized the religion after it was renounced by the Kentish and Sussex rulers. Raedwald is also believed to be the subject of the famous Sutton Hoo burial. The centre of power in East Anglia was Rendlesham.
Kent, known as the Cantawara Rice or "Kingdom of the Kent-people," was established by Jutish migrants sometime in the 5th century CE and was the very first of the so-called Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to be established on British soil, as well as being the most powerful during the early phase of the Heptarchy era. The name Kent is believed to have originally derived from the ancient Celtic tribe, the Cantiaci in south-eastern England. Their homeland was known as the Civitas Cantium by the Romans. When the Jutes arrived in the 400's CE, they may have adopted and adapted the Cantiaci/Cantium name, in time calling themselves the Cantwara (Kentish men). According to legend, the warlord brothers Hengist and Horsa led a band of Jutish warriors to Britain to serve as mercenaries for the Romano-Brittonic ruler Vortigern, to protect his realm from marauding Picts and Irish. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that after the Jutish assisted Vortigern with his Pictish trouble, they sent word to their fellow chieftains among the Jutes and Angles that the Brittonic kingdoms were too weak to defend themselves and were ripe for the taking. The Jutes of Kent had initially established themselves on the island of Thanet off the coast of Kent before they took over the country. Kent was also the first Anglo-Saxon kingdom to convert to Christianity, which occurred during the reign of King Aethelberht (590-616 CE) when he married the Frankish princess Bertha and accepted the mission of St Augustine in 597 CE. For this reason, the Kentish capital of Canterbury became the primary Christian archdiocese in England. Through the 8th-9th centuries, Kent was overshadowed by the growing powers of Mercia and Wessex. In 825 CE, Kent, by then a vassal kingdom of Mercia, was ceded to Wessex under the rule of King Ecbert, who was himself the son of a previous king of Kent. After which Kent became a subsidiary realm governed by the heirs to the West Saxon throne.
Sussex, named for the Suthseaxa or "South Saxons," is mentioned by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to be founded in the year 477 CE under the leadership of a Saxon warlord named Aelle, who landed with three ships full of warriors in a place the Chronicle calls Cymenshore (traditionally believed to be Selsey in modern West Sussex), which was named after Cymen, who was one of Aelle's sons. Aelle would lead his tribe in the conquest of the Romano-Brittonic kingdom of Regnenses. In time the South Saxons would absorb the territories of rival tribal colonies such as the Saxon Haestingas and the Jutish-descended Meonwara/Meonsaete of southern Hampshire and Wihtwara of the Isle of Wight. Sussex would be converted to Christianity under the reign of King Aethelwealh (660-685 CE), who invited the exiled Northumbrian bishop St Wilfrid to lead the conversions of his subjects. Through the 8th-9th centuries, Sussex bcame to be overshadowed by the powers of Mercia and later Wessex, having formally accepted the overlordship of Wessex in 825 CE, after which they would accept the kingship of Aethelwulf of Wessex. The town of Selsey was the capital of Sussex.
Essex, named for the East Seaxa or "East Saxons," was established in the modern English counties of Essex, Middlesex and Hertfordshire and part of Surrey. Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies state the founder of the East Saxons as a certain Aescwine who came to Britain in 527 CE. The kingdom's origins are otherwise regarded as very obscure, having been formed from the absorption and assimilation of smaller tribal groupings as as the Hrodingas of Rodings, the Uppingas of Epping, the Haeferingas of Havering, the Berecingas of Barking and the Haemele of Hamel Hempstead. The oldest site of Saxon settlement is found in the parish of Mucking, which is located in Essex. Bede's work the Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English people) states that the East Saxons were first converted to Christianity by St Mellitus, the first Bishop of London, at the behest of King Aethelbehrt of Kent. Mellitus would baptise the East Saxon king Saeberht, who was then a vassal to the more powerful Kentish king. Essex was frequently subject to more powerful neighbours such as Kent, East Anglia, Mercia and finally Wessex, which achieved dominion over the East Saxons and their neighbours in 825 CE, when their king, Sigered, switched his allegiance from the Mercians under King Beornwulf to the West Saxons under King Ecbert. After which Essex became an eastern extension of Wessex along with Sussex and Kent. The East Saxon capital was London.
