The Anglo-Saxon Invasions of Britain

The Saxon Shore:
In late Roman Britain a series of coastal forts was established from roughly the Solent to the Wash. These were intended to give protection to the coast against Saxon invaders. These forts were built along what was called ‘The Saxon Shore’ and were built between 270 and 285 BCE. These forts were under the control of ‘The Count of the Saxon Shore.’
The Saxon Shore was a military command of the late Roman Empire, consisting of a series of fortifications on both sides of the English Channel. Several Saxon Shore forts survive in the east and southeast England. Originally there were about 10 or 11 Saxon Shore Forts. Whatever their original purpose was, in the late 4th century the forts were used against invading Saxon warriors. Angles, Saxons and other Germanic tribes were at this time continually raiding along this shore.

The Saxons had probably started to attack the coasts of the Roman Empire early in the 3rd century. In the 5th century Sidonius Apollinaris described their raids on the coast of Aquitaine. “They outdo” he says “all others in brutality.” Sidonius was writing about 470 CE and the Saxons he described would most likely have been the Saxons based in Britain at that time. According to Bede, the coming of the Saxons (and other germanic tribes) took place between 445 CE and 455 CE. Bede maintains that the main invaders consisted of the three most formidable tribes of Germany, namely the Saxons, the Angles and the Jutes. Other germanic tribes, taking a lesser role, were the Frisians, Rugians, Danes, Huns, Old Saxons and Franks. The first mention of the Saxons, in connection with the history of Britain, was in the time of Carausius (286 CE) when Germanic tribes beyond the North Sea were attacking the Roman provinces. During the reign of Valentinian (CE 364) the Saxons are again attacking Britain and their raids increased as the Roman’s strength declined.

Gildas: His view of the Saxons
The historian, Gildas (c. 504 CE-570 CE) who lived around the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon period (c. 450 CE), says that after the Romans left Britain (c. 410 CE) the country was deprived of all her armed bands and they ‘groaned’ (complained) at the attacks of the Scots from the northwest and the Picts from the north.
The Romans left Britain, never to return, and informed the Britons (Welsh) that they should now defend their own country. There was a substantial interval (c. 410 – c. 450 CE) between the evacuation of the Roman army and the first major Anglo-Saxon conquests (Campbell). According to Gildas these first major conquests of the Saxons followed a bad decision by the British Leader Vortigern, who sealed his country’s doom by inviting the Saxons to come to Britain in order that they might repel the invading Picts and Scots. Gildas says that quite soon the Saxons turned more against the Britons than the Picts and Scots, and a large number of Saxons came to Britain to join the initial invasions.
Gildas, who lived much closer in place and time than any other historian writing about the period, described at some length the terrible invasions of the Anglo-Saxons as follows:
These heathen conquerors devastated age surrounding cities and countryside…and established a stranglehold over nearly aa the doomed island. Priests were slain at the alter and survivors captured in he hills were butchered wholesale.

Bede (c. 730 CE) quoted Gildas and did not disagree with his descriptions of the methods of warfare practised by the early Anglo-Saxons, even though they were his ancestors of a few generations back. As a Christian one would have thought he should have condemned these methods of war, but he does not do so. Glides describes he nature of the Anglo-Saxons as a race hateful both to God and man and that they’re to be dreaded more than death itself. Some writers today maintain that Gildas exaggerates in his descriptions of the Saxons, but his view is supported by Bede and Sidonius (see above). The view is that invaders cannot carve out a nation for themselves by playing happy families with the natives. Myers says ‘Modern historians, it seems to me, have no grounds whatever for accusing Gildas of melodramatic exaggerations, for in the chaos which he describes these things were actually taking place.

Annals and Chronicles
The Annales Cambriae is a complex of chronicles compiled from various sources dating to the late 10th century and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles is a collection of annals dating to the 9th century. It is a mistake to dismiss these, as some do, without some study. According to Gildas the Britons at times exhausted themselves in civil wars. This is shown to be the case in the Welsh Annals where a number of Battles consist of Britons fighting Britons. These documents also show that the defeat of the Britons took a very long time, with battles continuing throughout much of the Anglo-Saxon period, including no doubt many unrecorded minor fights.

