Origin of the Anglo-Saxon Race


Origin of the Anglo-Saxon Race – An Introduction

If we had no contemporary information of the settlement, for instance, of the State of Massachusetts, and nothing but traditions, more or less probable, concerning it until the middle of the nineteenth century, when an account of that settlement was first written, we should scarcely be warranted in regarding such a narrative as veritable history. Its traditionary value would be considerable, and there its value would end.

This supposed case is parallel with that of the early account of the Anglo-Saxons and the settlement of England as it went on from the middle of the fifth to the middle of the seventh century. That which Bede wrote concerning his own time must be accepted as contemporary history, and for this historical information we venerate his memory ;

but the early settlement of England were made six or eight generations before his day,and he had nothing but tradition to assist him in his narrative concerning them. Many of the old chroniclers who copied from him, and some of the historians who followed them, have, however, assigned a greater value to Bede`s early narrative than he himself would probably have given to it. In this work it will be our aim to gather what supplementary information we can from all available sources, and among the more important subjects that will be dealt with are the evidence of ancient customs and the influence of family organization as shown by the survival of many ancient place-names. Anyone who departs from the beaten track, and attempts to obtain some new information from archaeological and other research bearing on the circumstances of the Anglo-Saxon settlement, will find many difficulties in their way, and that much time is required to make even small progress. Here and there, however, by the comparison of customs, old laws, the ancient names of places, and other archaeological circumstances, with those of a similar kind in Scandinavia or Germany, some advances may be made.

It is to tribal organization and tribal customs that we must look for explanation of much that would otherwise be difficult to understand in the Anglo-Saxon settlement and the origin of the Old English race. Many of the ancient place-names can be traced to tribal origins. Others, whose sources we cannot trace, probably had their origin in tribal or clan names that have been lost. Many of the old manorial and other customs, especially those of inheritance, that survive, or are known to have prevailed, and the variations they exhibited in different English localities, were probably tribal in their origins. The three national names, Anglo, Saxons, and Jutes, denoting the people by whom England was occupied, were not the names of nations are now understood, but convenient names of confederations of tribes. The dialects that were spoken by the English settlers were probably mutually intelligible, but were not, until the lapse of centuries, one speech. Their variations have not yet wholly passed away, as the differences, as the differences in grammar, vocabulary, intonation, and pronunciation of English dialects still show. It is to the ancient tribes of North Germany and Scandinavia that we must look if we would understand who were the real ancestors of the Old English people, and in comparison with the Germanic element, the Scandinavian has probably not received the attention to which it is entitled. The old place-names in England, except along the Welsh border and in Cornwall, are almost all of Teutonic origin, but we cannot say what they all mean. It is easy to guess rightly, for the Northumbrian and Mercian speech of the earliest periods have been almost lost, (1) and the early West Saxon dialect during the later period was not what it was during the earlier. The names of places appear in perhaps the majority of cases to have been given them from topographical considerations. Some of these, derived from the hills, fords, woods, and the like, may be of very early date, but most of them are probably later. The place-names derived from tribes or clans are, however, as old as the settlement, whether they arose from a kindred of people or from one man of a particular race. In considering this subject the earliest forms of local government must not be ignored. In the primitive settlements the customary law was administered by families or kindreds. It at first was tribal, and not territorial. The communities must have been known by names they gave themselves, or those by which the neighbouring communities commonly called them. Probably in most cases the names which survived were those by which their neighbours designed them. As regards the disappearance of Anglo-Saxon names, nothing is more striking in one country of Wessex alone – Hampshire, the original Wessex – than the large number of boundary names and names of places mentioned in the Saxon charters that are now lost or are beyond indentification. (2) There are, however, mixed with the Teutonic names of places all over England, others denoting natural features, which must be ascribed to an earlier period even than the Anglo-Saxon. In the work of reading the great palimsest exhibited by the map of England the philologist claims to have the last word. He tells us of declensions and conjugations, of vowel changes and consonant shiftings, and much more that is valuable, assuming to give authoritative interpretations ; but, as Ripley says, (3) `Because a people early hit upon the knowledge of bronze, and learned how to tame horses and milk cows, it does not follow that they also invented the declensions of nouns or the conjugations of verbs.`

