The End of Roman Britain: Assessing the Anglo-Saxon Invasions of
the Fifth Century
by William Bakken, 16 November 1994. Updated 28
The years between the collapse of the Roman
government in Britain in the early years of the fifth century and
the arrival of St Augustine at the end of the sixth were a period of
During that time, the physical character of the
people and their language and institutions were completely altered
A Germanic people replaced the Celtic British, or at least became a
significant part of the population of lowland Britain . Germanic
dialects replaced Latin or Celtic and loose knit and feuding
hereditary kingships replaced the more centrally governed Roman
provinces. Because this change took place while the Germanic
immigrants were pagan and illiterate, the process was not well
Traditionally, the first Germanic warband arrived
in Britain in the mid-fifth century to serve as mercenary troops at
the invitation of the British sub-Roman government. When the
government failed in their agreement to supply them, these troops
revolted. This revolt touched a significant part of the country.
Then, the first settlers invited their relatives from overseas to
At the beginning of the sixth century, the Germanic
peoples' rapid spread through the country was checked for a time by
the British, but by the mid-sixth century they started to expand
again. By the time of Augustine's arrival, they controlled much of
the lowlands and were expanding to the north and west.
The Celtic people used the name "Saxon" generically
to describe all of the Germanic people they met. While this likely
indicates a heavy proportion of Saxons in the early raids and
settlement, many other tribes were involved. Significantly, Britain
came to be called England after the Angles rather than Saxony .
Primary literary sources
Who were the Hwicce?
RULERS OF BRITAIN:
Thames Valley Saxons
British Museum Anglo-Saxons
Both British and English literary sources
describing the arrival of the Germanic tribes in the fifth century
are available as well as sources from outside the country. The
majority of these sources are distant in time and space from the
events they are describing and therefore need to be treated
De Exidio Britannae, written by the monk Gildas in
the mid-sixth century is the nearest to a contemporary source that
is available. However, Gildas' purpose was to call the rulers of his
day to repentance, not to write history. Where he does discuss
historical events, Gildas should be treated as telling the truth as
he understands it.
The people he was writing for would be aware of
the events he was describing and it would have defeated his purpose
to distort the truth. Gildas knew of the British appeal to Aėtius
and of the settlement of the Saxons as federates by a "proud
tyrant" . He also correctly uses technical terms such as epimenia
and hospites that indicates possible access to official records .
From internal evidence, most sources place Gildas' birth forty-four
years after a battle at Mount Badon which is generally dated around
AD 500 . Ian Wood however, believes that Gildas is saying that from
the time of Ambrosius' first victories to Badon was 43 years, and
that one month had passed since Badon which would date Gildas'
writing about 500 instead of 540 .
It is apparent that Gildas was
writing when Maelgwn, the British king of North Wales who died about
547, was still alive . Therefore, a mid sixth century date is most
The Historia Brittonum by Nennius is the second
British source. Nennius was probably writing in the ninth century.
His work was not well organized, but contains some information not
found in other early sources.
Bede, who completed his History of the English
Church and People in 731 is one of the better sources of information
because he took a great deal of care to correlate and date his
Bede was an eighth century monk in Northumbria where
scholarship was flourishing at the time he wrote. He had good
information regarding Kent through the church and was also
associated with the Northumbrian royalty . Since the Frankish
princess Bertha, who married King Ethelbert of Kent in about 560,
brought a Frankish bishop with her as chaplain, it is possible that
written sources from that time period were available to Bede.
Reference to the regnal years of the Roman Emperors in some of
Bede's writing witnesses to the antiquity of his information.
Introduction to Gildas
De Excidio Brittaniae
Introduction to Nennius
History of the
Bede was relating the common traditions of his
time, correlated with written church documents when possible. It is
unlikely that he was fundamentally mistaken in most cases . Bede
primarily used Gildas for his early history, adding additional data
from king lists that were available to him. He also included the
Continental background of the English people as he understood it
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was compiled in the court
of King Alfred the Great of Wessex late in the ninth century. The
early entries in the Chronicle come from the oral traditions of the
West Saxon (Wessex) kings, probably heroic poetry, which has been
artificially fitted into an annalistic format. The dates in the
chronicle are likely to be the conjectures of the annalist writing
three hundred years after the events occurred . These dates are at
best traditional, and at worst arbitrary .
