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What happened Before & During the Old English Age? Political Context

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The old English Period is close to the heart of every literature person as it marks the beginning of English literature. Understanding what was happening socially and politically at that time in England is important. Even today, the socio-political condition influences the literature. So, studying the historical aspects of that time opens an avenue to the minds of those writers. 

The Old English a.k.a. Anglo-Saxon Period in England started after the Romans left in ~ 410 AD. Germanic Tribes – Angles, Saxons, and Jutes invaded the country and established their culture. Anglo-Saxon period concluded in ~ 1066 AD with the beginning of the Norman Conquest.  

This article is for everyone who wants to skim through the Anglo-Saxon period history quickly. If you are from Literature, Philosophy, Linguistics, or any other branch and the briefest history of the Anglo-Saxon period is going to help you in your study – then you are at the perfect place!

Please note that this article is only for understanding purposes – just to give you a rough idea of the topic to help you in your non-history subjects.

Chronology of the Events Associated with the Old English Period:

NOTE: There are going to be a lot of dates and years as we proceed. So, before we go ahead, we strongly recommend you to grow through the year notations once.

We will not delve much into Prehistoric Britain. Here are some quick facts to skim through:

People migrated to “Britain” from Europe around 7,00,000 BC. At that time, Britain was joined to Europe. So, people could walk to Britain from Europe without getting wet. Britain became an island around 6,000 BC. By 750 BC, around 1,50,000 people inhabited this island. We don’t know much about them or the language that they spoke. It was only around 500 BC that Celtic people migrated to Britain from Central Europe. They fought with the original inhabitants. This is where the discussion of “History of English Literature” typically begins.

During ancient times, there were no national boundaries the way we have today. The regions were divided tribe-wise. Attacks were common. The winner tribe would rule the land. Thus, the stay of a tribe was not permanent. 

Having known this pretext, let’s now see how and when events happened before & during the Old English a.k.a Anglo-Saxon period. 

1. Gallic Wars | 58 BC – 50 BC | Before the Old-English Period

Julius Caesar, a Roman general, and statesman had called for military campaigns against the Gallic tribes. They are known as Gallic Wars.

2. Julius Caesar’s invasions of Britain | 55 BC and 54 BC | Before the Old-English Period

During his expeditions, Julius Caesar invaded England twice. The first invasion – the 55 BC one – was quite small. He had only brought two legions with him. The second invasion – the 54 BC one – was quite mighty. There were 628 ships, 5 legions, and about 2000 cavalry. This was the moment that stimulated the Roman Conquest of Britain.

By the way, Julius Caesar was later murdered in Rome in 44 BC.

3. Roman Conquest of England | AD 43 to 87 | Before the Old-English Period

Roman Conquest did not happen in a day. It was a long gradual process spread over the years. After Caesar’s invasions, Emperor Claudius took on Roman Conquest seriously. It was eventually completed in 87 AD.

4. Emperor Claudius’ reign | AD 41 to 54 | Before the Old-English Period

Fun fact: Emperor Claudius was the first born-outside-Italy Roman Emperor.

5. Roman Rule in England | Next ~ 350 years | Before the Old-English Period

During this period, Romans had romanized the infrastructure in the civilizations. Because of their military presence, there was peace and safety in society. 

But, Romans had trouble from many barbaric tribes. There were multiple violent but small attacks from various tribes. So, indirectly, Romans offered protection to the inhabited Celts.

In conclusion, there was quite peaceful coexistence between Celts and Romans.

6. Fall of Roman Empire in England | AD c. 388 to c. 400 | Before Old-English Period

(What is ‘c.’?)

Just like the rise, the fall of the Roman Empire was also a long gradual process that lasted for years. 

Visigoths, a Germanic tribe started attacking Rome, Italy. So, Romans had to focus there. Eventually, the Romans withdrew their legions from England. 

This left England open for attacks and invasions. 

The tribes Picts (from the North) and Scots (from Ireland; at that time the word ‘Scot’ referred to Ireland) started attacking the native Celtic population of England.

7. Invasion of England by Germanic tribes | AD c. 410 to c. 500 | Before Old-English Period

Germanic tribes – Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and perhaps some other tribes from the East coast of Europe, invaded England. 

Image Resource: British Library | bl.uk

Eventually, their language and culture started influencing the local civilizations. 

According to some Historians, these Germanic tribes – Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, offered protection to Celts from the Picts and Scots. As per account by St. Bede the Venerable, Vortigern, the ruler of that time, invited them to protect the native Britons against attacks from Scots and Picts.

Basically, Celts accepted help from one invader to fight against another invader. Eventually, Celtic migration to Wales and other mountain regions began.

8. King Arthur Reign | 5th and early 6th century | Before the Old-English Period

There is a debate among historians as to whether King Arthur existed or not. But, there are many mentions of his reign in Medieval literature. More on that later…

It is believed that King Arthur led the defense of Britain against the Saxons.

9. Anglo-Saxon Period in Britain | AD c. 410 AD to c. 1066 | Old-English Period

From the 5th century to the 8th century, there were 7 kingdoms, which we call today “Heptarchy”.

  1. East Anglia, 
  2. Essex, 
  3. Kent, 
  4. Mercia, 
  5. Northumbria, 
  6. Sussex, 
  7. Wessex.

In the 8th century, these kingdoms were consolidated into 4, namely:

  1. Mercia, 
  2. Northumbria, 
  3. Wessex,
  4. East Anglia.

 There were 4 major dialects in Britain. 

  1. Northumbrian (This is the one in which literature was produced first)
  2. Mercian 
  3. Kentish 
  4. West Saxon (The kingdom of Wessex was politically strongest. Therefore, this dialect became the political language. Even the language of King Alfred.)

10. King Alfred, the Great | AD 871 to 899 | Old-English Period

This reign is divided: He ruled West Saxons from AD 871 to c. 886 and ruled Anglo-Saxons during AD c. 886 and 899.

11. Viking Invasions | AD 787 and AD 866 | Old-English Period

Viking Invasions became frequent. 

The first attack happened in 787 AD. 

In 866 AD, Vikings descended on East Anglia and progressed to the Kingdom of  Wessex.

Norsemen settled in major regions of today’s England.

12. United Kingdom of England | (By the) 10th century | Old-English Period

Many rulers, majorly King Alfred of Wessex brought all kingdoms together against the Vikings. That’s how the “Kingdom of England” was created.

13. Danelaw | AD 876 and AD 1003 to 1013 | End of Old-English Period

Danelaw refers to those regions in England that were acquired by Danes (Northern Germanic tribe from southern Scandinavia).

The Danish rule came to an end in 1066.

14. AD 1066 | End of Old-English Period

  • Beginning of the Norman Conquest
  • End of Anglo-Saxon Period/ Old English Period
  • Beginning of the Middle English Period
  • End of Viking Age 
  • Battle of Stamford Bridge
  • Battle of Hastings

William the Conqueror from Normandy, French defeats the last Anglo-Saxon king – King Harold – in the Battle of Hastings. This is the point when Norman, French culture, and language started influencing the country. 

French became the official language.

Final Words

From the viewpoint of studying Literature, you don’t need to know every minute detail of the old history (unless specifically mentioned). But, it is always better to know the prime historical events that impacted the literature and the language it is written in. Knowing the social context helps us grasp the incense of literature well.

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