Anglo-Saxon Invasion of Britain

by Ben Levick

The Anglo-Saxon Invasion of Britain

In 410 A.D. the Roman legions were recalled to Rome to defend it against barbarian attacks, and Britain was left to fend for itself. (The rulers of Britain after 410 are referred to as 'tyrants' because their authority had no legitimacy in Roman Eyes.) Having no armies left the British people were left open to attack from the Picts (probably by sea down the east coast, for the Picts are described in one Late Roman source as a sea-going people - just like the Saxons). With this situation we find the following:

'449 In this year Mauricius and Valentinian obtained the Kingdom and reigned seven years. In their days Hengest and Horsa, invited by Vortigern, King of the Britons, came to Britain at a place called Ebbsfleet at first to help the Britons, but later they fought against them. The king ordered them to fight against the Picts, and so they did and had victory wherever they came. They then sent to Angeln [i.e. Denmark]; ordered them to send them more aid and to be told of the worthlessness of the Britons and of the excellence of the land. They sent them more aid. These men came from three nations of Germany: from the Old Saxons, from the Angles, from the Jutes. From the Jutes came the people of Kent and the people of the Isle of Wight, that is the race which now dwells in the Isle of Wight, and the race among the West Saxons which is still called the race of the Jutes. From the Old Saxons came the East Saxons and South Saxons and West Saxons. From Angel, which has stood waste ever since between the Jutes and the Saxons, came the East Angles, Middle Angles, Mercians and all the Northumbrians.'

Ships of the type used by the early Anglo-Saxon settlers/invaders.

This account of the migrations from Germany, following the collapse of the Roman Empire, is taken from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, and is how the later Anglo-Saxons saw the first arrival of their people. Since then, until quite recently, it has remained the accepted view of what happened. However, recent researches have shown it to be wrong in almost every detail It is even uncertain whether Hengest andHorsa existed, or whether they were actually the same person! Although Hengest may have been the first Germanic chieftain of Kent, he was probably no more than a warlord. The first Germanic king was probably his son Oisc, giving the Kentish royal house the name of the 'Oiscingas'. Whilst it may be true that a British king (who may or may not have been called Vortigern) employed Germanic mercenaries to aid him in his battles against the Picts (or perhaps just another British king), it would certainly not be the first instance of Germanic settlers in this country. It is known that Germanic troops had been stationed in this country by the Romans since at least the third century - it is also known that some of these troops settled in this country - and Germanic pirates were raiding Britain from at least this date too, so the 'excellence of the land' would have already been well known on the continent. Archaeology has shown that by the late fourth century Germanic mercenaries were to be found settled all along the east coast of Britain, and along the banks of the Thames at least as far as Oxfordshire. The British 'tyrants' also feared a Roman invasion from Gaul to remove them, so some of the Saxons stationed in southern England may have been a guard against Roman military intervention - a far cry from the old view of the Britons missing the presence of the legions!. It is also known that the peoples who made up the 'Anglo-Saxons' were far more varied than just the three groups mentioned.

For ease of reference I will use the name 'Anglo-Saxon' to refer to those Germanic people who settled in Britain, even though this is not what they would have thought of themselves as at this stage. Certainly there were Jutes ( probably not exclusively from Jutland as many people think, but also from the Frankish Rhineland ), Saxons (from northern Germany) and Angles (from southern Denmark), and these may have formed the bulk of the migrating peoples, but there were also Frisians (from the Low Countries - the Frisian language shared in all the more important sound changes which distinguish English from German on one hand and the Scandinavian languages on the other), Geats (from Gotland and south-east Sweden), Franks (from northern France and central Germany), Wends (from the southern Baltic lands), Swedes, Norwegians, and many others. Even the totally violent nature of their arrival is now thought to be rather exaggerated. Whilst it is certainly true that the newcomers did fight against the Britons (or as the Invaders called them the wealas - an Old English word meaning slave or foreigner!) in many areas much of the settlement was peaceful with farmers and craftsmen integrating themselves into existing communities. The numbers of the invaders was certainly large, and they certainly did affect the nature of British society, even to the extent of replacing the primary language, but they did not wipe out the native population. One current school of thought is that the graves found in Anglo-Saxon cemeteries with no grave goods may in fact belong to Britons living along side 'Anglo-Saxons', and the lack of grave goods represents the different burial customs of the Britons. If this is so then the number of Germanic peoples may not have been as great as many people imagine, perhaps only replacing the middle and upper echelons of society. It is also thought that some of the 'Anglo-Saxon' burials may actually be native Britons who adopted the ways of the 'Anglo-Saxons', just as they had done several centuries earlier with the Romans. It is most likely that in fact a mixture of all these situations happened - in some places the native Britons were almost entirely replaced by the newcomers, in some places the two peoples lived side by side, and in other places the population remained almost exclusively British, although these British people gradually adopted the ways and language of the invaders.

