Early Britain: Anglo-Saxon Era

Contributor: Suzanne Riordan. Lesson ID: 13281

Angles, Saxons, and Jutes! Oh my! Where did they come from? Were they invaders, or invited visitors who decided to stay? Learn how their coming changed history, and find out if King Arthur was real!


World, World Cultures

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Lion, Otter
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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  • Do you know the story of King Arthur?

The sword Excalibur was stuck inside a stone, and no one but the real king could draw it out. Learn the story in the video below.

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The Anglo-Saxon Era began when the Romans left Britain in 410 AD and ended when the Normans invaded in 1066.

When the Romans left Britain, the Celtic Britons faced attacks from various tribes, mainly the Scots and Picts from Ireland and Scotland.

This map shows all the groups who were attacking Britain at that time.

Britain 383-410 AD

The tribes called Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Frisians were from what is now Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands. Some of them were hired by the Britons' king, Vortigern, to help defend his people from invaders.

This map shows from where each of these tribes came.

Anglo-Saxon migration in the 5th century

Historians are not sure if these tribes decided to take and settle on some of the Britons' land or if they were invited to stay. Though some battles were fought, they did not kill all the Celts or drive them completely out of their homeland.

Yet, by 600 AD, these tribes had become a big part of the British population and took over much of the country as powerful rulers.

Dark Ages

Besides being known as the Anglo-Saxon Era, this period in British history is often called the Dark Ages.

  • Why do you think that is?

It doesn't mean that the sun was hidden behind the clouds all that time; people forgot how to light fires or grew evil, mean, or stupid. It doesn't mean there was no learning, art, or culture.

This era is called the Dark Ages because there are few written accounts from this period for historians to study.

Most of what we know about the historical events from this time comes from the writings of the Venerable Bede, a Catholic monk. (Venerable is a title given to him by the Catholic Church, meaning that he lived a life of virtue.) He's known as the Father of English History.

  • So what do we know about Anglo-Saxon England?


The Anglo-Saxons eventually set up seven kingdoms led by powerful rulers. This arrangement is called the Heptarchy, the seven kingdoms.

This map shows the kingdoms of Britain in 800. The Anglo-Saxons' are in red.

Great Britain kingdoms, 800 AD

In 927, these kingdoms were united to form the Kingdom of England. The word Eng-land means land of the Angles. Many place names in England come from the Anglo-Saxons, including the following.

  • Essex
  • East Anglia
  • Sussex
  • Kent
  • Wessex
  • Northumbria
  • Middlesex


Alfred the Great was the first ruler recognized as the king of the whole country. (You can learn more about him in our Related Lesson on Viking Invasions, found in the right-hand sidebar.)


Watch the video below to learn how Anglo-Saxon society was set up, with kings at the top of the social pyramid and enslaved people at the bottom.

Before watching, ensure you have paper and a pencil handy to take notes. You'll need this information for an activity in the Got It? section!

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We know roughly what the Anglo-Saxon settlements looked like, though they're rather hard for archaeologists to find. That is because most were built with wood rather than stone, and of course, wood rots away more quickly.

Here is a model of what their settlements may have looked like.

Anglo-Saxon village

Check out more examples of Anglo Saxon Houses.

As you can see, their houses were made of wood with thatched roofs. They also built large halls. These would have a large stone fire pit in the middle and a cauldron hanging from the ceiling on a long chain. The walls would be decorated with armor and trophies of war (things taken from enemies in battle).

While there were some royal centers where the great kings lived, the Anglo-Saxons had mostly small-sized villages. They liked to settle near rivers and forests. They farmed the land, growing wheat to make bread and barley to make beer. (They drank it instead of water; even children drank it!)

They hunted deer and wild hogs and cooked them over a fire. They raised pigs, sheep, and cattle. They also grew and ate a lot of vegetables, such as cabbage, peas, and onions. They used honey to make a drink called mead, similar to wine.

Some Anglo-Saxons took over old Roman fortified towns when the Romans left.

War and Warriors

Before England was united, the warriors from the different kingdoms fought against each other. Later, they fought together against the invading Vikings (see Related Lesson).

They didn't have a standing army, meaning an army of professional soldiers that was always ready to fight. Instead, when a king went to battle, he led his kinsmen (members of his family) and his lords. The lords would bring their fighting men, and peasants would be brought in if more troops were needed.

To learn about their lives, watch the video below.

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Christianity Comes to Britain

The Anglo-Saxons were pagans who worshiped many gods until they learned about Christianity.

St. Columba sailed from Ireland and landed in Iona, Scotland, in 563 AD. Christianity quickly spread through Scotland and then into northern England.

In 597, St. Augustine of Canterbury came to Kent in southern Britain. Augustine converted the Anglo-Saxon King Ethelbert of Kent. He then went northward, also carrying the message of Christianity to the rest of England.

Northumberland, in northern England, soon became the center of monastic life and learning. The picture below shows the ruins of a monastery at Lindisfarne.

ruins of Lindisfarne Priory

The monks helped keep the culture and learning alive during the Dark Ages when few people were literate (able to read and write). They copied out important books by hand, wrote about historical events (like Venerable Bede), and perfected a special art.

  • Have you ever seen examples of illuminated manuscripts?

They are hand-written and beautifully illustrated books. They are called illuminated because the pictures illuminate, or bring further into the light, the words. They were painted in bright colors and sometimes highlighted with gold.

Christ is astride a donkey, and followed by a group of people with golden palm branches. Two youths at the city gate spread mantles under the donkey's feet, and above them other figures lean out from the city walls or are up a tree throwing flowers.

Culture, Art, and Literature

The Anglo-Saxons were great metal workers and jewelry-makers, and some amazing artifacts have been found to demonstrate this, like this richly decorated helmet.

Replica of the helmet from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial 1, England

The Saxon king who owned the above helmet had many treasures that were found buried in a ship (in the middle of a field) at a place called Sutton Hoo.

If you like to see more treasure, check out the video below.

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The Anglo-Saxons made glass bowls, jars, and jewelry beads, which they traded with other peoples.

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One of the most well-known pieces of Anglo-Saxon art is a work of literature. It's the epic poem Beowulf in which the hero Beowulf fights the evil monster Grendel. It was written by an anonymous English poet sometime between 700 and 1000 AD.

Beowulf fighting Grendel


One of the most important things the Anglo-Saxons gave to us is our good ol' English language!

Their different Germanic dialects eventually merged into what we call Old English.

Listen to how both Old English and Middle English (a later version of the language) sound in the following video.

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The Anglo-Saxons even gave us the names we use for the days of the week!

Originally, the Romans named the days of the weeks after the planets, which were also their gods. However, the Anglo-Saxons turned those into different Old English words based on their mythology.

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So now that you know all about the Anglo-Saxons, head over to the Got It? section to make a society pyramid and your timeline of Anglo-Saxon times!

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