Tag: Britons

Celtic Britons and the Anglo Saxon migration

The Britons, also known as Celtic Britons or Ancient Britons, were Celtic people who inhabited Great Britain from the British Iron Age into the Middle Ages, at which point their culture and language diverged. They spoke the Common Brittonic language, the ancestor to the modern Brittonic languages.

The earliest evidence for the Britons and their language in historical sources dates to the Iron Age. After the Roman conquest of Britain in the 1st century, a Romano-British culture emerged, and Latin and British Vulgar Latin coexisted with Brittonic. During and after the Roman era, the Britons lived throughout Britain. Their relationship with the Picts, who lived north of the Firth of Forth, has been the subject of much discussion, though most scholars now accept that the Pictish language was related to Common Brittonic, rather than a separate Celtic language.

With the beginning of Anglo-Saxon settlement and Gaelic Scots in the 5th century, the culture and language of the Britons fragmented and much of their territory was taken over by the Anglo-Saxons and Scots Gaels. The extent to which this cultural and linguistic change was accompanied by wholesale changes in the population is still a matter of discussion. During this period some Britons migrated to mainland Europe and established significant settlements in Brittany (now part of France) as well as Britonia in modern Galicia, Spain. By the 11th century, remaining Brittonic Celtic-speaking populations had split into distinct groups: the Welsh in Wales, the Cornish in Cornwall, the Bretons in Brittany, and the people of the Hen Ogledd (“Old North”) in southern Scotland and northern England. Common Brittonic developed into the distinct Brittonic languages: Welsh, Cumbric, Cornish and Breton.

Distribution of the peoples of the British Isles and Ireland in the 5th and 6th centuries.

The earliest known reference to the inhabitants of Britain seems to come from 4th century BC records of the voyage of Pytheas, a Greek geographer who made a voyage of exploration around the British Isles between 330 and 320 BC. Although none of his own writings remain, writers during the time of the Roman Empire made much reference to them. Pytheas called the islands collectively αἱ Βρεττανίαι (hai Brettaniai), which has been translated as the Brittanic Isles; he also used the term Pretannike. The peoples of these islands were called the Πρεττανοί (Prettanoi), Priteni, Pritani or Pretani. The group included Ireland, which was referred to as Ierne (Insula sacra “sacred island” as the Greeks interpreted it) “inhabited by the race of Hiberni” (gens hibernorum), and Britain as insula Albionum, “island of the Albions”. The term Pritani may have reached Pytheas from the Gauls, who possibly used it as their term for the inhabitants of the islands.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was originally compiled by the orders of King Alfred the Great in approximately 890, and subsequently maintained and added to by generations of anonymous scribes until the middle of the 12th century, starts with this sentence: “The island Britain is 800 miles long, and 200 miles broad, and there are in the island five nations: English, Welsh (or British, including the Cornish), Scottish, Pictish, and Latin. The first inhabitants were the Britons, who came from Armenia, and first peopled Britain southward.” (“Armenia” is possibly a mistaken transcription of Armorica, an area in northwestern Gaul including modern Brittany.)

The Latin name in the early Roman Empire period was Britanni or Brittanni, following the Roman conquest in AD 43.

The Welsh word Brython was introduced into English usage by John Rhys in 1884 as a term unambiguously referring to the P-Celtic speakers of Great Britain, to complement Goidel; hence the adjective Brythonic referring to the group of languages. “Brittonic languages” is a more recent coinage (first attested 1923 according to the Oxford English Dictionary) intended to refer to the ancient Britons specifically.

In English, the term “Briton” originally denoted the ancient Britons and their descendants, most particularly the Welsh, who were seen as heirs to the ancient British people. After the Acts of Union 1707, the terms British and Briton came to be applied to all inhabitants of the Kingdom of Great Britain and its empire.

The Britons spoke an Insular Celtic language known as Common Brittonic. Brittonic was spoken throughout the island of Britain (in modern terms, England, Wales and Scotland), as well as offshore islands such as the Isle of Man, Scilly Isles, Orkneys, Hebrides and Shetlands. According to early mediaeval historical tradition, such as The Dream of Macsen Wledig, the post-Roman Celtic-speakers of Armorica were colonists from Britain, resulting in the Breton language, a language related to Welsh and identical to Cornish in the early period and still used today. Thus the area today is called Brittany (Br. Breizh, Fr. Bretagne, derived from Britannia).

Map demonstration the extent of the Celtic language in the north of Britain.

Common Brittonic developed from the Insular branch of the Proto-Celtic language that developed in the British Isles after arriving from the continent in the 7th century BC. The language eventually began to diverge; some linguists have grouped subsequent developments as Western and Southwestern Brittonic languages.

Western Brittonic developed into Welsh in Wales and the Cumbric language in the Hen Ogledd or “Old North” of Britain, while the Southwestern dialect became Cornish in Cornwall and South West England and Breton in Armorica. Pictish is now generally accepted to descend from Common Brittonic, rather than being a separate Celtic language. Welsh and Breton survive today; Cumbric became extinct in the 12th century. Cornish had become extinct by the 19th century but has been the subject of language revitalization since the 20th century.

Throughout their existence, the territory inhabited by the Britons was composed of numerous ever-changing areas controlled by Brittonic tribes. The extent of their territory before and during the Roman period is unclear, but is generally believed to include the whole of the island of Great Britain, at least as far north as the Clyde-Forth isthmus, and if the Picts are included as Brittonic speaking people as they more usually are, the entirety of Great Britain.

The territory north of the Firth of Forth was largely inhabited by the Picts; little direct evidence has been left of the Pictish language, but place names and Pictish personal names recorded in the later Irish annals suggest it was indeed related to the Common Brittonic language rather than to the Goidelic (Gaelic) languages of the Irish, Scots and Manx; indeed their Goidelic Irish name, Cruithne, is cognate with Brythonic Priteni. Part of the Pictish territory was eventually absorbed into the Gaelic kingdoms of Dál Riata and Alba, which became Scotland.

The Isle of Man, Shetland, Hebrides and the Orkney islands were originally inhabited by Britons also, but eventually became respectively Manx and Scots Gaelic speaking territories, while the Scilly isles and Anglesey (Ynys Mon) remained Brittonic and the originally Brittonic Isle of Wight was taken by Anglo-Saxons.

In 43 AD, the Roman Empire invaded Britain. The British tribes opposed the Roman legions for many decades, but by 84 AD the Romans had decisively conquered southern Britain and had pushed into Brittonic areas of what would later become northern England and southern Scotland. In 122, they fortified the northern border with Hadrian’s Wall, which spanned what is now Northern England. In 142 AD, Roman forces pushed north again and began construction of the Antonine Wall, which ran between the Forth-Clyde isthmus, but they retreated back to Hadrian’s Wall after only twenty years.

Although the native Britons south of Hadrian’s Wall mostly kept their land, they were subject to the Roman governors, whilst the Brittonic-Pictish Britons north of the wall remained fully independent. The Roman Empire retained control of “Britannia” until its departure about AD 410, although some parts of Britain had already effectively shrugged off Roman rule decades earlier.

Shortly after the time of the Roman departure, the Germanic-speaking Anglo-Saxons began a migration to the eastern coast of Britain, where they established their own kingdoms, and the Gaelic speaking Scots migrating from Dál nAraidi (modern Northern Ireland), did the same on the west coast of Scotland and the Isle of Man.

Dál Riata

At the same time, some Britons established themselves in what is now called Brittany. There they set up their own small kingdoms and the Breton language developed there from Brittonic Insular Celtic rather than Gaulish or Frankish. A further colony, Britonia, was also set up at this time in Gallaecia in northwestern Spain.

Britons migrated westwards during the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain.

Many of the old Brittonic kingdoms began to disappear in the centuries after the Anglo-Saxon and Scottish Gaelic invasions; The regions of modern East Anglia, East Midlands, North East England, Argyll and South East England were the first to fall to the Germanic and Gaelic Scots invasions; The kingdom of Ceint (modern Kent) fell in 456 AD, Linnuis (which stood astride modern Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire) was subsumed as early as 500 AD and became the English Kingdom of Lindsey, Rhegin (essentially modern Sussex and eastern Hampshire) was likely fully conquered by 510 AD, Ynys Weith (Isle of Wight) fell in 530 AD, Caer Colun (essentially modern Essex) by 540 AD.

The Gaels arrived on the north west coast of Britain from Ireland, dispossessed the native Britons and founded Dal Riata which encompassed modern Argyll, Skye and Iona between 500 and 560 AD. Deifr (Deira) which encompassed modern day Teeside, Wearside, Tyneside and Humberside fell to the Anglo-Saxons in 559 AD and Deira became an Anglo-Saxon kingdom after this point. Caer Went had officially disappeared by 575 AD becoming the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia, Gwent and its capital Caer Gloui (Gloucester) was divided in 577 AD, handing Gloucestershire and Wiltshire to the invaders, while the westernmost part continued to exist in modern Wales, Caer Lundein encompassing London, St. Albans and parts of the Home Counties fell from Brittonic hands by 600 AD, Bryneich which existed in modern Northumbria and County Durham with its capital of Din Guardi (modern Bamburgh) and which included Ynys Metcaut (Lindisfarne) had fallen by 605 AD becoming Anglo-Saxon Bernicia.

Caer Celemion (in modern Hampshire and Berkshire) had fallen by 610 AD. Elmet, which covered much of modern Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cheshire and likely had its capital at modern Leeds, was conquered by the Anglo-Saxons in 627 AD.

Pengwern, which covered Staffordshire, Shropshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire, was largely destroyed in 656 AD with only its westernmost parts in modern Wales enduring. AD, and it is likely that Cynwidion which had stretched from modern Bedfordshire to Northamptonshire, fell in the same general period as Pengwern, though a sub-kingdom of Calchwynedd may have clung on in the Chilterns for a time. Novant which occupied Galloway and Carrick was soon subsumed by fellow Brittonic-Pictish polities by 700 AD. Aeron which encompassed modern Ayrshire was conquered into the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria by 700 AD.

Some Brittonic kingdoms, such as Rheged, which at its height encompassed much what is today Strathclyde, Cumbria, Northumberland, the Scottish borders, Lancashire and modern Greater Manchester and had a capital at Cair Ligualid (Carlisle), were able to successfully resist these incursions for some time, before the eastern part peacefully joined with the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of BerniciaNorthumberland by 730 AD, and the west was taken over by the fellow Britons of Ystrad Clud.

Similarly, the kingdom of Gododdin, which appears to have had its capital at Din Eidyn (modern Edinburgh and encompassed parts of modern Northumbria, County Durham, Lothian and Clackmannanshire endured until approximately 775 AD before being divided by fellow Brittonic Picts, Gaelic Scots and Anglo-Saxons.

The Kingdom of Cait, covering modern Caithness, Sutherland, Orkneys and Shetlands was conquered in 871 AD, similarly, the Kingdom of Ce which encompassed modern Marr, Banff, Buchan, Fife and much of Aberdeenshire disappeared in 900 at the hands of the Gaelic Scots AD. Fortriu the largest Pictish kingdom which covered Strathearn, Morayshire and Easter Ross had fallen by approximately 950 AD to the Gaelic Kingdom of Alba (Scotland). Other Pictish kingdoms such as Circinn ( in modern Angus and The Mearns), Fib (modern Fife), Fidach (Inverness and Perthshire), Ath-Fotla (Atholl) had also fallen by the beginning of the 11th century AD.

The Brythonic languages in these areas was replaced by the Old English of the Anglo-Saxons and Scots Gaelic, although this was likely a gradual process in many areas.

The main Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms in the 7th century.

The kingdom of Ystrad Clud (Strathclyde) was for some time a large and powerful Brittonic kingdom which endured until the end of the 11th century, successfully resisting Anglo-Saxon, Gaelic Scots and later also Viking attacks. At its peak it encompassed modern Strathclyde, Dumbartonshire, Cumbria, Stirlingshire, Lanarkshire, Ayrshire, Dumfries and Galloway, Argyll and Bute and parts of North Yorkshire, western Pennines, and as far as modern Leeds in West Yorkshire.

The Britons also retained control of Wales, Cornwall and south Devon (Dumnonia), as well as northwest England and parts of Scotland, where kingdoms of the Hen Ogledd endured. Dumnonia was effectively partitioned during the 9th century AD, the north becoming Anglo-Saxon Devonshire while he south remained in the hands of the Britons as Kernow (essentially modern Cornwall).

Wales was divided among varying Brittonic kingdoms, the foremost being Gwynedd, Powys (including Clwyd and Ynys Mon (Anglesey), Deheubarth (originally Ceredigion, Seisyllwg and Dyfed), Gwent and Morgannwg (Glamorgan. Some of these Welsh kingdoms initially included territories further east, for example Powys included parts of modern Merseyside, Cheshire and The Wirral and Gwent held parts of modern Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Somerset and Gloucestershire, but had largely been confined to the borders of modern Wales by the beginning of the 12th century.

However, by the beginning of the 12th century, the Anglo-Saxons and Gaels had become the dominant cultural force in most of the formerly Brittonic ruled territory in Britain, and the language and culture of the native Britons was thereafter gradually replaced in those regions, remaining only in Wales, Cornwall, parts of Cumbria, Strathclyde, eastern Galloway and Brittany.

The Brittonic-Pictish polities in Scotland and northern England gradually fell to the English and Scots; with the Kingdom of Strathclyde (Strath-Clota) being the last of the Brittonic kingdoms of the north to fall in the 1090s, when it was effectively divided between England and Scotland.

