Angles, Saxons and Anglo-Saxons: Ethnic identities in southern Britain in the 5th-9th Centuries AD

At the present time, Anglo-Saxon studies are mired in controversy. Use of the very term Anglo-Saxon is being questioned because it has been appropriated by white supremacists in the USA and many academics are no longer using it. In a recent podcast, Gabor Thomas, the excavator of what many think of as ‘Anglo-Saxon Lyminge’, discussed his work excavating the grave of the Marlow Warlord during the summer of 2020. He says he prefers the term Early Medieval to describe the date of the burial in the 6th Century, but this in turn has its own problems. Such terms are not widely understood, and are used to mean different things by different people. It is not difficult to find this term being used to describe date ranges of 400-600, 600-850, 400-1066, and more traditionally the period in the 12th Century following the Normans. Early Medieval may be politically correct, but it does not communicate a date range clearly or unambiguously.

Moreover Anglo-Saxon is not an inappropriate term to use to describe the period in England prior to the Norman Conquest of 1066. It is not a name invented by modern historians. The people in southern and eastern Britain were first called Anglisaxones in the late 8th Century at the court of Charlemagne, King of the Franks and later Holy Roman Emperor. Alcuin, an Englishman who has a claim to be the foremost scholar of his day, was employed by Charlemagne. Writing to the Pope in 786, he referred to Anglorum Saxonia, (‘Saxony of the English’). The name Anglisaxones appears to carry the meaning, not so much of ‘a mixture of Angles and Saxons’ as ‘the English Saxons’. It was invented to distinguish the English Saxons from those Saxons who lived in Saxonia in north western Germany, west of the River Elbe. This was a new political unit created by Charlemagne. The term Anglisaxones caught on, and it was being used in England itself by the middle of the 9th Century. So it is certainly the case that Anglo-Saxon is a valid historical name. But it is also clear that it came into use fairly late on and it does not help us to know what people were called in the preceding 400 years.

The reality is that we do not know precisely where the migrants who came to the southern and eastern parts of Britain in the 4th, 5th and 6th Centuries actually came from or what they called themselves. They had no written language so they kept no records and cannot tell us. So all we do know about them was written by others. These were almost entirely churchmen, who wrote in Latin and who viewed themselves very much as the heirs of Roman culture. The ideas they had and the language they used were inherited from Rome, and it is to the late Roman world that we must turn in order to seek the origins of the name Saxon. But before doing that, it is worth considering the origin of the often-quoted statement that three separate peoples migrated to Britain in the post-Roman period: the Jutes, the Saxons and the Angles.

The source for this statement is a native churchman called Bede, a monk living and working at Jarrow and Wearmouth in north east England from the end of the 7th Century. His Ecclesiastical History of the English Peoples, completed around 733, contains a passage that describes Kent (plus the Isle of Wight and part of Hampshire) being settled by Jutes, the area to the west of Kent by Saxons and the area to the north by Angles. This implies groups of people, coming from distinct parts of what we now think of as Germany, and maintaining their group identity when they arrived in Britain. This identity was then reflected in the kingdoms they founded: the kingdoms of the West Saxons, the South Saxons, the East Anglians, and so on. Bede calls the Mercians of the Midlands and the Bernicians and Deirans of Northumbria Angles too, although this does not feature in the names they used for themselves. This neat equation between origin and identity in England is not however the whole story. Bede himself elsewhere in the same Ecclesiastical History says that there were ‘very many peoples in Germany from whom the Angles and Saxons, who now live in Britain, derive their origin…and these people are the Frisians, Rugians, Danes, Huns, Old Saxons and Bructeri.’ From this, we could conclude that the South Saxon, the East Anglian and all the other political identities that we know from this period were formed in Britain, and may have owed little to the identities these people had in their land of origin. 

