Early Medieval
Lindisfarne Priory, Northumberland

An Introduction to Early Medieval England (C.410–1066)

The six and a half centuries between the end of Roman rule and the Norman Conquest are among the most important in English history. This long period is also one of the most challenging to understand – which is why it has traditionally been labelled the ‘Dark Ages’. Yet a kingdom of England emerged in these centuries, and with it a new ‘English’ identity and language.

This reconstruction shows a timber hall that was one of several built at Birdoswald Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall after Roman administration collapsed
After Roman rule in Britain ended, some Roman forts continued to be occupied. This reconstruction shows a timber hall that was one of several built at Birdoswald Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall after Roman administration collapsed
© Historic England (illustration by Philip Corke)


The 5th and 6th centuries are certainly wrapped in obscurity. Records are few, difficult to interpret, propagandist, or written long after the events they describe.

What is certain is that the Romans didn’t suddenly leave Britain. After 350 years of Roman rule – as long a period as separates the present day from Charles II – all Britons were, in a sense, Romans.

Tradition has it that in 410 the Emperor Honorius wrote to the British Romans instructing them to look to their own defence. While it seems likely that the letter was not sent to Britain after all, such advice would have reflected the realities of the time. Britain was no longer subject to an imperial power that could protect it.

Anglo-Saxon brooch
This Anglo-Saxon brooch was part of a burial hoard found in West Heslerton, North Yorkshire. Individuals were often buried with personal effects such as clothes, earthenware goods or jewellery; the high quality of this brooch suggests a wealthy owner.


At first, the chief enemies of an independent Britain were Irish raiders from the west and Picts from the north. Later, Angles, Saxons and Jutes arrived from across the North Sea. We don’t know exactly how they invaded or settled in England, but by AD 500 Germanic speakers seem to have settled deep into Britain.

The Britons successfully counter-attacked, however, at first under Ambrosius Aurelianus, ‘the last of the Romans’. It’s during this early period that the figure of Arthur – possibly completely legendary – emerges. A record made three centuries later credits him with 12 battles, from Scotland to the south coast. Only the last, in about 500, is confirmed in earlier sources – but it makes no mention of Arthur. This British victory halted the Saxon advance for half a century.

In independent kingdoms across the north and west, the British also resisted the repeated onslaughts of the peoples who were later called ‘English’. But by the 650s, almost all the lowlands were under English control.

An Anglo-Saxon jet gaming piece found at Whitby Abbey. Excavations at the abbey have unearthed many important Anglo-Saxon artefacts.
An Anglo-Saxon jet gaming piece found at Whitby Abbey. Excavations at the abbey have unearthed many important Anglo-Saxon artefacts.


Religion also divided the Christian British from the invading pagan Angles and Saxons, but from 597 English rulers were converted by Roman or Irish missionaries. Within a century a flourishing English Church had made dramatic advances in art and architecture.

Once separate groups of disparate peoples from the east coalesced into larger independent kingdoms, whose power fluctuated in parallel with their success and failure in war. The 7th-century dominance of Northumbria in the north was succeeded by that of Mercia in the midlands, especially under King Offa (r.757–96), builder of Offa’s Dyke.

It was the crisis of Viking invasion, however, that brought a single, unified English kingdom into existence.

Warriors depicted on the 9th-century ‘Domesday stone’, a grave marker from Lindisfarne. It may commemorate the Viking raid of 793
Warriors depicted on the 9th-century ‘Domesday stone’, a grave marker from Lindisfarne. It may commemorate the Viking raid of 793


Sporadic Viking raids began in the 790s, Lindisfarne Priory in Northumbria was an early victim. Then in 865 an invading ‘Great Army’ began plundering from kingdom to kingdom, extorting protection money. Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia all fell, leaving only Wessex to fight on.

King Alfred of Wessex (r.871–99) defeated the Viking army decisively at Edington (878). Its leader, Guthrum, accepted Christian baptism, and agreed a treaty which allowed the Vikings to control much of northern and eastern England – the Danelaw.

But from the 910s King Edward the Elder (r.899–924) and his sister Æthelflæd, the ‘Lady of the Mercians’, conquered the Danelaw south of the Humber. Edward’s son Æthelstan (r.924–39) advanced still further: in 937 he destroyed a coalition of Vikings and Scots, and became known as ‘Ruler of All Britain’.

