Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle" is a collection of annals in Old English chronicling the history of the Anglo-Saxons. The annals were created late in the 9th century, probably in Wessex, during the reign of Alfred the Great. Multiple manuscript copies were made and distributed to monasteries across England and were independently updated. In one case, the chronicle was still being actively updated in 1154.

Nine manuscripts survive in whole or in part, though not all are of equal historical value, and none of them is the original version. The oldest seems to have been started towards the end of Alfred's reign, while the most recent was written at Peterborough Abbey after a fire at that monastery in 1116. Almost all of the material in the chronicle is in the form of annals, by year; the earliest are dated at 60 BC, and historical material follows up to the year in which the chronicle was written, at which point contemporary records begin. These manuscripts collectively are known as the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle". The Chronicle is not unbiased: there are occasions when comparison with other medieval sources makes it clear that the scribes who wrote it omitted events or told one-sided versions of stories; there are also places where the different versions contradict each other. However, taken as a whole, the Chronicle is the single most important historical source for the period in England between the departure of the Romans and the Norman Conquest. Much of the information given in the Chronicle is not recorded elsewhere. In addition, the manuscripts are important sources for the history of the English language; in particular, the later Peterborough text is one of the earliest examples of Middle English in existence.

Seven of the nine surviving manuscripts and fragments now reside in the British Library. The remaining two are in the Bodleian Library and the Parker Library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.


All surviving manuscripts are copies, so it is not known for certain where or when the first version of the Chronicle was composed. It is generally agreed that the original version was written in the late 9th century by a scribe in Wessex.For example, Richard Abels says that "Historians are in basic agreement that the original "Chronicle" extended to at least 890." Keynes and Lapidge suggest that "the return of the Vikings to England appears to have occasioned the 'publication', in late 892 or early 893, of the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle". See cite book |last= Abels|first= Richard|title= Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England|pages=15|year= 2005|publisher= Longman|isbn=0-582-04047-7 See also Keynes & Lapidge, "Alfred the Great", p. 41.] After the original Chronicle was compiled, copies were made and distributed to various monasteries. Additional copies were made, for further distribution or to replace lost manuscripts, and some copies were updated independently of each other. Some of these later copies are those that have survived.Swanton, "The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle", pp. xx–xxi.]

The earliest extant manuscript, the Winchester Chronicle, was written by a single scribe up to the year 891. The scribe wrote the year number, DCCCXCII, in the margin of the next line; subsequent material was written by other scribes.Swanton, "The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle", pp. xxi–xxviii.] This appears to place the composition of the chronicle at no later than 892; further evidence is provided by Bishop Asser's use of a version of the Chronicle in his work "Life of King Alfred", known to have been composed in 893.Keynes & Lapidge, "Alfred the Great", p. 55] It is known that the Winchester manuscript is at least two removes from the original Chronicle; as a result, there is no proof that the Chronicle was compiled at Winchester.See P. Wormald, "Alfredian Manuscripts", p. 158, in Campbell "& al.", "The Anglo-Saxons".] It is also difficult to fix the date of composition, but it is generally thought that the chronicles were composed during the reign of Alfred the Great (871–99). Alfred deliberately tried to revive learning and culture during his reign, and he encouraged the use of English as a written language. The Chronicle, as well as the distribution of copies to other centres of learning, may be a consequence of the changes Alfred introduced.Hunter Blair, "Roman Britain", p. 12.]

urviving manuscripts

Of the nine surviving manuscripts, seven are written entirely in Old English (also known as "Anglo-Saxon"). One is in Old English with a translation of each annal into Latin. Another, the Peterborough Chronicle, is in Old English except for the last entry, which is in early Middle English. The oldest (Corp. Chris. MS 173) is known as the Winchester Chronicle or the Parker Chronicle (after Matthew Parker, an Archbishop of Canterbury who once owned it). Six of the manuscripts were printed in an 1861 edition by Benjamin Thorpe with the text laid out in columns labelled A through F. Following this convention, the three additional manuscripts are often called [G] , [H] and [I] .

The surviving manuscripts are listed below; though manuscript G was burned in a fire in 1731 and only a few leaves remain.

Relationships between the manuscripts


* [A2] was a copy of [A] , made in Winchester, probably between 1001 and 1013.
* [B] was used in the compilation of [C] at Abingdon, in the mid-11th century. However, the scribe for [C] also had access to another version, which has not survived.
* [D] includes material from Bede's "Ecclesiastical History" and from a set of 8th-century Northumbrian annals and is thought to have been copied from a northern version that has not survived.
* [E] has material that appears to derive from the same sources as [D] but does not include some additions that appear only in [D] , such as the Mercian Register. This manuscript was composed at the monastery in Peterborough, some time after a fire there in 1116 that probably destroyed their copy of the Chronicle; [E] appears to have been created thereafter as a copy of a Kentish version, probably from Canterbury.
* [F] appears to include material from the same Canterbury version that was used to create [E] .
* Asser's "Life of King Alfred", which was written in 893, includes a translation of the Chronicle's entries from 849 to 887. Only [A] , of surviving manuscripts, could have been in existence by 893, but there are places where Asser departs from the text in [A] , so it is possible that Asser used a version that has not survived.For example, Asser omits Esla from Alfred's genealogy; [A] includes Esla but [D] does not. See footnote 4 in Keynes & Lapidge, "Alfred the Great", pp. 228–229.]
*Æthelweard wrote a translation of the Chronicle into Latin in the late 10th century; the version he used probably came from the same branch in the tree of relationships that [A] comes from.
*At Abingdon, some time between 1120 and 1140, an unknown author wrote a Latin chronicle known as the "Annals of St. Neots". This work includes material from a copy of the Chronicle, but it is very difficult to tell which version because the annalist was selective about his use of the material. It may have been a northern recension, or a Latin derivative of that recension.Swanton, "The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle", pp. xix–xx.]

History of the manuscripts

[A] : The Winchester Chronicle

The Winchester, or Parker, Chronicle, is the oldest manuscript of the Chronicle that survives. It was begun at Old Minster, Winchester, towards the end of Alfred's reign. The manuscript begins with a genealogy of Alfred, and the first chronicle entry is for the year 60 BC. The first scribe stopped with the year 891, and the following entries were made at intervals throughout the 10th century by several scribes. The manuscript becomes independent of the other recensions after the entry for 975. The book, which also had a copy of the Laws of Alfred and Ine bound in after the entry for 924, was transferred to Canterbury some time in the early eleventh century. The last entry in the vernacular is for 1070. After this comes the Latin "Acta Lanfranci", which covers church events from 1070–1093. This is followed by a list of popes, and the archbishops of Canterbury to whom they sent the pallium. The manuscript was acquired by Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury 1559–1575 and master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, following the dissolution of the monasteries, and bequeathed to the college on his death. It now forms part of the Parker Library.

[B] The Abingdon Chronicle I

[B] was written by a single scribe in the second half of the 10th century. It begins with an entry for 60 BC and ends with the entry for 977. A manuscript that is now separate (British Library MS. Cotton Tiberius Aiii, f. 178) was originally the introduction to this chronicle; it contains a genealogy, as does [A] , but extends it to the late 10th century. It is known that [B] was at Abingdon in the mid-11th century, because it was used in the composition of [C] . Shortly after this it went to Canterbury, where interpolations and corrections were made. As with [A] , it ends with a list of popes and the archbishops of Canterbury to whom they sent the pallium.

[C] The Abingdon Chronicle II

. In the 12th century a few lines were added to complete the account.

[D] The Worcester Chronicle

[D] appears to have been written in the middle of the 11th century. After 1033 it includes some records from Worcester, so it is generally thought to have been composed there. Five different scribes can be identified for the entries up to 1054, after which it appears to have been worked on at intervals. The text includes material from Bede's "Ecclesiastical History" and from a set of 8th-century Northumbrian annals. It is thought that some of the entries may have been composed by Archbishop Wulfstan. [D] contains more information than other manuscripts on northern and Scottish affairs, and it has been speculated that it was a copy intended for the Anglicised Scottish court. From 972 to 1016 the sees of York and Worcester were both held by the same person—Oswald from 972, Ealdwulf from 992, and Wulfstan from 1003, and this may explain why a northern recension was to be found at Worcester. By the 16th century, parts of the manuscript were lost; eighteen pages were inserted containing substitute entries from other sources. These pages were probably written by John Joscelyn, who was secretary to Matthew Parker.

