I’m an Anglo-Saxonist at heart (or indeed any ‘British’ kingdom from about the year 500-1000). I don’t know why, but I love everything about this time period. Although my first passion was Elizabeth I and some of the Tudors, II read mostly about the years 500 until the Stuarts but get a little ‘bored’ when it becomes more modern (I know why but I’m not confessing to that here).
Yet, many people seem to think that British history starts with ‘1066 and all that’ and having been doing some research of late, I think I just might have devised a reason for this.
The Anglo-Saxons, or the Anglo-Danish, or the early ‘English’ kingdom(s) if you prefer, arise out of the mists of the past (don’t use that naughty phrase about the transition from Roman to Anglo-Saxon England) as shadowy characters that can never be quite fully glimpsed. They didn’t live in ‘castles’ as we know them, they didn’t fight on horseback with shiny armour and swords and triangular shields, they actually liked their women (go Anglo-Saxons) and they seemed to be, for all intents and purposes, quite welcoming to any who came to their shores (in general), or maybe I should say that they were quite good at co-habiting with different nationalities. They used funny words, like witan and aetheling. They had funny names like Aethelred and Aethelflaed and their houses were built from wood.
Now the Normans, they’re a whole different society. They just about did all those things above, and had good proper names like William and Henry and Matilda. They’re familiar to us and even though they changed the national language from Old English with a bit of Latin, to mostly French and a bit more Latin, those words became a part of our society and we accept them as normal. The Norman Conquest was no steady infiltration, as it appears the original Anglo-Saxon settlers initiated, and then the Vikings, and then the Danish. No, the Norman Conquest swept the board clean, and into the void, they poured all aspects of their society and it was very different to anything that had gone before.
The onset of feudalism, the highly stratified society that formed all combined with the other changes to make what had gone before even more alien. And of course, the chroniclers of that period helped to disperse those ideas down to today’s historians.
Effectively, some sort of jarring rift occurred with the Norman Conquest. 1065 became the last year of one ideal that had governed Anglo-Saxon England for nearly 600 years, and 1067 became the first year of an ideal that would govern from then on, and in doing so, made everything that had gone on before seem too strange for modern audiences to even comprehend, or want to comprehend. And it’s a shame because the Anglo-Saxons had a rich culture and a fascinating history, that was so much more than having a fight with France, or trying to ‘nick’ the throne from your father, or your brother, or your uncle, or trying to take over the Welsh, the Scottish or the Irish.
The entire outlook of Anglo-Saxon England was different to the Normans and that’s why I think many people don’t bond with the Anglo-Saxon age. The lack of familiarity makes it too hard, too uncomfortable and maybe, too much work! So, hats off to all my fellow Anglo-Saxonists. Enjoy untangling the web of unfamiliarity and remember, when it all gets a bit too much, you can always take a ‘breather’ in the post Conquest period!