The Anglo-Saxon period in Britain lasted from the mid 5th century to the Norman invasion in 1066.
Most of our knowledge of the Anglo-Saxons comes from the accounts and histories written in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (a collection of writings in Old English, probably started during the reign of Alfred the Great) and from archaeological finds.
During this period of British history, numerous individuals became well-known and famous for their exploits and the lives they lived.
Famous Anglo-Saxon Kings and Leaders
King of Wessex from 802 to 839, Egbert (often written as Ecgberht or Ecbert) spent most of the first part of his reign fighting to ensure that Wessex remained independent in the face of Mercia’s growing power.
In the late 820s, after winning the Battle of Ellandun, defeating Wiglaf of Merica, and forcing the Northumbrian king to submit to him at Dore, Egbert briefly made Wessex the most powerful of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle referred to him as Bretwalda (ruler of all Anglo-Saxxon territories.
Egbert couldn’t maintain this position for long, as Wiglaf soon reclaimed the Mercian throne. Yet, descendants of Egbert continuously ruled Wessex and later, all of Anglo-Saxon England until 1013.
He died in 839 aged about 65.
Alfred the Great
Alfred was King of the West Saxons from 871 to 886 and went on to become King of the Anglo-Saxons from about 886 to his death in 899.
He won a crucial victory over the Vikings at the Battle of Edington (878) and negotiated a truce with them that resulted in the formation of the Danelaw.
Alfred revolutionized the Anglo-Saxon military. During his reign, he oversaw the development of a standing army, a network of forts and garrisons, and assembled a fleet of ships to protect his kingdom’s rivers and estuaries.
He also introduced a system of taxation, issued a law code, set up a court school to educate his own children and the children of his nobles, and began a program of translating important books written in Latin into English.
It is thought that Alfred may have suffered from Crohn’s disease.
He died in 899, aged about 50, and he was succeeded by his son, Edward the Elder.
Learn more about Alfred the Great.
Offa of Mercia
Offa was the Anglo-Saxon King of Merica from 757 to his death in 796.
In the 780s he ruled most of southern England, allying with Wessex, and he also became the overlord of East Anglia.
Although he never managed to gain control of Northumbria, many historians believe he was the most powerful Anglo-Saxon ruler before Alfred the Great.
During his reign, Offa was constantly in conflict with the people of Wales, and his name has been attached to a huge ditch constructed along part of the English / Welsh border. Offa’s Dyke created a defensive barrier and offered views into Wales.
Offa died in 796 and was succeeded by his son Edgfrith.
Edward the Elder
The eldest son of Alfred the Great, Edward ruled as King of the Anglo-Saxons from 899 until his death in 924.
By the beginning of the 920s, Edward ruled Wessex, Mercia and East Anglia.
At the Battle of Tettenhall, he defeated an army of Northumbrian Danes, and with his sister Aethelflaed, the Lady of Mercia, he built a series of forts and fought a series of battles to overcome the Danish settlers in East Anglia and southern Britain.
He died in Cheshire after defeating a Merican and Welsh revolt, and he was buried in Winchester.
Edward was succeeded by his son, Athelstan.
Most modern historians believe that Athelstan became the first King of England when he overcame England’s last remaining Viking kingdom in York.
In 937 the Vikings invaded England and Athelstan defeated them in the Battle of Brunanburh.
Athelstan was thought to be an effective leader, building on the work of his grandfather, Alfred the Great.
He was a devout Christian and was known for collecting religious relics and funding the building of churches.
Athelstan died in 939 and the men of York immediately crowned Olaf Guthfrifthson as their king. Anglo-Saxon control of York would not be won back for good until 954.
He was succeeded by Edmund I, his half-brother.
Learn more about Athelstan.
Harold Godwinson was the last Anglo-Saxon King of England.
A powerful earl with links to Knut the Great, Harold was crowned in Westminster Abbey when Edward the Confessor, his brother-in-law, died without leaving an heir.
Harold was killed during the Battle of Hastings, and although it was traditionally said that he died from an arrow wound to the head, some modern historians believe it was more likely that he was cut down in battle.
Learn more about King Harold.
Raedwald of East Anglia
A member of the Wuffingas dynasty, King Raedwald was an Anglo-Saxon King of East Anglia who reigned in the early part of the 7th century.