[E] The Peterborough Chronicle

In 1116 a fire at the monastery at Peterborough destroyed most of the buildings. The copy of the Chronicle kept there may have been lost at that time or later, but in either case, shortly thereafter a fresh copy was made, apparently copied from a Kentish version—mostly likely from Canterbury. The manuscript was written at one time and by a single scribe down to the annal for 1121. The scribe added material relating to the abbey which is not in other versions. The Canterbury original which he copied was similar but not identical to [D] ; the Mercian Register does not appear, and a poem about the Battle of Brunanburh, in 937, which appears in most Chronicles, is not recorded. The same scribe then continued the annal through 1131; these entries were made at intervals and are presumably contemporary records. Finally, a second scribe, in 1154, wrote an account of the years 1132–1154; his dating is known to be unreliable. This last entry is in Middle English, rather than Old English. [E] was once owned by William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury 1633–1654, and so is also known as the Laud Chronicle.

[F] The Canterbury Bilingual Epitome

At about 1100 a copy of the Chronicle was written at Christ Church, Canterbury, probably by one of the scribes who made notes in [A] . This version is written in both Old English and Latin; each entry in Old English was followed by the Latin version. The version the scribe copied is similar to the version used by the scribe in Peterborough who wrote [E] , though it seems to have been abridged. It includes the same introductory material as [D] and, along with [E] , is one of the two chronicles that does not include the "Battle of Brunanburh" poem. The manuscript has many annotations and interlineations, some made by the original scribe and some by later scribes.

[A2] / [G] Copy of the Winchester Chronicle

[A2] was copied from [A] at Winchester. The last annal copied was 1001, so the copy was made no earlier than that; and an episcopal list appended to [A2] suggests that the copy was made by 1013. This manuscript was almost completely destroyed in a fire at Ashburnham House in 1731, where the Cotton Library was housed. A few leaves remain. However, a transcript had been made by Laurence Nowell, a 16th century antiquary, and it was used by Abraham Wheloc in an edition of the Chronicle printed in 1643. Because of this, it is also sometimes known as [W] , after Wheloc.

[H] Cottonian Fragment

[H] consists of a single leaf, containing annals for 1113 and 1114. In the entry for 1113 it includes the phrase "he came to Winchester"; hence it is thought likely the manuscript was written at Winchester. There is not enough of this manuscript for reliable relationships to other manuscripts to be established.

[I] Easter Table Chronicle

Part of [I] was written by a scribe soon after 1073. After 1085, the annals are in various hands and appear to have been written at Christ Church, Canterbury. At one point this manuscript was at St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury. [cite web | url = | title = Cotton Catalogue | accessmonthday=11 April | accessyear = 2007 See Caligula A.15, under "Provenance", which gives a description of the manuscript and some of its history.]

ources, reliability and dating

The Chronicle incorporates material from multiple sources. The entry for 755, describing how Cynewulf took the kingship of Wessex from Sigebehrt, is far longer than the surrounding entries, and includes direct speech quotations from the participants in those events. It seems likely that this was taken by the scribe from existing saga material. [cite book |last=Greenfield |first=Stanley Brian |title=A New Critical History of Old English Literature |year=1986 |publisher=New York University Press |location=New York |isbn=0-8147-3088-4| pages=p. 60] Early entries, up to the year 110, probably came from one of the small encyclopaedic volumes of world history in circulation at the time the Chronicle was first written. The chronological summary to Bede's "Ecclesiastical History" was used as a source. The Chronicle gives dates and genealogies for Northumbrian and Mercian kings, and provides a list of Wessex bishops; these are likely to have had separate sources. The entry for 661 records a battle fought by Cenwalh that is said to have been fought "at Easter"; this precision implies a contemporary record, which survived and was re-used by the Chronicle scribe.Swanton, "The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle", pp. xviii–xix.]

