The Anglo-Saxons in Britain: Part 2

Pre-1066 illustration of Anglo-Saxon warriors on horseback. By Anon. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When last we left the Saxons, they were defending the British against the Picts and Scots under a peace treaty that paid them in money, food and land for their services. All was well for a time, but then the Saxons began to think bigger.

It is clear that by the mid-fifth century, the Saxons were growing restless with their narrow strip of land and seeking greater inroads into the country. They brought more and more of their Germanic fellows to Britain and demanded increasing amounts of payment. Eventually, they broke their treaty and began sacking British towns. According to Gildas, the leaders of the Saxons were called Hengest and Hosa and they ruled Kent. Nennius tells us that Vortigern married Hengest’s daughter in an effort to secure peace and Bede gives us the story of the hidden daggers in the Saxons’ boots at the council where they betrayed Vortigern. But that is the stuff of mythology and folk legend, not verifiable history.

On and on the two sides fought, sometimes winning, sometimes losing, neither really gaining ground. According to Phillips and Keatman, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (which Snyder discredits as unreliable during this time period) “lists no battles between 465 and 473. This must have been a period of consolidation on both sides when defenses were prepared and personnel organized” (73). In 473 (again, according to the Chronicle), the Saxons won a great victory, but then shortly thereafter, the Britons held them at bay.

This is the time period of Arthur’s 12 great battles (as given to us by Nennius), if you believe that Arthur existed. If not, the closest historical leader scholars can point to is Ambrosius Aurelianus. Synder credits him with challenging the Saxons in multiple locations until the battle of Mount Badon (somewhere between 485-510). After that defeat there was a period of peace. As Phillips and Keatman write, “In the half century that followed Badon, until the time of Gildas’ writing, Britain enjoyed a period free from external attack. Indeed, there is archeological evidence of a reverse Anglo-Saxon migration; considerable numbers returned to the continent of Europe, uncertain, no doubt, of their precarious foothold in Britain” (77). Especially since Phillips and Keatman’s archeological evidence is weak (pottery shards in Germany that supposedly show they were settlers direct from Britain – but they don’t talk about how or why the shards lead us to this conclusion), I doubt the validity of the reverse migration. I have a feeling that while some may have returned home, the Saxons were, in general, still in Britain licking their wounds and biding their time to rebuild the forces they lost at Badon.

But their mindset of defeat seems to have ended in the late sixth century. By 550, the Saxons had defeated the British at Salisbury, and by 577, they had cut off the British in the southwest by taking the towns of Bath, Cirencester and Gloucester. By 614, they controlled Devon and by 682, had the whole of the southwest peninsula under their control, save Cornwall. To the north and west, the Angles rose to power, and by the eighth century, they had overtaken most of the rest of the country. By 927, the Saxon king Athelstan, successor to Alfred the Great, united the country into a single kingdom first called Angelcynn, then Englaland and today, England (Phillips and Keatman 78). The remainder of the Britons settled in Wales, Cornwall and Brittany, eventually to carry on only in Wales – the beginning of the divide between England and Wales that exists still today.

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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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