The Origins of the Anglo-Saxons: Decoding the ancestry of the English, by Jean Manco 

04 January 2019

Andrew Rumsey enjoys a fresh take on the origins of England

IN HIS batty but brilliant Short History of England, G. K. Chesterton remarked: “the Anglo-Saxons did one thing, and one thing only: they christened England.” But who were they? And why was their legacy so formative?

With issues of ethnic and national identity at the forefront of contemporary politics, this rich and readable book makes a valuable contribution during unsettled times for our country. Partly, this is due to the author’s deft navigation of several disciplines, most notably the emerging field of archaeogenetics. Jean Manco, who died earlier this year, was a building historian grounded in archaeology, and this, her final study, is seasoned with new DNA evidence concerning the migration and make-up of the ancient peoples that eventually shaped England.

It would be easy to overdo this, but Manco succeeds by starting with the story Anglo-Saxons told about themselves — the book opens with a reflection on the heroic poem Beowulf — and traces their restless path from Scandinavia, Jutland, and northern Germany to their permeation, from the fifth century AD, of a Britannia lately vacated by the Romans.

Of particular interest to Anglicans may be the consideration given to the part played by Christianity in forging what the author calls “the emergence of a modern state from the wreckage of an antique empire”. Highlighting recent discoveries, such as the unearthing in 2016 of a pre-Saxon cemetery near Glastonbury, Manco blends evidence for the persistence of Romano-British Christian communities with that of the progressive conversion of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms via both Gregorian and Celtic missions.

AlamyThe 11th-century stone bell tower of St Mary’s, Sompting, West Sussex, has an oak-shingle helm roof inspired by Rhenish architecture. From the book

While there is much more that can be said of the Church’s part in national formation, given that England’s ecclesiastical unity anticipated her political unity by at least two centuries, Manco highlights the fact that, as the bearer of literacy and learning, Christianity was instrumental in giving “Angle-land” a coherent narrative identity.

With a lucid documentary style and — thanks to the forensic analysis — a refreshing contemporary edge, The Origins of the Anglo-Saxons is an enjoyable primer in England’s beginnings. Beautifully illustrated, with clear charts and useful bulleted summaries at the close of each chapter, it marks an illuminating legacy.

The Revd Dr Andrew Rumsey is to be consecrated bishop on 25 January and will become the Bishop of Ramsbury. 

Read a review of the new Anglo-Saxon exhibition at the British Library

The Origins of the Anglo-Saxons: Decoding the ancestry of the English
Jean Manco
Thames & Hudson £19.95
Church Times Bookshop £17.95

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