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A Project by the Department of Medieval English Literature and Historical Linguistics, University of Düsseldorf

Overview for "Old English Period"

Begin End Event Description Keywords
449 1066

Old English Period

The Old English Period is a convenient division of English history into a larger category. It takes its name from the language that was spoken during that time in England – Old English, the language(s) that developed from the Germanic language(s) spoken by the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians. It is used to distinguish linguistic, literary and historical eras.
Linguistics, Old English Period
449 600

Invasion of Germanic Tribes

The famous scholar Bede mentions the year 449 as the traditional date of the coming of Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians. The Germanic tribes summoned by King Vortigern settled and eventually took over most of the area which is now England. They brought their language with them, which at that time was the variety of Western Germanic. While 449 is recorded as the first arrival of the Germanic tribes, they continued to colonize the British Isles for another century. This process is often called consolidation.
Political, Old English Period, History
596 664


The Church's story in England began with the advent of a mission from Rome, in the year 596, when Saint Augustine of Canterbury arrived in Kent and established the Roman tradition. In 633, another mission arrived in the north of England and established a Celtic tradition there. By mid-7th century, most of the pagan Anglo-Saxons had been converted to Christianity.
History, Old English Period, Religious
596 -

First Roman Missionaries

In 597, the first group of missionaries arrived from Rome and the Roman tradition was followed in the south, while the Irish tradition, introduced by Iro-Scottish missionaries prevailed in the north. Check out Christianisation to learn more!
History, Old English Period, Religious
600 850


From the 7th to the 9th century, there was no political unity in England and the changing overlordship divided the land in to seven kingdoms. These kingdoms were Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Wessex, Sussex and Kent.
History, Old English Period, Political, Kings + Rulers
600 800


As a result of Christianisation, a language contact situation with Latin occurred. Latin was the lingua franca of the church, therefore all texts and sermons were in Latin. It was primarily written, therefore the influence was on a higher register and in the areas of education and religion.
Linguistics, Language Contact, Religious, Old English Period
633 -

Irish Missionaries

Missionaries from Ireland arrived in the north of England and Christianized the people, while in the south people have been Christianised by Roman missionaries. Check out Christianisation to learn more!
History, Old English Period, Religious
660 800

The Golden Age

The Golden Age was an age of learning and education, literature (primarily in Latin) and arts. English Church scholars were renowned throughout Europe to such an extend that they were asked to convert continental Germanic tribes to Christianity (for example St. Suitbertus in Düsseldorf). The Golden Age lasted until a decline of Latin learning set in after the attack on Lindisfarne (793), which lasted until King Alfred was firmly established on the West-Saxon throne.
Literature, Old English Period, Religious
664 -

Synod of Whitby

At the Synod of Whitby, Church leaders decided in favor of the Roman tradition and calculation of Christian holidays, which was in use in the South, instead of the Irish tradition used in the north. This unification lead to a flourishing church tradition.
Old English Period, Religious, History
672 735


The catholic monk Bede was an influential author and scholar. His most famous work is the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, written in the early 8th-century, in which he gives an account of the invasion of Britain by Germanic tribes. After his death, Bede was recognized as one of the leading scholars of his age and came to be known as one of the Church Fathers. He reportedly composed Bede's Death Song, on his death-bed and his works alone account for almost half the manuscripts of OE poetry.
Literature, Old English Period, Poetry, Prose
731 737

Early Pieces

The three early pieces, which were also the first written evidence of Old English, were Bede's Death Song (735), Cædmon's Hymn (737) and The Leiden Riddle (731).
Old English Period, Poetry, Literature
793 -


The first Viking attack was the raid on Lindisfarne monastery in the north of England. It was an easy target because the monks had no defenses, believing God would protect them. There were many similar raids in the following decades, and they were often directed against monasteries and churches.
Old English Period, Political, Vikings, History
793 1042

