AD 410. The Romans, therefore, left the country [Britannnia], giving notice that they could no longer be harassed by such laborious expeditions.… No sooner were they gone, than the Picts and Scots, like worms which in the heat of mid-day come forth from their holes, hastily land again from their canoes...... they [the Britons] left their cities, abandoned the protection of the wall and dispersed themselves in flight more desperately than before. The enemy, on the other hand, pursued them with more unrelenting cruelty than before, and butchered our countrymen like sheep. [Gildas]
Again, therefore, the wretched remnant, sending to Aetius, a powerful Roman citizen, address him as follows: "To Aetius, now consul for the third time: the groans of the Britons." And again a little further thus: "The barbarians drive us to the sea; the sea throws us back on the barbarians: thus two modes of death await us, we are either slain or drowned." The Romans, however, could not assist them. [Gildas]
The British provinces were devastated by an incursion of the Saxons [The Gallic Chronicle]
Then all the councillors, together with that proud tyrant, the British king, were so blinded, that, as a protection to their country, they sealed its doom by inviting in among them (like wolves into the sheep-fold), the fierce and impious Saxons, a race hateful both to God and men… [Gildas]
In the year of our Lord 449. Then the nation of the Angles, or Saxons, being invited by the aforesaid king, arrived in Britain with three long ships, and had a place assigned them to reside in by the same king, in the eastern part of the island. [Bede]
In the meantime, three vessels, exiled from Germany, arrived in Britain. They were commanded by Horsa and Hengist, brothers, and sons of Wihtgils. The Saxons were received by Vortigern four hundred and forty-seven years after the passion of Christ... [Nennius]
AD 449. This year …… Hengest and Horsa, invited by Vortigern, king of the Britons to his assistance, landed in Britain in a place that is called Ipwinesfleet; first of all to support the Britons, but they afterwards fought against them. [ASC]
After the Saxons had continued some time in the island of Thanet, Vortigern promised to supply them with clothing and provision, on condition they would engage to fight against the enemies of his country. But the barbarians having greatly increased in number, the Britons became incapable of fulfilling their engagement. [Nennius]
At length Vortimer, the son of Vortigern, valiantly fought against Hengist, Horsa, and his people; drove them to the isle of Thanet, and thrice enclosed them with it, and beset them on the western side. The Saxons now despatched deputies to Germany to solicit large reinforcements, and an additional number of ships: having obtained these, they fought against the kings and princes of Britain, and sometimes extended their boundaries by victory, and sometimes were conquered and driven back. Four times did Vortimer valorously encounter the enemy; the first has been mentioned, the second was upon the river Darent, the third at the Ford, in their language called Epsford, though in ours Set thirgabail, there Horsa fell, and Catigern, the son of Vortigern; the fourth battle he fought, was near the stone on the shore of the Gallic sea, where the Saxons being defeated, fled to their ships. [Nennius]
AD 455 Hengest and Horsa fought at Aylesford. Horsa fell. [ASC]
…… Horsa, being afterwards slain in battle by the Britons, was buried in the eastern parts of Kent, where a monument, bearing his name, is still in existence. [Bede]
AD 457 Hengest and his son Esc fought with the Britons at Crayford. The The Britons conceded Kent, and fled to London. [ASC]
AD 465 Hengest and Esc fought with the Britons at Wippedfleet. [ASC]
AD 473 Hengest and Esc fought with the Britons and took immense booty and the Britons fled. [ASC]
AD 477. This year came Ella to Britain, with his three sons, Cymen, and Wlenking, and Cissa, in three ships; landing at a place that is called Cymenshore. There they slew many of the Britons; and some in flight they drove into the wood that is called Andred'sley. [ASC]
AD 488. This year Esc succeeded to the kingdom; and was king of the men of Kent twenty-four winters. [ASC]
Those who came over were of the three most powerful nations of Germany: Saxons, Angles, and Jutes. …… From the Jutes are descended the people of Kent, and of the Isle of Wight, and those also in the province of the West Saxons who are to this day called Jutes, seated opposite to the Isle of Wight. From the Saxons, that is, the country which is now called Old Saxony, came the East Saxons, the South Saxons, and the West Saxons. From the Angles, that is, the country which is called Anglia, and which is said, from that time, to remain desert to this day, between the provinces of the Jutes and the Saxons, are descended the East Angles, the Midland Angles, Mercians, all the race of the Northumbrians, that is, of those nations that dwell on the north side of the river Humber, and the other nations of the English. [Bede]
