woden and his followers
In my previous article on kings and dynasties, I stated that I would look at each group separately in more depth. In order to better understand the Anglo-Saxon rule in England, we need to have some history on who the Angles, the Saxons and Jutes were, and how they came to England in the first place. This article is a brief look at that history.
You can view the previous article here: https://timeslipsblog.wordpress.com/2015/05/15/i-am-king-really-why-and-how/
Before we get into the rulers and their divine right to rule, we need to look briefly at the history of the kingdoms, the people and how they came to be in Britain. We will look at the Angles, the Saxons, and yes even the Jutes who seem to get overlooked and forgotten in the discussions of early Britain, I am also going to include a segment on one other group that gets mixed in with the rest but does have it’s own separate identity… that would be a group of Geats from the area of Sweden who made their contribution via the Wulfinga tribe who would settle in part of Britain. I am including this group for two reasons. They did play an important part in the history of Britain, and one of our past rulers was presumably a part of this group. The unfortunate Jarl Borg belonged to a distinctive Norse tribe known as the Gautar, a people referred to in English works such as Beowulf and Widsith as the ‘Geats’, and related to the Germanic Goth tribes which invaded the western Roman Empire. The Gautar have since been assimilated by the Swedes in the Medieval period. Jarl Borg, as a powerful Geatish lord of near-kingly powers, may have been a member of the royal clan of the Wulfings (descendents of the wolf) who traditionally ruled over the Gautar of Ostergotland.
Sam Newton and others (including Rupert Bruce-Mitford), have proposed that the East Anglian Wuffing dynasty was derived from the Wulfings, and it was at their court that Beowulf was first composed.
The Wuffingas, Uffingas or Wuffings were the ruling dynasty of East Anglia, the long-lived Anglo-Saxon kingdom which today includes the English counties of Norfolk and Suffolk. The Wuffingas took their name from Wuffa, an early East Anglian king. Nothing is known of the members of the dynasty before Rædwald, who ruled from about 599 to circa 624. The Viking invasions of the ninth century destroyed the monasteries in East Anglia where many documents relating to the rule of the Wuffingas would have been kept.
The last of the Wuffingas kings was Ælfwald, who died in 749 and who was succeeded by kings whose lineage is unknown. The kingdom of East Anglia was settled by peoples from northern Europe during the 5th and 6th centuries. Historical sources relating to the genealogy of the East Anglian kings include the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Bede‘s Ecclesiastical History, both compiled many years after the kingdom was formed, as well as lists produced by medieval historians, such as the 12th century Textus Roffensis, who may have had access to other sources that are now lost. Several of the Wuffingas kings are included in a pedigree of Ælfwald, contained in the Anglian collection that dates from the 9th century. In the pedigree, Ælfwald is claimed to descend from the god Wōden.
jarl borg caressing his wife’s skull
jarl borg planning revenge
In my previous article about Horik and Ragnar, I did touch on the beginnings of the Angles and Saxons in Britain with their migration from their homelands as the Danish or Dani began to take over those areas. This migration included Jutes and Geats from the southern area of what is now Sweden. Keep in mind that this migration took place centuries prior to the Viking arrivals in late 700s and 800s. These earliest migrations began as the Romans were fighting to maintain control of this outpost known as Britannia. Another important fact to remember for our purposes here is that we are not looking at the areas of Wales, Cornwall, Scotland or Ireland in this discussion.
Little is really known about the Jutes, their migration to Britain or their eventual demise in that land. They most likely joined with their neighbors, the Angles and Saxons in the relocation to Britain when the Danes and Franks became more powerful and took over the home lands. It is possible that the Jutes are a related people to the Geats and a Gothic people as it is mentioned in the Gutasaga that some inhabitants of Gotland left for mainland Europe. Large grave sites were found at Willenberg, Prussia (now Wielbark, Poland). The finds were attributed to the ancient Gutones, who may speculatively belinked to the much later Goths.
They settled in smaller southern areas of England, kent and Isle of Whight. If you look at this map of Anglo-Saxon England, you can see that Kent is fairly close to east Anglia where the Geats (Wulfings) settled. If the two groups were related or connected to each other, it would stand to reason that they re-settle in some close proximity.