During his reign, Gipeswic (modern-day Ipswich) developed as an important trading centre.
Many historians believe Raedwald was buried in the famous Anglo-Saxon ship burial in Sutton Hoo, Suffolk.
Edmund the Martyr
Edmund was King of East Anglia from 855 to 869.
Very little is known about Edmund’s life, but it is the legend surrounding his death that has made his name famous.
Edmund was killed by the invading Viking Great Heathen Army in 869. According to legend, Edmund was beaten, shot with arrows, and then beheaded because he refused to renounce Christ.
During the Middle Ages, Edmund was considered the patron saint of England (a title he shared with Edward the Confessor) until being replaced by Saint George.
Famous Anglo-Saxon Warriors
Most Anglo-Saxon kings were also skilled warriors in their own right and frequently led their troops into battle. Many of the famous kings listed above could also have been added to the list of names below, but here are some Anglo-Saxon warriors we have yet to mention.
Penda of Mercia
Penda was an Anglo-Saxon King of Mercia in the 7th century. He fought numerous battles during his lifetime and was killed in battle at the age of 48 or 49.
Penda joined forces with Cadwallon ap Cadfan, the King of Gwynedd to defeat Edwin of Northumbria in 633 at the Battle of Hatfield Chase. He went on to fight against the East Angles, killing both their king, Egric, and their former king, Sigbert.
In the Battle of Maserfield in 642, Penda defeated the Northumbrians. Following this victory, Penda fought against Oswiu of Bernicia. In 655 at the Battle of Winwaed (somewhere close to modern-day Leeds), Penda was defeated by the Oswiu’s forces. Penda was killed along with Aethelhere, an East Anglian king.
Penda is often described as the last of the great Anglo-Saxon pagan warrior-kings.
The son of Aethelred the Unready, Edmund’s reign as King of the English only lasted from April 1016 to November 1016. In this time, however, he proved himself to be a true warrior king, taking on the Danish invading forces of Knut the Great.
Gathering an army in Wessex, Edmund fought battles against Knut in Penselwood (Somerset), Sherston (Wiltshire), London, Brentford, and Otford (Kent). Edmund was defeated by Knut in the Battle of Assandun (Essex). Following the conflict, in October 1016 a peace was negotiated in which Edmund received Wessex, and Knut received Mercia and Northumbria.
Edmund died in November 1016. He probably died of his battle wounds, but some historians have suggested that he was murdered. He was buried in Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset.
According to legend, Knut the Great visited Edmund’s tomb and decorated it with a cloth bearing peacock motifs as a mark of respect.
He was called Ironside because of his courage and valour in battle.
An ealdorman of Devon in the 9th century, Odda is best known for his role in the Battle of the Raven Banner (also known as the Battle of Cynwit) in 878. Odda chose to support Alfred the Great rather than join forces with the Guthrum, King of the Danish Vikings as other Anglo-Saxon leaders had done.
In Devon, Odda’s forces came up against the biking army of Ubba who was the brother of Ivar the Boneless, and son of the legendary Ragnar Lothbrok. Obba was victorious. Ubba’s raven standard was captured, and some accounts state that Odda himself killed Ubba in battle.
Eadric the Wild
Eadric was an Anglo-Saxon landholder in Shropshire and Herefordshire who rebelled against the Normans following their conquest in 1066.
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Eadric refused to submit to William of Normandy and found himself under attack from Norman troops from Hereford Castle. Aided by warriors from Gwynedd and Powys, Eadric attacked Hereford Castle in 1067, and between 1069 and 1070, fought against the invaders in Shrewsbury.
He defeated the Normans at a battle in Stafford in 1069, but by 1072 Eadric was forced to submit to William.
He was possibly known as ‘the Wild’ because many of the Anglo-Saxon rebels rising up against William the Conqueror were known to hide out in the woods and marshes.
Famous Anglo-Saxon Writers and Poets
The Venerable Bede
An English Benedictine monk born around 673, Bede was a teacher, scholar, and author. He is often called the ‘The Father of English History’, and his most well-known work is the Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
He was a very skilled linguist and he translated many works of Latin and Greek. He also popularised the Anno Domini (AD) method of dating forward from the birth of Jesus.
His other written works included accounts of the lives of the abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow, verse and prose on the life of St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, and the Martyrology, a list of saints.
Learn more about Bede.