An apparent duplication
of the stories describing the landings and battles thirteen years
later of Cerdic and Cynric and Stuff and Whitgar suggests that a
double tradition of the same event is being described, separated by
one Easter cycle of nineteen years. This would explain the lack of a
protracted war in Gildas . The difficulty in placing some of the
battles described in the chronicle is another indication of its
antiquity. In describing the battles in Kent after the arrival of
Hengist and Horsa, places like Ypines Floet (Ebbsfleet?) and Aguiles
Threp (Aylesford?) can only be located using other clues within the
text . There is a Latin version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Ethelweard's chronicle, that seems to contain information from other
sources as well. At times, this can be used to supplement the
All of the above sources use the Adventus Saxonium
in approximately 450 as the beginning of the English settlement in
Britain. This may be because the Adventus was the first event the
process that could be dated . Nevertheless, archaeological
evidence indicates that the primary authors are describing the end
of the migration process, not the beginning.
In addition to British and English sources, the
Byzantine historian Procopius provides some information about
Britain which he evidently received from Angles in a Frankish
delegation to the Emperor Justinian. Zosimus writing in the sixth
century knew that the Emperor Honorius had declined a British
request for military assistance .
The Vita Sancti Germani relates the visits of
Germanus to Britain as late as the 440s to discuss theological
issues and provides a picture of Britain in this time period. When
Germanus visited, the island was still governed by the British.
Germanus' meeting with the British was interrupted by a Saxon raid,
but was not seriously influenced.
Other Saints Lives provide information that
confirms Gildas' description of the abandonment of towns and the
degradation of life in general. St Thadeus is described as visiting
a villa near Chepstow where the owner was attempting to provide
heating for his bath, but only on weekends. Many British towns may
have resembled a deserted Roman town in Brittany visited by St Paul Aurelian. St Cuthbert is described as sightseeing in deserted
Figure 1, settlement regions in about AD 500
An increasing amount of new information about the
transition period is being supplied by archaeology. The evidence
from first-hand archaeology is free of errors induced by copyists
and editor, but is susceptible to improper interpretation and must
be used carefully. The chronology of English artefacts requires
correlation of evidence in England and on the Continent with coins
or other materials that can be accurately dated. From this a rough
chronological sequence has been developed primarily based on changes
in the styles of pottery and jewellery .
In general, the recovered artefacts are grave goods many of which tend to be durable. It is
necessary to look at all of the grave goods for chronological
indications as heirlooms and plunder may be included in graves.
Sequences of pottery, brooches, buckles and spear heads are now
reasonably well established for dating . In addition to chronology,
pottery and brooches particularly can be used as evidence of
Continental homelands for immigrant groups.
There was a gradual transition from cremation early
in the settlement period to inhumation as the English were
influenced by British customs and particularly as they were
introduced to Christianity. This happened both in England and on the
Continent. Therefore, cremation indicates an early grave. Pagan
inhumation burials were generally supplied with grave goods which
makes them excellent sources of information.
Archaeological artefacts of the sub-Roman Britons
are difficult to find. They appear to have continued to use the
durable goods produced in the Roman period as long as possible and
then replaced them with goods of less durable leather and wood
construction. In addition, on sites that were abandoned, the latest
levels are the least well preserved. It requires specialized
techniques to recover the upper remains of wood construction.
However, when allowances are made, the archaeological record still
shows a drastic reduction in population and standard of living of
the British remaining in south-eastern and central England .
Archaeological evidence indicates there were
Germanic troops in what became England well before the fifth
century . The Romans used auxiliary troops from all over the world
to provide garrisons for their military installations. Thus from
Roman records, we know that German troops were stationed on
wall. These troops did not leave identifiable artefacts because they
were issued Roman equipment.
