Posted by: deconquestubritanniae | September 14, 2013

The Anglo-Saxon Conquest of Britain and Continuity with Romano-British Life

Bede, Gildas and Gregory of Tours on the Great Change from Romano-British to English Kings – a culture supplanted or two cultures fused?

Posted by: deconquestubritanniae | June 11, 2012

The Anglo-Saxon Conquest of Britain and Continuity with Romano-British Life

The Anglo-Saxon Conquest of Britain and Continuity with Romano-British Life:

Bede, Gildas and Gregory of Tours on the Great Change from Romano-British to English Kings – a culture supplanted or two cultures fused?

By Christopher Miller B.A., B.Ed., M.A. (Classical Greek and Latin), O.C.T.

© 2012

In al that lond no Cristen dorste route,

Alle Cristen folk been fled fro that contree

Thurgh payens that conquereden al aboute

The plages of the North by land and see.

To Walys fledde the Cristyanytee

Of olde Britons, dwellynge in this ile;

Ther was hir refut for the meene-while.


But yet nere cristene Britons so exiled

That ther nere somme that in hir privetee

Honoured Crist, and hethen folk bigiled…

–        Chaucer, The Man of Law’s Tale

This article is not yet entirely polished, but has mostly taken the form I think it ought to have. I will keep posting the most recent versions, and I welcome any pointers, comments or criticisms so we can arrive at a satisfactory understanding of when English begins in England and when and how the Anglo-Saxons took over. It will remain perhaps a little sloppy and disorganized until the finishing touches are added. Please forgive my pitiful style and “hear me out” on this, and let me know what you think.

What I am certain of  regarding the Anglo-Saxon conquest of Britain is that Gildas and even Bede have been terribly misread, leading to nonsensical and exaggerated versions of 6th and even 5th Century English history being written and taught over the years. Bede misread Gildas, and later writers misread Bede. A fairer reading of both can point our research to the right time period(s) and turn evidence that has heretofore been overlooked into priceless information regarding the conquest. I think that the Germanic language that was later called “English” was spoken in England long before the Anglo-Saxon conquest, but that the Anglo-Saxon conquest is a real event which happened beginning between 547 and 582 A.D. Bede in fact tells a mostly complete tale of the Anglo-Saxon conquest which happened mainly under the historical kings he writes so much about in his Historia, and it begins with Aethelbert of Kent. There was a gradual growth of Anglo-Saxon language and culture in Britain from the early 5th Century and possibly even earlier with some Germanic-speaking settlement even in Roman times but certainly beginning by the early 5th Century, which grew through natural population growth and immigration over the waves from the many adjacent Germanic lands to the East in safety due to the recognized status of these communities as client or subject communities under British suzerainty. By the late 6th Century, almost two hundred years after it seems the first Anglo-Saxons were settled in Britain as mercenary client colonies, some kind of critical population mass or Anglo-Saxon cultural and linguistic identification was attained in certain parts of South East Britain, such as Kent which facilitated the throwing off of subject status and the ascendancy of Anglo-Saxon kings, beginning perhaps only as early as Aethelbert of Kent sometime between 560 and 582 A.D. and certainly no earlier than 547 A.D. I want to do two things with this research:

–        Establish when and how the English language came to Britain.

–        Discover when and how the Angles and Saxons conquered South-East Britain.

I am greatly appreciative of all the ongoing and critical help that my friend Arly Allen is giving me for this project. This project would have sunk in a squall of dead ends long ago were it not for his kind and thoughtful help.

The Conquest in a Nutshell

Ever since sea worthy vessels were invented and being built in the North Sea, there has been a tendency for people to want to leave the colder and less hospitable areas of Scandinavia and Denmark for the milder climes of Great Britain, particularly its South and East, its mildest and closest parts to these. In those days, travel by ship was often easier than travel by land, making the North Sea more of a highway than a moat. From the time of sea worthy vessels being built, there was probably quite a lot of contact across the North Sea, including population transfer, particularly away from the colder Scandinavia and Denmark and towards the milder England. The number of invasions by sea alone in recorded, historical times, such as throughout the Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods, of pirates and colonists from Scandinavia and Denmark, is astounding. From the closer shores of Northern Europe the trip was even shorter and easier. At its shortest gap, the crossing from Normandy to Kent might only take a few hours on a good day! Thus, population transfer between these two closer areas of England and the North Shore of France and Western Germany, who were certainly always busy trading with one other, was probably something of a given. The English language shares most in common with Frisian, for example, and this ancient ongoing contact must be a major part of the reason why it does.

Given that there were always people wanting to leave Scandinavia and Denmark for England, at different periods in history, different approaches were used in dealing with the migrants. One approach would theoretically have been to try to keep them out. However, this was more than a little bit awkward, since there were always going to be visitors from these places due to the extensive trade going on, on the East coast of England with them. You could not strictly control these people coming to visit or to stay without setting up a strict policing system, which would not really be to anyone’s advantage as it would disrupt trade and unnecessarily annoy people. These people normally would want to come and find work and so on, and not take over. This leads to the other approach, that of allowing immigrants to come and settle, if they can find work. One form of this kind of immigration was of slaves sold in England who had been captured all over the North Sea. This kind of immigration was on a small scale, but continuous, meaning over time, quite substantial!

On a large scale, two other kinds of immigration happened. One is invasion, where a fleet would show up and conquer an area, or demand to be given an area to settle in, who might be either repulsed, which was most likely given the population mass advantage of the residents versus the invaders who had to come by on a limited number of ships, or admitted, which was less likely historically. Large scale invaders or colonists would only be admitted in special circumstances. These kinds of circumstances would be where the residents are militarily weak, which would be due to intra-British war of some kind or another. Colonists could be admitted by sea to fortify the residents with fresh manpower in order to overpower their enemies. I cannot see large scale immigration being condoned for any other reason, since presumably all arable land was already taken by British farmers. Giving plots ofland to Scandinavian immigrants, unless it were unwanted, under-quality soil, meant taking land away from British people. Only war would provide the rationale to do this, both due to its frantic exigencies and to the fact that war often results in a decrease in available manpower due to death in battle and the capture and enslavement of many people. In such a case, perhaps an area ravaged by an enemy would be resettled with a mercenary colony. Alternately, an area of an enemy which your forces ravaged could be bequeathed to helpful mercenaries and/or ex-soldiers as a reward. This was a common practice among the Romans, for instance, who settled retired soldiers together in conquered regions – giving the land to men they knew had the wherewithal to keep it if attacked by an enemy wanting his ancestral lands back!

The population transfer between England and the close-by North Shore of Europe was probably an ongoing thing from before the Romans came until after they left. That both sides of the English Channel belonged to the Romans facilitated this greatly. Especially during this period one could expect to meet people speaking the same language in the ports on both sides of the Channel. Of course Latin was spoken there. In terms of German, or a “Germanic” language, we know that there was a certain Westward push of German throughout the time of the Roman Empire, certainly not impeded by there being two large and heavily populated German speaking provinces of the Empire nearby on the West side of the Rhine: Germania Superior and Germania Inferior. These provinces later become dominated by the German speaking Franks who then go onto rule all the adjacent lands in the Post-Roman period.

Tacitus, writing in the late 1st Century A.D. does not think the Britons spoke German. He writes of their languages as resembling those of Gaul. Tacitus wrote the famous Germania about the German nations, and him not including the British nations in this grouping is very telling. If the Belgae, who resided on both sides of the Channel were speaking a Celtic tongue of some sort or another, in spite of their claims to German ancestry, as Julius Caesar tells us, then we have the Channel shores as being Celtic speaking lands in the early Roman period. Tacitus does not lump the Belgae in with the Germans. They lived next to them, so I do not see why he would have kept them out of his grouping unless they really did not belong in it. Tacitus tells us that Britain was conquered by the Romans mainly using German speaking auxiliary armies of Batavians and Tungrians. Since the Romans stayed after this conquest, this is the first proof of German speaking settlers coming to England. Tacitus writes that the Picts look like Germans, but does not indicate that they spoke German. The Pictish language is lost to history, but based on some recorded Pictish names, the scholarly consensus is that their language was a Celtic one. There is evidence for ongoing use of German speaking units and armies in England by the Romans throughout the occupation. Now, whether or not these German speaking settlements of soldiers, many of whom may have chosen to stay after their term of service was finished and their Roman citizenship granted, created German-speaking bastions in Britain, or whether they melded into the Latin or even possibly Celtic speaking fold, is anybody’s guess. If they did keep their German language, reinforced perhaps with civilian immigration from the two Germanias or from Germanic speakers from outside the borders of the Empire coming in either as immigrants or slaves, then we probably have the beginnings of our English language dating from these times. The problem is that there is no actual proof of any Germanic language surviving in Britain either from literary or epigraphic sources from the period of the Roman occupation. Our proof, limited though it of course is, is of Latin, Greek and Celtic languages being used in Britain in those times. While German speakers certainly were in Britain in those days, there is no clear evidence for the language really taking hold. Certainly some Latin place names dating from the time of the Roman conquest, particularly those with “land” in them, like “Vindolanda” and so forth, are very tempting to think of as having German elements, but they are relatively weak pieces of evidence, since there is so little else to suggest any considerable German presence amongst the Britons of the time. However, the Germanization of the Western Roman Empire starting as early as the 1st Century A.D. makes it very likely that German was being spoken in Britain throughout the period and intensifying towards and past its end, at least in military circles where there were increasing numbers of German speaking troops providing the manpower for the Roman military machine. However, we need conclusive proof to establish something as fact. Therefore, outside of military auxiliaries, we have no conclusive proof of German speakers in Britain in the Roman period.

Thus, we are left with the post-Roman period beginning in 410 A.D. as the first one with clear proof of German speakers in large numbers occupying parts of Britain. Given the theory stated above that large scale settlement of foreigners would only be allowed in the case of military weakness, either as succumbing to invasion, or as settling allies or client forces, it is the post-Roman period that is most likely for large-scale Anglic, Saxon, and Jutish et cetera settlement. Gildas, writing a little before 547 A.D. mentions a large settled client force of Saxons rebelling against their British overlords and causing great havoc until being soundly and decisively defeated around 503 A.D. He makes no mention of any non-British occupiers anywhere else in the old Roman province of Britannia left after 503. In his day, Britannia was firmly and fully in the grip of British kings. There may have been settled client colonies, but if so, he does not find them remarkable or threatening in any way and so does not mention them. That he mentions a number of British kings in his same tract shows that Britannia had been divided into a number of petty kingdoms – precisely the kind of situation that would invite either invaders or make the settling of mercenary or client forces of foreigners attractive to the petty kings. It also shows that only British people were in charge in those days in Britannia. Germans or foreigners of any stripe whatsoever were clearly not!

The British as a people were terrifically powerful in this period. Some of them crossed the Channel to carve out a mighty nation in North Western Gaul which caused much trouble for the Franks and survived as an independent country until the 16th Century – over a thousand years! Gregory of Tours, the great historian of the Franks, writing at the end of the 6th Century, makes a great many mentions of the British as a powerful force in Northern Gaul throughout the 5th and 6th Century, and the Saxons to the East and South of Gaul, but only makes two mentions of anyone or anything Saxon, let alone Jute or Angle whom he makes no mention of, to do with Britain or Northern Gaul. These happen in the 580s where one mention is made of a Frankish princess marrying a man from Kent (our Aethelbert,) and of a settled colony of Saxons residing near Bayeux fighting under the British and dressed as British against the Franks. By “British” (Britanni) he means the British living in Northern Gaul, but still at this late date, 587 A.D., there is a client colony of Saxons working for and under the British. This strongly suggests to me that the decisive turnover of power from British rulers to German speakers in Britain started only in the late 6th Century, definitely after Gildas wrote around 547 A.D. and before Bede picks up the story in 582 with a planned Papal mission to the English, but probably not picking up much steam until after this 587 date, a date when Saxons were still underlings, at least on the South Coast of the Channel. It appears that until this time there were a few settled client colonies of Saxons, Angles and Jutes within the various British kingdoms of that era at various places in the South and East of Britain. That these settled client peoples were the only ones speaking German in Britain is dubious or uncertain, but that they were distinct ethnic groups, and settled quite soon before the conquest began, is more than likely, since they did not adopt Christianity, which they probably would have done had they been there a long time, and since they are not mentioned by Gregory of Tours before the late 6th Century either. Earlier settled Germanic client groups of the 5th Century, such as those excavated at West Stow and Mucking may perhaps have been “false starts” for the Anglo-Saxons in Britain, whose people may have been culturally and politically absorbed into the Romano-British fabric long before the Anglo-Saxon takeover in the late 6th Century. We would like to see a continual and growing expansion of the English language and culture in Britain right from the first settlements soon after 410 A.D. to account for the success of both by the end of the next century, but these may have been just as much “false starts” for the Anglo-Saxon presence in Britain as Julius Caesar’s invasions were “false starts” for the Roman presence in Britain in his day.

