After the Romans left Britain, a number of Germanic tribes stepped in to fill the power vacuum. With the help of the Venerable Bede and other contemporary sources, explore the Anglo-Saxon conquests. Then turn to the Viking attacks in the Middle Ages. Be sure to add Offa’s Dyke and the monastery of Lindisfarne to your travel itinerary.
Click on GREEN links to visit the highlighted location in Google Maps. Hover over BLUE text for more information about that item.
The Kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England
For much of the period between the 5th and 9th centuries, Anglo-Saxon England was divided into seven kingdoms, which are known to historians as the “Heptarchy.” Northumbria was the most northerly of these kingdoms, while the middle of England was the kingdom of Mercia. 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.
Religious Divisions in Anglo-Saxon England
Religious division accompanied this political division. Christianity introduced from Scotland and Ireland differed in several ways from the Christianity brought from Rome. One of the great set pieces of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History is his account of the Synod of Whitby, a 7th century meeting that tried to reconcile these differences.
Whitby itself, scene of the synod, is one of the most attractive little coastal towns in the whole of Britain. Now a fishing village and vacation spot, it was historically a major monastic foundation, of both monks and nuns.
The biggest and most visible Anglo-Saxon object in Britain is Offa’s Dyke. Offa was king of Mercia from AD mid-750s to 796 who built a continuous barrier on his western frontier, probably as a guard against Welsh raiders.
Radiocarbon dating has found evidence that some parts of the dyke are earlier; so, Offa may have completed a job already partly done by his predecessors.
English Churches of the 7th, 8th, and 9th Centuries
In addition to earthworks, several English churches survive from the 7th, 8th, and 9th centuries. Probably the least altered is tiny St. Laurence’s Church, at Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire. Only in the 19th century was its significance recognized, as one of the very few 8th-century buildings that had not been modified over the following generations.
Equally well-kept is the chapel of St. Peter-on-the-Wall in Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex. Built even earlier, around AD 660, it recycled Roman bricks and cut stones. Standing half a mile from the nearest road, a simple barn-like box, its quiet rural setting makes it magically evocative of antiquity.
A third and much bigger example is All Saints Church in Brixworth, Northamptonshire. It, too, is largely unchanged since its construction in the 680s. Only the tower and spire are subsequent additions.
Let me explain one of the traditions about place names in Britain, such as Bradford-on-Avon or Bradwell-on-Sea. There are several places called Bradford, so the addition of “on Avon” is a way of distinguishing which one is being discussed. The Avon is a river. Stoke on Trent and Newcastle upon Tyne are similar examples, identifying the rivers Trent and Tyne.
Carved crosses from the Anglo-Saxon period are also widespread in England, though usually much-worn by centuries of weathering. Probably the best is the 7th- or 8th-century Ruthwell Cross, now protected from the elements inside Ruthwell parish church, just north of the Scottish border.
A similar cross at Bewcastle Cumbria appears to have come from the same era, and possibly even the same craftsmen. Unfortunately, its head is missing.
The Treasures of Sutton Hoo
In the 20th and 21st centuries, archaeologists have been excited by major Anglo-Saxon finds. The most spectacular was the Sutton Hoo ship burial in East Anglia, east of Ipswich.
The timbers of the Sutton Hoo ship had rotted away over the centuries, but its impression, or “ghost,” was clearly shown by the excavators. This had been a real, seagoing ship, with places for 40 oarsmen and evidence of periodic repairs. Its benches and mast had been removed, and a central area enclosed to receive the body.Treasures from inside the ship, surrounding the body, came not just from East Anglia but from many parts of Britain and Europe; one item from as far away as Byzantium. They bear witness to the complex trade patterns of the 7th century, despite the political fragmentation of post-Roman Europe.
The Vikings Invade Britain
In the 790s, Britain endured another round of invasions. This time, the intruders were from Scandinavia—the Vikings. They didn’t have helmets with horns (that’s a Victorian invention from the 1870s), but they were warlike and ruthless. The word “Viking” means “raiding” and is sometimes used as a verb, rather than as the name for a group of people. In British history, they are usually called “the Danes.”
The Vikings’ first appearance in Britain was their attack on the island monastery at Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, off the northeastern coast.
Just a few miles south of the Scottish border, the island monastery is only accessible when the tide is low. Today, you must follow a winding road to get to the causeway; read the tide tables carefully; and drive slowly across to the island, after which you need to keep in mind throughout your visit just how much time is left before the waters close over the road. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck.
Lindisfarne is the site of a superb castle, on a vertical rock that dominates the island. Built in the 1500s because of the chronic problem of Scottish raids, it was allowed to fall into ruin but was restored and rebuilt in the early 20th century by the architect Edwin Lutyens.
The Reign of Alfred the Great
After the initial raid on Lindisfarne, Viking depredations became a regular fact of life in the early 800s, especially along the East Coast of England. Opposition came from the kings of Wessex, Aethelred, and then Alfred the Great who ruled from AD 871 until 899.
Alfred is the only English king ever to be called “the great.” His achievement was to prevent Viking conquest of the whole country. At one point, he was forced into hiding in the marshlands of Athelney, Somerset, where a monument to him still stands.
Archaeological work at Athelney has shown that this was the site of an Iron Age fort; that Athelney was an island, often surrounded by flooded fields; and that a causeway led from it to nearby East Lyng. Signs of metalworking in the area also suggest that Alfred and his followers cast weapons there in preparation for their counterattack on the Vikings.
In the centuries after Alfred’s reign, the various populations of England gradually merged through co-existence, intermarriage, and trade. Anglo-Saxon and Viking artistic traditions also persisted and interacted with those of the Normans after AD 1066. Look at the church doorway Kilpeck doorway of Kilpeck Church, in Herefordshire near the Welsh border, built in about AD 1140.
Modern Treasure Hunters in Britain
More recently, metal detector enthusiasts have been improving our understanding of the Vikings as well as the Anglo-Saxons. In 2007, for example, a metal detectorist named David Whelan, and his son Andrew, found a hoard of about 600 coins and other items near Harrogate in Yorkshire. They were enclosed in a decaying lead case and stored inside a highly decorated silver-and-gold pot.
Similarly, in 2011, a hobbyist named Darren Webster located the Silverdale Hoard, in Lancashire, with his metal detector. Both these hoards included items that appear to have been made nearby along with items from present-day Turkey and Uzbekistan, as well as many European centers.
Interactive Map of All Locations Mentioned in This Lecture