They welcomed Christianity at the edge of the world

Anglo-Saxon settlers first started colonising parts of Britain in the fifth century AD and, over the following 500 years or so, would establish themselves as the foremost power in the British Isles. Yet it would be hundreds of miles to the south, in Rome, that arguably the most significant event in their history would occur. Here, in the late sixth century, the future pope, Gregory the Great, observed fair-haired Anglo-Saxon captives and called them “not Angles but angels”. He dreamed that he would bring Christianity to these pagans “at the farthest edge of the world”.

Gregory’s dream became a reality. In AD 596, he sent his chaplain, Augustine, along with 40 companions, on a mission to the Angles’ homeland. The following year, the missionaries landed on the island of Thanet in Kent.

This was a defining moment in British history – one that would eventually see the English people adopt Christianity. In Cambridge, there’s a sixth-century illuminated book, the Augustine Gospels, which – so tradition has it – the pilgrim brought with him. Its paintings of the Bible story are a glorious evocation of the Mediterranean roots of English Christianity.

They embraced the wisdom of the east

Early in AD 669, two strangers arrived in England: Theodore of Tarsus, a Greek-speaking former Syrian refugee, and Hadrian, a Libyan. Both men were monks who had fled west after the Arab conquests of the 630s. Theodore had found a home in the Syrian community in Rome; Hadrian headed a small monastery near Naples.

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In 668, when the archbishopric in Canterbury fell vacant, Theodore was sent on a rescue mission to the failing English church. Taking Hadrian with him, Theodore set off bearing the wisdom of the Greek east: theology, poetry, grammar, biblical commentaries and a litany of saints – one of whom, the Syrian saint George, would later become patron saint of the English. But most intriguing of all is a fragment of letters by the African saint Cyprian, written in north Africa in the late 300s, and surely brought to England by Hadrian himself.

Theodore and Hadrian worked tirelessly, organising the church across England, training priests, and imparting knowledge of Greek and Latin civilisation. “This was the happiest time for the English people,” wrote the eighth-century English historian Bede.

Theodore died in AD 690, aged 88. Hadrian survived for another 20 years. “A man of African race,” as Bede described him, he may have been the most significant of all black Britons.

They gave us the idea of the English nation

From Newcastle Central train station, it’s a short journey on the Metro down the Tyne to Jarrow and the remains of the Anglo-Saxon monastery that once stood over the tidal lagoon of the Slake.

Founded in AD 685, Jarrow was the sister house to Wearmouth (674) – and, for an extraordinary 50 years, the double monastery transformed European civilisation. It transmitted key texts in religion, culture, history and science from the lost libraries of Italy. It even popularised the AD dating system now in use worldwide. It was here too that Bede wrote his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the defining text of the English people – a history of Britain as it looked in AD 731, with its English, Irish, Welsh, Pictish and Latin speakers.

Bede set out to write an ecclesiastical history but in the end it widens out to be “the story of our island and its people”. At the heart of that story was a crucial idea: the gens Anglorum, the ‘English nation’.

They bequeathed us spellbinding poetry

One of the best places to savour the glories of early English poetry, surprisingly, is in southern Scotland. On the coastal plain beyond the Solway Firth is Ruthwell, which was once in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. Today, Ruthwell is home to a majestic 20ft stone cross that stands inside the local church. On it are biblical scenes and words in runes from one of the greatest of all English poems, the Dream of the Rood. Mixing Christian and pagan themes, the poem is a haunting tale told by a speaking tree – Jesus’s cross itself. It’s the story of Christ, who dies heroically to save his people.

Composed around 680, the Dream of the Rood reveals the richness of English poetry at a comparatively early stage in the language’s development. It’s our first great dream vision, the ancestor of Chaucer, Blake and William Morris.

Beowulf takes us to the roots of the English literary imagination. It’s the forerunner of Harry Potter

Luckily for us, during the 10th century, kings and nobles went about collecting the very best Anglo-Saxon poetry – and the British Library exhibition brings together the four most important collections for the very first time. Best known is Beowulf, which tells the story of a brave pagan warrior’s battles with monsters and dragons. The forerunner to Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, Beowulf takes us to the birth of English literature and the roots of the English literary imagination.