By the fourth century, the Romans were
enlisting Germanic troops under their own leaders with their own
equipment. Artefacts show that Germanic troops were guarding towns
and roads in England from the fourth century on. Much of the pottery
that identifies Germanic people has been found along the Saxon Shore
where it appears that auxiliary troops were stationed. Cremation
cemeteries have been found that date from before the end of Roman
rule in Britain. These early cemeteries are generally concentrated
near Roman towns, forts or transportation routes. Their location
pattern is similar to that of a wheel-made pottery style decorated in
Saxon styles called Romano-Saxon ware. This pottery was apparently
made by British potters for the Germanic trade .
Brooches, commonly used as clothing fasteners,
provide a valuable indication of date and origin. The shape and type
of decoration varied between tribal groups. Round and equal arm
brooches were common among Saxons, while the Angles and Jutes
preferred cruciform brooches. In addition, wrist clasps were common
among the Angles .
Pottery fashions have about the same division as
brooches. The Angles and Jutes favoured rectangular decoration while
the Saxons used more curvilinear styles. In addition, stamped
decoration was common on Saxon pottery and was not used by the
Angles and Jutes .
Weapon ownership was almost essential in the
settlement period and, therefore, weapons were commonly placed in
graves. Spears were the most common, typically an iron tip riveted
to an ash shaft. Shields of lime wood with a leather cover and an
iron boss at the centre have also been found. Knives and swords were
too valuable to be placed in the graves of ordinary soldiers and
farmers and are thus an indication of aristocracy. The swords used
by many of the German nobility were heirlooms passed down from
generation to generation . Helmets and arrows were also rarely
The sunken feature building was the most common
type of housing associated with the English. At Sutton Courtney, a
typical house was 3.5 metres long, 2.7 metres wide and sunk half a
metre below ground level .
Place-name studies can provide additional
information regarding the interactions of the people in Britain
during the Germanic invasions, but must be used carefully. In
general, place-name information is used to supplement other data and
cannot be used alone to prove early origins. Place-names have
passed through many changes from the fifth to the twentieth centuries.
In an illiterate society, there is a need for many different
place-names to avoid confusion, but names were not written down
until at least the seventh century and a large number of them were
first recorded in the Domesday Book after the Norman conquest, thus
they were further distorted by French speaking clerics .
Chronologically, place-names are not accurate within less than a
year span .
Place-names with a Latin element indicate that
contact between settlers and Latin speakers was still taking place.
Wic (vicus), ecles (eccles) and funta (fontana) are examples of
these. Wic, especially when combined with ham probably indicates a
settlement associated with a small Roman site, vici. Three-quarters
of such places are within one mile of a Roman road and half are
close to known Roman villages or villas . Ecles, from ecclesia
implies the survival of at least the recognisable remains of a
Christian church and funta suggests a location near a Roman site
with a fountain .
Place-names ending in -ham, -ingaham and -ingas are
indications of Germanic settlement. Ham means a settlement, ingaham
the settlement of a particular people and ingas was a clan
Some place-names preserve the names of pagan
dieties. Frig, Grim, Thunor, Tiw and Woden are all known . Their
locations are in the east and south where the earliest settlements
are found. Any place-name with such pagan connotations certainly
indicates a pre-Christian origin, or else such a late date that the
pagan implications had been forgotten.
Unlike Gaul where they have been preserved, the
Roman estate names have been lost in England. This indicates that
hospitalitas was probably not used to support mercenaries and
soldiers as it was in Frankish Gaul .
Place names of British origin in the lowlands are
confined to natural features that would require immediate
identification intelligible to both newcomers and natives. These
indicate a survival of the native population in some status. A few
town, port, and fortress names of Roman origin were taken over with
little modification. These are generally shoreline locations, or
other large facilities which would be familiar to merchants and
seamen. Many are combined with another loan word from Latin, castra
in its English form caester which later became either cester or
chester such as Winchester, which was Roman Venta. Others were simply
recognised as a fortified site, but the Roman name was lost, such as
Chester or Castor-on-the-Wolds . Stenton's reservations
regarding place-names in 1940 are still true today, "conclusions ...
fall far short of scientific precision" .
Tacitus placed the Saxons at the neck of the
Cimbric peninsula in modern Holstein in about AD 100. Ptolemy
placed them in the same place in the mid second century .
Between about 250 and 450, at least some of the Saxons moved
westward along the coast and settled among the Frisians in their
mound villages .
