Exploring England's Anglo-Saxon Heritage

Anglo-Saxon culture arrived in early England from France with brutal impact and a long-lasting influence on the culture. But what does it mean to be of Anglo-Saxon heritage in modern England?

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You hear the term everywhere these days in politics, pop music, business, even race relations. Anglo-Saxon. With the advent of the Human Genome Project, we now know a bit more about who the Anglo-Saxons really are and were. Frank Browning recently traveled from his home in Paris to England, the place we used to think of as the hearthstone of Anglo-Saxon culture, and we thank him for sending this sometimes personally troubling dispatch.

FRANK BROWNING reporting:

Here's the thing. Living in the heartland of the Gauls, being fair-haired - or once fair-haired - and holding a couple of inches over the average height, it's hard to escape the Anglo-Saxon label. It's a label which, while not altogether derogatory in France, hardly ranks these days as matchless praise. Then, when the name comes out, all doubt is gone. Brownings are as Anglo-Saxon as Anglo-Saxons get.

From childhood I was told that Bruning in Old English rendered son of the Bruns, a tawny brown-haired folk who as myth and archeology would have it pierced the North Sea in crude vessels crafted of Saxon oak. Sometime in the fifth century they rapidly overcame the British Celts, who had been left poor and helpless once the arrogant Romans had cut and run. That, I thought, was the dark side, followed by, on the upside The Magna Carta, Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, gin, and the BBC. Would that it were so sweet.

Comes now DNA research conducted by Mark Thomas at University College, London.

Mr. MARK THOMAS (University College): The Anglo-Saxons is a collective term for various Germanic-speaking people who lived along the northwestern European coast. So that's more or less from present-day Holland up to present-day Denmark.

BROWNING: A few years ago, Thomas and his colleagues started rooting around in British genome, tracking the distribution of male, or Y, chromosomes. They couldn't believe what they found.

Mr. THOMAS: Between 50 and 100 percent of male-line ancestry would go back to people coming across the North Sea around the 5th century.

BROWNING: Anglo-Saxons.

Mr. THOMAS: Now, the problem with that is that it just doesn't gel with the estimates made by archeologists, and to some extent historians, of the number of people coming across.

BROWNING: Anglo-Saxons shouldn't account for more than five or maybe 10 percent of the British population. Given how few Anglo-Saxon warriors arrived on British shores, how then did they purge all of the native genes, save for a few rugged Celtic redoubts like Wales and far Cornwall? The answer Thomas and his colleagues came up with is less than charming.

Mr. THOMAS: Apartheid-like social system.

BROWNING: Anglo-Saxons bred only with Anglo-Saxons, if you don't count the rape and pillage of Celtic villages. To construct the story, Thomas' team crafted a computer model based on the two early populations' size and geographic distribution, then ran the model over the succeeding centuries and came up with a genetic distribution of today's England.

They also drew on one key bit of historical knowledge that wergild, or blood money, levied against someone who killed either a Celt or an Anglo-Saxon. The find showed clearly the different status between the two populations.

Mr. THOMAS: The fine payable for killing a native Britain, the fine was considerably less than it would be for killing an Anglo-Saxon.

BROWNING: Seven times less, meaning that Celtic lives were worth vastly less than the richer Anglo-Saxons. And the world over, at least before birth control, rich castes have most always produced more descendants than poorer ones. How then ought we, or I, to think of this troubling Anglo-Saxon heritage?

I checked over to Primrose Hill, the placid park in North London where myth has it the druid queen fought off the Roman legions. There I found Andy, a fair-haired young man engaged in a martial arts class with small sticks. How did he think about his Anglo-Saxon ancestors?

ANDY: White dudes with blonde hair, funky haircuts, and didn't like French people, obviously.

BROWNING: Hmm. Farther up Primrose Hill came Thomas.

THOMAS: They were pretty old people, like just after the Vikings, from what I remember. Lived in huts and had pots and wore sort of fairly normal sort of thick clothing.

BROWNING: Just below the crest, Daniel and his Nigerian friends were finishing a picnic.

DANIEL: (Unintelligible) born in this country, went to school and everything, they didn't really teach us like about the Anglo. I just (unintelligible) but I don't really know anything too tough about that.

BROWNING: A little bit farther along, Sandy sat alone on a bench, quietly regarding the last golden light on the towers of central London.

SANDY: You're asking me the $64,000 question here. I don't know, living in England I don't actually think of it like that. We're such a diverse race now - country - that you can't even - I don't even think about it.

BROWNING: Now, that's reassuring. Whatever the ancestors militaristic apartheid tendencies might have been, London today is as polyglot a town as you'll find anywhere. Still, as the train slithered home beneath the English Channel and then the placid milk cows of the Pas de Calais came into view, I couldn't help brooding a bit about the distinctly dubious attitude held by the French toward Les Anglo Saxon. The next morning I trooped across Luxemburg Gardens to visit my old friend David Sharp, who's fathered two French children.

Mr. DAVID SHARP (Father): I must confess that I, for a long time, was quite skeptical about this - the French use of the term Anglo-Saxon. However, recent events seem to me to have given perhaps a certain amount of validity to the term because it is noteworthy, for example, of the three countries which instigated the invasion of Iraq were the three main Anglo-Saxon countries today, Britain, the United States and Australia, which is quite striking, I think.

BROWNING: Not certain how best to take that insight from a fellow Anglo-Saxon, I walked over to the great plaza in front of the Pantheon, the domed temple where France's so-called great men are entombed, perhaps a direct French reflection on the character of Les Anglo Saxon. Alas, it's August, and the French have all fled to their beaches, their country caves, their distant mountaintops. However, a bright-eyed young Argentine named Pablo paused for a moment to offer this summary of the Anglo-Saxon heritage.

PABLO: It's related with the typical work hard and they're like very - yeah, dedicated to work and very correct. Yeah. That's it.

BROWNING: No knowledge of ancient ethnic cleansing, no Elizabethan tragic vision. No Miltonian paradise lost. None of the mystical visions of Blake. Just plain Benthamite practicality.

(Soundbite of choir)

BROWNING: For NPR News, I'm Frank Browning, gone to the countryside to pull weeds.

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