Antiquarianism, the Anglo-Saxons, and Ethnic Distinction in Early Modern England

Ian King (@Ian_King9) is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, researching sixteenth- and seventeenth-century interest in the Anglo-Saxon past by prominent lawyers and jurists. Here, he explores the invention of ethnic hierarchies at the Elizabethan Society of Antiquaries in the service of English superiority.

There are inherent dangers in viewing the past through a modern lens, but it is more important than ever to consider the historical origins of the nativist, xenophobic attitudes that plague Anglo-American society today. With white supremacy cast back into the public eye over the past twelve months, we are reminded yet again of the harrowing legacies of slavery, colonial oppression, and systemic racism. Platitudes like ‘heritage’ function as dog whistles for racist zealotry, designed to legitimise white nationalist values through historical appropriation and incessant reference to a purported gilded age of white, Protestant superiority.

Historians like Colin Kidd have rightly looked to the Enlightenment for the roots of the pseudoscientific racism that justified slavery into the nineteenth century and Jim Crow into the twentieth.[1] But even in the two centuries before the Enlightenment, English antiquarian scholars attempted to organise ethnic lineages into proto-racial categories, distinct from the religious and cultural signifiers that had dictated earlier perceptions of otherness. This reconfiguration of the English past in terms of institutional and quasi-ethnic descent helped the development of an English identity whose superiority was implied by its venerable, original progenitors: the Anglo-Saxons.

Greek and Latin studies were as popular as ever in late Renaissance England. At the same time, there was growing interest in the famous British history written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the twelfth century. Revisions of this text tried to distinguish uniquely English narratives from continental and British ones. This increased concern with a narrowly defined English past was a departure from most earlier amateur scholarship, known as ‘antiquarianism’.

For these previous scholars, the myths of King Arthur were integral to a historical identity which included Roman and native British influences. Even into the 1540s, Arthur’s famous victories over the barbarian Saxon invaders were symbols of British superiority. The eventual Saxon hegemony over southern Britain was recounted with an air of chivalric melancholy.[2]

It isn’t altogether surprising that later English antiquaries attempted to distance English institutions and traditions from their continental (and largely Catholic) equivalents after the Reformation. It is significant, though, that so many papers presented to the Elizabethan Society of Antiquaries (c.1586 – c.1607) claimed such overt Anglo-Saxon interests in demonstrating specifically English alternatives to wider British historical narratives.

The Society’s preference for English history was a critical factor in the ultimate development of racial Anglo-Saxonism, English superiority, and white supremacy.

The Society was made up of England’s most elite gentlemen in law, politics, and the clergy. It offered a venue for scholars to discuss the English past based on more reliable sources than myth and legend. This preference for English history and penchant for evidentiary diligence did not replace British antiquarianism or diminish the popularity of Arthur – but it was a critical factor in the ultimate development of racial Anglo-Saxonism, English superiority, and white supremacy, centuries before supposed Anglo-Saxon traits and virtues were offered as justification for the brutal treatment of British colonial subjects.

The Society of Antiquaries did not resurrect Anglo-Saxon studies singlehandedly. From the mid-sixteenth century, the Anglo-Saxon past had already proved useful for distinguishing and legitimising certain English institutions, especially the nascent Anglican Church.[3] Pre-Norman manuscripts were repurposed by clerics like Matthew Parker, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury and master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. These repurposes were part of an organised programme of scholarship designed to show that the medieval English church practised de facto Protestant liturgy and was relatively independent from papal influence.

The great irony is that when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in the 1530s and 1540s, much of the manuscript material that would have been most useful for Parker’s efforts to legitimise Henry’s church was destroyed or dispersed across the country. Many Anglo-Saxon charters, law codes, ecclesiastical material and the all-important Anglo-Saxon Chronicle ultimately entered the personal collections of prominent antiquaries, providing much of the source material on which Society discourses were based.

