The Anglo-Saxons | Marc Morris

Summary of: The Anglo-Saxons: A History of the Beginnings of England, 400–1066
By: Marc Morris


Delve into the captivating history of the Anglo-Saxons and the early beginnings of England as you explore this summary of Marc Morris’s The Anglo-Saxons: A History of the Beginnings of England, 400–1066. Witness the collapse of the Roman Empire, the arrival of Germanic tribes, and the emergence of new settlements in this fascinating account of political and cultural developments throughout early England. Discover the vital role the Anglo-Saxons played in the formation of today’s England as well as the key elements and innovations that helped create its unique identity.

The Treasure Hoard and the Decline of Roman Britain

In November 1992, a farmer in Suffolk found a treasure hoard containing 584 gold coins, 14,000 silver coins, and decorative objects from just before 400 AD. The hoard sheds light on the social unrest in Britain during the collapse of the Roman empire, which had ruled the country for almost four centuries. Life in Roman Britain had been prosperous and peaceful, with a central government, laws, legions, orderly cities, trade, and industry. However, the collapse of the Roman empire in the wider world led to uncertainty and the protection of assets, including treasure hoards. The hoard in Suffolk shows that the Roman British elites were losing their grip, and the future seemed bleak. Without Roman infrastructure, trade, and governance, life in Britain became more precarious, especially for the lower classes who were vulnerable to enslavement. To understand the decline of Roman Britain, we need to look beyond the island and examine the wider Roman empire.

Collapse of Roman Rule in Britain

Roman rule in Britain was established through a contract where the conquered pledged loyalty in exchange for a share of imperial spoils and peace. The army was responsible for defending the coasts and Hadrian’s Wall to maintain peace, but by 300, the required force was decentralized, making Britain vulnerable to invasions by Germanic groups and Picts or Scots. The collapse of Roman rule in Britain was not because of the attacks on its coasts but by events in the empire’s eastern province where it lost its troops, leading to the Germanic Visigoths invasion of Italy — leading to the death of 10,000 Roman troops. The lack of Roman soldiers in Britain cut it off from the imperial center, leading to an economic collapse in Britain, and the mutiny of legionaries due to unpaid wages. The breakdown of order led to a popular revolt, and in 410, after four centuries, the Roman order in Britain collapsed, leaving Britons to rule and defend themselves.

The Arrival of Germanic Groups in Britain

The sudden and shocking arrival of Germanic groups in Britain is described by Sidonius Apollinaris, a Roman diplomat who labeled them as bloodthirsty “pirates” who carried out surprise attacks on defenceless communities. They settled on the east coast and established their own settlements. Archaeological evidence supports the claims that they came from three powerful tribes – the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes. The reason behind their migration is uncertain, and archaeologists speculate it was due to rising sea levels. However, “Ruin of Britain,” a history of Christianity in the Anglo-Saxon age, written by Gildas around 540, narrates how post-Roman Britain was divided into several kingdoms too weak to defend their territories. Their rulers forged an alliance with Germanic groups in exchange for helping them defeat the Picts and Scots, allowing their allies to colonize the east coast. This decision led to Britain’s “ruin” when the Germanic settlers gradually gained the upper hand and turned against their British hosts. Even though Gildas makes mistakes, it’s plausible that the British successors resorted to similar tactics to the Romans, employing Germanic mercenaries into Britain.

The Role of Language in Historical Developments

This book section provides insight into how language can offer a better understanding of the past and the impact of cultural changes. It compares the historical context in which French and English originated, particularly during the period of conquest when Germanic barbarians invaded the Roman provinces in the fifth century. Despite the similarities in origin, French evolved much differently as it borrowed heavily from Roman civilization. On the other hand, the Anglo-Saxons showed little interest in Roman culture, resulting in a significant cultural break from what came before. The author argues that language is an essential tool in understanding this cultural evolution and the impact it had on the development of both societies. The section provides an informative account of how language can help us understand how societies evolve and why some cultures thrive while others do not.

Uncovering the Anglo-Saxon Worldview

Despite the lack of material evidence, the literature of the Anglo-Saxons sheds light on their values and way of life. The epic poem Beowulf, for example, reveals a culture that prized bravery, reputation, and lavish gift-giving. While the monsters in the story may be mythical, the real-life kings of the time also used violence to extract tribute from their subjects, as evidenced by historical accounts.

The Wealth and Power of East Anglia

In the seventh century, Britain was divided into warring kingdoms, but East Anglia, ruled by the warrior-king Rædwald, stood out with its wealth and power. Sutton Hoo, a burial site in Suffolk overlooking the Deben river, contained a treasure-laden longship that likely belonged to Rædwald. The exquisite craftsmanship and provenance of many objects, including swords, clasps, and even household items made of gold and iron, suggest that Rædwald was a noble-born warrior adorned with riches from distant lands like Syria and India. The burial coincides with the legend of Beowulf, reflecting the Anglo-Saxon tradition of sending off important persons with their possessions.

Britain’s Christianization

Late sixth-century Britain was a land of many gods, but with the Pope’s declaration of converting England came a successful wave of Christianization. Initially, the introduced creed was not accepted by the baptized kings, but a more successful wave of Christianization in the mid-seventh century was instigated by Irish church officials. With the establishment of Lindisfarne, Northumbria missionaries took up the cause of spreading Christianity across Britain and converted the rulers of all kingdoms by around 670.

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