The history of the Anglo-Saxons before Aethelbert, the king of Kent, who was the first English ruler to accept Christianity, and well documented by Bede, is little more than a list of those kings holding “imperium” (see book II, chapter 5 of his Historia)over the lands South of the Humber River, whom the much later Chronicle calls “Bretwaldas” meaning either “Wide Rulers” or “Britain Rulers.” Aethelbert, who Bede tells us took power at least in his own kingdom in about 560 A.D., is directly preceded by a “Ceawlin” of Wessex. Ceawlin we know is a Celtic name like many of the names of West Saxon kings right through to Bede’s day, and his Westerly seat of power indicates or at the very least strongly suggests he could be a British king – king of the West Saxons indeed, but a British king of the West Saxons, i.e. a British overlord over client Saxons. The British and certainly not Saxon name of Ceawlin shows that immediately prior to Aethelbert, as far as was remembered, the Saxons were under the control of a British ruler or at least of a blended British-Saxon royal house. Before this British-sounding Ceawlin, Aelle of Sussex is listed as having held the supreme control of Britannia. He is a shadowy figure, but remembered as ruler over all the English. An Aelle of Deira was father of Edwin King of Northumbria of early 7th Century fame. He is apparently the Alla of Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale. The tale as handed down to Chaucer involves Alla marrying a Roman princess and visiting Rome. No one knows when this tale was first told, but if it in some part goes back to early Anglo-Saxon times, it might show a desire on the part of the Northumbrian monarchy to derive some legitimacy from the mystique and prestige of Rome – reflected in Bede’s description of the Northumbrian monarch sporting Roman standards. This Aelle, perhaps the same Aelle as Aelle of Sussex, which is a distinct possibility, also forms part of the legend surrounding Pope Gregory’s decision to evangelize the English (as found in Bede’s Historia book 2, chapter 1.) Regardless of exactly which Aelle it is we are talking about, the fact that this king’s reign coincides with the supposed first decision to evangelize the English makes me suspect this was the first time an English king was either independent of British rule, or had achieved any significant power over his own people or others in Britain, thus necessitating in a perhaps frenzied or panicked state the bringing back into the fold of this lost Christian territory. The story strikes me as being the first time a pagan king had achieved significant power in theretofore Christian Britain. This would have been a shocking thing for the highly religious Christendom of the time! Gregory the Great took the office of pope in 590 A.D. but was born around 540 A.D. The story, while we cannot accept it as more than a legend, gives us a hint as to when the first English Emperor of Britain, Aelle, ruled. The English thought he was in power early in Gregory’s lifetime, before Gregory became pope. We can estimate therefore a theoretical earliest date of about 560-70 for when this story was supposed to have happened. This is all still very consistent with the post 547 date for English independence from British rule which I am postulating in this paper. Keep in mind Aelle is only the very first English king said by Bede to have held the post of Emperor in Britain. Before him, there is no English king known to Bede with such power.

Bede cannot list any other Anglo-Saxon kings for the period prior to Aethelbert at all, except for the original Hengist and Horsa legends, where Hengist’s son is Oeric/Oisc, whose son is Octa, whose son is Eormenric, Aethelbert’s father. This fact plus Gregory of Tours not being cognizant of any Anglo-Saxon power or presence North of Gaul or in the North of Gaul until the tail end of the 6th Century makes me conclude that the Anglo-Saxon presence in Britain was one of settled client colonies until that time. Aethelbert himself was probably the first English, meaning Germanic speaking, non-client king in Britain, and he is suitably documented with a great deal of information, more than fitting for someone who turned Britain on its head! Even if Aella and Ceawlin really were Saxon kings holding imperial power over Southern Britain, the reigns of both could have been short enough or have overlapped somehow with the early part of Aethelbert’s reign while he was perhaps still tributary to one or both of them, making my post 547 date for the turnover of power to Saxon hands still fully consistent with both Bede and Gildas.

For Aella we have no recorded information from Bede besides him being king of Sussex. For Ceawlin all we have is a British and not an Anglo-Saxon name! The first of Bede’s English “Emperors” of Britain who seems to have made enough of an impact to actually have anything he did remembered is the third of these “Emperors” – Aethelbert. The Pope had to scramble to get his kingdom back into the fold. He was found suitable for marriage to a Frankish princess. There probably were no independent English kings, at least of note, before him. Well, maybe they might have been ‘independent’ in their own minds, but they were not really so. If you trace the expansion of English kings’ power from Aethelbert onwards, as described by Bede, on a map you can see the conquest happening in this era. I do not think Bede is deliberately misleading anyone, nor that he is missing any particularly important details of the overall shape of the conquest. He lets us know that Germanic people first started coming in large numbers together in the 5th Century, as settled client colonies and then spread all over the island. At the tail end of the 6th Century we have Aethelbert becoming a great ruler. Starting mainly with him, England is conquered by the Germanic speaking peoples, the Britons enslaved, absorbed, driven away or killed. Significant English power North of the Humber river according to Bede happens starting with Aethelfrith who he tells us conquered more land for the English from the Britons than any other English king. Bede tells us that he either exterminated or conquered the natives. Let us hope there was much more of the latter! This massive conquest by Aethelfrith is highly salient for us when trying to plot out when the Conquest was happening. Aethelfrith got so far North as to have to fight with the Scots (i.e. the Irish who lived in Britain) in 603, who were doing their own Anglo-Saxon type colonization in the North and West of Britain. Aethelfrith had come to power, according to Bede, around 591 A.D. which means he came onto the scene much later than Aethelbert. There were most certainly growing populations of Anglo-Saxons in Britain throughout the 6th Century, growing naturally through large families but probably being bolstered by immigration from their ancient homelands over the seas, giving them a certain population-growth advantage over the native Britons who did not have this kind of immigrant source to bolster their numbers. To be sure intermarriage must have been a large factor in this all as well, and with the winds apparently blowing in many areas in favour of Anglo-Saxon language and culture many bicultural families may have quite naturally opted to take on the Anglo-Saxon cultural and linguistic mantle. The House of Wessex may be one of these, where their names are almost all of Celtic derivation! With a growing underclass of Anglo-Saxon speakers at some point clinging onto the Celtic tongue becomes an effete affectation. A comparison with some parts of the present day United States in regard to the use of the Spanish tongue is in order here. Not only is their a healthy birth rate amongst Spanish speakers in the present day (2012 A.D.) United States, but there is a constant stream of both legal and illegal immigration from the Spanish American countries situated to the South of this great modern country. These two factors combined are leading to a greater and greater prevalence of Spanish in a number of areas in the United States, and one must wonder how long it will be before Spanish becomes the de facto if not even the official language in many of these areas. People do indeed move about, and we are witnessing a great folk migration in our own day. People left England for the American colonies in the 17th Century and after to escape from biting poverty or to find a better life, which they often did. This is much the same story for any large migration of people.

If a large chunk of Britain, which was thoroughly Christian, and in communication with the Pope and greater Christendom, was lost to pagan Anglo-Saxon kings before Aethelbert, we should expect to find grumblings about this in our literary record, and even perhaps something of a holy war or a massive missionary effort being at least proposed. Instead, we read of the greatest worry regarding the Christian faith in pre-Aethelbert Britain being the spread of the Pelagian theology there. If indeed the Anglo-Saxons had “paganized” much of what we now call England earlier than Aethelbert, we would be reading no end of it! But we do hear no end of it, in fact! This momentous event happened under our very Aethelbert, and the great outpouring of literary evidence combined with the massive missionary effort we would expect to accompany the loss of such an ancient Christian land to pagans is exactly that preserved for us in Bede’s Historia about pope Gregory’s and Saint Augustine’s mission to Kent beginning in 582 A.D.

Aethelbert seems to have been a very ambitious fellow! He married princess Bertha, daughter of the ill-fated Frankish king Charibert I (reigned 561-7 A.D.)  A bishop Liudhard accompanied her to Kent, who Bede writes conducted services at a Romano-British built church in Canterbury. A contemporary golden medallion depicting him is extant, proving him a real person. “Kent” was the old Roman name for the area, from the name of the pre-Roman tribe living there when the Romans arrived, the Canti.

The Importance of the Anglo-Saxon Conquest of Britain

The most important event in the history of the English speaking peoples is the conquest of Britain by the Anglo-Saxons. This event quite literally isolated this group of Germanic speaking peoples from the rest and over time resulted in the development of the distinct language and culture associated with England and its cultural and linguistic diaspora about the globe, including my country, Canada. This language and culture is now the world’s most dominant. Its defining moment, the very beginning of “Englishness,” is shrouded in mystery and very little reliable history. However, assumptions have been made over the generations since this event about what had broadly happened. These assumptions have come from a very few origins. Readings of Gildas, the British monk, probably writing in Brittany in the early to mid 6th Century, readings of Bede, the Northumbrian Anglo-Saxon monk, writing in the 8th Century, and then the Welsh writers Nennius and the fantasy-writer Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing in the 9th and 12th Centuries respectively, have all had their impact on educated and lay opinion regarding the conquest. These authors, most influentially Bede and Geoffrey, gave their stories to subsequent generations of historians, politicians, churchmen, poets, and writers of historical fiction, and have led to the assumptions common today about this terrifically important and defining event for our civilization.

The implications of understanding the Anglo-Saxon conquest are huge as they sit at the very core of English and Celtic-British ethnic identities, identities which are dear not only to current residents of the British Isles but also to Canadians, Americans, Australians, New Zealanders and others of the British diaspora around the globe. Is our “English” civilization a near-wholly Anglo-Saxon creation – an import from Denmark, Friesland, Jutland and Saxony? Were the Anglo-Saxon founders of our language and institutions actually predominately Celts who came to speak a Germanic language ‘by accident’ as King James I’s scholars had it? Is King Arthur a valid folk-hero for the English – wasn’t he Welsh?  Was there a British genocide? Is the Roman period legitimately part of the English heritage? The questions this kind of study can address are myriad, and whereas perhaps they should not matter, and people maybe should focus on the status quo and other things, many people are still eager to search for their ancient national roots at least out of curiosity if not out of some kind of instinct for atavism latent in many of us. Indeed, my own interest in this study, being an English-Canadian (which means English-speaking Canadian and not a DNA-based designation) must have come about from asking questions like those listed above and being perplexed about not having their answers.

The problem with understanding the Anglo-Saxon conquest and the birth of the English is that of, “if the root is foul, so is the tree.” While I will not and cannot blame Bede nor Gildas, the most contemporary and authoritative sources for the conquest, for their earnest efforts to communicate what was important to them and their perceived contemporary audiences, I can most certainly blame others for reading into them more than what they wrote or intended. This misreading, at an early stage, has led to quite a lot of surmises and theories which have veered far from any secure grounding. In my opinion, it is better to admit ignorance than to wrongly assume something groundless. In this case, informed ignorance is much better than uninformed certainty. I will be the first to admit that there is very little we have to work with regarding the traditional “Adventus Saxonum” and its aftermath, and much less about the “Conquestu Britanniae.” The reason is that these events have been dated wrongly. They are “ghost” events that somehow inserted themselves into the historical culture of Great Britain at the wrong dates. What we are left with after examining the only available evidence are several alternatives, and it would be much better to leave the question open than to start making wild claims satisfying whatever aesthetic or romantic fantasies we would like to adhere to. Having said this, logical deduction can clear away the unlikely and leave us with the likely. In the end, we can reconstruct a very plausible and conservative account of the takeover, how it happened and by whom.


First, a few words about the archaeological record. This is an excellent field of study which may end up providing us with some more definitive clues than heretofore. Any kind of linguistic finds are terrifically helpful, as the interest in the Saxon conquest lies in the fact that it made the English language dominant in Britain. However, without linguistic finds like inscriptions or writings, it can be very tricky to know about linguistic spread with any certainty by only looking at material goods. For instance, our modern business suit bears no resemblance to typical 16th Century English garb. Does this change in fashion prove that England was conquered by foreigners, or is it an indication of simply a change in taste? Was England conquered by the Chinese, since Chinese pottery goods become very prevalent in the 18th Century? We know the answer to these and they of course belie the archaeological findings. Without written documents we would have a quite ridiculous understanding of English history in these centuries. In the same way, the use of Roman-manufactured goods does not prove Roman conquest any more than Germanic-looking swords or brooches prove a Germanic conquest. One would think that Rome was conquered by Athens in the 1st Century B.C. by looking at its buildings from the time, and one would have to assume that the first emperor of Rome, Augustus, was a Greek, likely of Athenian extraction!

I will, nevertheless, point out that inscriptions dating from the period of Roman occupation are all in Latin and Greek, with Latin being much more common. Also, other kinds of epigraphic evidence point to the use of Latin and some Greek. Some of the names of people referred to in some surviving letters are said to be Celtic. In the post-Roman period, there are many inscriptions surviving which continue to be in Latin, and often in a corrupt Latin likely indicating, for these inscriptions, either a bad understanding of grammar, or a reflection of the actual spoken Latin of the time and place. There is no doubt that Latin was a living, spoken mother tongue in Britain in Gildas’ time, but by Bede’s time in the late 7th to early 8th Centuries, while it was still very widely used and known, it was no one’s mother tongue any longer. There are some very few ogham inscriptions of Celtic provenance. Runic inscriptions in Old English have been discovered and almost completely date to the 6th Century or later, proving an English presence by at least the later 6th Century. At any rate, the dominant language during the Roman period was definitely Latin, and the fact that it was still being written and inscribed long after the demise of Roman power in Britain indicates that its use was quite ingrained in the culture of Britain south of the Wall, and the end of Roman rule was not enough to end the use of Latin, at least as the language of literacy. As for what language(s) were being spoken in post-Roman Britain, this is the main thrust of this short article, and will be dealt with as we progress through the evidence.

At any rate, with Latin writing and Celtic names being common in the literary and epigraphic evidence from the time (ca. 400-600 AD) the assumption has been either Celtic (Welsh/Cornish/Breton) being the spoken language and Latin remaining the literary language, or both Celtic and Latin being spoken, with Latin, of course, being the only one of the two used for any substantial writing. We know that Celtic languages were spoken in Britain, and they still are to this day. As for whether the entirety of Britain south of the Wall spoke Celtic languages (but wrote in Latin and not Celtic) we cannot be certain of. This is merely an assumption based on the survival of Celtic languages in Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany, and the use of some Celtic names among the Latin epigraphic evidence, alongside many more Latin names. Oddly and perhaps importantly, there is precious little epigraphic evidence for South-East Britain for our period in question while there is quite a lot of it for the West and North. Wales in particular has a great deal of epigraphic remains. This is probably an important clue for us. Why were they not writing on stones in Celtic or Latin in the region that was later to become England in the 5th and 6th Centuries? Was Celtic and Latin written culture already weak by the start of this period in this part of Britain? Germanic-style burials in England, sharing close affinities with Scandinavian and continental Germanic burial practices start as early as the 2nd Century A.D. Unfortunately for us, cremation was the norm in those times, so I would not want to overplay these burials. Lots of excellent work has been done in this area. Roman-period Germanic graves there are, but they do not prove widespread speaking of German in Britain; they are just graves.

