Monday, July 9, 2012

Anglo-Saxon History 101

A reconstructed Danish Axe.
Anglo Saxons and Anglo Danes, Oh My!

This is a brief review of the history of England during the early middle ages, from the end of Roman rule until the Norman Conquest in 1066.  It should provide some background for Saga players of "Anglo-Saxon" and "Anglo-Dane" warbands.

The End of Roman Britain

During the Roman Empire, the southern part of Britain was a Roman province.  The majority of the population spoke Celtic languages, related to Welsh and Cornish, and there was a Roman-British fusion of culture.  As the western Roman provinces began to disintegrate under the pressures of the Migration Age, the western government withdrew its armies from the island.  Romano-British life continued without much imperial oversight or protection even as invasions of Germanic-speaking "barbarians" began.

Three Germanic "tribes" invaded and settled south-central part of the island: the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes.  Aside from some legend and murky archaeology, we do not know how this invasion proceeded, what arrangements or resistance the local population made, the ratio of settlers to locals, or much else.  The legendary King Arthur dates from this period, as a Roman-Celtic hero who supposedly led resistance against the settlement.

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

I bet this would look great on a 6-sided die!
We do know the results -- the central part of the island became Anglo-Saxon speaking, with the Celtic-speaking majority remaining only Wales and Cornwall.  The name "Angle" gives us our word "English" and "Angle-land" is of course "England." Even today, people of English descent are sometimes (poetically) called Anglo-Saxons.  (Nobody much bothers with the Jutes.  Dunno why.)

The Anglo-Saxons formed several competing kingdoms.  At first, they were pagan -- unlike many peoples who settled in former Roman provinces.  However, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms soon converted to Christianity under influence from Irish and Roman missionaries.  In the period before the Viking invasions, the Anglo-Saxons had much in common, diplomatically, culturally and religiously, with the greater series of kingdoms of western Christendom.

The Viking Crisis

The Viking invasions permanently transformed the history of England.  The Viking Great Army of the early 800s conquered all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, except Wessex.  The King of Wessex, Alfred the Great, led a heroic resistance.  When the conflict settled, there were two dominant powers -- the Wessex-dominated English, and the Viking-dominated Danelaw, with its center at York. A substantial number of Danes and other Scandinavians settled in the Danelaw, leaving a lasting legacy there.  To greatly simplify a complicated story, the English and the Danes remained in conflict until the mid-10th century, when the English king brought all England under his rule, establishing a unified kingdom.

Knut, Danes and Dynasties
Oh my!

The Danes kings retained an interest in England, particularly Northern England, and retained much influence over the (partly Danish) population there. In the early 11th century, there was a resurgence of Danish activity in England.  Sven Forkbeard (briefly) became its king.  Shortly after, his son, Knut "the Great" also conquered England, and united hisconquests into an "Empire" that stretched from the British Isles to Scandinavia.  This arrangement broke down not long after his death, and the (Anglo-Saxon) Edward the Confessor became king.  With Edward's death in 1066, old claims reopened, leading to the multiple invasions of 1066, the Norman Conquest and the end of the Viking Age.


Saga has two army lists, the Anglo-Saxons and the Anglo-Danish.  The Anglo-Saxon army list is supposed to cover the entire period from the Anglo-Saxon migrations till the 11th century Danish conquests.  The Anglo-Danish list has a much smaller scope, representing only the period between the Knut and the Norman Conquest. For the forces of the earlier Danelaw, you probably want a Viking list, or maybe another Anglo-Saxon one, depending on its composition. In Saga, though, the different lists seem to represent attitude and approach as much as equipment, ethnicity or organization, so there's considerable overlap in how you might wish to play your models.

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