Old Norse

From Viking invasions up until the end of the reign of the Danish Kings, Old English was influenced by Old Norse. This influence began several decades after the first Viking attack on Lindisfarne, when the Vikings returned for new raids and eventually decided to settle in England. Eventually, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings were in such close contact that the Old Norse language had a significant impact on Old English.
Linguistics, Language Contact, Vikings, Old English Period
793 900

The First Viking Age

The sacking on the monastry of Lindisfarne marked only the beginning of the Viking Age. In the second half of the 9th century the threat became even more serious, as the Danes started regular raids and only eventually the kingdom of Wessex, under the reign of King Alfred, offered resistance.
History, Old English Period, Political, Vikings, Language Contact
827 871

Early Anglo-Saxon Kings

King Egbert of Wessex was the first king to expand his territories beyond his own kingdom. He was later succeeded by his son Æthelwulf, whose four sons became the following kings, the fourth of which was Alfred the Great.
History, Kings + Rulers, Old English Period, Political
871 899

Alfred the Great

Alfred was the so-called first King of England, accepted by all the English that had not submitted to the Vikings. He defeated the Vikings multiple times and made a treaty with them to establish the Danelaw. Alfred's kingship extended beyond mere military leadership; his non-military achievements include his initiative to restore Latin learning and education in England.
Old English Period, Political, Religious, Standardisation, Vikings, Danelaw, Kings + Rulers, History
890 -

Danelaw & The Treaty of Wedmore

After some fruitless attempts from the Danes to invade Wessex, King Alfred brought London under his control in 886. Around 890 a new treaty, the Treaty of Wedmore, was sealed between Alfred and the Danish leader Guthrum. It confirmed the separation of the northern and north-eastern part of England as an area under Danish control; this part came to be known as Danelagu (Danelaw), the area where Danish law prevailed.
History, Danelaw, Old English Period, Political, Vikings
899 924

Edward the Elder

Alfred's first successor was his son Edward the Elder. He was a West-Saxon king who was also acknowledged as overlord in Mercia, whose nobility cherished a tradition of some independence. He began to expand in 917, and at the end of the year 918, he had brought the whole of England south of the river Humber under his control, and in 920 the kings of York, Scotland and Strathclyde submitted to Edward, so that the West-Saxon rule had been extended further north. Edward the Elder died in 924 and was succeeded by his son Athelstan.
Danelaw, Old English Period, Political, Kings + Rulers, History
900 1300

Typological Change

In the typological change, English changed from a synthetic, highly inflectional, to an analytic language that relies on a stricter word order. The change was likely caused as a result of language contact with Old Norse, as Old English and Old Norse had similar roots but different inflections.
Linguistics, Language Contact, Middle English Period, Old English Period
900 980

Unification under Wessex

At the end of the 9th century, England was divided: the north was under the Danelaw, the south and south-west were under English rule. The decades which followed after the end of King Alfred's reign (the first half of the 10th century), are usually referred to by historians as the period of the re-conquest of the Danelaw by Alfred's successors. There were multiple times of conflict and struggle, but at the end of Eadred's reign, in 955, the north was under English control.
History, Danelaw, Old English Period, Political, Vikings
924 939


Athelstan's reign was characterized by his attempts to secure English control over the north; on the one hand, he arranged Anglo-Scandinavian marriages in order to support peaceful relationships with the north, on the other hand, he won decisive battles, as in 937 at Brunanburh when, together with his brother Edmund, he stopped a combined Scottish-Viking army. Athelstan died in 939 and was succeeded by his younger brother Edmund.
History, Danelaw, Old English Period, Political, Kings + Rulers
931 933

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a truly impressive and justly famous successor to the world history of Roman extraction. King Alfred had a it compiled from earlier sources covering the years from Christ's birth to 892; it becomes a fuller historical report for the 9th century, and is today one of our most important sources for Anglo-Saxon history as a whole.
Literature, Old English Period, Political, Prose
937 -