Cornwall (Kernow, Dumnonia) had certainly been largely absorbed by England by the 1050s, although it retained a distinct Brittonic culture and language. Britonia in Spanish Galicia seems to have disappeared by 900 AD.

Wales and Brittany remained independent for some time however, with Brittany finally being absorbed into France during the 1490s, and Wales united with England by the Laws in Wales Acts 1535–1542 in the mid 16th century during the rule of the Tudors (Twdyr), who were themselves of Welsh heritage on the male side.

Wales, Cornwall and Brittany continued to retain a distinct Brittonic culture, identity and language, which they have maintained to the present day. The Welsh language and Breton language remain widely spoken, and the Cornish language, once close to extinction, has experienced a revival since the 20th century. The vast majority of place names and names of geographical features in Wales, Cornwall and Brittany are Brittonic, and Brittonic family and personal names remain common.

During the 19th century, a large number of Welsh farmers migrated to Patagonia in Argentina, forming a community called Y Wladfa, which today consists of over 1,500 Welsh speakers.

In addition, a Brittonic legacy remains in England, Scotland and Galicia in Spain, in the form of often large numbers of Brittonic place and geographical names. Some examples of geographical Brittonic names survive in the names of rivers, such as the Thames, Clyde, Severn, Tyne, Wye, Exe, Dee, Tamar, Tweed, Avon, Trent, Tambre, Navia and River Forth. A number of place names in England and Scotland are of Brittonic rather than Anglo-Saxon or Gaelic origin, such as; London, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Carlisle, Caithness, Aberdeen, Dundee, Barrow, Exeter, Lincoln, Dumbarton, Brent, Penge, Colchester, Durham, Dover, Leatherhead and York.

References

 

Battle of Badon

Map of the Battle of Badon.

The Battle of Badon (Latin: Bellum in monte Badonis or Mons Badonicus, Welsh: Cad Mynydd Baddon, all literally meaning “Battle of Mount Badon” or “Battle of Badon Hill”) was a battle thought to have occurred between Celtic Britons and Anglo-Saxons in the late 5th or early 6th century.

It was credited as a major victory for the Britons, stopping the encroachment of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms for a period. It is chiefly known today for the supposed involvement of King Arthur, a tradition that first clearly appeared in the 9th-century Historia Brittonum. Because of the limited number of sources, there is no certainty about the date, location, or details of the fighting.

The Battle of Mount Badon was a major victory of the British over the Saxons, and has been part of the Arthurian narrative since the very beginning. This depiction dates from the 14th c. (approx.)

Siege of Mount Badon

The earliest mention of the Battle of Badon is GildasDe Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (“On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain”), written in the early to mid-6th century. In it, the Anglo-Saxons are said to have “dipped [their] red and savage tongue in the western ocean” before Ambrosius Aurelianus organized a British resistance with the survivors of the initial Saxon onslaught. Gildas describes the period that followed Ambrosius’ initial success:

From that time, the citizens were sometimes victorious, sometimes the enemy, in order that the Lord, according to His wont, might try in this nation the Israel of to-day, whether it loves Him or not. This continued up to the year of the siege of Badon Hill (obsessionis Badonici montis), and of almost the last great slaughter inflicted upon the rascally crew. And this commences, a fact I know, as the forty-fourth year, with one month now elapsed; it is also the year of my birth.

The Ruin of Britain is unclear as to whether Ambrosius is still leading the Britons at this point, but describes the battle as such an “unexpected recovery of the [island]” that it caused kings, nobles, priests, and commoners to “live orderly according to their several vocations” before the long peace degenerated into civil wars and the iniquity of Maelgwn Gwynedd. Passages of The Ruin of Britain that address Maelgwn directly are sometimes employed to date the work from accounts of the king’s death by plague in the 540s, but such arguments ignore the obvious apostrophe employed in the passages and the possible years of composition involved in the final collected sermon.

Ambrosius Aurelianus, as he may have appeared.

The battle is next mentioned in an 8th-century text of Bede‘s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. It describes the “siege of Mount Badon, when they made no small slaughter of those invaders,” as occurring 44 years after the first Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain. Since Bede places that arrival during or just after the joint reign of Marcian and Valentinian III in AD 449–456, he must have considered Badon to have taken place between 493 and 500. Bede then puts off discussion of the battle – “But more of this hereafter” – only to seemingly never return to it. Bede does later include an extended account of Saint Germanus‘s victory over the Saxons and Picts in a mountain valley,[11] which he credits with curbing the threat of invasion for a generation. However, as the victory is described as having been accomplished bloodlessly, it was presumably a different occasion from Badon. (Accepted at face value, St. Germanus’s involvement would also place the battle around 430, although Bede’s chronology shows no knowledge of this.)

Battle of Badon

The earliest surviving text mentioning Arthur at the battle is the early 9th century Historia Brittonum, in which the soldier (Latin mīles) Arthur is identified as the leader of the victorious British force at Badon:

“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”.

The Battle of Badon is next mentioned in the Annales Cambriae (“Annals of Wales”), assumed to have been written during the mid- to late-10th century. The entry states:

The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights upon his shoulders [or shield] and the Britons were the victors”.

That Arthur had gone unmentioned in the source closest to his own time, Gildas, was noticed at least as early as the 12th century hagiography that claims that Gildas had praised Arthur extensively but then excised him completely after Arthur killed the saint’s brother, Hueil mab Caw. Modern writers have suggested the details of the battle were so well known that Gildas could have expected his audience to be familiar with them.

Geoffrey of Monmouth‘s c. 1136 Historia Regum Britanniae was massively popular and survives in many copies from soon after its composition. Going into (and fabricating) much greater detail, Geoffrey closely identifies Badon with Bath, including having Merlin foretell that Badon’s baths would lose their hot water and turn poisonous.

He employs aspects of other accounts, mixing them: the battle begins as a Saxon siege and then becomes a normal engagement once Arthur’s men arrive; Arthur bears the image of the Virgin both on his shield and shoulder. Arthur charges, but kills a mere 470, ten more than the number of Britons ambushed by Hengist near Salisbury. Elements of the Welsh legends are also added: in addition to the shield Pridwen, Arthur gains his sword Caliburnus and his spear, Ron. Geoffrey also makes the defence of the city from the Saxon sneak attack a holy cause, having Dubricius offer absolution of all sins for those who fall in battle.

Angles Saxona Warriors in Battle.

Scholarship

Separate sources dating the concession of Thanet to Hengist to 447 would place The Ruin of Britain and Bede’s account of the battle around the year 491. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is completely silent about this battle but does seem to document a gap of almost 70 years between two major Anglo-Saxon leaders (bretwaldas) in the 5th and 6th centuries.

If Rhigyfarch‘s celebrated Life of David is credited, its account of Saint David‘s ten years of education under Paul Aurelian suggests David could not have been born later than 514. Since the same account has Gildas preaching to Saint Non while she was pregnant with David, it is improbable that Gildas’s birth – and therefore the battle – could have occurred later than 498.

McCarthy and Ó Cróinín propose Gildas’s 44 years and one month is not a reference to the simple chronology but a position within the 84-year Easter cycle used for computus at the time by the Britons and the Irish church. The tables in question in January 438, which would place their revised date of the battle in February 482.

Hirst, Ashe and Wood argue for the site of Liddington Castle on the hill above Badbury (Old English: Baddan byrig) in Wiltshire. This site commands The Ridgeway, which connects the River Thames with the River Avon and River Severn beyond.

Liddington Castle, locally called Liddington Camp, is a late Bronze Age and early Iron Age hill fort in the English county of Wiltshire.

Aftermath

The early sources’ account that the Saxons were thrown back around this time seems to be borne out by archaeological evidence. Studies of cemeteries (at this point, the Anglo-Saxons remained pagan while the Britons were Christianized) suggest the border shifted some time around 500.

Afterwards, the pagans held the present areas of Kent, Sussex, Norfolk and Suffolk, and the area around the Humber. The Britons seem to have controlled salients to the north and west of London and south of Verulamium in addition to everything west of a line running from Christchurch at the mouth of the Wiltshire Avon north to the Trent, then along the Trent to the Humber, then north along the Derwent to the North Sea.

The salients could then be supplied along Watling Street, dividing the invaders into pockets south of the Weald in east Kent and around the Wash.

Second Badon

The A Text of the Annales Cambriae includes the entry: “The first celebration of Easter among the Saxons. The second battle of Badon. Morgan dies.” The date for this action is given by Phillimore as 665, but the Saxons’ first Easter is placed by the B Text in its entry 634 years after the birth of Christ and neither Second Badon nor Morcant are mentioned.

Local Lore

Apart from the professional scholarship, various communities around Wales and England carry on local traditions that their area was the site of the battle: these include Bathampton Down; Badbury Rings at the Kingston Lacy House in Dorset; and Bowden Hill in Wiltshire.

References

  • Green, Thomas. Concepts of Arthur. Tempus (Stroud, Gloucestershire), 2007. ISBN 9780752444611.
  • Bede. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, I.xvi.
  • L. Duodecimum fuit bellum in monte Badonis, in quo corruerunt in uno die nongenti sexaginta viri de uno impetu Arthur; et nemo prostravit eos nisi ipse solus. Mommsen, Theodore (ed.) Historia Brittonum. Accessed 7 Feb 2013. (in Latin).
  • Public Record Office of the United Kingdom. MS. E.164/1, p. 8. (in Latin).

 

Why the Anglo Saxon settlement of England was so successful

The reasons for the success of Anglo-Saxon settlements remains uncertain. Helena Hamerow has made an observation that in Anglo-Saxon society “local and extended kin groups remained … the essential unit of production throughout the Anglo-Saxon period”. “Local and extended kin groups” is one of a number of possible reasons for success; along with societal advantages, freedom and the relationship to an elite, that allowed the Anglo-Saxons’ culture and language to flourish in the fifth and sixth centuries.

Anglo-Saxon political formation

Nick Higham is convinced that the success of the Anglo-Saxon elite in gaining an early compromise shortly after the Battle of Badon is a key to the success of the culture. This produced a political ascendancy across the south and east of Britain, which in turn required some structure to be successful.

The Bretwalda concept is taken as evidence for a presence of a number of early Anglo-Saxon elite families and a clear unitary oversight. Whether the majority of these leaders were early settlers, descendant from settlers, or especially after the exploration stage they were Roman-British leaders who adopted Anglo-Saxon culture is unclear.

The balance of opinion is that most were migrants, although it shouldn’t be assumed they were all Germanic (see Elite personal names evidence). There is agreement: that these were small in number and proportion, yet large enough in power and influence to ensure “Anglo-Saxon” acculturation in the lowlands of Britain. Most historians believe these elites were those named by Bede, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and others, although there is discussion regarding their floruit dates.

Importantly, whatever their origin or when they flourished, they established their claim to lordship through their links to extended kin ties. As Helen Peake jokingly points out “they all just happened to be related back to Woden”.

The Tribal Hidage is evidence of the existence of numerous smaller provinces, meaning that southern and eastern Britain may have lost any macro-political cohesion in the fifth and sixth centuries and fragmented into many small autonomous units, though late Roman administrative organisation of the countryside may have helped dictate their boundaries. By the end of the sixth century the leaders of these communities were styling themselves kings, with the majority of the larger kingdoms based on the south or east coasts.

They include the provinces of the Jutes of Hampshire and Wight, the South Saxons, Kent, the East Saxons, East Angles, Lindsey and (north of the Humber) Deira and Bernicia. Several of these kingdoms may have their foundation the former Roman civitas and this has been argued as particularly likely for the provinces of Kent, Lindsey, Deira and Bernicia, all of whose names derive from Romano-British tribal or district names.

Angle, Saxon and Jute distribution in southern England.

The southern and east coasts were, of course, the areas settled first and in greatest numbers by the settlers and so presumably were the earliest to pass from Romano-British to Anglo-Saxon control. Once established they had the advantage of easy communication with continental territories in Europe via the North Sea or the Channel.

The east and south coast provinces may never have fragmented to the extent of some areas inland and by the end of the sixth century they were already beginning to expand by annexing smaller neighbours. Barbara Yorke suggests that such aggressiveness must have encouraged areas which did not already possess military protection in the form of kings and their armies to acquire their own war-leaders or protection alliances.

By the time of the Tribal Hidage there were also two large ‘inland’ kingdoms, those of the Mercians and West Saxons, whose spectacular growth we can trace in par in our sources for the seventh century, but it is not clear how far this expansion had proceeded by the end of the sixth century.

What Bede seems to imply in his Bretwalda list of the elite is the ability to extract tribute and overawe and/or protect communities, which may well have been relatively short-lived in any one instance, but ostensibly “Anglo-Saxon” dynasties variously replaced one another in this role in a discontinuous but influential and potent roll call of warrior elites, with very few interruptions from other “British” warlords.

The success of this elite was felt beyond their geography, to include neighbouring British territories in the centre and west of what later became England, and even the far west of the island. Again, Bede was very clear that English imperium could on occasion encompass British and English kingships alike, and that Britons and Angles marched to war together in the early seventh century, under both British and English kings.

It is Bede who provides the most vivid picture of a late sixth- and early seventh-century Anglian warlord in action, in the person of Æthelfrith of Northumbria, King of Bernicia (a kingdom with a non-English name), who rapidly built up a personal ’empire’ by military victories over the Britons of the North, the Scots of Dalriada, the Angles of Deira and the Britons of north-eastern Wales, only ultimately to experience disaster at the hands of Rædwald of East Anglia.

Rural freedoms and kinship groups

Where arable cultivation continued in early Anglo-Saxon England, there seems to have been considerable continuity with the Roman period in both field layout and arable practices, although we do not know whether there were also changes to patterns of tenure or the regulation of cultivation. The greatest perceptible alterations in land usage between about 400 and 600 are therefore in the proportions of the land of each community that lay under grass or the plough, rather than in changes to the layout or management of arable fields.

The Anglo-Saxons settled in small groups covering a handful of widely dispersed local communities. These farms were for the most part mobile. This mobility, which was typical across much of Northern Europe took two forms: the gradual shifting of the settlement within its boundaries or the complete location of the settlement altogether. These shifting settlements (called Wandersiedlungen or “wandering settlements”) were a common feature since the Bronze Age. Why farms became abandoned and then relocated is much debated. However it is suggested that this might be related to the death of a patron of the family or the desire to move to better farmlands.

These farms are often falsely supposed to be “peasant farms”. However, a ceorl, who was the lowest ranking freeman in early Anglo-Saxon society, was not a peasant but an arms-owning male with access to law, support of a kindred and the wergild, situated at the apex of an extended household working at least one hide of land. It is the ceorl that we should associate with the standard 8–10m x 4–5m post-hole building of the early Anglo-Saxon period, grouped with others of the same kin group. Each such household head had a number of less-free dependants.

The success of the rural world in the 5th and 6th centuries, according to the landscape archaeology, was due to three factors: the continuity with the past, with no evidence of up-rooting in the landscape; farmer’s freedom and rights over lands, with provision of a rent or duty to an overlord, who provided only slight lordly input; and the common outfield arable land (of an outfield-infield system) that provided the ability to build kinship and group cultural ties.

The reasons for the success of Anglo-Saxon settlements remains uncertain. Helena Hamerow has made an observation that in Anglo-Saxon society “local and extended kin groups remained … the essential unit of production throughout the Anglo-Saxon period”. “Local and extended kin groups” is one of a number of possible reasons for success; along with societal advantages, freedom and the relationship to an elite, that allowed the Anglo-Saxons’ culture and language to flourish in the fifth and sixth centuries.

“Saxon” political ascendancy in Britain

Saxon Emigration to the British Isles 5 c.

A re-evaluation of the traditional picture of decay and dissolution Post-Roman Britain has occurred, with sub-Roman Britain being thought rather more a part of the Late Antique world of western Europe than was customary a half century ago. As part of this re-evaluation some suggest that sub-Roman Britain, in its entirety, retained a significant political, economic and military momentum across the fifth century and even the bulk of the sixth.

This in large part stems from attempts to develop visions of British success against the incoming Anglo-Saxons, as suggested by the Chronicles which were written in the ninth and mid-tenth century. However, recent scholarship has contested the extent to which either can be credited with any level of historicity regarding the decades around AD 500.

The representation of long-lasting British triumphs against the Saxons appears in large parts of the Chronicles, but stem ultimately from Gildas’s brief and frustratingly elusive reference to a British victory at Mons Badonicus – Mount Badon. Nick Higham suggests, that the war between Britons and Saxons seems to have ended in some sort of compromise, which conceded a very considerable sphere of influence within Britain to the incomers. According to Higham;

The most developed vision of a ‘big’ sub-Roman Britain, with control over its own political and military destiny for well over a century, is that of Kenneth Dark, who has argued that Britain should not be divided during the fifth, and even the bulk of the sixth, century into ‘British’ and ‘Anglo-Saxon’ cultural and/or political provinces, but should be thought of as a generally ‘British’ whole. His thesis, in brief, is to postulate not just survival but continuing cultural, political and military power for the sub-Roman elite, both in the far west (where this view is comparatively uncontroversial) but also in the east, where it has to be imagined alongside incoming settlements. He postulates the sub-Roman community to have been the dominant force in insular affairs right up to c.570.

Kenneth Dark’s argument for continuing British military and political power in the east rests on the very uneven distribution of Anglo-Saxon cemeteries and the proposition that large gaps in that distribution necessarily represent strong British polities which excluded Anglo-Saxon settlers by force.

Cremation cemeteries in eastern Britain north of the Thames begin during the second quarter of the fifth century, backed up by new archaeological phases before 450. The chronology of this “adventus” of cremations is supported by the Gallic Chronicle of 452, which states that wide parts of Britain fell under Saxon rule in 441. However, this did not result in many Brittonic words entering Old English. It seems therefore that no large-scale interaction occurred between incoming “Germanic” communities and numerous indigenous Brittonic speakers of equivalent social rank. If such interaction had been widespread, then we might have expected far greater language borrowing both in terms of structure and vocabulary.

‘Romano-Brittonic’ peoples’ fate in the south-east

The most extreme estimation for the size of the Anglo-Saxon settlement suggests that some 80% of the resident population of Britain were not Anglo-Saxon. Given that, explanation has been sought to account for the change in culture of the Britons to one where by the 8th Century the majority of people in southern Britain saw themselves as heirs to the Anglo-Saxon culture. Whilst the developments were rather complicated, there are two competing theories.

One theory, first set out by Edward Augustus Freeman, suggests that the Anglo Saxons and the Britons were competing cultures, and that through invasion, extermination, slavery, and forced resettlement the Anglo-Saxons defeated the Britons and consequently their culture and language prevailed.

Depiction of an Anglo Saxon shield wall

This view has influenced much of the linguistic, scholarly and popular perceptions of the process of anglicisation in Britain. It remains the starting point and ‘default position’, to which other hypotheses are compared in modern reviews of the evidence.

Widespread extermination and displacement of the native peoples of Britain is still considered a viable possibility by certain scholars. Our best contemporary source, Gildas, certainly suggests that just such a change of populations did take place. However, Freeman’s ideas did not go unchallenged, even as they were being propounded. In particular, the essayist Grant Allen believed in a strong Celtic contribution to Englishness.

Another theory has challenged this view and started to examine evidence that the majority of Anglo Saxons were Brittonic in origin. The major evidence comes firstly from the figures, taking a fairly high Anglo-Saxon figure (200,000) and a low Brittonic one (800,000), Britons are likely to have outnumbered Anglo-Saxons by at least four to one. The interpretation of such figures is that while “culturally, the later Anglo-Saxons and English did emerge as remarkably un-British, … their genetic, biological make-up is none the less likely to have been substantially, indeed predominantly, British”.

Two processes leading to Anglo-Saxonisation have been proposed. One is similar to culture changes observed in Russia, North Africa and parts of the Islamic world; where a politically and socially powerful minority culture becomes, over a rather short period, adopted by a settled majority. A process usually termed ‘elite dominance’.

The second process is explained through incentives, such as the Wergild outlined in the law code of Ine of Wessex which produced an incentive to become Anglo-Saxon or at least English speaking. The wergild of an Englishman was set at a value twice that of a Briton of similar wealth.

However, some Britons could be very prosperous and own five hides of land, which gave thegn-like status, with a wergild of 600 shillings. Ine set down requirements to prove guilt or innocence, both for his English subjects and for his British subjects, who were termed ‘foreigners/wealas’ (‘Welshmen’). The binary ethnic distinction that appears in Ine’s Laws seems to be between ‘ Englisc/English (‘us’) and ‘Wylisc/Welsh’ (‘them’).

Since Ine’s people self-identified as Saxons (West Saxons) this very early use of the word ‘English’ (unless it is a later introduction into the text) suggests that it was the use of a particular language, already recognised as a single language, and already called ‘English’, that was the crucial determinant in ethnic identity. This implies that in the early Anglo-Saxon period it was language use that was the key determination of ethnicity, and not whether you had “Germanic” ancestors.

Whatever the case, a continuity of ‘sub-Roman’ Britons cannot be doubted, as evidenced, for example, by the sheer number of burials which already date to the late 5th and early 6th centuries – otherwise impossible to maintain by even the largest ‘migration’ estimates.

In addition to the ‘highland Tyrants’ in the west, the case has been made by persistence of a ‘native’, post-Roman, polity of sorts south of the Thames during much of the fifth century- evidenced by the oppositional deposition of Quoit Brooch Style artefacts in inhumation burials south of the Thames versus ‘Scandinavian’ artefacts (such as ‘square headed brooches’) within predominantly cremation burial settings dominate north of the Thames (i.e. in “Anglian” areas).

However, a take-over by continental migrants cannot be denied, as evidenced by an abrupt end of Quoit Broch style artefacts and inundation of exotic artefacts of a “Jutish’ character in the final decade or two of the fifth century. Thus Ken Dark’s notion of a long chronology of a surviving, even dominant “sub-Roman” Britain finds little support.

Bronze Anglo-Saxon Quoit Brooch.

Moreover, Halsall argues that ‘Britons’ are scarcely if at all visible in the archaeological record of lowland England by the 6th century and beyond, not because of any bizarre notions of ethnic cleansing or ‘apartheid’, but simply because, by then, everyone was an ‘Anglo-Saxon’, whatever their geographic origin.

Rural freedoms and kinship groups

Where arable cultivation continued in early Anglo-Saxon England, there seems to have been considerable continuity with the Roman period in both field layout and arable practices, although we do not know whether there were also changes to patterns of tenure or the regulation of cultivation.

The greatest perceptible alterations in land usage between about 400 and 600 are therefore in the proportions of the land of each community that lay under grass or the plough, rather than in changes to the layout or management of arable fields.

The Anglo-Saxons settled in small groups covering a handful of widely dispersed local communities. These farms were for the most part mobile. This mobility, which was typical across much of Northern Europe took two forms: the gradual shifting of the settlement within its boundaries or the complete location of the settlement altogether.

These shifting settlements (called Wandersiedlungen or “wandering settlements”) were a common feature since the Bronze Age. Why farms became abandoned and then relocated is much debated. However it is suggested that this might be related to the death of a patron of the family or the desire to move to better farmlands.

These farms are often falsely supposed to be “peasant farms”. However, a ceorl, who was the lowest ranking freeman in early Anglo-Saxon society, was not a peasant but an arms-owning male with access to law, support of a kindred and the wergild, situated at the apex of an extended household working at least one hide of land.

It is the ceorl that we should associate with the standard 8–10m x 4–5m post-hole building of the early Anglo-Saxon period, grouped with others of the same kin group. Each such household head had a number of less-free dependants.

The success of the rural world in the 5th and 6th centuries, according to the landscape archaeology, was due to three factors: the continuity with the past, with no evidence of up-rooting in the landscape; farmer’s freedom and rights over lands, with provision of a rent or duty to an overlord, who provided only slight lordly input; and the common outfield arable land (of an outfield-infield system) that provided the ability to build kinship and group cultural ties.

Material culture

The origins of the timber building tradition seen in early Anglo-Saxon England has generated a lot of debate which has mirrored a wider debate about the cultural affinities of Anglo-Saxon material culture.

Philip Rahtz asserted that buildings seen in West Stow and Mucking had late Roman origins. Archaeologist Philip Dixon noted the striking similarity between Anglo-Saxon timber halls and Romano-British rural houses. The Anglo-Saxons did not import the ‘long-house’, the traditional dwelling of the continental Germanic peoples, to Britain.

Instead they upheld a local vernacular British building tradition dating back to the late first century. This has been interpreted as evidence of the endurance of kinship and household structures from the Roman into the Anglo-Saxon period.

Anglo Saxon Grubenhaus at Bede’s World Jarrow.

However, this has been considered too neat an explanation for all the evidence. Anne and Gary Marshall summarise the situation:

“One of the main problems in Anglo-Saxon archaeology has been to account for the apparent uniqueness of the English timber structures of the period. These structures seem to bear little resemblance either to earlier Romano-British or to continental models. In essence, the problem is that the hybrid Anglo-Saxon style seems to appear full-blown with no examples of development from the two potentially ancestral traditions … The consensus of the published work was that the Anglo-Saxon building style was predominantly home-grown.”

For Bryan Ward-Perkins the answer is found in the success of the Anglo-Saxon culture and highlights the micro-diversity and larger cohesion that produced a dynamic force in comparison to the Brittonic culture From beads and quoits to clothes and houses, there is something unique happening in the early Anglo-Saxon period.

The material culture evidence shows that people adopted and adapted styles based on set roles and styles. John Hines, commenting on the diversity of nearly a thousand glass beads and many different clothes clasps from Lakenheath, states that these reveal a “society where people relied on others to fulfill a role” and “what they had around them was making a statement”, not one about the individual, but about “identity between small groups not within small groups”.

Julian Richards commenting on this and other evidence suggests:

“[The Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain] was more complex than a mass invasion bringing fully formed lifestyles and beliefs. The early Anglo-Saxon, just like today’s migrants, were probably riding different cultural identities. They brought from their homelands the traditions of their ancestors. But they would have been trying to work out not only who they were, but who they wanted to be … and forge an identity for those who followed.”

Looking beyond simplistic ‘homeland’ scenarios, and explaining the observations that ‘Anglo-Saxon’ houses and other aspects of material culture do not find exact matches in the ‘Germanic homelands’ in Europe, Halsall explains the changes within the context of a larger ‘North Sea interaction zone’, including lowland England, Northern Gaul and northern Germany.

Anglo Saxon settlement.

These areas experienced marked social and cultural changes in the wake of Roman collapse—experienced not only within the former Roman provinces (Gaul, Britain) but also in Barbaricum itself. All three areas experienced changes in social structure, settlement patterns and ways of expressing identities, as well as tensions which created push and pull factors for migrations in, perhaps, multiple directions.

Culture of belief

The study of pagan religious practice in the early Anglo-Saxon period is difficult. Most of the texts that may contain relevant information are not contemporary, but written later by Christian writers who tended to have a hostile attitude to pre-Christian beliefs, and who may have distorted their portrayal of them.