They inspired Europe’s first renaissance

Its not for nothing that Charlemagne was remembered by later generations as Pater Europae, ‘Father of Europe’. The mighty Frankish king (and, later, Holy Roman Emperor) was a great military leader, empire-builder and politician. He also had a sharp eye for talent. And, in 781, that eye alighted on an Anglo-Saxon scholar called Alcuin.

Alcuin was probably born in the 730s at Spurn Head, where biting winds gust across the Humber. By the 770s, he was in York, overseeing the finest library of its time. It was this that drew him to Charlemagne’s attention, and led to a meeting between the two men in the Italian city of Parma.

Anxious to recruit the best scholars in Europe, Charlemagne headhunted Alcuin to run his palace school, and to steer the most ambitious cultural project of the early Middle Ages: the Carolingian Renaissance.

In the archbishop’s library at Lambeth is a copy of Alcuin’s letters to Charlemagne with his own thoughts on the ruler’s grand design, his ideas on Christian kingship, and his dream of a united European civilisation. In doing so, he helped promote a flowering of literature, art and religious study across western Europe. This alone makes Alcuin one of the most important people in the west in the thousand years between the classical world and the Italian Renaissance.

They gave us the greatest of all Britons

“Without wisdom, nothing can be done to any purpose.” So wrote the most celebrated of all Anglo-Saxon monarchs, Alfred the Great. As Alcuin’s exploits in the eighth century demonstrate, the acquisition of knowledge was central to the Anglo-Saxon tradition. But by the time Alfred became ruler of the kingdom of Wessex in 871, that thirst for wisdom had been forced to play second fiddle to a quest for survival in the face of a Viking onslaught.

Viking raids on the British Isles began in the eighth century, growing in frequency until the sack of the monasteries of Lindisfarne and Jarrow in 793–94. Then armies began to stay over winter. And finally, in the 870s, in the ominous words of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “they divided the land, settled down and began to plough”. The royal families of the East Angles and Northumbrians ended. Mercia was partitioned. Wessex, ‘the Last Kingdom’, stood alone.

Alfred’s victories over the Vikings saved England and left him ‘King of the Anglo-Saxons’ – in other words, of the Mercians and West Saxons together. But no less important was his project to restore learning and education: “To translate into English the books most needful for men to know.”

For inspiration, Alfred turned to the Carolingian Renaissance and the idea that Christian kings should be patrons of learning. He gathered scholars from Wales, Germany and France. Working in a kind of seminar, as Alfred himself put it, they worried away at a text “word by word and idea by idea” till an English version could be written down, copied out and disseminated.

“It was a time,” Alfred said, “when everything was ruined and burned.” But Alfred planned for our future, all the same. That’s why, for me, he remains the greatest Briton.

Travelling south-west on the A303 through Hampshire takes you within a few miles of the village of Grateley. Most motorists drive past the turn off to the village without giving it a moment’s thought. Yet if they were to take a left here, they’d find themselves approaching one of the most significant sites in early English history. For, as the sign outside St Leonard’s Church in the heart of the village tells us, it was in Grateley that “the first code of law for all England was enacted… in 928 by King Æthelstan”. AD 928 marks the moment when the English state was created – not only establishing a framework for the nation’s law and assembly politics but also paving the way for the later English parliament.

It’s a story revealed in the Textus Roffensis (also known as the Rochester Codex), England’s greatest law book and, for me, an even more important text than Magna Carta. The Codex contains the earliest written English – in Kentish laws from c600 – and later codes include records of meetings in which Alfred’s grandson Æthelstan consults with his council over crime and punishment, law and order.

Æthelstan’s short reign was hugely ambitious, often overly so. But in a six-year burst of innovation between 928 and 933, he turned the England of which Alfred had dreamed into a reality. Two centuries on, public opinion declared that “no one more just or learned ever administered the state”.

