Early Historical Documents and Chronicles

Where does our knowledge of Anglo Saxon History come from?

How do we know what happened? Can we reference the sources of much historical debate? How can we what know what is true, what is fable or outright fiction.

Inevitably the answers are not simple but also are the key reasons why the ‘source documents’ upon which historians hypothesise  and speculate are so important. In the history of Britain and it’s international context the early Anglo Saxon period is largely derived from a small number of documents and archaeology as the means of endeavoring to understand our roots. So what are the documents and who were they written by?

The chroniclers, were the scholars of their time, often subject to patronage and as with all history tainted in the accounts by the need to keep their patrons supporting their works. There is a tradition of chroniclers in later periods we have Churchill and we all tend to know something about Samuel Pepys but where did this all start…

What were the early documents and how can they be accessed?

Here are the major documents and some lesser ones to consider that much early history is derived from includes. The quality of translations from Latin and Old English and the date of the old documents we have are often later copies of earlier documents and as ever some meaning gets ‘lost in translation.’ But reading good quality translations or several versions thereof is the best we can get in getting back to the original documents upon much of historical writing depends. Here we provide a concise overview and links to relevant resources which enable us all to access and interpret the texts and cross read between and with others sources and artefacts and archaeological finds to unravel the past. Going back to these texts can provide quite a refinement to what we might all think was our history and from our school-day recollections, it is certainly intriguing, revealing and offers many insights.

Chronicles of England 1325 - 1430. The White Ship and the drowning of the sons of Henry I

Chronicles of England 1325 – 1430. The White Ship and the drowning of the sons of Henry I

  • Gildas author of De Excidio Brittaniae (the Ruin of Britain) probably written in the 6th century about the 5th and 6th centuries and consequence of the Roman departure from Britain.
  • Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the British was completed in 731 he was a monk and scholar, in his time one of the most learned men in europe. It is the best source that exists and documents the conversion of the english to Christianity, but as such it is again subject to his prejudice and didactic purpose which was to illustrate how a good christian should lead their life. He was a great scholar in spite of this purpose which was largely noble and well-intentioned being to leave the world as a better place than when he arrived in it. Hi seminal work The Ecclesiastical History of the Church and the English People created an enormous legacy. He spent his working life studying at St Peters in Monkwearmouth, Jarrow. Conceptually his idea that the English were a single people was an idea harnessed and adopted subsequently to some effect by Offa and Alfred the Great.
  • Anglo Saxon Chronicles main source for events and chronology from 5th to the 11th centuries, it was continued until as late as 1154 at Peterborough Abbey. It was first brought together under the reign of King Alfred the Great and continued in various versions thereafter.
  • Ethelwerd’s Chronicle: was the first English author of a Latin chronicle and was a patron of the leading writers of the 10th Century Reform.
  • Asser’s Life of Alfred (Alfred the Great) thought to have been composed around 893 during it’s subject lifetime but some scholars dispute this and believe it to be a late 10th or 11th century account that claimed an earlier heritage.  Asser we do know was a Welsh Monk and author working at St David’s and attended the court of King Alfred in the mid 880’s.
  • Nennius Historia Britonum, History of the Britons  although attributed to Nennius from around the early 9th century it is debated as to whether he was the author, in reality rather than history it is a complex compilation of various documents with a lot of the material full of legends and fables.
  • Henry of Huntingdon circa 1160, author of the Latin History of the English from Caesar’s invasion to his current day (originally up to 1129, subsequently extended to 1154.) He was an organised thinker and his work on systematically analysing Anglo-Saxon history and introducing the concept of the Heptarchy and the co-existence of what were loosely 7 kingdoms, that made-up England.
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth circa 1155 was author of the History of the Kings of Britain which include the Prophecies and Life of Merlin,it was Monmouth who largely installed the legends and fables of Arthur and Merlin as figures drawn from Celtic legends. His history covers 99 kings and became a best seller in his day, popularised and then woven in our literature into myths and mistaken history, if there was no original ‘british tongue’ text upon which he drew then his work is a feat of historical fiction of some merit in itself for what it is, fiction. He was perhaps just seeking to forge an embellished and splendid civilised past for his readership, the 12th century descendants of the Britons. even now the tales of Arthur and Merlin are powerfully and enduring legends that I hear my 6 year old nephew reveling in. The Arthurian legends have certainly become part of our cultural and literary heritage and this work is important as it sets the context in which these stories were handed down, before William and the Normans conquer England.

E-readers, Digital Text and Humanities Tools Help Understand the Chronicles

E-readers are a great tool for this, and there are many emerging tools developed in the field of Digital Humanities study that enable analysis, bookmarking, annotation and even citation and sharing using the usual social networks so it is all a lot more accessible than before and if you are interested in a particular place of origin, there is much to be gleaned from these and other documented sources. Whilst the translations may not be perfect, it is much better to get a perspective than only rely upon the body of historical writing that follows them. Even the greatest scholar’s are just presenting their particular attempt to interpret and draw conclusions about our origins from these documents and those of their fellow academics, it is quite helpful to actually read the text from where they have formed that opinion.

So how can you access these texts and relate them to your own history? Here are some notes and resources that will at least set you upon that task as launch-pad for your own investigations. we are certainly finding them to be a rich resource for looking in more depth at our Anglo Saxon Period of History.


  1.  Bede’s full Latin and English translationsare available in a variety of ebook formats, here are some for starters :
  2. Gildas Translated on Gutenberg: On The Ruin of Britain (De Excidio Britanniae)
  3. Anglos Saxon Chronicles on Gutenbergas a resource in multiple eReader and web formats, you can also use as a text mining resource.
  4. Asser’s Life of Alfred
  5. Etherlwerd’s Chronicle
  6. Nennius History
    • Text for analysis in the 6 Chronicles by Giles Corpus Christi College Cambridge
    • The Nennius Text for Text Mining with thanks to Fordham University
    • Below is an example og how you can also embed specific pages and an interactive version of these texts often from the online source, depending upon the capabilities of the site on which the text is hosted.
  7. Henry of Huntingdon Text
  8. Geoffrey of Monmouth
  9. Nennius Embed example:

You can access directly good translations of the original sources and combine that with your own research and reading of the great historians, remember they all start with the same facts as these key documents and the archaeological finds and exhibits we can all find out about. It’s an intriguing set of resources and something that we can all start with and learn from.

Look out for a forthcoming EBook in which with the help of various media you can find out how you can comb these critical sources without reading cover to cover..if you are like us captivated by this key resources then subscribe to get the updates as we commence release of our new ebooks  towards the end of Sept 2012…. Thanks for taking the time to take a look. Please share with you family and friends with similar interests.

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