Germanic Invasion of Britain (5th-6th Centuries)


Figure 1.--.

Many historic accounts focus on the Goths and other Germanuc tribes over running the Wesern Empire. A more limited, but historically important Germanic invasion took place in the north, the invasion of Roman Britain. The invasions took place after the last Roman garison withdrew from Britain (407 AD) abd was largely accomplished by the time St Augustine arrived (end of the 6th century). The Germaniv invasions significantly changed the democraphic and ethnic pattern of Britain, especially what we now call England. The make up of the population, language, political structure, and other institutions were fundamentally changed. The Germanic invaders replaced the Romanized Celts who might be called the British. Historians have differed over the interactions between Germanic invaders and British. The disappearance of Latin and Celtic suggested that the Germanic invaders did not absorbe the Celts, but rather conducted a war of extinction. Modern DNA studies tends to confirm this. Not only did Germanic dialects (which evolved into Old English) replace Latin and Celtic, but loose knit and often feuding hereditary kingships replaced the more centrally governed system of provinces left by the Romans. [Myres] Urban life desintegrated and the Roman cities were largely abandoned. The problem for historians is that the victors were the Germanic tribes or Anglo-Saxons who were not literate at the time and thus there are no surviving contemprary written accounts. The earliest accounts of the conquest come several centuries later. Available sources suggest that the British (Roman-Celtic) authorities after the departure of the Legions had increasing duifficulty resisting the depredations of the northern tribes. They apparently hired a Germanic warlord and his men as mercenaries (mid-5th century). Relations soon desintegrated and the Germans not only revolted, but invited kinsmen to join them. The Germanic tribes gradually gained controll over much of low-land Britain. The stuggle of the Romanized Celts and Germanic tribes appears to to be the genesis of the Arthurian legend. While the Britons apprarentlt held out for some time, they were eventually driven into the mountaneous western areas and survived as the Welsh people. At the time Saint Augustine arrived, the Anglo Saxons controlled most of southern Engkland and were expanding north and west (late 6th century). It is not all together clear who the Germanic invaders were. The Britons tended to call them Saxons. The name England of course comes from the Anglii, another Germanic tribe. The Anglii settlements evolved into the kingdoms of East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria. The Saxons settlements appeared to have founded the kingdoms of Sussex, Wessex, and Essex. The Jutes apprear to have predominated in Kent and the Isle of Wight. One poorly understood question is the role of the Frisians in the conquest. The Frisians were a seafarring people abd the Anglii and Saxons had to pass through their territory to reach Briton, yet the Frisians are rarely mentione in the medieval chronicles. Frisian is the the modern language most closely related to the Old English of the Anglo-Saxons.

Roman Britain

The Roman conquest of Brition ws characterically brutal. It took longer than Caesar's conquest of Gaul. But the impact on Celtic Britain began even while the conquest was underway. Eventually Roman armies subjugated the British Celts and the era of Roman Britain began. The Romans called their new province Britannia. Some of the luxuries of the Roman Empire had reached Britain even before the conquest. There were cultural and economic links with the Celtic tribes in Gaul and these cotavts continued after the Roman conquest. The Romans brought with them many new technologies in agriculture, industry and architecture. One of the most significant imprint on Celtic Britain was urban life--a hallmark of Roman civilization. And with urbanization came a variety of luxuries. These luxuries were coveted by the Britanii. The British army built forts throughout Briton. Some were temporary emplacements. Others forts became the beginning of the major cities of Roman Britain. Almost from the beginning the Romans began constructing roads connecting these forts. The salaries paid the soldiers from an early period began attracting Celts willing to perform services of value to the soldiers and Roman officials. This included artisans, bakers, laborors, launderers, smiths, and many others. These people at first settled outside the Roman forts. The forts and Celtic selllements developed into cities. These Celts over time became Romanized to varying degrees. The Romans established definiticely that Briton was an island when Governor Gnaeus Julius Agricola dispatched a naval expedition to explore the northern reaches of the island (80s AD). Caesar left an account of his expeditions. And there are accounts of the conquest, but unfortunately very few written records of Roman Britannia have been found either in Briton or Rome itself. This probably testifies to the titality of the Anglo-Saxon assault on Roman Briton. Most of what we now know comes from archaeological and epigraphic work. With the withdrawl of the Legions (407 AD), Roman Briton was soon destroyed by Anglo-Saxon invaders. Some of the British retreated west, but the suyrvivors seem for Celtic than Roman.