"Three very populous nations inhabit the Island of Brittia, and one king is set over each of them. And the names of these nations are Angles, Frisians, and Britons who have the same name as the island." [Procopius]
After this the barbarians became firmly incorporated, and were assisted by foreign pagans; .... the Saxons were victorious, and ruled Britain. [Nennius]
Britain abandoned by the Romans passed into the power of the Saxons. [The Gallic Chronicle]
[The Britons] took arms under the conduct of Ambrosius Aurelianus, a modest man, who of all the Roman nation was then alone in the confusion of this troubled period by chance left alive. His parents, who for their merit were adorned with the purple, kind been slain in these same broils, and now his progeny in these our days, although shamefully degenerated from the worthiness of their ancestors, provoke to battle their cruel conquerors, and by the goodness of our Lord obtain the victory. [Gildas]
After this, sometimes our countrymen, sometimes the enemy, won the field..........until the year of the siege of Bath-hill, [Badon] when took place also the last almost, though not the least slaughter of our cruel foes, which was (as I am sure) forty-four years and one month after the landing of the Saxons..… [Gildas]
Then Arthur along with the kings of Britain fought against them in those days, but Arthur himself was the military commander ["dux bellorum"]. His first battle was at the mouth of the river which is called Glein. His second, third, fourth, and fifth battles were above another river which is called Dubglas and is in the region of Linnuis. The sixth battle was above the river which is called Bassas. The seventh battle was in the forest of Celidon, that is Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth battle was at the fortress of Guinnion, in which Arthur carried the image of holy Mary ever virgin on his shoulders; and the pagans were put to flight on that day. And through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ and through the power of the blessed Virgin Mary his mother there was great slaughter among them. The ninth battle was waged in the City of the Legion. The tenth battle was waged on the banks of a river which is called Tribruit. The eleventh battle was fought on the mountain which is called Agnet. The twelfth battle was on Mount Badon in which there fell in one day 960 men from one charge by Arthur; and no one struck them down except Arthur himself, and in all the wars he emerged as victor. [Nennius]
AD 516. [495 x 500] The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders and the Britons were the victors. [Welsh Annals]
AD 495. This year came two leaders into Britain, Cerdic and Cynric his son, with five ships, at a place that is called Cerdic's-ore. And they fought with the Welsh the same day. [ASC]
AD 501. This year Porta and his two sons, Beda and Mela, came into Britain, with two ships, at a place called Portsmouth. They soon landed, and slew on the spot a young Briton of very high
AD 508. This year Cerdic and Cynric slew a British king, whose name was Natanleod, and five thousand men with him. After this was the land named Netley, from him, as far as Charford. [ASC]
AD 514. This year came the West-Saxons into Britain, with three ships, at the place that is called Cerdic's-ore. And Stuff and Wihtgar fought with the Britons, and put them to flight. [ASC]
AD 519. This year Cerdic and Cynric undertook the government of the West-Saxons [ASC]
AD 547. This year Ida began his reign; from whom first arose the royal kindred of the Northumbrians. [ASC]
AD 596. This year Pope Gregory sent Augustine to Britain with very many monks, to preach the word of God to the English people. [ASC]
|Conventional view of the Anglo-Saxon settlements in Britain AD 400-500. |
Showing Angle, Saxon, and Jute homelands based on Bede's Ecclesiastical History (Book I.15)
“The obscurity of the period which begins with the landing of the first Saxon invaders is a commonplace of history. Its details are lost, and the materials from which alone its course can be inferred are fragmentary and sometimes obscure. Nevertheless it is possible to exaggerate their incoherence. Gildas, Procopius, and the early traditions of the West Saxon court agree in suggesting that the English conquest of southern Britain was accomplished in two phases, separated by a considerable interval in the early part of the sixth century. Both Gildas and the tradition of a conquest of Wessex close to the year 500 imply that the greater part of southern England was overrun in the first phase of the war.