Much of the information used to reconstruct Anglo-Saxon paganism comes from later Scandinavian and Icelandic texts and there is a debate about how relevant these are. The study of pagan Anglo-Saxon beliefs has often been approached with reference to Roman or even Greek typologies and categories. Archaeologists therefore use such terms as gods, myths, temples, sanctuaries, priests, magic and cults. Charlotte Behr argues that this provides a worldview of Anglo-Saxon practice culture which is unhelpful.

Anglo Saxon Pagan feast.

Peter Brown employed a new method of looking at the belief systems of the fifth to seventh centuries, by arguing for a model of religion which was typified by a pick and choose approach. The period was exceptional because there was no orthodoxy or institutions to control or hinder the people. This freedom of culture is seen also in the Roman-British community and is very evident in the complaints of Gildas.

One Anglo-Saxon cultural practice that is better understood are the burial customs, due in part to archaeological excavations at various sites including Sutton Hoo, Spong Hill, Prittlewell, Snape and Walkington Wold, and the existence of around 1,200 pagan (or non-Christian) cemeteries. There was no set form of burial, with cremation being preferred in the north and inhumation in the south, although both forms were found throughout England, sometimes in the same cemeteries.

Artist’s rendering of an Anglo Saxon burial with grave goods.

When cremation did take place, the ashes were usually placed within an urn and then buried, sometimes along with grave goods. According to archaeologist Dave Wilson, “the usual orientation for an inhumation in a pagan Anglo-Saxon cemetery was west–east, with the head to the west, although there were often deviations from this.”

Indicative of possible religious belief, grave goods were common amongst inhumation burials as well as cremations; free Anglo-Saxon men were buried with at least one weapon in the pagan tradition, often a seax, but sometimes also with a spear, sword or shield, or a combination of these. There are also a number of recorded cases of parts of animals being buried within such graves.

Most common amongst these was body parts belonging to either goats or sheep, although parts of oxen were also relatively common, and there are also isolated cases of goose, crab apples, duck eggs and hazelnuts being buried in graves. It is widely thought therefore that such items constituted a food source for the deceased.[209] In some cases, animal skulls, particularly oxen but also pig, were buried in human graves, a practice that was also found earlier in Roman Britain.

There is also evidence for the continuation of Christianity in south and east Britain. The Christian shrine at St Albans and its martyr cult survived throughout the period (see Gildas above). There are references in Anglo-Saxon poetry, including Beowulf, that show some interaction between pagan and Christian practices and values.

While there is little scholarly focus on this subject, there is enough evidence from Gildas and elsewhere that it is safe to assume some continuing – perhaps more free – form of Christianity survived. Richard Whinder states “(The Church’s pre-Augustine) characteristics place it in continuity with the rest of the Christian Church in Europe at that time and, indeed, in continuity with the Catholic faith … today.”

The complexity of belief, indicated by various pieces of evidence, is disturbing to those looking for easy categories. The extent to which belief was discursive and free during the settlement period suggests a lack of proscription, indeed, this might be a characteristic of Anglo-Saxon cultural success.

Language and literature

Little is known about the everyday spoken language of people living in the migration period. Old English is a contact language and it is hard to reconstruct the pidgin used in this period from the written language found in the West Saxon literature of some 400 years later.

Excerpt from the Anglo Saxon Chronicles, created late in the 9th century.

Two general theories are proposed regarding why people changed their language to Old English (or an early form of such): either a person or household changed so as to serve an elite, or a person or household changed through choice as it provided some advantage economically or legally.

According to Nick Higham, the adoption of the language—as well as the material culture and traditions—of an Anglo-Saxon elite, “by large numbers of the local people seeking to improve their status within the social structure, and undertaking for this purpose rigorous acculturation”, is the key to understanding the Anglo-Saxon from Romano-British transition.

The progressive nature of this language acquisition, and the ‘retrospective reworking’ of kinship ties to the dominant group led, ultimately, to the “myths which tied the entire society to immigration as an explanation of their origins in Britain”.

The final few lines of the poem The Battle of Brunanburh, a tenth century Anglo-Saxon poem that celebrates a victory of Æthelstan, the first king of all the English, give a poetic voice to the English conception of their origins.

Old English

…Engle and Seaxe upp becomon,
ofer brad brimu Britene sohton,
wlance wig-smithas, Wealas ofercomon,
eorlas ar-hwaete eard begeaton.

Modern English

…Angles and Saxons came up
over the broad sea. Britain they sought,
Proud war-smiths who overcame the Welsh,
glorious warriors they took hold of the land.

This ‘heroic tradition’ of conquering incomers is consistent with the conviction of Bede, and later Anglo-Saxon historians, that the ancestral origin of the English was not the result of any assimilation with the native British, but was derived solely from the Germanic migrants of the post-Roman period.

It also explains the enduring appeal of poems and heroic stories such as Beowulf, Wulf and Eadwacer and Judith, well into the Christian period. The success of the language is the most obvious result of the settlement period. This language was not just the language of acculturation, but through the stories, poetry and oral traditions became the agency of change.

Nick Higham has provided this summary of the processes:

“As Bede later implied, language was a key indicator of ethnicity in early England. In circumstances where freedom at law, acceptance with the kindred, access to patronage, and the use of possession of weapons were all exclusive to those who could claim Germanic descent, then speaking Old English without Latin or Brittonic inflection had considerable value.”

References

  • Channel 4 (2004), Britain AD: King Arthur’s Britain
  • Hamerow, Helena; Hinton, David A.; Crawford, Sally, eds. (2011), The Oxford Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology., Oxford: OUP, ISBN 978-0-19-921214-9
  • Higham, Nicholas J.; Ryan, Martin J. (2013), The Anglo-Saxon World, Yale University Press, ISBN 978-0-300-12534-4
  • Hills, Catherine (2003), Origins of the English, London: Duckworth, ISBN 0-7156-3191-8
  • Koch, John T. (2006), Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, Santa Barbara and Oxford: ABC-CLIO, ISBN 1-85109-440-7
  • Pryor, Francis (2005), Britain AD: A Quest for Arthur, England and the Anglo-Saxons, London: Harper Perennial (published 2001), p. 320, ISBN 978-0-00-718187-2.

Hengist and Horsa and the Anglo-Saxon invasion of England

Anglo-Saxon Invasion of England.
The brothers in Edward Parrott’s Pageant of British History (1909).

According to early sources, Hengist and Horsa arrived in England at Ebbsfleet on the Isle of Thanet. For a time, they served as mercenaries for Vortigern, King of the Britons, but later they turned against him (English accounts have them betraying him in the Night of the Long Knives). Horsa was killed fighting the Britons, but Hengist successfully conquered Kent, becoming the forefather of its kings.

A figure named Hengest, who may be identifiable with the leader of British legend, appears in the Finnsburg Fragment and in Beowulf.

Legends of horse-associated founding brothers are attested among other Germanic peoples and appear in other Indo-European cultures. As a result, scholars have theorized a pan-Germanic mythological origin for Hengist and Horsa, stemming originally from divine twins found in Proto-Indo-European religion. Other scholars, including J. R. R. Tolkien, have argued for a historical basis for Hengist and Horsa.

The Old English names Hengest [hendʒest] and Horsa [horsɑ] mean “stallion” and “horse” respectively.

The original Old English word for a horse was eoh. Eoh derives from the Proto-Indo-European base *ekwo, hence Latin equus which gave rise to the modern English words equine and equestrian. Hors is derived from the Proto-Indo-European base *kurs, to run, which also gave rise to hurry, carry and current (the last two as borrowings from French).

Hors eventually replaced eoh, fitting a pattern elsewhere in Germanic languages where the original names of sacred animals are abandoned in favour of adjectives; for example, the word bear. While the Ecclesiastical History and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refer to the brother as Horsa, in the History of the Britons his name is simply Hors. It has been suggested that Horsa may be a pet form of a compound name with the first element “horse”.

Alternatively, it has also been suggested that these may have been given names or status titles within their tribe. It is possible that the tribe had horses as a totem animal, perhaps even sailing with ships emblazoned with horse figureheads. By tradition the brothers arrived with a banner of a white horse, which is preserved to this day as the emblem of Kent.

Banner of the County of Kent, England.

Ecclesiastical History of the English People

In his 8th century Ecclesiastical History, Bede records that the first chieftains among the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes in England were said to have been Hengist and Horsa. He relates that Horsa was killed in battle against the Britons and was thereafter buried in East Kent, where at the time of writing a monument still stood to him. According to Bede, Hengist and Horsa were the sons of Wictgils, son of Witta, son of Wecta, son of Woden.

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The 9th century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that in the year 449 Hengist and Horsa were invited to Britain by Vortigern to assist his forces in fighting the Picts. They landed at Eopwinesfleot (Ebbsfleet), and went on to defeat the Picts wherever they fought them. Hengist and Horsa sent word home to Germany describing “the worthlessness of the Britons, and the richness of the land” and asked for assistance.

Their request was granted and support arrived. Afterward, more people arrived in Britain from “the three powers of Germany; the Old Saxons, the Angles, and the Jutes”. The Saxons populated Essex, Sussex, and Wessex; the Jutes Kent, the Isle of Wight, and part of Hampshire; and the Angles East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria (leaving their original homeland, Angeln, deserted). These forces were led by the brothers Hengist and Horsa, sons of Wihtgils, son of Witta, son of Wecta, son of Woden.

A Mosaic of Vortigern in battle.

In the entry for the year 455 the Chronicle details that Hengist and Horsa fought with Vortigern at Aylesford and that Horsa died there. Hengist took control of the kingdom with his son Esc. In 457, Hengist and Esc fought against British forces in Crayford “and there slew four thousand men”. The Britons left the land of Kent and fled to London. In 465, Hengest and Esc fought again at the Battle of Wippedesfleot, probably near Ebbsfleet, and slew twelve British leaders. In the year 473, the final entry in the Chronicle mentioning Hengist or Horsa, Hengist and Esc are recorded as having taken “immense booty” and the Britons having “fled from the English like fire”.

History of the Britons

The 9th century History of the Britons, attributed to the Briton Nennius, records that, during the reign of Vortigern in Britain, three vessels that had been exiled from Germany arrived in Britain, commanded by Hengist and Horsa. The narrative then gives a genealogy of the two: Hengist and Horsa were sons of Guictglis, son of Guicta, son of Guechta, son of Vouden, son of Frealof, son of Fredulf, son of Finn, son of Foleguald, son of Geta. Geta was said to be the son of a god, yet “not of the omnipotent God and our Lord Jesus Christ,” but rather “the offspring of one of their idols, and whom, blinded by some demon, they worshipped according to the custom of the heathen.” In 447 AD, Vortigern received Hengist and Horsa “as friends” and gave to the brothers the Isle of Thanet.

Computer generated image of the Anglo-Saxon ship found at Sutton Hoo.

After the Saxons had lived on Thanet for “some time” Vortigern promised them supplies of clothing and other provisions on condition that they assist him in fighting the enemies of his country. As the Saxons increased in number the Britons became unable to keep their agreement, and so told them their assistance was no longer needed and they should go home.

Vortigern allowed Hengist to send for more of his countrymen to come over to fight for him. Messengers were sent to “Scythia“, where “a number” of warriors were selected, and, with sixteen ships, the messengers returned. With the men came Hengist’s beautiful daughter. Hengist prepared a feast, inviting Vortigern, Vortigern’s officers, and Ceretic, his translator. Prior to the feast, Hengist enjoined his daughter to serve the guests plenty of wine and ale so that they would become drunk. At the feast Vortigern became enamored with her and promised Hengist whatever he liked in exchange for her betrothal. Hengist, having “consulted with the Elders who attended him of the Angle race,” demanded Kent. Without the knowledge of the then-ruler of Kent, Vortigern agreed.

Hengist’s daughter was given to Vortigern, who slept with her and deeply loved her. Hengist told him that he would now be both his father and adviser and that he would know no defeat with his counsel, “for the people of my country are strong, warlike, and robust.” With Vortigern’s approval, Hengist would send for his son and his brother to fight against the Scots and those who dwelt near the wall. Vortigern agreed and Ochta and Ebissa arrived with 40 ships, sailed around the land of the Picts, conquered “many regions,” and assaulted the Orkney Islands. Hengist continued to send for more ships from his country, so that some islands where his people had previously dwelt are now free of inhabitants.

Anglo-Saxons in battle with the Picts.

Vortigern had meanwhile incurred the wrath of Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre (by taking his own daughter for a wife and having a son by her) and had gone into hiding at the advice of his counsel. But at length his son Vortimer engaged Hengist and Horsa and their men in battle, drove them back to Thanet and there enclosed them and beset them on the western flank. The war waxed and waned; the Saxons repeatedly gained ground and were repeatedly driven back. Vortimer attacked the Saxons four times: first enclosing the Saxons in Thanet, secondly fighting at the river Derwent, the third time at Epsford, where both Horsa and Vortigern’s son Catigern died, and lastly “near the stone on the shore of the Gallic sea,” where the Saxons were defeated and fled to their ships.

After a “short interval” Vortimer died and the Saxons became established, “assisted by foreign pagans.” Hengist convened his forces and sent to Vortigern an offer of peace. Vortigern accepted, and Hengist prepared a feast to bring together the British and Saxon leaders. However, he instructed his men to conceal knives beneath their feet. At the right moment, Hengist shouted nima der sexa (get your knives) and his men massacred the unsuspecting Britons. However, they spared Vortigern, who ransomed himself by giving the Saxons Essex, Sussex, Middlesex, and other unnamed districts.