Germanic Tribes Invade the Empire


Withdrawl of the Legions

Rome for many years maintained a very substantial military presence on Britain to control the restive Celtic tribes and to try to defeat the Caledoni in the extreme north. At the time of the Boudiccan Rebellion , there were four standing legions in Britain (61). But even after the Celtic tribes were pacified there was a major presenece. Rome throughout the second century maintained three legions on Britain. This was necessary because of the constant threat from northern tribes which gradually united as the Pictts and the Irish to the west. Archaeological evidence from the late-4th century show signs of decay. This was not just observable in Britain, but other parts of the Empire as well. Urbanization had ceased to expand and had become observably less intense. There are several indicators. Pottery shards are found in declining numbers. Rome began withdrawing its Legions from Britain at the end of the 4th century. Coins become less common and very rare (after 402). Constantine III was declared Emperor by his troops (407). He crossed the Channel with the most of the remaining units of the British garrison in an attempt to usurp the crown (407). This was effectively the end of Roman Britain. The Romans who remained in Britain had to organiz local defences against first the Pictts and eventually the Anglo-Saxon invaders without the well trined and drilled Legions. The Emperor Honorius in response to pleas from the Romans in Britain informed them thst that the cities of Britain would have to look after their own defences (410). The Romanized Britains attemptd to organize an east coast defences. The Count of the Saxon Shore spearheaded the effort. A fleet had been organized to control the Channel and the North Sea, but resources were insufficent.

Pressure from the North and West

The breakdown of Roman law and civilisation began after the departure of the Legions. Actually the Roman standards had begun to decline in the late 4th century both in England and the wider Empire. The Romanized Christian Britons were soon under attack from northern and western barbarian riders. Irush raiders pillaged western towns and took slaves. One of those slaves was of course a young St. Patrick. The Picts and other tribes raided from what is now modern Scotland. It is not entirely clear why the Britons were unable to defend themselves, but relates to why the Romn population on the continent was unable to resist the Germnic invaders. One reason was that Roman society in Briton as well as on the continent was a slave society and large numbers of people had no reason to defend the society. This question is, however, a difficult one that we do not fully understand.

Anglo Saxon Tribes

It is not all together clear who the Germanic invaders were. The term Anglo-Saxons suggest that these two tribes were involved. The Britons tended to call the invaders Saxons. The name England of course comes from the Anglii, another Germanic tribe. There were, however, others. The Jutes were also involvded. One poorly understood question is the role of the Frisians in the conquest. The Frisians were a seafarring people abd the Anglii and Saxons had to pass through their territory to reach Briton, yet the Frisians are rarely mentione in the medieval chronicles. Frisian is the the modern language most closely related to the Old English of the Anglo-Saxons.

Arrival

Many historic accounts focus on the Goths and other Germanuc tribes over running the Wesern Empire. A more limited, but historically important Germanic invasion took place in the north, the invasion of Roman Britain. The invasions took place after the last Roman garison withdrew from Britain (407 AD). Available sources suggest that the British (Roman-Celtic) authorities after the departure of the Legions had increasing duifficulty resisting the depredations of the northern tribes. They apparently hired a Germanic warlord and his men as mercenaries (mid-5th century). The first mercenary fighters brought their families with them. They were paid with land which they could then farm. Awrites, "On the invitation of Vortigern, nore Saxon mercenaries were brought to England. The show of strength seems to have been enough. The Picts abandoned their plans for the invasion. The Irish were in turn checked by the tribal armies of the west and west midlands... [Vortigern's] allies, alarmed at the cost of the Saxon presence, could not or would not pay them ... The reaction of the mercenaries was immediate and string." [Ackroyd]

War

Relations soon desintegrated between the Romanized Britons and the Germans not only revolted, but invited kinsmen to join them. The Germanic invaders met prolonged, if not always effective resistance. They were apparently stopped for a time by a Romanized British leaders, perhaps named Arthur. The struggle went on more than 300 years, but the Britons were eventually pushed to the remote west (Cornwall and Wales). The Germanic Anglo Saxon tribes thus took control of most of low-land Britain.

Arthurian Legend

The stuggle of the Romanized Celts and Germanic tribes appears to to be the genesis of the Arthurian legend. Arthur as far as we know was a legendary figure and not a known historical figure, although it is quite possible that the legend may be based on a particularly successful British king or more probably a warlord. Arthur came to symbolize the struggle of the Romanized Britons against the invading Anglo-Saxons as well as the barbarian invaders from west and north like the Picts. Some credence is given to Arthur as an ctual historical figure because a number of actual battles are known. Arthur may have been the British leader at Badon, where their victory brought a temporary respite and generation of peace. The literary King Arthur as he is best knon today appears in the Norman era. Warrior king Edward I (Longshanks) desired to promote the legend and actually had a Roundtable created. It hangs today in Winchester Cathedral. Chretien de Troyes wrote about King Arthur abnd his knights in armourand on horsebac (about 1170). It is a romantic account about Camelot rich in chivalry about a word that never was. Chretien de Troyes created Camelot, Lancelot, and the Holy Grail. Certainly he was influenced by legendary tales circulating at the time, but the context of the epic struggle of Britons against Anglo-Saxons was lost in his literary account.

