Tag: Celts

Shields – Tribal Symbols and National Emblems

Roman Military Scutum Shield.

A shield is a piece of personal armour held in the hand or mounted on the wrist or forearm. Shields are used to intercept specific attacks, whether from close-ranged weaponry or projectiles such as arrows, by means of active blocks, instead of providing passive protection.

But they are much more than that. They are emblems, banners and insignia. They demonstrate power and signify authority. The shield is significant, it’s a statement of intent. The shield is the standard of an army.

Shields vary greatly in size, ranging from large panels that protect the user’s whole body to small models (such as the buckler) that were intended for hand-to-hand-combat use. Shields also vary a great deal in thickness; whereas some shields were made of relatively deep, absorbent, wooden planking to protect soldiers from the impact of spears and crossbow bolts, others were thinner and lighter and designed mainly for deflecting blade strikes.

Finally, shields vary greatly in shape, ranging in roundness to angularity, proportional length and width, symmetry and edge pattern; different shapes provide more optimal protection for infantry or cavalry, enhance portability, provide secondary uses such as ship protection or as a weapon and so on.

The Wandsworth Shield is a circular bronze Iron Age shield boss or mount decorated in La Tène style that was found in the River Thames at Wandsworth in London sometime before 1849.

In prehistory and during the era of the earliest civilisations, shields were made of wood, animal hide, woven reeds or wicker. In classical antiquity, the Barbarian Invasions and the Middle Ages, they were normally constructed of poplar tree, lime or another split-resistant timber, covered in some instances with a material such as leather or rawhide and often reinforced with a metal boss, rim or banding. They were carried by foot soldiers, knights and cavalry.

Depending on time and place, shields could be round, oval, square, rectangular, triangular, bilabial or scalloped. Sometimes they took on the form of kites or flatirons, or had rounded tops on a rectangular base with perhaps an eye-hole, to look through when used with combat. The shield was held by a central grip or by straps that went over or around the user’s arm.

The oldest form of shield was a protection device designed to block attacks by hand weapons, such as swords, axes and maces, or ranged weapons like sling-stones and arrows. Shields have varied greatly in construction over time and place. Sometimes shields were made of metal, but wood or animal hide construction was much more common; wicker and even turtle shells have been used. Many surviving examples of metal shields are generally felt to be ceremonial rather than practical, for example the Yetholm-type shields of the Bronze Age, or the Iron Age Battersea shield.

Battersea Shield closeup.

Size and weight varied greatly. Lightly armored warriors relying on speed and surprise would generally carry light shields (pelte) that were either small or thin. Heavy troops might be equipped with robust shields that could cover most of the body.

Many had a strap called a guige that allowed them to be slung over the user’s back when not in use or on horseback. During the 14th–13th century BC, the Sards or Shardana, working as mercenaries for the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II, utilized either large or small round shields against the Hittites. The Mycenaean Greeks used two types of shields: the “figure-of-eight” shield and a rectangular “tower” shield. These shields were made primarily from a wicker frame and then reinforced with leather.

Covering the body from head to foot, the figure-of-eight and tower shield offered most of the warrior’s body a good deal of protection in head-to-head combat. The Ancient Greek hoplites used a round, bowl-shaped wooden shield that was reinforced with bronze and called an aspis. Another name for this type of shield is a hoplon. The hoplon shield inspired the name for hoplite soldiers.

Greek Hoplite with Aspis Shield.

The hoplon was also the longest-lasting and most famous and influential of all of the ancient Greek shields. The Spartans used the aspis to create the Greek phalanx formation. Their shields offered protection not only for themselves but for their comrades to their left. Examples of Germanic wooden shields circa 350 BC – 500 AD survive from weapons sacrifices in Danish bogs.

The heavily armored Roman legionaries carried large shields (scuta) that could provide far more protection, but made swift movement a little more difficult. The scutum originally had an oval shape, but gradually the curved tops and sides were cut to produce the familiar rectangular shape most commonly seen in the early Imperial legions.

Famously, the Romans used their shields to create a tortoise-like formation called a testudo in which entire groups of soldiers would be enclosed in an armoured box to provide protection against missiles. Many ancient shield designs featured incuts of one sort or another. This was done to accommodate the shaft of a spear, thus facilitating tactics requiring the soldiers to stand close together forming a wall of shields.

Advancing in testudo formation.

Typical in the early European Middle Ages were round shields with light, non-splitting wood like linden, fir, alder or poplar, usually reinforced with leather cover on one or both sides and occasionally metal rims, encircling a metal shield boss. These light shields suited a fighting style where each incoming blow is intercepted with the boss in order to deflect it.

The Normans introduced the kite shield around the 10th century, which was rounded at the top and tapered at the bottom. This gave some protection to the user’s legs, without adding too much to the total weight of the shield. The kite shield predominantly features enarmes, leather straps used to grip the shield tight to the arm. Used by foot and mounted troops alike, it gradually came to replace the round shield as the common choice until the end of the 12th century, when more efficient limb armour allowed the shields to grow shorter, and be entirely replaced by the 14th century.

Norman Warrior bearing Kite Shield.

