Primary History

Anglo-Saxons: Who were they?

  • Settlers in Britain

    The Romans invaded Britain in AD43. After that, for 400 years southern Britain was part of the Roman world. The last Roman soldiers left Britain in AD 410, and then new people came in ships across the North Sea. Historians call them Anglo-Saxons. The new settlers were a mixture of people from north Germany, Denmark and northern Holland. Most were Saxons, Angles and Jutes. There were some Franks and Frisians too. If we use the modern names for the countries they came from, the Saxons, Franks and Frisians were German-Dutch, the Angles were southern Danish, and Jutes were northern Danish.

    Back to top

  • Outside Roman rule

    Roman Britain or 'Britannia' was part of the Roman Empire. It had Roman roads and Roman cities. Yet only southern Britain accepted Roman ways. The Picts and Scots, who lived north of Hadrian's Wall, remained outside the Roman world.

    The tribes of Germany and Scandinavia, such as the Saxons and Angles, were also outside the Roman Empire. The Romans called them 'barbarians'. Some tribes fought the Romans. Other tribes were happy to trade with the Romans, and some of their men joined the Roman army.

    Back to top

  • How the Anglo-Saxons lived

    In their own lands, most Anglo-Saxons were farmers. They lived in family groups in villages, not cities. Since they lived close to the sea and big rivers, many Anglo-Saxons were sailors too. They built wooden ships with oars and sails, for trade and to settle in new lands. Raiders in ships attacked Roman Britain.

    Most people in Roman Britain were Christians. Most Anglo-Saxons were not Christians. They worshipped lots of gods and goddesses. Their beliefs were similar to those of the Celts, who lived in Britain before the Romans invaded.

    Back to top

  • The Romans leave

    In the AD400s, towards the end of Roman rule, Britain was being attacked by invaders from the north and from the sea. The Romans had built forts along the coast to fight off the sea-raiders. These forts were called the 'Forts of the Saxon Shore'.

    The Roman Empire was very large and under attack in lots of places, so the Roman Army was not able to defend it all. About AD410, the Roman emperor ordered the last Roman soldiers in Britain to leave. The Britons would have to defend themselves as best they could.

    Back to top

  • Hengist and Horsa

    Without Roman soldiers to defend them, the Britons were in danger from raids, so some British leaders paid Anglo-Saxons to fight for them. A history book called the 'Anglo-Saxon Chronicle' describes how in AD449 two Jutes named Hengist and Horsa were invited to Britain by a British king called Vortigern. He paid them and their men to fight the Picts. Instead, the Jutes turned on Vortigern and seized his kingdom. Hengist's son Aesc became king of Kent. No one knows if this is a true story, but it may show how some of the newcomers settled in Britain.

    Back to top

Fun Facts
  • The Roman army in Britain had soldiers from as far away as Syria

  • York was a Roman army town. People called it the 'Home of the Sixth Legion' which was based there from AD 122.

  • Most of the forts of the Saxon Shore were naval bases.

  • Roman sailors wore blue uniforms and Roman navy ships guarding Britain had blue sails. So they would not be mistaken for 'barbarians'.

  • The names Hengist and Horsa were used for two troop-carrying glider planes during World War 2.

BBC navigation

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Jump to: A-D | E-L | M-R | S-Z

A to D

ale
Drink made from barley.
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
A history of England begun in the 800s.
archaeologist
A person who finds out about the past by looking at old objects or buildings that are buried under the ground.
barn
A farm building.
Bayeux Tapestry
An embroidery telling the story of the Norman Conquest in 1066.
Bede
An English monk and historian. He lived from about 673 to 735.
Beowulf
A long poem about a hero, probably made up before AD 800, and written down later.
brooch
Ornament used to fasten clothing.
capital
The main town or centre of government of a country.
Celts
People in Britain before the Romans invaded in AD43.
Charlemagne
King of the Franks and Holy Roman Emperor.
charm
A magical object or words, to protect a person from harm.
Christian
A person who follows the religion taught by Jesus Christ.
conquer
To beat an enemy and control them using force.
court
The place where a king meets his followers and gives commands.
cremate
To burn a dead body to ashes.

E to L

evidence
Objects and facts that give clues as to what happened long ago.
freeman
A person who was not a slave and owned land.
Hadrian's Wall
Wall marking the northern frontier of Roman Britain.
historian
A person who studies the past.
hearth
A fireplace, usually in the middle of a house, and with no chimney.
influence
The effect of a person or things on another.
invaders
People who attack and try to take over land from other people.
Latin
Language of the Romans.
longship
Viking ship with a sail and oars.
loom
Machine for weaving cloth.
lyre
A small harp played at Anglo-Saxon feasts.

M to R

mail shirt
Armour made from chain mail, worn on the upper body.
monastery
The building where monks live.
monk
A male member of a religious group, living, praying and working together and following a set of rules.
nun
A female member of a religious group, living, praying and working together and following a set of rules.
oxen
Strong cattle used to pull carts and ploughs.
pagan
A person who worships many gods.
Picts
People who lived in Scotland at the time of Roman Britain.
Pope
Head of the Roman Catholic Church.
potter
Person who makes pots, jars and bowls from clay.
raider
An enemy who attacks and then goes away.
rank
Status or position in society.
Reconstruct
To rebuild something as it was.
riddle
A puzzle based on playing with words.
Romans
People who ruled an empire 2,000 years ago
runes
The letters of the Anglo-Saxon alphabet.

S to Z

Scots
People in Scotland; they called themselves Gaels - 'Scots' was a name the Romans gave them.
settlement
A place where people make their homes.
slave
A person who is not free but is owned and made to work by another.
smith
A worker who makes things from metal, usually iron.
strip fields
Long narrow ploughed fields.
Sutton Hoo
Site in Suffolk, England, of a king's ship-burial.
thane
An Anglo-Saxon nobleman who owned land.
thatch
A roof covered in straw or reeds.
tribe
A group of people who share a common background and culture.
Vikings
People from Scandinavia who were fighters, sea-travellers, traders and farmers.
walled
Having a defensive wall or wooden barrier around it, such as a walled town.
warrior
A person trained to fight in battle.
weaving
Making cloth.
well
A hole dug to supply drinking water to a settlement or house.
Wergild
Money paid to a murdered Anglo-Saxon's family by the murderer.
will
A document setting out how a person wants their possessions shared out after death.