One serious problem with archaeology for us is that the sites of most interest and potential use to us, being the more densely populated ones like London, Canterbury, York and so forth, were in continual use before, throughout, and after our time in question, and evidence and land tended to be reused, effectively erasing traces of early English life in these areas. Tempting questions like, “Was there a German quarter in Roman or post-Roman London?” cannot be answered. It is the less populated sites that were not in continuous use after our early English period that yield the best archaeological evidence for us. However, the remains of small villages and burial clusters cannot rival a near contemporary document like Bede’s Historia in scope, although they certainly can surpass it in some details and provide hard evidence to support it! The heavily excavated early Anglo-Saxon West Stow and Mucking settlements, both in the far East of England, date to the early 5th Century, providing proof of some Anglo-Saxon settlement beginning at least as early as this time. Late Roman military belt fittings found amongst the Anglo-Saxon remains at Mucking suggest the settlers were serving in the Roman or Romano-British army, providing material evidence in line with the literary evidence for Anglo-Saxon settlement as client colonies under Romano-British overlordship from Gildas, Gregory of Tours, and Bede. There is somewhat limited evidence for Anglo-Saxon settlement until the 7th Century, when the great Anglo-Saxon burials like Sutton Hoo and grand constructions like those at Yeavering begin to appear. The archaeological evidence tends to throw us back onto the literary evidence and does not controvert the theory of underling client settlements of Saxons remaining so until the late 6th Century. One thing is for certain and that is that if there was a significant German-speaking presence in Britain prior to the 5th Century we have neither literary nor material evidence for it. This is probably a very significant fact, since Germans in 5th and 6th Century Britain do leave an increasingly noticeable trace in both the literary and material evidence. Conversely, working backwards from the late 6th Century to the beginning of the 5th Century, there is less and less literary and archaeological evidence for them, dwindling to almost nothing. A conservative interpretation of this kind of evidence would be that the Germanic fact in Britain is of no particular significance until the early 5th Century, as remembered by both Gildas and Bede. Occam’s razor does not let us assume otherwise. My attempted contribution to this controversy will lie mostly in that of literary and source analysis focussing on these two authors.

The Franks Casket

One enigmatic but eminently fascinating artefact from the early 8th Century is the so-called Franks Casket, which is a highly detailed box with a number of impressive carvings and Old English inscriptions. Exactly who owned it is a mystery. That the inscriptions are in Old English indicates that it was crafted for an English venue, and that it is so detailed and worked points to a very wealthy owner. The exact use for the box remains an unknown. It dates from around the time Bede writes, according to current scholarly consensus which I will not challenge here, making it one of the oldest pieces of literary evidence for the Anglo-Saxon period. It was a locked box, and the place for the lock fitting is still quite evident. It is covered with scenes and captions mainly written in runes although with some Latin letters, relating episodes from Norse and Roman legend, and one Christian scene. Given that this was a time of low levels of literacy, the use of these images with some sparing text likely means that the carver is trying to communicate something through tapping into a shared treasure trove of legend and myth.

The most prominent parts of a box are its top and front. The top is particularly important as this is the lid you have to handle to open the box. Therefore, the scene on the top is probably the most key for understanding the message or messages of the carver. The top scene is that of Egil and a Valkyrie defending Valhalla from giants. We know something of this story from recorded Norse sagas. The important thing here is that a man and woman heroic team are fighting off attackers. To me this acts as a pictorial warning to anyone who might want to steal from the box. Perhaps some kind of magical protection was intended by carving this episode there. One way or another, it is a grim scene showing people defending their property from monsters who would steal from them. I think the message is clear – “Do not steal from this box!”

The next most visible part of a box is its front. The front of the Franks Casket has two scenes side by side. On the left is Wayland Smith escaping from the evil king Nithhad. On the right are the Magi adoring the baby Jesus, triumphantly enthroned. I think the message is clear – it contrasts the worst king known to the Anglo-Saxons with the True King. It implies, “Do not be evil, rather, follow God and be good!” The left scene shows a king’s arrogance and cruelty, avariciously capturing a smith to make him wealth, which he pays for dearly with the death of his son and the rape of his daughter. The right scene shows kings, rather than hoarding wealth for themselves, bringing it freely to give to God. This front panel is a stern warning to the viewer, and we might now guess a ruler or king, that he is to submit to God and the Church. This kind of message seemed to be well heard by Anglo-Saxon rulers at the time, if we can believe Bede’s many stories of episcopal admonition of kings and of the belief in divine punishment for kings who did not hear God’s will.

Arguably the next most important scene is that on the back of the box, which, unless the box was kept with its back to the wall, would have been the next most viewed part of the box, as it is certainly a larger space than the remaining two sides. It depicts the decisive capturing of Jerusalem by the Roman emperor Titus, which ended the Jewish state and resulted in much death, destruction and enslavement, with those Jews fleeing who could. The message here is what happens to those who do not accept Jesus as Lord. It being a true historical episode, and not a mythical episode, the lesson is all the more poignant! “You can expect to be conquered by your enemies if you do not follow the Church.” The Jews did not accept the Church and so they were scattered, enslaved and killed. This is a very dire warning for the Anglo-Saxon leadership.

The left panel shows Romulus and Remus being suckled and cared for by a she-wolf at Rome, with four spear-armed men kneeling in submission and reverence to them. This is almost certainly, if we follow the general didactic intent of the box, an instruction to the viewer to respect Rome, iconically depicted as Romulus and Remus being suckled by the wolf, which is still to this day the symbol of Rome. So yet again, the lesson is for the Anglo-Saxon viewer to obey the Church, as Rome is the seat of the Pope, high priest of the Church.

The right panel has three scenes in it. On the left is a heavily armoured warrior standing before a seated monster. The monster seems to have wings and the head of a horse. It is probably supposed to be a pagan idol whom the warrior, clearly about to fight, since you just did not walk around all day in heavy armour, is consulting with before battle. The next, middle scene, shows the result of his worshipping a pagan devil – he lies dead on a burial mound, while a woman, identified by her wearing a veil, which women did in Anglo-Saxon times, is mourning his death. There is a big horse figure there. In the right scene, three women are gathered together, probably mourning together. Alternately, they might be the three Fates, called “Norns” in Norse myth. The Norns, like the Fates in Greco-Roman mythology, cut your life string and you die. While even the Old English caption, let alone the imagery, is difficult to clearly decipher, the overall impression one gets of this panel is one of the death of a warrior, and if we accept that there is a general didactic message of “follow the Church or else!” we might connect the apparent worshipping of a pagan idol on the left to the death of the warrior seemingly depicted in the centre and right scenes. The horse in the centre scene might represent the warrior’s warhorse which now has no rider. It might alternately represent a kind of ghost horse ready to whisk the warrior off to heaven, and the woman rather than being his wife, being a Valkyrie charged with the task. Her apparently holding a spear would tend to suggest this. At any rate, this panel seems to be about a warrior’s death, and the apparent cause of that death is the worship of a devil.

What intrigues me with this box, albeit dating from a bit later than our period in question, is the interest shown in pagan Roman history. This could mean nothing more than the Latin classics taking some hold on the imagination of the upper classes at the time, as we know they did, but the writing being almost fully in runic and in English, the audience was clearly not assumed to be Latin literate. The Wuffingas dynasty of East Anglia traced its first progenitor after Woden to Caesar! They do not specify which Caesar. Bede writes of a Northumbrian king parading about with bearers of Roman insignia before him. Perhaps claims of connection to Rome were used to impress the native Romano-Britons by the invading Germanic elites? The other scenes, like the Magi adoring Jesus and the Norse legends, are to be fully expected, but with fully two of the five decorated sides of the box being filled with pagan Roman scenes, there seems to be a very strong attachment to and interest in Roman history. Was the box meant only to impress classically educated gentle-people? It really does not seem so. There is an assumption on the artist’s part that the viewer will recognize the scenes and understand what they mean. The captions do little more than name whom are meant to be depicted there. The only absolutely unexplained part is that depicting the story of Wayland Smith. We might then surmise that this was the best known of all the stories portrayed on the box, not needing any runic explication. However, the other Norse scenes are explained in runes, making the Roman ones unremarkable in this respect. Given that the Roman occupation was well-remembered in Anglo-Saxon times, and conquests in those days being more about subjection and enslavement than about wholesale slaughter, I suspect the Anglo-Saxons felt they were the inheritors of two ethnic heritages: German and Roman.

Who were “The English?”

Next, what will we mean when we speak of the English people, or of “The English?” The only fair definition for this is, “people speaking English as their primary language.” Thus, the entire question here revolves around when the English language came to Britain and when it achieved a strong foothold, leading over the years to dominance there (and later on to world dominance, of course.) It would be fair to consider any Germanic language or mix of such languages gaining a strong foothold in Britain at around the time we are examining a likely candidate for the origins of the English language. It is not impossible that speakers of Germanic languages could have been geographically separated on the island only to later coalesce. Nor is it impossible that the spread of such speakers was mostly contiguous. One way or other, Occam’s razor would indicate that any large group of Germanic speakers resident in South or East Britain by the years 400 to 600 can be seen by us as “English” speakers. Since Bede, the English language has been assumed to have come to Britain with Hengist and Horsa, and later by many other invaders and settlers from the Germanic North Coasts of Europe.

Traditional Theories for the Language Change

The mystery lies in how an assumed to be Celtic and/or Latin speaking former Roman province, heavily populated, within the space of only a hundred and fifty years, if we trust Bede’s dates, turned into a primarily Germanic-speaking, and Germanic-dominated zone. The suggestions as to how this happened range in varying degrees between both logical ends of the spectrum:

–        Genocide and flight of the surviving Romano-Britons to the North and West in the face of massive Anglo-Saxon invasions and folk-migrations.

–        Political and cultural dominance of the Anglo-Saxons leading to Germanic speaking becoming fashionable amongst the enslaved/enserfed Celto-Romans.

For a spoken language to spread as the first language of people, it must spread either as a result of colonization/emigration, or as a result of political dominance. The Latin language spread outwards from Rome due to political dominance over much of Western Europe. Where the Empire spread, so too did the use of its language. The overlords speaking Latin encouraged the conquered or newly-incorporated to learn it. We know of Gallic nobles sending their children to Latin schools to learn their new national language. Colonization and intermarriage helped to cement the dominance of Latin. Intermarriage is particularly relevant, since in a situation where either the mother or the father’s language is dominant, the parents will normally choose to converse with each other in the dominant language, and to speak this language to their children. As a result, it is also to be expected that the children will take more interest or pride in that side of their family heritage which derives from the dominant rather than from the vanquished or less powerful ethno-linguistic group. Given any significant amount of intermarriage by a conquering linguistically different group with the locals, which retains its political dominance over a few generations, there can be a rapid change in language accompanying this.

Language Change Effected Through Intermarriage

Through intermarriage alone, the percentage of the population speaking the new language can double through each successive generation, and this is through intermarriage alone, there being of course other ways in which a change in first language use can be effected. Let us take a look at a simple chart, assuming a population contribution of only 1% of the total in a given area (say, for example Kent alone) by a dominant group of Anglo-Saxons under Hengist and Horsa. This chart assumes all the Saxon men are taking British wives or long-time concubines, with the children being raised speaking Germanic. If they only marry British women, there will be many Saxon women left over, and probably not wanting to marry down with the conquered British men. If the Saxons were strictly monogamous, this would tend to dampen intermarriage with the Britons as there would be lots of pressure on Saxon men to marry Saxon women to keep the social status of both as first class citizens. However, concubinage was a very common practice of the time, and even polygamy, so a Saxon wife and any number of British concubines or even wives also is not at all an unlikely scenario for many of the Saxon men at the time. Given this kind of scenario, the percentage change in language speakers would be much greater than a mere doubling per generation.

Generation % British or Latin Speakers

(as a first language)% Anglo-Saxon / Germanic Speakers

(as a first language)1st9912nd9823rd9644th9285th84166th68327th36648th0100

This kind of chart is a terrifically blunt instrument with which to conceptualize this process, but it is helpful. Given the idealized scenario of with each succeeding generation, every Saxon speaker (both male and female) marries one British speaker and they raise their children as Saxon speakers, a complete change in language is effected after eight generations. This is roughly after two hundred years. This assumes an idealized situation, or that the reality roughly resembles mathematically the idealized situation. If Saxon men married only Saxon women and kept away from living with the British, there would be no language change effected through intermarriage at all, as the 1% Saxon population contribution would never expand to take in any of the percentage British population. However, assuming concubinage or polygamy, where the children are raised in the father’s house speaking Saxon, with the primary wife being Saxon and there being on average only one British concubine or secondary wife per Saxon man, this oversimplistic chart can give us a rough idea of how long it could take to completely change the spoken language of a given conquered area.

Of course the more organized and methodical the concubinage is, or the raising of slave children under the tutelage of Germanic speaking masters and mistresses, the faster language change can be effected. If the Anglo-Saxons were effectively setting up large workhouses where British babies born into slavery were herded together and raised by Germanic speaking nurses or taskmasters, then the effect could be rapid and decisive. This would be like taking a whole generation of young children in our own times and sending them to boarding schools in another language. The entire generation would grow up knowing no language but the new one, and forgetting any amount of their mother tongue they may have gotten before being carted off to the boarding school. The sad history of the Residential Schools in Canada shows how quickly linguistic and cultural genocide can be carried out (in this case against Aboriginal languages and cultures;) perhaps we should coin the term here, “linguicide.” We do have plenty of evidence for large estates populated and worked by slaves being the norm in the countryside throughout the Anglo-Saxon period. Properties were bought and sold, given and received, bequeathed and inherited with sometimes dozens and sometimes hundreds of slaves being part of the transfer. Many of these transactions are documented in detail. Slavery tends to erase all memory of ancestral languages very quickly. There is no survival of African languages brought over by slaves, for example, in the Americas, whereas there is substantial survival of Native American languages in spite of many other kinds of tribulations imposed upon them by centuries of European linguistic dominance. Therefore, even within a small window of only 35 years, from 547 to 583 A.D. given a thorough and organized conquest, large enough invading or rebelling Anglo-Saxon armies could effect a swift and decisive linguistic change.