Aldhelm was born in about 639 and died in 709. During his life, he served as Abbot of Malmesbury and Bishop of Sherbourne, but he is probably best known for his studies and writings in Latin verse.
He is thought to be the first Anglo-Saxon to write in Latin verse, and he produced several important works of prose and poetry.
It is possible that Aldhem also wrote poetry in Old English and set his work to music. Apparently, his songs were still popular in the time of Alfred the Great, but, so far, none have been found to have survived to the present day.
Cynewulf is known as one of the key Anglo-Saxon Christian poets.
Four poems have been attributed to Cynewulf – Juliana and Christ II (from the Exeter Book) and Elene and Fates of the Apostles (from the Vercelli Book). These poems use alliterative verse and draw upon the Latin source material.
Cynewulf demonstrated that he was the author of these poems by including his runic signature in the lines of the poems like a coded message.
Stephen of Ripon
Stephen of Ripon, an Anglo-Saxon priest, was the writer of the Life of Saint Wilfrid (Vita Sancti Wilfrithi), the only document that has been discovered about the life of Saint Wilfred apart from Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica.
Stephen’s work is structured as a chronological narrative, and unlike many other hagiographies (biographies of saints) from the Anglo-Saxon period, he includes lots of specific details, names, and events.
As a result, his Vita Sancti Wilfrithi is considered one of the first Anglo-Saxon works of history.
Alcuin of York
Born around 735, Alcuin was a poet, teacher, and clergyman in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria.
In the 780s, Charlemagne invited him to teach and study at the Carolingian court. He remained there until the 790s.
He wrote numerous theological and mathematical works, as well as poems and grammatical works. He is also associated with perfecting and preserving Carolingian minuscule, a readable.
He became the abbot of Tours (in modern-day France) in 796 and served in this role until his death in 804.
An Anglo-Saxon nun and hagiographer (biographer of saints), Hygeburg is credited as being the first known woman from England to have completed a full-length literary work.
The two works attributed to her were called Hodoeporicon (a biography of Willibald), and Vita Wynnebald.
She lived and worked in the Alemannian monastery at Heidenheim (in modern-day Germany).
Famous Female Anglo-Saxons
Known as the Lady of the Mercians, Aethelflaed, Alfred the Great’s Eldest daughter, played a major role in fighting against the Viking invaders during the 890s and early part of the 10th century.
Following the death of her husband. Aethelred in 911, Aethelflaed became the ruler of Mercia, and together with her brother, King Edward, she extended Alfred’s network of forts and forced the Vikings to surrender in Derby, Leicester and York.
She died in 918 and was buried in St Oswald’s Minster in Gloucester.
Lady Wulfrun (sometimes referred to as Lady Wulfruna) was an influential Mercian noblewoman who lived during the 10th century.
In 985 King Aethelred II granted to Wulfrun by royal charter lands in what is now Staffordshire, referred to as Heatun (high place or high settlement). After her death, the settlement was referred to as Wolvrenehamptonia (Wolfrun’s Heaton) and evolved into the city of Wolverhampton.
A statue of Lady Wulfrun stands outside St Peter’s Church in Wolverhampton, the church Lady Wulfrun was said to have endowed in 994.
Lady Wulfrun had two sons, Wulfric Spot, who was a patron of Burton Abbey, and Aelfhelm, ealdorman of Northumbria. Her daughter was called Aelfthryth.
Born in about 614, Hilda decided to become a nun at the age of 33. She first attended a convent on the banks of the River Wear, then she moved on to become the second abbess of Hartlepool Abbey.
She became the founding abbess of Whitby Abbey, establishing a well-respected double monastery (where men and women lived separately but worshipped together).
In 664, King Oswiu of Northumberland opted to use Hilda’s monastery as the site of the first Church synod in his kingdom. The Synod of Whitby was attended by important churchmen from all over Britain.
In the last years of her life, before her death in 680 at the age of 66, Hilda established a monastery in Hackness (Scarborough, North Yorkshire). Apparently, as she took her last breaths, the bells of the monastery began to toll.
Also known as St Mildrith, St Mildred was an Anglo-Saxon abbess of the Abbey at Minster-in-Thanet in Kent. She was born in the 660s and died around 730.
Educated in the royal Merovingian Chelles Abbey (near Paris), she became abbess of Minster-in-Thanet in 694 and a hagiography was written about her in the 11th century by Goscelin.
