Where Did the Anglo-Saxons Come From?

subsection of british culture sprouted following fall of rome

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

The Anglo-Saxons had a rich culture after the fall of the Roman Empire. For several centuries, they lived in seven kingdoms in what is now the United Kingdom. Where did all of the Anglo-Saxons come from?

Anglo-Saxon highlighted in old dictionary
Anglo-Saxons were originally a diverse group of Germanic people who migrated to what is now the island of Great Britain after the Roman Empire left Britain. Photo by gmstockstudio / Shutterstock

The early Middle Ages are often slighted as being dark, dreary times, invoking images of impoverished peasants ankle-deep in mud, trudging drearily through life for centuries. However, Anglo-Saxon art features fine ivory carvings, intricate metalworks, unique architecture, and more. Archaeologists in Great Britain recently announced the finding of a 1,600-year-old coffin that may shed more light on the Anglo-Saxon way of life.

Much of the lives of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms remains unknown, but historians are slowly filling in the blanks. So, who were they? In his video series The Great Tours: England, Scotland, and Wales, Dr. Patrick N. Allitt, Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University, details who the Anglo-Saxons were and what their origins are.

Who Were the Anglo-Saxons?

“In the last days of Roman Britain, Germanic tribes began to migrate to England across the North Sea,” Dr. Allitt said. “The power vacuum that followed the Romans’ evacuation of Britain in 410 accelerated this migration. From Jutland, in present-day Denmark, came the Jutes; while from present day northern Germany came the Angles and the Saxons. The name ‘England’ means ‘Land of the Angles.'”

In other words, the Anglo-Saxons were a diverse group of Germanic people who came to what is now the island of Great Britain during and after the last days of Rome’s rule there.

The Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its official religion through the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 CE. Archaeologists have found some Roman remains in Britain that reflect a continued belief in Mithraism, a form of sun worship, alongside evidence of Roman Christianity. Anglo-Saxons were pagans, but they gradually adopted Christianity as they remained in the area.

“Religious division accompanied […] political division,” Dr. Allitt said. “Christianity introduced from Scotland and Ireland differed in several ways from the Christianity brought from Rome.”

What Were the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms?

According to Dr. Allitt, for most of the period between the fifth and ninth centuries CE, the England of the Anglo-Saxons was divided into seven kingdoms. Today, historians know these kingdoms as “the Heptarchy.”

“Northumbria was the most northerly of these kingdoms, while the middle of England was the kingdom of Mercia,” he said. “East Anglia, as its name suggests, was the land of the eastern Angles. Sussex and Essex, which have survived into recent times as county names, are the lands of the southern and eastern Saxons, while Wessex was the land of the western Saxons.

“In the southeast of England was Kent.”

The only part of Great Britain that didn’t fall under Anglo-Saxon rule was the area that is now Wales, western Scotland, and the area of England west from about Exeter.

Additionally, the kings of these seven territories were always at war with one another, hoping to become “Bretwalda” or “Britain-ruler,” the dominant king over the others. Fortunately, several examples of magnificent Anglo-Saxon artwork and architecture remain to this day to provide a glimpse into Anglo-Saxon lives.

The Great Tours: England, Scotland, and Wales is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily