Supervisor: Dr., M. A. Stephen Paul Hardy, Ph. D

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Masaryk University

Faculty of Arts

Department of English
and American Studies

English Language and Literature

Anna Šerbaumová

Anglo-Saxons and English Identity

Master’s Diploma Thesis

Supervisor: Dr., M.A. Stephen Paul Hardy, Ph.D.


I declare that I have worked on this thesis independently,
using only the primary and secondary sources listed in the bibliography.

V Plzni dne 22.11.2010


I would like to thank my supervisor Dr., M.A. Stephen Paul Hardy, Ph.D. for his advice and comments, and my family and boyfriend for their constant support.

Table of Contents

0 Introduction 1

1 Anglo-Saxon Period (410–1066) 4

1.1 Anglo-Saxon Settlement in Britain 4

1.2 A Brief History of the Anglo-Saxon Period 5

1.3 “Saxons”,“ English” or “Anglo-Saxons”? 7

1.4 The Origins of English Identity and the Venerable Bede 9

1.5 English Identity in the Ninth Century and Alfred the Great’s Preface to the Pastoral Care 15

1.6 Conclusion 17

2 The Conquered England (1066–1204) 19

2.1 The Norman Conquest 19

2.2 The English and Norman Identities in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries 20

2.3 English Identity and the Anglo-Saxons in William of Malmesbury’s Deeds of the Kings of the English 22

2.4 Conclusion 25

3 The Late Middle Ages (1204–1485) 27

3.1 England, English Identity and the Anglo-Saxons in the Late Middle Ages 27

3.2 The Romance of Guy of Warwick 31

3.3 Conclusion 36

4 The Tudor Age (1485–1603) 38

4.1 England, English Identity and the Anglo-Saxons in the Tudor Age 38

4.2 Matthew Parker’s A Testimony of Antiquity 41

4.3 Conclusion 45

5 The Early Stuarts (1603–1660) 47

5.1 England under the Early Stuarts and the Uses of Anglo-Saxon Past in the Construction of English Identity during the Civil War 47

5.2 John Hare’s St. Edward’s Ghost, or Anti-Normanism 50

5.3 Conclusion 53

6 From Restoration until 1789 55

6.1 England after the Restoration and the Revival of Interest in the Anglo-Saxon Past 55

6.2 Daniel Defoe’s The True-Born Englishman 58

6.3 Conclusion 61

7 The Nineteenth Century (1789–1914) 63

7.1 The Nineteenth Century and the Racialization of the Myth of the Anglo-Saxon past 63

7.2 Charles Dickens’s A Child’s History of England 65

7.3 Conclusion 68

8 After the Second World War (1945–2010) 69

8.1 The United Kingdom after the Second World War: the Crisis of English Identity and the Decline of Interest in Anglo-Saxon Past? 69

8.2 Geraldine McCaughrean’s Britannia: 100 Great Stories from British History 77

8.3 Conclusion 80

9 Conclusion 81

10 Works Cited 85

11 Resumé 95

12 Summary 96


The Norman Conquest is generally considered to be the end of what we call Anglo-Saxon England. However, Anglo-Saxon England remained a vital cultural construct in post-Conquest England. In fact, “the remembrance and re-imagining of Anglo-Saxon England in the post-conquest period is part of an ongoing cultural process that began from the first moment that William stood among the slain Anglo-Saxon nobles after the battle of Hastings,” writes Robert Allen Rouse in the first chapter of his book The Idea of Anglo-Saxon England in Middle English Romance (1).

When, in the introduction to Anglo-Saxonism and the Construction of Social Identity, Allen J. Frantzen and John D. Niles define what they mean by Anglo-Saxonism, they claim that it is “the process through which a self-conscious national and racial identity first came into being among the early peoples of the region that we now call England and how, over time, through both scholarly and popular promptings, that identity was transformed into an originary myth available to a wide variety of political and social interests” (1). However, this collection of essays explores Anglo-Saxonism only in certain periods of time and in different parts of the world ranging from the United States to England and Scandinavia.

My thesis further develops the concepts put forward in this work. I argue that the perceptions of the Anglo-Saxon past played an important role in English history and that they were used in various ways in the construction of English national identity, each period of English history appropriating the Anglo-Saxon past in its own way according to its current needs.