After defeating Syagrius in 486, the Franks
controlled northern Gaul and were able to keep other barbarian
groups out. In the last two decades of the fifth century, Frankish
strength probably forced the Germanic tribes that wished to migrate
to go to Britain instead of Gaul . Using information from Frankish
sources, Procopius described the inhabitants of Britain as Angles,
Frisians and Britons . Procopius' Frisians were probably included
with the Saxons in British sources . There is an Anglo-Frisian
pottery that is commonly found in south-eastern cemeteries in
Britain, but no Frisian kingdoms or institutions developed which may
be why Bede ignored them .
Bede stated that the invaders came from the
Continental Angles, Saxons and Jutes . It is likely that Bede
was reducing a very complex situation to simple terms. Bede placed
the Angles north of the Thames, the Saxons south of the Thames and
in Wessex, and the Jutes in Kent and on the Isle of Wight. For Bede,
the Angles came from Angulus, modern Schleswig which still has a
district called Angeln. The Saxons came from the coast between the
Elbe and the Weser valleys and the Jutes resided north of the Angles
in Danish Juteland or in Holstein .
Other literary sources indicate the possible
presence of Franks among the immigrants. Archaeology also indicates
that Swaefe, Alemanni, Swedes and Danes were present. This is not
surprising if we assume that the Volkwandering caused a high degree
of cultural mixing between the Elbe and the Ems where most of the
settlers in Britain originated .
Mound villages have been excavated in Holland and
Germany that indicate significant growth during the migration
period. Feddersen Wierde north of Bremerhaven had a number of small
mounds that were linked together in the first century AD to
support about thirty houses. This was increased to about fifty
houses in the second century. Later, bronze and copper working
installations were added. Occupation ceased in the mid-fifth
century. Since pottery found at Feddersen Wierde is similar to that
found at Mucking on the Thames, it is tempting to conjecture a
migration from this site to England. Other mound villages that have
been excavated tell a similar story .
Early settlement evidence
Archaeological evidence, in the form of saucer
brooches and Saxon pottery, shows that Saxon settlement occurred in
the eastern and southern part of Britain in the fourth century. At
that time, pagan cremation cemeteries in the north begin to appear
in conjunction with Roman sites. Coastal forts were built for
protection and the Roman title "comes litoris Saxonici" came into
being in the late fourth century, possibly as early as the visit of
Constans in 343. In 372, the Alemannic king, Fraomar, was sent to
Britain as a tribune either to command tribesmen being moved with
him, or perhaps those that were already there. A few chance
archaeological discoveries in the north indicate Alemanni presence
at this time .
Sunken feature huts set back from the Roman-age
street in Canterbury are evidence of Germanic troops inside the city
in the fifth century. Dorchester-on-Thames has similar huts and also
an associated English cemetery outside the walls. Since continuous
occupation is indicated in many sites, it appears that some towns
may have passed directly into English hands during the revolt in the
The British viewpoint
Gildas described the breakdown of order after the
withdrawal of Roman forces. Scots and Picts on the former frontier
raided in Britain and the people were unable to control them . An
appeal for aid was sent to Aėtius in Gaul, but the Romans were too
busy with troubles of their own and were unable to help . The
British leader whom Gildas called a "proud tyrant", arranged for a
Saxon warband under Hengist and Horsa to settle in the country as
federates for protection against the Scots and Picts. Nennius
implies that the government officials who hired the Saxons not only
feared the Scots and Picts, but also the Romans in Gaul and
Ambrosius in Britain . If Vortigern, the proud tyrant, was a leader
of the Pelagian party in Britain, that fear would be
When hard times came and the government was not
able to meet its obligations to the Saxons, they revolted and
ravaged the countryside. Under the leadership of Ambrosius
Aurelianus, the British eventually fought back and reached a
stalemate after a battle at Mons Badonicus which resulted in a
generation of peace . Ambrosius' likely power base was Wiltshire
where the place-name Amesbury suggests "stronghold of Ambrosius". At
the time Gildas was writing in the 540s, he felt that this peace was
The capture of Old Sarum by Wessex in 552 may have
ended Gildas' period of peace . Continental evidence suggests a
reverse migration of Germanic people out of Britain during this
time . Also notably, there is no activity in Kent from 473 until
565 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
Gildas made no mention of the British hero Arthur.
