The Anglo-saxons

Our speaker Jenny Ashby lived up to the glowing introduction from our Prior Maureen Bell. This is not surprising since Jenny is a member of the Witan, which is the governing body of the English Companions, a history society which is interested in the history and culture of Anglo-Saxon England. She also co-edits their quarterly magazine.

Jenny explained that Roman Britain was protected from invasion from northern Europe by a series of coastal “Saxon shore” forts. When the Romans left together with their professional army, Britain’s farming population was left unprotected. They employed some German mercenaries who realised the land was open to colonisation. A cooling climate and harassment by the Huns provided yet more incentive to migrate from northern Europe to Britain.

Jenny’s map showed that by the late 600’s Northumbria and Mercia were Angle kingdoms with the Saxons occupying southern Britain.

The bulk of Jenny’s talk investigated the legacy of the Angles and Saxons.

In the English language 94% of our words are old Anglo-saxon words. In Churchill’s famous “On the beaches” speech, only one word was not Anglo-saxon. That was the word “surrender” which is from French.

Much of the Anglo-saxon political landscape remains. One example Jenny gave was the shires. Even our Queen can trace her ancestry back to King Alfred.

Our legal system’s basics such as individual responsibility, victim compensation, access to the law, and trial by jury all stem from this period.

Another example Jenny gave was coinage.  “Pennies” and the now lost “shilling” arrived in the late 600’s.

The Anglo-saxons loved riddles and Jenny gave a risqué example. Women of the period enjoyed many rights and freedoms which the Normans were to take away. Jenny explored other cultural traits.

Jenny is particularly interested in the art and architecture of the period. We were shown examples including jewellery from the Staffordshire hoard and the wonderful stone churches at Wearmouth and Escomb, both dating from about 670 AD.

The vote of thanks was given by Gillian Bapty.  She hadn’t realised how much our language was owed to the Anglo-saxons.