Modern Briton

It was during the Anglo-Saxon invasions that modern Britain began to take shape. We begin to see the formation of England, Scotland, and Wales. While the Romanized Britons apprarentlt held out for some time, they were eventually driven into the mountaneous western areas and survived as the Welsh people. They survived in what is now Cornwall and Wales. Thuis is the Britonic or Celtic weat. The Anglo-Saxon invaders proved to be a slow moving flood and colonized much of what is now England. It could be seen as the Teutonic south and east. They would subsequently be conqered by the Normans. Some of the Romanized Britons were pushed north by the Anglo-Saxon invaders an area inhabited by the Picts. Tghey would then be invaded by the Scotti from Ireland. They brought with them the Gaelic or Celtic language andcScotland was tghe fusion of these diverse groups.

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

At the time Saint Augustine arrived, the Anglo Saxons controlled most of southern England and were expanding north and west (late 6th century). The Anglo Saxon invaders had no central organization as Roman Britain had or as the Normans would institute after Hastings. They gradually colonised England northwards and westwards, pushing the native Britons to the western fringes of island. Thus Roman Britain was replaced by Anglo Saxon Britain, The Anglo-Saxon invaders formed several new kingdoms. The Anglii settlements evolved into the kingdoms of East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria. The Saxons settlements appeared to have founded the kingdoms of Sussex, Wessex, and Essex. The Jutes apprear to have predominated in Kent and the Isle of Wight. Wars between these kingdoms gradually resulted in the consolidation of three impotant kingdoms, Mercia, Northumbria and Wessex. War cointinued between these kingdoms as well as raids from the west abd north, but they were strnger than the Romanized Britons and able to deal with these raiders. This was the England that the Vikings found when they began to raid.

Result

The Anglo-Saxon conquest of England was largely accomplished by the time St Augustine arrived (end of the 6th century). The Germanic invasions significantly changed the democraphic and ethnic pattern of Britain, especially what we now call England. The make up of the population, language, political structure, and other institutions were fundamentally changed. The Germanic invaders replaced the ruling elite of the Romanized Celts who might be called the British. Historians have differed over the interactions between Germanic invaders and British. Many believed that the Anglo-Saxons waged a war of extinction. Modern DNA studies suggest that they replaced the ruling elite, but made only ainor contribution to the populstion. The Anglo-Saxons played a crucial role in the development of the English language. Not only did Germanic dialects (which evolved into Old English) replace Latin and Celtic, but loose knit and often feuding hereditary kingships replaced the more centrally governed system of provinces left by the Romans. [Myres] Urban life desintegrated and the Roman cities were largely abandoned. The problem for historians is that the victors were the Germanic tribes or Anglo-Saxons who were not literate at the time and thus there are no surviving contemprary written accounts. The earliest accounts of the conquest come several centuries later.

Ethnicity

Many historians have tended for a variety of reasons to ascribe to the theiry that the Anglo-Saxons waged a war of exctinction rather than absorving the Romano-Celtic population that remained in Britain after the Legions departed. There was no ways to prove this, but the cultural atifacts and linusistic record tended to confirm this assessment. As the Anglo-Saxon invaders were pre-lityerate, there is no written evidence. Modern science has provided us a way to test outv this theory--DNA genetic assessments. The DNA evidence is striking and surprised many historians. The disappearance of Latin and Celtic suggested that the Germanic invaders did not absorbe the Celts, but rather conducted a war of extinction. The DNA evidence shows that this did not occur. Something like 75 percent of Britons came to Briton long befor the arrival of Celts, Romans, or Anglo Saxons, yet alone the Normans. It was the early hunter-gathers who reached Briton something like 5500-13000 BC who were the ancestors of most modern Britons. This was after the melting of the Ice Age ice caps, but while Britain and Ireland were still connected to the European land mass. Existence as an island people helped to create a relatively homogenous ethnicity and discourage mixing with the many varied contindntal people. One author describes the British people as a kind of 'genetic time capsule' of southwestern Europe at the end of the Ice Age. And the continental group closest to the British is the Basque people. Thus the forst British language was not a Celtic lsnguage, but one similar tob the destinctive Basque language. There were many subsequent invasions and migrations which affected culture, language, technology, and other atributes, but no ethnicity. The subsequent groups if they came as invaders may have replaced the ruling elite, but none of these groups have contributed more than 5 percent to the modern British population and ethnic makeup. [Oppenheimer]

Sources

Ackroyd, Peter. Foundation: The History of Engkand from the Earliest Beginnings to the Tudoes (2012).

Oppenheimer, Stephen. The Origins of the British: A Genetic Detective Story.






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Created: 6:55 AM 6/14/2007
Last updated: 11:57 PM 4/2/2014