Angling for the Saxons


Marjorie Taylor Greene’s idea for an America First Caucus based on Anglo-Saxon values sounds kind of bizarre to those of us who don’t run in white supremacist circles. Like, why Anglo-Saxon in particular, and why would a group focusing on the United States get its values from another country? And what about the Jutes? From what I’ve read, it appears that the main value she’s thinking of is racism, and the term “Anglo-Saxon” is of dubious historical value anyway. I read this Time Magazine article on the subject. And I have an interest in English history. Much of my ancestry is German or some sort of British, and I took a History of England class in college, so I’ll do a little bit of an overview here.
In the fifth through eighth centuries, after the Romans had lost direct rule over Britannia, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes migrated from northern Germany and southern Denmark to the island.

I had read that the Angles got their name because they were primarily anglers, i.e. fishermen. But it might have also had to do with the shape of the Anglia Peninsula. There’s a tale that at least some of the Germanic peoples were invited. The King of the Britons (who likely wasn’t a king in the usual sense, nor did he rule all the Britons), often said to be Vortigern, asked the Jutish brothers Hengist and Horsa to assist him in fighting the Picts and Scots.

These two claimed descent from Odin, and their names literally mean “stallion” and “horse.”

They did initially help the Britons, bringing many of their fellows along, to whom Vortigern granted land. He’s also said to have taken Hengist’s daughter, the seductress Rowena, as his wife, but this is considered historically dubious.

The mercenary leaders later turned against Vortigern and took over Kent, which remained Jutish territory for some time. Vortigern has been incorporated into the Arthurian mythos, with Geoffrey of Monmouth claiming that he assassinated Arthur’s uncle in order to become king, and met a young Merlin when he tried to build a fort in the mountains of Wales. The wizard revealed that the fortress kept falling because it was built over the home of two fighting dragons, one symbolizing the Britons and the other the Saxons, and the latter was winning.

Since Vortigern was blamed for allowing invaders into Britain, it’s not too surprising that writers would ascribe other bad traits to him. Arthur himself was originally known for successfully repelling a Saxon invasion.

These likely embellished stories aside, the Angles founded the kingdoms of Mercia, Northumbria, and East Anglia in northern England, while the Saxons had Essex, Wessex, and Sussex in the southern part. The joke is that, if there were a northern Saxony, it would have been called “Nosex.” What I wonder is that, if Sussex is South Saxony, then why is that the name of the northernmost county in New Jersey? The Jutes’ holdings appear to have been limited to Kent, the Isle of Wight, and parts of Hampshire. In the ninth century, Danish Vikings conquered pretty much everything except Wessex. King Alfred of Wessex was able to win some decisive victories against the Danes, and styled himself King of the Anglo-Saxons, meaning he claimed rule over both the Angles and Saxons, although the people generally didn’t call themselves that.

He’s considered the first King of England, even though the Danes still controlled quite a bit of territory there, and took back control of England a few times before the Norman conquest.

The Normans were French, but descended from Vikings, which is how they got that name. Speaking of legendary figures, Robin Hood is sometimes said to have been a Saxon lord opposed to the Normans, but that apparently didn’t start until the nineteenth century. Anyway, the term “Anglo-Saxon” was used at different times as political propaganda, although I don’t know that it was ONLY used that way. I’ve also seen indications that it was a way to distinguish English Saxons from those who remained on the continent. Still, the term gained popularity with the rise of nationalism. According to Mary Rambaran-Olm, it was kind of a double-edged sword, as the English could use it as an excuse to settle in other lands, since that’s what the Angles and Saxons did; but also to promote ideas of racial purity and keep out immigrants. And some of them immigrated to America, where they killed and displaced the native people and were wary of other foreigners (to put it mildly). It’s one of the many contradictions of nationalism. I’d recently come across a mention of J.R.R. Tolkien’s dislike of “Celtic things” in contrast with his fondness for his Anglo-Saxon heritage. There was a movement at the time to distinguish England from Britain as a whole and from the French conquerors, and Tolkien did say he wanted his mythology to be distinctly English, although he did show some Irish mythological influence in his own work.

He was a linguist, and it does appear that English started out as a Germanic language without any obvious Celtic influence. But then, the tendency to lump language, culture, and ethnicity together doesn’t always work. I don’t know whether the term “Anglo-Saxon” is racist in and of itself, but it’s definitely gained that association.

So maybe it makes a weird kind of sense for the America First crowd to support the country the Saxons are originally from.
Personally, though, I wonder if any of these people have proper Anglo-Saxon attitudes.

This entry was posted in Arthurian Legend, Authors, British, Celtic, Colonization of America, England, Ethnicity, Etymology, History, J.R.R. Tolkien, Language, Lewis Carroll, Monarchy, Monsters, Mythology, Names, Norse, Politics, Prejudice, Roman Empire, United Kingdom and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Angling for the Saxons

  1. I’ve often wondered about the term “Anglo-Saxon” because it seems weird to tie English identity to just one of the many cultures in their background. It’s only recently that I found out exactly how artificial its use has been. The definition that uses it to separate the continental Saxons from the British ones is the most concrete I’ve seen. I used to think it was a combination of Angles and Saxons, but then, as you say, what about the Jutes?

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