Angles, Saxons and Jutes

Were there any significant cultural differences between the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes in the early medieval period?

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The answer here is still hotly disputed. It was the Venerable Bede (who died in 735), writing 250 years after the events he describes, who first claimed that Roman Britain fell to invasion by Angles, Saxons and Jutes from the North Sea coastlines of Germany and Denmark.

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Victorian writers considered it perfectly acceptable to trace physical or ‘racial’ distinctions between those of ‘Jutish’ descent still living in Kent set against the Saxon or Angle peasantry of the west and north. Even today, some modern authorities claim to confirm Bede’s tripartite scheme using archaeological evidence, in particular the minor variations in the types of brooches and cremation urns found in early Anglo-Saxon burial sites.

Others argue that Bede was imposing fictitious order upon a far more chaotic ethnographic reality. The strange legal customs of medieval Kent, for example, might denote Jutish influence. They might just as easily be Roman survivals or suggest the influence of northern France.

Like the ‘tribes’ of North American ‘Indians’, the Germanic peoples were not ‘racially’ homogenous. Status and success in war were far more significant than race, with the Angles apparently commanding the highest status of all. In the 590s, the supposedly Jutish king Æthelbert of Kent was addressed by the pope as ‘King of the Angles’. But for this ‘keeping up with the Angles’, England today might be known not as England but as Saxland or Jutland.

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Answered by: Nick Vincent, professor of history at the University of East Anglia