Battle of Brunanburh

Though the place where Edward the Elder and his brother Edmund stopped a combined Scottish-Viking army has not been identified as yet, the battle has become well known. The West-Saxon victory was praised in a poem which was written into the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle under the year 937.
Danelaw, Old English Period, Political, Vikings, Poetry, Literature
939 955

Edmund and Eadred

Athelstan died in 939 and was succeeded by his younger brother Edmund. Edmund's reign (939-946) was a time of continued conflicts in the north, and of changing military fortune. Edmund was succeeded by his brother Eadred in 946, who at first was acknowledged in the Anglo-Scandinavian areas and at the end of Eadred's reign, in 955, the north was under English control again.
History, Danelaw, Old English Period, Political, Kings + Rulers
950 1020

The Four Poetic Codices

Most Old English poems are contained in manuscripts written roughly between the years 950 and 1020. Most prominent among the manuscripts are the four great codices, which among themselves share roughly two-thirds of the whole Old English poetic corpus. The four poetic codices are the Beowulf Manuscript, the Junius Manuscript, the Exeter Book and the Vercelli Book.
Literature, Literature, Old English Period, Poetry
950 1000

Vercelli Book

The Vercelli Book, probably written in the second half of the 10th century, got its name because it is today kept in the cathedral library at Vercelli in northern Italy. It contains six poems, among them Saints' Lives by Cynewulf, such as for example Andreas and Elene. The Vercelli Book is one of the Four Poetic Codices – the date is an approximate date of the production of the manuscript.
Literature, Old English Period, Poetry
959 975

King Edgar and the Benedictine Revival

King Edgar's most prominent achievement in non-military activities was his massive support of the revival of monastic life in England. He installed the three leading reformers Dunstan, Æthelwold and Oswald, increased the number of reformed monasteries, expelled secular clerics and replaced them with reformed monks and abbots. It re-inspired cultural life in late Anglo-Saxon England and lead to a revival of education in Latin and English.
Old English Period, Political, Religious, Kings + Rulers, Standardisation, History
970 990

Exeter Book

Still to be found in Exeter Cathedral Library is the Exeter Book, a manuscript written (or perhaps merely compiled) between 970 and 990. It is a true medieval anthology with a wide range of poetry, from the holy to the secular, including, among other things, the 95 or so Anglo-Saxon Riddles. The Exeter Book also holds a somewhat heterogeneous group of poems which are concerned with instruction and advice of the more general kind - so called worldly wisdom. It is one of the Four Poetic Codices.
Literature, Old English Period, Poetry
975 1010


Beowulf is probably the most famous Old English heroic epic. It is set in southern Scandinavia during the migration period of the 5th and 6th centuries. In the poem, the hero Beowulf frees the Danish king Hrothgar and his people from the threats of the monster Grendel and Grendel's mother. Afterwards he returns to his native Geatland richly rewarded and becomes king, but eventually has to face a new threat.
Literature, Old English Period, Poetry
978 1016

Æthelred and the Return of the Vikings

Æthelred's long reign is usually regarded as an unlucky one. He struggled with massive Viking raids, paying large amounts of tribute, as well as with treachery and desertion due to his 'bad rule'. His nickname the Unræd (un-counsel) suggests that he was ill-advised by his counsellors. He fled to exile in 1013, when the Danish King Swein invaded the country, only to be asked to return and rule the English in 1014 after Swein died.
History, Old English Period, Political, Vikings, Kings + Rulers
980 1042

The Second Viking Age

After Æthelred fled to Normandy into exile, the Danish king Swein was acknowledged as king of all England in 1014. He was succeeded by his son Cnut (1016-1035), whom the English preferred over Æthelred's son Edmund. Both of his sons, Harold (1035-1040) and Harthacnut (1040-1042) became king after him, but with Harthacnut the male line of the Danish dynasty ended and Edward the Confessor, son of Æthelred the Unread and Emma of Normandy, became the last Anglo-Saxon king.
History, Language Contact, Old English Period, Political, Vikings
980 1020

