Anglo-Saxons, the Teutonic people who in the 5th and 6th centuries passed over from their territory in and near the Cimbric (Danish) peninsula to the island of Britain, then just abandoned by the Romans. They first acted as auxiliaries to the British against the Piets and Scots, but afterward subdued and overspread the country, establishing themselves as its permanent inhabitants, while the aboriginal races gradually disappeared before their rapid growth. They were principally collected from three nations, the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes, all members of the great Saxon confederation, a rough union of Teutonic tribes effected during the 4th century, under the Saxon hegemony, for mutual advancement and protection. (See Saxons.) The Saxons inhabited the country called Nortl\ Albingia or Eala Saexen, extending from the Elbe to the Eider, on the W. side of the Cimbric peninsula, and divided into Ditmarsia, Stormaria, and Hol-satia - districts which still retain these names. The Jutes inhabited South Jutland, now Schleswig. The territory of the Angles was probably the district of Angeln, now also within the limits of Schleswig. These tribes, celebrated for naval prowess, had made several piratical expeditions to the British coast before the abandonment of the island by the Romans. According to the statement of old histories, the details of which are not now fully credited by critical writers, it was the knowledge of them thus acquired by the Britons that led these latter to call upon them for aid, when, about A. D. 449, Vortigern, the leading British chief of the time, found himself unable to withstand the increasing inroads of the Picts and Soots, the barbarous tribes inhabiting the north of the island.
In response to his invitations, it is said, the Saxon chiefs Hengist and Horsa, who were visiting the coast for some unexplained but probably predatory purpose, came to the assistance of the British with only a few hundred men, yet with such effect that the Picts and Scots were almost immediately defeated. While it is now generally admitted that the names of these chieftains are probably mythical, the fact that many Saxon settlers landed at this time in Britain, and the account of the general events which followed, are unquestionably matters of history. The Picts and Scots were overcome, and the country, already somewhat cultivated and with much of the luxury of a Roman province, soon aroused the cupidity of the strangers. They sent for large reenforcements of their countrymen, and turned their arms against the inhabitants. From this time Saxons constantly poured into the island, and by gradual steps, which it is now impossible to trace, the native Britons were completely subjugated by the new people, who overspread the whole country, introduced their laws, customs, and language, and became the acknowledged founders of most of its future institutions. As successive bands arrived, they landed on different parts of the coast, and their leaders founded separate states.
Turner gives an elaborate chronology of these, fixing the date of the establishment of each, and the name of its founder; but later investigations have shown upon how doubtful a basis these accounts must rest. The little that is actually known of the events of the century following the landing of the first Saxon settlers may be said to be the one fact that at different times during that period new detachments of the invaders, with their chiefs, founded eight kingdoms, as follows, mentioning them in their most probable chronological order: Kent, Sussex, Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia, Essex, Bernicia, and Deira, the last two afterward joined in Northumbria. Gradually, during the 8th century, these became united in the alliance called the Saxon heptarchy - though it should properly be called the octarchy; and finally, about 827, they were united into one kingdom, called Anglia, or England (A. S. Engla-land), by King Egbert of Wessex. The history of the eight separate sovereignties until this final union presents in general only a series of wars between them, of oppression of the conquered Britons, who revolted again and again, and of such changes in the boundaries of the various kingdoms as render it almost impossible for us to correctly define their limits at any one point of time.
The progress of the Saxons after their union under Egbert belongs to the history of England; but their customs, and those laws and institutions which grew up under the heptarchy and under Egbert and his successors, can best be treated here. - At the head of each of the governments of the heptarchy, and at the head of the whole nation after its union under Egbert, stood the king (cyning). He was first chosen from among the leaders of the people, but afterward the office became in some sense hereditary, though not according to the modern laws of succession; for although the new king must be chosen from the descendants or immediate relatives of the late ruler, a younger son was often preferred to the eldest, or a brother's family to the direct heirs, the choice in fact depending greatly on personal qualifications. The king's power was at first decidedly limited by the witenagemote, or supreme council (parliament); but afterward it became more nearly absolute. He determined the rank of his immediate followers, summoned the witenagemote, led in war, etc. The queen (cwen) was held in great respect; offences against her were punished like those against the king; and she often played a conspicuous part in the government.
Next in rank were the Aethelings or nobility; and this term included in early times only the immediate family and near relatives of the king. Just below the aethel-ing, and in time coming to share many of his privileges, was the caldorman. Officials of many kinds bore this title, but it was at first generally applied to the governor of a province, who led its forces in war and superintended its affairs in peace. The title was not in early times hereditary, but became so after the reign of Alfred. The thanes (thegnas) composed the next class, and were landholders, forming a " nobility by service," as it is called by Lap-penberg, divided, according to position and immediate attachment, into king's thanes and subordinate thanes. Upon the possession of a certain amount of landed property depended generally their title; though merchants who had made three voyages of a certain length were also entitled to the rank of thanes. The thanes were exactly similar to the barons after the Norman conquest. Below these classes were the common freemen or churls (ceorlas), rarely entirely independent men, but generally standing in the relation of retainer to some chief.