More than a hundred  years before Bede, King Æthelberht of Kent, was styled Rex Anglorum (‘King of the Angles’) by Pope Gregory writing from Rome.  This title seems to have stuck, and Popes ever afterwards wrote to kings in southern and eastern Britain using this title, regardless of which kingdom they were in.  In the 6th Century, the Byzantine scholar Procopius in Constantinople knew of the inhabitants of Britain only as Angiloi.  Whether this recognition of English identity in the most powerful state in Europe at that time, the state that embodied the continuation of Roman power, was influential is difficult to say.  Æthelberht himself was flattered by Pope Gregory as the new Constantine, the first Christian Emperor of Rome.  It is at least possible that knowledge they were known as the English in the centres of power swayed how the English presented themselves to the outside world. 

At home, the kings of Kent do not seem to have identified very clearly at all with ancestors originating across the Channel.  In their own charters Æthelberht’s successors called themselves Rex Cantiae or Rex Cantuariorum (‘King of Kent’ or ‘King of the Kentish people’).  This shows that it was more important locally to identify with the native population who had been living in Kent for at least the past 700 years.  The people encountered there by Julius Caesar in 55BC were known as the Cantii, and this name persisted in use through the Roman period, was not only adopted by the Germanic incomers who established the Kingdom of Kent, but remains the name of the area in use to this day, a remarkable display of continuity.  This may well reflect political alliances and inter-marriage on the part of the Germanic incomers rather than outright military domination in the 5th and 6th Centuries.  It is difficult to perceive any acknowledgement of the Jutish identity, and a real question mark must hang over the simple tripartite division of the invaders into the three peoples of Jutes, Angles and Saxons that is so familiar to us from the pages of Bede.

In the light of this very mixed picture in the 7th and 8th Centuries, we should consider what we know about the origin of the Saxons and when the name first appears in the historical record.  The earliest contemporary mention of Saxones is in a work of the Emperor Julian dating to 356.  There is a reference to Saxons at the end of the 3rd Century in the work of Eutropius, who was writing in the later 4th Century, but we cannot be certain that this is not an anachronistic term projected back.  Saxons are also mentioned by Ammianus Marcellinus, writing in the second half of the 4th Century about contemporary events.  The evidence shows that the name only came into use in the Roman world during the 4th Century.  There are indications of an actual people called Saxones living on the North Sea coast west of the River Elbe far beyond the Roman frontier.  These people presumably provided recruits to constitute the ala prima Saxonum, an army unit in the command of the Duke of Phoenicia, and there may have been other Saxon units in the army too. 

But until the middle of the 6th Century, the term was most usually used to describe raiders arriving by ship from beyond the Roman frontier.  Use of the term Saxones as a universal short-hand for pirates is perhaps most dramatically reflected in the name for the line of Roman forts built from the end of the 3rd Century along the British east and south coasts from Brancaster in north west Norfolk to Portchester near Portsmouth.  Four of the forts are in Kent: Reculver, Richborough, Dover and Lympne.  All the forts appear in a document known as the Notitia Dignitatum that dates probably to the late 4th Century.  This is not a straightforward document but in essence it lists the military commands of the later Roman Empire and identifies these particular forts as belonging to the command of the Comes litoris saxonici (‘the Count of the Saxon Shore’). 

There is much debate whether this name derives from it being the coast attacked by Saxon raiders, or the coast settled by Saxons who had been engaged as troops to defend it.  The practice of settling such foederati in frontier zones to protect them was a practice common throughout the later Roman Empire.  However, whether the name Saxon Shore refers to attacking Saxons or defending Saxons does not really matter in this context.  In either case, the name would seem to derive from the late Roman use of Saxones to mean barbarians or non-Romans who came from outside the Roman world, more particularly from far outside where tribal identities were very poorly known or understood.  Saxon was a synonym for barbarian sea raider, in much the same way that Viking or Northman was used later to describe Scandinavian raiders in general.

In the Life of St Germanus, written by Constantius of  Lyon probably around 480, Germanus wins a battle in Britain over a force of Saxons.  There is no suggestion that the term is used in any specific ethnic sense and Constantius appears to refer simply to a group of seaborne raiders, using the word in the normal late Roman sense.  Around 540, Gildas, a monk living in the west of Britain wrote a work called On the Ruin of Britain, in which he describes how a hundred years or so before his time, Saxon mercenaries had been hired by the leaders of post-Roman Britain.  These Saxons had rebelled, taking control over the southern and eastern parts of Britain, ultimately providing the opportunity for more migrants to come and settle.  Again it is not clear that the term Saxon is used in any sense other than to refer to barbarians hired from the lands beyond the old Roman frontier.