Since his battles are reputed to have taken place during this time,
Gildas should not have ignored him if he had been as famous as
indicated by Nennius and later Gregory of Monmouth . The legends
of Arthur appear to have developed out of late Welsh legends that
suggest a British commander called Artorius won some repute against
the Saxons .
Settlement patterns: Kent
Literary sources indicate that Kent was initially
settled on a federate basis. Hengist and Horsa originally came with
a warband in three ships in 449 . Gildas refers to the original
settlement on the "east side of the island... and there fixed their
sharp talons" . Nennius clarified that this first settlement was
on the Isle of Thanet, but records the year as 447 . Ceramic
discoveries on Thanet supports the presence of an early Germanic
settlement there .
The immigrants were reinforced by their
relatives from across the sea and by 456 when their provisions were
not supplied as agreed, they revolted against their employers .
Nennius and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle both indicate the early
fighting was primarily confined to Kent . Gildas probably
compresses a much more complex series of events when he speaks of
the revolt covering the whole island .
The years 450 to 460 seem a reasonable date for the
English takeover of parts of Britain. We know from the Vita Sancti
Germani that the British controlled the island as late as the 440s.
In 455, the British church altered the date of Easter in line with a
Continental change, but the change thirty years later was not
followed in Britain. Therefore, contact with the Roman church was
lost during that period .
Archaeological evidence indicates that a mixed band
of settlers came in the mid-fifth century and were reinforced until
early in the sixth century. The immigrants in Kent are hard to
identify because Roman and Gaulish influence was the strongest there
and thus newcomers were influenced by both. Bede indicates that Kent
was settled by Jutes, but this may simply refer to the leaders who
developed the ruling class .
Evidence in London indicates Roman activity in the
early fifth century when a riverside wall was rebuilt. A collapsed
bath house indicates a discontinuance of use later in the fifth
century . In the immediate post-Roman era, Saxon and Frisian
merchants apparently settled outside the city walls, between the
Roman road and the river in the Westminster area. The Roman town was
not reoccupied by the English until the mid-sixth century .
Based on grave evidence, Vera Evison argued that
Frankish settlers were responsible for the settlement of much of
south-eastern England. This position was not well supported by other
evidence . In any case, the Frankish element of the population
remained a small, but noticeable, minority .
Kent certainly did have a more elaborate culture
than other English settlements and there are traces of connections
with the Franks, but an overwhelming presence is not supported by
linguistic evidence or the fact that Kent remained pagan until St
Augustine came in 597. Frankish control after the time of Clovis
should have also brought in the Christian church .
Legally, the lower class in Kent had a higher
status than in the other English kingdoms. The wergild of the
highest class of peasant was one-third that of a nobleman as opposed
to one-sixth in the rest of the country. This may be due to the
different nature of the conquest of Kent . The class of people
called laets in early Kentish law codes could derive from Roman
laeti, mercenaries settled on agricultural land with military
responsibilities. They could be the higher class of peasants
illustrated by the higher wergild. In later law codes the laets
merge with the ceorls .
Settlement patterns: Sussex
Sussex had no natural administrative centre in
Roman times. It was probably administered from Chichester on its
western edge. The defence of Sussex in late Roman times was based on
the shore fort at Pevensey, called Andredecaester in the chronicle.
Chichester itself shows no sign of occupation from the fifth century
until the ninth .
In 477, three ships landed at Commensurate, now the
Owners Banks, under a leader called Aella. They drove off the British
and quickly dominated the western part of the region. Eight years
later they were fighting again at Mearcredesburna which can possibly
can be interpreted to mean "stream of the agreed frontier"
491, Aella and his son Cissa captured the shore fort at Pevensey and
massacred the British inside . This appears to mark the final
collapse of the Saxon Shore defence system in Sussex.
Bede referred to Aella as the ruler of England south
of the Humber and gives him a title: "bretwalda". The original title
was probably brytenwealda, which mean wide ruler. It appears to have
been a Germanic title given a king who had power over lesser
kings . From the sources available to us, it is not apparent why
Aella was given that title.