Other Ways to Effect Language Change

However, there are other ways to learn a language well enough to pass it on to one’s children without having been raised speaking it at home or with caregivers oneself. This could happen through formal study. This is difficult without textbooks or a dedicated tutor. In the case of a closely related language, working closely with people speaking the language for a long time could result in fluency. However, the Brythonic languages we are aware of are very different from Germanic, making this kind of learning more problematic than between two branches of the same language. Also, there is the problem, in spite of being an overlord, of communicating with your conquered serfs or slaves. Perhaps you only need them to understand simple commands, and so you can keep to your own languages otherwise, but if there is a vast sea of foreign-speaking people out there and you are depending on an interpreter all the time, you are not only going to remain very foreign to the native population, but you are at the mercy of your interpreter. There will be therefore a certain pressure on you to become acquainted in some way or other with the native language of the land, and becoming fluent would be a definite boon. In all the other parts of the Roman empire that were conquered by Germans, these same Germans became Latin speakers very quickly and were absorbed into Greco-Roman culture very fast. What of the Goths, Lombards, Visigoths, Franks? The Goths, for instance, kept a separate Germanic law code (written in Latin of course.) The Visigoths kept their own Arian Church. The Franks bequeathed their laws to all of Northern Gaul. However, in other respects, these overlords were completely culturally absorbed. It is a very odd thing that the Anglo-Saxons stand out as the only invading German group to keep its German language in a conquered Roman province.

There being no written dictionary or clear standard set version of Germanic at the time, how it is that so ridiculously few Celtic words made their way into the language is beyond fathoming. This is, of course, if Celtic was still spoken in the parts of Britain that the Saxons colonized when they arrived there. There is, however, quite a significant amount of Latin in early Anglo-Saxon, although analysis of this is confused by the fact that Latin words like “vallum” (English “wall”) also seem to have entered continental Germanic languages, and also by the fact that there are a great many cognates between the two tongues, like for example “wer” meaning “man” in Anglo-Saxon and “vir” pronounced “wir” meaning the same in Latin. Are these Latin inclusions in Anglo-Saxon the result of interaction with the Romans on the continent prior to landing in Britain, or after conquering or otherwise living with the Latin-speaking Britons? It is unfair to say we know either way. We simply do not know. Most definitely by the late Empire, there were a great many Germanic peoples living within the borders of the Empire, living next to Latin speakers and a number of these Germanic speakers also learned Latin as a second language. A large German-speaking area, later split into two Roman provinces in 83 A.D. called Germania Inferior (the more Northerly one) and Germania Superior (the more Southerly one) had been under Roman control and subject to Roman colonization ever since 58 B.C. when Julius Caesar conquered that large area. Latin words would most likely have entered the shared Germanic word-hoard from interactions between Germanic and Latin speakers within the confines of the Empire in the two German Provinces, and not only from outside looking in, as has often been assumed to have been the case by those who were not aware of there having been two very large German-speaking Roman provinces, with millions of German-speaking inhabitants.

Conquerors Losing their Language

I have a great deal of trouble envisioning a scenario where a number of boatloads of Saxons and other Germanic speaking invaders show up in Britain in different places in the 5th and 6th Centuries, as the much later-written (9th Century A.D.) Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has it, and then go on to rule over vast numbers of Celtic or Latin speaking slaves who over a short time adopt the language of their overlords. I think unless there were literally hundreds of thousands of these Germanic folks, I cannot see anything happening other than the newcomers’ language(s) drowning in a sea of Latin and Celtic. Any ruler who can be seen as the friend of his people by speaking their language is going to get “brownie points” with them and strengthen his position, beyond the blatant necessity of having to communicate and collaborate with the conquered “wealhs.” It is not at all difficult, and has been consistently done through the millennia of recorded history, that foreign conquerors of much more populous nations maintain their distinctness while fully adopting the use of the language of the conquered people. Conquests are normally done to achieve “the easy life” by capturing hordes of slaves and vast lands so that the conquerors and their families can “live like kings.” Conquering large numbers of people and large areas in order to simply kill them off or scare them away is highly unusual. Even the NAZIs did not pursue this kind of plan, except towards a few targeted minority groups. Slaves are far preferable to having to go to all the trouble of conquering and then after having taken such a risk, to settle down and do your own farm labour! The ideal is to go into an area, kill off or drive away the local elite, and become the elite yourself. I don’t think the Anglo-Saxons conquered South-East Britain in order to selflessly promote the English language or with a mission to stamp out Celtic and Latin speaking! How ridiculous! They wanted to be lords and ladies, living “the good life,” like every other conquering group wants to be.

Perhaps if there were a great variety of mutually unintelligible local languages where the Germanic could operate as a lingua franca or if public schools were set up to effectively impose the language on at least a good segment of the population as in the case of Latin in the Roman Empire, I could see a small number of Germanic overlords imposing their language. However, we hear nothing of “public schools” for teaching Germanic, and Britain already had a lingua franca in Latin. Without textbooks, learning of Germanic by the Romano-Britons had to be through face to face contact over time, and if there are very few Germanic migrants, setting up such tutoring lessons could be very difficult. I certainly do not envision the Saxon conquest as one of teachers going out into the land teaching German to vast crowds of eagers students! How ridiculous! A complete change from Celtic and Latin over to English in such a large area in such a short time is terrifically hard to fathom. Marshalling the entire subjected British population in the South East, numbering in the millions, into “workhouses” and raising all the babies to speak Germanic, effecting a massive language change over one generation (even if it not need be complete,) seems like something fit more for alien invaders from other planets than something a 6th Century group of pirates without a written language would have been able to effect. Nowhere else in Europe did this happen at the time, where Latin speaking areas kept on speaking Latin under their new Germanic overlords, who then took up Latin themselves within one or two generations! Linguistic change happens, and it can be thorough and even irreversible, but for large areas with millions of speakers of the dying language it normally takes centuries for this to happen, not the space of one lifetime or less! It was centuries before Coptic was displaced by Arabic, for instance, like it was for Greek to be replaced by Turkish in Asia Minor. Even Ireland took many centuries to Anglicize. That the Anglo-Saxons somehow had some special motivations and methods that others lacked, we have yet to see evidence for. English is most closely related to Frisian, which is still spoken in the Netherlands and Germany accessible by sea to England. These areas are very close to the Angeln and Saxony Bede tells us are the homelands for the Anglo-Saxons. This close proximity by way of water surely facilitated contact, and without an effective policy to prevent immigration, but according to the sources a policy in fact encouraging it, the waves worked as a kind of Oregon Trail.

The Population Replacement Theory

I am of course not alone in having trouble with this political dominance theory on the linguistic change to Germanic in Britain at this time. The much easier to believe alternative, often cited, is that there was a mass population replacement, of Romano-Britons by Anglo-Saxons. This could be effected by either the Romano-Britons dying en masse or retreating en masse to the North and West where we know there remained strong Celtic-speaking areas into less historically dark times (such as the time of Bede in the 8th Century, whose expansive kingdom of Northumbria had in fact been soundly drubbed and ravaged by a Celtic speaking army under Caedwalla within living memory.) Perhaps a great plague swept through in the 6th Century leaving great tracts of empty land ripe for the picking by healthy Saxons from over the sea? Perhaps the Saxons were intent on ethnic genocide and killed all the Britons they could find, the rest wisely fleeing far away? Neither of these is impossible. Plagues do happen, such as that which happened in North and South America to the native peoples in the 16th Century with the introduction of European diseases, opening up land for the taking, and confusing or weakening the native cultures. The so called “Justinian’s Plague” of the mid 6th Century swept through Europe, killing millions. Why the Anglo-Saxons would have remained specially immune to this plague, while the Britons were susceptible, however, I cannot begin to imagine. Besides great plagues, ethnic genocides also do happen. If even just the men are killed and the women brought into the conquering men’s households, this can account for linguistic change very fast. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle seems to assume something of this. We are treated to a list of places conquered by Anglo-Saxon invaders where all the people, or at least the men, are put to the sword. This Chronicle, for those who do not know, was started in King Alfred’s day, in the 9th Century A.D. This is so many centuries after the purported events in question that it is hard to believe much of what is written about them. Bede, writing in the 720s A.D. has next to no clue as to what happened among the English in the 6th Century before 582, and if he, the most learned historian of his day, had no idea at all, it is therefore doubtful that anyone at his time knew anything of it either.

I have a problem with this being what was responsible for the language change. If the Saxons came as genocidal maniacs, indeed given an initial superiority in ferocity and organization, they may have killed and chased away many Britons from the coastal areas. However, they had to eat, and to do so, to farm. That they were cannibals is hard to assume, eating Britons literally out of hearth and home. They had to settle down. How much land would they occupy then? How much land could they truly work? They would have had to have lived in close proximity to each other for fear of a British backlash invasion. So, they could not have filled up much territory with their coming. Unless there were, like I pointed out earlier, hundreds of thousands of them swarming across the sea, I really cannot see them being able to fill up much of the British territory with their numbers.

Linguistic Change Through Mass Immigration

So, to sum up things thus far, whether the language change from British or Latin to Germanic was effected through intermarriage and fashion, or through bloodshed and fear, either way it depends on there being a very great many immigrants coming at about the same time. A small number of conquerors would have lost their language in the native sea of British or Latin speech, just as a large number, but coming gradually in instalments decades apart would have.

How could such a rather sudden injection of a great many Anglo-Saxons or Germanic speakers of any kind have been effected? The answer is a great many voyages on a great many ships! Are we to imagine a Saxon armada coming to pay a visit? This is not impossible. The Saxons were known to be great pirates and seafarers. It does not take especially long to sail across the Channel, from several hours to several days depending on the winds and where you are sailing from, Dover in Kent being the closest part of Britain to the Continent. It is easiest to assume therefore that an invasion would like to hit there rather than anywhere else. Once a bridgehead is established, reinforcements can be brought over, including settlers, and the conquering horde can expand outward from there. This is exactly where logical deduction takes us, and has taken many historians and thinkers interested in this piece of history over the years.

However, there are some mitigating problems. One is why anyone would want to cross the Channel in the first place. Why go to fight and be possibly slain, and to eek out some living in an unfamiliar area? For a great many people to pick up and move, there has to be a good reason. The move has to be favourable to remaining at home. Was there turmoil in Northern Europe around the time of the Saxons coming to Britain? Well, in the mid 5th Century, which seems to be when the Hengist and Horsa story is thought to have taken place, Attila was busy causing a great deal of havoc, culminating in what was something of the World War of his time, where the Huns and their allies met with the Romans and their allies at Chalons, and the Romans triumphed. Was Northern European land flooding? Refugees from Northern Europe of some stripe or another may have wanted to flee to Britain during all this turmoil. Hardly a conquering tribe, though, in this case! We have to start looking at the meagre record our scanty sources give us. Both Gildas and Bede are quite clear about the Saxons coming over as settled client, mercenary troops. Having been given land to farm, and being under their own leaders, they then admitted or even recruited more of their kind from over the waves, swelling their ranks with an ongoing stream of migrant soldiers or soldier-farmers. Whereas the other theories passed over quickly above all run into snags, this one fits both the literary and archaeological records, and stands to reason too! Once a given territory is under the control of a foreign ruler, even as a client ruler under Romano-British overlordship, the foreign ruler has the ability to admit more of his kind. Given the tendency for human migration from the colder Scandinavian areas to the milder Britain all through recorded history, we can see any kind of beachhead like this being established as functioning something like the opening of floodgates.

Literary Sources: Gildas

Gildas, a British monk writing possibly after moving to Brittany, although where he wrote is in fact an unknown, wrote a very rhetorical piece in Latin calling for his fellow Britons to mend their ways and become better Christians. He wrote his “De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae” lamenting the fact that the Britons had forgotten how hard former times were and are now becoming lazy in regard to their Christian duties as a result of their current wealth and power. Given that he is writing in the 6th Century, as other scholars have established with some certainty, he is the only real written source of any credibility for the time period and geographical area we are interested in here. Bede is also very pertinent to this discussion albeit for other reasons, but he dates to the 8th Century, a very long time after the English language had conquered most of Britain. The celebrated Anglo-Saxon Chronicle dates from even later! Gildas is writing about the topic we are interested in, at the right time, and in the right place. He is an ideal source in these respects! We do not know exactly when he is writing, but very thorough work places him by scholarly consensus somewhere in the first half of the 6th Century. Sir Frank Stenton argues very convincingly for a date “a little before 547 A.D.” From the year 582, Bede is able to narrate a fairly clear story of events, thus ending the “dark age” of British history and bringing it into the light of rather reliable written records. By 582, most of what is now called England was thoroughly English speaking or at least under English political dominance, as we can gather from Bede’s writings. From the time Gildas wrote until Bede picks up the tale, there is a space of substantially less than fifty years, exactly how much less we cannot be certain of, but less nonetheless, and quite possibly only 35 years! This is a very important gap in our knowledge because there is absolutely no reliable written evidence from Britain dating from this time at all. We will come back to this gap further down.