Below is a list of shields from the early Roman era to the middle part of the Middle-Ages. The list is by no means exhaustive, and I have no doubt left some prominent examples out. However, the list attempts to convey the rapid change in shield design, which began with the Celtic ‘rectangular’ shield design and ended with the ‘Norman-style’ kite shield that was designed for use by cavalry and yet adopted for infantry use.

Celtic Shields

Celtic shields were usually oval or elongated oval in shape. They could also be round or hexagon shaped. On the front was usually a hollow wood shield boss to protect the hand. The boss was usually elongated to make the shield stronger and was sometimes covered by a metal plate. On the inside of the boss hole was a handle to hold the shield. The shields were made of wood, usually oak or linden (also called lime). Most often they were covered with leather.

Iron Age bronze shield, known as the Battersea Shield in the British Museum.

Battle shields were often individually decorated with various symbols. They were designed to be both light and strong. Celts used their shields defensively but also as an offensive weapon. A favorite tactic of a Celtic warrior was to strike the enemy with his shield. The Celts in Britain used smaller shields in battle while continental Celts used larger shields. Shields sometimes shattered in combat and were an expendable item.

Another style of Celtic shield, A Highland targe from the National Museum of Scotland.

Sparabara

Whilst not specifically a shield, but rather a type of warrior, The Sparabara, meaning “shield bearers” in Old Persian, were the heavy front line infantry of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. They were usually the first to engage in hand-to-hand combat with the enemy. Although not much is known about them today, it is believed that they were the backbone of the Persian army who formed a shield wall and used their two-metre-long spears to protect more vulnerable troops such as archers from the enemy. The term is also used to refer to the combination of these shield-bearers and the archers that were protected by them.

Sparabara at the Battle of Marathon(12 September, 490 BC).

The Sparabara were armoured with quilted linen and carried large rectangular wicker shields as a form of light manoeuvrable defense. This, however, left them at a severe disadvantage against heavily armoured opponents such as the hoplite, and his two-metre-long spear was not able to give the Sparabara ample range to plausibly engage a trained phalanx. The wicker shields were able to effectively stop arrows but not strong enough to protect the soldier from spears. However, the Sparabara could deal with most other infantry, including trained units from the East.

The sparabara were supposed to be used in conjunction with Persian heavy cavalry and chariots, which would attack from the rear. An example in which the cavalry failed to be engaged is the Battle of Marathon, which had catastrophic results.

Aspis

The Aspis was commonly carried by Greek Hoplites and were used in the early Roman period. The Aspis was a large concave shield (often referred to as a hoplon), measuring between 80–100 centimetres (31–39 in) in diameter and weighing between 6.5–8 kilograms (14–18 lbs). This large shield was made possible partly by its shape, which allowed it to be supported on the shoulder.

Greek Hoplon Shield.

The hoplon shield was put together in three layers with the center layer made of thick wood, the outside layer facing the enemy made of bronze and leather made up the inside of the shield. The revolutionary part of the shield was, in fact, the grip. Known as an Argive grip, it placed the handle at the edge of the shield, and was supported by a leather fastening (for the forearm) at the centre.

These two points of contact eliminated the possibility of the shield swaying to the side after being struck, and as a result soldiers rarely lost their shields. This allowed the hoplite soldier more mobility with the shield, as well as the ability to capitalize on its offensive capabilities and better support the phalanx. The large hoplon shields, designed for pushing ahead, were the most essential equipment for the hoplites.

The Scutum

Perhaps the most recognisable of all the shields, the Scutum represented the might and power of the Roman Empire.

The Scutum.

The Scutum (English: /ˈsktəm/; plural scuta; Classical Latin: [ˈskuːtũː]) was a type of shield used among Italic peoples in the archaic period, and then by the army of ancient Rome starting about the fourth century BC. The Romans adopted it when they switched from the military formation of the hoplite phalanx of the Greeks to the formation with maniples.

In the former, the soldiers carried a round shield, which the Romans called clipeus. In the latter, they used the scutum, which was a larger shield. Originally it was an oblong and convex shield. By the first century BC it had developed into the rectangular, semi-cylindrical shield that is popularly associated with the scutum in modern times. This was not the only shield the Romans used; Roman shields were of varying types depending on the role of the soldier who carried it. Oval, circular and rectangular shields were used throughout Roman history.

In the early days of Ancient Rome (from the late regal period to the first part of the early republican period,) Roman soldiers wore clipeus, which was like the aspides (ἀσπίδες), a small round shield used in the Greek hoplite phalanx. The hoplites were heavy infantrymen who originally wore a bronze shield and helmet.

The phalanx was a compact, rectangular mass military formation. The soldiers lined up in very tight ranks in a formation which was eight lines deep. The phalanx advanced in unison, which encouraged cohesion among the troops. It formed a shield wall and a mass of spears pointing towards the enemy.

Its compactness provided a thrusting force which had a great impact on the enemy and made frontal assaults against it very difficult. However, it also had its drawbacks. It worked only if the soldiers kept the formation tight and had the discipline needed to keep its compactness in the thick of the battle. It was a rigid form of fighting and its maneuverability was limited. The shields being small provided less protection. However, their smaller size afforded more mobility. Their round shape enabled the soldiers to interlock them to hold the line together.

Sometime in the early fourth century BC, the Romans changed their military tactics from the hoplite phalanx to the manipular formation, which was much more flexible. This involved a change in military equipment. The scutum replaced the clipeus. Some ancient writers thought that the Romans had adopted the maniples and the scutum when they fought against the Samnites in the first or second Samnite War (343-341 BC, 327-304 BC). However, Livy did not mention the scutum being a Samnite shield and wrote that the oblong shield and the manipular formation were introduced in the early fourth century BC, before the conflicts between the Romans and the Samnites.

Plutarch mentioned the use of the long shield in a battle which took place in 366 BC. Couissin notes archaeological evidence shows that the scutum was in general use among Italic peoples long before the Samnite Wars and argues that it was not obtained from the Samnites. In some parts of Italy the scutum had been used since pre-historical times.

Polybius gave a description of the early scutum. He wrote that it was oblong and had a convex surface 2 ½ feet wide and four feet long. It thickness at the rim was “a palm’s breadth” (about four inches). It was “made of two planks glued together, the outer surface being then covered first with canvas and then with calf-skin. 4 Its upper and lower rims are strengthened by an iron edging which protects it from descending blows and from injury when rested on the ground. It also has an iron boss (umbo) fixed to it which turns aside the most formidable blows of stones, pikes, and heavy missiles in general.” Polybius, The Histories, 6.23.2-4

The scutum is light enough to be held in one hand and its large height and width covered the entire wielder, making him very unlikely to get hit by missile fire and in hand-to-hand combat. The metal boss, or umbo, in the centre of the scutum also made it an auxiliary punching weapon as well.

Roman Legionary and Kit.

Its composite construction meant that early versions of the scutum could fail from a heavy cutting or piercing blow which was experienced in the Roman Campaigns against Carthage and Dacia where the Falx and Falcata could easily penetrate and rip through the scutum. The effects of these weapons prompted design changes that made the scutum more resilient such as thicker planks and metal edges.

When compared to the earlier aspis which it replaced, the aspis was heavier and provided less protective coverage than the scutum but was much more durable.

The oval scutum is depicted on the Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus in Rome, the Aemilius Paullus monument at Delphi, and there is an actual example found at Kasr el-Harit in Egypt. Gradually the scutum evolved into the rectangular (or sub-rectangular) type of the early Roman Empire.

Roman Oval Scutum.

By the end of the 3rd century the rectangular scutum seems to have disappeared. Fourth century archaeological finds (especially from the fortress of Dura-Europos) indicate the subsequent use of oval or round shields which were not semi-cylindrical but were either dished (bowl-shaped) or flat. Roman artwork from the end of the 3rd century till the end of Antiquity show soldiers wielding oval or round shields.

The word “scutum” survived the Roman Empire and entered the military vocabulary of the Byzantine Empire. Even in the 11th century, the Byzantines called their armoured soldiers skutatoi (Grk. σκυτατοί).

Clipeus

Roman Clipeus Shield.

The legionary scutum, disappeared during the 3rd century. All troops adopted the auxiliary oval (or sometimes round) shield (clipeus). Shields, from examples found at Dura and Nydam, were of vertical plank construction, the planks glued, and faced inside and out with painted leather. The edges of the shield were bound with stitched rawhide, which shrank as it dried improving structural cohesion. It was also lighter than the edging of copper alloy used in earlier Roman shields.

Clipeus virtutis, Latin for “shield of bravery”, was awarded to Augustus for his “courage, clemency, justice and piety” by the senate and displayed in the Curia Iulia.

The Anglo Saxon Shield

The shield was another extremely common piece of war equipment used by the Anglo-Saxons—nearly 25% of male Anglo-Saxon graves contain shields. In Old English, a shield was called a bord, rand, scyld, or lind (“linden-wood”). Anglo-Saxon shields comprised a circular piece of wood constructed from planks which had been glued together; at the center of the shield, an iron boss was attached.

It was common for shields to be covered in leather, so as to hold the planks together, and they were often decorated with fittings of bronze or iron. Textual descriptions and visual representations indicate that some shields were convex, but archaeological evidence for this has not yet been found.

No painted Anglo-Saxon shields have been discovered; however, painted shields from the same time period have been found in Denmark, and Beowulf describes shields as being “bright” and “yellow.” These pieces of evidence suggest that some Anglo-Saxon shields may have been painted.

Two round, wooden shields from Thorsberg moor; dating to the 3rd century CE, they are similar to the shields used by the Anglo-Saxons.

Old English poetry always states that shields were made of lime (linden-wood), but few actual examples have been found by archaeologists. Evidence indicates that alder, willow, and poplar wood were the most common types; shields of maple, birch, ash, and oak have also been discovered. The diameter of shields greatly varied, ranging from 0.3 to 0.92 m (1 to 3 ft), although most shields were between 0.46 to 0.66 m (1 ft 6 in to 2 ft 2 in) in diameter. Their thickness ranged from 5 mm to 13 mm, but most were between 6 mm and 8 mm in width.

Anglo-Saxon shield bosses have been separated into two main categories, based on the method of manufacturing. The carinated boss was the most common type—the design originated in continental Europe, and such bosses found in England date from the fifth to the mid-seventh century, at least. It is unclear exactly how carinated bosses were manufactured.

The other type is the tall cone boss, which was commonly used from the seventh century onward. These bosses were constructed of an iron sheet (or sheets), and were welded together from the rim to the apex. Iron or bronze rivets were then used to attach the boss to the shield; four or five rivets were most commonly used, although as many as twelve were used in some instances.

Replica painted Anglo Saxon Shield.

Behind the boss, the shield was cut and an iron grip was attached to the opening, so that the shield could be held. Grips were usually 10 to 16 cm (4 to 6 in) in length, the sides of which were either straight or gently curved. Evidence indicates that flanges were sometimes used to enclose a wooden handle.

As for defensive equipment, most Anglo-Saxon warriors only had access to shields. Pollington theorized that the shield was “perhaps the most culturally significant piece of defensive equipment” in Anglo-Saxon England, for the shield-wall would have symbolically represented the separation between the two sides on the battlefield. Smaller shields were lighter and easier to manoeuver, and therefore were best used in minor skirmishes and hand-to-hand combat. In contrast, larger shields were most commonly used in full-scale battles—they would have provided better protection from projectiles and were needed to construct a shield wall.

Depiction of an Anglo Saxon shield wall.

Viking Shields

The Viking shield was used for attack and defence. The sagas specifically mention linden wood for shield construction, although finds from graves show mostly other timbers, such as fir, alder and poplar. These timbers are not very dense and are light in the hand. They are also not inclined to split, unlike oak. Also, the fibres of the timber bind around blades preventing the blade from cutting any deeper unless a lot more pressure is applied. In conjunction with stronger wood, Vikings often reinforced their shields with leather or, occasionally, iron around the rim. Round shields seem to have varied in size from around 45–120 centimetres (18–47 in) in diameter but 75–90 centimetres (30–35 in) is by far the most common.

Viking Shield Colour Variations.

The smaller shield sizes came from the pagan period for the Saxons and the larger sizes from the 10th and 11th centuries. Most shields are shown in illuminations as being painted a single colour although some have a design painted onto them; the most common designs are simple crosses or derivations of sun wheels or segments. The few round shields that survived have much more complicated designs painted on them and sometimes very ornate silver and gold work applied around the boss and the strap anchors.

The Gokstad ship has places for shields to be hung on its railing and the Gokstad shields have holes along the rim for fastening some sort of non-metallic rim protection. These were called shield lists and they protected ship crews from waves and the wind.

Viking Longship showing the arrangement of the shields on the starboard side.

Some Viking shields may have been decorated by simple patterns although some skaldic poems praising shields might indicate more elaborate decoration and archaeological evidence has supported this. In fact, there is a complete subgenre of Skaldic poetry dedicated to shields, known as “shield poems”, that describe scenes painted on shields. For example, the late-9th-century skaldic poem, Ragnarsdrápa, describes some shields painted with mythological scenes. Viking shields were also heavily used in formations.

The shield wall or skjaldborg was a main formation in which accomplished Viking warriors would create a line of interlocked shields and thrust spears at adversaries. Other notable tactics included the svinfylking “boarsnout”, in which warriors would create a wedge configuration and attempt to burst through the front line of nearby foes.

Viking shield wall with interlocking shields.

The Vikings also used Kite Shields (see below).

Medieval Kite Shields

A kite shield is a large, almond-shaped shield rounded at the top and curving down to a point at the bottom. The term “kite shield” is a reference to the shield’s unique shape, and is derived from its supposed similarity to a flying kite, although “leaf-shaped shield” and “almond shield” have also been used in recent literature. Since the most prominent examples of this shield have appeared on the Bayeux Tapestry, the kite shield has become closely associated with Norman warfare.

Bayeux Tapestry Kite Shield Wall.

The first known illustration of a kite shield appeared in the Gospels of Otto III, indicating it was in use with Western European armies by the late eleventh century. The shield was developed for mounted cavalry, and its dimensions correlate to the approximate space between a horse’s neck and its rider’s thigh.

A narrow bottom protected the rider’s left leg, and the pronounced upper curve, the rider’s shoulder and torso. This was a vast improvement over more common circular shields such as bucklers which afforded poor protection to the horseman’s left flank, especially when he was charging with a lance. Though their great length and unwieldy nature made them cumbersome and inconvenient for foot soldiers, kite shields nevertheless gained popularity, spreading throughout Western Europe during the 1100s.

Aside from Normandy, they also appeared early on in parts of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, and it is unclear from which of these three regions the design originated. A common theory is that the kite shield was first inherited by the Normans from their Viking predecessors.

However, no documentation or remains of kite shields from the Viking era have been discovered, and they were not ideally suited to the Vikings’ highly mobile light infantry. Kite shields were depicted primarily on eleventh century illustrations, largely in Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire, but also in the Caucasus, the Fatimid Caliphate, and among the Kievan Rus’.

The Varangian Guard, Byzantine mercenaries, largely recruited from Viking territories in the north of Europe.

For example, an eleventh century silver engraving of Saint George recovered from Bochorma, Georgia, depicts a kite shield, as do other isolated pieces of Georgian art dating to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Kite shields also appear on the Bab al-Nasr in Cairo, which was constructed around 1087. Arab historians usually described them as tariqa or januwiyya.

