History - Anglo-Saxon
The Anglo-Saxon period spans the fifth to eleventh centuries AD in England. This transformative period saw the emergence of a new language, culture, and society from out of a host of warring peoples. The Anglo-Saxons spoke a variety of dialects known today as Old English; this language was related to those that are spoken today in Germany and Scandinavia. The Northumbrian monk and historian Bede, writing in the early eighth century, records that the ancestors of the English were drawn from three peoples, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, who settled southern and eastern Britain during the fifth century.
Bede stated that the people of Kent, as well as the Isle of Wight and southern Hampshire, were descended from the Jutes. We now know the reality was more complex than this; the population of Kent was probably a diverse mix of migrants from around the southern shores of the North Sea, as well as the descendants of the Romano-British population. The elite that became the Kentish royal dynasty were probably of Jutish descent, although they later intermarried with the Frankish elite. The Kentish kingdom that emerged during the sixth century occupied an advantageous geographical position. As well as being the closest part of Britain to the continent, it sat on the narrow straits between the North Sea and Channel, and commanded a sheltered sea way, the Wantsum Channel, which at that time separated the Isle of Thanet from the Kentish mainland. Through this strategic maritime position, as well as a close relationship with the Frankish Merovingian dynasty, Kent served as conduit not only for migration, but also for the flow of cultural practices, material culture, and architectural styles.
The waters surrounding Britain are best thought of during this time not as a barrier to the movement of peoples, but as highways connecting one landmass to another that frequently enabled faster travel and transport than might be undertaken on land. The waters and waterways of Europe, which brought prosperity to many peoples for exactly this reason, were of course also a source of peril and uncertainty, especially during the so-called Viking Age, traditionally – and misleadingly – dated to between the violent raid on Lindisfarne (in 793) and the destruction of the army lead by Harald Hardrada (Haraldur harðráða) at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066, shortly before Harold’s defeat at Hastings. 1066, perhaps the best-known date in medieval history, saw an attempted Viking invasion in the north of England that was seen off by Harold Godwinson’s Anglo-Saxon army, and a second invasion – in the south – by Duke William of Normandy, who put an end to the succession of Anglo-Saxon kings at the Battle of Hastings.
Centuries before, in 597, the reluctant Roman monk who would later come to be known as St Augustine of Canterbury had himself made the journey overseas from what was then Merovingian Francia at the behest of Pope Gregory the Great. The Northumbrian historian Bede famously tells us that Gregory was motivated to send missionaries to Britain as a result of a chance encounter in a slave market in Rome, where he encountered blonde-haired and blue eyed boys whom he was told were Angles. ‘Not Angles, but angels’, he is said to have replied.
Whether there is any truth in this story, or whether Gregory was seeking to regain control of a former Roman province that he thought had been lost to paganism, Augustine and his delegation landed in Kent and were given a – cautious – welcome by the Kentish king Aethelberht, whose Frankish wife Bertha was a Christian. According to the Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, which favours the influence of Rome in the establishment of early English Christianity this initially led to the founding of Augustine’s abbey at Canterbury, and the construction of the first cathedral, followed by similar efforts in London and York.
In a number of respects, royal marriage was to play an important role in the spread of Christianity. Aethelberht and Bertha’s daughter Aethelburh, who was sister to Aethelberht’s successor Eadbald, travelled north with the missionary Paulinus to be married to Edwin, the pagan king of Deira whose baptism marks a pivotal point in the development of Christianity in Northumbria, where the Celtic Church was also hard at work.
After Edwin’s death at the Battle of Hatfield Chase, Aethelburh is thought to have returned home, and was for a long time thought to have been associated with the church at Lyminge, though recent research has cast doubt on this. In any case, Aethelburh – who died c. 647 – returned home to Kent, where she was aunt to her brother Eadbald’s two sons, Eormenred and Eorcenberht, and their daughter Eanswythe.
The historical evidence for the life of Eanswythe puts her at the heart of one of the most significant periods of transition in England’s history. King Aethelberht died in either 616 or 618 and was succeeded by his son Eadbald. Eadbald then took his father’s widow, whose name history does not record, as his wife, causing a rift with the church and for a time throwing the whole Christian mission into crisis. But by 624 Eadbald had converted to Christianity, and taken a Christian wife, Imme (or Emma), a high status woman of Frankish origin. Eadbald died in 640 or early 641 and the evidence now suggests that Eanswythe was born during the mid-t0-late 630s, or by 641 at the latest. She probably died at some point between circa 653-663. Towards the end of her short life she seems to have been associated with the foundation of what would have been one of the earliest monastic communities for women in England. These minsters were generally headed by abbesses of royal birth and Eanswythe may have been the founding abbess at Folkestone. Certainly, later Anglo-Saxon documents record that she was buried at Folkestone, and she became the foundational saint for both the minster and the town.