The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a collection of annals in Old English that narrates the history of the Anglo-Saxons. Created in the late ninth century, possibly in Wessex during the reign of Alfred the Great, multiple manuscript copies were distributed to monasteries across England and independently updated. Although none of the surviving nine manuscripts is the original, they collectively form the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The entries, in annal form, span from 60 B.C.E. to the year each manuscript was written. While not entirely unbiased and sometimes contradictory, the Chronicle is a crucial historical source for the period between the Roman departure and the Norman Conquest. Seven manuscripts are housed in the British Library, while two are in the Bodleian Library and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.
The Chronicle’s composition involved an original version likely written in the early 890s by a Wessex scribe. Copies were then distributed to monasteries, and subsequent copies were made, some independently updated. The Winchester Chronicle, the earliest surviving manuscript, was penned by a single scribe up to 891, possibly indicating the composition’s date. While uncertainty exists about the original’s location and date, it is generally believed to have occurred during Alfred the Great’s reign, reflecting his efforts to promote learning and the use of English as a written language.
The Surviving Manuscripts
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has nine surviving manuscripts, eight entirely in Old English and one in Old English with a Latin translation for each annal. The oldest, known as the Winchester Chronicle (also known as the Parker Chronicle), dates back to Archbishop Matthew Parker’s ownership. Six manuscripts were printed in 1861, labelled A through F, with three additional manuscripts denoted as G, H, and I. The manuscripts are believed to stem from a common original, but relationships are more complex than simple copying. [A2] is a copy of [A], made in Winchester between 1001 and 1013. [B] was used in compiling [C] at Abingdon in the mid-eleventh century, with [C] also having access to another version. [D] includes material from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History and eighth-century Northumbrian annals, likely copied from a northern version. [E], created in Peterborough after a fire in 1116, seems to be a copy of a Kentish version, possibly from Canterbury. [F] appears to include material from the same Canterbury version as [E]. Bishop Asser’s 893 work, Life of King Alfred, includes translations of Chronicle entries from 849 to 887, possibly from a version not surviving among the manuscripts. Æthelweard’s 10th-century Latin translation likely comes from the same branch as [A]. In Abingdon, an unknown author wrote the Annals of St. Neots between 1120 and 1140, incorporating Chronicle material with uncertain origins.
Relationships between the manuscripts
The various manuscripts are believed to originate from a common original source. The relationships between the manuscripts are intricate and involve copying and compilation processes. Some key points include:
[A2] is a copy of [A], created in Winchester between 1001 and 1013.
[B] was used in compiling [C] at Abingdon in the mid-11th century, and the scribe for [C] had access to another version.
[D] includes material from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History and 8th-century Northumbrian annals, likely copied from a northern version.
[E] shares sources with [D] but was created in Peterborough after a fire in 1116, likely as a copy of a Kentish version from Canterbury.
[F] seems to include material from the same Canterbury version used for [E].
Asser’s Life of King Alfred, written in 893, aligns with [A], but discrepancies suggest Asser may have used a version that didn’t survive.
Æthelweard’s Latin translation in the late 10th century likely came from the same branch as [A].
Asser’s text and Æthelweard’s text align in some places against [B], [C], [D], and [E], suggesting a common ancestor for the latter four manuscripts.
The Annals of St Neots, written between 1120 and 1140, includes material from the Chronicle, but the version used is unclear, possibly a northern recension.
All described manuscripts share a chronological error between 756 and 845, but the Annals of St Neots suggests an earlier version without this error, indicating multiple copying steps and none being closer than two removes from the original.
The initial page of the Peterborough Chronicle.
A map showing the places where the various chronicles were written, and where they are now kept.
The relationships between seven of the different manuscripts of the Chronicle. The fragment [H] cannot be reliably positioned in the chart. Other related texts are also shown. The diagram shows a putative original, and also gives the relationships of the manuscripts to a version produced in the north of England that did not survive but which is thought to have existed.