As regards the names of places that were called after the names of their occupants or the descendants of some early settler, those in which the Anglo-Saxon patronymic termination -ing – denoting son of, or descendants of –occurs are the most important. This patronymical word-ing has been shown by Kemble (4) to have been used in place-names in several ways. In its simplest form at the end of a name it denotes the son or other descendant of the person who bore that name. Another use of it, as part of a plural termination, was to denote the persons who lived in a particular place or district, as Brytfordingas for the inhabitants of Brytford. It is also sometimes used in another form, as in Cystaninga mearc, the mark or boundary of the Cystanings or people of Keston in Kent, (5) and in Besinga hearth, the temple of the Besingas, probably in Sussex. (6)

The wording in combination was also sometimes used as practically an equivalent of the genitive singular. Examples of this usage occur in such names as AEthelwulf-land and Swithraeding-den, now Surrenden in Kent, which are equivalent in meaningto AEthelwulfes land and Swithraedes den, or wood. (7)

In the Anglo-Saxon charters, or copies of them which have been preserved, many names ending in the word -ingas,denoting people of a certain clan or ga, are mentioned. Of these, about 24 are in Kent, 11 in Sussex, 5 in Essex, 7 in Berkshire, 8 in Norfolk, 4 in Suffolk, 12 in Hampshire, and 3 in Middlesex. (8) Many more clans no doubt existed, whose names may probably be inferred from existing place-names. On this, however, I lay no stress. The termination-ingahem in place-names occurs in a large group in the North-East of France, where an early Teutonic colony can be traced. Local names ending in-ingen are scattered over Germany, most numerously in South Baden. Wurtemberg, and along the north of the upper course of the Danube, and it was to these parts of Germany that people closely allied to the Old Saxons migrated. They moved south-west, while many who were kindred to them in race passed over into England, and hence the similarity in the endings of their place-names.

Anglo-Saxon name of places are almost universally feminine nouns ending in -e, and forming the genitive case in -an. When connected with other words they generally appear as genitives, but sometimes combine with these words, and form simple compounds without inflection. (9) Of these many examples will appear.

The Old English place-names of which the words `men or man` form part, and which do not appear to be names derived from inflected words, are somewhat numerous, and most of them mat probably be regarded as the tribal names by which the settlers at these places were first known. Of such names, Normanton, Eastmanton, Blackemanstone, Hunmanbie, Osmenton, Ockementone, Sevamantone, Salemanesberie, Galmentone, Walementone, Elmenham, Godmanston, are examples. It is hardly possible that such names as these could attach themselves to places, except as the abodes of men described. These, or nearly all of them, are Old English, and occur in the Charters or in the Doomday Book. Brocmanton is also met with in the thirteenth century, (10) and may probably be traced to a tribal Brocman.

The philological evidence bearing on the subject of this enquiry is also of two kinds, : (1) The evidence of the old names in use during the Saxon period; (2) the evidence of the old dialects.

The anthropological evidence is also of two kinds, viz.: (1) The evidence of human remains, chiefly skulls from Anglo-Saxon burial-places, and that of similar remains of the same period from old cemeteries on the Continent; (2) the racial characters of people in various parts of Northern Europe and in parts of England at the present time.

The archaeological evidence that will appear is not only that relating to objects found, but also to customs that prevailed, especially those relating to inheritance, which are among the most persistent of early institutions. In several parts of England accounts have come down to us in the folk-lore or traditions and in historical references of a clan-like feeling between people of adjoining villages or districts. Traces of dislike or jealousy between village and villages have been reported in several counties, notably in Hampshire and Cambridgeshire. (11) In the latter county Conybeare mentions the rivalry between the men of Barrington on the Mercian side of the Cam and those of Foxton on the East Anglian side. He shows that this rivalry was of ancient date, and quotes a reference to a faction fight between the two villages in July 1327. Even in that great district which forms the borderline between Yorkshire and Lancashire stories are still current of the reception which the inhabitants of the Yorkshire valleys sometimes met with when they crossed the moorlands into Rossendale in Lancashire. The traditional reception of such a stranger was to call him a foreigner, and to `heave a sod at him.` Such an old local tale conveys to us an idea of the isolation that must have prevailed among some at least of the neighbouring settlements of the Old English, especially when inhabited by people descended from different tribes, and not comprised within the same hundreds or area of local administration. Thorold Rogers tells us that in the Hampshire Meon country the peasantry in one village, West Meon, had an open and hearty contempt for the inhabitantsof the two neighbouring villages which, in the case of one, was almost like the dislike of the Southern French for the Cagots. There was, he says, a theory that the inhabitants were descended from the ancient Britons, whom the Jute settlers had failed to drive out of their morasses. (12)

