The Anglo-Saxons: A History of the Beginnings of England

Written by Marc Morris
Review by Charlotte Wightwick

Marc Morris’s new book is ambitious in scope, sweeping through six centuries of Anglo-Saxon history. It starts by talking about two of the most famous icons of Anglo-Saxon history: the Sutton Hoo burial site and the Battle of Hastings. But as the author points out, nearly half a millennium separated them, and the world of 1066 was hugely different from that of early seventh century. In that time, England had moved from a patchwork of warring kingdoms to a unified (if rarely peaceful) whole; towns, boroughs, trade and coinage had developed, destroyed and developed again, and Christianity had followed a similar path.

Morris largely uses the traditional historical spine of kingship and war to guide us through the centuries, although he also focuses on the Church as a spiritual, social and political force. He includes the ‘greatest hits’ of the Anglo-Saxon period – Alfred (almost certainly not) burning the cakes, raiding Vikings, etc. – but also covers some of the fascinating and less-well known characters of the time, including reforming churchmen and ambitious queens.  Morris’s prose is succinct and enjoyable to read, and his ability to move from the large sweep of history to small details help to bring the period vividly to mind. As ever, with such a large topic, the author has had to make choices about what to include and exclude, and the relative paucity of sources further constrains him, for example in his coverage of women. That said, it covers a great deal of fascinating ground. Recommended.