Mons Badonicus
According to Gildas there was a period of roughly 50 years during which the Saxons came to Britain and advanced, mainly westwards, across the country. This advance was brought to a halt by the British victories under Ambrosias Aurelianus, culminating in the defeat of the Saxons at Mons Badonicus (Badon Hill). The battle seems to have taken place between 493 CE and 516 CE. The defeat at Badon Hill seems to have resulted in loss of gained land for the Saxons and there is evidence that large numbers of Saxons left Britain after that time.For example, in about 550 CE Procopius of Caesarea (in his De Belle Gothic IV 19)states that Angles and Frisians are crossing in great numbers from Britain to the continent. This seems to confirm the effect of the battle described by Gildas.

The Invaders
The invaders, as detailed above, were Germanic tribes closely related by blood as well as language and culture, eventually were to join together to become the English who created, over most of the fertile land of Britain, the country of England. One of the reasons why these Germanic tribes invaded Britain may have been the flooding of their homelands. During the 5th century large parts of the North Sea littoral were affected by rising sea-levels (Campbell).Another reason might be the attraction of good agricultural land which was a valuable asset. One would need to fight to obtain it and fight to retain it.In Britain the two communities, Germanic and Romano-British, remained rigidly distinct and no attempt whatever was made to weld them into one (Myres). The Anglo-Saxons stuck to their own burial practices and the Britons made no attempt to convert them to Christianity. The paucity of Germanic artefacts inside Roman-British towns suggests the lack of social intercourse between the Britons and the Saxons.

Language and Place-Names
Evidence against early integration between the Anglo-Saxons and the Romano-Britons is in the Old English language and Anglo-Saxon Place-Names.
The large number of Place-Names in England of Danish origin shows that there was integration between the Anglo-Saxons and the invading Danes.
The paucity of Place-Names in England of Welsh origin shows that there was little integration between the Anglo-Saxons and the Romano-Britons.
There is little doubt that, if it had been the case that there were many Place-Names of Welsh origin in Old English, those who assume that there was integration would have put this forward as evidence to support that assumption.

It is from the mother that a child first learns its native language. It is during their upbringing that children absorb their basic vocabulary.The paucity of Welsh words in Old English/English indicates that the Anglo-Saxon children did not have Welsh mothers.

Further notes on the Invaders.
Stenton points out that the Germanic people who descended on Britain in the late 5th century were not seeking their fortune in an unexplored land. Men who had taken part in the earlier raids upon the Saxon Shore must have gained a detailed knowledge of its harbours and of the waterways which led to the interior (Stenton). It would have been particularly important for the early invaders to get to know the rivers leading them inland and this no doubt explains why some Welsh river-names persisted down through the Anglo-Saxon period into modern English.
There must have been a number of leaders who, like Hengest, came with a few ships and a limited number of warriors and who had been informed by earlier invaders regarding the rivers and harbours. They would have held small areas of land until reinforcements came. They prepared the way for the prolonged series of national migrations. As Stenton says, ‘an invasion by a small number of chiefs, each accompanied by his personal followers, might perhaps have conquered the midlands and the south, but would not have produced the social order that is afterwards found there. This social order was no doubt achieved by the very large number of ordinary Germanic people, farmers, tradesmen and their families who followed in the wake of the invading warriors.
These invaders secured increasing areas of land where, and when, undisturbed by the continuing battles to the West, they could farm and cultivate the land. In this way there was a continuity of cultivation of the land, but not a continuity but a change in the ownership of that land. The Germanic invaders eventually joined together to become the English and their country became England-the land of the English.

Gildas, The Ruin and Conquest of Britain (540′s)
Bede, A history of the English Church and people
Campbell J. The Anglo-Saxons (London, Penguin, 1991
Myres J.N.L. Anglo-Saxon Pottery & the settlement of England (Oxford, OUP, 1969)
Stenton F.M. Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford, OUP, 1987)

(Above compiled by Peter C. Horn)

May 1st, 2018