“Gildas claims for the Britons a victory which gave them peace from external enemies for more than a generation, and the traditions of the West Saxons suggest that after their early advance they were thrown back to the settlements which they had founded immediately after their first landing. Procopius describes a migration of English peoples to the Continent in the first half of the century.... the Fulda tradition of a landing of Saxons from Britain at Cuxhaven in 531 indicates that these migrations had begun within a few years of the British victory recorded by Gildas. They are not mentioned by any English authority but the period within which they must have fallen coincides with a significant gap in the traditions of Wessex, Kent and Sussex.
“Finally, the West Saxon traditions imply that the second phase of the conquest began in the south immediately after the middle of the sixth century, proceeded very slowly at first, and then culminated in a twofold advance which carried the Saxons as far as the Lea towards the east and as far as as the Severn towards the west....
“But it may at least be claimed that when four independent authorities agree in suggesting a single coherent story, it is unlikely to be very far from the truth.” [Stenton]
….. And the Circus Leaves Town
And there we have the account of the English Conquest of post-Roman Britain according to the sources. We are taught this at school, it is etched on our national identity.
We believe that we speak English today because Germanic tribes invaded and took control over lowland post-Roman Britain. How did that happen? There is little evidence: not much reliable histography, and even less archaeology. There is, however, a huge amount of speculation and conjecture.
The Anglo-Saxon period, stretches from the fifth to the late eleventh century, from the Roman withdrawal to the Norman Conquest; some 650 years termed the Early Medieval Period (or Early Middle Ages). However, it is the near 200 year period from the Roman withdrawal, AD 410, to the arrival of St Augustine, AD 596, that is termed the post-Roman period, or the now unfashionable “Dark Ages”.
How post-Roman Britain became “English” in 200 years is one of the greatest enigmas of cultural history. Easy, you answer; Germanic tribes invaded the country and filled the vacuum left by the Romans. Genetic studies have argued that the Germanic immigrants completely replaced the indigenous population in the east of the country. Others argue for a smaller scale immigration of a Germanic warrior elite taking political control which lead to cultural change, perhaps amounting to just 5 - 10% of the population. Large scale Anglo-Saxon cemeteries uncovered in the south and east of the country containing Germanic grave goods including distinctive Germanic style cruciform broaches were identified as evidence of the invasion. Which forces the question: “How many migrants are needed to explain the fifth-century cultural changes marking the transition from Late Roman Britain to Early Anglo-Saxon England?”
This problem is discussed by Susan Oosthuizen in The Emergence of the English, Arc Humanities Press, 2019. At just 148 pages this is a small book but covers a huge amount of ground on an immensely significant period of British history.
Oosthuizen argues that ever since Edward Gibbon’s interpretation of the history of post-Roman Britain in the 18th century the story of the origins of the English are so well known to appear incontrovertible. Successive generations of historians accepted this view which evolved further into the mid-19th century when that great earthwork Wansdyke was seen as a frontier between Saxons and Britons marking the retreat westwards of the native population.
Oosthuizen examines the early British documentary sources. The first of these, the writings of St Patrick from the 5th century, portrays a period of continuity of Romano-British society and culture. When Patrick returns home to his father’s villa estate he does so unhindered and makes no mention of barbarians in the locality. Next is the sermon of Gildas from the early 6th century. Gildas's vision of post-Roman Britain subjected to attacks by barbarians has stuck with modern writers producing reconstructions of the time. Many fail to realise that Gildas is not writing history, indeed his chronology is garbled; he moves back and forth through time to “relate a series of divine punishments visited by God on British kings and communities who had sinned in rebelling against the Roman empire, the Roman church and Roman standards of public life.” Bede largely follows Gildas for this period but develops the origins of the English, which later would come to influence the foundation stories embedded within the Anglo Saxon Chronicle (ASC). Very early the mass migration from north-west Europe had become fact.