The Jutes were a smaller group than the others and they seem to have rather quickly been assimilated into those larger groups, losing most of their previous individual history or identity. While it is commonplace to detect their influences in Kent (for example, the practice of partible inheritance known as gavelkind), the Jutes in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight vanished, probably assimilated to the surrounding Saxons, leaving only the slightest of traces. The culture of the Jutes of Kent shows more signs of Roman, Frankish, and Christian influence than that of the Angles or Saxons. Funerary evidence indicates that the pagan practice of cremation ceased relatively early and jewellery recovered from graves has affinities with Rhenish styles from the Continent, perhaps suggesting close commercial connections with Francia. It is possible that being such a small group that they were more quickly assimilated into the Christian beliefs and culture as well. Some early historians speculated that they were victims of Ethnic cleansing by the West Saxons but later theories suggest that it was more a case of them assimilating themselves into the larger groups. What ever the reason, they disappeared as a group early on and played no role in the later settlements of England by the Anglo-Saxons.
Angles-Saxons-Jutes-&-Frisians during roman occupation of Britannia map
For our discussion, we are only going to focus on those areas that the Jutes, Angles and Saxons would conquer and settle in. The following is an early map of the home lands that the Jutes, Saxons and Angles occupied prior to the Danes took them over.
Angles_saxons_jutes in northland map
This map gives a breakdown of where they originally settled in Roman era Brittania.
Anglo_saxon_jute breakdown in Britain map
By the early 600s, this is what the kingdoms and settlements were beginning to look like with this, Angles and Saxons controlling much of the area and Jutes holding on to a few small portions. The native Britons were relegated to the areas of Whales and Scotland at that time. This is a precursor to the four main kingdoms that would remain and become vital power players in the future. By the 800s it would become Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria, with East Anglia remaining a small separate entity.
This is what the land looked like by late 700s, early 800s in the time of Ecbert.
The Romans left Britannia in the early 400s as the Angles, Saxons and Jutes began their migration to the area. They left behind their buildings, their roadways, some of their culture and they left behind their religion as well. By the time the Romans left Brittania, they were Christians. Some of their citizens and their priests would have chosen to stay in this land that they now considered home. As they became assimilated into the new cultures taking over the land, they would most likely have begun the process of slowly merging and weaving together the two separate belief systems into a form of Christianity that those North people would understand and accept. By the 800s when the second wave of Northmen arrived, these earlier invaders and settlers had become fully immersed in the Christian belief system with their previous Nordic beliefs long forgotten, set aside or kept secret. There would have been remaining sects and pockets of those who followed the old ways but this would have been in the more isolated, rural areas and even then, they would have kept it at a low profile so as not to draw attention or recrimination from the Church, which was becoming so much more powerful and controlling.
First we should look at the original migration of the Saxons, Angles and Jutes from their homeland to the areas that they each ultimately settled in Britain. They all came from the same general area, probably spoke the same language and most importantly, held the same beliefs. All of these early tribes followed Odin or Woden and they took their belief system with them to Brittania. The only difference in the belief system is that the Angles, Saxons and Jutes in Britain followed this God as Woden while those who remained in the homeland used the word Odin.. Woden would eventually play an important part in determining the rulers of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
gods of our saxon gods 1.sun god 2. moon god 3.god tiw 4. woden
The ancestor of the South Saxon kings, Woden was born at the beginning of time, his parents being the giant, Bor, and the giantess, Bestia, who came from chaos.
Woden was the Father God, the god of battle and death, the god of inspiration and wit, and, far from least, he was the god of learning. Woden was also the psychopomp of slain warriors, taking them back to Valhalla, his hall of the brave. Valhalla was situated in a joyous land called Gladheim, where Woden also had another hall with twelve thrones upon which were seated his councillors.
Woden was the great chief of the Aesir, a race of war gods who lived in Asgarth, the world of divinities. The god-chief had two ravens, Hugin (Thought) and Munin (Memory), who told him all that had happened in Milgard, the world of mortals.
Woden was in wedlock with Frigg, the goddess of fertility, conjugal love and motherhood.
Their eldest son, Balder, was the favourite of all the other gods and known for his matchless beauty and sweetness of character. He was the god of plants and good forces. He lived in a hall called Breithablik with his wife, the daughter of the god Nepr, and her name was Nanna. Forseti, their son, was the god of justice, peace and truth. He had a throne in his hall. This residence was called Glitnir, a palace which was embellished with silver and gold.
