Anglo-Saxon Conquest of Britain

Invasion and Settlement

Germanic tribes from northwestern Europe began to raid Roman-occupied Britain in the third century, carrying away grain, cattle, and other valuables. Not long after Roman troops were withdrawn from Britain, 407–10, bands from three distinct but closely related tribes—the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes—sailed across the North Sea in search of land for settlement.

According to tradition, the first important settlement was made about 449 by the Jutes on Britain's eastern coast. For nearly two centuries, a steady stream of Teutonic invaders followed. They penetrated the island by way of its inland rivers, ravaging as they advanced. Roman civilization was destroyed; its language, religion, and customs disappeared. Most of the native Britons, a Celtic people, were killed, enslaved, or driven into Wales and to Brittany (in France).

About 613 the Anglo-Saxon conquest of central Britain was completed. Anglo-Saxon England was divided into a number of small kingdoms. The Jutes occupied the region called Kent, between the Thames River and the Strait of Dover. The Saxons settled to the south and west of London. Their major kingdoms were Sussex, Essex, and Wessex. The Angles, who gave their name to the country, inhabited the eastern coast from the territory of the Saxons northward into the Scottish lowlands. They formed the kingdoms of East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria.

Although barbarians, the Anglo-Saxons were more advanced than the Britons had been before the Roman occupation. Predominantly a rural people, they settled in small villages scattered throughout the country and farmed the land.

Steps Toward Unification

Constant conflict followed during the four centuries after the conquest of Britain. The Anglo-Saxons warred among themselves, against the Welsh (Britons in Wales), and later against Danish and Norwegian invaders (the Vikings).

The more powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdoms absorbed their weaker neighbors. From the seven major kingdoms that developed during the invasions, three dominant states emerged—Northumbria, Mercia, and Wessex. Northumbria held supremacy in the seventh century; Mercia, particularly under King Offa (757–96), in the eighth; and Wessex, beginning with King Egbert (802–39), in the ninth. But there was little real unity until the reign of Egbert's grandson Alfred the Great, king of Wessex (871–99). Because of his strong leadership at a time of the continuing disruption caused by the Danish wars, the English acknowledged Alfred's supremacy, thus taking the first steps toward eventual union of all Englishmen.

The Danes and Norwegians, who had overrun much of the north and east of the country since their first invasion of England about 787, were finally subdued through the efforts of Alfred and his immediate successors. His grandson Athelstan, king of Wessex (925–40), won a great victory over the Vikings, Britons, and Scots in 937 and united England under one rule. Fighting was renewed after his death, but the Danes and Norwegians finally came to accept rule by an Anglo-Saxon king under Athelstan's brother Edred (946–55).

About 980, however, in the reign of Ethelred the Unready (978–1016), the Danes renewed their attacks, and in 1016 Knut (Canute), king of Denmark, seized the throne. Edward the Confessor, son of Ethelred, restored the native dynasty in 1042. The conquest of England in 1066 by the Norman French, under William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, ended six centuries of Anglo-Saxon dominance.