Ancient History: 10 Little Known Facts About The Anglo-Saxons

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It can be argued that no people are more important in English history than the Anglo-Saxons. This loose confederation of Germanic tribes not only gave Britain its language, but also its first and most enduring literary hero—the Geat warrior-king Beowulf. The Anglo-Saxons also bequeathed a culture of dispersed power and widespread liberty, which is still evident all throughout the Anglophone world.

Despite this incredible legacy, there are certain facts about the Anglo-Saxons that many people overlook today. The following ten items are but a mere sampling of this forgotten history.

10. They May Have Built An ‘Apartheid’ Society

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In 2006, a team of scientists from the Royal Society published a paper outlining their theory as to why modern England has such a high number of Germanic male-line ancestors. Specifically, their research concluded that in England today, between 50 and 100 percent of the country’s gene pool contains Germanic Y chromosomes. After an exhaustive study, the team argued that this genetic dominance was achieved by a relatively small number of pagan migrants from what are today Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands. More importantly, these Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, who initially numbered somewhere between 10,000 and 200,000 immigrants between the fifth and seventh centuries AD, successfully outbred the native Romano-British population and established an “apartheid” society, wherein theycontrolled economic life.

Two years after the study made waves in the UK press, it was challenged by John Pattison of the University of South Australia, Mawson Lakes. According to Dr. Pattison, the idea that a small number of elite Germanic warriors managed to wipe out their British competition underplays the fact that Germanic tribes and native Britons had been intermarrying for generations prior to the invasions of the fifth century. Ancient chroniclers believed this to be true. Julius Caesar mentions in The Conquest of Gaul that Belgic tribes, who may have been both Celtic and Germanic, lived in Celtic Britain. Therefore, an apartheid-like society was not necessary, as fifth-century Britain may have already contained a large population of Celto-Germanic people.

9. Anglo-Saxon Culture Was Nearly Eradicated

Partial view of a Viking male reenactor with long blond hair under a metal helmet dressed in full warrior armour and battle gear with raised weapon yelling a victory cry in battle in the historic location where Vikings once assembled annually to recite and discuss laws, Pingvellir, Iceland

Before they were defeated by the Normans following the Battle of Hastings in 1066, another group of Vikings (the Danes) nearly killed off Anglo-Saxon culture. Beginning in the ninth century, after years of raids along the coasts, Danish Vikings began to settling in Britain and establish small, but powerful, communities. In 851, a Danish army stayed the winter at their quarters in Thanet, while later, a force of some 350 ships attacked Canterbury and London before being defeated by a West Saxon army.

This early defeat did not deter the Danes, for they continued to pour into the island. They became farmers and fearsome warriors, which in turn earned them political power. By the late ninth century, Danish law held sway in 14 shires, most of which were located in the North and East. Under Danelaw, a powerful Anglo-Norse culture pushed Anglo-Saxon culture to the brink of extinction.

For their part, the Anglo-Saxons, who were thoroughly Christian by this point, viewed the mostly pagan Danes as a separate race of demons controlled by Satan himself. Although both groups were culturally and genetically similar to one another, this religious differences helped to perpetuate a cycle of violence that would last well into the 11th century.

8. Anglo-Saxon Rulers Oversaw A Pogrom

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Although the term is most closely associated with European horrors from the 20th century, pogroms, the organized mass slaughter of certain ethnic or religious groups, were not uncommon in the ancient world. In fact, on November 13, 1002, Anglo-Saxon England itself was the scene of a brutal campaign of ethnic terror.

On that date, the English king Aethelred the Unready, whose brother had been murdered years before inside Corfe Castle, issued orders that every Danish settler in England was to be killed. In what would come to be known as the St. Brice’s Day Massacre, Anglo-Saxon citizens attacked their Danish neighbors in droves, especially in Southern England, where Danelaw was weakest. Although the number of deaths has never been determined, it’s likely that hundreds if not thousands of Danish individuals were massacred. In one instance, Anglo-Saxon villagers burned several Danish families alive after setting fire to St. Frideswide’s Church. Two years later, in 1004, King Aethelred issued another order calling for “a just extermination” of all English Danes.

King Aethelred’s actions earned him the everlasting hatred of the Danish crown. By 1013, King Sweyn I of Denmark had been named king of England after Aethelred had fled to Normandy. Less than a year later, Sweyn was dead, and Aethelred’s advisers were seeking his return as king. However, thanks to the bad blood and enmity caused by King Aethelred, Canute, King Sweyn’s son, was busy destroying the Anglo-Saxon countryside in a pogrom of his own.

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