Balder was killed unintentionally by his blind brother, the god Hoder, with a bough of mistletoe, having been misled by the malicious Loki, the god of mischief, destruction and fire.
Woden and Frigg had another son who was killed in combat at the battle of Ragnasok. His name was Hermod. Since he had no children and nor did Hoder, presumably Aelle and Mealla (if they were royal) would have claimed descent from Woden through his grandson, Forseti. Woden also had a natural son called Vithar, by his concubine Grithir, who was a giantess.
According to Norwegian myth the mountain caves in this land of fjords are peopled by supernatural giants called trolls, although they sometimes appear as dwarfs. Tradition also says that they read the Old Testament. Perhaps trolls derive their ancestry from a distant memory of neanderthals, as might the giants who are said to have existed in the chaos before the birth of Woden.
The traditional view has always been presented that the Anglo-Saxons made a great invasion of the land, destroyed everything in their path and took it over completely, wiping out all of the previous inhabitants or causing them to flee to the wilds and desolation of the west and northern portions. We have been told that, much like the second wave of Vikings, they were marauding, murderous heathenish Barbarians. This traditional view is slanted and biased in favor of the Romans, and the Christians who were able to write down their versions of what happened during that era. As with any history, there are two sides to every event and the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Were there great battles, burnings, pillaging and death? Yes, of course there were- on all sides. If you were a villager or farmer of that time, you may not have even been sure quite who was destroying your life. You might have imagined that it was that group of Barbarians, those Saxons that your overlord mentioned… but you may not have been aware of what your overlord had previously done to incur that wrath? You may not even have completely understood all of the groups waging war against each other, or that those Saxons were aiding some neighboring kingdom that your ruler had caused to create an enemy of. If you survived to tell of the battle, your recollection would be only of what you experienced first hand, or what your ruler told you was the cause. You would have known little or nothing about any underlying reasons and you most likely have not cared because in your small world, you would have gone on with your struggle for life in those bleak and uncertain times.
The Romans had been in control of the area for 350 years by the time they decided to leave. What happened in Britannia should hold the Romans as much or even more accountable and responsible than the Anglo-Saxons. They left the territory in a vulnerable state, having already destroyed and weakened the native Britons’ ability to rule or govern for themselves. What followed was chaos that left the remaining residents fighting amongst themselves for control of the area. As I’ve already mentioned, some Romans chose to remain as they now considered themselves more Briton than Roman. Many of them held bitterness and resentment of the Roman Empire for what happened. One other thing to consider is that many of those who remained may also have been soldiers who had been conscripted into the Roman army from all parts of the Empire, probably including those places of the Saxons, Angles and Jutes. Just because one was attached to the Roman Empire it did not necessarily mean they were Roman or even a Roman citizen. When the Roman Empire began to fall, many one time citizens or allies would probably have returned their allegiance to what ever home land they were from originally or the land they were residing in when the fall came. Those Romans that remained became Romo-Britons, and retained their previous elite statuses and lands for some time. They became part of the Briton elite rulers who were trying to re-build and re-establish kingdoms within the country. Rome made Britain a melting pot of cultures before the Saxons ever thought of arriving.
If you search through the histories to find that in between middle ground, you will find that the Saxons were not unknown to the Roman Empire or the Britons, nor were they necessarily the barbarians they were depicted as other than for the fact they were one of the many groups rebelling against the Roman Empire at the time. The Saxons were at one time part of that Empire, having been brought into it by the Foederati or treaty system that the Romans used to increase their armies. foederati and its usage and meaning was extended by the Roman practice of subsidizing entire barbarian tribes — which included the Franks, Vandals, Alans and, best known, the Visigoths — in exchange for providing warriors to fight in the Roman armies. Alaric began his career leading a band of Gothic foederati.
Saxons were mentioned as early as 350 by the Romans who were already dealing with Saxon defiance to their rule. It was during that time that Rome created a military district called the Litus Saxonicum (“Saxon Coast”) on both sides of the English Channel. The Saxons were fighting ongoing battles against the Franks who were Roman allies. It is possible that Saxon settlement of Great Britain began only in response to expanding Frankish control of the Channel coast. An important clue to why the Saxons might have felt some justification in their continuing settlement of Britain is that before the end of Roman rule in Britannia, many Saxons and other folk had been permitted to settle in these areas as farmers. The Romans opened the door for them to move in…. perhaps because they were already thinking of pulling out of the area and did not really care so much about who moved in next. The Romans may have thought that if the Saxon groups moved into Britain, they would be less of a threat on the rest of the continent. For the retreating Romans, it may have been a case of “Fine, you want a place of your own…Here take this place and Good Luck with that!”
