Anglo-Saxons occupied Britain

In the third Book of "The Faerie Queene", in Canto iii, stanzas 29-47 the author, Edmund Spenser, outlines roughly parts of the standard history of Great Britain, as it is depicted by the chroniclers.

Whiles thus thy Britons do in languour pine
Proud Etheldred shall from the North arise,
Seruing th'ambitious will of Augustine...
And thousands Saxons kill.
(Bk. III, iii, 35 1-3; 9).
Then shall he [King Arthur] issew forth with dreadfull might,
Against his Saxon foes in bloudy field to fight.
(Bk. III, iii, 29 8-9).
For th'heauens haue decreed, to displace
The Britons, for their sinnes dew punishment,
And to the Saxons ouer-giue their gouernment.
(Bk. III, iii, 41 7-9).
Ne shall the Saxons selues all peacably
Enioy the crowne, which they from Britons wonne
First ill, and after ruled wickedly:
For ere two hundred yeares be full outronne,
There shall a Raven far from rising Sunne,
With his wide wings vpon them fiercely fly
And bid his faithless chickens ouerronne
The fruitfull plaines,...
(Bk. III, iii, 46 1-8).
There shall a Lyon from the sea-board wood
Of Neustria come roring, with a crew
Of hungry whelpes, his battailous bold brood,...
That from the Daniske Tyrants head shall rend
Th'vsurped crowne, as if that he were wood...
(Bk. III, iii, 47 2-4; 5-6).

The above-mentioned provides a very abridged outline of the complex history of Britain: it says that after long and gruesome fights the Saxons eventually defeat and drive out the Britons. The Saxons then rule for 'two hundred yeares' (Bk. III, iii, 46 4) until 'a Raven far from rising Sunne, With his wide wings upon them fiercely...flies'. (Bk. III, III, 46 5-6). In other words, the Danes are about to invade the country. In stanza 47 Spenser refers to the last and most cataclysmic event in English history: the Norman Conquest. This French conquest of the isle leaves England under William's control.

This brief description of Britain's historic past, mentioned in a 16th - century poem comprising about 4,000 stanzas, must be further elaborated on. For the knowledge of Britain's first rudiments of civilisation is vital for the reader's understanding, when it comes to talking about the Anglo-Saxons and what they made of the former civilisation that occupied Britain. Thus, before embarking upon a discussion about Germanic tribes invading the country in about AD 400, it might be well worth looking at the civilisation that occupied the isle before that time.

At the beginning of the Christian era Celts were to be found in many parts of Western Europe, such as in Gaul, Spain, western Germany, northern Italy and Great Britain. As a matter of fact, it is assumed that Celtic was the first Indo- European tongue to be spoken in Britain. The languages the Celts spoke were Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx. As opposed to these supposedly earlier Gaelic Celts, the later Brythonic Celts spoke Welsh, Cornish and Breton. Whereas Cornish and Manx are not spoken any longer, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh and Irish are still used, though decreasingly.

The Celts, who came to Britain in about 650 BC, lived peaceably for several hundred years until, in 55 BC, the first Romans under the guidance of Julius Caesar decided upon an invasion on England. But it was not until nearly a century later in AD 43 that the inhabitants of the British isle were once again troubled by Roman legions. This time the emperor Claudius was set on conquering the island. With the support of an army of 40.000 warriors, fortune smiled on him. After three years of fighting, he brought almost all of England under Roman rule. Britain became a Roman possession. This conquest was, however, never fully completed, since the Romans did not penetrate far into the mountains of northern Britain. In other words, mountainous Wales and Scotland as well as the outer islands of Britain were never conquered. The Scots and the Picts were too rough a nation to fight against. This situation may be best illustrated in the hilarious words of John Farman:

The Scottish Highlands were a no-go area because the Picts and the Scots were far too rough and beastly. The Romans, who only knew how to build dead-straight roads, soon gave up on mountainous Wales. Mind you, I expect they soon changed their tune when they discovered gold in the hills.
Furthermore, they ignored Devon and Cornwall not only because they were terribly barren and remote, but also because beaches and cream teas hadn't been invented yet.
They therefore stuck to ruling England. Hadrian, the new Supremo in Rome, decided around AD 130 to build a socking great wall, once described as 'the rampart of sods', right across the north of England. The theory behind it was obvious. If those ghastly Picts and Scots wouldn't let 'em in, then the Romans wouldn't let 'em out! (Farman, 17).

Remainders of these Roman walls still exist and, as a matter of fact, some parts of this unique historic past are to be found right here in Exeter.

Not only did the Romans set up walls to act as a barrier against attacks from the savage and most fierce Picts and Scots and other intruders, but they also changed the country in many other ways. So, what followed the Roman invasion in AD 43 was nothing else but a Romanization of most parts of the British isle. Where the Romans settled down and reigned, their ways were established, as far as housing, roads and language was concerned.

