The early period of Anglo-Saxon history is obscure and difficult to make out. After the end of Roman rule, there was a long period with no written sources apart from British writers such as Gildas (who wrote ‘The Ruin of Britain’), who used the Anglo-Saxons as a way to criticise their own leadership. According to Gildas, the British invited the Anglo-Saxons to come to Britain as mercenaries and to defend the land against the Picts and other northern groups. However, they later rebelled when they felt their pay was not adequate and overthrew the British rules with great bloodshed.
From this, it is estimated that the first Anglo-Saxons arrive in the 470s CE although there is no agreed rate at which events moved between their first arrival and the establishment of permanent Anglo-Saxon led kingdoms. However, archaeological discoveries suggest permanent Anglo-Saxon settlements during the last quarter of 5th century. There is also some evidence for loss of town life, and for the movement of some people across the Channel to what became known as Brittany.
Bede (d. 735) later embellished this account and added the names of the key players. According to his “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” the first Saxons to arrive in Britain were: Hengest and Horsa, who were the sons of Wihtgils, the son of Witta, the son of Wecta, the son of Woden. Bede dates their arrival to around CE 450 and says that Horsa was later killed in battle by the Britons.
Bede also says that there were three powerful groups:
- Saxones (East, West, South – the Saxons)
- Angli (East, Middle, Northumbrian – the Angles)
- Iutae (Isle of Wight – the Jutes)
Recent studies of linguistic and archaeological evidence has indicated that the distinction was not so clear. For example, although there is little evidence for differences between Anglian and Saxon areas, beyond some local costume variation, nevertheless Kent was different. These differences suggest early connections with the Continental Franks, and it has even been argued that Kent was at some time part of the wider kingdom of the Franks.
Place name evidence can also help to understand what was happening. From the 5th century, archaic names are related to early English dialect. For example, between the South Downs and the sea, along the rivers and east of Pevensey, names denoting groups of people (Beeding, Malling, Patching) all point to settlements.
However, there is a clear difference between peoples established north and south of the Humber. By 672 CE the peoples of the north were collectively called “Nordanhymborum gens” (the nation of the Northumbrians). Meanwhile, the areas south of the Humber were referred to as “Sutangli” (Southern English). The distinction is not clear from archaeology but is recorded by contemporary documents.
There is evidence of extensive settlements in central and eastern Yorkshire before the middle of the 6th century. Until the early 7th century, the British kingdom of Elmet (based around Leeds in modern West Yorkshire) separated the Angles of the northern Midlands from those of the plain of York and may have contributed to different traditions and identities evolving.
In the southern kingdoms, the people were normally subject to the authority of a common overlord who was referred to as a “Bretwalda”. There was a period in the 7th century when three successive Bretwaldas ruled both north and south of the Humber. These overlords were recognised among the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, but rarely if at all by the British kingdoms.
Bede provides a list of the earliest Bretwaldas. He says that the first Bretwalda was Aelle of Sussex, who overran Southern Britain in the years before the battle of Mons Badonicus (c. 500 CE). By the end of the 7th century, the Bretwalda was ruling his subject kings just as a king would deal with nobility in his own kingdom; for example, he could transfer provinces from one to another and any grants of land given by a king should be approved by the Bretwalda.
When a king submitted to a Bretwalda, there was a personal relationship of lord/man. However, there was no convention that the sub-kings would automatically give allegiance to their dead lord’s son or even continue to obey a lord whose luck had deserted him (for example, indicated by losing battles).
The number of kingdoms in Britain delayed the unification of the country. While on the Continent, most of the peoples settled within the Roman Empire gave unquestioned pre-eminence to a single ‘royal’ family, Britain was not taken over by tribes under tribal kings, but by bands of adventurers who, according to their own traditions, were drawn from three Germanic peoples. In Britain, kings were less a matter of political authority than of descent from gods and early royal genealogies emphasise the descent of almost all the later kings from the god Woden.
By the 7th century, definite kingdoms began to emerge until there were seven which ruled over the Anglo-Saxon portion of Britain until the late 9th century. These were known as the Heptarchy.