Ælfric & Wulfstan

Ælfric & Wulfstan were important writers of late West-Saxon prose, and were mainly inspired by the Benedictine Reform and the bigger, unified England. Ælfric was an abbot and a second-generation reformer who wrote a Latin grammar and many other works of prose. Wulfstan was Archbishop of York and wrote many sermons and designed laws for Æthelred.
Literature, Old English Period, Prose, Religious
991 -

Battle of Maldon

The heroic poem The Battle of Maldon praises the resolute, loyal, but futile resistance of ealdorman Byrhtnoth and his men against a larger Danish army, which systematically ravaged along the south-west coast from Essex to Hampshire in 991. Loyalty, courage, and treasure are recurrent themes in secular heroic poetry; they are reflected in poems such as Beowulf and The Battle of Brunanburh.
Literature, Old English Period, Poetry, Political, Vikings
1000 -

Junius MS

The Junius Manuscript, so called because the humanist Francis Junius presented it to the Bodleian Library Oxford, dates to about 1000 and is the best-known collection of biblical poetry. Some poems contained in itare Genesis, Exoduss, Daniel, Christ and Satan. It is one of the Four Poetic Codices.
Literature, Old English Period, Poetry
1002 -

St. Brice's Day Massacre

After multiple struggles with Viking raids, Æthelred gave the order to kill all Danes living in his kingdom. This massacre was only one of the many poor political decisions which made King Æthelred's rule a 'bad one' – many Danes had been living peacefully in England for generations and inter-married with the Anglo-Saxons. The fact that it is believed that Swein's sister and brother-in-law were also killed in this massacre, would furthermore explain Swein's decision to conquer England in 1003.
History, Old English Period, Political, Vikings
1016 1035


Cnut (also known as Canute or Knútr) was the son of Swein, who briefly ruled England during Æthelred's exile. During most of his reign, Cnut also more or less controlled Denmark and, less effectively, Norway, but he was fully accepted as king of England and did not suppress the conquered country. He married Æthelred's widow Emma and also continued a policy of supporting the church. When Cnut died in 1035, his son Harold inherited the throne. When Harold died in 1040, his brother Harthacnut became king, but then died in 1042.
History, Old English Period, Vikings, Kings + Rulers, Political
1035 1042

Harold and Harthacnut

When Cnut died in 1035, he left behind two sons by two different wives, each one favored for the throne by a party with an eye on their own interests. One claimant was Harthacnut, by then king of Denmark, the other was Harold. Since Harthacnut was engaged in conflicts in Norway, Harold was acknowledged as king by 1037. However, when he died in 1041, Harthacnut succeeded to the throne and reigned until his death in 1042.
History, Old English Period, Political, Kings + Rulers, Vikings
1042 1066

Edward the Confessor

Edward was Harthacnuts half brother and the son of Æthelred and Emma. He was made king in 1042. He had spent most of his life in exile in Normandy, so his relationship to Normandy was closer than to either Denmark or England. A long-lasting conflict between Edward and the family of Godwin, the earl of Wessex, characterised Edward's reign in the 1050s and early 1060s. He died heirless as the last Anglo-Saxon king, a situation that led to the Norman Conquest. He was a very religious king, which earned him the title the Confessor.
History, Old English Period, Political, Kings + Rulers, Norman Conquest
1066 -

Norman Conquest

When Edward the Confessor died without an heir, three people made a claim the throne: First was Harold Godwinson who ascended the throne, but was attacked by Scandinavian king Harald Hardrada in the north. Though Harold Godwinson won the battle, William of Normandy used the opportunity to attack in the south. Godwinson and his weakened armies hurried to the south, but lost the Battle of Hastings again William.
Political, Old English Period, Middle English Period, Norman Conquest, History