Contemporary annals began to be kept in Wessex during the 7th century. [Stenton suggested that the Chronicle entry for 648 marked the beginning of a contemporary record of events. cite book |last= Yorke|first=Barbara|title= Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England|year= 1990|location=London|publisher= Seaby|isbn=1-85264-027-8] The material compiled in Alfred's reign included annals relating to Kentish, South Saxon, Mercian and, particularly, West Saxon history, but, with the exception of the Cynewulf entry, does not gather momentum until it comes to the Danish invasions of the late 8th century onwards. [Lapidge, "Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England", p. 35.] The Chronicle grew out of the tradition of the Easter Tables, drawn up to help the clergy determine the dates of feasts in future years: a page consisted of a sequence of horizontal lines followed by astronomical data, with a space for short notes of events to distinguish one year from another. As the Chronicle developed, it lost its list-like appearance, and such notes took up more space, becoming more like historical records. Many later entries, especially those written by contemporaries, contained a great deal of historical narrative under the year headings. [cite book |last=Crystal |first=David |title=The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language |year=1995 |publisher=Cambridge University Press |location=Cambridge |isbn=0-521-59655-6| pages=p. 15]

As with any source, the Chronicle has to be treated with some caution. For example, between 514 and 544 the Chronicle makes reference to Wihtgar, who is supposedly buried on the Isle of Wight at "Wihtgar's stronghold", which is "Wihtgaræsbyrg" in the original. The name "Isle of Wight" is derived from the Latin name "Vectis", so it does not derive from Wihtgar. The actual name of the fortress was probably "Wihtwarabyrg", "the stronghold of the inhabitants of Wight", and either the chronicler or an earlier source has misinterpreted this as referring to Wihtgar. [Ekwall, "Dictionary of English Place-Names".] Swanton, "The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle", p. 16.]

The dating of the events recorded also requires care. In addition to dates that are simply inaccurate, scribes occasionally made mistakes that caused further errors. For example, in the [D] manuscript, the scribe omits the year 1044 from the list on the left hand side. The annals copied down are therefore incorrect from 1045 to 1052, which has two entries. A more difficult problem is the question of the date at which a new year began, since the modern custom of starting the year on 1 January was not universal at that time. The entry for 1091 in [E] begins at Christmas and continues throughout the year; it is clear that this entry follows the old custom of starting the year at Christmas. Some other entries appear to begin the year on 25 March, such as the year 1044 in the [C] manuscript, which ends with Edward the Confessor's marriage on 23 January, while the entry for 22 April is recorded under 1045. There are also years which appear to start in September.Swanton, "The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle", pp. xiv–xvi.]

The manuscripts were produced in different places, and each manuscript reflects the biases of its scribes. It has been argued that the Chronicle should be regarded as propaganda, produced by Alfred's court and written with the intent of glorifying Alfred and creating loyalty.cite book |last= Campbell|first= James|title= The Anglo-Saxon State|pages=144|year= 2000|publisher= Hambledon and London|isbn=1-85285-176-7] This is not universally accepted,For example, Keynes & Lapidge ("Alfred the Great", p. 55) comment that we should "resist the temptation to regard it as a form of West Saxon dynastic propaganda".] but the origins of the manuscripts clearly colour both the description of interactions between Wessex and other kingdoms, and the descriptions of the Vikings' depredations. An example can be seen in the entry for 829, which describes Egbert's invasion of Northumbria. According to the Chronicle, after Egbert conquered Mercia and Essex, he became a "bretwalda", implying overlordship of all of England. Then when he marched into Northumbria, the Northumbrians offered him "submission and peace". The Northumbrian chronicles incorporated into Roger of Wendover's 13th-century history give a different picture: "When Egbert had obtained all the southern kingdoms, he led a large army into Northumbria, and laid waste that province with severe pillaging, and made King Eanred pay tribute."Swanton, "The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle", pp. 60–61.] P. Wormald, "The Ninth Century", p. 139, in Campbell "& al.", "The Anglo-Saxons".]

Occasionally the scribes' biases can be seen by comparing different versions of the manuscript they created. For example, Ælfgar, earl of East Anglia, and son of Leofric, the earl of Mercia, was exiled briefly in 1055. The [C] , [D] and [E] manuscripts say the following:Translations from Swanton, "The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle", pp. 184–18.] Campbell "& al.", "The Anglo-Saxons", p. 222.]

