Old English Era Or Anglo-Saxon Era (5th – 11th Century)

The Old English Era, or Anglo-Saxon Era, is considered to present the earliest form of written literature in the English language. Spanning from the 5th century to the 11th century, this era encompasses literature written in Old English, which was spoken in Early Medieval England.

The era witnessed extensive transformation on all levels. Geographical, political, literary, religious, and historical changes make it worth reading and learning about. At its best, this period deals with the formation, realization, and ultimately the development of the English identity. It shows how British history grows through the chaos, revealing resilience amidst adversity.

Learning About The Old English Era Or Anglo-Saxon Era  (5th - 11th Century)

This article delves into various stages coming together to describe the Old English Era. Read through to grasp the entire picture:

Fall Of The Roman Empire and Migration of Germanic Tribes

It all began with the fall of the Roman Empire, once a dominant political party of Europe that peaked in the 2nd century. The decline of the Roman Empire was caused by circumstances like economic uncertainty, political corruption, barbarian invasions, constant warfare, social and cultural depletion, and ultimately, the division of the Empire. Pertaining to these occurrences, the Germanic tribes migrated and settled in Great Britain in the 5th century. These tribal people were also called the Angels or the Saxons, certainly how the era in discussion got its name.

The relationship between the Germanic tribes and the falling Roman Empire is complex and multifaceted. It would not be accurate to categorize the Germanic tribes solely as victims or solely as causes of the fall of the Roman Empire. It would be more accurate to see them as someone playing a significant role in the events leading to the decline and eventual collapse of the Western Roman Empire.

Germanic tribes, in search of a new land, caused significant changes in 5th century Britain where the power of the Roman Empire was already waning. The favorable power vacuum allowed the Saxons to establish their place in Britain as a distinctive ethnic group. During this time, the emergence of new kingdoms was witnessed. The Saxons formed individual kingdoms, such as Essex, Sussex, Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria, Kent, East Anglia and Middle Anglia. To expand their territories, they often engaged in battles and formed political alliances. This also impacted their influence and control over British land.

Role of Anglo-Saxons

It is believed that the Anglo-Saxons (earlier called the English Saxons) were the main contributors to English Literature. Post the settlement, they continued to pass along their tribal history and cultural values to generations and populations that did not know how to read or write.

Anglo-Saxon literature began through spoken verse, songs, and poems, such as epic poems. These spoken verses helped in maintaining the continuity and cohesion of the tribal community and their cultural values. This corresponds to how literature has been instrumental in preserving numerous sentiments and values for various communities and ethnic groups.

Role of Sir Augustine

Augustine of Hippo or Saint Augustine (354-430) is remembered as a great philosopher who made a significant impact in the Old English Era. He is also known for converting England to a Christian Nation in 597 AD as a part of the Gregorian Mission. He first approached the land of Britain through King Ethelbert, a pagan ruler, and his kingdom. Fortunately, through the influential role of the King’s wife, a Christian princess of Frankia, Saint Augustine’s mission met with success.

The Word of God was spread across England through the unwavering efforts of Augustine. Christianization had a huge impact on shaping the nation. All of this started being reflected through the art, literature, and governance of Anglo-Saxon society.

Lady Reading Book Old English Era

Anglo-Saxon Poetry

Old English Poetry can be divided into three categories: Heroic Poetry, Lyric Poetry and Christian Poetry. Heroic Poetry emphasized on courage and valor by describing the tales of great warriors and rulers. Lyric Poetry looked into what was inside, that is, personal emotions and feelings. Christian Poetry came as a result of expanding Christianity in England at that time, describing Christian beliefs and teachings.

The first-ever Old English poetry “Cædmon’s Hymn” was composed in the 7th century. Beowulf and Widsith are one of the most important works of the era. The exact authorship of these poems remains unknown. This might be attributed to the fact that writers during that era prioritized spreading their message over seeking recognition for their work. Also, there was a lack of extensive documentation or author’s signatures. Loss and damage of many historical documents have further complicated tracking the record.

Some of the other works that earned notable recognition are Genesis, Exodus, The Wanderer, Wife’s Lament, Husband’s Message, Christ and Satan, The Dream of the Road, and The Battle of Maldon.

The Entry of the Vikings and Role of King Alfred, the Great

In the 8th century (or the Viking Age), numerous unorganized but hugely affecting encounters were witnessed in the villages of England. Vikings, the seafarers who originally hailed from Scandinavia, undertook the task of trading throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. Amongst the many countries that they invaded and settled in, England tends to be one of the firsts. The coastal areas were their main targets, especially the ones seated next to the European rivers and England’s coast.

A lot of robbery was witnessed that affected the society and their cultural habits. King Alfred of Wessex (often regarded as Alfred, the Great), through his plan of unifying England, was successful in resisting the Viking attacks. He undertook various military and political measures to safeguard Wessex from the invasions. He promoted literacy and education and introduced the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. He negotiated with the Vikings and his strategies did not only safeguard his people but also helped in unifying the whole diverse society.

Gradually, the Vikings assimilated amongst the locals of the place and got Christianised, settling down in Normandy.

End of the Era

In the 11th Century, William the Conqueror (often called William the Bastard) conquered England, establishing the rule of Normans while discarding that of the Saxons. This event is known as the Norman Conquest of 1066 in the pages of history. Defeating the Saxon King Harold II in the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror was able to establish Norman rule in England, marking the beginning of the Middle Ages.

The Norman Conquest is often termed as the first ever biggest conquest in England that brought numerous political and social transformations. The Norman aristocrats were replacing a lot of Saxon elites. Feudalism came to life with William the Conqueror’s followers getting favoritism in land reforms. The Saxon society was almost being treated like an outcast under Norman rule.

English culture and architecture were hugely impacted. Norman French was made the official language of the ruling class while English was downgraded to the language of the common people. The power of Normans consolidated after the introduction of the Domesday Book in 1086, a comprehensive survey of landholdings and resources in the nation.

On the other hand, co-existing dual cultures also gave rise to “Anglo-Norman” culture. England was exposed to a more international European culture, majorly dominated by French literature and sensibilities.


At last, the Old English Era laid the foundation for the development of English society, culture, and institutions, forever shaping the narrative of British history. It has defined Old English to be the literary base, something that was instrumental in kicking it all off. Expansion of literary richness and most importantly, the beginning of writings as they happened, has made the Old English Era an important epoch in the evolution of English Literature.

Jennis Jacob

Jennis Jacob, a passionate literary enthusiast in her 20s, is a writer and poet. With eight years of experience in literature, she is currently a master in English and finds inspiration in Womanist, American, and Indian Partition Literatures. Her works have appeared in anthologies such as ‘Carved Words Of Creative Minds’ and ‘100 Splendid Voices,’ and she is working on upcoming books. Through LitWithASip, she aims to ignite a love for literature and empower individuals to embrace their true selves.

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