Germanus of Auxerre was acclaimed as commander of the British forces. By praying, singing hallelujah and crying to God, the Saxons were driven to the sea. Germanus then prayed for three days and nights at Vortigern’s castle and fire fell from heaven and engulfed the castle. Vortigern, Hengist’s daughter, Vortigern’s other wives, and all other inhabitants burned to death. Potential alternate fates for Vortigern are provided. However, the Saxons continued to increase in numbers, and after Hengist died his son Ochta succeeded him.

300s B.C. Celts in Britain. A.D 449 the Anglo-Saxon Invasion of England. 55 B.C–A.D.409. Roman Occupation. A.D.878. King Alfred the Great defeated the Vikings.

History of the Kings of Britain

Vortigern and Rowena, by William Hamilton (1793).

In his pseudo-historical twelfth century work The History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth adapted and greatly expanded the account in the History of the Britons. Hengist and Horsa appear in books 6 and 8:

Book 6

Geoffrey records that three brigantines or long galleys arrived in Kent, full of armed men and commanded by two brothers, Hengist and Horsa. Vortigern was then staying at Dorobernia (Canterbury), and ordered that the “tall strangers” be received peacefully and brought to him. When Vortigern saw the company, he immediately observed that the brothers “excelled all the rest both in nobility and in gracefulness of person.” He asked what country they had come from and why they had come to his kingdom. Hengist (“whose years and wisdom entitled him to precedence”) replied that they had left their homeland of Saxony to offer their services to Vortigern or some other prince, as part of a Saxon custom in which, when the country became overpopulated, able young men were chosen by lot to seek their fortunes in other lands. Hengist and Horsa were made generals over the exiles, as befitted their noble birth.

Vortigern was aggrieved when he learned that the strangers were pagans, but nonetheless rejoiced at their arrival, since he was surrounded by enemies. He asked Hengist and Horsa if they would help him in his wars, offering them land and “other possessions.” They accepted the offer, settled on an agreement, and stayed with Vortigern at his court. Soon after, the Picts came from Alba with an immense army and attacked the northern parts of Vortigern’s kingdom. In the ensuing battle “there was little occasion for the Britons to exert themselves, for the Saxons fought so bravely, that the enemy, formerly victorious, were speedily put to flight.”

In gratitude Vortigern increased the rewards he has promised to the brothers. Hengist was given “large possessions of lands in Lindsey for the subsistence of himself and his fellow-soldiers.” A “man of experience and subtilty,” Hengist told Vortigern that his enemies assailed him from every quarter, and that his subjects wished to depose him and make Aurelius Ambrosius king. He asked the king to allow him to send word to Saxony for more soldiers. Vortigern agreed, adding that Hengist could invite over whom he pleases and that “you shall have no refusal from me in whatever you shall desire.”

Ambrosius Aurelianus was a war leader of the Romano-British who won an important battle against the Anglo-Saxons in the 5th century, according to Gildas. He also appeared independently in the legends of the Britons, beginning with the 9th-century Historia Brittonum.

Hengist bowed low in thanks, and made a further request, that he be made a consul or prince, as befitted his birth. Vortigern responded that it was not in his power to do this, reasoning that Hengist was a foreign pagan and would not be accepted by the British lords. Hengist asked instead for leave to build a fortress on a piece of land small enough that it could be encircled by a leather thong. Vortigern granted this and ordered Hengist to invite more Saxons.

After executing Vortigern’s orders, Hengist took a bull’s hide and made it into a single thong, which he used to encircle a carefully-chosen rocky place (perhaps at Caistor in Lindsey). Here he built the castle of Kaercorrei, or in Saxon Thancastre: “thong castle.”

The messengers returned from Germany with eighteen ships full of the best soldiers they could get, as well as Hengist’s beautiful daughter Rowena. Hengist invited Vortigern to see his new castle and the newly arrived soldiers. A banquet was held in Thancastre, at which Vortigern drunkenly asked Hengist to let him marry Rowena. Horsa and the men all agreed that Hengist should allow the marriage, on the condition that Vortigern gave him Kent.

Vortigern and Rowena were immediately married and Hengist was given Kent. The king was delighted with his new wife, but he incurred the hatred of his nobles and of his three sons.

Rowena as depicted in popular mythology.

As his new father-in-law, Hengist made further demands of Vortigern:

As I am your father, I claim the right of being your counsellor: do not therefore slight my advice, since it is to my countrymen you must owe the conquest of all your enemies. Let us invite over my son Octa, and his brother Ebissa, who are brave soldiers, and give them the countries that are in the northern parts of Britain, by the wall, between Deira and Alba. For they will hinder the inroads of the barbarians, and so you shall enjoy peace on the other side of the Humber.

Vortigern agreed. Upon receiving the invitation, Octa, Ebissa, and another lord, Cherdich, immediately left for Britain with three hundred ships. Vortigern received them kindly, and gave them ample gifts. With their assistance, Vortigern defeated his enemies in every engagement.

All the while Hengist continued inviting over yet more ships, adding to his numbers daily. Witnessing this, the Britons tried to get Vortigern to banish the Saxons, but on account of his wife he would not. Consequently, his subjects turned against him and took his son Vortimer for their king.

The Saxons and the Britons, led by Vortimer, met in four battles. In the second, Horsa and Vortimer’s brother, Catigern, slew one another. By the fourth battle, the Saxons had fled to Thanet, where Vortimer besieged them. When the Saxons could no longer bear the British onslaughts, they sent out Vortigern to ask his son to allow them safe passage back to Germany. While discussions were taking place, the Saxons boarded their ships and left, leaving their wives and children behind.

Angles Saxona Warriors in Battle.

The victorious Vortimer was poisoned by Rowena, and Vortigern returned to the throne. At his wife’s request he invited Hengist back to Britain, but instructed him to bring only a small retinue. Hengist, knowing Vortimer to be dead, instead raised an army of 300,000 men. When Vortigern caught word of the imminent arrival of the vast Saxon fleet, he resolved to fight them. Rowena alerted her father of this, who, after considering various strategies, resolved to make a show of peace and sent ambassadors to Vortigern.

The ambassadors informed Vortigern that Hengist had only brought so many men because he did not know of Vortimer’s death and feared further attacks from him. Now that there was no threat, Vortigern could choose from among the men the ones he wished to return to Germany. Vortigern was greatly pleased by these tidings, and arranged to meet Hengist on the first of May at the monastery of Ambrius.

Before the meeting, Hengist ordered his soldiers to carry long daggers beneath their clothing. At the signal Nemet oure Saxas (get your knives), the Saxons fell upon the unsuspecting Britons and massacred them, while Hengist held Vortigern by his cloak. 460 British barons and consuls were killed, as well as some Saxons whom the Britons beat to death with club and stones. Vortigern was held captive and threatened with death until he resigned control of Britain’s chief cities to Hengist. Once free, he fled to Cambria.

Book 8

In Cambria, Merlin prophesied to Vortigern that the brothers Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther Pendragon, who had fled to Armorica as children after Vortigern killed their brother and father, would return to have their revenge and defeat the Saxons. They arrived the next day, and, after rallying the dispersed Britons, Aurelius was proclaimed king. Aurelius marched into Cambria and burned Vortigern alive in his tower, before setting his sights upon the Saxons.

Merlin, the mythological sorcerer of Avalon.

Hengist was struck by terror at the news of Vortigern’s death and fled with his army beyond the Humber. He took courage at the approach of Aurelius and selected the bravest among his men to defend. Hengist told these chosen men not to be afraid of Aurelius, for he had brought less than 10,000 Armorican Britons (the native Britons were hardly worth taking into account), while there were 200,000 Saxons. Hengist and his men advanced towards Aurelius in a field called Maisbeli (probably Ballifield, near Sheffield), intending to take the Britons by surprise, but Aurelius anticipated them.

As they marched to meet the Saxons, Eldol, Duke of Gloucester told Aurelius that he greatly wished to meet Hengist in combat, noting that “one of the two of us should die before we parted.” He explained that he had been at the Treachery of the Long Knives, but had escaped when God threw him a stake to defend himself with, making him the only Briton present to survive. Meanwhile, Hengist was placing his troops into formation, giving directions, and walking through the lines of troops, “the more to spirit them up.”

With the armies in formation, battle began between the Britons and Saxons, both sides shedding “no small loss of blood.” Eldol focused on attempting to find Hengist, but had no opportunity to fight him. “By the especial favour of God,” the Britons took the upper hand, and the Saxons withdrew and made for Kaerconan (Conisbrough). Aurelius pursued them, killing or enslaving any Saxon he met on the way. Realizing Kaerconan would not hold against Aurelius, Hengist stopped outside the town and ordered his men to make a stand, “for he knew that his whole security now lay in his sword.”

Celtic Warriors.

Aurelius reached Hengist, and a “most furious” fight ensued, with the Saxons maintaining their ground despite heavy losses. They came close to winning before a detachment of horses from the Armorican Britons arrived. When Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall arrived, Eldol knew the day was won and grabbed Hengist’s helmet, dragging him into the British ranks. The Saxons fled. Hengist’s son Octa retreated to York and his kinsman Eosa to Alclud (Dumbarton).

Three days after the battle, Aurelius called together a council of principal officers to decide what would be done with Hengist. Eldol’s brother Eldad, Bishop of Gloucester, said:

Though all should be unanimous for setting him at liberty, yet would I cut him to pieces. The prophet Samuel is my warrant, who, when he had Agag, king of Amalek, in his power, hewed him in pieces, saying, As thy sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women. Do therefore the same to Hengist, who is a second Agag.

Consequently, Eldol drew Hengist out of the city and cut off his head. Aurelius, “who showed moderation in all his conduct,” arranged for him to be buried and for a mound to be raised over his corpse, according to the custom of pagans. Octa and Eosa surrendered to Aurelius, who granted them the country bordering Scotland and made a firm covenant with them.

Prose Edda

Hengist is briefly mentioned in Prologue, the first book of the Prose Edda, written by the Icelander Snorri Sturluson in the 13th century. In Prologue, a euhemerized account of Germanic history is given, including that Woden put three of his sons in charge of Saxony. The ruler of eastern Saxony was Veggdegg, one of whose sons was Vitrgils, the father of Vitta, the father of Hengist.

Horse-head gables

On farmhouses in Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein, horse-head gables were referred to as “Hengst und Hors” as late as around 1875. Rudolf Simek notes that these horse heads gables can still be seen today, and says that the horse-head gables confirm that Hengist and Horsa were originally considered mythological, horse-shaped beings. Martin Litchfield West comments that the horse heads may have been remnants of pagan religious practices in the area.

A gable in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.
Coat of arms of Spornitz, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

Theories

Finnsburg Fragment and Beowulf

A Hengest appears in line 34 of the Finnsburg Fragment, which describes the legendary Battle of Finnsburg. In Beowulf, a scop recites a composition summarizing the Finnsburg events, including information not provided in the fragment. Hengest is mentioned in lines 1082 and 1091.

Some scholars have proposed that the figure mentioned in both of these references is one and the same as the Hengist of the Hengist and Horsa accounts, though Horsa is not mentioned in either source. In his work Finn and Hengest, Tolkien argued that Hengist was a historical figure, and that Hengist came to Britain after the events recorded in the Finnsburg Fragment and Beowulf. Patrick Sims-Williams is more skeptical of the account, suggesting that Bede’s Canterbury source, which he relied on for his account of Hengist and Horsa in the Ecclesiastical History, had confused two separate traditions.

Germanic twin brothers and divine Indo-European horse twins

Several sources attest that the Germanic peoples venerated a divine pair of twin brothers. The earliest reference to this practice derives from Timaeus (c. 345 – c. 250 BC). Timeaus records that the Germanic peoples (whom he refers to as “Celts”) of the North Sea were especially devoted to what he describes as Castor and Pollux. In his work Germania, Tacitus records the veneration of the Alcis, whom he identifies with Castor and Pollux. Germanic legends mention various brothers as founding figures. The 1st or 2nd century historian Cassius Dio cites the brothers Raos and Raptos as the leaders of the Astings. According to Paul the Deacon‘s 8th century History of the Lombards, the Lombards migrated southward from Scandinavia led by Ibur and Aio, while Saxo Grammaticus records in his 12th century Deeds of the Danes that this migration was prompted by Aggi and Ebbi. In related Indo-European cultures, similar traditions are attested, such as the Dioscuri. Scholars have theorized that these divine twins in Indo-European cultures stem from divine twins in prehistoric Proto-Indo-European culture.

Tacitus, in full Publius Cornelius Tacitus, or Gaius Cornelius Tacitus (born ad 56—died c. 120), Roman orator and public official, probably the greatest historian and one of the greatest prose stylists who wrote in the Latin language.

J. P. Mallory comments on the great importance of the horse in Indo-European religion, as exemplified “most obviously” by various mythical brothers appearing in Indo-European legend, including Hengist and Horsa:

Some would maintain that the premier animal of the Indo-European sacrifice and ritual was probably the horse. We have already seen how its embedment in Proto-Indo-European society lies not just in its lexical reconstruction but also in the proliferation of personal names which contain “horse” as an element among the various Indo-European peoples. Furthermore, we witness the importance of the horse in Indo-European rituals and mythology. One of the most obvious examples is the recurrent depiction of twins such as the Indic Asvins “horsemen,” the Greek horsemen Castor and Pollux, the legendary Anglo-Saxon settlers Horsa and Hengist […] or the Irish twins of Macha, born after she had completed a horse race. All of these attest the existence of Indo-European divine twins associated with or represented by horses.