Kite shields were introduced in large numbers to the Middle East by the First Crusade, when Arab and Byzantine soldiers first observed the type being carried by Norman crusaders; these left such a favourable impression on Byzantium that they had entirely superseded round shields in the Komnenian army by the mid twelfth century.

Around the mid to late twelfth century, traditional kite shields were largely replaced by a variant in which the top was flat, rather than rounded. This change made it easier for a soldier to hold the shield upright without limiting his field of vision. Flat-topped kite shields were later phased out by most Western European armies in favour of much smaller, more compact heater shields. They were still being used by the Byzantines well into the thirteenth century.

The Pelte

The Pelte is a a crescent-shaped wicker shield (Latin: peltarion) carried by a Peltast, a type of light infantry, originating in Thrace and Paeonia, who often served as skirmishers in Hellenic and Hellenistic armies.

In the Medieval period the same term was used for a type of Byzantine infantryman. as their main protection, hence their name. According to Aristotle, the pelte was rimless and covered in goat or sheep skin. Some literary sources imply that the shield could be round, but in art it is usually shown as crescent-shaped. It also appears in Scythian art and may have been a common type in Central Europe.

The shield could be carried with a central strap and a hand grip near the rim or with just a central hand-grip. It may also have had a carrying strap (or baldric) as Thracian peltasts slung their shields on their backs when evading the enemy. Peltasts’ weapons consisted of several javelins (akontia), which may have had throwing straps to allow more force to be applied to a throw.

In time, some armoured foot knights gave up shields entirely in favour of mobility and two-handed weapons. Other knights and common soldiers adopted the buckler, giving rise to the term “swashbuckler”.

Stainless Buckler Shield.

The buckler is a small round shield, typically between 8 and 16 inches (20–40 cm) in diameter. The buckler was one of very few types of shield that were usually made of metal. Small and light, the buckler was easily carried by being hung from a belt; it gave little protection from missiles and was reserved for hand-to-hand combat where it served both for protection and offence. The buckler’s use began in the Middle Ages and continued well into the 16th century.

References

  • Drummond, James (1890). “Notes on Ancient Shields and Highland Targets”. Archaeologica Scotica. 5.
  • Schulze, André(Hrsg.): Mittelalterliche Kampfesweisen. Band 2: Kriegshammer, Schild und Kolben. – Mainz am Rhein. : Zabern, 2007. – ISBN 3-8053-3736-1
  • Snodgrass, A.M. “Arms and Armour of the Greeks.” Cornell University Press, 1967
  • “The Hoplite.” The Classical Review, 61. 2011.
  • Hellwag, Ursula. “Shield(s).” Encyclopaedia Aethiopica, Siegbert Uhllig (ed.), vol. 4, 650-651. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

 

 

 

 

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

 

The Picts

Romano Saxon Cavalry vs Picts 5th C. AD

The Picts were a tribal confederation of peoples who lived in what is today eastern and northern Scotland during the Late Iron Age and Early Medieval periods.

They are thought to have been ethnolinguistically Celtic. Where they lived and what their culture was like can be inferred from the geographical distribution of brochs, Brittonic place name elements, and Pictish stones. Picts are attested to in written records from before the Roman conquest of Britain to the 10th century, when they are thought to have merged with the Gaels. They lived to the north of the rivers Forth and Clyde, and spoke the now-extinct Pictish language, which is thought to have been closely related to the Celtic Brittonic language spoken by the Britons who lived to the south of them.

Picts are assumed to have been the descendants of the Caledonii and other tribes that were mentioned by Roman historians or on the world map of Ptolemy. Pictland, also called Pictavia by some sources, gradually merged with the Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata to form the Kingdom of Alba (Scotland). Alba then expanded, absorbing the Brittonic kingdom of Strathclyde and Northumbrian Lothian, and by the 11th century the Pictish identity had been subsumed into the “Scots” amalgamation of peoples.

Dál Riata

Pictish society was typical of many Iron Age societies in northern Europe, having “wide connections and parallels” with neighbouring groups. Archaeology gives some impression of the society of the Picts. While very little in the way of Pictish writing has survived, Pictish history since the late 6th century is known from a variety of sources, including Bede‘s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, saints’ lives such as that of Columba by Adomnán, and various Irish annals.

Map of Britain from withdrawal of the Roman Empire in 410 until the ascension of Anglo-Saxon rule in 450AD.

What the Picts called themselves is unknown. The Latin word Picti first occurs in a panegyric written by Eumenius in AD 297 and is taken to mean “painted or tattooed people” (from Latin pingere “to paint”; pictus, “painted”, cf. Greek “πυκτίς” pyktis, “picture”). As Sally M. Foster noted, “Much ink has been spilt over what the ancient writers meant by Picts, but it seems to be a generic term for people living north of the Forth–Clyde isthmus who raided the Roman Empire.”

Illustration of a warrior, blue tattoos on his chest, and holding a small shield.

Their Old English name gave the modern Scots form Pechts and the Welsh word Ffichti. In writings from Ireland, the name Cruthin, Cruthini, Cruthni, Cruithni or Cruithini (Modern Irish: Cruithne) was used to refer both to the Picts and to another group of people who lived alongside the Ulaid in eastern Ulster. It is generally accepted that this is derived from *Qritani, which is the Goidelic/Q-Celtic version of the Britonnic/P-Celtic *Pritani. From this came Britanni, the Roman name for those now called the Britons. It has been suggested that Cruthin referred to all Britons not conquered by the Romans—those who lived outside Roman Britannia, north of Hadrian’s Wall.