After the Romans retreated from Britannia, some of the remaining powers continued to use the Roman system and still maintained some connection to Rome even though The Roman Empire had made it clear that those who remained in this place would be on their own and should not expect assistance from Rome. At some point they did appeal to Rome for assistance in fighting the Picts and Scoti, and this is possibly how the Saxons entered the picture on a larger scale. They were not marauding invaders, they were invited into the country by both the Romans and the later rulers of Britain!
This early documentation by Gildas in the 6th century is interesting because while he does refer to the Saxons as enemies, he admits that they were invited- hired to help, and he gives a clue as to what the middle ground may have been.
In Gildas‘s work of the sixth century, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, a religious tract on the state of Britain, the Saxons were enemies originally from overseas, who brought well-deserved judgement upon the local kings or ‘tyrants’.
- After an appeal to Aëtius the Britons were gripped by famine while suffering attacks from the Picts and Scoti; some fought back successfully, leading to a period of peace.
- Peace led to luxuria and self-indulgence.
- A renewed attack was threatened by the Picts and Scoti, and this led to a council, where it was proposed and agreed that land in the east would be given to the Saxons on the basis of a treaty, a foedus, by which the Saxons would defend the Britons in exchange for food supplies. This type of arrangement was unexceptional in a Late Roman context; Franks had been settled as foederati on imperial territory in northern Gaul (Toxandria) in the 4th century, and the Visigoths were settled in Gallia Aquitania early in the 5th century.
- The Saxon foederati first complained that their monthly supplies were inadequate. Then they threatened to break the treaty, which they did, spreading the onslaught from “sea to sea”.
- This war, which Higham called the “War of the Saxon Federates”, ended some 20–30 years later shortly after the siege at Montis Badonici, and some 40 years before Gildas was born.
- There was a peace with the Saxons who returned to their eastern home, which Gildas called a lugubre divortium barbarorum – a grievous divorce with the barbarians. The “divorce settlement”, Higham in particular argued was a better treaty and the ability to get tribute from the people in the east, under the leadership of the person Gildas called pater diabolus or Father-devil.
What this excerpt tells us is the Britons hired the Saxons, promised them payment and supplies and then were unable or unwilling to carry through on the treaty. Other early writings mention that the Saxons were also promised land to settle and the Britons reneged on that as well. What ensued was a lengthy period of wars and battles between the Britons and the Saxons.
Gildas described the corruption of the elite: “Britain has kings but they are tyrants; she has judges but they are wicked”. This passage provides a glimpse into the world of Gildas, he continued: “they plunder and terrorise the innocent, they defend and protect the guilty and thieving, they have many wives, whores and adulteresses, swear false oaths, tell lies, reward thieves, sit with murderous men, despise the humble, their commanders are ‘enemies of God'”; the list is long. Interesting oath breaking and the absence of just judgements for ordinary people was mentioned a number of times. British leadership, everywhere, was immoral and the cause of the “ruin of Britain”.
Hengist and Horsa:
The earliest accounts of the Saxon arrival are stories or legends regarding two Saxon brothers, Hengist and Horsa. Bear in mind that these accounts were not written down until centuries later. Both Anglo-Saxon chronicles and Norse Sagas give versions or accounts of the men. Hengist and Horsa are figures of Anglo-Saxon history, which records the two as the Germanic brothers who led the Angle, Saxon, Frisian, and Jutish armies that conquered the first territories of Britain in the 5th century. Tradition lists Hengist (through his son, whose name varies by source) as the founder of the Kingdom of Kent. As with most of the stories, theirs was colored by the Christian Monks recording history of the time. What you need to do is strip all of that coloring away down the most basic part of the account.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for the year 449 records that Hengest and Horsa were invited to Britain by Vortigern to assist his forces in fighting the Picts. Hengist and Horsa arrived at a place called Ipwinesfleet, and went on to defeat the Picts wherever they fought them. Hengist and Horsa sent word to the Angles describing “the worthlessness of the Britons, and the richness of the land” and asked for assistance. Their request was granted and support arrived. Afterward, more people arrived in Britain from “the three powers of Germany; the Old Saxons, the Angles, and the Jutes”. The Old Saxons populated the areas of the kingdoms of Essex, Sussex and Wessex. The Jutes populated the area of Kent, the Isle of Wight and an area of the adjacent mainland that would later be part of Wessex. The East Angles, Middle Angles, Mercians and “all those north of Humber” arrived from the region of Anglia (a peninsula in Southern Schleswig, Northern Germany) “which has ever since remained waste between the Jutes and Saxons”. These forces were led by the brothers Hengist and Horsa, sons of Wihtgils, son of Witta, son of Wecta, son of Woden.