Uffington White Horse

Aerial view of the White Horse Uffington Oxfordshire.

In his 17th century work Monumenta Britannica, John Aubrey ascribes the Uffington White Horse hill figure to Hengist and Horsa, stating that “the White Horse was their Standard at the Conquest of Britain”. However, elsewhere he ascribes the origins of the horse to the pre-Roman Britons, reasoning that the horse resembles certain Iron Age British coins. As a result, advocates of a Saxon origin of the figure debated with those favoring an ancient British origin for three centuries after Aubrey’s findings. In 1995, using optically stimulated luminescence dating, David Miles and Simon Palmer of the Oxford Archaeological Unit assigned the Uffington White Horse to the late Bronze Age.

Aschanes

The Brothers Grimm identified Hengist with Aschanes, mythical first King of the Saxons, in their notes for legend number 413 of their German Legends. Editor and translator Donald Ward, in his commentary on the tale, regards the identification as untenable on linguistic grounds.

References

  • Chickering, Howell D., Jr. (2006). Beowulf: A Dual-Language Edition. Anchor Books. ISBN 1-4000-9622-7.
  • Everill, George (1845). A Translation of Walhalla’s Inmates described by Lewis the First, King of Bavaria. Munich: George Franz.
  • Faulkes, Anthony (1995). Edda. Everyman. ISBN 0-460-87616-3.
  • Frédriksen, John C. (2001). International Warbirds: an Illustrated Guide to World Military Aircraft, 1914–2000. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 1-57607-364-5.
  • Gunn, William (1819). Historia Brittonum. London: Printed for John and Arthur Arch, Cornhill.
  • Hunt, Tim, ed. (1991). The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers: 1938–1962. Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-1847-4.
  • Ingram, James Henry (1823). The Saxon chronicle, with an English Translation and Notes, Critical and Explanatory. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, Paternoster-Row.
  • Lyon, Bryce. “From Hengist and Horsa to Edward of Caernarvon: Recent writing on English history” in Elizabeth Chapin Furber, ed. Changing views on British history: essays on historical writing since 1939 (Harvard University Press, 1966), pp 1–57; historiography
  • Lyon, Bryce. ” Change or Continuity: Writing since 1965 on English History before Edward of Caernarvon,” in Richard Schlatter, ed., Recent Views on British History: Essays on Historical Writing since 1966 (Rutgers UP, 1984), pp 1–34, historiography
  • Mallory, J. P. (2005). In Search of the Indo-Europeans. Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-27616-1.
  • Michael-Hadrill, John Michael (1993). Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People: A Historical Commentary. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-822174-6.
  • Nigl, Alfred J. (2007). Silent Wings, Silent Death. Graphic Publishing. ISBN 1-882824-31-8.
  • Peterson, Merill D. (1970). Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: A Biography. Sourcebooks. ISBN 0-19-501909-1.
  • Schwyzer, Philip (1999). “The Scouring of the White Horse: Archaeology, Identity, and ‘Heritage'”. Representations. Special Issue: New Perspectives in British Studies (Winter, 1999). University of California Press. pp. 42–62.
  • Sherley-Price, Leo (1990). Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Penguin Classics. ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
  • Simek, Rudolf (2007). Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. D.S. Brewer. ISBN 0-85991-513-1.
  • Taylor, Gary; Lavagnino, John, eds. (2007). Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-922588-5.
  • Thompson, Aaron (1842). The British History of Geoffrey of Monmouth: In Twelve Books. London: James Bohn.
  • Thorpe, Benjamin (1855). The Anglo-Saxon Poems of Beowulf, the Scôp or Gleeman’s Tale, and The Fight at Finnesburg. Oxford University Press.
  • Tolkien, J. R. R. (2006). Bliss, Alan, ed. Finn and Hengest. Harper Collins. ISBN 0-261-10355-5.
  • West, Martin Litchfield (2007). Indo-European Poetry and Myth. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-928075-4.

 

 

Cerdic, King of Wessex

Cerdic (/ˈɜːrdɪ/) is cited in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as a leader of the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain, being the founder and first king of Saxon Wessex, reigning from 519 to 534. Subsequent kings of Wessex all had some level of descent claimed in the Chronicle from Cerdic.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Cerdic landed in what is today Hampshire in 495 with his son Cynric in five ships. He is said to have fought a Brittonic king named Natanleod at Natanleaga and killed him thirteen years later (in 508), and to have fought at Cerdicesleag in 519. Natanleaga is commonly identified as Netley Marsh in Hampshire and Cerdicesleag as Charford (Cerdic’s Ford). The conquest of the Isle of Wight is also mentioned among his campaigns, and it was later given to his kinsmen, Stuf and Wihtgar (who had supposedly arrived with the West Saxons in 514). Cerdic is said to have died in 534 and was succeeded by his son Cynric.

The early history of Wessex in the Chronicle has been considered unreliable, with duplicate reports of events and seemingly contradictory information. David Dumville has suggested that Cerdic’s true regnal dates are 538–554. Some scholars suggest that Cerdic was the Saxon leader defeated by the Britons at the Battle of Mount Badon, which was probably fought in 490 (and possibly later, but not later than 518). This cannot be the case if Dumville is correct, and others assign this battle to Ælle or another Saxon leader, so it appears likely that the origins of the kingdom of Wessex are more complex than the version provided by the surviving traditions.

Some scholars have gone so far as to suggest that Cerdic is purely a legendary figure, and had no actual existence, but this is a minority view. The earliest source for Cerdic, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, was put together in the late ninth century; though it probably does record the extant tradition of the founding of Wessex, the intervening four hundred years mean that the account cannot be assumed to be accurate.

Descent from Cerdic became a necessary criterion for later kings of Wessex, and Egbert of Wessex, progenitor of the English royal house and subsequent rulers of England and Britain, claimed him as an ancestor.

Imaginary depiction of Cerdic from John Speed’s 1611 “Saxon Heptarchy”.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle provides a pedigree tracing Cerdic’s ancestry back to Wōden and the antediluvian patriarchs. Kenneth Sisam has shown that this pedigree resulted from a process of elaboration upon a root pedigree borrowed from the kings of Bernicia, and hence prior to Cerdic himself it has no historical basis.

Curiously, the name Cerdic is thought by most scholars to be Brittonic – a form of the name Ceretic – rather than Germanic in origin. The name derives, ultimately, from the British name *Caraticos. This may indicate that Cerdic was a native Briton, and that his dynasty became Anglicised over time. This view is supported by the potentially non-Germanic names of some of his descendants including Ceawlin, Cedda and Caedwalla.

Cerdic’s father, Elesa, has been identified by some scholars with the Romano-Briton Elasius, the “chief of the region”, met by Germanus of Auxerre.

J.N.L. Myres noted that when Cerdic and Cynric first appear in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in s.a. 495 they are described as ealdormen, which at that point in time was a fairly junior rank. Myres remarks that,

It is thus odd to find it used here to describe the leaders of what purports to be an independent band of invaders, whose origins and authority are not otherwise specified. It looks very much as if a hint is being conveyed that Cerdic and his people owed their standing to having been already concerned with administrative affairs under Roman authority on this part of the Saxon Shore.

Furthermore, it is not until s.a. 519 that Cerdic and Cynric are recorded as “beginning to reign”, suggesting that they ceased being dependent vassals or ealdormen and became independent kings in their own right.

Summing up, Myres believed that,

It is thus possible … to think of Cerdic as the head of a partly British noble family with extensive territorial interests at the western end of the Litus Saxonicum. As such he may well have been entrusted in the last days of Roman, or sub-Roman authority with its defence. He would then be what in later Anglo-Saxon terminology could be described as an ealdorman. … If such a dominant native family as that of Cerdic had already developed blood-relationships with existing Saxon and Jutish settlers at this end of the Saxon Shore, it could very well be tempted, once effective Roman authority had faded, to go further. It might have taken matters into its own hands and after eliminating any surviving pockets of resistance by competing British chieftains, such as the mysterious Natanleod of annal 508, it could ‘begin to reign’ without recognizing in future any superior authority.

References

hleomæg wesiKs

The End of Roman Rule in Britain

The end of Roman rule in Britain was the transition from Roman Britain to post-Roman Britain. Roman rule ended in different parts of Britain at different times, and under different circumstances.

In 383, the usurper Magnus Maximus withdrew troops from northern and western Britain, probably leaving local warlords in charge. Around 410, the Romano-British expelled the magistrates of the usurper Constantine III, ostensibly in response to his failures to use the Roman garrison he had stripped from Britain to protect the island. Roman Emperor Honorius replied to a request for assistance with the Rescript of Honorius, telling the Roman cities to see to their own defence, a tacit acceptance of temporary British self-government. Honorius was fighting a large-scale war in Italy against the Visigoths under their leader Alaric, with Rome itself under siege. No forces could be spared to protect distant Britain. Though it is likely that Honorius expected to regain control over the provinces soon, by the mid-6th century Procopius recognised that Britannia was entirely lost to the Romans.

Map showing the end of Roman rule in Britain – 383AD – 410AD.

By the early 5th century, the Roman Empire could no longer defend itself against either internal rebellion or the external threat posed by expanding Germanic tribes in Northern Europe. This situation and its consequences governed the eventual permanence of Britain’s detachment from the rest of the Empire.

In the late 4th century, the empire was controlled by members of a dynasty that included the Emperor Theodosius I. This family retained political power within itself and formed alliances by intermarriage with other dynasties, at the same time engaging in internecine power struggles and fighting off outside contenders (called “usurpers”) attempting to replace the ruling dynasty with one of their own. These internal machinations drained the Empire of both military and civilian resources. Many thousands of soldiers were lost in battling attempted coups by figures such as Firmus, Magnus Maximus and Eugenius.

The Empire’s historical relationship with Germanic tribes was sometimes hostile, at other times cooperative, but ultimately fatal, as it was unable to prevent those tribes from assuming a dominant role in the relationship. By the early 5th century, as a result of severe losses and depleted tax income, the Western Roman Empire’s military forces were dominated by Germanic troops, and Romanised Germans played a significant role in the empire’s internal politics. Various Germanic and other tribes beyond the frontiers were able to take advantage of the Empire’s weakened state, both to expand into Roman territory and, in some cases, to move their entire populations into lands once considered exclusively Roman, culminating in various successful migrations from 406 onwards. The crossing of the Rhine caused intense fear in Britannia, prone as it was to being cut off from the Empire by raids on the primary communications route from Italy, to Trier to the Channel Coast. In the event, this was much more than just another raid.

The Eastern and Western Roman Empire of Theodosius I in 395.

Chronology

383–388

In 383, the Roman general then assigned to Britain, Magnus Maximus, launched his successful bid for imperial power, crossing to Gaul with his troops. He killed the Western Roman Emperor Gratian and ruled Gaul and Britain as Augustus (i.e., as a “sub-emperor” under Theodosius I). 383 is the last date for any evidence of a Roman presence in the north and west of Britain, perhaps excepting troop assignments at the tower on Holyhead Mountain in Anglesey and at western coastal posts such as Lancaster. These outposts may have lasted into the 390s, but they were a very minor presence, intended primarily to stop attacks and settlement by groups from Ireland.

Coins dated later than 383 have been excavated along Hadrian’s Wall, suggesting that troops were not stripped from it, as once thought or, if they were, they were quickly returned as soon as Maximus had won his victory in Gaul. In the De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, written c. 540, Gildas attributed an exodus of troops and senior administrators from Britain to Maximus, saying that he left not only with all of its troops, but also with all of its armed bands, governors, and the flower of its youth, never to return.

Raids by Saxons, Picts, and the Scoti of Ireland had been ongoing in the late 4th century, but these increased in the years after 383. There were also large-scale permanent Irish settlements made along the coasts of Wales under circumstances that remain unclear. Maximus campaigned in Britain against both the Picts and Scoti, with historians differing on whether this was in the year 382 or 384 (i.e., whether the campaign was before or after he became Augustus). Welsh legend relates that before launching his usurpation, Maximus made preparations for an altered governmental and defence framework for the beleaguered provinces. Figures such as Coel Hen were said to be placed into key positions to protect the island in Maximus’ absence. As such claims were designed to buttress Welsh genealogy and land claims, they should be viewed with some scepticism.

In 388, Maximus led his army across the Alps into Italy in an attempt to claim the purple. The effort failed when he was defeated in Pannonia at the Battle of the Save (in modern Croatia) and at the Battle of Poetovio (at Ptuj in modern Slovenia). He was then executed by Theodosius.

Magnus Maximus

389–406

With Maximus’ death, Britain came back under the rule of Emperor Theodosius I until 392, when the usurper Eugenius would successfully bid for imperial power in the Western Roman Empire, surviving until 394 when he was defeated and killed by Theodosius. When Theodosius died in 395, his 10-year-old son Honorius succeeded him as Western Roman Emperor. The real power behind the throne, however, was Stilicho, the son-in-law of Theodosius’ brother and the father-in-law of Honorius.

Britain was suffering raids by the Scoti, Saxons, and Picts and, sometime between 396 and 398, Stilicho allegedly ordered a campaign against the Picts, likely a naval campaign intended to end their seaborne raids on the east coast of Britain. He may also have ordered campaigns against the Scoti and Saxons at the same time, but either way this would be the last Roman campaign in Britain of which there is any record.