Famous Anglo-Saxon Heroes
Hereward the Wake
Although many of the stories about Hereward the Wake’s life have likely been exaggerated and mixed with legend, most historians would agree that he was an Anglo-Saxon nobleman who led a rebellion against the Normans following their conquest in 1066.
It is said that he killed fifteen Normans who were responsible for taking his family’s lands and killing his brother. In 1070, he was part of the army that sacked Peterborough Cathedral and went on to establish a base on the Isle of Ely in Cambridgeshire.
Some accounts suggest that Hereward continued to harass the Normans as an outlaw living in the Fens, but others believe he went into exile or headed to Scotland.
Hengist and Horsa
Legend has it that Hengist and Horsa were brothers who led the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons during their 5th-century invasion of Britain.
Apparently, they arrived in Ebbsfleet (near Ramsgate in Kent) and fought as mercenaries for Vortigern, a warlord in Britain. After a while, they turned against Vortigern (an event often referred to as the Treachery of the Long Knives).
Horsa was killed, but Hengist survived and went on to found the Kingdom of Kent.
Beowulf is the main character in the Old English epic poem that bears his name.
In the poem, Beowulf, a warrior, and hero, comes to the aid of the Hrothgar, King of the Danes, by slaying a monster called Grendel and then defeating the monster’s mother.
Later in his life, Beowulf battles a dragon. He wins the fight but suffers mortal wounds.
Learn more about Beowulf.
Cerdic of Wessex
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Cerdic was the founder of Anglo-Saxon Wessex and its first king.
If the Chronicle can be believed, he reigned from 519 AD to 534 AD, having arrived in what is today the county of Hampshire in 495. He fought battles at Netely Marsh and Charford, and completed a conquest of the Isle of Wight.
Although the accounts in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of the early history of Wessex are contradictory and unlikely to be reliable, it is clear that all of the later kings of Wessex improved their claim to the throne by stating that they were Cerdic’s descendants.
Other Famous Anglo-Saxons
During his lifetime Dunstan served as Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, Bishop of Worcester, Bishop of London and Archbishop of Canterbury.
Dunstan was a skilled artist, illuminator, metalworker, and musician.
He was highly influential in Britian. As a young man, he was favourite of King Aethelstan. He went on to become a trusted adviser to Lady Aethelflaed, King Aethelstan’s niece. Following Aethelstan’s death in 940, his successor, Edmund, made Dunstan a minister.
Dunstan officiated the coronation of King Edgar in 973.
He died in 988 when he was in his late seventies. He was canonized in 1029 and went on to become the most popular saint in Britain for nearly two centuries.
Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne
Born around 634, Cuthbert was an Anglo-Saxon monk, bishop, and hermit in the Kingdom of Northumbria.
In 662 he became prior at Melrose, he attended the Synod of Whitby, and in 684, following many years living as a hermit, he was made bishop of Lindisfarne.
Cuthbert died in 687. He was buried at Lindisfarne, but his remains were removed to Durham to escape the invading Danes. In 698 he was reburied in Lindisfarne and he became one of the most popular saints in England until the 12th century.
Acca of Hexham
Acca was Bishop of Hexham (in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria) from 709 until 732.
He was friends with Bede, and Bede was a great admirer of the theological library Acca assembled during his lifetime. He also knew Stephen of Ripon and encouraged him to write the Life of Saint Wilfrid.
Acca was buried at Hexham following his death in the early 740s.
The only surviving writing of Acca’s is a letter he wrote to Bede.
Who was the most famous Anglo-Saxon?
It’s hard to look beyond Alfred the Great as a candidate for the most famous Anglo-Saxon. In terms of his military achievements and the legal, financial and educational reforms he pioneered, it would be difficult to argue that any other Anglo-Saxon did more than him to leave their mark on the pages of history.
However, if you were to ask a random person in modern-day England to name an Anglo-Saxon, many would answer with the name Harold. Because the Battle of Hastings is such an iconic conflict in English history (and it has been taught in English schools for centuries), the image from the Bayeux Tapestry of the Anglo-Saxon warrior with an arrow in his eye (whether it’s actually Harold or not) is indelibly seared into English minds. King Harold’s achievements don’t compare to Alfred’s, but he is well-known today because of his involvement in a famous battle, even if he was on the losing side.