Hadrian’s Wall

A Pictish confederation was formed in Late Antiquity from a number of tribes—how and why is not known. Some scholars have speculated that it was partly in response to the growth of the Roman Empire.

Pictland had previously been described by Roman writers and geographers as the home of the Caledonii. These Romans also used other names to refer to tribes living in that area, including Verturiones, Taexali and Venicones. But they may have heard these other names only second- or third-hand, from speakers of Brittonic or Gaulish languages, who may have used different names for the same group or groups.

Pictish recorded history begins in the Dark Ages. At that time, the Gaels of Dál Riata controlled what is now Argyll, as part of a kingdom straddling the sea between Britain and Ireland. The Angles of Bernicia, which merged with Deira to form Northumbria, overwhelmed the adjacent British kingdoms, and for much of the 7th century Northumbria was the most powerful kingdom in Britain.

The Picts were probably tributary to Northumbria until the reign of Bridei mac Beli, when, in 685, the Anglians suffered a defeat at the Battle of Dun Nechtain that halted their northward expansion. The Northumbrians continued to dominate southern Scotland for the remainder of the Pictish period.

Dál Riata was subject to the Pictish king Óengus mac Fergusa during his reign (729–761), and though it had its own kings beginning in the 760s, does not appear to have recovered its political independence from the Picts. A later Pictish king, Caustantín mac Fergusa (793–820), placed his son Domnall on the throne of Dál Riata (811–835). Pictish attempts to achieve a similar dominance over the Britons of Alt Clut (Dumbarton) were not successful.

The figure of the Old Testament King David shown killing a lion on the St Andrews Sarcophagus is thought to represent King Óengus. The figure is dressed as a Roman emperor of Late Antiquity and wears a fibula like that of the Emperor Justinian on the mosaic at San Vitale, Ravenna.

The Viking Age brought great changes in Britain and Ireland, no less in Scotland than elsewhere, conquering and settling the islands and various mainland areas, including Caithness, Sutherland and Galloway. In the middle of the 9th century Ketil Flatnose is said to have founded the Kingdom of the Isles, governing many of these territories, and by the end of that century the Vikings had destroyed the Kingdom of Northumbria, greatly weakened the Kingdom of Strathclyde, and founded the Kingdom of York.

In a major battle in 839, the Vikings killed the King of Fortriu, Eógan mac Óengusa, the King of Dál Riata Áed mac Boanta, and many others. In the aftermath, in the 840s, Cínaed mac Ailpín (Kenneth MacAlpin) became king of the Picts.

During the reign of Cínaed’s grandson, Caustantín mac Áeda (900–943), outsiders began to refer to the region as the Kingdom of Alba rather than the Kingdom of the Picts, but it is not known whether this was because a new kingdom was established or Alba was simply a closer approximation of the Pictish name for the Picts.

Constantín mac Áeda; Modern Gaelic: Còiseam mac Aoidh, known in most modern regnal lists as Constantine II; died 952.

However, though the Pictish language did not disappear suddenly, a process of Gaelicisation (which may have begun generations earlier) was clearly underway during the reigns of Caustantín and his successors. By a certain point, probably during the 11th century, all the inhabitants of northern Alba had become fully Gaelicised Scots, and Pictish identity was forgotten. Later, the idea of Picts as a tribe was revived in myth and legend.

Pictish Kings and Kingdoms

Approximate location of Pictish kingdoms, based on the information given here.

The early history of Pictland is unclear. In later periods multiple kings existed, ruling over separate kingdoms, with one king, sometimes two, more or less dominating their lesser neighbours. De Situ Albanie, a late document, the Pictish Chronicle, the Duan Albanach, along with Irish legends, have been used to argue the existence of seven Pictish kingdoms. These are as follows; those in bold are known to have had kings, or are otherwise attested in the Pictish period:

More small kingdoms may have existed. Some evidence suggests that a Pictish kingdom also existed in Orkney. De Situ Albanie is not the most reliable of sources, and the number of kingdoms, one for each of the seven sons of Cruithne, the eponymous founder of the Picts, may well be grounds enough for disbelief. Regardless of the exact number of kingdoms and their names, the Pictish nation was not a united one.

For most of Pictish recorded history the kingdom of Fortriu appears dominant, so much so that king of Fortriu and king of the Picts may mean one and the same thing in the annals. This was previously thought to lie in the area around Perth and southern Strathearn; however, recent work has convinced those working in the field that Moray (a name referring to a very much larger area in the High Middle Ages than the county of Moray) was the core of Fortriu.

Map showing the approximate areas of the kingdom of Fortriu and neighbours c. 800, and the kingdom of Alba c. 900.

The Picts are often said to have practised matrilineal kingship succession on the basis of Irish legends and a statement in Bede‘s history. The kings of the Picts when Bede was writing were Bridei and Nechtan, sons of Der Ilei, who indeed claimed the throne through their mother Der Ilei, daughter of an earlier Pictish king.