"One of the early results of the Roman conquest was the construction of villas, houses or groups of buildings in the Roman style" (Sawyer, 63). The interior of these houses was also in a Roman style. The floors were paved in mosaic and the walls were of painted stucco. Roman pottery and other tools were in general use. Roman dress was nothing unusual. The inhabitants of these Roman houses were also provided with Roman temples and baths.

Another main Roman contribution to the country was the elaborate network of 'dead-straight' (Farman, 17) roads. These roads were spread fanlike from the provincial capital London to almost all points of the compass: to the North (Erming Street), the Northwest (Watling Street) and the West. There was another street, called Foss Way, stretching from Lincoln to Axminster.

The most evident sign of Roman influence was the use of the Latin language. There is no doubt that many people in Roman Britain spoke Latin or could use it at least upon special occasions if they chose to do so. But whereas in Gaul the Celtic language was almost entirely replaced by Latin, in Britain it was not. Latin was presumably not sufficiently widespread and, above all, the right to speak it was only reserved to people of the upper classes or other important people of cities or towns. At this point I would like to quote Jackson, who manages to illustrate this situation very concisely:

The linguistic situation in Britain during the Empire seems, then, to be somewhat as follows: Latin was the language of the governing classes, of civil administration and of the army, of trade, of the Christian religion, and very largely (but perhaps not entirely) of the people of the towns. The rural upper classes were bilingual; the peasantry of the Lowland Zone, who constituted the great bulk of the population, spoke British and probably knew little Latin; and the language of the Highland Zone (apart from the army and its native camp-followers) was to all intents and purposes exclusively British. (Jackson, 105).

The Romans brought Roman-style houses, walls, temples, tools, roads, proper writing and a lot more. They intermingled with the Celts rather peacefully and seem to have led a pleasant way of life. However, they were given no peace. Only about two hundred years after their conquest of the island under Emperor Claudius, other nations followed their footsteps and set foot on the rich island: the Anglo-Saxons had arrived!

More or less precise accounts of these invasions by the Angles, the Saxons, the Jutes and the Frisians go back to Bede, Gildas and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. By referring to these three historically immensely valuable sources, we can assume that the Jutes were settled in the northern, and the Angles in the southern part of Denmark. The Saxon had their home in Germany, to the south of the Angles. There was still another tribe called Frisians. They occupied the place along the German coast. (see following map)

"The Anglo-Saxon invasions were a long, continuing process not marked by any single period corresponding with the landing of the Roman legions in 43 or with the battle of Hastings in 1066." (Blair, 159). In fact, Saxon raiding started as early as the second century and lasted well into the fifth. By looking at the various stages of the Anglo-Saxon settlements in Britain, we will see how the Anglo-Saxons got on with the Celts and the Romans, those two nations that made up the former civilisation of Britain.

The years between the Roman and the Germanic settlements were somewhat conflicting for the Romans, since the entire state of the country was on a kind of double-track. Certainly, Britain was still under Roman possession, but the stream of incoming Anglo-Saxons could not be stopped. The state of Britain at the time being was neither Romano-British nor yet Anglo-Saxon. It was a somewhat in-between. It was a state that is now referred to as Romano-Saxon. There is no getting away from the fact that in the second, third and fourth centuries the British isle was still in firm possession of the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, the odd early 'visits' of Anglo-Saxons to the isle had left their mark on Roman handicraft. By looking at Roman art such as pottery, this becomes blatantly obvious. Blair tells us that the pottery was 'made according to the techniques practised in Roman Britain, but yet bears upon it decorative motifs...characteristic of the Anglo-Saxons.' (Blair, 162). This suggests that at an early stage of the Anglo-Saxon settlements, the Germanic tribes must have intermingled with the natives rather peacefully or, at least, appreciated and accepted Roman-style handiwork by copying the technique.

It was then not until the middle of the fourth century that these odd comings of the Anglo-Saxons were something the Romans needed to be worried about. In 367 a violent assault by the Picts, Scots and Saxons took place. The Picts and the Scots penetrated into the Roman Empire from the north, and the Saxons advanced from the east. The results of this onslaught in 367 'were serious for property, agriculture and commerce.' (Chadwick, 13). No matter how serious these effects were, they were coped with very soon and Roman Britain became an affluent country again.