They preached in the language of the people

It is hard to overstate the role of the vernacular Bible in English identity: from the Lollards (who, from the 14th century, campaigned for the translation of the Bible into English), to the Protestant Reformation to the Civil War. Think of William Tyndale, who translated the Bible into English in the 16th century, and the King James Bible; think of Bible readers like Shakespeare, Milton and Blake.

But how many of us know that the first English gospels were Anglo-Saxon? And we still speak many of the same words today. The Lord’s Prayer – “Faeder ure thu the eart on heofonum” – is recognisably English. Some manuscripts are marked up for reading out loud, so their words must have been known to English people long before Wycliffe.

Later tradition states that it was Æthelstan who commissioned the translation of the gospels in English (an example of which will be on display in the British Library exhibition) and a recent find of manuscript fragments from the 10th century suggests that date could be right. Either way, there’s little doubt that these translations are a root text of English culture.

They wrote brilliant histories

It was said in the 980s that England was a land of “many different races, languages, customs and costumes”. The achievement of the kings from Æthelstan to Edgar (who ruled England from 959–75) was to create an allegiance to the monarch and his law. But with lesser rulers cohesion crumbled, and disaster struck under Æthelred the Unready. His 37-year reign saw the return of the Vikings, the defeat of the English, and the establishment in 1016 of a Danish kingdom of England under King Cnut.

This story is told in one of our greatest historical narratives, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In its earlier years, the Chronicle was a laconic, impersonal record of the times, but in the first decade of the 11th century it came into its own, courtesy of a brilliant account written by a nameless London chronicler. Tragic, ironic, scathing, with poignant eyewitness detail, it is the birth of narrative history in English.

Æthelred’s reign also marked the beginning of ties with a future nemesis from across the English Channel. In 1002, the king married Emma of Normandy, one of the most remarkable women in our history. Elizabeth I and Victoria may be more celebrated, but in terms of drama, Emma’s 50-year reign leaves them in her wake: only Matilda can compare. Her story is told in the first biography of a woman in our history, In Praise of Queen Emma, which lifts the veil on 11th-century dynastic politics.

Emma later married Cnut, and her Danish and English sons became kings. This was a time when the Danish kings of England ruled Denmark and parts of Norway and Sweden too: a North Sea empire, and a very different alignment for English history. But when Emma’s childless son, Edward the Confessor, died in 1066, waiting in the wings was a giant of English history, William of Normandy.

They shaped the England we know today

William the Conqueror’s victory over the English at Hastings on 14 October 1066 was a shattering blow that ended half a millennium of Anglo-Saxon England. The ruling class was systematically removed: of 1,400 chief tenants in place on the eve of William’s invasion, only two were left in 1086. This was a time of massive change, and the Conquest was long remembered as a “a bitter wound for our dear country”.

The Conquest was recorded in the most famous text in British history: Domesday Book (which is on display in the British Library exhibition). Domesday Book even tells us how it felt for a former freeman, Aelfric of Marsh Gibbon in Buckinghamshire, to farm what had been his own land before 1066, but was now leased from a Norman, “miserably, and with a heavy heart”.

Domesday Book is so important because it gives us a statistical portrait of the England bequeathed us by the Anglo-Saxons, with its structures of local government, its shires and hundreds, towns and villages (13,418 of them!). But at the heart of the book are the people themselves. So let’s end with the story of a Domesday farming family, from Cockerington in the Lincolnshire Wolds, who were descended from the old class of Anglo-Danish freemen. A century after Hastings, their great-granddaughter Christiana married a Norman, marking the process by which the conquered and the conquerors made peace.

But the English never forgot 1066. Nor of course did the Welsh and, later, the Irish (the centuries-long assault on their culture began with an Anglo-Norman invasion in the 1170s). The Normans bequeathed wounds yet to heal. Even in the 21st century, we are trying to negotiate the legacy of these events: in Scottish and Welsh independence movements, and in the Irish border question. As the historian Eric John wrote in the 20th century: “It was the Anglo-Saxons who made England, the Normans who attempted to make Great Britain. And as yet they have not succeeded so well.”

Michael Wood is a historian, whose books include In Search of the Dark Ages (BBC Books, 2005)


This article was first published in the November 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine


Michael Wood is professor of public history at the University of Manchester