The Angles were one of the Germanic tribes, which in the 5th century A.C. conquered England. The famous English historian Bede wrote in the 8th century, that they came from a country in between the lands of the Jutlanders and the Saxons. More precisely from the peninsula Angel ( Latin: Angelus; Germanic: Angul; German: Angeln; Danish: Angel ) between the fiords of Flensburg and Schleswig ( the Schlei ). This was by the way Danish territory until 1864. The Angles settled in particular in Northumberland, in Mercia and in East Anglia.
Another Germanic tribe, which invaded Britannia in that period, was the Saxons. They came from the present day North German areas. And they settled down in the areas, which today carry the name ending –sex ( Essex, Middlesex, Sussex and Wessex ). The ending –sex comes from Saxon.
And the last invading tribe was according to the historians the Jutlanders. They did not come from Jutland, but from the Frisian areas at the Germanic coast of the North Sea. Why? Because the Jutlanders already in the 4th century had left Jutland and settled in these Frisian territories. In this way most villages and farms in the Jutland area disappeared. These were about a hundred years later taken over by the Danes – another tribe which came from the present areas in East Denmark and before that from Sweden. The Jutlanders settled in particular in Kent, on the island of Wight and along the coast of Hampshire.
All this happened during the period of great migrations in Europe ( around the 4th and 5th centuries ).
What sort of country was it that the Anglo-Saxons conquered at the time ?
It was the Roman province of Britannia. Before the Romans this area was in the hands of the Brits – a Celtic tribe, which was related to the Galls in present France. Culturally they were somewhat different from the Galls. And in war they tattooed themselves and painted themselves with a blue colour. The Brits spoke Celtic. By the way, most of Europe’s population did so before the Roman times. Celtic tribes and people inhabited a very large part of present Europe – except Scandinavia and most of Eastern Europe. But the Romans pushed them all back step by step everywhere. Especially Caesar’s war against the Galls turned into a real bloodbath. About one third of the Galls was killed. The Romans were in particular against the religion of many Celtic tribes, where their priests, the druids, sacrificed human beings according to their beliefs.
Caesar came with his army from Gaul to Britannia in the years 55 and 54 BC. He arranged that trade relations were established between Britannia and Rome. Only during the reign of emperor Claudius the Romans in year 43 AC started to conquer the country and make it a Roman province. The Roman general Agricola conquered the area all the way up to Forth and Clyde in present Scotland in the years 78-85 AC. Later emperor Hadrian abandoned the Scottish area and built a 120 km wall between Tyne and Solway. This wall called Hadrian’s Wall is partly still there.
The culture of Rome soon dominated Britannia. Many towns and cities were created, especially London ( Londonium ) and York ( Eboracum ). All cities and towns, which today carry the ending –coln owe their name to the Roman word “colonia”. And the ending –chester comes from the Roman “castrum”, which means camp. Lots of roads were also built, and the Romans did a lot to improve the local mining industry and trade in general.
When the people to the north of Britannia ( especially the Picts and the Scotes ) started to attack the province life became more and more difficult for the Romans. There were also many attacks from the sea by Germanic tribes. In 410 AC the Romans decided to pull all their troops out of Britannia, and the country was now wide open to conquerers from outside.
Some rumours say that some of the Brits invited Germanic tribes to come to help them. At any rate, the Germanic people came in their thousands. And took over the country. The Brits had during the Roman period accepted Christianity. The Germanic tribes had not, so they attacked the church ferosiously. The Brits escaped in large numbers westwards ( to Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man and Ireland ). Other went north to present Scotland. And many crossed the Channel and settled down in present Brittany ( Bretagne ). Until then this peninsula was called Armorica ( “the land at the sea” ). Now it got the name of Brittany, which means “Little Britannia”.
The stories about “King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table” come from the battles between the Brits ( which King Arthur etc. belonged to ) and the invading Anglo-Saxons. There is great disagreement between historians on whether these stories are real or just legends.
The language of the Brits survived in all the areas, where they settled down. A couple of hundred years ago it practically disappeared in Cornwall and later on the Isle of Man.
Back to the new conquerors in the 6th century: The Anglo-Saxons ( and the Jutlanders
) The Brits called them all “Saxons”. The Danes and other Northerners called them “Engle” – from the word “Angles”. That’s where the name ENGLAND comes from ( the land of the Angles – from the peninsula Angel ).
The “English language” also has its origins from this period. Many of the invading Anglo-Saxons spoke a simplified form of the “Old Frisean language”, and they carried that with them to their new country. This language was so easy to learn that it was quickly taken over also by the part of the local population, which had not moved away. This was the start of English.
The Anglo-Saxon England did not enjoy peace for a long period. From the 8th century the Vikings – or Normans, as they were also called, because they were the men from the North ) – started to invade the English coasts. They came from Denmark in their impressive longboats. They created their own “kingdom” in the north and the middle of the country. It was called DANELAGEN ( the country where Danish law was implemented ). Today about 1.500 names of places in this area are of direct Danish origin. And DNA tests of the population today have recently shown that in many places about half of the people carries “Viking blood”.
The Danish period in England was at its height, when Canute the Great was king in Denmark as well as in England. When he died in 1035, decline started for the Danes almost right away.
A new era for England and its already very mixed population started in 1066, when the Normans from France attacked and conquered the country. They were direct descendants of the Danish Vikings, who from the beginning of the 10th century had seized this area, which consequently got the name Normandie ( or Normandy ). The conquest took place under the leadership of the Danish Viking chief Rollo ( died around 930 ). These Vikings were very quickly – over 2-3 generations – assimilated with the local French population, took over their language and forgot their original Danish language. And they created a very strong “kingdom” at that time. They were the people, who in 1066 under the leadership of William the Conqueror ( originally called “William the Hybrid” ) took over England. After that they were the ruling class – a French-speaking upper-class in England. The arrival of the Normans also meant that many French words and expressions from now on was adopted into the English language.
Some centuries later England conquered Normandy. That’s how things often move forth and back in history.
It is interesting to reflect on the fact, that it was with DANES ( Jutlanders
) in front, when the Anglo-Saxons conquered Roman Britannia. It was DANISH Vikings, who later seized the country from them. And it was Vikings of DANISH origin ( the Normans ), who later again took over from the Vikings.
If you see it all from a GERMAN angle this history is also very interesting:
Most of the Anglo-Saxon conquerors in the 6th century were “Germans”. The Germanic tribe, the Franks, who lived along the Rhine, took the area of Gall from the Romans in the 5th century. They started the Frankian Empire ( Charlemagne, etc.) and later France ( named from the Franks ). Therefore, the Germans can with strong historic backing claim that they are the origins of England as well as of France.
Also one of history’s very interesting lessons.
Niels Jørgen Thøgersen
February 2008 ( 2nd edition )