On the subject of strangers in race settled near each other Seebolm says: `The tribal feeling which allowed tribesmen and strangers to live side by side under their own laws (as with the Salic and Ripuarian Franks) was, it would seem brought with the invading tribes into Britain.` (13) In the cases in which strangers in race lived near each other there was little under ordinary circumstances to bring them into social intercourse, and the sense of estrangement was not altogether removed after many generations. It is difficult to see the occasions on which the people of different primitive settlements some miles apart would have opportunities of meeting if they were not included within the same hundreds or wapentakes.

Bearing in mind these circumstances, we cannot wonder if it should appear that the original Anglo-Saxon settlers in some instances called their neighbours in the next settlement, if they were of a different tribe, by the tribal name to which they belonged, or one expressive of the sense of strangers or foreigners. Such a meaning is apparently conveyed by the use of the Anglo-Saxon prefix el, other, strange or foreign. (14) Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Frisians, Danes, Norse, and Wends, comprised people of many various tribes, speaking many various dialects, some of which must have been less intelligible to people who as English settlers lived near them than their own vernacular speech. In this sense they would be more or less strangers to each other, and such a line of cleavage would be more marked in those cases in which different local customs prevailed in neighbouring townships. In some parts of England we may still find here and there traces of old place-names denoting, apparently, the idea of other, or strange, people. Such Anglo-Saxon names as Elmanstede, (15) now Elmstead, in Kent, and Elmenham. (16) now Elmham ,in Norfolk, probably had this original signification. They can hardly be words derived from inflected names. These and other similar names express the sense that the inhabitants in these hams, steds, worths, beorhs, and tons, were other men or strangers to the people living near them, who probably gave the places these names. It is difficult to see what other meaning can be attached to such names as Elmanstede and Elmenham. They apparently point to conditions of early settlement somewhat similar to those under which townships are formed in many instances in the western parts of the United States and Canada. There new immigrants of various European nations are forming their new homes in separate communities of their own people, while others in neighbouring townships who are doing the same are of other races, and are strangers to them. The newer Anglo-Saxon race is being rejuvenated on American soil, as the older stock was by similar conditions formed in England. The isolation of many of the earliest villages in England may probably be seen in the traces we fine of the primitive meeting-places for exchange of commodities – i.e., the earliest markets. These are not in towns, but on the borders or marks of the early settlements, where people of neighbouring places appear to have met on what was perhaps regarded as neutral ground. Some of these old border places may still be recognised by the name `staple,` although by the rise of newer villages they may be border places no longer. Thus, in Hampshire we have Stapler`s Down, south of Odiham; Stapeley Row, Ropley; Staple Ash, Froxfield; Stapleford, Durley; Staple Cross, boarhunt; and Stapole Thorn, a name that occurs in a Saxon charter on the south of Micheldever. (17) An example on the border of two counties is that of Dunstable, and another is the Domesday place Stanestaple, in Middlesex.

Even as late as the time of Henry I. there are orders that neighbours are to meet and settle their differences at the boundaries of their land, and there are many traces of the meeting-places of courts having been at the boundaries of ancient settlements.

