The Anglo-Saxons in Britain: Part 1

A.D. 500-1000, Anglo-Saxons. By by Albert Kretschmer, painters and costumer to the Royal Court Theatre, Berin, and Dr. Carl Rohrbach. (Costumes of All Nations (1882)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

If you’re anything like me, you have hazy memories of learning about the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain in high school. You may even recall a map with arrows pointing from the continental Europe to the Eastern coast of Britain, indicating where the Angles, Saxons and Jutes landed. That was about all I remembered before I started researching for these books, and although this isn’t my area of focus, I thought I’d share a little of what I’ve learned.

The traditional view of how the Anglo-Saxons (my catch-all term for the Angles, Saxons and Jutes – I have no desire to try to explain the difference) came to Britain is that massive waves of them invaded the isle in bloody battle (a view popularized by Bede, Gildas and Nennius). In this view, their first major attack on Britain was either 408 or 41o, during the reign of Constantine when he was busy in Brittany and Rome was rapidly pulling its support from Britain. It was a sound defeat for the Britons that only led to more trouble as the years went by.

Now this thought is being replaced by one that I, personally, think is more realistic. While it lacks the drama of earlier theories, the idea that the Saxons slowly settled over time is consistent with many other “invasions” throughout history (look at the English who colonized America or the Irish who inhabited Dalriada in what is today Scotland – those certainly weren’t all at once).

According to Snyder, the new way of thinking goes like this: in the late fourth century, the Anglo-Saxons  left their homeland in search of more prosperous lands (possibly due to changing weather conditions, rising sea levels or famine in Germanic areas). They must have come a few families or small tribal groups at a time because there is little evidence for major Saxon settlements until around 440. It is likely that in between this time, the Saxons were settling where they could, bringing their women and children over from Germany and Denmark or intermarrying with the Britons on the eastern coast, and slowly increasing their population in this new land.

In the 430s, a group of Britons sent an appeal for help against their other enemies, the Picts and the Scots, to the Roman general Aetius in Gaul, but he didn’t respond. The Britons held a council to try to decide what to do, led by a “proud tyrant,” whom mythology tells us is Vortigern (whose name/title means “proud tyrant”). Vortigern, or whoever led the council, decided to hire the Saxons as mercenaries to defend against the “peoples of the north” (Gildas, quoted in Snyder 83). The Saxons sent word to their homeland, and warships of warriors came to the isle under a peace treaty that ensured the Saxons were protected, paid and fed for their services, which they performed well.

But that only lasted so long. Next week, we’ll look at what went wrong and how the Saxons eventually took power from the Britons, forming the country we know today as England.

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Sources:

The Britons by Christopher A. Snyder
The Anglo-Saxons by James Campbell (ed.)
King Arthur: The True Story by Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman

What about you? What have you heard about the Anglo-Saxon invasions? Does it agree with or contradict what’s written here? (It’s a complex topic.) What sources do you recommend?

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