In the 980s, however, Viking raids resumed, motivated by the ease of extorting vast quantities of silver from English coffers. The raids developed into full-scale invasions which eventually overwhelmed the disastrous King Æthelred ‘Unræd’ (r.978–1016).


The Danish leader Cnut (r.1016–35), later also King of Denmark and Norway, was popularly recognised as Æthelred’s successor and made England part of a Scandinavian empire.

The old West Saxon (Wessex) dynasty was revived with the accession of Edward the Confessor in 1042. But when he died without heirs in 1066, Harold Godwinson seized the throne.

England was immediately threatened both by Cnut’s heir, Harald Hardrada of Norway, and Edward’s choice of successor, Duke William of Normandy. Hardrada invaded first and was beaten at Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire, on 25 September 1066.

Harold marched his weakened army south to face William at the Battle of Hastings, the outcome of which would open up an entirely new chapter in the story of England.

The People of the Period

Throughout these pages we have used these terms for the different peoples of the period.

  • British, Romano-British and Britons – the inhabitants of Britain following the end of Roman rule in the early 5th century.
  • Angles, Saxons and Jutes – the Germanic peoples who migrated from continental Europe and settled, initially in the south and east of the island, from the 5th century.
  • Anglo-Saxons – the collective term for the Germanic settlers, first coined in the late 8th century. It came into general use in the 10th century.
  • Vikings – the invaders from Scandinavia who between the 8th and 11th centuries raided much of western Europe, including the British Isles.
  • Danes – the Vikings who mounted a full-scale invasion in the 860s and then settled across much of what is now northern and eastern England.
  • English – refers both to the Anglo-Saxons (the first people to call themselves ‘English’ or ‘Angli’) and later to all settlers in England, including Danes, particularly after the emergence of a unified kingdom of England in the 10th century.

Early Medieval Stories

  • The Viking Raid on Lindisfarne

    A devastating Viking attack on the church of St Cuthbert in 793 sent a shockwave through Europe. But how did a Christian community at Lindisfarne survive?

  • Who Was St Augustine?

    In the late 6th century, a man was sent from Rome to England to bring Christianity to the Anglo-Saxons. But who was St Augustine, and how did his mission succeed?

  • Caedmon, Whitby and Early English Poetry

    How Cædmon’s poetic awakening, at the monastery that lies beneath Whitby Abbey, produced one of the first fragments of English verse.

  • Queen Bertha: A Historical Enigma

    In 597, St Augustine arrived in England to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. Virtually every modern description of this mission mentions Queen Bertha of Kent. But who was Bertha?

  • The Synod of Whitby and the Keys of Heaven

    How a decision about the way in which the date of Easter should be calculated was a landmark in the history of Christianity in England.

  • St Hild of Whitby

    Hild is a significant figure in the history of English Christianity. As the abbess of Whitby, she led one of the most important religious centres in the Anglo-Saxon world.

  • Two Happy Accidents Reveal Odda’s Chapel, Deerhurst

    How the chance discovery of a chapel in Gloucestershire  has proved crucial to our understanding of Anglo-Saxon architecture.

More about Early Medieval England

  • Early Medieval: Architecture

    Most early medieval buildings were constructed mainly using wood, but this tradition left its mark on later stone-built churches.

  • Early Medieval: Art

    The early medieval period produced many examples of highly distinctive art of world-class significance.

  • Early Medieval: Networks

    Between the end of Roman rule and the arrival of the Normans, England's relationship with the wider world changed many times.

  • Early Medieval: Power and Politics

    This period saw the evolution of a nation of warlords into a country organised into distinct kingdoms.

  • Early Medieval: Religion

    Christianity in Britain tends to be associated with the arrival of St Augustine in 597, but it had in fact already taken root in Roman Britain.

Read More

  • Previous Era: Romans

    In AD 43, intent on regime change and military glory, the Emperor Claudius launched a full scale invasion of Britain. The Romans stayed for nearly four centuries and left their mark on the country.

  • Next Era: Medieval

    The medieval period is the time between 1066 and 1485. William of Normandy's triumph over King Harold at the Battle of Hastings marked the dawn of a new era. The overthrow of the Saxon kingdom of England was to transform the country the Normans conquered.

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