In Ireland, kings were expected to come from among those who had a great-grandfather who had been king. Kingly fathers were not frequently succeeded by their sons, not because the Picts practised matrilineal succession, but because they were usually followed by their own brothers or cousins, more likely to be experienced men with the authority and the support necessary to be king. This was similar to tanistry.

The nature of kingship changed considerably during the centuries of Pictish history. While earlier kings had to be successful war leaders to maintain their authority, kingship became rather less personalised and more institutionalised during this time. Bureaucratic kingship was still far in the future when Pictland became Alba, but the support of the church, and the apparent ability of a small number of families to control the kingship for much of the period from the later 7th century onwards, provided a considerable degree of continuity.

In much the same period, the Picts’ neighbours in Dál Riata and Northumbria faced considerable difficulties, as the stability of succession and rule that previously benefited them ended.

The later Mormaers are thought to have originated in Pictish times, and to have been copied from, or inspired by, Northumbrian usages. It is unclear whether the Mormaers were originally former kings, royal officials, or local nobles, or some combination of these. Likewise, the Pictish shires and thanages, traces of which are found in later times, are thought to have been adopted from their southern neighbours.

The Aberlemno Serpent Stone, Class I Pictish stone with Pictish symbols, showing (top to bottom) the serpent, the double disc and Z-rod and the mirror and comb.

The archaeological record provides evidence of the material culture of the Picts. It tells of a society not readily distinguishable from its British, Gaelic, or Anglo-Saxon neighbours. Although analogy and knowledge of other so-called ‘Celtic’ societies (a term they never used for themselves) may be a useful guide, these extended across a very large area. Relying on knowledge of pre-Roman Gaul, or 13th century Ireland, as a guide to the Picts of the 6th century may be misleading if analogy is pursued too far.

As with most peoples in the north of Europe in Late Antiquity, the Picts were farmers living in small communities. Cattle and horses were an obvious sign of wealth and prestige, sheep and pigs were kept in large numbers, and place names suggest that transhumance was common.

Animals were small by later standards, although horses from Britain were imported into Ireland as breed-stock to enlarge native horses. From Irish sources it appears that the élite engaged in competitive cattle-breeding for size, and this may have been the case in Pictland also.

Pictish Burghead Bull (British Museum).

Carvings show hunting with dogs, and also, unlike in Ireland, with falcons. Cereal crops included wheat, barley, oats and rye. Vegetables included kale, cabbage, onions and leeks, peas and beans and turnips, and some types no longer common, such as skirret. Plants such as wild garlic, nettles and watercress may have been gathered in the wild.

The pastoral economy meant that hides and leather were readily available. Wool was the main source of fibres for clothing, and flax was also common, although it is not clear if they grew it for fibres, for oil, or as a foodstuff. Fish, shellfish, seals, and whales were exploited along coasts and rivers. The importance of domesticated animals suggests that meat and milk products were a major part of the diet of ordinary people, while the élite would have eaten a diet rich in meat from farming and hunting.

No Pictish counterparts to the areas of denser settlement around important fortresses in Gaul and southern Britain, or any other significant urban settlements, are known. Larger, but not large, settlements existed around royal forts, such as at Burghead Fort, or associated with religious foundations. No towns are known in Scotland until the 12th century.

The technology of everyday life is not well recorded, but archaeological evidence shows it to have been similar to that in Ireland and Anglo-Saxon England. Recently evidence has been found of watermills in Pictland. Kilns were used for drying kernels of wheat or barley, not otherwise easy in the changeable, temperate climate.

The early Picts are associated with piracy and raiding along the coasts of Roman Britain. Even in the Late Middle Ages, the line between traders and pirates was unclear, so that Pictish pirates were probably merchants on other occasions.

It is generally assumed that trade collapsed with the Roman Empire, but this is to overstate the case. There is only limited evidence of long-distance trade with Pictland, but tableware and storage vessels from Gaul, probably transported up the Irish Sea, have been found. This trade may have been controlled from Dunadd in Dál Riata, where such goods appear to have been common. While long-distance travel was unusual in Pictish times, it was far from unknown as stories of missionaries, travelling clerics and exiles show.

Brochs are popularly associated with the Picts. Although these were built earlier in the Iron Age, with construction ending around 100 AD, they remained in use into and beyond the Pictish period. Crannóg, which may originate in Neolithic Scotland, may have been rebuilt, and some were still in use in the time of the Picts. The most common sort of buildings would have been roundhouses and rectangular timbered halls. While many churches were built in wood, from the early 8th century, if not earlier, some were built in stone.

Reconstructed crannóg on Loch Tay.

The Picts are often said to have tattooed themselves, but evidence for this is limited. Naturalistic depictions of Pictish nobles, hunters and warriors, male and female, without obvious tattoos, are found on monumental stones. These stones include inscriptions in Latin and ogham script, not all of which have been deciphered. The well known Pictish symbols found on standing stones and other artifacts, have defied attempts at translation over the centuries. Pictish art can be classed as ‘Celtic’ (a term not coined till the 1850s), and later as Insular. Irish poets portrayed their Pictish counterparts as very much like themselves.

The harpist on the Dupplin Cross, Scotland, c. 800 AD.