* [C] : "Earl Ælfgar, son of Earl Leofric, was outlawed without any fault . . ."
* [D] : "Earl Ælfgar, son of Earl Leofric, was outlawed well-nigh without fault . . ."
* [E] : "Earl Ælfgar was outlawed because it was thrown at him that he was traitor to the king and all the people of the land. And he admitted this before all the men who were gathered there, although the words shot out against his will."

Another example that mentions Ælfgar shows a different kind of unreliability in the Chronicle: that of omission. Ælfgar was Earl of Mercia by 1058, and in that year was exiled again. This time only [D] has anything to say: "Here Earl Ælfgar was expelled, but he soon came back again, with violence, through the help of Gruffydd. And here came a raiding ship-army from Norway; it is tedious to tell how it all happened." In this case other sources exist to clarify the picture: a major Norwegian attempt was made on England, but [E] says nothing at all, and [D] scarcely mentions it. It has sometimes been argued that when the Chronicle is silent other sources that report major events must be mistaken, but this example demonstrates that the Chronicle does omit important events.


The "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle" is the single most important source for the history of England in Anglo-Saxon times. Without the Chronicle and Bede's "Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum", (the "Ecclesiastical History of the English People"), it would be impossible to write the history of the English from the Romans to the Norman Conquest.Hunter Blair, "An Introduction", p. 355.] It is clear that records and annals of some kind began to be kept in England at the time of the earliest spread of Christianity, but no such records survive in their original form. Instead they were incorporated in later works, and the Chronicle likely contains many of these. The history it tells is not only that witnessed by its compilers, but also that recorded by earlier annalists, whose work is in many cases preserved nowhere else.Hunter Blair, "Roman Britain", p. 11.]

The three main Anglo-Norman historians, John of Worcester, William of Malmesbury, and Henry of Huntingdon, each had a copy of the Chronicle, which they adapted for their own purposes. Some later medieval historians also used the Chronicle, and others took their material from those who had used it, and so the Chronicle became "central to the mainstream of English historical tradition". [Lapidge, "Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England", p. 36.]

Its importance is not limited to the historical information it provides, however. It is just as important a source for the early development of English. The Peterborough Chronicle changes from the standard Old English literary language to early Middle English after 1131, providing some of the earliest Middle English text known.

History of editions and availability

An important early printed edition of the Chronicle appeared in 1692, by Edmund Gibson, an English jurist and divine who became Bishop of Lincoln in that year. Titled "Chronicum Saxonicum", it printed Latin and Old English versions of the text in parallel columns and became the standard edition until the 19th century. [The title in full is " Chronicon Saxonicum; Seu Annales Rerum in Anglia Praecipue Gestarum, a Christo Nato ad Annum Usque MCLIV. Deducti, ac Jam Demum Latinitate Donati. Cum Indice Rerum Chronologico; Accedunt Regulae ad Investigandas Nominum Locorum Origines; Et Nominum Locorum ac Vivorum in Chronico Memoratorum Explicatio." A detailed description of a first edition is listed at cite web | url = | title = Law Books - October 2002 List | accessmonthday=13 April | accessyear = 2007] It was superseded in 1861 by Benjamin Thorpe's Rolls edition, which printed six versions in columns, labelled A through F, thus giving the manuscripts the letters which are now used to refer to them. In 1892, Charles Plummer produced an edition of the A and E texts, with material from other versions, entitled "Two of the Saxon Chronicles Parallel", which was widely used.

Beginning in the 1980s, a new set of scholarly editions have been printed under the series title "The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Collaborative Edition". Some volumes are still projected, such as a volume focusing on the northern recension, but existing volumes such as Janet Bately's edition of [A] are now standard references. A recent translation of the Chronicle is Michael Swanton's "The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle", which presents translations of [A] and [E] on opposite pages, with interspersed material from the other manuscripts where they differ.

ee also

*Anglo-Saxon literature



* (2003 edition: ISBN 0-521-83085-0)

External links

* [ The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle] at Project Gutenberg – Public domain copy.
* [ Anglo-Saxon Chronicle] Transcribed original texts
* [ Transcribed original text]
* [ "The Chronicle"] from "The Cambridge History of English and American Literature", Volume I, 1907–21.
* [ The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle]

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