In 401 or 402 Stilicho faced wars with the Visigothic king Alaric and the Ostrogothic king Radagaisus. Needing military manpower, he stripped Hadrian’s Wall of troops for the final time. 402 is the last date of any Roman coinage found in large numbers in Britain, suggesting either that Stilicho also stripped the remaining troops from Britain, or that the Empire could no longer afford to pay the troops who were still there. Meanwhile, the Picts, Saxons and Scoti continued their raids, which may have increased in scope. In 405, for example, Niall of the Nine Hostages is described as having raided along the southern coast of Britain.

407–410

On the last day of December 406 (or, perhaps, 405), the Alans, Vandals, and Suebi living east of Gaul crossed the Rhine, possibly when it was frozen over, and began widespread devastation.

As there was no effective Roman response, the remaining Roman military in Britain feared that a Germanic crossing of the Channel into Britain was next, and dispensed with imperial authority – an action perhaps made easier by the high probability that the troops had not been paid for some time. Their intent was to choose a commander who would lead them in securing their future but their first two choices, Marcus and Gratian, did not meet their expectations and were killed. Their third choice was the soldier Constantine III.

Coin of Constantine III.

In 407 Constantine took charge of the remaining troops in Britain, led them across the Channel into Gaul, rallied support there, and attempted to set himself up as Western Roman Emperor. Honorius’ loyalist forces south of the Alps were preoccupied with fending off the Visigoths and were unable to put down the rebellion swiftly, giving Constantine the opportunity to extend his new empire to include Spain.

In 409 Constantine’s control of his empire fell apart. Part of his military forces were in Spain, making them unavailable for action in Gaul, and some of those in Gaul were swayed against him by loyalist Roman generals. The Germans living west of the Rhine River rose against him, perhaps encouraged by Roman loyalists, and those living east of the river crossed into Gaul. Britain, now without any troops for protection and having suffered particularly severe Saxon raids in 408 and 409, viewed the situation in Gaul with renewed alarm. Perhaps feeling they had no hope of relief under Constantine, both the Romano-Britons and some of the Gauls expelled Constantine’s magistrates in 409 or 410. The Byzantine historian Zosimus (fl. 490’s – 510’s) directly blamed Constantine for the expulsion, saying that he had allowed the Saxons to raid, and that the Britons and Gauls were reduced to such straits that they revolted from the Roman Empire, ‘rejected Roman law, reverted to their native customs, and armed themselves to ensure their own safety’.

It has been suggested that when Zosimus records that the natives expelled the Roman civilian administration in 409 he might have been referring to the Bacaudic rebellion of the Breton inhabitants of Armorica since he describes how, in the aftermath of the revolt, all of Armorica and the rest of Gaul followed the example of the Brettaniai. A later appeal for help by the British communities was, according to Zosimus, rejected by the Emperor Honorius in 410 AD. In the text called the Rescript of Honorius of 411, the Western Emperor Honorius tells the British civitates to look to their own defence as his regime was still fighting usurpers in the south of Gaul and trying to deal with the Visigoths who were in the very south of Italy. The first reference to this rescript is written by the sixth-century Byzantine scholar Zosimus and is located randomly in the middle of a discussion of southern Italy; no further mention of Britain is made, which has led some, though not all, modern academics to suggest that the rescript does not apply to Britain, but to Bruttium in Italy.

Religious Orthodox icon: Holy Venerable Zosimus of Solovki.

Historian Christopher Snyder wrote that protocol dictated that Honorius address his correspondences to imperial officials, and the fact that he did not implies that the cities of Britain were now the highest Roman authority remaining on the island. The idea that there may have been larger-scale political formations still intact on the island has not been completely discredited however.

At the time that the Rescript was sent, Honorius was holed up in Ravenna by the Visigoths and was unable to prevent their Sack of Rome (410). He was certainly in no position to offer any relief to anyone. As for Constantine III, he was not equal to the intrigues of imperial Rome and by 411 his cause was spent. His son was killed along with those major supporters who had not turned against him, and he himself was assassinated.

Factual disputes

Regarding the events of 409 and 410 when the Romano-Britons expelled Roman officials and sent a request for aid to Honorius, Michael Jones (The End of Roman Britain, 1998) offered a different chronology to the same end result: he suggested that the Britons first appealed to Rome and when no help was forthcoming, they expelled the Roman officials and took charge of their own affairs.

One theory that occurs in some modern histories concerns the Rescript of Honorius, holding that it refers to the cities of the Bruttii (who lived at the “toe” of Italy in modern Calabria), rather than to the cities of the Britons. The suggestion is based on the assumption that the source (Zosimus) or a copyist made an error and actually meant Brettia when Brettania was written, and noting that the passage that contains the Rescript is otherwise concerned with events in northern Italy.

Criticisms of the suggestion range from treating the passage in the way it was written by Zosimus and ignoring the suggestion, to simply noting its speculative nature, to a discussion of problems with the suggestion (e.g., ‘why would Honorius write to the cities of the Bruttii rather than to his own provincial governor for that region?’, and ‘why does far-off southern Italy belong in a passage about northern Italy any more than far-off Britain?’). The theory also contradicts the account of Gildas, who provides independent support that the reference is to Britain by repeating the essence of Zosimus’ account and clearly applying it to Britain.

E. A. Thompson (“Britain, A.D. 406–410”, in Britannia, 8 (1977), pp. 303–318) offered a more provocative theory to explain the expulsion of officials and appeal for Roman aid. He suggested that a revolt consisting of dissident peasants, not unlike the Bagaudae of Gaul, also existing in Britain, and when they revolted and expelled the Roman officials, the landowning class then made an appeal for Roman aid. There is no textual proof that that was so, though it might be plausible if the definition of ‘bagaudae’ is changed to fit the circumstances. There is no need to do this, as any number of rational scenarios already fit the circumstances. There is the possibility that some form of bagaudae existed in Britain, but were not necessarily relevant to the events of 409 and 410. The alleged ubiquity of Pelagianism amongst the British population may have contributed to such a movement if it had existed, not to mention large-scale purges amongst the British elite over previous decades. Among the works that mention but skirt the issue is Koch’s Celtic Culture (2005), which cites Thompson’s translation of Zosimus and goes on to say “The revolt in Britain may have involved bacaudae or peasant rebels as was the case in Armorica, but this is not certain.”

Sources

 

  • Frere, Sheppard Sunderland (1987), Britannia: A History of Roman Britain (3rd, revised ed.), London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, ISBN 0-7102-1215-1 
  • Giles, John Allen, ed. (1841), “The Works of Gildas”, The Works of Gildas and Nennius, London: James Bohn 
  • Higham, Nicholas (1992), Rome, Britain and the Anglo-Saxons, London: B. A. Seaby, ISBN 1-85264-022-7 
  • Jones, Barri; Mattingly, David (1990), An Atlas of Roman Britain, Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers (published 2007), ISBN 978-1-84217-067-0 
  • Laing, Lloyd (1975), The Archaeology of Late Celtic Britain and Ireland, c. 400–1200 AD, Frome: Book Club Associates (published 1977) 
  • Mattingly, David (2006), An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire, London: Penguin Books (published 2007), ISBN 978-0-14-014822-0 
  • Snyder, Christopher A. (1998), An Age of Tyrants: Britain and the Britons A.D. 400–600, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, ISBN 0-271-01780-5 
  • Snyder, Christopher A. (2003), The Britons, Malden: Blackwell Publishing, ISBN 978-0-631-22260-6

 

The Anglo-Saxon Settlement of England

The Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain describes the process which changed the language and culture of most of what became England from Romano-British to Germanic.

The Germanic-speakers in Britain, themselves of diverse origins, eventually developed a common cultural identity as Anglo-Saxons. This process occurred from the mid-fifth to early seventh centuries, following the end of Roman power in Britain around the year 410. The settlement was followed by the establishment of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the south and east of Britain, later followed by the rest of modern England.

The available evidence includes the scanty contemporary and near-contemporary written record, and archaeological and genetic information. The few literary sources tell of hostility between incomers and natives.

They describe violence, destruction, massacre and the flight of the Romano-British population. Moreover, there is little clear evidence for the influence of British Celtic or British Latin on Old English. These points have suggested a very large-scale invasion by various Germanic peoples. In this view, held by the majority of historians until the mid to late twentieth and twenty-first century, much of what is now England was cleared of its prior inhabitants. If this traditional viewpoint were to be correct, the genes of the later English people will be overwhelmingly inherited from Germanic migrants.

Angles, Saxons and Jutes Invade England.

However, another view, probably the most widely held today, is that the migrants were relatively few, centred on a warrior elite. They then dominated a process of acculturation to their own language and material culture. Archaeologists have found that settlement patterns and land-use show no clear break with the Romano-British past, though there are marked changes in material culture. This view predicts that the ancestry of the people of Anglo-Saxon and modern England would be largely derived from the native Romano-British. The uncertain results of genetic studies tend to support this prediction.

Even so, if these incomers established themselves as a social elite, this could have allowed them enhanced reproductive success (the so-called ‘Apartheid Theory’). In this case, the prevalent genes of later Anglo-Saxon England could have been largely derived from moderate numbers of Germanic migrants. This theory, originating in a population genetics study, has proven controversial, and has been critically received by a number of scholars.

By 400, the Roman provinces in Britain (all the territory to the south of Hadrian’s Wall) were a peripheral part of the Roman Empire, occasionally lost to rebellion or invasion, but until then always eventually recovered. That cycle of loss and recapture collapsed over the next decade. Eventually around 410, although Roman power remained a force to be reckoned with for a further three generations across much of Gaul, Britain slipped beyond direct imperial control into a phase which has generally been termed “sub-Roman”.

Hadrian’s wall in the 21st Century.

The history of this period has traditionally been a narrative of decline and fall. However, evidence from Verulamium suggests that urban-type rebuilding, featuring piped water, was continuing late on in the 5th century, if not beyond. At Silchester, there are signs of sub-Roman occupation down to around 500, and at Wroxeter new Roman baths have been identified as Roman-type.

The writing of Patrick and Gildas (see below) demonstrates the survival in Britain of Latin literacy and Roman education, learning and law within elite society and Christianity, throughout the bulk of the 5th and 6th centuries. There are also signs in Gildas’ works that the economy was thriving without Roman taxation, as he complains of luxuria and self-indulgence. This is the 5th century Britain into which the Anglo-Saxons appear.

Historical evidence

Surveying the historical sources for signs of the Anglo-Saxon settlement, and the people, assumes that the words Angles, Saxons or Anglo-Saxon have the same meaning in all the sources. Assigning ethnic labels such as “Anglo-Saxon” is fraught with difficulties and the term itself only began to be used in the 8th century to distinguish “Germanic” groups in Britain from those on the continent (Old Saxony in present-day Northern Germany).

Early sources

The Chronica Gallica of 452 records for the year 441: “The British provinces, which to this time had suffered various defeats and misfortunes, are reduced to Saxon rule.” The Chronicle was written some distance from Britain. There is uncertainty about precise dates for fifth-century events especially before 446. This, however, does not undermine the position of the Gallic Chronicles as a very important contemporary source, which suggests that Bede’s later date for ‘the arrival of the Saxons’ was mistaken. In the Chronicle, Britain is grouped with four other Roman territories which came under ‘Germanic’ dominion around the same time, the list being intended as an explanation of the end of the Roman empire in the west. The four share a similar history, as they were all given into the “power of the barbarians” by Roman authority: three were deliberately settled with German federates and though the Vandals took Africa by force their dominion was confirmed by treaty.

Procopius states that Britain was settled by three races: the Angiloi, Frisones, and Britons, each ruled by its own king. Each race was so prolific that it sent large numbers of individuals every year to the Franks, who planted them in unpopulated regions of its territory. Writing in the mid-sixth century, he also states that after the overthrow of Constantine III in 411, “the Romans never succeeded in recovering Britain, but it remained from that time under tyrants.”

Obverse and reverse of a Roman coin depicting Constantine III.

Gildas’ De Excidio et Conquestu Britannia

In Gildas’ work of the 6th century (perhaps 510–530), De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, a religious tract on the state of Britain, the Saxons were enemies originally from overseas, who brought well-deserved judgement upon the local kings or ‘tyrants’.

The sequence of events in Gildas is interesting:

  • After an appeal to Aëtius (the Groans of the Britons) the Britons were gripped by famine while suffering attacks from the Picts and Scoti; some fought back successfully, leading to a period of peace.
  • Peace led to luxuria and self-indulgence.
  • A renewed attack was threatened by the Picts and Scoti, and this led to a council, where it was proposed and agreed that land in the east would be given to the Saxons on the basis of a treaty, a foedus, by which the Saxons would defend the Britons in exchange for food supplies. This type of arrangement was unexceptional in a Late Roman context; Franks had been settled as foederati on imperial territory in northern Gaul (Toxandria) in the 4th century, and the Visigoths were settled in Gallia Aquitania early in the 5th century.
Angle, Saxon and Jute distribution in south-east England.
  • The Saxon foederati first complained that their monthly supplies were inadequate. Then they threatened to break the treaty, which they did, spreading the onslaught “from sea to sea”.
  • This war, which Higham called the “War of the Saxon Federates”, ended some 20–30 years later, shortly after the siege at Mons Badonicus, and some 40 years before Gildas was born.
  • There was a peace with the Saxons who returned to their eastern home, which Gildas called a lugubre divortium barbarorum—a grievous divorce from the barbarians. The “divorce settlement”, Higham in particular has argued, was an improved treaty from the British viewpoint. This included the ability to extract tribute from the people in the east (i.e. the Saxons) who were under the leadership of the person Gildas called pater diabolus.

