Nipissing University

History 2425 -- Medieval England

The Invaders

Steve Muhlberger
Perhaps the most interesting single archaeological site from the invasion period or soon after is the ship burial at Sutton Hoo.   The Campbell book gives a good summary on pp.  32-3, and there is a recent book by Martin Carver, Sutton Hoo:  Burial Ground of Kings? in our library.
We saw in our last lecture that the story of Britain in the last half of the fifth century and the whole of the sixth was one of hot or cold war between the native British and the Saxon immigrants. We've looked at the British side of the confrontation, now for the other.

Our best written sources are Bede (who wrote in A.D. 731), and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was written quite a bit later. 

Bede was a talented and conscientious historian, and even he knew almost nothing of the activities of his own ancestors until the arrival of the Roman missionaries in 596. He mentions the names of Hengist and Horsa, and recounts their ancestry from Woden. He knows or guesses that the English arrived in Britain about 150 years before the missionary Augustine landed in Kent. Otherwise almost all his material comes from Gildas.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle supplies much more material about the origins of royal dynasties in southern kingdoms of Wessex, Sussex and Kent are nicely set out. The material is dated year by year, and seems to give a picture of the foundation of the English kingdoms. But is this material worth anything?  The A-S Chronicle gives the impression of a contemporary recording events year by year, an impression that gives credibility to its annals. In actuality, the chronicle's account for the fifth and sixth century is a reconstruction. The chronicle was begun in the late 800s, over 150 years after Bede wrote.  Much of the detail that the Chronicle records which is not in Bede is probably legendary.

The only thing that keeps the origin of the English from being hopelessly obscure is the archaeology of the invaders, which can here and there be checked against the written records. The various tribes that arrived in Britain from northern Europe in the fifth and sixth centuries were still pagans. Their burial customs were of two types: cremation, with the ashes buried in pots; and burial of the body accompanied by grave goods. Both the pots and the grave goods can be used to give a rough chronology. The styles of potteries, brooches and jewelry can be compared across northern Europe, and easily datable graves allows us to guess at the dates of others that are similar.

The most interesting conclusion that modern archaeology has made is that Bede's account of  English origins in Book I, c. 15  is essentially accurate. Here he speaks of three founding peoples: The Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes. The Jutes came from the peninsula of Jutland, the main landmass of Denmark today. The Angles came from a little farther south on Jutland and from various islands of the area. West along the North Sea coast were the Saxons. Bede also knew where the founding peoples landed.   Archaeology backs him up.

What brought these people to Britain?

I referred before to the Roman habit of hiring their enemies as mercenaries to protect them from other enemies. This practice created a military sub-culture all along the Roman frontier. Groups organized for war dominated political life. Soldiers fighting for or against Rome, if not both, were the rulers. Archaeologically this situation is reflected in the use of jewelry, belt buckles, broaches, and other gear that was modeled after Roman army equipment, much as modern guerillas, freedom fighters and terrorists use similar equipment and clothing all around the world. The use of such mercenaries encouraged the so-called barbarian peoples to penetrate the Roman world. When the empire was strong, the process could be controlled by the imperial court and military authorities. When it became weak, the process was less controlled.

English archaeology shows that the earliest identifiable Anglo-Saxons were people wearing this Romanized gear. We suspect that they were brought in to serve as defenders of the coast. After the revolt referred to by Gildas, the mercenaries set up as independent rulers. Our sources say the former mercenaries invited their friends and relatives to join them in Britain, and these people seem to have responded in considerable numbers.

One of the most astonishing discoveries of British archaeology, the Sutton Hoo treasure, has revealed that the dynasty that conquered East Anglia, was not Anglian, not Saxon, but Swedish, from the area around Uppsala and Stockholm: the east coast of Sweden, facing Finland and the Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia. The ancestor of the East Anglian kings came a long way to find his new realm.

One of the most difficult questions about the Anglo-Saxon invasions is what happened to the British in the territories they took?

Three things suggest that the Britons fled or were wiped out.

Put this way, there seems to be a strong case for the replacement of one people by another -- a national conquest, comparable to the Jewish conquest of Palestine, or the English conquest of the eastern seaboard of North America. But this may not be the right answer.

I have already referred to the archaeological problems. The absence of British archaeology only shows us that we can't identify British sites -- it doesn't mean that there were no Britons. Even in the areas we know were British we would have a hard time proving their existence by means of archaeology.

The language question is equally slippery. The chronology of the establishment of the English language is unknown.  We can only be certain that the later population spoke the language of the winners. What the genetic makeup of that population was, how many of their ancestors spoke British or even Latin, is impossible to tell.

In regard to religion, we are a little better informed. The ruling warlords were pagans until the end of the sixth century. Many of their followers must have been, too. The English established many pagan temples, and the names of some of these places survive in the English landscape, and even in the names of the days of the week.  All of this linguistic evidence points to a widespread popular paganism.

On the other hand, just as some of the subjects of Anglo-Saxon kings may have spoken British, some may have been Christians. Actually the continuation of Christianity in English territory seems pretty certain. The cult of the Roman saint Alban at the town now called St. Albans after him survived the invasions handily.

My own feeling is that there were many Britons under Anglo-Saxon rule, and that many of them continued to worship as Christians.

The sixth century must have seen a Britain divided into two competing cultural spheres. In one you have the independent British, who remained Christian and preserved some elements of Roman culture and learning. On the other side of the divide, you have a warrior aristocracy from across the sea clinging to its ancestral religion, ruling over a diverse population, some British, some immigrant.

Put this way, the culture divide sounds very wide, and certainly it seemed very important to those who were there at the time. Ask the Welsh about the English today, for that matter. But there are important resemblances between the spheres, and important elements of continuity on the English side.

The most noteworthy resemblance is the fact that both English and British society were ruled by warlords. Both societies were shaped by the conflict between them -- not to forget the internal conflict of Briton against Briton reported by Gildas, or English against English that we know a great deal about from Bede and others.  Central authority had collapsed, and warrior bands ruled.

Equally worth noting are the important elements of continuity in English Britain. There is institutional evidence that the basic style of local government of the English was inherited from the British past. In northern England, western England, even in Kent in the south eastern corner, royal taxation or tribute was collected in very similar ways.  This is the best evidence we have that the Anglo-Saxons did not step into an empty country, where everything had been destroyed by warfare.

The second element of continuity is, again, Christianity. The Anglo-Saxon rulers may have refused to adopt the religion of the conquered country, but it is hard to imagine that they ignored it entirely. Eventually the Anglo-Saxons, despite the resistance of some nobles, went over quite easily to the new faith, once it was presented to them by a well organized mission. I  conclude that contact even with a disorganized Christian community had affected them.

In the sixth century competition between warlords, British, Anglian, Swedish, Saxon,  the dynasties of the newcomers won out. By the time the light of historical record keeping is cast on the scene, the British are restricted to Cornwall, Wales, and Strathclyde. English kingdoms, a large number of them, have taken the best parts of the island. A late development, perhaps, but the conquest was permanent; for most of Britain, the language of the future would be English, the language of the victorious warlords.