The settlers who became the ancestors of the Old English race were people of many tribes, all included within the later designation Anglo-Saxon. They were not exclusively Teutonic, for among them was a small minority of people of various Wendish tribes, the evidence of whose immigration will appear in another chapter. In regard to speech, there must have been may dialects at first, and we can trace, more or less, the use in England of three classes of them – viz., the old Germanic, whether Old Frisian or Old Saxon; the Old Norrena, now represented by the Icelandic; and the Old Slavic speech of the Wends – the Wendish, of course, only to a very limited extent. The oldest examples of the Old Northern language are not, however, to be found in the Icelandic, but in the names and words graven on stones in runic characters in Scandinavia, Denmark, and Britain. This method of attempting to read some of our disguised or altered place-names appear to be reasonable to the archaeologist, who looks not merely to the historical statements of the old chroniclers and the names for his evidence, but also to the surviving customs, to anthropogical and archaeological discoveries, to folk-lore, and all other sources from which information bearing on the settlement may be gleaned. The value of the information that may be gathered from these sources to the historian or philologist is great. We can see on the Ordnance map of England many names whose origin goes back only to recent centuries, but we find also in every county many others of extreme antiquity. If we could fully understand them we should know much relating to the Anglo-Saxon period of our history of which we are now ignorant. Even the different ways in which the homesteads in different parishes or townships are arranged, whether they are scattered or clustered in groups, give information by which the archaeologist is able to assist the historian. The scattered homesteads may in some districts be as old as the British period, or in other ways have been formed first by emigrants who came from some old Continental areas where the Celtic arrangement survived. There are many other and more numerous areas where nucleated villages exist, in which the homesteads are collected, some arranged on the plan of having roads radiating from them – i.e., the star-like way, similar to the German type common between the Elbe and the Weser. In other instances we find collected homesteads of an elongated, rounded, or fan-shaped form enclosing a small space, around which the original houses were built. These resemble the village types east of the Elbe, in the old Slavonic parts of Germany, and the type was in all probability brought to this country by some Wends or Germanized Slavs. If a few villages here and there are of a Wendish rather than a purely Germanic type, we may reasonably look for traces of Slavonic influence in the customs, folk-lore, and in some at least of the names of the district.

From the circumstance that various old dialects were spoken in England during the Anglo-Saxon period, it follows that we may look for the origin of some of our place-names in the Old Norrena of the northern runic writing, or in the Icelandic tongue, as well as in those of old Germanic origin, and perhaps in some few instances in the Old Slavic dialect that was spoken by the Wends, of whose settlement in England evidence will appear. It was from these elements with some admixture of the Celtic, that the Anglo-Saxon language was formed on English soil. (18)

In the Hundred Rolls of 1271 A.D. there are many people mentioned who bore the surname of Scot, which was no doubt originally given to them or their forefathers because they were Scots who had settled in England. Unless we are to believe the existence of the mythological ancestors of various tribes, such as Angul, the eponymous ancestor of the Angles; Saxnote, of the Saxons;Dan of the Danes; Gewis of the Gewissa, and so on, we must allow that the earliest individuals who were called by a tribal name derived it in some way or other from that of the tribe, as those first called Scot did from the early Scots. Such names as Scot, Welsh, Breton, Cornish, Frank, Fleming, and others, were apparently given to the individuals who bore them by people of other decent near whom they lived, because those so designated were people of the nations or tribes denoted by these names. We may also trace such mediaeval names as Pickard, Artis, and Gascon, to natives of Picardy, Artois, and Gascony.

It is not easy to see how such a personal name as Westorwalening, which occurs in Anglo-Saxon literature, (19) could have arisen except as the designation of a man belonging to the tribe of Westorwealena, or Western Welshman.

The older names, Goding, Godman, Waring, Quen, Fin, Hune, Osman, Osgood, Eastman, Norman, Saleman, Alman, Mone, Wendel, Winter, and others may also be traced to the names of the corresponding ancient tribal people, or to the countries whence they came. It is very difficult, for example, to see how the name Osgood was applied to a person, except that, having migrated from the homeland of the tribe to which he belonged, his neighbours, finding it necessary to designate him among themselves by some name, called him Ostergotland in Sweden. These tribal settlers were all included under the general designations of Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, but have in many instances transmitted their tribal names to us in those of the places they occupied.

In considering this part of our subject, it is important to remember that the nations and tribes of Germany and Scandinavia were in many instances known by more than one name. The people sometimes mentioned as Sassi and Swaefas were Saxons, or very closely connected with them. Those known as Hunsings, Brocmen, and Chaukians, were Frisians, or their close allies. The Dacians were Danes, and the Geats and Gutae were Jutes. The Rugians and Wilte were tribal people among the Wends, and these, by Scandinavians, were called Windr or Wintr.