Archaeology reveals an early use by the English of
the Romano-British cemetery at Ringmer. The majority of the graves
contain inhumation burials which either points to late colonisation
or close contact with the British population. Saucer brooches found
in the graves indicates the presence of Saxons from the Elbe-Weser
area. A cemetery at High Down behind Worthing also contains evidence
of Saxon mercenaries toward the end of the Roman period near, or in,
a prehistoric hill fort.
Continued occupation through the fifth and
sixth centuries is indicated . Other artefacts point to a mixed
Saxon/Jute/Frankish population . Parallel fashions in saucer
brooches north and south of the weald and in the upper Thames Valley
could be an indication of Aella's widespread influence as reported by
Bede. Settlement of the upper Thames from Sussex is possible by way
of the Roman roads through the weald.
Settlement patterns: Wessex
The earliest Germanic inhabitants in Wessex appear
on the upper Thames. By the late fifth century much of the Thames
Valley was settled by the English. Romano-Saxon pottery evidence
indicates there were Germanic troops at Abingdon and Oxford before
410 and the defence system around Roman Silchester was expanded
between 410 and 450 . This area was settled well before Cerdic and
Cynric are said to have landed in the Southampton waters in 495.
At the time they landed, Cerdic and Cynric were
called Ealdormen . During King Alfred's reign when the chronicle
was written, an Ealdorman had regional military and civil authority.
This could indicate an understanding by the chronicler that they
already had administrative power under British authority. The Wessex
line of kings was different from most others in their use of British
names for their leaders. Cerdic is one of those as is a later king,
Caedwalla. Archaeologically, Wessex has little evidence of early
J N L Myres suggested that Cerdic was the head
of a partly British noble family, with blood ties to existing Saxon
or Jute settlers, who had been entrusted with the defence of Wessex
in the last days of British sub-Roman authority. Once effective
Roman authority vanished, the family eliminated competing British
chieftains such as Natanleod, reported killed in 508. A change in
their status is reported in 519 when they "assumed the kingdom"
. If that were true, the lack of archaeological evidence of
Germanic settlers in south Hampshire would be explained. There would
be no need for an influx of settlers at this time as military power
rested on assimilated settlers and allied British natives already in
The battle record in the chronicle agrees with
Gildas' description of the first half of the sixth century. The West
Saxons seem to have been confined to a very limited area around
Southampton Water until Cynric captured Old Sarum in 552. British
Silchester appears to have been occupied into the sixth century
It was not until late in the sixth century that kings of Wessex
combined with the Thames Valley Saxons and were operating in that
area. Verulanium (St Albans), to the north-west of London, appears
to have been occupied by the British throughout the fifth century
The law code of Ine confirms the presence of free
British citizens in Wessex in the seventh century. In this law,
British slaves have a wergild of fifty shillings and British
landowners are worth 600 shillings. This indicates the presence of
British landowners in Wessex over one hundred years after the
beginning of the Saxon conquest .
Settlement patterns: East Anglia
The earliest Germanic settlements in East Anglia
seem to have been on an orderly and cooperative federate basis.
Caister-by-Norwich, Roman Venta Icenorum, was originally built to
Romanise the Iceni after Boudicca's revolution in AD 61.
At about the
beginning of the fourth century, an area south-west of the city began
to be used for an Anglo-Saxon cremation cemetery. At this time,
pottery evidence indicates a mostly Saxon mercenary population
living in cooperation with the British citizens in the city. York,
Leicester, Cambridge and Great Chesterford have similar cremation
cemeteries outside their walls . Cooperation appears to have broken
down in the fifth century. Immigration increased significantly after
the Saxon revolt. Large cremation cemeteries demonstrate
non-Christian attitudes among the newcomers. Many fifth century
settlements were not directly related to Roman centres, indicating
an independence not evident in earlier settlements . The
division of the area of East Anglia into Norfolk and Suffolk
indicates that it may have initially been settled by two separate
groups who were later united by the Swedish Wuffing dynasty whose
burial ground was at Sutton Hoo .
