The Continental Homelands of the Anglo-Saxons

By Burns, David | Contemporary Review, December 2002 | Go to article overview

The Continental Homelands of the Anglo-Saxons


Burns, David, Contemporary Review


MUCH has been written about the Anglo-Saxons, their way of life, their laws, their language, poetry, methods of farming and so on but little, or nothing, is now written about their pre-British history. What, then, do we know about the Continental homelands of the Anglo-Saxons? The Encyclopaedia Britannica tells us that 'the Jutes, Angles and Saxons lived in Jutland, Schleswig, and Holstein, respectively, before settling in Britain. According to the Venerable Bede, the first historian of the English people, the first Jutes, Hengist and Horsa landed at Ebbsfleet in the Isle of Thanet in 449; and the Jutes later settled in Kent, southern Hampshire, and the Isle of Wight. The Saxons occupied the rest of England south of the Thames, as well as Middlesex and Essex. The Angles eventually took the remainder of England as far north as the Firth of Forth, including the future Edinburgh and the Scottish lowlands'. Most historians accept this background, with the later addition of Frisians. A few hundred years after the first invaders, some of their legends, told over and over again in mead halls throughout the country, would be written down as a poem in a West Saxon dialect, known to us as Beowulf. Yet the central figure in this most famous piece of Anglo-Saxon epic poetry belongs not to Jutland, Schleswig or Holstein, as might be expected, but to Sweden: Beowulf was of the Geats, generally considered to be the Gotar from Gotaland in southern Sweden, and the poem is largely to do with the relationships between the Geats, the Scylfings (Svear, Swedes or Ynglingas) to the north-east, and the Scyldings of Denmark. This, then, is the background to one of the most important sources of Anglo-Saxon culture we have. Add the archaeological evidence of links between Sweden and Britain from Uppland and Sutton Hoo, and the Swedish connection is reinforced. Yet historians appear to dismiss, or not wish to pursue, the Swedish connection. Be that as it may, this article is intended to complement the established links with a further, negle cted, strand: that of place-names. In the following, italics are used for words in Swedish, while bold text indicates Old English, or Anglo-Saxon.

Sweden AD 520

The country that is to become Sweden comprises Svealand, Gotaland and Norrland. Svealand is made up of the counties around Lake Malaren, to the north, west and south of modern Stockholm, while Gotaland lies to the south and west of Svealand. Norrland comprises the endless troll forests north of Svealand. Outside the grasp of the Roman Empire, the Svear have risen to a level of wealth and power of which Britain and most of continental Europe are unaware. They are supported in a trade alliance by the Gotar of the island of Gotland in the Baltic and much of the Swedish iron production is already being exported to Latvia and Lithuania by merchants from Gotland who are regular visitors to Helgo and Birka in Malaren. The Gotar are allied with the Danes and much of southern Gotaland is, at present, Danish territory. The king of the Svear is Onela (Ale), whose father Ongentheow (Egil) is buried beneath the eastern mound at Gamla Uppsala. Onela's brother Ohthere (Ottar Vendelkraka) lies under the great mound later to be known as Ottarshogen at nearby Husby. The present, complex, struggles between the Svear, the Gotar and the Danes will later make up one of the main themes of Beowulf. Within two or three generations the wealth of the Svear, then at peace with the Gotar, will have increased considerably, and the rich and powerful will be accompanied to their graves in Vendel, Valsgarde, Tuna and Ultuna by treasures from both far and near. The burial will follow a set pattern, the chief being laid uncremated in a 7 to 10 m long boat, dressed in full armour. Swords, lances, helmets, shields and elaborate harnesses will reflect the superb craftsmanship of the time. Even household goods, horses, cows, dogs and falcons may lie beside the body.

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