Therefore, the aim of this thesis is to demonstrate systematically how the Anglo-Saxon past was viewed in different periods of English history, from the Anglo-Saxon period until the twentieth century, and how (if at all) it influenced the development of English identity. I am primarily concerned with the history and identity of England and the English, not with that of Britain, though it is inevitably connected. As investigating popular perceptions of identity in the past is extremely difficult, I will rather concentrate on how writers throughout the ages attempted to shape English identity through their works. Each period of English history will be investigated mainly through one work of a contemporary author.

All chapters, which are named after the period of English history which they deal with, are structured similarly. First, I introduce the given historical period and the main developments relevant to the evolution of English identity at the time. Then, I summarize what has been argued about the perception of the Anglo-Saxons and the development of English identity during the period. In the final part of each chapter, I analyze one work by an English author dealing with the Anglo-Saxon past.

In chapter one, I provide a brief account of the origins of the Anglo-Saxon settlement in England and the evolution of England during the Anglo-Saxon period. Then, I describe the origins and meanings of the terms “Saxon,” “English” and “Anglo-Saxon” as well as how the meanings of these terms have changed throughout history. Finally, I attempt to find out when the world first saw an “English identity” and how that identity was viewed at this early point in history by analyzing the eighth-century Ecclesiastical History of the English People by the monk Venerable Bede and the ninth-century preface to the Pastoral Care by King Alfred the Great.

Chapter two is devoted to the period between the Norman Conquest of 1066 and the beginning of the thirteenth century. I focus on the impact of the Norman Conquest on the development of English identity and attempt to trace the interaction of the English and Norman identities until the final victory of the English. As a contemporary work dealing with the clash of the two identities, I analyze Deeds of the Kings of the English written at the beginning of the twelfth century by William of Malmesbury, a monk of Anglo-Norman origin.

Chapter three deals with a number of changes which occurred in England during the late medieval period. It endeavours to explain what the consequences were for English identity, which represented a rather complicated notion at the time, and what the role of the Anglo-Saxons was in this process. As an example of how the Anglo-Saxons were viewed in this period, a fifteenth-century romance of Guy of Warwick is analyzed.

In chapter four, I explore the period between 1485 and 1603, during which England was ruled by the Tudor monarchs. I focus on the process of the English Reformation, initiated by King Henry VIII, and on the new period in the development of English identity, which was initiated by the Reformation. Moreover, I attempt to explain what the role of the Anglo-Saxon past was in this development. In the second part of the chapter, I analyze the preface to A Testimony of Antiquity, a collection of religious writings from the Anglo-Saxon period assembled by Archbishop Matthew Parker, one of the most important figures of the Reformation.

Chapter five discusses the period of the reign of the early Stuart kings, 1603–1660. It focuses mainly on the English Civil War. First, it attempts to explain the causes of this conflict. Then, it concentrates on the role of the Anglo-Saxon past in this event and its impact on English identity. Finally, special interest is paid to one of the examples of the radical interpretation of English history, St. Edward’s Ghost, or Anti-Normanism, a pamphlet by a radical thinker John Hare published in 1647.

Chapter six explores the period after the Restoration of the Stuart kings until the end of the eighteenth century. It mainly deals with the political situation in England after the Restoration and the revival of interest in the Anglo-Saxon past in the eighteenth century and its accommodation to the new needs provided by the accession of kings of foreign origin to the English throne. In the second part of the chapter, I analyze the satirical poem The True-Born Englishman by Daniel Defoe.

In chapter seven, I focus on the nineteenth century. After briefly introducing the period and the origins of the racialization of the myth of Anglo-Saxon past, I endeavour to trace the development of English identity in the nineteenth century in relation to Anglo-Saxon past. Following this, I attempt to illustrate the perceptions of the Anglo-Saxons and their significance in the development of English identity during this period by analyzing a section of A Child’s History of England by Charles Dickens.

Chapter eight deals with the period from the Second World War until present. It attempts to describe the changes that the British Empire underwent in the post-war period, how they influenced English identity and what was the role of the Anglo-Saxons in this process. As an example of a recent work, I provide an analysis of Britannia: 100 Great Stories from British History, a collection of stories and legends from the history of Great Britain written by Geraldine McCaughrean.

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