The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or the Old English Annals

The Chronicle is the collective name for the seven surviving manuscripts and a fragment that provide the fundamental narrative source for the Anglo-Saxon times. It is the primary literary source for Anglo- Saxon history. It begins in the reign of King Alfred (871-99) and continuing in the Petersborough version until 1154.

The major text known as A1 or the Parker Chronicle is believed to have been written by a single scribe, probably a cleric in King Alfred’s service. It deals with the history of the English from their settlement in Britain to the year of compilation. The compiler used various sources such as earlier annalistic matter, genealogies, Bede’s History, and oral reports. The quantity and the quality of the different sections vary: the early ninth and mid-tenth centuries are least represented, while the reign of Aethelred and the years from Edward the Confessor’s reign onwards are treated comprehensively.

The earlier annals are generally mere lists of events, not narrative accounts. The narrative passages grow better in the ninth century annals. Those grow with the writers expressing themselves clearly and simply, avoiding the monotony so often found in chronicle-writing. With the death of King Edward the Elder (924), however, the annals begin to languish. And they do not retain their Alfredian vigor and fullness until the reign of King Aethelred the Unready (976-1016) when truly literary-historical prose emerges and maintains itself to the end of the Old English period.

Some of the segments record events of local interest, together with those of national significance. The annals, written in Old English prose were kept in several monastic centers. The subject and the length of the entries vary considerably from version to version. Still, collectively, they provide a systematic record of events from the beginning of the Christian era to 1154.

The continuation of The Chronicle for nearly a hundred years after the Norman conquest illustrates that Old English literary culture did not stop abruptly in 1066. Yet, the changing form of the language of the later entries also indicates how a standard written form of English could no longer be maintained in post-conquest writing. If Old English poetry flowered in the late seventh and eighth centuries, prose blossomed in late tenth and eleventh centuries. The truly classical instances of English prose are seen not so much in the early exhortations of King Alfred and his contemporaries but the style of the later annalists.