The Anglo-Saxon period in Britain spans approximately six centuries from 410 to 1066. It is widely assumed that pagan aristocracy remained in power until at least the 380s and that they remained a formidable force far into the 5th century. This period is also known as the Dark Ages because the written sources for the early years of the Saxon invasion are scarce. The absence of recorded historical evidence for Anglo-Saxon pagan activities somewhere reflects the Church’s refusal to keep a record of pagan rituals practised in England. The writing of books and papers arose as a result of Christianity. The vast majority of the manuscripts that exist from this period were created by churchmen and women and were stored in cathedral libraries.
Anglo Saxon and the Vikings Period
In the early Middle Ages, the Anglo-Saxons were a cultural group that lived in England. They were northern European migrants who arrived in England in the fifth and sixth centuries. The Anglo-Saxons were descended from three different Germanic peoples: the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. In the beginning, they were initially composed of several minority groups and were divided into several kingdoms. They eventually united into a single political entity – the Kingdom of England – under the reign of King Æthelstan (924 – 939). On the other hand, Vikings were a group of people who resided in Scandinavia and North Atlantic settlements during the Viking Age (793 – 1066). The Vikings were an ancient warrior group primarily from three countries: Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.
Saxons were the dominating political power in England until the Normans killed the last Anglo-Saxon king, Harold II, at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 after which William became the King. This brought an end to both Anglo-Saxon and Viking rule.
- AD 410 – Anglo-Saxons arrived in Britain.
- AD 597 – St. Augustine brought Christianity to Britain.
- AD 650 – Seven kingdoms were created across Britain: Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, East Anglia, Essex, Sussex and Wessex.
- AD 789 – First recorded Viking attack on the British Isles.
- AD 793 – Vikings attacked Lindisfarne Monastery, Northumbria.
- AD 850 – The seven kingdoms merged into three large Anglo-Saxon kingdoms: Northumbria, Wessex and Mercia.
- AD 886 – Alfred, King of Wessex, agreed on a treaty with the Vikings to divide England between them.
- AD 991 – The Battle of Maldon is fought against the Vikings in Essex.
- AD 1042 – Edward the Confessor became King of England.
- AD 1066 – William the Conqueror won the Battle of Hastings and became the King of England.
Paganism and Christianity
The first English speakers were pagans who worshipped a wide variety of gods and supernatural powers. Little is known about the pagan practices of the Anglo-Saxons. They did not rely on written texts so the writing that mentions pagan customs in the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were written by churchmen.
During the Roman era, Christianity was introduced to Britain. Following the fall of Roman rule, English-speaking pagans dominated southern and eastern Britain bringing their gods, beliefs, and superstitions. Woden, a German equivalent of the Scandinavian god Odin, was the Anglo-Saxon god who had two pet wolves and an eight-legged horse. Thunor, the god of thunder, Frige, the goddess of love, and Tiw, the god of war were some other gods (Dumville, 1976). Anglo-Saxons were superstitious and believed in lucky charms. They believed that rhymes, potions, stones, and gems would protect them from evil spirits or illness. Their dead were buried with grave goods, implying a belief in an afterlife (Wilson, 1992).
Their beliefs changed over time, and many Anglo-Saxons converted to Christianity from the end of the 6th Century. In 597, the Pope in Rome decided it was time for the Anglo-Saxons in Britain to learn about Christianity. He sent a group of missionaries to the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, led by Augustine, who became the first archbishop of Canterbury. They arrived in Kent in 597 and converted King Æthelberht and his court. Æthelberht was married to Bertha a Christian princess from the area surrounding Paris, and there were extensive cultural, social, and political exchanges between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and Christians in Ireland. This resulted in new churches which became a centre of learning and education. Bishops and archbishops ruled over groups of churches. St. Bede, who came to live there in 680 when he was just 7 years old, became a historian and wrote the history of Anglo-Saxons named “A History of the English Church and People”. It records the Anglo-Saxon conversion and its aftermath from 597 – 640s. He recounts three pivotal conversion moments: when King Æthelberht of Kent granted Augustine permission to preach in 597; When King Rædwald of East Anglia constructed a Christian altar in the centre of his temple in the 610s; and when King Edwin of Deira, after an eight-year delay, had himself and his people baptized by Paulinus in 627 (Colgrave and Mynors, 1969). It is usually regarded that some of the first English churches were built on heathen sites of worship that had been converted from Romano-British shrines (Blair, 1995).
Parts of the Bible were translated into English during the Anglo-Saxon period. St. Bede was supposed to be translating the Gospel of John into English on his deathbed. The psalms were translated in the ninth century, as shown in the Vespasian Psalter, while the four Gospels and the first books of the Old Testament were translated and extensively copied at the end of the tenth century.
After some Christian rulers died, they were again replaced by pagans. Some leaders accepted Christian practices while retaining pagan ones. According to St. Bede, in the 7th Century, King Rædwald of East Anglia built a temple that included both a Christian altar and a pagan idol. Churches in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms underwent enormous transformations in the ninth and tenth centuries. Several bishoprics in northern and eastern England were abandoned as those kingdoms were attacked by Viking raiders. King Alfred converted the leader of the Viking Guthrum to Christianity during the battle of Edington in 878. He recaptured London from the Vikings and created a border between the Saxons and the Vikings; the Viking-ruled area became known as the Danelaw. During the 11th century, Anglo-Saxon England was conquered not once but twice. Cnut, the Danish king, overthrew the Anglo-Saxon monarchy in 1016, and he and his sons ruled England until 1042. The year 1066 marked the end of the Viking age.
Colgrave, Bertram, and Roger Mynors, eds. and trans. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Oxford, 1969; reprint with corrections, 1991.
Blair, John. “Anglo-Saxon Pagan Shrines and Their Prototypes.” Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 8 (1995): 1–28.
Dumville, David N. “The Anglian Collection of Royal Genealogies and Regnal Lists.” Anglo-Saxon England 5 (1976): 23–50.
Wilson, David N. Anglo-Saxon Paganism. London, 1992.