Angelcynn Origins - the Earliest English

Angelcynn - origins and meaning

Angelcynn. Angelcynn? Surely you mean Anglekin!

Well, certainly the word Angelcynn sounds as “Angle Kin”, but behind every word is a story.

There are several theories as to the origin of the word Angelcynn

We know that “Angle” (more of the meaning and spelling later) refers to the Germanic tribe which until recently was thought to have appeared in England about 400AD, and spread west and north from the area we still call East Anglia. Recent genetic evidence suggests that Germanic settlers, and possibly even a Germanic dialect was spoken on the eastern side of Britain from a much earlier date.

“Cynn” (the Old English word for Kin) is straightforward, it denotes a family relationship.

Sons of Yngvi – Germanic beginnings.

The Angles first emerge from the mists of the prehistoric Iron Age in Pliny’s “Natural History” (IV.99) in 79AD. He describes a tribe called the Ingvaeones as one of five groups making up the German tribal confederations, along with the Vandili, the Istvaeones, the Hermiones, and one other he does not name. The Ingvaeones were subdivided into the Cimbri, the Teutons, and the Chauci.

Digressing slightly, and removing the latinisation, the Ingvaeones are thus the “Ingwine”, or “people of Ing”. Ing may well have sounded as “Ang” or “Eng”. Ing or Ingwaz, or Ingo, or Inguio, who is in turn described as the son of Mannus. The Swedish Viking Age deity Yngvi-Freyr, also mentioned by Snorri Sturlosson in his Ynglinga Saga (circa 1200AD) has been suggested as being the same Ing. One of the early Swedish royal families was the Ynglingas, or Sons of Ing. The Bernician (North Northumbrian) royal family also reckoned “Ingui” as one of their ancestors. In Beowulf, the earliest poem written in English, Hrothgar is “Lord of the Ingwine”. There is a very definite Swedish connection with the excavated burial at Sutton Hoo, believed to be the grave of King Raedwald of East Anglia, with certain objects being identical to others found in Swedish royal contexts of the same period.

Tacitus in his Germania, published about 98AD, provides the next reference to a tribal group he names as the “Ingaevones”, almost certainly the same group mentioned by Pliny. They are described (CH.2) as living along the North Sea coasts of the areas more familiar to modern readers as Jutland, Frisia, Holstein, and the Danish Islands. The group had apparently subdivided by the first century BC into the Jutes, Frisii, Saxons, and Angles (Anglii). Tacitus suggested that the Ingaevones were descended from one of the three sons of Mannus, who in turn was the son of Tuisto, the legendary forefather of the German race. The other tribal groups were the Istvaeones, and the Irminones.

Some archaeological evidence from the period supports the notion of the three cultural subdivisions noted by Tacitus. Also linguistic studies suggest that one of the five German dialects at about the birth of Christ was Ingvaeonic (or North Sea German), which was spoken in the areas mentioned by Tacitus, (and possibly in eastern Britain)

Bends and Angles

In Old English, "angle" means bend (it still does, as in "triangle" or "pentangle"). It can also refer to a narrow place. In Angeln there is a very narrow arm of the sea, known as the Schlei, thus the Angles may be the people who live beside the narrow water.

Fish hooks

Another theory, is that the word derives from the German word, "Angul", which means fish hook.

Whichever theory is correct, and they are not mutually exclusive, the Angles properly come into historical focus when discussed by the Ven. Bede and King Alfred.


The Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Book I, Ch. 15), published in 731AD, Bede states that the Angles, before coming to Britain, lived in a country called Angulus “which lies between the kingdoms of the Jutes and the Saxons”. He implies that there was a mass exodus from Angulus (Angeln) with the comment; “Angulus is said to have remained deserted from that day to this”.

King Alfred, in his translation of Orosius’ Histories, agrees with Bede as to the location of the ancestral homeland of the Angles. His account of the voyages of Ohthere of Halgoland has his own note on the Voyage from Oslo Fjord to Hedeby, that the lands off the starboard bow were the homelands of the "Engle".

Prior to Alfred, there is no evidence of any notion of the Angles as a political entity. Alfred went a step further by describing the people of England generally as “Angelcynn”. He also used the title; Rex Angul-Saxonum. It appears that as early as his time the distinction between Angles and Saxons had largely disappeared. In passing, note Alfred’s spelling. We have adopted it.

More about the Anglian arrival in Britain

As previously noted, the Angles were part of the Germanic tribal groups that migrated into the Island of Britain in the period 400 – 700AD. Bede very specifically reports that they first arrived at the request of King Vortigern in three warships led by Hengist and Horsa in 449AD, to fight off Picts and Irish raiders.