Some scholars, like Laurence Nowell (who died in 1576) and William Lambarde (1601) taught themselves the Old English language to uncover its original character, before integration with Norman French. This was the basis for a new strand of historical research that traced the roots of English cultural identity to the Anglo-Saxon period. It wasn’t inevitable that pre-Norman England would acquire this relationship with Englishness. Many sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century legal scholars subscribed to a theory of legal continuity, understanding the Norman Conquest as a temporary succession dispute resolved by William of Normandy’s coronation as the legitimate king of England under the law.[4]

The Conquest’s association with pervasive regime change, cultural erasure, and linguistic hybridisation was solidified in the 1640s, when anti-royalist movements claimed that William had uprooted a free and self-governing Anglo-Saxon society and imposed a ‘Norman Yoke’ on the English people. In fact, similarities between the English common law and Norman customs led jurists such as Edward Coke to argue in the early seventeenth century that Duke William had actually imported English traditions to Normandy in the decades before the Conquest, after he had supposedly learned of the common law’s superiority to earlier Norman custom.[5]

The undeniable French and Latin influences in English law could therefore be explained as having travelled across the channel for the second time in 1066. While the language of the law might have changed as a result of the Conquest, the essence of the law was preserved and its Englishness remained intact.

For the antiquaries, it was simple: when the Anglo-Saxons ‘civilised’ themselves, they became English.

From the second half of the sixteenth century into the early Stuart years, institutional histories (especially of the common law and its customs) and etymological surveys linked the Anglo-Saxons to a burgeoning, exclusive English identity rooted in the distinctiveness of English traditions. Legal scholars disagreed on the precise antiquity of the common law, but there was a growing consensus that Anglo-Saxons represented the ‘original’ English, despite the continental origins of the Germanic ethnic groups who migrated to Britain after the Romans vacated the island in the fifth century. Conflicts raised by the early Anglo-Saxons’ paganism and brutal subjugation of the Romano-Celtic inhabitants of Britain were resolved by implicitly identifying a particular moment when the Anglo-Saxons relinquished their continental identities and became English. According to one antiquary, this was when they ceased to be ‘rude and barbarous’, ‘ordained many very good laws’, and ‘became civil’.[6]

For the antiquaries, it was simple: when the Anglo-Saxons were heathen invaders, they were recent continental transplants; when they ‘civilised’ themselves, embraced Christianity, and developed an efficient, nuanced legal system, they became English.

Where most countries in early modern Europe maintained civil law traditions based on the Roman system, the common law was particular to England. Great efforts were taken to trace its origins in promoting ideas of English exceptionalism. Indeed, collective ownership of and participation in common law traditions was one of the principal components of national identity and national pride in early modern England.

Though not all antiquaries held that the common law was an Anglo-Saxon invention, some common lawyers from the Society of Antiquaries nevertheless turned to medieval manuscripts to determine precisely when Roman traditions were eclipsed by the common law. One of them, William Hakewill, argued that the ancient British law had ‘mingled’ with Roman law, but was ‘utterly abolished’ by the Saxons, reflecting an ‘almost admirable conquest … altering and turning all things upside down in this kingdom’.[7]

Both the temporary Danish rule of England in the early eleventh century and the more permanent Norman Conquest threatened the arguments of those scholars who claimed that the common law was an Anglo-Saxon invention. Similar to Coke’s rationale for legal uniformity in England and Normandy, their solution involved blurring distinctions between the three ethnic groups involved — the English, the Danish, and the Normans — and providing an etymological genealogy to unite them. For Hakewill:

The Normans, who, though they were called by a different or more general name of Normans or Northmen, and not by the more particular name of Danes, as those which conquered England... [did] issue out of one and the same country, and were as much Danes as they.[8]

Rather than denying the common ancestry of the Anglo-Saxons (who became the English), the Danes, and the Normans, Hakewill was perfectly comfortable with a shared Germanic, Teutonic lineage, so long as the Normans could be distinguished from the French and the English retained their superiority above them all.