From the three sources mentioned earlier on in this discussion, namely Bede, Gildas and "The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle", we know that it was the year 449 that marked the actual beginning of the invasion of Britain by Germanic tribes. In this year Vortigern, king of the Celts, is reported to have made an agreement with certain Germanic tribes. He invited the Anglo-Saxons to come over to Britain in order to assist the Celtic people to repel their enemies, which were the 'beastly' Picts and Scots. The Anglo-Saxons did as they were told, but then they turned their weapons against the Celts. "The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle" gives us a precise account of this occurrence:

449 Her Martianus and Valentinus onfengon rice, and ricsodon seofon winter. And on hiera dagum Hengest and Horsa, fram Wyrtgeorne gela├żode, Bretta cyninge, gesohton Bretene on ├żaem stede ├że is genemned Ypwinesfleot,aerest Brettum to fultum; ac hie eft on hie fuhton. Se cyning het hie feohtan ongean Peohtas; and hie swa dydon, and sige haefdon swa hwaer swa hie comon. Hie ├ża sendon to Angle, and heton him sendon maran fultum; and heton him secgan Bret-Weala nahtness and baes landes cyste. (An Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Adventus Saxonum, 10).

According to Gildas, the person to blame for the loss of Britain is no other than Vortigern. Gildas addresses him as 'proud tyrant' (Gildas, 26) and curses his 'blindness' and 'stupidity' (Gildas, 26). His exact wording is as follows:

Then all the member of the council, together with the proud tyrant, were struck blind; the guard - or rather the method of destruction - they devised for our land was that the ferocious Saxons (name not to be spoken!), hated by man and God, should be let into the island like wolves into the field, to beat back the peoples of the north. Nothing more destructive, nothing more bitter has ever befallen the land. How utter the blindness of their minds! How desperate and crass the stupidity! (Gildas, 26).

From this year onwards the course of history was altered profoundly. After the Germanic tribes had recognised the weakness of the Britons, they decided to stay there and settled down all over the country. Bede, in chapter XV of his "Ecclesiastical History of the English people", alludes to this in detail.

It is not exactly known what the relationship between these new invaders and the native population was like. In those areas where relatively few native inhabitants lived, it has been assumed that the Germanic tribes and the natives led a more or less peaceful coexistence. However, in more densely populated districts, the way the Anglo-Saxons settled down differed a lot from the way the Romans did 400 earlier. The Romans had come to the island to rule it, but they did not attempt to dispossess the Celtic population unlike the Anglo-Saxons who did this in 449 and the following years. When this event occurred, the Anglo-Saxons blatantly disregarded the inhabitants of the time. Those who dared to resist them were driven out of the country to mainland Europe typically Brittany, or otherwise sought refuge in remoter and hence more scarcely populated areas of Britain such as Wales or Cornwall.

Meanwhile, the Germanic invasions continued. Once again "The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle" contains accounts of the major battles that were fought after 449. As a result of these battles, the land possessed by the Anglo-Saxons increased dramatically.

455 Her Hengest and Horsa fuhton wib Wyrtegeorne b├Žm cyninge in baere stowe be is gecweden AEgelesford; and his brobor, Horsan, man ofslog. And aefter baem Hengest feng to rice, (and AEsc his sunu). (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ed. by Swanton, M.).
457 Her Hengest and AEsc fuhton wib Brettas in baere stowe be is gecweden Crecganford, and baer ofslogon feower busend wera. And ba Brettas ba forleton Cent-land, and mid micle ege flugon to Lunden-byrig. (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ed. by Swanton, M.).
473 Her Hengest and AEsc gefuhton wib Wealas, and genamon unarimedlicu here-reaf; and ba Wealas flugon ba Engle swa swa fyr. (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ed. by Swanton, M.).
477 Her com AElle on Bretenlond and his ory suna: Cymen and Wlencing and Cissa, mid orym scipum on oa [stowe] oe is nemned Cymenesora, and oaer ofslogon monige Wealas, and sume on fleame bedrifon on oone wudu oe is genemned Andredesleage. (An Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ed. by Classen, E., and Harmer, F. E., 7).
491 Her Elle and Cissa ymbsaeton and ymbraecan Andredescester and ofslogon alle oa oe oarinne eardedon. Ne wearo oaer foroon an Bret to lafe. (An Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ed. by Classen, E., and Harmer, F. E., 7).
514 Her comon West-Seaxe in Bretene, mid brim scipum, in ba stowe be is gecweden Cerdices-ora; and Stuf and Wihtgar fuhton wib Brettas and hie gefliemdon. (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ed. by Swanton, M.).