The Historia Brittonum records that, during the reign of Vortigern in Britain, three vessels that had been exiled from Germania arrived in Britain, commanded by Hengist and Horsa. The Historia Brittonum details that Geta was said to be the son of a god, yet “not of the omnipotent God and our Lord Jesus Christ,” but rather “the offspring of one of their idols, and whom, blinded by some demon, they worshipped according to the custom of the heathen.” In 447 AD, Vortigern received Hengist and Horsa “as friends” and gave to the brothers the Isle of Thanet.
After the Saxons had lived on Thanet for “some time” Vortigern promised them supplies of clothing and other provisions on condition that the Saxons assist him in fighting the enemies of his country. The Saxons increased in number and the Britons were unable to keep their agreement. The Britons told the Saxons that the Saxons’ numbers had increased, that they no longer needed Saxon assistance and that the Saxons should go home as the Britons could no longer support them.
Vortigern allowed Hengist to send for more of Hengist’s countrymen to come over to Britain and fight for Vortigern. Messengers were sent to “Scythia“, where “a number” of warriors were selected, and, with sixteen ships, the messengers returned. With the men came Hengist’s beautiful daughter. Hengist prepared a feast, inviting Vortigern, Vortigern’s officers, and Ceretic, his translator. Prior to the feast, Hengist enjoined his daughter to serve the guests plenty of wine and ale so that they would get very intoxicated. The plan succeeded. “At the instigation of the Devil”, Vortigern fell in love with Hengist’s daughter and promised Hengist whatever he liked in exchange for her betrothal. Hengist, having previously “consulted with the Elders who attended him of the Angle race,” demanded Kent. Without the knowledge of the then-ruler of Kent, Vortigern agreed.
This account by the Historia Brittonum is somewhat contradictory at best… If Vortigern wanted them out of the country, why would he have then allowed them to send for additional forces? What is does do though, along with other accounts is set a basis for the British Kings reneging on their promises to those Saxons they needed help from. Hengist most likely knew full well of this breech and responded in kind with his own betrayals. The British Kingdoms were not just fighting the Picts and Scoti, they were fighting each other and would go to such lengths as using Saxon mercenaries to win their battles. What eventually happened was that the Anglo-Saxons fought to retain lands they had been given, as well as developing allegiances with some of those British Kingdoms.
I am providing this history of the Anglo-Saxon immigration to Britain because I feel it is important to see them in that middle ground of a history that has often portrayed them as the scourge of Britain. It is difficult to piece together what might have happened but many historians today have searched for that middle ground, that in between, those few grains of possible truth sifted out from the extremes. There a number of theories on how and why the Anglo-Saxons may have become the dominant culture in Britain where by the 8th century, they were viewed as the locals and native Britons were viewed as outsiders or foriegners. The name Welsh originated as an exonym given to its speakers by the Anglo-Saxons, meaning “foreign speech” (see Walha). The native term for the language is Cymraeg and Cymru for “Wales”.
Most agree now that they did not come in all in one invading force and wipe out the previous culture. It began as a small migration and settlement of them in places where they had been given land. The Roman Britons did not disappear, nor did the native Britons. A last battle took place between the original Saxon mercenaries and the Britons- a battle which the Saxons felt justified in fighting because of broken treaties. the Saxons lost this last battle but were not defeated, decimated or thrown out of the country. A compromise seemed to have been reached and lands were divided up between the British elite rulers and the Saxons.