At the top of the hierarchy stood the Cyning or "king." These had began as clan chiefs and warlords, some of which emigrated to post-Roman Britain with their kindreds, while others came to Britain as mercenaries and Feodorati (military allies) prior to and in the years following the Roman withdrawal from Britain in 410 CE. The latter would serve the interests of post-Roman kings in Britain as protectors of their territories and enforcers of their rule. If a chieftain's Comitatus or 'following' grew, he would require more land to give to all the warriors sworn to his service. Kings ruled over a people rather than a fixed territory, particularly a people who fought for him and held land in return. Succesful chieftains would claim descent from gods such as Woden (Odin) or Seaxnet. Some Germanic chieftains would use their growing status to usurp power from their Romano-Brittonic landlords (like the Jutish Hengist) or make strategic marriage-alliances to minor Brittonic lords in a bid to gain more followers. Cerdic of the West Saxons had a distinctly Brittonic name (Ceretic or Caradog) and may have been the child of Saxon and British intermarriage.
Ealdormen (literally 'elder men') were the higher nobility, often descended from subjected former kings, the younger sons of kings or elevated warriors in the king's warband. The office is a predecessor of the later English title Earl (derived from the Norse Jarl). They counselled the king and raised additional forces for the king's army.
The Witenagemot or Witan was the council of noblemen (ealdormen and thanes) and bishops (post-Christian conversion) who gathered to advise the king and, if need be, to elect a new king. The concept of the Witan was inherited by the Norman conqueror-king William I, who called it the Curia Regis (king's council) which would develop over the centuries into the modern British Parliament.
Gerefa or Sciregerefa, the origin of "Sheriff," were agents of law-enforcement who kept the peace. Every king or ealdorman would apoint an official from among his Thegns.
Thegns or Thanes were lesser nobility and were expected to command a company of armed warriors to supplement the contingents of their lords and that of the king.
Ceorls were the basic station of free land-holders in Anglo-Saxon society and the source of men called for military service.
Anglo-Saxon society, prior to and after its Christianization, was a large slave-holding society (though slavery was not as prevalent as in Norse society). Slaves were often of native Celtic Brittonic (Welsh) origin, captured in raids in Wales, Cumbria or Cornwall. Over time, many slaves were born in their condition. Slavery would persist in England thirty-six years after the Norman conquest, when slavery was formally banned during the Council of London of 1102 by decree of Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury. Although slavery had largely been replaced by serfdom.
The Anglo-Saxons spoke a language that is now called Old English, and is the direct antecedent of modern English. It was a Germanic language, within the Indo-European family, and closely related to Old Frisian (the ancestor of modern Frisian). The relationship was based on the origin of the Anglo-Saxons, which was from the general North Sea area, namely the modern day countries of the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, and Norway.
In the Vikings series, we see many of the Anglo-Saxons characters conversing in Old English. King Ragnar was near fluent in Old English, thanks to his friendship with Athelstan. King Ragnar was able to converse with a Northumbrian Reeve upon landing near the town of Hixam, as well as King Aelle, King Ecbert, and numerous Anglo-Saxon soldiers.
Athelstan, when captured and crucified by Wessex soldiers as an apostate, said "Don't kill me! I surrender" in Old English. He also asked Wessex soldiers if they were in Wessex or Northumbria.
In reality, Old English and Old Norse were very similar languages, with similar vocabulary and grammar, possibly akin to Portuguese and Spanish in real life. Many root words similar, and the Norse settlements in the Danelaw of England, coupled with interaction with the Anglo-Saxons in these areas, led to the existence of Old Norse loanwords in English. Mistake, cake, die, and husband are all modern English words of Norse origin.
Old English however provides many rudimentary English words, such as:
Man, Woman. House, Child, Children, Horse, Pig, Cow, Sheep, Field, Town, King, Queen, Kingdom, Street
To expand on this, King Ecbert would be Ecbert Cyning (the Old English word for king).