Settlement patterns: Lindsey
There is no literary record of the settlement of
Lindsey except for the king list. The first name on this list that
is free of mythological reference is probably Winta, dated to the mid-fifth century. The place-names
of Winteringham and Winterton north of
Lincoln on the Humber may relate to him.
The Roman fort at Lincoln
has survived and the fact that no cremation cemeteries are found
nearby may indicate a British presence until a late date . This
would explain the retention of the original Roman name at Lincoln.
The Roman forts at Horcastle and Caistor-on-the-Wolds both have very
late Roman and very early Saxon materials and large associated
cremation cemeteries that date to the early fifth century.
and his people entered Lindsey from the Humber in the mid-fifth
century, they probably found the area already occupied by Germanic
settlers, the descendents of laeti settled earlier as
garrison troops of the Saxon Shore forts. One of the sixth century
kings of Lindsey had a partly British name, Caedbaed. This may
indicate a peaceful combination of the original British citizens,
the garrison troops of the fourth century, and later immigrants
Settlement patterns: Deira
The first English arrived in Deira when Britain was
still a part of the Roman Empire. Germanic troops were used to guard
military centres and communications routes. Pottery remains tie some
of these troops to Anglian Schleswig. Other tribes were also present
as indicated by Saxon, Anglo-Frisian and Alemanni artefacts . The
place-name, Almondsbury, may be associated with the Alemanni .
Cremation urns at Sancton and Saltburn and inhumations at Catterick
and Seamer indicate a long-term Germanic presence. British tradition
claims that York was ruled by Celts until the battle of Caer Greu in
580, so the Germanic troops in York may have been in British
service . King Soemil is mentioned as the king who first separated
Deira from Bernicia. Soemil is six names in the Deirian king list
above Edwin who died in 635, so he probably lived in the mid-fifth
Since Bernicia did not exist until later, the
separation mentioned could have indicated independence from the
British authorities in the northern frontier area that eventually
became Bernicia .
The cemetery at Sancton contains thousands of
burials over an area of at least thirty acres. The earliest burials
were cremation with an increasing proportion of inhumations in later
graves. The latest burials, all inhumations, were adjacent to a
medieval church and probably occurred after the conversion to
Christianity in 627. This cemetery appears to have been in
continuous use for about two hundred fifty years . It provides a
strong argument for long term, continuous presence of Germanic
people in Deira.
Pottery from the Sancton cemetery has parallels in
Anglian Schleswig and Fyn which date to the late fourth and early
fifth centuries. This very early date supports the presence of
Angles and Saxons as laeti in cooperation with the British
authorities . An increasing transfer of political power to
German settlers probably met British resistance based on the
northern British kingdoms. The Goddodin poems, which relate a
disaster on a British campaign during this struggle, probably date
to the late sixth century .
Settlement patterns: Mercia and the Midlands
The area between the Thames and the River Lea was
probably in British hands until late in the sixth century. Cuthwulf
of Wessex is said to have captured the area in 571 after the battle
at Bedcanford .
Large cremation cemeteries around Leicester
indicates a laeti settlement associated with the British city. Since
Leicester's Roman name, Ratae Coritanorum, did not survive, a period
of abandonment between the British and English settlement is
indicated . The cohesion of an English kingdom in this area was
very late. The hostile relations between Edwin of Deira and Cuichelm
of Wessex show that no independent power lay between them as late as
The primary literary sources leave the impression
that the Romano-British urban and rural lifestyle was replaced by
Anglo-Saxon invaders starting in the mid-fifth century.
Procopius and the West Saxon annals all suggest a conquest in two
parts separated by a significant length of time. All of the sources
give a mid-fifth century date for the beginning of the first phase
when warbands immigrated to Britain either after being invited by
the British authorities as in Kent, or on their own as in Sussex and
The West Saxon traditions indicate the later phase of
conquest started about 552 after a twenty-five year period of
consolidation in Hampshire. From the British perspective, Gildas
indicates at least forty years of stability, but says that border
skirmishes were taking place during that time and, therefore, does
not significantly disagree with the chronicle. Thus, the literary
sources paint a uniform picture. The extent of the English
penetration of the island in the fifth century as portrayed in the
literary sources is shown in Figure 3.