Hakewill’s explicit preference for the laws ‘in these North parts’ over the laws ‘in the more Southern countries of the world’ equally reflects his ethnic preferences. It would be anachronistic to argue that Hakewill and other antiquaries in the Society maintained anything like a modern conception of race, but it is clear that he and his colleagues expressed their anti-continental xenophobia by constructing quasi-ethnic hierarchies. According to these hierarchies, descent from certain ancient and medieval populations was more or less desirable than from others.

These hierarchies of ethnic desirability complemented the institutional projects of antiquarian scholars, and provided the bases for later assertions of English superiority on the grounds of ethnic or racial purity. Indeed, efforts to identify the origins of English institutions and of the English language necessarily presumed that there were pure, untainted sources of Englishness, free from the influence of the Roman south.

Xenophobic ideologies continue to embrace the same sorts of ethnic hierarchies that were fostered in the proceedings of the Elizabethan Society of Antiquaries.

The sinister connotations of Anglo-Saxonism have evolved substantially since the early seventeenth century.

Far-right extremists on both sides of the Atlantic continue to invoke the “Anglo-Saxons” in justifying colonialism and the so-called natural superiority of certain ethnic groups. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson’s ill-fated attempt to place the Saxon brothers Hengist and Horsa (the first Saxons to colonise southern Britain in the fifth century) on the Great Seal of the United States might be considered an early rendition of the ‘special relationship’.[9]

Hengist and Horsa arriving in Britain, by the antiquary Richard Verstegan (1605)

From slavery and the Confederacy to Kipling’s ‘white man’s burden’, to hate groups like the Klan and the Anglo-Saxon clubs of America, to Brexit rhetoric and Trumpism, xenophobic ideologies continue to embrace the same sorts of ethnic hierarchies that were fostered in the proceedings of the Elizabethan Society of Antiquaries.

Although historians have been careful to avoid anachronism and have tended to regard racialised Anglo-Saxonism as an eighteenth and nineteenth-century development, early modern interest in the Anglo-Saxons was not solely concerned with demonstrating the antiquity of the Anglican faith or of the inalienable liberties of the English people. Germanic lineage, whether institutional, linguistic, or ethnic, was imbued with a sense of ancestral primacy, relative to a southern, continental other — prior to the tumultuous 1640s. While populist appeals for equal rights during the English Civil War undoubtedly increased the utility of an idealised Anglo-Saxon past, quasi-ethnic distinctions had already been drawn by antiquaries who sought to provide a historical basis for English superiority.

Ian King


“Xenophobic ideologies continue to embrace the same sorts of ethnic hierarchies that were fostered in the proceedings of the Elizabethan Society of Antiquaries.”


[1] C. Kidd, The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-200 (Cambridge, 2006), p.21.

[2] The staunchest defence of the historicity of the myths of Arthur is John Leland’s Assertio Inclytissimi Arturii (1544).

[3] For the identification of “Anglo-Saxon” with “English” from the earlier sixteenth century, see R. Brackmann, The Elizabethan Invention of Anglo-Saxon England: Laurence Nowell, William Lambarde, and the Study of Old English (Cambridge, 2013).

[4] J. G. A. Pocock, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law: A Study of English Historical Thought in the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge, 1987).

[5] Coke used his personal copy of a thirteenth-century manuscript called the Grand Custumier de Normandie to make these conclusions.

[6] W. Hakewill, “The Antiquity of the Laws of this Island” in A Collection of Curious Discourses 1, ed. T. Hearne (London, 1771), p.8.

[7] Hakewill, p.5.

[8] Hakewill, p.7.

[9] For Jefferson’s Anglo-Saxon interests, see C. Karkov, Imagining Anglo-Saxon England: Utopia, Heterotopia, Dystopia (Woodbridge, 2020), p.207.

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