Historian Nick Higham is convinced that the success of the Anglo-Saxon elite in gaining an early compromise shortly after the Battle of Badon is a key to the success of the culture. This produced a political ascendancy across the south and east of Britain, which in turn required some structure to be successful. After this time there began the process of cultures merging together to form one new one. The Bretwalda concept is taken as evidence for a presence of a number of early Anglo-Saxon elite families and a clear unitary oversight. Whether the majority of these leaders were early settlers, descendant from settlers, or especially after the exploration stage they were Roman-British leaders who adopted Anglo-Saxon culture is unclear. The balance of opinion is that most were migrants, although it shouldn’t be assumed they were all “Germanic”. There is agreement: that these were small in number and proportion, yet large enough in power and influence to ensure “Anglo-Saxon” acculturation in the lowlands of Britain. Most historians believe these elites were those named by Bede, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and others, although there is discussion regarding their floruit dates. Importantly, whatever their origin or when they flourished, they established their claim to lordship through their links to extended kin ties. As Helen Peake jokingly points out “they all just happened to be related back to Woden”.
For a more in depth and detailed look at the Anglo-Saxon migration and theories of why they were so successful, you can start your search here:
Throughout history, the reputation of those earliest Saxons has been colored by the Christian accounts of them as heathens and barbarians that destroyed a land and culture… what is interesting and important to remember is that those same Christians were in the process of completely wiping out that culture and belief system that they were blaming the Saxons for. The Christians had already cleared the land of much of it’s previous beliefs by decimating and eliminating the old religious leaders- the Druids and driving out the followers who still clung to those beliefs. Those early Christian leaders were as much responsible for the terror and dark ages that would follow as the Saxons were.
The early Christians shaped our history by shaping our tales, our legends and myths of that time. They were responsible for such tales as the brave and virtuous King Arthur, his valiant knights of the round table who fought evil, injustice and the barbarians in effort to save England, to unite it against all of those evil and demonic forces. We all know those legends and myths that portray the Christian brotherhood in glory and present the Saxons as some of those evil invaders… And, somewhere even in those tales there are probably small grains of truth as to possible figures of who Arthur might have been or represented, of battles that probably did actually take place. There are a number of King Arthur theories relating to the history of Britain during those dark ages. If you are interested, I have a previous article for you to read:
I would also suggest that you read Bernard Cornwell’s series on King Arthur. He strips away much of the myth and legend, and tells a tale more of the history and the battles that ensued after Rome left. He still leaves the Saxons in a rather bad light but he does not paint such a perfect picture of Arthur or the Britons either, so it kind of evens out the story a bit. It is an interesting perspective on the legend and does take into account the long lasting Roman influences left behind!
‘Once upon a time, in a land that was called Britain, these things happened . . . . and I was there, and this is how it was.’ The Winter King , like the rest of the trilogy, is narrated by Derfel (which is pronounced Dervel), one of Arthur’s warriors. This first book tells how after the death of Uther, High King of Britain, the country falls into chaos. Uther’s heir is a child, Mordred, and Arthur, his uncle, is named one of the boy’s guardians. Arthur has to fight other British kingdoms and the dreadful “Sais” – the Saxons – who are invading Britain. Arthur is supposed to marry Ceinwyn, a princess of Powys, but falls disastrously in love with Guinevere – ‘There have been many more beautiful women, and thousands who were better, but since the world was weaned I doubt there have been many so unforgettable as Guinevere . . . and it would have been better, Merlin always said, had she been drowned at birth.’
To read an interview with the Camelot Project, click on this link: http://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/text/thompson-interview-cornwell
For another perspective on the story of Arthur and the Roman involvement, you could also watch one of my favorite movies…
King Arthur is a 2004 action adventure film directed by Antoine Fuqua and written by David Franzoni. It stars Clive Owen as the title character, Ioan Gruffudd as Lancelot, and Keira Knightley as Guinevere. The film is unusual in reinterpreting Arthur as a Roman officer rather than a medieval knight. Despite these departures from the source material, the Welsh Mabinogion, the producers of the film attempted to market it as a more historically accurate version of the Arthurian legends, supposedly inspired by new archaeological findings. The film was shot in England, Ireland, and Wales. It gives a somewhat more historical perspective as well, but does still put the Saxons in the role as sole villains. I watched it recently while researching this history and found myself more seriously bothered by this representation than before! I am still searching for some sort of story that portrays the Saxons in a slightly more positive or at least more balanced light?