In discussing the archaeological evidence for groups of Germanic immigrants, Oosthuizen argues against a break in exploitation of the British landscape and no evidence of economic collapse after about 400. However, she concedes that there was substantial change in material culture.
In looking at genetics, Oosthuizen draws the readers attention to nineteen individuals buried in a cemetery at Berinsfield, Oxfordshire, between 450 and 550; “the Germanic grave-goods found with them appeared to be clear evidence of an Anglo-Saxon community.” However analysis of their teeth showed that fifteen of these were in fact local people, three had moved to Oxfordshire from another area in Britain and just one was a European immigrant. How many other apparent Germanic cemeteries have also been incorrectly identified?
Then we come to the biggest puzzle of all; why did the people of Romano-Britain adopt the English language? In answering this Oosthuizen suggests the population of Late Roman Britain was bilingual, probably speaking a Late Roman Latin language and possibly a West Germanic dialect that had developed through many years of trade with the North Sea coastlands and may have been spoken in Eastern Britain since the Iron Age. Over time, as in most countries of the Empire, the Latin language eventually died out. It emerges that language, migration and ethnicity are not necessarily linked.
In conclusion, Oosthuizen argues that “there is no reliable, contemporary documentary evidence from early British or continental scholars for substantive invasion, settlement, or conquest of Britain from north-west Europe in the fifth century. Material culture begins to reveal the contribution to late antique and early medieval artefacts of late Romano-British craftsmanship, technology, and artistry. Genomic research has been unable to identify the scale, period, or volume of a distinctive immigration from north-west Europe. And linguistic research begins to reveal the extent to which most people in the English lowlands could speak two or even three languages. The origins of the English language itself remain controversial. In all, the most certain evidence appears to show the stability, evolution, and adaption of late Romano-British institutions, culture, languages and society across the fifth and sixth centuries, while absorbing and evolving in response to influences from across the countries that bordered the North Sea.”
Arc Humanities Press, 2019
Paperback, 148 pages
2. What Can Reliably be said to be Known about Late Antique and Early Medieval England?
3. Ethnicity as an Explanation
4. Another Perspective
From the publisher:
“This book takes a critical approach to the assumption that the origins of the English can be found in fifth- and sixth-century immigration from north-west Europe. It begins by evaluating the primary evidence, and discussing the value of ethnicity in historical explanation. The author proposes an alternative explanatory model that sets short- and medium-term events and processes in the context of the longue durée, illustrated here through the agricultural landscape. She concludes that the origins of the English should rather be sought among late Romano-British communities, evolving, adapting, and innovating in a new, post-imperial context. Though focusing on England between the fifth and seventh centuries, this volume explores themes of universal interest--the role of immigration in cultural transformation; the importance of the landscape as a mnemonic for cultural change; and the utility of a common property rights approach as an analytical tool.”
The so-called Arthurian battle list (Chapter 56, Historia Brittonum, aka Nennius) is included in the above reconstruction of the Anglo-Saxon invasion as it records the wars leading up to the battle of Badon, which the author credits to Arthur. It will be noted than neither Gildas or Bede record the leader of the victorious Britons. Notably, the passage reads similar to the account of Vortimer’s battles from the same document.
Authors of popular accounts of King Arthur provide reconstructions of these battles across north, south, east, and west fighting against the advancing Anglo-Saxons. There is no reason, they argue, to reject the Arthurian battle list above any other part of this document.
However, if Oosthuizen is correct, we must now reconsider the implication of “The Emergence of the English” on the Anglo-Saxon wars; If that invasion never took place then where is your King Arthur now?
Gildas; De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (6th Century)
Procopius, History of the Wars (early 6th Century)
Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, c. 731.
The Gallic Chronicles: The Chronicle of 511 - THEOD. II XVI 
Nennius: Historia Brittonum, c.829
ASC: Anglo Saxon Chronicle, 9th century
Welsh Annals (Annales Cambriae) 10th century
Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788.
Frank Stenton, Anglo Saxon England, first published 1943.
Stenton’s seminal work was a huge influence on modern day Anglo-Saxon studies.
[Read during lockdown 2020]
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