Vortigern granted them land in Kent, but as often happens, the two sides fell out. The incomers turned against and defeated their allies. However, Bede’s account seems somewhat simplified. It is certain that Angles and Saxons had been arriving before 400AD. The Romans recruited German mercenaries into their regular legions from as early as the 2nd century AD. By the 4th century, German mercenary “auxiliary” cohorts were widely used in Britannia. By the middle of the fourth century, the heavy infantry we think of as Roman soldiers had largely been replaced in Britannia by lighter auxiliary units.

The conventional view is that the Romans started having trouble with "Saxon" pirates in the 4th Century AD. The Roman officer given the job of dealing with the pirates was given the title “Comes Litoris Saxonici” or “Count of the Saxon Shore” (see Notitia Dignitatum compiled circa 395AD). It is tempting to speculate that the Roman troops had more than a passing connection with the pirates. The German mercenaries wore dress and equipment which was very like that of later Anglo Saxon warriors, i.e. thigh length tunic, tight trousers, spear and shield. A tombstone from Dorchester, Oxfordshire, erected about 400AD is believed to commemorate a Germanic Roman soldier in just such gear (gear is itself an Old English word).

Above is the conventional view. An alternative view is that "Saxon" piracy had been going on since at least 170AD, see John Haywood's "Dark Age Naval Power" below. Using continental sources not considered by many earlier writers, Haywood concludes that Chaucian pirates were at large in the period 170 - 200AD, and very probably were responsible for burning towns such as Chelmsford and Arras in that period. It appears that this piracy never actually stopped, and was a continuing feature of life on both sides of the North Sea, perhaps with a slight lull in the period after Anglo-Saxons converted to Christianity, before the Vikings took over the role of bad lads in the late 8th Century. This writer posits that the initial call for help to Hengist from Vortigern was because Hengist was the best equipped and experienced to see off pirates, and probably a pirate himself. It would also explain why the Angles spread up the East coast of Britain, rather than going West or South, as did the Saxons and the Jutes. John Haywood's conclusions shed new light on the reasons for many events in Britain and the near Continent during the first millennium, and need to be properly digested. Stephen Oppenheimer's book on British genetics is even more revolutionary.

One of the earliest known Anglian settlements in England is at West Stow in Suffolk (see elsewhere on this website). Anglian artefacts appear in the archaeological record there dated to as early as 420 AD.

Archaeological evidence from West Heslerton in Yorkshire suggests that late Roman and early Anglian cultures overlapped in the same large settlement in the late 4th and early 5th century. West Stow (Stowa in Old English) was a very ordinary rural village even in Roman times, with no military or significant commercial connections (apart from being on the navigable river route to what is now Bury St Edmunds), but the incomers were already settled there within a few years of the Roman retreat from Britain, building their own design of hall houses. No signs of defensive works were found, which suggests that the Anglians had no fear of their neighbours.

Later, St Germanus of Auxerre, who visited Britain in 429 and 447AD, reported that the “Saxons and the Picts had joined forces to make war on the Britons”. However his report suggests that he saw a country where the Roman infrastructure still functioned, with towns, and functioning churches. There is no doubt that the period after 410AD, the conventional date for the end of Roman rule in Britain, was very troubled, and that Christianity died out in southern Britain. Gildas, a monk writing in the mid 6th Century paints a very gloomy picture of the state of the British inhabitants in England, although his account seems somewhat coloured, in that his intention was apparently to write a story of the Britons’ fall from divine grace, followed by redemption. His was the only voice until that of Bede, some 180 years later.

We do know that the indigenous ruling classes were eventually replaced by the invaders in most parts of England, except the west, and parts of Scotland. What effect this had on the ordinary rural people who made up most of the population, we can only guess, but the evidence points more towards cultural assimilation rather than ethnic cleansing. DNA evidence gathered in the last few years suggests that the blood lines of indigenous inhabitants of Britain have continued for thousands of years before the Christian era until the present day.

Nevertheless, the Angles’ language and culture predominated and eventually gave their name to the English language, and to England.

Selected Bibliography

Pliny; Natural History, (IV, 99) 79AD

Tacitus; Germania, (98AD)

Bede; Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book I Ch.15, 731AD (from Oxford World’s Classics) 1994

Owen Crocker, G.; Dress in Anglo Saxon England, Revised Ed. 2004

Haywood; J.; Dark Age Naval Power; 2nd Ed. Anglo-Saxon Books 1999.

Oppenheimer: S; The Origins of the British; Robinson 2007