In the above movie, the Saxons are represented by their leader Cerdic and his son Cinric… They are of course the vicious torturing villains that we have come to expect Saxons to be. Of interesting note for Vikings fans, Cerdic is played by Stellan Skarsgard- father of Gustav Skarsgard who does such an incredible job portraying Floki!
In history, Cerdic was Cerdic was allegedly the first King of Anglo-Saxon Wessex from 519 to 534, cited by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as the founder of the Kingdom of Wessex and ancestor of all its subsequent kings… which of course would feasibly include Ecbert. I say feasibly because there was some dispute as to whether Ecbert was actually a d descendant.
The most interesting and curious thing about Cerdic’s history is that while his supposed royal pedigree traced him back to Woden, just as all of the other rulers’ did, it seems to have been added later. Historians think that at some point there was forged and alliance between him and Bernicia, and he conveniently borrowed the earlier pedigree of Bernicia, tacking it on to his own. The reason for this was to perhaps give himself more of a royal/divine lineage than he might have originally had. There is currently a thought that he was actually was a native Briton, and that his dynasty became Anglicised over time. This suggests that ethnicity was possibly not as important in the establishment of rulership within the proto-states of Post-Roman Britain as has been traditionally thought. Cerdic’s father, Elesa, has been identified by some scholars with the Romano-Briton Elasius, the “chief of the region”, met by Germanus of Auxerre.
J.N.L. Myres noted that when Cerdic and Cynric first appear in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in s.a. 495 they are described as ealdormen, which at that point in time was a fairly junior rank. Myres believed that,
It is thus possible … to think of Cerdic as the head of a partly British noble family with extensive territorial interests at the western end of the Litus Saxonicum. As such he may well have been entrusted in the last days of Roman, or sub-Roman authority with its defence. He would then be what in later Anglo-Saxon terminology could be described as an ealdorman. …
Some would disagree with Myres, as Cerdic is reported to have landed in Hampshire. Some also would say that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle proves that Cerdic was indeed a Saxon, however it does not prove that he had no Celtic blood. Some scholars believe it likely that his mother was a British Celt who left for the Continent, or perhaps a Continental Celt. Geoffrey Ashe postulates he may be a son of Riothamus.
Despite the conflictin history surrounding his origins, Descent from Cerdic became a necessary criterion for later kings of Wessex, and Egbert of Wessex, progenitor of the English royal house and subsequent rulers of England and Britain, claimed him as an ancestor. As I mentioned, Egbert’s claim was dubious and is thought by some to have been fabricated during his early reign or his bid for that right to give him more legitimacy in his claim. Whether fabricated or not, it was accepted and he was allowed to trace his right back to Cerdic and to Woden….
What ever the reasons or theories behind the Anglo-Saxons in Britain, one thing is certain and evident. As a group, they succeeded where Rome and even the Britons themselves failed. They entered into a land that even the Roman Empire had failed to conquer and succeeded for the most, so well that in the future they would be looked at as the locals and the native Britons would be considered the outsiders. They succeeded so well in fact that in the future, when the second wave of Northmen arrived on their shores, they looked at them as foreign Heathenish Barbarians. By the time the Vikings arrived in the late 700s and into the 800s, the Anglo-Saxons had become a completely different culture and society that bore little or no resemblance what so ever to the past they had left behind. But, had they truly left the past behind them, forgotten who they were originally?
the Norse Sagas regarding Ragnar Lodbrok give reason to believe that perhaps these Saxons, Angles and Jutes had not completely forgotten their past or their heritage. Some versions of the sagas include passages that comment on how Ragnar’s Father, Sigurd Hring once counted a part of England as part of his realm. Another saga source also mentions that Ragnar Lodbrok went to the place in Angleland of which his forefathers owned. This would tie in with the fact that the Angles who had originated in lands around Denmark had already migrated to parts of Britain as early as the 5th century. He visited this Angleland and was initially welcomed into their court of royalty. Then he was lured into visiting King Aelle in Northumbria and was murdered by him. I have addressed this connection in my previous article about Horik and Ragnar.
