Chapter Three: The Saxon Invasions
From the time that the Romans more or less abandoned Britain,
to the arrival of the missionary Augustine, the period has
been known as the Dark Ages. Written evidence concerning
the period is scanty, but we do know that a gradual division
of the island of Britain took place into a Brythonic West,
a Teutonic East, and a Gaelic North. In turn, these led
to the formation of the Welsh, English and Scottish nations;
and to the conversion of much of the native population to
With the departure of the Roman legions, the old enemies
began their onslaughts upon the native Britons once more.
These were the Picts and Scots to the north and west (the
Scots from Ireland had not yet made their homes in what
was to become later known as Scotland); and the Saxons,
Angles, and Jutes to the south and east.
By 4l0, Britain had already become self-governing in three
parts: the North (which already included people of mixed
British and Angle stock); the West (including Britons, Irish,
and Angles); and the Southeast (mainly Britons and Angles).
The two centuries that followed the collapse of Roman Britain
happen to be among the worst recorded times in British history,
certainly the most obscure. Three main sources for our knowledge
of the Anglo-Saxon permeation of Britain come from the 6th
century monk Gildas, the 8th century historian Bede, and
the 9th century historian Nennius.
Commonly ascribed to the monk Gildas, the De Excidio Britanniae
(the loss of Britain, was written about 540. It is not a
good history, for it is most merely polemic. The account
is the first to narrate what has traditionally been regarded
as the story of the coming of the Saxons to Britain. Their
success was seen by Gildas as God's vengeance against the
Britons for their sins. We note, however, that Gildas also
wrote that, in his own day, the Saxons were not warring
against the Britons.
We can thus be certain that the greater part of the pre-English
inhabitants of England survived, and that a great proportion
of present-day England is made up of their descendants.
A study conducted at the Institute of Molecular Biology,
Oxford has established a common DNA going back to the end
of the last Ice Age is shared by 99 per cent from a sample
of 6,000 British people. The study confirmed that successive
invasions of Saxons, Angles, Jutes (along with Danes and
Normans) did little to change that make-up. Thus the heritage
of the British people cannot simply be called Anglo-Saxon.
The Celts were not driven out of what came to be known as
England. More than one modern historian has pointed out
that such an extraordinary success as an Anglo-Saxon conquest
of Britain "by bands of bold adventurers" could
hardly have passed without notice by the historians of the
Roman Empire, yet only Prosper Tyro and Procopius wrote
of an enormous upheaval. In the Gallic Chronicle of 452,
Tyro had written that the Britons in 443 were reduced "in
dicionen Saxonum" (under the jurisdiction of the English).
Tyro used the Roman term Saxons for all the English-speaking
peoples resident in Britain. The Roman historians had been
using the term to describe all the continental folk who
had been directing their activities towards the eastern
and southern coasts of Britain from as early as the 3rd
In the account given by Procopius in the middle of the 6th
Century, he writes of the island of Britain being possessed
by three very populous nations: the Angili, the Frisians,
and the Britons. "And so numerous are these nations
that every year, great numbers Smigrate thence to the Franks."
There is no suggestion here that these peoples existed in
a state of warfare or enmity, nor that the British people
had been vanquished or made to flee westwards. We have to
assume, therefore, that the Gallic Chronicle of 452 refers
only to a small part of Britain, and that it does not signify
total conquest by the Saxons.
As we discover (and recover) from reading Gildas, we realize
that there is a considerable lack of reliable written evidence
from the period, and we have to turn to the nation's poets
to inform ourselves of its important events. Much of this
literature was produced in what is now Scotland, where Taliesin
and Aneirin both lived in the area now known as Strathclyde
in Scotland, but whose language is recognizable as Old Welsh.
Their poems celebrate honor in defeat and praise the ideal
ruler who protects his people by bravery and ferocity in
battle but who is magnanimous and generous in peace.
Aneirin is best remembered for Y Gododdin, commemorating
the feats of a small band of warriors who fought the Angles
at Catraeth and who were willing to die for their overlord.
The poem is the first to mention Arthur, described as a
paragon of virtue and bravery. In a later work, the Annales
Cambriae, drawn up at St. David's in Wales around 960, Arthur
is recorded as having been victorious against the Saxons
at the Battle of Badon in 5l6.
A collection of stories (collected around 830) that relate
the events of the age is the Historia Brittonum of Nennius.
Arthur is also mentioned, as is Brutus, described as the
ancestor of the Welsh. Perhaps the most authentic of the
early Arthurian references is the entry for 537 in the Annales
that briefly refers to the Battle of Camlan in which Arthur
and Medrawd were killed.
The question remains: how did the invaders, small in numbers
compared to the more numerous and settled invaded, come
to master the larger part of Britain? Modern historian John
Davies gives us part of the answer: the regions seized by
the newcomers were mainly those that had been most thoroughly
Romanized, regions where traditions of political and military
self-help were at their weakest. Those who chafed at the
administration of Rome could only have welcomed the arrival
of the English in such areas as Kent or Sussex, in the southeast.
Another compelling reason cited by Davies is the emergence
in Britain of the great plague of the 6th Century from Egypt
that was especially devastating to the Britons who had been
in close contact with peoples of the Mediterranean. Be that
as it may, the emergence of England as a nation did not
begin as a result of a quick, decisive victory over the
native Britons, but a result of hundreds of years of settlement
and growth, sometimes peaceful, sometimes not.
If it is pointed out that the native Celts were constantly
warring among themselves, it should also be noted that so
were the tribes we now collectively term "the English,"
for different kingdoms developed in England that constantly
sought domination through conquest. So we see the rise and
fall of successive English kingdoms of Kent, Northumbria,
Mercia, and Wessex during the 7th and 8th centuries. Before
looking at political developments, however, it is important
to notice the religious conversion of the peoples we commonly
call Anglo-Saxons. Beginning in the late 6th Century, Christianity
was able to create an institution in Britain that not only
transcended political boundaries, but that also created
a new concept of unity among the various tribal regions
to override individual loyalties.
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This History of England was written by Peter Williams Ph.D.
Peter is the author of some fantastic history books which
we will soon be recommending on the site. Peter also has
a website which is well worth a visit - CelticInfo.com