Gildas Terribly Misread

I think Gildas has been terrifically misunderstood. Many people have presumably read the title of his work, which translates to “On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain” and leapt very understandably to the conclusion that he narrates and bemoans the ruin and conquest of Britain. This is, however, only half correct. He does indeed narrate a great many ruinings and conquests in Britain, but he bemoans the fact that his fellow Britons have forgotten about these and have grown over proud and are living too luxuriously! A better title might be, “Don’t Let Today’s Successes Make you Forget about Yesteryear’s Hard Times!” He admits near the beginning of his work (Ch. 4) that he has no British annals to go on, which he doubts had ever existed in the first place. Britain being a Roman province, where the Latin-literate locals presumably and doubtlessly thought of themselves as Romans, confirmed by Gildas’ use of the term “cives” for them, meaning “Citizens of Rome,” the history of Britain was conceived of as part of the larger sweep of things Roman. Gildas hashes together a rather muddled series of woeful invasions of Britain and plagues taken from Latin histories of the world, like that of Orosius. The Romans invade and conquer. Later, the Picts and Scots (Irish) invade, but are repulsed with the help of the Romans. Later, when the Romans withdraw their legions, the Picts and Scots break into the heartland of Britain and cause much damage routinely, apparently as plundering raids. Saxons are admitted to stand on guard as a counter-force to help defend the Britons from the Picts and Scots. Gildas does not state that the Saxons actually fought with the Northern invaders. Instead they sit in the “Eastern part of the island” demanding pay for their guard duty, and they admit more of their kind from across the channel. What I get from reading this section of Gildas is that the Saxons simply came to sit around lazy without having to work, living on the backs of the Britons. They seem to be a foreign-raised standing army, a “foreign legion” if you will. They demand more and more pay and end up violently extracting it, leading to rampaging robber bands looting and pillaging everywhere. This might perhaps be the first labour strike in British history! Gildas attributes the destruction of most civilized areas to this Saxon orgy of vandalism. Then, apparently, they go home! We can take “home” to mean wherever they were living, presumably in the “Eastern part of the island.” However, once the Saxons go back home with their plunder, the Britons rally under Ambrosius Aurelianus, “nearly the only Roman to survive” and probably, according to Gildas, from Imperial stock (of course hyperbole!) and fight a series of battles with the Saxons, culminating at the battle of Mount Badon, where the Saxons are besieged, surrounded, and slaughtered. “nouissimaeque ferme de furciferis non minimae stragis” (Ch. 26) “and of nearly the last but not the least slaughter of the villains.” So much for the Saxons. There is no mention made of them “going home” as before. They are done; out of the picture: dead or perhaps enslaved? Next, Gildas goes on to lambaste the several contemporary kings of Britain for their laxity in pursuing Christian morals. All these leaders have Celtic or Latin names. Perhaps they are not all the rulers in Southern Britain. Maybe there were others; however, he makes no mention of Saxon rulers at all, nor Angles, nor Jutes, nor anyone Germanic whomsoever! The whole island South of the wall was quite apparently fully Romano-British at the time Gildas writes. If he thought some foreigners were ruling in Britain who should not be there, he would spare no words in bemoaning it, as he had bemoaned everything and anything remotely resembling such a thing in the past. There were clearly no non-Romano-British kingdoms anywhere in Britain South of the Wall in his time. This is in the early 6th Century, probably “a little before 547 A.D.”

What of Gildas’ language and that of this post-Roman Britain? It seems to have been Latin. He wrote in Latin. He calls Latin “our language” in Chapter 23 when he compares the Latin words denoting large sailing ships “longis navibus” with the Saxon for the same kind of ships, how it is “longis navibus” in  “nostra” (our) language, but in Saxon it is “cyulis.” (By the way, this is where we probably get our word “keel” from.) He is careful to make the distinction. He, interestingly, uses a different word to denote the ships of the Picts and Scots (Ch. 19) which is a loan word from Celtic, “curucis.” He uses this as the technical term for this kind of ship and does not explain it in Latin, indicating that he expects his readers to known what it means. I find it interesting that he knows the Saxon word for their type of ship. This shows some familiarity with the Saxon language. His concern to use the technically correct terms for different kinds of boats shows an interest in the sea natural to someone from an island nation who had travelled about, presumably often in boats. He refers to his fellow Britons as “cives” meaning Roman citizens. This is very meaningful, since it shows that his concept of ethnic identity for the Britons was one of Romanitas and not some kind of Celtic construct. (His is only one voice of course and others may have felt differently about how Roman or Celtic their British identity was.) Gildas translates the meaning of the British name Cuneglas as “lanio fulue” or “tawny butcher” but this is an incorrect translation, and it is hard to imagine any parent naming their child something so ridiculous. It probably means “blue wolf” and it is a British name. The Latin, if the name is from Latin, should be “Cyneglossum,” from the Greek “Cyneglosson” meaning “dog’s tongue” – a kind of flower.  Perhaps we should keep our minds open to the name being of Graeco-Latin derivation. This is clearly the same name as “Cynegils” borne by a supposedly Anglo-Saxon king of Wessex in the early 7th Century and written about by Bede. That Gildas does not seem to understand the British language properly seems to indicate that his first language is Latin. The first half of the 6th Century seems to have been a thoroughly Latinate, Romanized, time in Britain, notwithstanding the Saxon upheavals which were neutralized and eliminated over forty years before Gildas took up his pen! The Saxon problems had been solved long ago! 44 years and one month before he took up his pen, to be precise. If we put some faith in our 547 A.D. date for Gildas writing, then the final battle of Mons Badonicus against the Saxons was fought around 503 A.D. Gildas attributes many of the ruins present in his time to this war with the Saxons. It was a very important event to be sure, leaving its mark on the land, but the problem had been solved almost half a century earlier!

One thing that strikes me about Gildas’ account is his lack of mention of the Angles, let alone Jutes or others. The Angles seem to have been settled along the East coast of England, North of Kent, whereas the Saxons seem to have been settled along the South coast of England, if we use the names of the various later kingdoms as an indication (Sussex, East Anglia, etc…) It is difficult to tell if Gildas’ Saxon revolt is meant to include the Angles, or if the Angles were part of the force putting the rebellion down, or if there were Angles in Britain yet at all. If the Angles were already settled before the Saxons were invited, he makes no mention of this. The Saxon settlement comes across as the first of its kind, at least according to Gildas. Also, the rebellion seems very much to be a “Saxon” event, or at least one where all the recent “Saxon” settlers were united in their rebellion, presumably an all-encompassing Germanic-client-mercenaries revolt. In this tumult may have been the window of opportunity for even more of their ilk to flood the British East and South shores, as Gildas and Bede have it. In this confusion the Angles may have come and by being the later comers, are not as noticed or named by the British. To this day in Welsh, “Saeson” (i.e. “Saxon”) is the term for the English. This makes me gently suspect that the Saxons were the first. However, alternately, the Angles may have been the “good guys” and operated as client mercenary settlers should, and thus are passed over as merely a branch of the Romano-British armed forces. In this case, in spite of their linguistic peculiarity (if German was not spoken by the other Romano-British) they would have been seen as part of the happy Romano-British family. Were not the Romans themselves relative newcomers in the grand sweep of British history???

As for how long the Saxons were living in Britain before they revolted, this is another difficult question to answer when reading Gildas.  The archaeological record and historical common sense seem to place the invitation of the Saxons occurring not long after the Romans pull their legions out of Britain in 410 A.D. Presumably, many or most of the legionaries were of British extraction, and so the pull-out stole away a great deal of the military manpower of Britain, necessitating a quick-fix solution, that of importing foederati  Germans, as had become a Roman tradition over the past several hundred years. Thus, the soon-after 410 date for the first Saxon settlers is highly probable. The great battle of Badon Hill happens probably around 503 A.D. This is a very long time! It is certainly enough time for a great many technically “illegal” colonists to come and join the first Saxon mercenaries. It would be fair to assume that by 503 there were quite a lot of Germans residing in Britain. They were indeed subjugated in 503, but probably not all murdered. Their status as client peoples was presumably demoted to subject peoples with a tribute imposed on them. Whichever of the Gildas’ British kings ruling over the Eastern and Southern parts of England were presumably collecting taxes in money or in kind from their Anglo-Saxon subject peoples. They may have even had Romano-British governors placed over them and British garrisons kept at strategic points to ensure they paid their taxes and did not rebel again. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle may preserve some kind of folk-memories of rebellions against British garrisons, such as the siege of the stone fort Andredecester by Aella and the slaughter of its inhabitants and his subsequent revolt against the British ruler Nazaleod. However, the English fact in Britain had already been quite strongly established, never to be extinguished thereafter. It was not for another fifty or eighty or so years that they rebelled once more, under Aethelbert, and this time decisively, finally and definitively!

Revisionist History: Bede’s Use of Gildas

It is the above story of the coming of the Saxons that Bede amplifies in his 8th Century “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” to account for the origin of the English people in Britain. He adds in the names Hengist and Horsa as the leader-brothers of the Saxon mercenaries, and the year 449 A.D. He writes that Horsa is killed in a battle and a large monument erected to his honour which was still present at the time he wrote in Eastern Kent. This monument might be the sarsen megaliths on Blue Bell Hill in Aylesford, Kent, one of which resembles a horse, and which local tradition throughout recorded history has held to be Horsa’s final resting place. You can go to see it still today. Bede also adds that their men were from the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes, “three powerful Germanic tribes.” All kinds of Germanic people swarm in with them. Then they are all defeated at the battle of Mount Badon. They are defeated again, allied with the Picts, in the “Hallelujah” battle. Then we are told nothing else about the Anglo-Saxons until the papal mission to Kent starting in 582 A.D. According to Bede’s view of events, the Anglo-Saxons flooded into Britain with Hengist and Horsa, apparently pushing the native Britons back to the Western half of the island, from which they fought back and halted the Saxon advance at Mount Badon (wherever that is supposed to be!) Thus, the peopling of half the island with Germanic-speaking peoples occurred in a very short time period after the coming of the brothers. Between this time and 582, in spite of telling us quite a lot about what was happening amongst the Britons, particularly in the sphere of religion, he has no information to relate about the English! We have to assume that he had nothing available for him to use. This is highly suspect. Also suspect are the meagre details added onto Gildas’ account of the Adventus Saxonum. The account Bede relates to us is most likely merely a retelling of Gildas’ tale. We have only four new elements added to it: the leaders’ names; the year; the tribes of origin other than Saxon; that the Saxon mercenaries defeated the Picts before rebelling for more pay. Besides the names of the leaders, the other new elements can be attributed to Bede’s own interpolations or the interpolations of others, which he records. It is very suspicious that Bede’s English history goes dark right after this event and stays so until about 134 years later! Bede seems pressed to explain the presence of English in most of the former Roman province of Britannia without having any hard evidence for its spread. He latches onto the best evidence he can find from the time in question, which is Gildas’ work dealt with above, and tries to force it to give him the answer he wants. He was not necessarily the first to do so. He mentions that Gildas had international renown, and is the only British (i.e. Welsh) writer to be so highly esteemed. We can assume a wide enough circulation of Gildas’ work amongst the Latin-literate Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical and lay reading public. Bede was certainly not the first Englishman to read Gildas with keen interest in discovering his own people’s origins. I think that without Gildas, no Englishman contemporary with Bede had any specific theory at all as to how his language came to gain a strong foothold in Britain. To make matters worse, Gildas actually tells a tale of Saxon failure and slaughter, not of victory and spread! This tale was misused, pressed into service to tell a story that it could not tell by Anglo-Saxons thirsting to find out about their origins. “Well, we are here today, filling up most of the land with our people and our language, so Gildas must be overstating things and libeling us! Actually, the Battle of Mons Badonicus was merely a temporary setback; the 44 years and one months Gildas writes is a scribal error and actually tells how long our Saxon ancestors had been in Britain before the battle and not how long ago the battle was before Gilas writes about it; our ancestors fought and defeated the Picts – we were not lazy but rather brave and invincible!” Anglo-Saxon readers must have thought to themselves. So, they read Gildas with several grains of salt, leading to a subtle misinterpretation of him. We are left with the mystery still remaining as to how English really came to dominate in Britain by the time Bede wrote.

The reality, which I am proposing here, of the Saxons living as subject peoples after 503 and until Aethelbert’s coming-to-power, is more than subtly hinted at in Bede, and is nowhere denied. It was just not something to celebrate or make hay over. Therefore, Bede remains a bit mum about it. He could have turned this known fact into a kind of retelling of Exodus, as much of his Historia is patterned after the Bible or the Aeneid, where the Saxons are an oppressed migrant people, like the Hebrews, under a cruel British “pharaoh,” but he was probably too honest a person to do such a thing. Without there being any particular record of British cruelty as overlords, and because he did not want to make his English people look weak relative to them over such a long period of history, particularly due to his apparent dislike for the Britons (no doubt in no small part due to the ravagings of Bede’s country by Caedwalla within living memory) he chose to play down this period of English history. This is like how Germany is written about differently in English-language histories after fighting two world wars against it. You will not find much positive written about Germany or Germans post 1914 in English-language history books! Perhaps had relations not been so bad between Bede’s country of Northumbria and the Britons of his time, he might have written his history quite differently. That there was some kind of absolute racial hatred between the two groups all over Britain is brought into doubt by the alliance between Mercia (an English kingdom) and the British against Northumbria and the officiating of British priests at certain English ceremonies, which Bede tells us about. “Mercia” means “borderland” in Old English and may refer to the fact that it lies between the lands of the Britons and those of the English the way the term “Welsh Marches” was used centuries later.

A very salient point, I think, is that Bede does not include even the names of the British kings railed against by Gildas in his history of England. For someone chronicling the history of England to leave these names out, when the names of kings and their doings form so much a part of his story elsewhere, smells a bit of revisionism. Perhaps he simply saw them as non-English kings and therefore did not feel they formed part of his narrative. However, I find it quite suspect that he tells us so much about the Church history of the British in the 6th Century, yet nothing about their secular rulers, not even deigning to give us even one of their names!

