Middle Ages for Kids
Who were the Saxons?
The Saxons were a people from north Germany who migrated to the island of Britain around the 5th century. There were actually three main peoples: the Saxons, the Angles, and the Jutes. After these people moved to Britain they became known as the Anglo-Saxons. Eventually the name "Angles" became the "English" and their land became known as England.
Costumes of the Middle Ages
by Albert Kretschmer
The Anglo-Saxons were the dominant peoples on the island of Britain from 550 to 1066. At first the lands were divided up into many small kingdoms, but eventually certain kingdoms began to dominate.
The first kingdom to dominate was Northumbria in the early 600s, a kingdom to the north that was settled by the Angles. Then the Kingdom of Mercia rose to power in the 700s. Finally, in the 800s the Kingdom of Wessex conquered the land. The King of Wessex was considered the king of all England.
In the mid-800s the Danes (people from Denmark) began to invade England. At first they just raided the coastlines, but soon they were taking over land and establishing settlements. In 870, the Danes attacked the kingdom of Wessex. A young prince by the name of Alfred led the Saxons against the Danes and won a great victory at the Battle of Ashdown.
Alfred the Great
Prince Alfred became king in 871. Alfred continued to battle the Danes. In 886, Alfred negotiated a treaty with the Danes. England was divided in half with the Danes getting the north and the east and the Saxons ruling the south and the west. The land of the Danes became known as the "Danelaw".
King Alfred became known as Alfred the Great. He did a lot to establish the Kingdom of England. He built up the borders to protect his people from the Danes. He also established laws, education, a navy, and reformed the English economy.
At the top of the Anglo-Saxon social order were the kings. Below them were the Thanes. Thanes were powerful men who owned land and reported to the king. They could have influence over who was king and what the king did. Below the Thanes were freemen called churls. At the bottom of the social order were slaves. Some slaves were people that were captured in battle, but other slaves were people who could not pay their debts. Slaves had no rights in Anglo-Saxon England.
Laws and Government
The Saxon king did not rule alone. He had a council of thanes and bishops who helped him rule. This council was called the Witan or Witenagermot. The Witan advised the king, kept the king from abusing his powers, and sometimes even elected the new king.
The laws of the Saxons were very primitive. For example, if you stole something you may have your hand chopped off. Murder or injury to another person was punished by a fine called the wergild. The wergild varied depending on the rank of the person. For example, if you killed an important person like a thane you would owe 1,200 shillings. If you killed a lower class person, like a churl, you may owe only 200 shillings. If you injured someone, different parts of the body were worth different amounts of money.
Anglo-Saxon rule came to an end with the Norman Conquest of 1066, but the Saxons left their legacy on England. This includes the language, culture, and politics of the land. Many of the shires established by the Saxons are still used as boundaries today.
Interesting Facts about the Anglo-Saxons
- The Saxons got their name from their short sword called the scramasax.
- Alfred the Great is the only English king known as "the Great".
- Saxon lands were divided into Shires which were further divided into "hundreds".
- A peace officer of a Shire was called the Shire Reeve. This later became known as the "sheriff".
- A lot of what we know about the early Saxons was recorded by a monk named Venerable Bede. He is sometimes called the "Father of English History".
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