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The Anglo-Saxon or Old English Period

Historical Background

The Pre-Roman Inhabitants

The earliest inhabitants of Britain were the Celts. They belonged to the same race as the modern Welsh and were illiterate semi-nomadic farmers, hunters and fisherman who worshipped woodland spirits. The Celts had settled in the British Isles after crossing over from the continent during the earlier centuries and had driven the previous inhabitants (a new Stone Age race probably related to the Picts) into the mountainous North and West of the country.

The Roman Conquest
In 55 B.C Julius Caesar invaded the shores of Kent and again in 54 B.C with about 10,000 men. At that time, the Celts were assisting the Gauls with whom they were waging war but permanent Roman rule wasn’t established until after 43 A.D when the emperor Claudine again sent an army to Britain. The Roman occupation lasted until the year 410. The Romans had to withdraw their legions and defend Italy against the Visigoths who attacked Rome in the same year. The Romans built towns, villas, roads and forts as well as Hadrian’s Wall (to keep out the Picts) and pacified and civilized the country.

The Anglo-Saxon Conquest
When the Romans left their rule over to Britain, they didn’t leave much of an impression and the Celts went back into being divided into smaller kingdoms under kings who were more like tribal chiefs than kings. In the meantime, Britain was already being invaded by the Anglo-Saxons who looked upon Britain as the land of plunder and invasion.

The Anglo-Saxons were a Germanic tribe and were ruled by chiefs as a military aristocracy. These men disdained manual labour and agriculture which they left to their serfs. War was the main objective of their existence. They seem to have been the victims of dark melancholy, for in their conception of life, mirth and laughter light happy moods were absent from their poetry and song.
The Anglo-Saxon conquests were in fact more slow and gradual infiltration but the date traditionally given is 449 A.D. They belonged to three groups, the Angles from South West Denmark, the Saxons from Saxony and the Jutes from Jutland. The Jutes were driven into Western Britain and they founded seven kingdoms, East Anglia, Mercia , Northumbria, Essex, Wessex, Sussex and Kent. The Angles were in the Central and Northern part of the territory (East Anglia, Northumbria). The Saxons were in the East and South (Essex, Wessex and Sussex) and the Jutes were in Kent. These kingdoms were continually at war with each other and with the Celtic tribes in the West.

King Alfred and the Danish Invasion
At the end of the 8th century the Danes invaded and soon Wessex was the only Anglo-Saxon kingdom to survive. The King of Wessex was Alfred (871 – 899 A.D). He fought bravely against the Danes until they agreed to live at peace with the Saxons.

King Alfred did much for the welfare and education of his people. Towns and villages which were destroyed were rebuilt. Schools opened and scholars were invited from other countries. Alfred himself translated from Latin some outstanding works of his time and he is therefore considered the first English prose writer. That’s how he came to be known as Alfred, the Great. On his death, his successors ruled wisely and archbishops of Canterbury attained great influence.

During the reign of Ethelred, the Unready (as at the throne at the age of 10) fresh bands of Danes invaded. Sweyn, King of Denmark invaded in 994, his son Canute became King of England after the short range of his son Harold, who reigned between 1035 – 1040 and Haricanute from 1040 – 1042. The Danes and the English who were now united people and chose Edward, the confessor as their King.

The Coming of the Normans
The Normans were the decendants of the Norsemen, a race which had settled in Normandy about a hundred years earlier. One of them, William came to visit England and Edward promised to make him King. Edward died childless in 1066 and William came to Sussex to assert his claim on the throne. Harold the last Saxon king had assumed the throne.
Inspite of valiant resistance, Harold had to concede. William marched through London and forced them to accept him as their king. The Archbishop of Canterbury crowned him King on Christmas Day in the year 1066 and he came to be called William, the Conquerer.

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