Problems with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle preserves royal lineages for Anglo-Saxon kings. How much of these are real and how much are fiction is difficult to pronounce upon with any confidence. The thing that strikes me about them is how common Celtic names are amongst them, particularly amongst the earlier kings in a given royal line. The line of Wessex apparently starts in Britain with Cerdic (Caradoc, a British name, not a Germanic one!) We also see a number of other British names like Caewlin, Cynegils, Caedwalla, and lots more in these king lists that are clearly Celtic names. Names alone do not prove language spoken by their bearers, but it is highly suspect that the very kings of the Saxons, supposedly waging ongoing war against the British as described by the Chronicle, sport the names of their enemies. It could simply indicate some level of respect or intermarriage with a neighbouring Celtic royal house. If so, it may have happened amongst lower ranked people as well indicating population mixing. Or, are these Celtic-named “Saxon” kings the Romano-British overlords of Saxon settlers who later had their own ilk marry into the royal British bloodlines? If these British names are really being sported by Anglo-Saxons then it certainly shows a great deal of respect for the Britons by the Anglo-Saxons. This may have been because the Saxons were a subject people for such a long time under British overlords. These British names are more common amongst rulers in the West of England and survive in the leading families long past the Anglo-Saxon conquest. This fact plus the fact that Bede seems little interested in the history of West England makes me suspect that Wessex and Mercia remained rather bi-cultural and even bi-lingual quite late, at least through to the age of Bede. These being “less English” areas, Bede is less interested in their histories. I do find it rather curious that the standard of Wessex right through to the battle of Hastings is a wyvern, the same totemic animal used by the Welsh and probably deriving from the late Roman military’s dragon standards. These kind of clues hint at a long period of residing in close proximity with the Britons and respecting them very much to the point of adopting their names and symbols, probably hinting at, even more than this, a long period of dominance by the Britons.

One invading Germanic chieftain is named “Port” who then gives his name to Portsmouth. This “chieftain” is probably in actual fact a Latin loanword “port” meaning “harbour” or “port” which is still a word in modern English. Mixing of Germanic, Latin and Celtic names in the royal bloodlines of the Chronicle, and in place names, would probably suggest a more gradual blending or takeover than a sudden critical event. The people of Kent kept the ancient Celtic tribal name for their kingdom, even calling their capital city “Cantwaraburh,” meaning “City of the Kentish people!” Why are they calling themselves Kentish people if they are really Jutes, as Bede claims? Why not “New Jutland” or something like that for the name for their kingdom? All these clues smack of long-term peaceful settlement under British auspices and cry out against a sudden transmarine takeover from Scandinavia and Germany.

Is Gildas’ Name Germanic?

Now what about Gildas’ name? It is difficult to find other Celts or Latins with such a name. However, the word “gild” looks suspiciously like the Germanic word for “gold.” “Gild” was used in Germanic names from our time in question. Perhaps Gildas is sporting a Teutonic name? Did he speak a Germanic language in addition to his Latin? Were Germanic names fashionable then amongst the Romano-Britons? Does he carry some Germanic blood in him? Does his accurate knowledge of the Saxon term for a kind of ship indicate a first-hand familiarity with Germanic languages and dialects? It is only one word, but he did not need to show off his knowledge of the specific Saxon term, since there already is a term for it in Latin, which he uses. Also, what does Gildas mean by Ambrosius being “nearly the only Roman left alive?” Who were all the other people there? Were they all Celts who had somehow kept their ethnic distinctness after 500 years of Roman/Latin domination? Were they all the Celtic-speaking sub-class ruled over by the Latin-speaking gentry? It is a very cryptic thing for him to write. It probably made perfect sense to his contemporary readers and as such needed no explanation. It must have been possible to conceive of the mass of British at the time as being not Romans then. Clearly Ambrosius was not the last Latin speaker left, since then who is Gildas writing for? Maybe Gildas means something along the lines of “last pure-blooded Roman?” I think this is a big hint that perhaps the majority of the population were not Latin speakers since if they were, their non-Latin ethnicity would have been more forgotten about. Ambrosius was nearly the “last” left because it was the gentry that was most targeted for killing during the Saxon revolt, and the gentry probably claimed some kind of Roman racial superiority in breeding of some kind or other, the way gentries often have claimed stock and ancestry for their presumed natural superiority over their labouring classes. The default assumption for all the non-gentry could be that they were Celtic speakers, but I don’t see why we can’t assume many Germanic speakers too. Maybe the choice of Saxon mercenaries to begin with had something to do with a shared language with at least some portion of the British population. This is all weak speculation, but worth raising all the same.

The Anglo-Saxon Takeover Occurred Between 547 and 582 A.D.

At this point, we have not arrived at any perfectly satisfactory explanation of the introduction and spread of English in Britain. We have to conclude that, politically, there was no great Saxon takeover before Gildas wrote, and if such an event happened, it must have happened after Gildas wrote in the early 6th Century, so likely after 547 A.D., and before 582. During this time did some vast armada of Germanic speakers descend on the island, filling up most of it in the space of only one or two generations, and leaving no account of the events to history? Bede indicates that the English inhabitants of the various parts of England were quite well aware of their ethnic origins. Some nations he tells us are Jutes, others Saxons, and yet others Angles. Countries have names with the words “Sex” meaning “Saxon” and “Anglia” in them. Sussex, Wessex, Essex, and East Anglia, all have references to overseas origins. Mercia, “The Borderland” and saliently, Kent, do not. Kent is actually named for the Celtic tribe that lived there when the Romans first arrived, the Cantii. Kingdoms being the private property of the kings, it is not unlikely that the areas were named for the origins of the local royal line. This does not help us necessarily to guess the origins of the local people under the king. A Saxon or Anglian royal line may have been ruling over vast numbers of British serfs, peasants, freeholders and even more than a few nobles. The very institution of kingship is suspect. Bede says that in Old Saxony, there are no kings. The British, as Gildas makes clear, have kings. It would seem that the idea of kingship derives from the Britons, which invading or colonizing Anglo-Saxons took advantage of in order to establish their power in Britain amongst the Britons. Maybe living under British kings for a long while taught them about the institution.

There Certainly was an Anglo-Saxon Takeover!

I have no problem with the idea of Germanic invaders entering Britain in force between Gildas and 582 and cutting out large domains in Britain for themselves and their posse, much as the Danes and William the Conqueror did later. This must have happened. The Saxons had been trying to make headway there for centuries. There would be no reason to adopt the term “English” to denote the entire Germanic ethnic group in Britain without some kind of ruler(s) coming over from Angeln at some point. Bede writes that so many came from Angeln in Denmark that it was left virtually uninhabited. But, how inhabited was it theretofore? The lack of contemporary sources for this time period is terrifically suspicious though. Perhaps the whole island was so busy fighting that no one had time to write, and anything written was destroyed? This is a strong logical possibility. Times of great political instability and war often do not lend themselves well to literary production! However, something must have been remembered about the founding of royal lines, yet Bede, who set upon himself the task of chronicling exactly this kind of thing, was unable to find anyone with any knowledge of the period. Historical memory of English kings for him begins only at the tail end of the 6th Century, and continues strongly through the 7th and into the 8th, in which Century Bede wrote his magnum opus, the Historia Ecclesiastica. Bede assumes a conquest by various Germanic peoples spreading to various places in the 6th Century, the specific details however being forgotten, and this assumption is fleshed out in more detail by the legends contained in the much later written Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. I see no reason why this kind of thing would have been so strongly believed in and remembered, leaving its traces in the names of countries and origin myths, while something dramatically different but true was forgotten. There more than probably were indeed invasions or rebellions by Germanic peoples which led to the conquest of British kingdoms in the second half of the 6th Century A.D. The evidence for rebellions of subject or client settlements of Germanic peoples, as laid out throughout this paper, is much stronger than for a 6th Century transmarine Viking-style invasion. However, recruitment amongst opportunistic fellow German-speakers from across the waves is rather more than likely.

How bloody these “rebellions” were is a big question. To me, if there were indeed some kind of major bloody rebellions and wars in the latter half of the 6th Century when English rulers like Aethelbert come to power, these would have been remembered. Aethelfrith’s bloody ventures in the North of England are chronicled by Bede for the same time period, but none are given for Aethelbert. Instead, it is a very quiet power shift. We get to read a lot about Aethelbert in Bede, yet nowhere is any reference made to bloody conquest, and this is in spite of Bede listing a non-Kentish king directly preceding Aethelbert as the Emperor of Britain. Bede himself tells us of a regime change! If Aehtelbert really was as dominant as Bede claims, and it is likely that he was, considering the attention the pope lavishes on him to the exclusion of all other British kings at the time, his power probably derived mainly from posturing, prestige, and declarations of allegiance. He is the first Anglo-Saxon king to marry a Frankish princess that we are aware of. (Keep in mind the mighty power of the Franks on the Continent at the time!) This smacks of posturing. He also seems to have acted quickly to legitimize himself amongst the Christians of Britain with the help of the missionaries the pope sent him. While not wanting to alienate his pagan Saxon subjects, he freely allowed the papal missionaries to preach and to establish a Latin school, an archbishopric, and so forth, with the archbishopric of his capital city, Canterbury, guaranteed to be the leader by decree of the pope. Thus, Aethelbert went over the head of the British Romans over whom he claimed suzerainty, right to the very fount of Romanness and Latin Christianity itself, to the very head of their own religion and civilization, and get his reign legitimized by the pope himself! This reminds me very much of William the Conqueror’s getting the blessing of the pope for his conquest of England. The English in 1066 being Roman Catholics, this move greatly facilitated his consolidating of his power amongst them after the initial victory let alone the initial invasion itself. It is also very reminiscent of Clovis the king of the Franks’ adoption of his Gallic subjects’ Roman Catholic religion, which involved him being officially recognized as their lawful king by their very own religious leaders. The obsession evident in Bede’s treatment of Aethelbert’s reign with dealings with the British churches shows how their allegiance was sought vigorously by Aethelbert’s religious arm of government. The resistance of the British to the dominance of Canterbury shows that, in the name of the pope of course, Kent wanted to establish itself over the Britons in matters of faith as much as in matters of fisc. After a time in limbo, when his Saxon retainers saw the way the winds were blowing, Aethelbert was able to declare himself a Christian, and his Saxon subjects seem to have followed him. This all fits very smoothly into the pattern evident throughout world history of new-coming conquerors adopting their subject people’s religion in order to gain legitimacy in their subjects’ eyes. Even Canute did this half a millennium later.

There are very strong hints of the absorption of the British churches into Aethelstan’s new Christian order. The first comes in book I chapter 26 where Bede tells us that there was in Eastern Canterbury a church built in Roman times in honour of St. Martin, which queen Bertha and bishop Liudhard used. The fact that this church was still in use, and that who it was dedicated to was so clearly remembered seems to indicate to me continuous use. Were queen Bertha, the bishop, and a few of her servants from France the only ones to use this church? Why then make the effort of going all the way there? Why not just set up a small chapel in the palace? There were very likely Britons in attendance at this very same church, the original “Cantii” perhaps, over whom a Saxon leader now ruled.

Bede writes a lot about St. Alban’s martyrdom, showing us that this Romano-British saint had been fully adopted by the Anglo-Saxons. He lets us know that miracles and healings continue to happen there. This, plus the great amount Bede tells us about pre-Saxon Britain, filling up most of book I of his Historia, argues strongly in favour of continuity between Romano-British and Anglo-Saxon times in both religion and in population. Bede’s Anglo-Saxon kings take power, starting with Aethelbert (or Ceawlin, if you believe him that he is a Saxon, or the shadowy Aella) among a sea of Britons.

This political overturning does not in itself, however, explain the spread and dominance of English in such a short period of time. Bede makes the assumption that the Germanic languages came over to Britain with the coming of Hengist, Horsa and friends. He does not actually state that the languages came over with them, but we assume he means so as he divides Britain up into four distinct language groups corresponding to four distinct ethnic groups. One of these is English. Bede does not like genocide. He blames the Welsh king Caedwalla for genocide against the English, considering this practice against the norm, the norm being to subject, not to utterly wipe out. Unless he is a terribly unfair double-minded fellow, we have to assume that he did not think his purported ancestors committed genocide on the Britons, in which case they were rather enslaved, or a tribute imposed on them, and put to work. In this case, the Britons, following through with Bede’s paradigm, were absorbed culturally into the English. Bede shows a great deal of interest in British history prior to the Saxon conquest, but no interest whatsoever in Continental Anglian or Saxon or Jutish history prior to it. He could have written something about these supposed ancestors of the English, but he is absolutely silent on them. He could have at least made an attempt to fit them into the larger scheme of history, but he does not do so. At any rate, Bede allows for significant genetic survival of the British under Anglo-Saxon governance. This clearly seems to be what both the famous writer Geoffrey of Monmouth and his contemporary English historian William of Malmesbury believe. Geoffrey dates the supremacy of the English to an incursion of Africans from Ireland (go figure!) whose leader turns over the power structure in Britain to the English and then leaves. William points out the similarity of the English warriors at the Battle of Hastings, with their long droopy mustaches and great many tattoos with their similarly adorned forebears the ancient British who faced off against Caesar a millennia prior. Both these writers do not assume a population replacement by the Anglo-Saxons of the native Britons. This is why Shakespeare sets so many of his plays back in Celto-Roman times, as these people were held in his day to be the ancestors of the English, his spectators. However, the later views of famous writers do not solve our problem. Any writers of half a millennium later are too far removed in time.