Some of the Danes were called after the names of their islands, and some of the Goths after the names of portions of ancient Gotland. In looking for traces of these races among our ancient place-names, it is clear, therefore, that the old tribal designations cannot be disregarded. Another important consideration is that, for one man who bore a tribal name which has survived, there may have been many others of the same race called by other names, or whose names did not come down to us. The testimony which names afford must, however, be considered with caution, for it is certain that they do not always imply what they seem to imply. From the archaeologist`s point of view, modern place-names, without their most ancient forms as a guide, or without circumstantial evidence showing a reasonable probability what their most ancient forms were, are almost valueless. The Anglo-Saxon names, however, are of great value. Many instances are known of places which have two names, both of them apparently old, and it is probable that instances of this double nomenclature which have not been recorded, or which have not come down to our time, were much more numerous. As already mentioned, many places must originally have got their names from the people who lived in them, or from people who were their neighbours. Possibly, in some cases, people in neighbouring settlements some miles away in one direction called a place by one name, and those some miles away in another direction called it by another. If these neighbours spoke different dialects, as they may have done on the borders of the primitive district or States, the use of such double names would be more likely, and perhaps in some cases probable. The tendency to give nicknames, or ekenames, to both people and places has also to be taken into account. The tendency of people to turn names the meaning of which they did not understand, or which had become lost as the language became modified or changed, into familiar animal or other names, such as Camelford from Gavelford, when the meaning of the primitive names had ceased to be remembered, must also be recognised. The alteration in some place-names may be traced also to another cause – the influence of humour. Of such names, whatever maybe the exact date of its origin, is that of the vale of Catmouse in Rutland. It occurs on some old maps as Catmouse, and whatever may have been its ancient significance, it is certain that it could have no reference to cat and mouse. In some parts of England the old local name Mousehole occurs. This is probably also a humorous name, derived in some instances at least from mosshole – i.e., the place where moss or peat was formerly dug. Such names as Sawbridgeworth, the Domesday name of which was Sabrixte-worde, and Hungriweniton are examples of the same kind. Market Jew, the popular name for Marazion, is said to have come from the old name Marghaisewe, meaning a Thursday market. (20)

Ekenames or nicknames were also used by the Anglo-Saxons, and were often those of animals. Such a name is that of Barrington in Cambridgeshire, as cited by Skeat, the name denoting the ton of the sons of Bera (bear). (21) Barrington, as already mentioned, was a frontier village. The use of ekenames or nicknames is certainly as old in this country as the period of the Anglo-Saxons. Our earliest literature affords evidence of it. They were not only applied to individuals, but to communities or places. It is perhaps impossible to say at the present time, in regard to numerous old place-names that still remain, which are original names or survivals of them, and which are ancient nicknames or survivals of them; but it is probable that there are many ancient eke- or nicknames the meaning of which we cannot interpret. A philologist who undertakes to explain English place-names by the rigid rules of modern philology, without taking into account the human element connected with the subject, the tendency of people to modify names into more familiar forms, or to modify their sound for the sake of change and variety alone, will find himself in difficulties with a considerable number of them. The oldest forms of those place-names that are also tribal names are important evidence, which will not be invalidated if in many instances the name has been derived from the personal name of the head of a family rather than from the people of a community. The early customary ties of kindred among the Anglo-Saxons were very strong. With a chieftain, some of his kindred commonly lived under a primitive form of family law. A chief or headman named Hundeman or Huneman manebi, now Hunmanby in Yorkshire, may reasonably be considered to have been a Frisian of the Hunni or Hunsing tribe, and the people who settled with him to have been of his family or kindred. Similarly, where we find a place named after the Wends or Vandals, it may have derived its name from the Vandal chief alone, or from the community of kindred people under him. Such an Anglo-Saxon name as Wendelesworth in Surrey could hardly have been derived from any other circumstance than the settlement on the south bank of the Thames of a man named Wendel, because he was of the Vandal or Wendish race, or from a kindred of Vandals. The name of this place appears much earlier than that of the stream of the same name. It matters little whether the name arose from the Wendish chief or from his people. The name Wendel was probably given to him or them, because of his or their Wendish or Vandal origin, by the people of adjoining settlements in Surrey or Middlesex, who were of another tribal origin.