The Angles were thought to be allies at one time with the early Danes who took over their land and were a partial cause for them migrating to Britain. The Saxons were in a similar situation at the time of their migration to Britain. As the Danes became stronger and more powerful, they began to overtake those lands and cultures near to them- mainly the Angles and Saxons, but they also took over much of Juteland as well causing these three cultures to migrate to that land which held more opportunity for them. It does stand to reason that these people would continue to hold some grudge or resentment of those who were initially responsible for their relocation in the first place. They may have assimilated into some new culture, but they would probably have their own old oral histories of a past that included tales of this distant ancestral land that had been taken over by those others… some of those oral histories are included in poems and heroic stories such as Beowulf, Wulf and Eadwacer and Judith. Another such early work is that of Widsith from the Exeter book. The Widsith is an old poem that surveys the people kings, and heroes of Europe in the Heroic Age of Northern Europe.
I hope that I have not bored you or overwhelmed you too much with the history of these earliest Saxons. As I keep mentioning, it is important to know some of their history and see both sides of it considering the fact that they did integrate so fully and deeply into the culture that it became their own. As they settled into this new culture and land, they forged those alliances with the remaining British Rulers, became rulers of their own kingdoms and quite quickly took on the Christian religion once they realized the power behind that force. That is not to say that the Christian missionaries had any easy time of converting the Anglo-Saxons. What the Church did in order to accomplish this feat would leave long lingering misgivings and resentments from other Christian Kingdoms and dynasties. The Church had an extremely difficult time converting these Heathens, and resorted to the practice of diluting their religion into terms that the Pagan Saxons would accept. They set about comparing their Christ God to Woden, to telling their testaments and stories in relation to Woden and even went so far as to accept and approve of those earliest Saxon Rulers having divine right to rule on the basis of their genealogy connecting them back to being sons of Woden! Eventually all of the Anglo-Saxon Rulers of those early Kingdoms of Britain would prove their right by tracing their lineage back to Woden and the Church put it’s stamp of approval on this, in fact in some ways encouraged it. There had to be some way of proving right to rule other than just by might in order to maintain some stability and not descend into the chaos once again. In the future, other loyal and Royal Christian dynasties would decry this as giving in to those Pagans, view it as watering down the religion and hold little regard for these so called new Christian Royals.
Before we look at what the Kingdoms became and looked like in the time of our Anglo-Saxon Rulers such as Ecbert, Aelle, and yes even Kweni, I want to suggest an interesting documentary about the early Saxons and how their religion evolved.
This is a preview clip of the documentary called From Runes to Ruins by by Thomas Rowsell, Jamie Roper and Anthony Leigh. It is all about Anglo-Saxon paganism.
About the director
While studying my Master’s degree in medieval history, I was fascinated by the same mythology and legends that had inspired J.R.R. Tolkien to write The Lord of the Rings. Delving through old leather books and countless journals, trying to discover more about the forgotten religion of the Anglo-Saxon pagans, I couldn’t help noticing some familiar place names. It seemed that all the places from my youth were in some way connected to the history of the Anglo-Saxon heathens; whether it be the village of Thursley, named after Thor, which was near to my childhood home, or the ancient pagan barrows I used to camp on as a teen. I realised that through the landscape I had a personal relationship with the pre-Christian inhabitants of England and wondered how many other people had developed this strange fascination. Initially I had never intended to present From Runes to Ruins, but after the production house I was working with dropped the project, I no longer had the funds necessary to pay for a famous presenter. Financial constraints necessitated my stepping in to the presenting role, but this allowed me to put a personal slant on the documentary, using the pagan landscape of my own past to communicate the culture of a far more distant one. I hope that From Runes to Ruins sparks a new interest in the pagan religion of our Anglo-Saxon ancestors and also encourages people to look at the land itself as a beautiful, spiritual inheritance which brings us closer to nature, our ancestors and each other.
You can rent the entire video here: http://fromrunestoruins.vhx.tv/
It is well worth the 3.99 rental fee!
Now you know way too much about the early history of Angles, Saxons and Jutes in Britain… far more than you probably wanted to know! I do hope that it has given you some different perspective of the Anglo-Saxons, their reasons for moving to this land along with their justification for staying and fighting for it. Perhaps the next time you read a book or watch a movie about them, you will have some second thought about how they are portrayed. In future articles, we will look at each of the four Kingdoms that remained during the later Vikings saga- Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria and East Anglia.