The key thing to understand from Bede is that whereas he writes of the Britons being slain, chased away, and enslaved in book I chapter 15, in the very next chapter he writes that the Britons rallied and emerged fully victorious after the battle of Badon Hill. Chapters 17 to 22 all treat events among the British, who were now again the overlords of Britain. In chapter 22 he characterizes the British as after a time forgetting their previous virtues with which they defeated the Anglo-Saxons and refers us to Gildas for specifics. He adds to Gildas that the Britons did not make any attempt at converting the Anglo-Saxons. I will assume that Bede thinks this was the case since the Anglo-Saxon rulers he describes starting in the next chapter all come into the story as pagans. Some royal families revert to paganism even after Christianization in his narrative. There definitely was a strong pagan tradition amongst the English! This lack of the Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons in the period 503 to 582 cries out to me as proof that the Britons did not speak German, not necessarily because the language barrier itself would have dampened any missionary efforts, but because of a clearly defined ethnic difference between the British and subject Saxon peoples. If there were not such a clear delineation of who was British and who was not, the identities would have blurred under 80 years of British dominion. Saxon areas must have been clearly defined. I do not see why the British would not have wanted to convert the Saxons. I think it is more likely that the Saxons themselves were the ones scoffing at conversion, preferring to stay loyal to their pan-Germanic pagan traditions. They would need a very good reason to give these up, since we can assume quite a lot of ongoing transmarine contact with other Germans throughout this period. I do not think that the lack of effective missionary work amongst them can give us a hint as to how great a number of them there were yet in 6th Century Britain. If there were a great many, perhaps they took great pride in their numbers and shook off any religious acculturation. Perhaps if they were small in numbers they were not given much notice by the religious authorities. All in all, it is easier to assume a relatively large minority group of English already by the later 6th Century who felt secure enough in their Germanic, pagan identity to resist cultural and linguistic absorption by the British.

35 Years is too Short a Time to Change the Language of S.E. Britain

I think there are other possibilities for explaining the origins and wide spread of English in Britain by the late 6th Century A.D. That it is due to some massive waves of immigration through the 6th Century is not impossible, but seems terribly unlikely. It is too short a time and too dramatic a change! That it is due to the coming of Hengist and Horsa is disproved by Gildas, who is the very source for that story! There must have been a lot of Germanic speakers already in Britain by the time much of the island was conquered by another wave of Germanic invaders from Saxony, Jutland, Angeln and the rest, in the later 6th Century. The fact that many locals already spoke a similar language (or even close to the same language) would have facilitated and consolidated any conquest. If the introduction of Germanic to Britain was due to a great movement of people over a relatively short period of time, or over a longer period of time, but in such a way as to result in language retention, the proper political climate had to be there. The large numbers of settlers would have had to be welcomed and/or left in peace, and there had to be a good reason for so many people to want to emigrate. The paradigm I envision is that of the Berlin and East German Walls coming down, and vaste hordes of people flooding through the gates seeking a better standard of life in a better-run country. The West Germans let the East Germans in unmolested. The Eastern half of Germany remains poorer to this day. This paradigm eerily resembles that of Bede’s telling us that so many Angles left Angeln for Britain that they left Angeln empty. It all seems a bit over-dramatic, does it not?

We have evidence for the settlement of client Anglo-Saxons from the early 5th Century A.D. Bede and Gildas both speak of these people admitting more of their kind from over the waves. He have therefore from around 410 until 582 for the population of Germanics in Britain to swell to some kind of critical mass facilitating the dominance of Anglo-Saxon kings and the subjection of much of later came to be termed “England.” We must keep in mind that these were the days before contraception, career-womanhood and so forth. One couple might have fifteen to twenty children of which half to three-fifths might survive to have their own children. You can see, keeping this kind of fact in mind, why later generations of English could believe that their ancestors entered Britain in three or so long ships. Let us assume a very conservative number of births who then go onto reproduce themselves of six to every couple. This yields a population increase of 200% per generation. We will be conservative to the point of not even assuming further Anglo-Saxon immigration. Let us assume a meagre 1000 mercenary foederati settlers to begin with. Let us draw this up as a chart:

Generation with Approximate Date Population of Anglo-Saxons
1: 410 A.D. 1,000
2: 435 A.D. 3,000
3: 460 A.D. 9,000
4: 485 A.D. 27,000
5: 510 A.D. 81,000
6: 535 A.D. 243,000
7: 560 A.D. 729,000
8: 585 A.D. 2,187,000

This chart, like the intermarriage chart far above, is a terrifically blunt instrument to use for this kind of study, but it certainly is relevant. Within eight generations, what we might consider to be about two hundred years, with a very conservative reproduction rate for the era, and even no further immigration being assumed, we can go from a population of one thousand to well over two million! The big war with the Saxons as related by Gildas ends at around 503 A.D. Given a rather natural population increase since the first Saxons were admitted eighty or ninety years earlier, there may have been fifty thousand or so Saxons already residing in Britain! No wonder they wanted more for themselves! They were probably getting to be rather crowded where they were living let alone more and more confident in their numbers! Given a safe place to take root, the human seed can grow into a mighty tree in a rather short space of time! The growth of the English colonies on the American Atlantic seaboard in the 17th Century is perhaps a comparable event to bring up for comparison. From around 5,000 in 1630 to 50,000 in 1650 when much of the initial immigration takes place, the population swells to 250,000 in 1700 and then to over ten times that, at 2,780,000 only eighty years later in 1780. With a safe and secure place for families to raise their children, such as in client colonies in Britain in the 5th and 6th Centuries, or under secure British rule in America in the 17th and 18th Centuries, and given enough time, populations can bulge to epic proportions! Since I doubt there was any evil British pharaoh demanding the killing of a certain proportion of Anglo-Saxon babies during the 5th and 6th Centuries, I imagine that natural population growth is the major factor in the spread of the English language and culture during those centuries, especially since no particular dramatic events concerning it seem to have been remembered in Bede’s day. English conquering Britain mainly through kids growing up does not fit the dramatic paradigm many of us moderns might expect when we read history. However, earlier people, our ancestors in the not-so-distant past, to whom having ten or more kids was the norm, saw rapid population growth through natural reproduction as basic and as a given not needing any explanation or elucidation. Bede did not have to tell his readers, who had huge families themselves, that their ancestors also had lots of children! Thus for Bede and his readers there was no mystery of how the English grew to be so many between his given dates of 449 A.D. and the time of Aethelbert in 582, let alone in his own day in the 8th Century! Small beginnings were expected! Did not Aeneas himself arrive to found Rome with only a few hundred settlers?

When did the Germanic Language Take Hold in Britain?

The time when Britain did enjoy a significantly better standard of living over that of Denmark and Saxony was during the era of Roman civilization. The Roman Empire offered the kind of organized security that thriving in this life requires at its base. Outside the lines of the Empire, rampaging marauders could cut short your freedom or your life at any time. It was a tough existence. Inside the borders was peace and security. Germanic peoples from outside the Roman lines were clamouring to immigrate inside the lines all through the period of Roman dominance in Western Europe. Germanic men were eager to join the Roman army to achieve citizenship. After citizenship was granted to all free people within Rome’s borders, one no longer needed to join the army but rather simply to move into Roman territory and find gainful employment. Eventually whole peoples would make the decision to try to immigrate en masse into the Empire. Several did do so. The Franks are an excellent example of this. In return for military service defending the empire as part of the Roman military machine, barbarian nations got the security of defence from other barbarian tribes as part of the Roman defence system, the freedom to maintain and use their own laws in their own tribal zone, and access to the protected trading networks of the Roman empire and all the wealth that could be had through them.

This seems to be what was happening in Britain in the days of the late empire, as it was happening on the Continent. The tale of Hengist and Horsa is exactly a story of this, just that the ending is bad – where the Germanic immigrants get upset and ravage. Perhaps the very unusualness of this dissatisfaction and revolt turned it into such a well-remembered story. That this was the first and only time such settlement of Germanic people was done under Roman or Romano-British tutelage in Britain is terrifically unlikely. The story may have stood, in a mainly oral culture, as a stand-in for an ongoing and frequent practice. Hengist and Horsa may be stand-ins for this phenomenon the way the “Mayflower” is the stand-in for English immigration to America. One event becomes greater than life and stands for many events over a long period of time. We know of the Germanization of the Roman military all over the Empire from even the 2nd Century A.D. In 455 the Vandals looted Rome after the Vandal leader felt the Romans had not kept up their end of a treaty. This again is exactly the situation related in the tale of Hengist and Horsa. The date is similar with Bede’s date for this similar story: 449 A.D. While we cannot trust Bede to be fully accurate, seeing Rome sacked twice in this same century: in 410 and 455, makes the Saxon rebellion at roughly the same time seem to be part of a recurring theme all over the Roman Empire rather than something particular or unique to Britain. It would seem that the Roman peoples were no longer wealthy enough to keep up their end of the bargain with their mercenary troops! That there were not a few Germanic speaking people in Britain, one of the greatest Roman provinces, heavily garrisoned and a major supplier of food to the mainland, by the early 5th Century, is terribly hard to believe. Britain was subject to the same social forces that were at work elsewhere in the Empire. As we know from the case of other barbarian nations settled within Roman lines, they often kept their language, culture and religion. The longer these tribes resided within the Roman borders the more they acculturated themselves, but the process was often quite slow and rocky. The Franks did not adopt Christianity or (a Frankified form of) the Roman language for a great many years after settling within Christian Rome. Charlemagne himself still in the 9th Century was bilingual (Frankish German and Latin.) The Visigoths kept their Arian religion for centuries after coming to live deep inside the Roman borders. That the Germanic immigrants to Britain also did not take up the Roman religion should come as no surprise at all. After all, they would not have understood the Latin Church services, and they had their own gods. There seems to have been a significant Celtic remnant living in Britain still in late Roman times, surviving even to this day in parts of Britain. Latin was clearly not as all-pervasive as it had become in other Roman provinces, such as in Spain or Gaul (outside of Armorica/Brittany.) Latin speaking may have become pinned eventually by the mid to late 6th Century between a Celtic speaking West and a Germanic speaking East. Something of this phenomenon of a language colonization under the auspices of the host country can be seen at the current time in the state of Florida and in other parts of the United States, where great numbers of Spanish speakers have over time flocked to that state and others searching for a better life in a more secure and wealthy country. Speakers of the same language tend to do better when living close to each other, for mutual help and support. This living in close proximity helps to strengthen the language and increases the chance that it will be passed onto the children. Through both legal and illegal routes immigrants of another language are able to enter and reside in a perceived better country. In Roman and Romano-British days, when modern methods of tracking were unknown and simply blending-in was even more possible than now, it is terrifically likely that many Germanic speakers came to Britain in this fashion – after a short boat ride across the Channel or the North Sea with some kind of traders or whatnot, you could look about for work, quite possibly finding some initial employment with other recently-come Germanics. If worst came to worst, why not join the army there? It was often run by other Germanic people already by late Roman times, and even in not-so-late times there were a great many Germanic auxiliaries incorporated into the army. You could probably find someone who would help you out. Much labour was physical back then, so a helping hand was always sought somewhere. Let us not forget about slaves captured on the Germanic side outside of the Roman border. If their masters also spoke Germanic this would perpetuate the language too. Also, there were many Germanic speakers within the borders in Gaul, and of course in the Roman province of Germania. The late Roman Empire, especially in the border areas in Western Europe, was swarming with Germanic speaking inhabitants. If we assume the same for Britain, then everything else will seem to fall into place nicely.

Did the Romans Germanize Britain?

That the English language is mainly a result not of conquest, but of sponsored Germanic settlement in Romano-British Britain, is an answer staring us in the face, attested to by both Gildas and Bede, and so obviously a strong possibility that it has been hard over the years “to spot the forest through the trees.” This also accounts for the very low number of loan words from Celtic, since that language had already been mostly or entirely replaced in Eastern Britain by Latin by the early 5th Century A.D. That the movement to Roman Britannia was a kind of folk migration is also quite true with this theory, albeit probably over a number of centuries or at least generations and not in one fell swoop. There is no proof that Germanic was not spoken in large pockets in East Britain by late Roman / early Post-Roman times, nor is there proof that Celtic was still being spoken there to any great extent. The idea that somehow Britain was left in some kind of pristine Celtic-speaking heaven until Hengist and Horsa, remaining immune to the same Germanization that was occurring all over the Western Empire in late Imperial times, is quite a stretch! That Latin was being used is proven in inscriptions and by common sense, it being the language of the Romans who were still occupying the province, and by Gildas writing a bit before 547 A.D. That Germanic did not leave a written trace in late Roman times is not a surprise as it hardly left any on the Continent at that time either where there was a presumably much greater population of Germanic speakers inside Roman borders. These Germanic inhabitants speaking Germanic and not Latin, and not being literate, and probably not Christian either, at least not many of them, would not feel any especially strong Roman identity, so if and when real invaders might have started coming to Britain from Germanic lands like Saxony, Jutland, and Angeln, these Germanic inhabitants of Britain were easily able to adopt the national identity of the conquerors, even to aid them in their conquests, and quite possibly to claim descent originally from the same people as their conquerors, effectively becoming political and cultural chameleons. This would have been as easy to do as an American adopting a Canadian identity or vice versa, and perhaps only as difficult as it would be for anyone changing national allegiance to a country speaking the language he already speaks as his primary tongue. Native to Britain Germanic dynasties could rise up too, making claims to some kind of across-the-seas pedigree, since every Germanic speaker in Britain probably had some kind of immigrant from over the waves in their recent family tree – and if not, why not make one up? “Hey, my ancestors were KINGS in Denmark. I grew up a labourer here, but that’s because I had to flee a blood feud over there, or my grandfather did, or something like that. I’m descended from Woden on my mother’s side.” People can be remarkably selective and even inventive with their genealogy. Even today people will tend to choose some ancestor or family line that they admire and make much hay of it. Being an enthusiast for the early Middle Ages, I was quite thrilled to discover that I am descended from Alfred the Great of Wessex. Of course, if you do the math, I have potentially 30 million ancestors from that time. However, I highlight Alfred as he was a famous and praiseworthy king.