This case of Wandsworth is interesting, not only because its old name points to a Wendish origin, but also on account of its custom of junior inheritance, which was of immemorial usage and came down to modern times. On the manor of Wandsworth the youngest son inherited his father`s land, a custom of peculiar interest in reference to Wendish researches. The Wends who took part in the Anglo-Saxon settlement were Slavs of such a mixed Slav descent that they had retained a custom, that of junior right, which was the ancient law of inheritance among the Slavs, and it is very difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Wendish origin of the name is confirmed by the survival of the custom. We are not now, however, considering the settlement in any one district, but the general evidence of a mixture of people of many tribes in different parts of the country, by the formation of communities of people of various races near each other. In connection with this inquiry the survival of names of places derived from the names of well-known tribes among the ancient Germans and Scandinavians, and the survival here and there, notwithstanding the changes likely to have occurred in the course of many centuries, of manorial customs which are known to have been ancient customs, or to closely resemble customs which in ancient time prevailed in parts of Germany and Scandinavia, are most important considerations. Customs of family inheritance, where they can be traced, are in many instances of as much value as contemporary historical information. It does not appear that there is any county in England where the surviving place-names are exclusively of Saxon, Anglian, Jutish, Danish, or Norse origin. If, for example, we consider those in the great areas to which the natural entrances from the sea are by the Humber, the Wash, the Thames, and the Southampton Water, with its adjoining estuaries, we shall find evidence of names of various origins, pointing to settlements of people of distinct races or tribes. In all parts of our country we find that during the last thousand years men have left in their architecture survivals of the period in which they lived. Tribal customs among our forefathers had an earlier origin than their arts, and we may recognise in their survival proof of the settlements of people of several different tribes.

Like a stream which can be followed up to many sources, the Anglo-Saxon race may be traced to many tribal origins. it is not the purpose of this book to describe the conquest of England, but rather its settlement by the conquering tribes and races. With this object in view, it is necessary to give attention rather to the sites of settlement than the sites of battles, to the arrangements of villages rather than the campaigns by which the districts in which those villages are situated were open to settlement. It is not within the scope to ascertain the number of conquered British people slain on any occasion, but rather to find the evidence which indicates that some of them must have been spared on parts of the country, and lived side by side with their conquerors, to become in the end blended with them as part of a new race. It is within its scope to show that in various parts of England people of diverse tribes became settled near to each other, in some districts one tribe preponderating, and in some another, a preponderance which has produced ethnological differences that have survived to the present time, and has left differences in dialects that bear witness to diversities in their origin.



1Skeat, W. W., `Principles of English Etymology,` p. 490.

2`Codex Diplomaticus AEvi Saxonici,` edited by Kemble, Index.

3Ripley, W. Z., `The Races of Europe,` p. 456.

4Kemble, J. M., Philological Soc. Proc., iv.

5`Codex Dipl.,` No. 994.

6Ibid., No. 1,163.

7Kemble, J. M., loc. cit.

8Kemble, J. M., `Saxons in England.`

9Guest, E., `The English Conquest of the Severn Valley,` Journal Arch. Institute, xix. 197.

10`Testa de Nevill,` 62b, 68.

11Conybeare, E., `history of Cambridgeshire,` 139.

12Rogers, Thorold, `Economic Interpretation of History,` 284.

13Seebohm, F., `Tribal Custom in Anglo-Saxon Law,` 498.

14Bosworth and Toller, `Anglo-Saxon Dictionary.`

15`Codex Dipl.,` Index.


17`Liber de Hyda,` pp. 86, 87, A. D. 1026.

18Marsh, G. P., `Lectures on the English Language,` First Series, 42, 43.

19Sweet, H., `The Earliest English Texts,` 489.

20Courtney, M. A., Folk-Lore Journal, v. 15.

21Skeat, W. W., Cambridge Antiq. Soc., Oct. Pub., xxxvi p. 18.


Taken from the book = `Origin of the Anglo-Saxon Race.`

Author T. W. Shore.