Gildas used the correct late Roman term for the Saxons, foederati, people who came to Britain under a well-used treaty system. This kind of treaty had been used elsewhere to bring people into the Roman Empire to move along the roads or rivers and work alongside the army. Gildas called them Saxons, which was probably the common British term for the settlers. Interestingly Gildas’ use of the word Patria, when used in relation to the Saxons and Picts, gave the impression that some Saxons could by then be regarded as native to Britannia.

Britain for Gildas was the whole island; ethnicity and language were not his issue, he was concerned with the leaders’ faith and actions. The historical details are, as Snyder had it: “by-products from his recounting of royal-sins”. There is a strong tradition of Christian writers who were concerned with the moral qualities of leadership and Gildas joined these. He used apocalyptic language: for example the Saxons were “villains”, “enemies”, led by a Devil-father. Yet Gildas had lived through, in his own words, an age of “external peace”, and it is this peace that brought with it the tyrannis—”unjust rule”.

Gildas’ remarks reflected his continuing concern regarding the vulnerability of his countrymen and their disregard and in-fighting: for example, “it was always true of this people (as it is now) that it was weak in beating off the weapons of the enemy but strong in putting up with civil war and the burden of sin.” However, after the War of the Saxon Federates, if there were acts of genocide, mass exodus or mass slavery, Gildas did not seem to know about them. Gildas, in discussing the holy shrines, mentioned that the spiritual life of Britain had suffered, because the partition (divortium), of the country, which was preventing the citizens (cives) from worshipping at the shrines of the martyrs. Control had been ceded to the Saxons, even control of access to such shrines. The church was now ‘tributary’, her sons had ’embraced dung’ and the nobility had lost their authority to govern.

Gildas described the corruption of the elite: “Britain has kings but they are tyrants; she has judges but they are wicked”. This passage provides a glimpse into the world of Gildas, he continued: “they plunder and terrorise the innocent, they defend and protect the guilty and thieving, they have many wives, whores and adulteresses, swear false oaths, tell lies, reward thieves, sit with murderous men, despise the humble, their commanders are ‘enemies of God'”; the list is long. Interestingly, oath breaking and the absence of just judgements for ordinary people were mentioned a number of times. British leadership, everywhere, was immoral and the cause of the “ruin of Britain”.

Romano-Britons were driven out of England by the Anglo-Saxons.

Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum

Gildas and other sources were used by Bede in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, written around 731. Bede identifies the migrants as Angles, Saxons and Jutes, reporting (Bk I, Ch 15) that the Saxons came from Old Saxony (Northern Germany) and the Angles from ‘Anglia’, which lay between the homelands of the Saxons and Jutes. Anglia is reasonably taken to be the old Schleswig-Holstein Province (straddling the modern Danish-German border), and containing the modern Angeln. Jutland was the homeland of the Jutes, and the coast between the Elbe and Weser rivers (modern German state of Lower Saxony) is the Saxon area of origin.

Angles, Saxon and Jute settlements 400-500AD.

Crucially, Bede seems to identify three phases of settlement: an exploration phase, when mercenaries came to protect the resident population; a migration phase, which was substantial, as implied by the statement that Anglus was deserted; and an establishment phase, in which Anglo-Saxons started to control areas, implied in Bede’s statement about the origins of the tribes. This analysis of Bede has led to a re-evaluation, in terms of continuity and change, of Bede’s “Northumbrian” view of history and how this view was projected back into the account of the latter two phases of settlement; and a possible overhaul of the traditional chronological framework.

The concept of Bretwalda originates in Bede’s comment on who held the Imperium of Britain. From this concept, historians have inferred a formal institution of overlordship south of the Humber. Whether such an institution existed is uncertain, but Simon Keynes argues that the idea is not an invented concept. The Bretwalda concept is taken as evidence for a presence of a number of early Anglo-Saxon elite families. Whether the majority were early settlers, descendant from settlers, or especially after the exploration stage, were Roman-British leaders who adopted Anglo-Saxon culture is unclear, but the balance of opinion is that most were migrants. Notable gaps include: no-one from the East or West Midlands is represented in the list of Bretwaldas, and there is some uncertainty about the dates of these leaders.

Bede’s view of Britons is partly responsible for the picture of them as the downtrodden subjects of Anglo-Saxon oppression. This has been used by linguists and archaeologists who have produced genocidal, slavery and bloody invasion settlement theories. Bede’s derogatory depiction of the Britons is influenced by what he had read in Gildas, which had also sought to understand God’s will. For Gildas, the Saxons represented God’s scourge, and he saw the horrors of the Saxon as God’s retribution for the sins of his people. Bede focused on this point and extended Gildas’ vision by portraying the pagan Anglo-Saxons not as God’s scourge against the reprobate Britons, but rather as the agents of Britain’s redemption. Therefore, the ghastly scenario that Gildas feared is calmly explained away by Bede: any rough treatment was necessary, and ordained by God, because the Britons had lost God’s favour, and incurred his wrath. Bede is not using ethnicity in the same manner as a modern reader. Windy McKinney observes, “Bede’s use of (ethnic terminology) was much more mutable: tied to the expression of tradition and religious ideas, to the loyalty of a people to authority, and subject to change as history continued to unfold. Therefore, it is a moot point whether all of those whom Bede encompassed under the term Angli were racially Germanic”. Indeed, Bede himself may not have been an ethnically ‘pure’ Angle.

Folio 3v from the Petersburg Bede. The Saint Petersburg Bede (Saint Petersburg, National Library of Russia, lat. Q. v. I. 18), a near-contemporary version of the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum.

Tribal Hidea

The Tribal Hideage is a list of 35 tribes that was compiled in Anglo-Saxon England some time between the 7th and 9th centuries. The inclusion of the ‘Elmet-dwellers’ suggests to Simon Keynes that the Tribal Hideage was compiled in the early 670s, during the reign of King Wulfhere, since Elmet seems to have reverted thereafter to Northumbrian control.

It includes a number of independent kingdoms and other smaller territories and assigns a number of hides to each one. A hide was an amount of land sufficient to support a household. The list of tribes is headed by Mercia and consists almost exclusively of peoples who lived south of the Humber estuary and territories that surrounded the Mercian kingdom, some of which have never been satisfactorily identified by scholars. The document is problematic, but extremely important for historians as it provides a glimpse into the relationship between people, land and the tribes and groups into which they had organised themselves.

The individual units in the list developed from the settlement areas of tribal groups, some of which are as little as 300 hides. The names are difficult to locate: places like East wixna and Sweord ora. What it reveals is that micro-identity of tribe and family is important from the start. The list is evidence for more complex settlement than the single political entity of the other historical sources.

Anglo-Saxon Chroni

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is an historical record of events in Anglo-Saxon England which was kept from the late 9th to the mid-12th century. The Chronicle is a collection of annals that were still being updated in some cases more than 600 years after the events they describe. They contain various entries that seem to add to the breadth of the historical evidence and provide good evidence for a migration, the Anglo-Saxon elites and various significant historical events.

The initial page of the Peterborough Chronicle.

The earliest events described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle were transcribed centuries after they had occurred. Barbara Yorke, Patrick Sims-Williams and David Dumville among others have highlighted how a number of features of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the 5th and early 6th centuries clearly contradict the idea that they contain a reliable year-by-year record Stuart Laycock has suggested that there may be information from the early period that can be used on the basis that: the obvious glosses and fictions should be rejected (such as the information about Porta and Portsmouth); the kernel behind some entries might contain a truth (such as the sequence of the events associated with Ælle of Sussex); and whilst the dates are uncertain, Laycock believes some of the 6th century events may describe real situation. However presenting evidence for the Anglo-Saxon settlement from a chronicle such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is uncertain and relies heavily on the present view of which entries are acceptable truth. As Dumville points out about the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: “medieval historiography has assumptions different from our own, particularly in terms of distinctions between fiction and non-fiction”.

“Saxon” political ascendancy in Britain

A re-evaluation of the traditional picture of decay and dissolution Post-Roman Britain has occurred, with sub-Roman Britain being thought rather more a part of the Late Antique world of western Europe than was customary a half century ago. As part of this re-evaluation some suggest that sub-Roman Britain, in its entirety, retained a significant political, economic and military momentum across the fifth century and even the bulk of the sixth. This in large part stems from attempts to develop visions of British success against the incoming Anglo-Saxons, as suggested by the Chronicles which were written in the ninth and mid-tenth century. However, recent scholarship has contested the extent to which either can be credited with any level of historicity regarding the decades around AD 500.

5th Century Saxon Emigration.

The representation of long-lasting British triumphs against the Saxons appears in large parts of the Chronicles, but stem ultimately from Gildas’s brief and frustratingly elusive reference to a British victory at Mons Badonicus – Mount Badon. Nick Higham suggests, that the war between Britons and Saxons seems to have ended in some sort of compromise, which conceded a very considerable sphere of influence within Britain to the incomers. According to Higham;

The most developed vision of a ‘big’ sub-Roman Britain, with control over its own political and military destiny for well over a century, is that of Kenneth Dark, who has argued that Britain should not be divided during the fifth, and even the bulk of the sixth, century into ‘British’ and ‘Anglo-Saxon’ cultural and/or political provinces, but should be thought of as a generally ‘British’ whole. His thesis, in brief, is to postulate not just survival but continuing cultural, political and military power for the sub-Roman elite, both in the far west (where this view is comparatively uncontroversial) but also in the east, where it has to be imagined alongside incoming settlements. He postulates the sub-Roman community to have been the dominant force in insular affairs right up to c.570.

Kenneth Dark’s argument for continuing British military and political power in the east rests on the very uneven distribution of Anglo-Saxon cemeteries and the proposition that large gaps in that distribution necessarily represent strong British polities which excluded Anglo-Saxon settlers by force. Cremation cemeteries in eastern Britain north of the Thames begin during the second quarter of the fifth century, backed up by new archaeological phases before 450. The chronology of this “adventus” of cremations is supported by the Gallic Chronicle of 452, which states that wide parts of Britain fell under Saxon rule in 441. However, this did not result in many Brittonic words entering Old English. It seems therefore that no large-scale interaction occurred between incoming “Germanic” communities and numerous indigenous Brittonic speakers of equivalent social rank. If such interaction had been widespread, then we might have expected far greater language borrowing both in terms of structure and vocabulary.

‘Romano-Brittonic’ peoples’ fate in the south-east

The most extreme estimation for the size of the Anglo-Saxon settlement suggests that some 80% of the resident population of Britain were not Anglo-Saxon. Given that, explanation has been sought to account for the change in culture of the Britons to one where by the 8th Century the majority of people in southern Britain saw themselves as heirs to the Anglo-Saxon culture.

Edward Augustus Freeman, suggests that the Anglo Saxons and the Britons were competing cultures, and that through invasion, extermination, slavery, and forced resettlement the Anglo-Saxons defeated the Britons and consequently their culture and language prevailed. This view has influenced much of the linguistic, scholarly and popular perceptions of the process of anglicisation in Britain. It remains the starting point and ‘default position’, to which other hypotheses are compared in modern reviews of the evidence. Widespread extermination and displacement of the native peoples of Britain is still considered a viable possibility by certain scholars. Our best contemporary source, Gildas, certainly suggests that just such a change of populations did take place. However, Freeman’s ideas did not go unchallenged, even as they were being propounded. In particular, the essayist Grant Allen believed in a strong Celtic contribution to Englishness.

hleomæg wesiKs

Sources

  1. A sample of this discussion can be seen on the television series Britain AD: King Arthur’s Britain, particularly the discussion between Francis Pryor and Heinrich Härke.
  2. Based on Jones & Mattingly’s Atlas of Roman Britain (ISBN 978-1-84217-067-0, 1990, reprinted 2007); Mattingly’s Imperial Possession ( ISBN 978-0-14-014822-0, 2006); Higham’s Rome, Britain, and the Anglo-Saxons (ISBN 1-85264-022-7, 1992); Frere’s Britannia (ISBN 0-7102-1215-1, 1987); and Snyder’s An Age of Tyrants (ISBN 978-0-631-22260-6) — the sources are cited in the image legend — Locations of towns (fortified and unfortified) are given on p. 156, with tribal civitates and coloniae specified on p. 154, of Atlas of Roman Britain. Specification of the Romanised regions of Britain are also from the Atlas, p. 151. The “Departure Dates” are found in the cited sources, and are generally known. The Pictish, Saxon, and Scoti raids are found in the cited sources, as is the date of the Irish settlements in Wales. Frere suggests (p. 355) that it was the Irish who sacked Wroxeter c. 383. The locations of the Irish settlements is from the locations of inscription stones given in File:Britain.Deisi.Laigin.jpg as of 2010-10-11, which cites its sources of information.
  3. Throughout this article Anglo-Saxon is used for Saxon, Angles, Jute or Frisian unless it is specific to a point being made;”Anglo-Saxon” is used when specifically the culture is meant rather than any ethnicity. However all these terms are interchangeable used by scholars
  4. By the waning years of the Roman Empire, Britain was earning a special reputation as a “province fertile with tyrants”. These tyrants dominate the historical accounts of the 5th and 6th centuries and the work tells us much about the transition from magisterial to monarchical power in Britain.
  5. The phrase which mentions 40 years has been subject of much scholarly discussion. See Battle of Badon for more details.
  6. From patrius (“of or pertaining to a father”), from pater (“father”), and cognate with Ancient Greek πατριά (patria, “generation, ancestry, descent, tribe, family”) and πατρίς (patris, “place of one’s ancestors”)
  7. The sudden and drastic change from Romano-Britainto Anglo-Saxon Britain was once widely accepted as providing clear evidence for a mass migration from continental Europe and the near-complete replacement of the indigenous population in England