The supposed invasions by foreigners from over the seas may in fact have not happened at all, the coming to power of “foreign” Saxon et cetera houses in Britain being the result of the resident Germanic pockets there rebelling against Britano-Roman authority and making up somewhat credible pedigrees for themselves based on their idea of their ancestors recently having immigrated from the Germanic world into Britain and earlier on from Heaven to Earth if you believe them that they have Woden in their ancestry, oh yes, and in some cases Caesar too (he went straight to Heaven, right???) Alternately, upper-class intermarriage with overseas noble houses, rather than conquest and enslavement, could help account for exotic pedigrees. As I wrote above more than anything, natural population growth is the easiest explanation of the growth of Anglo-Saxon influence in Britain.

A More Under-Handed Anglo-Saxon Conquest: Coups and Betrayals?

If we take this theory as a strong possibility, and one I will be the first to admit is not fully provable without some more direct written or archaeological evidence for it, but if we do take it as a strong possibility, one that is not contradicted by any solid evidence and one that is highly probable as it mirrors what happened elsewhere over the Western Roman Empire, it resolves the utter dearth of information or even of tales relating what went on in the 6th Century. Romano-British overlords were toppled by a Germanic underclass, or even by a not-so-under class of powerful military men speaking the Germanic language which had already started to coalesce into some sort of distinctive British (or should we say “English”) variety of Germanic. These rebels or coup leaders were quick to adopt some kind of meaningful pedigree for themselves based on where they thought their ancestors originally came from to Britain. You will notice in the royal pedigrees that there are very few ancestors listed before the first purportedly British English ancestor is listed, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and elsewhere. It seems that the Old Continental Homeland, be it Denmark or Old Saxony, is a kind of la-la land of fairy tales. This could also account for the Celtic British ring to many early names in the pedigrees, as it would be quite possible that Celtic names were passed around through the Romanized Britons, influencing Germanic parents’ choice of names for their children. If we are talking about coups happening, then quite possibly those leading the coups had close ties to the Britano-Roman leadership, family or otherwise, making the taking on of a Romano-British name not unlikely. Maybe coups did not even have to happen, but instead a Germanized part of the military establishment of Roman times continued on into Post-Roman Britain, the Germanic officers and commanders forming some kind of military aristocracy which remained relevant whiles the Latin-speaking civilian aristocracy did not remain so. Perhaps the Celto-Roman names of the kings listed by Gildas in the early 6th Century were those of this rapidly-becoming-effete Latin civilian aristocracy precariously holding onto power over a heavily Germanized military establishment – a more than ghostly lingering on of the Saxons in places of influence? Perhaps the British elite was already on the verge of becoming integrated through intermarriage with this Germanic warrior class? That Gildas makes no special mention of Germanic speakers in significant numbers in Britain in his time is to be expected, since this was normal everywhere in the northern part of the late Roman Empire. It was completely normal to have Germans around. If he was indeed writing in Brittany then he would have known of the Franks! I almost wonder if Gildas’ hyperbolic reference to Ambrosius being nearly the only Roman left alive after the Saxon ravages is a hint at there being many other inhabitants of Britain that were not “true Romans” in the traditional sense, in other words that they were Germanics or that many of them were. Perhaps it is just pure hyperbole, but it is worth raising the question anyhow.

Reading Bede in Slow Motion

Thus the entire process works itself out like a very lengthy Trojan Horse event, like reading Bede’s account of the Adventus Saxonum in slow motion. The Germanic immigrants are admitted over the 5th Century by the Romano-British establishment (or who knows, even earlier to some degree under the Roman establishment) as mercenaries or as helping hands, and illegal immigrants are not chased away. Vortigern here, who may very well be a real person, is Bede’s  poster boy for Romano-British authority. Immigration can intensify under a late Roman regime where there are increasing numbers of Germanic speakers in the Empire even at the highest echelons of government and the military. The famous Aetius and Stilicho are epitomes of this phenomenon. Significant pockets of Germanic speakers emerge in Britain through the mid to late Roman period, and certainly by the early 5th Century after the Legions leave, retaining their language and thereby their consciousness of being Germanic people rather than fully Roman, and many cultural and religious traits that accompany the German language. They recognize and stay loyal to their language and ethnic group, seeing how many and how powerful German speakers have become inside the Empire and outside it. The Germanic presence and identity in Roman Britain is constantly being reinforced by a continuous stream of immigrants, both legal and illegal, from within the Germanic speaking parts of the Roman Empire and from without the borders of the empire. There is significant natural population growth also. At last there are enough of these people for some of them to start taking power with enough of a base of support from amongst their own kind, away from or instead of the Romano-Britons, paralleling what had been going on for a long time in other Roman provinces, including in Italy itself! This may have coincided with Germanic invasions from overseas and in fact facilitated them, or it may have, much more probably, happened independently of them, the foreign pedigree of the coup leaders being a poetical and politically expedient fiction, basing legitimacy on royal or divine symbols from their own Germanic ethnic heritage rather than on the defunct ones of the collapsed or collapsing Roman Empire. I would think it highly likely that many of the soldiers fighting for Ambrosius Aurelianus against the invading Saxons were Germanic speakers. Wars in this day between Roman and Germanic peoples were often between Germanized Roman armies and barbarian German armies. It was often German tribesman versus Romanized German. Remaining Romano-Britons can adjust to the new cultural-political reality of Germanic dominance in the upper classes by the later 6th Century, or leave. Probably most would stay on and continue their normal lives, and marrying into Germanic families and vice versa could not have been shunned. The aristocracy, after a time, would either have to join into the Germanic language and culture, or flee. One way or the other, if the educated Latin aristocracy left, it would deal a great blow to the Latin language in Britain. The Western side of Britain that was less affected by the Germanic immigration and even the Latin immigration in Roman times continues to remain Celtic speaking with perhaps some Latin speakers lingering on for a while only to be absorbed eventually into the Celtic sea of the Welsh, the Corns and the Bretons.

With this theory we might speculate that the Britonization of Armorica to make it “Brittany” eventually, also had to do with the free flow of people under the security of the Pax Romana. Gildas, writing quite possibly in Brittany, does not make reference to some kind of big migration to there or of a definitive British conquest of it either. Historians try to explain the Celtic survival in Brittany, and its memory of close ties with Britain. The best answer is probably that it lies close to the Western part of Britain, which is the more Celtic side, and people moved around a bit without there being one single defining event. At any rate, going back to Eastern Britain, given a situation where there is a strong minority of Germanic speakers where a coup or some other event establishes a Germanic-speaking leadership in the area, intermarriage and concubinage bolstered by almost any amount of additional Germanic immigration can result in a thorough Germanization of the area in only a few generations. The flip side of this theory is that without the help of the Romano-British, English never could have developed. If these latter-day Romans somehow prevented Germanic immigrants from coming to live there then after the collapse of central Roman rule it is probably a form of Latin that would have come to dominate, making history turn out very differently, and this article not ever begin written, nor you reading it. Britain would have likely developed its own distinctive Romance language or perhaps gone all to Celtic. Thus, English was made possible by the late/post-Roman Pax Romana, but throve well before it finally usurped it in Britain with its Christian religion and Latin scholarship. It was not the Anglo-Saxons but the Romans who dealt the worse blows to the Celtic languages in Britain, replacing them in most parts of the Roman province of Britannia, at least in the major population centres, with Latin. The continuance of Celtic in the Western parts of Britain however weakened Latin’s place on the island in the face of the growing buildup of strong Germanic pockets in the East and South, as did the collapse of the Roman Empire and the benefits speaking Latin had brought with it, Latin Britain now being surrounded on all sides by Celtic and Germanic speakers. So, according to this theory, we can thank Rome for providing the womb needed for our language to grow from fetus to child, exiting from this womb when the empire collapsed, taking care of its aged Latin Roman mother, her knowledge and customs, and later maturing to become an energetic youth, a commanding middle-aged man, and now the repository for the world’s wisdom as the world’s dominant language.

Germanic in Britain Before the Romans?

Stephen Oppenheimer has published research suggesting that Germanic languages may have been spoken in Britain prior to the Roman conquest. There is no prima facie reason to dismiss this possibility. Tacitus in his Agricola, mentions that the Britons resemble the Gauls in language. He considers the Picts in Northern Britain to be Germans. Perhaps some Gauls spoke Germanic languages. Caesar thinks of the Belgae, a Gallic ethnic group who he relates were also living in Britain when he invaded it, as being of German descent. He lists military contingents of Germans based in Britain. There is no strong reason to assume that some kind of Germanic proto-English was not being spoken in Britain from pre-Roman times all the way through the occupation. Any kind of proto-English such as this would further contribute to and strengthen the phenomena described above regarding the Germanization of Britain under the Romans and afterwards. It could only help such things.

Oppenheimer’s major thesis, for which he produces a lot of data, is that genetically the Anglo-Saxon immigration in the 5th and 6th Centuries, although possibly significant to some degree, did not have a major impact on the people of England, and I think this thesis also fits the literary evidence quite snugly too, since the growth of the Anglo-Saxon population in Britain seems to have occurred over two centuries before Anglo-Saxon kings take charge of the land from the Britons. This gradual growth of the English language and power all smacks of gradual change and intermarriage, of evolution and not revolution, at least not successfully so until Aethelbert takes a great deal of power for himself in Britain between 560 and 582 A.D.!

Physical Appearance of the Anglo-Saxons and DNA

It is something of a folk-belief that the Anglo-Saxons and the later Viking invaders were tall, blonde-haired and blue-eyed. Therefore in the interpretation of human remains from our period the taller specimens are often assumed to be Anglo-Saxons and the short ones to be Britons. This is quite amusing to me. The Romans described the Celts living in Britain as blonde-haired, and all the Northern peoples, the North-Italian Celts, the Gauls, the Germans, the Britons included were known to be on average quite tall compared with many of the Romans and those of Southern Italy. Also, DNA evidence proving a major genetic difference between the inhabitants of Wales and the English East of the Pennine mountain range is often given as some kind of proof for a complete population replacement of the Britons East of the Pennines by invading Anglo-Saxons, particularly since the DNA of the English is very close to that of the Frisians and those living on the South side of the Channel. The reason for this kind of DNA divide in Britain is because of the mountain range in the middle. People were always moving back and forth across the Channel as far as we can trace back in the historical record. Julius Caesar even noted that the same Germano-Celtic “Belgae” nation lived on both sides of the Channel. The Roman Empire politically unifying both sides could only have increased the amount of population transfer between them. The mountain range between England and Wales was always a dampener on the movement of people and if we had done DNA surveys of people in pre-Roman Britain we would certainly find the same kind of genetic divide as we still find there today.


The implications of this kind of study are myriad, but for fun it might not hurt to think of a few here that come to my mind. Given that the Anglo-Saxon conquest was apparently really the result of two centuries of natural population growth bolstered by immigration and protected by the British authorities, them even being the ones responsible for bringing the first English over to Britain in the first place, and not one of sudden violent conquest, of a massive reverse D-Day type invasion, and that we go from a Latin Christian culture under British rulers to a Latin Christian culture under English rulers, I think we can look at the whole thing as a fascinating example, one of many in world history of gradual but dynamic cultural change and the influence of immigration on such change. As the English of the High Middle Ages felt, the figure of King Arthur is a perfectly legitimate hero for the English, leading their pre-Saxon British ancestors to victory upon victory before the Saxon language and culture had spread to dominance through the island. Vilifying the Anglo-Saxons as bringers of barbarism is unfair. They do not seem any less civilized than their British or Frankish or Aquitanian brethren who are traditionally thought to have preserved more of the Roman civilization than they did. Acutally, the Anglo-Saxons were quick to adopt Latin literacy and even Christianity once they came to power, and Bede’s Northumbria even became a great centre of European scholarship by the late 7th Century! As Bede, Henry of Huntingdon, Geoffrey of Monmouth, William of Malmesbury, Shakespeare and the rest thought, the pre-Saxon Britons were ancestors of the later English, so we can think of continuity right through British history amongst the population of England. The English are not ‘just all Celts’ though, they are a blend, and there will be Romans in their ancestry too from the days of the Roman occupation. There was no widespread “genocide” of the Britons by the Anglo-Saxons. Ruling groups of gentry may have been massacred as seems to have been common practice amongst the 5th and 6th Century Franks on the Continent as told us by Gregory of Tours, but some kind of slanderous accusations of “ethnic cleansing” or so on an island-wide scale are unfounded and simply libellous or dark fantasy. Immigration, natural population growth, intermarriage, coups, slavery, war, and acculturation are all attested to in the contemporary literary records and these can explain a shift in language and culture without recourse to wide-scale genocide! English only picked up a few loan words from British Celtic like “crag” for example, but Latin only picked up a few words from Gallic Celtic too. This is no argument against population continuity in England from British to Saxon times any more than it is for France. Take the example of France: a Celtic Gallic population speaking Latin but calling themselves after a German tribe! The whole story of the Anglo-Saxonization of Britain comes out as one of evolution and gradual change and not one of a blitzkrieg.


Primary Sources:

  • Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum.
  • Caesar, De Bello Gallico.
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae.
  • Gildas, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae.
  • Gregory of Tours, Historia Francorum.
  • Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum.
  • Nennius, Historia Brittonum.
  • Tacitus, Agricola.
  • Tacitus, Germania.
  • William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum.

Secondary Sources:

  • William Baaken, The End of Roman Britain: Assessing the Anglo-Saxon Invasions of the Fifth Century (16 November 1994. Updated 28 December 1998: accessed June 2012) 
  • Samantha Glasswell, The Earliest English: Living and Dying in Early Anglo-Saxon England. (Tempus:2002)
  • Stephen Oppenheimer, The Origins of the British: a genetic detective story. (Constable:2006)
  • Robert Vermaat, Vortigern Studies, (2008 : accessed June 2012)