Early Pictish religion is presumed to have resembled Celtic polytheism in general, although only place names remain from the pre-Christian era. When the Pictish elite converted to Christianity is uncertain, but traditions place Saint Palladius in Pictland after he left Ireland, and link Abernethy with Saint Brigid of Kildare. Saint Patrick refers to “apostate Picts”, while the poem Y Gododdin does not remark on the Picts as pagans.

Bede wrote that Saint Ninian (confused by some with Saint Finnian of Moville, who died c. 589), had converted the southern Picts. Recent archaeological work at Portmahomack places the foundation of the monastery there, an area once assumed to be among the last converted, in the late 6th century. This is contemporary with Bridei mac Maelchon and Columba, but the process of establishing Christianity throughout Pictland will have extended over a much longer period.

An early 20th century depiction of Saint Columba’s miracle at the gate of King Bridei’s fortress, described in Adomnán’s late 7th century Vita Columbae.

Pictland was not solely influenced by Iona and Ireland. It also had ties to churches in Northumbria, as seen in the reign of Nechtan mac Der Ilei. The reported expulsion of Ionan monks and clergy by Nechtan in 717 may have been related to the controversy over the dating of Easter, and the manner of tonsure, where Nechtan appears to have supported the Roman usages, but may equally have been intended to increase royal power over the church. Nonetheless, the evidence of place names suggests a wide area of Ionan influence in Pictland. Likewise, the Cáin Adomnáin (Law of Adomnán, Lex Innocentium) counts Nechtan’s brother Bridei among its guarantors.

The importance of monastic centres in Pictland was not, perhaps, as great as in Ireland. In areas that have been studied, such as Strathspey and Perthshire, it appears that the parochial structure of the High Middle Ages existed in early medieval times. Among the major religious sites of eastern Pictland were Portmahomack, Cennrígmonaid (later St Andrews), Dunkeld, Abernethy and Rosemarkie. It appears that these are associated with Pictish kings, which argues for a considerable degree of royal patronage and control of the church. Portmahomack in particular has been the subject of recent excavation and research, published by Martin Carver.

The cult of Saints was, as throughout Christian lands, of great importance in later Pictland. While kings might patronise great Saints, such as Saint Peter in the case of Nechtan, and perhaps Saint Andrew in the case of the second Óengus mac Fergusa, many lesser Saints, some now obscure, were important. The Pictish Saint Drostan appears to have had a wide following in the north in earlier times, although he was all but forgotten by the 12th century. Saint Serf of Culross was associated with Nechtan’s brother Bridei. It appears, as is well known in later times, that noble kin groups had their own patron saints, and their own churches or abbeys.

The Pictish language is extinct. Evidence is limited to place names, the names of people found on monuments, and the contemporary records. The evidence of place-names and personal names argues strongly that the Picts spoke Insular Celtic languages related to the more southerly Brittonic languages. A number of Ogham inscriptions have been argued to be unidentifiable as Celtic, and on this basis, it has been suggested that non-Celtic languages were also in use.

The absence of surviving written material in Pictish—if the ambiguous “Pictish inscriptions” in the Ogham script are discounted—does not indicate a pre-literate society. The church certainly required literacy in Latin, and could not function without copyists to produce liturgical documents. Pictish iconography shows books being read, and carried, and its naturalistic style gives every reason to suppose that such images were of real life. Literacy was not widespread, but among the senior clergy, and in monasteries, it would have been common enough.

Place-names often allow us to deduce the existence of historic Pictish settlements in Scotland. Those prefixed with the Brittonic prefixes “Aber-“, “Lhan-“, or “Pit-” (=? “peth”, a thing) are claimed to indicate regions inhabited by Picts in the past (for example: Aberdeen, Lhanbryde, Pitmedden, etc.). Some of these, such as “Pit-” (portion, share), may have been formed after Pictish times, and may refer to previous “shires” or “thanages”.

The evidence of place-names may also reveal the advance of Gaelic into Pictland. As noted, Atholl, meaning New Ireland, is attested in the early 8th century. This may be an indication of the advance of Gaelic. Fortriu also contains place-names suggesting Gaelic settlement, or Gaelic influences. A pre-Gaelic interpretation of the name as Athfocla meaning ‘north pass’ or ‘north way’, as in gateway to Moray, suggests that the Gaelic Athfotla may be a Gaelic misreading of the minuscule c for t.

Medieval Welsh tradition credited the founding of Gwynedd to the Picts and traced their principal royal families—the Houses of Aberffraw and Dinefwr—to Cunedda Wledig, said to have invaded northern Wales from Lothian.

References

  • James E. Fraser, The New Edinburgh History Of Scotland Vol.1From Caledonia To Pictland, Edinburgh University Press(2009) ISBN 978-0-7486-1232-1
  • Fraser Hunter, Beyond the Edge of Empire: Caledonians, Picts and Romans, Groam House Museum, Rosemarkie (2007) ISBN 978-0-9540999-2-3
  • Alex Woolf, The New Edinburgh History Of Scotland Vol.2From Pictland To Alba, Edinburgh University Press,(2007) ISBN 978-0-7486-1234-5
  • Benjamin Hudson: The Picts. Wiley Blackwell, 2014. ISBN 978-1-4051-8678-0 (cloth); ISBN 978-1-118-60202-7 (paperback).

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

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