The term Saxon thus seems to have been used by Romanised contemporaries located in the lands around southern and eastern Britain to apply to the people who first raided and then began to settle there in the 4th and 5th Centuries, and who later began to take over political control and begin to form kingdoms in the 6th Century.  There appears to be no sense in which these raiders and settlers derived solely from a people called Saxons living in a distinct part of Continental Europe.  Indeed, to the Franks of 6th to 8th Century France, Saxonia meant only the area we now call England.  Moreover this wasn’t only true in Continental Europe.  Bede himself notes that the Abbot of Jarrow described himself as being in Saxonia.  Boniface, the 8th Century English missionary to Germany described London as being in transmarina Saxonia (‘in Saxony across the sea’). 

Bearing in mind that to Latin-speaking people in the 4th-6th Centuries, Saxons were a synonym for seaborne raiders from beyond the Roman world, it is possible that the name Saxonia was given to the south of Britain fairly early because it was seen as the land settled by such people.  Indeed, this might represent a continuation and adaptation of the name Saxon Shore.  If that is the case, it is not inconceivable that the people who settled on this coast in what we now call Essex and Sussex adopted the Saxon name because they settled on the Saxon Shore.  It may not have been a name they brought with them from their homeland in Continental Europe.  This is exactly what seems to have happened in Kent, where the settlers opted for a new local identity adopting the local tribal name that in this case had a pedigree stretching back to before the Romans.  Migrants adopting a Kentish or a Saxon identity through names already well-established in Britain could be viewed as assimilating themselves into a world where the legacy of Rome was strong.  The very speed with which the kingdoms from Northumbria to Wessex adopted Christianity in the 7th Century following the arrival of the mission of St Augustine in 597, demonstrates how keen they were to be absorbed into the political mainstream of Continental Europe.         

So perhaps in the various records that we have examined from this long period of 500 years from around 350 to 850, what we are seeing is an example of multiple identities and multiple usages, each one used in different contexts.  One usage may not be directly comparable with another if the context is different.  Much as an inhabitant of Newcastle-upon-Tyne today might be Northumbrian when talking to someone from Yorkshire, or English when talking to a Scot, or British if talking to an Italian, so in the same way, this Geordie’s ancestors might have thought of themselves in multiple ways according to context.  Ultimately, the kings of the West Saxons united the whole of the country and adopted an English identity, following perhaps the lead that was first set by Pope Gregory at the end of the 6th Century and which had persisted in the centres of power ever since.  In international politics, it may have been recognised that the name English was what really mattered.  We can see this in the creation of the term Anglisaxones in the later 8th Century, when the people of southern Britain were clearly viewed by the Franks as English. 

But equally clearly, before southern Britain became Englaland (‘the land of the English’) it was also known, by people living there as well as by people living outside, as Saxonia.  The history of the name in the 4th-6th Centuries, and its meaning in the vocabulary of the late Roman and sub-Roman period might tend to suggest that the name Saxonia has little to do directly with settlement by people who called themselves Saxones, and rather more to do with the fact that the people who settled there came by sea, many came initially as raiders, and they came from places well beyond the old Roman frontier.  As Bede says, they may have been Danes, or Rugii or Bructeri, but to churchmen steeped in late Roman culture, they would have been Saxones, regardless of tribal affiliation in their homeland.  So it is hardly surprising that for a period, the country these people settled was known as Saxonia, even if ultimately, it was English identity that prevailed, and the country became known as England. 

You can read more about this subject in the following papers:

Pohl, W, 1997, ‘Ethnic names and identities in the British Isles: A comparative perspective’, in Hines, J (ed), The Anglo-Saxons from the Migration Period to the Eighth Century (Woodbridge), 7-40

Springer, M, 2003, ‘Location in space and time’, in Green, DH and Siegmund, F (eds), The Continental Saxons from the Migration Period to the Tenth Century (Woodbridge), 11-36

Bartholomew, P, 1984, ‘Fourth-Century Saxons’ in Britannia XV, 169-85