Archaeological evidence indicates a much more
complex situation. A significant population of Germanic people of
mixed tribal background was built up in cooperation with the Roman
and British authorities during the fourth and the first half of the
fifth centuries. These settlements appear to have supported the
Saxon Shore defence system that was constructed during the fourth
A comparison of Figure 2, which shows locations
with archaeological evidence of early Germanic settlement, with
Figure 3 shows the southern bias of the literary sources who say
nothing of early settlement in Essex, East Anglia, Lindsey, Deira or
the middle Thames region.
The political collapse on the Continent led to the
withdrawal of Roman military and civil authority from Britain in the
first half of the fifth century. It appears that an administrative
and economic collapse quickly followed. This is the point where the
primary literary sources pick up the story. With the Roman army
gone, the British were vulnerable to attacks by the irregular forces
that were left behind.
When the British authorities were no longer
able to supply the auxiliaries with the amenities they had come to
expect, they took matters into their own hands, supported by
warbands from the Continent. The concentration on the south and east
in the literature may be due to the accidents of survival of oral
traditions, or it may be that the transition in these areas was more
violent and thus was recorded in the heroic poetry of the day,
therefore being passed on to later generations.
Figure 2, English city locations
Archaeological evidence shows that there were
attempts at continued occupation in some cities. Gates were blocked
and in some, German mercenaries appear to have been brought into the
cities for further protection. The cities of Silchester and
Verulanium continued to be occupied by the British for many years,
but in general the British population was significantly reduced.
Many of the British aristocracy fled to the Continent or to the west
and north, taking some of the peasants with them. Other British
peasants probably remained, either trying to maintain themselves on
the land, or becoming slaves to the invaders. With the fall of the
cities, the villas also fell into disuse. Wide areas of the lowlands
reverted to scrub and a completely different land use pattern
appeared once they were reoccupied.
In what had been the wealthiest and most densely
populated areas of Roman Britain, the invaders completely replaced
the language, institutions and culture of the Romans. In the west
and north where native culture was less affected by the Romans, the
Celtic language and culture was retained long after they became a
part of the Germanic kingdoms. In Wales, much of the Celtic culture
has been retained to this day.
In some areas there appears to have been
cooperation between the Germanic immigrants/invaders and the British
population. Lincoln, in what became Lindsey, survived nearly intact.
A high degree of cooperation seems to have been attained in Wessex
where the ruling dynasty itself may have been part British.
The puzzle regarding Wessex and other areas where cooperation
apparently occurred is why more of the British language and culture
was not assimilated. When written sources became available in the
seventh century, these areas were Germanic in both culture and
language. It appears that this area of study will remain a fertile
field for historical controversy for a long time to come.
Figure 3, Fifth century settlement areas described in primary
Evison, Vera I - The 5th Century Invasions
South of the Thames, Athlone Press, London 1965
Geoffrey of Monmouth - Histories of the
Kings of Britain, Dent & Sons, London 1912
Giles, J A (ed) - Gildas: 'The Works of
Gildas' in Six Old English Chronicles, 295-380, Bell & Daldy, London 1866
Giles, J A (ed) - Nennius: 'History of the
Britons' in Six Old English Chronicles, 295-380, Bell & Daldy, London
Myres, J N L - The English Settlements,
The Oxford History of England, Clarendon, Oxford 1986
Raffel, Burton - Beowulf, (trans),
lines 794-7, Mentor, New York 1963
Sherley-Price, Leo (trans) - Bede: A
history of the English Church and People, Penguin,
Stenton, Frank M - Anglo-Saxon England,
The Oxford History of England, Third ed, Clarendon Press, Oxford
Thorpe, Benjamin (trans and ed) -
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, According to the Several Original Authorities,
Rolls Series No 23, Her Majesty's Stationery Office, London 1861,
reproduced Kraus Reprint, Weisbaden 1964
Whittock, Martyn J - The Origins of
England: 410 to 600. Barnes & Noble Books, Totowa 1986
Wood, Ian - The End of Roman Britain:
Continental Evidence and Parallels in Gildas: New Approaches,
Michael Lapidge & David Dumville (ed), 1-25, Boydell, Woodbridge 1984
Text copyright © William Bakken. Reproduced with permission.