Whatever the nature of the influx of Germanic peoples, we know that it did not happen overnight and that it was not entirely peaceful. Fifty years after the traditional arrival of Hengest and Horsa there was still fighting going on for control of the land. Some of this was between the Britons and the invaders - this was the time of Ambrosius Aurelianus (probably the King Arthur of legend), a Romano-British chieftain - and some of the fighting was between different Germanic tribes each struggling for supremacy. Around the year 500 A.D. the Britons (probably under the leadership of Ambrosius Aurelianus) won a great victory at Mons Badonicus (Mount Badon) which halted the tide of Germanic invaders to such an extent that several continental sources show the Germanic expansion switched to northern Frankia (including Germanic peoples leaving England). It also seems to be at this time that many Britons left Britain for northern Gaul and turned the peninsula of Armorica into Brittany. For about half a century there was relative peace with British rule over the western half of the country and Germanic rule in the east, and it seems probable that the Britons may even have won back some parts of central England from the invaders (a fact the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles seem to gloss over!) By the middle of the fifth century the Germans started a second wave of colonisation that ended with most of lowland Britain under the control of many Germanic 'kings' (most of the later kingdoms were founded at this time) and the British culture relegated to the western fringes of the country in Dumnonia (Devon and Cornwall) and Wales (the name of which is derived from the word wealas mentioned above); in the north there was the British kingdom of Strathclyde and the independent British kingdom of Elmet which stretched westwards for many miles from the marshes at the head of the Humber, and separated the Angles of the northern Midlands from those of the plain of York. This division led to the fact that the occasional king who managed to gain supremacy over the other tribes (Old English Bretwalda) became known as 'King of all England South of the Humber'. The first of these was Ælle, king of Sussex from 477 AD, the second was Ceawlin, king of Wessex from 560 AD. It is also why the Germanic peoples living north of the Humber are recorded as the Nordanhymbroron gens, or Northumbrians, whilst the Germanic peoples living between the Humber and the Channel are referred to as Sutangli, or southern English (the earliest case of the North/South divide?) The Northumbrian Angles were divided into two main tribes - the Dere (Deirans) and Bernice (Bernicians). The southern English comprised the Lindisfaran (Kingdom of Lindsey - which may have been founded as a combined British/Germanic kingdom several decades before the traditional Germanic invasion), the Mierce (Mercians), the Eastengle (East Angles), the Eastseaxe (Essex), the West Seaxe (Wessex), the Suthseaxe (Sussex), the Middelseaxan (Middlesex), the Cantware (Men of Kent), Wihtland (people of the Isle of Wight), Hwicce (Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and western Warwickshire) and a loose confederation of small tribes known as the Middle Angles in central England.

The Germanic peoples who, in the days of the Roman Empire, had occupied territory stretching from Scandinavia to the Danube, from Gaul to beyond the Vistula, shared a common heritage. Although similar in many ways to the Celtic peoples, their culture was distinctly different. For example they spoke various dialects of a Germanic language (not the Gallic language of the Celts) and they worshipped the Northern, not the Roman or Celtic, gods. The war-oriented, Teutonic lifestyle had become traditional amongst the tribes. They shared, according to Tacitus, a veneration for the prophetic powers of women and a predilection for feasting and drinking. These traditional features of Teutonic culture were transmitted to their descendants by the Germans who settled in Britain. They were celebrated by Anglo-Saxons to such an extent that we can find the ancient themes in literary works composed as late as the tenth century A.D., long after the disappearance of a tribal society.

Various German peoples demonstrably retained features in common although they were settled over a wide geographical area and long period of time, and nourished their 'barbarian' culture despite the proximity of the Roman Empire. This lack of change is useful to us when studying the early Germanic Immigrants, since their illiteracy for a century and a half after settlement inevitably leaves a gap in the British historical record, a gap that can be filled, at least partially, by written accounts from outside observers (Tacitus' Germania gives us many details of life amongst the Germanic tribes, as do other classical texts).


1 Hengest is known from two other literary sources (Beowulf and ''The Finnesburgh Fragment"), so he probably did exist, but as the names 'Hengest' and 'Horsa' both mean 'horse', it is possible that Horsa was just an alternative name for Hengest.

2 It is probable that although the leaders of the Jutes had originated in Jutland, they had served as mercenaries in Frisia and the Rhineland. As such, their followers would have been a mixture of North Danish Jutes and Franks/Frisians from the Rhineland.

Main References

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles - Anne Savage; N. Garmonsway

Anglo-Saxon England - Sir Frank Stenton

The Anglo-Saxons - James Graham-Campbell

Germania - Tacitus

The Anglo-Saxon World - Kevin Cossley-Holland