There are innumerable entries of such events in "The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle" yet only a few are needed to illustrate the actions of the Anglo-Sacons. According to the entries, Hengest, Horsa and Aesc fought against Vortigern and his people. Most of them were slain and those who were lucky enough to get away with their lives fled 'from the English like fire' ("The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle", ed. by Garmonsway, year 473, 14). A peaceful coexistence with the former civilisation seemed to be out of the question. Instead, the entire land of Britain was affected by a continuous change in its inhabitants. Gradually the newcomers filtered their way through Britain fighting the natives out of the land as they went. As they did this, they found that Britain their future place of residence had been heavily cast by the Romans, as illustrated in the following map:

It is important to point out though that the boundaries within the map are only an approximation of what Roman Britain must have looked like at a time during the Roman's reign. The borderlines were subject to constant changes. However, the map very clearly shows that the Romans divided their country into two zones, a military and a civil zone. The coastline was clustered with Forts to fight off unwelcome and unexpected enemies. The Anglo-Saxons did not leave it at that. They replaced the Romano-British cantons by Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. For reasons not thoroughly known to historians, the Germanic tribes combined to produce seven kingdoms: Mercia, Essex, Sussex, Wessex, Northumbria, East Anglia and Kent.

Upon comparing these two maps, one will realise that the space the Catuvellauni, the Trinovcentes and the Iceni occupied measured about the same size as the space that the people from Essex and East Anglia took up. The reach of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex was, however, by far larger than their Romano-British counterparts. The Anglo-Saxons did, quite obviously, stick to the disposition of Romano-British cantons by only increasing their reach. The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were also more independent from each other, since every area had its own king. From "The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle" we know that the kings who ruled the kingdoms were 'Aelle, king of Sussex;...Ceawlin, king of Wessex;...Aethelberht, king of Kent;... Raedwald, king of East Anglia;...Edwin, king of Northumbria:...Egbert, king of Wessex.' ("An Anglo-Saxon Chronicle", ed. by Garmonsway, year 827, 61). Each of these kings established his kingdom in a hostile land and therefore had to see to it that it was properly defended against his enemies. This is exactly, what contrasts the Romano-British age from the Anglo-Saxon era. Whereas the Anglo-Saxons were not given any security whatsoever regarding intruders, the Romans enjoyed security under the so-called 'bax Romana'. The average Roman, unless he was in service for the Roman army, was not particularly interested in warfare. He had to pay taxes, which in return secured him protection from any major disturbances. For the reason mentioned above - the increased independence amongst kingdoms - this did not apply to the Anglo-Saxons. As soon as they had established themselves on the British isle, the bax Romana collapsed.

This leads us straight into another item worth mentioning: the monetary system. It is another example that shows us what the Anglo-Saxons made of the former civilisation that occupied Britain. As mentioned earlier, the bax Romana collapsed, and so did the monetary system. It is important for the reader to know that the circulation of currency was significant, if not to say vital, for the economy in Roman Britain. The raw materials for the currency that is coins were on the one hand imported such as Copper, and on the other hand obtained by extraction such as silver. This monetary system ceased to exist approximately between 400 and 430. Blair speaks in terms of an 'economic collapse' and regards this happening as a 'great contrast between the age of Roman Britain and the earlier part of the Anglo-Saxon period'. (Blair, 255).

The very last but by no means less important topic I would like to focus on, is about the Celtic and Roman influences on Old English. Earlier on in this discussion we have learnt from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that deadly battles between the newcomers, that is the Anglo-Saxons, and the Celtic people occurred. I have mentioned that in Andredescester, for example, not a single Briton was left alive. (see: entry 491). It seems therefore very reasonable to assume that no Celtic influence occurred upon Old English. This is wrong! Certainly, large numbers of the Celtic population fled into remote and scarcely populated areas meaning their language survived until a fairly late time. Furthermore, it is very likely that Celts were kept as slaves or used as mates by the Anglo-Saxons. So, in some parts of Britain a contact between the Celts and the Anglo-Saxons did exist and this early influence on Old English is most clearly seen in the survival of Celtic place-names.

As far as the Latin influence on Old English is concerned, we may distinguish two different occasions on which borrowing from Latin occurred on the British isle: Firstly, there is the borrowing of Latin through Celtic transmission. The speaking of Latin was - as we already know by now - mainly restricted to the upper classes. When the Roman Empire collapsed, the use of Latin did as well. Because there were only so few people who could speak it, there was hardly any contact between Latin and Old English. Thus, Latin words must have been transmitted by the Celts and they, indeed, had taken on a considerable number of Latin words. Only few of these words were passed on to Old English and therefore this influence remains the slighter of these two. Secondly, Latin influence occurred due to the Christianising of Britain in 597. The conversion of the British people to Christianity had the greatest impact on Old English. 450 words are known to have appeared in Latin writings. This may be regarded as a very extensive adoption of Latin elements into Old English.

I have tried to work out to what extent the Anglo-Saxons adjusted to the former civilisation that occupied Britain, regarding personal relations, housing, geographical landscape, currency and language. As we could see, the relation between the Anglo-Saxons and Britain's former nations was a very complex one and is extremely difficult to analyse. Not many sources relating to these early dates survived. The cultural assets that have been passed on to our age are often fragmented and dubious. One must not forget that most of the narrative was taken down by hearsay. Nevertheless, these sources are of immense importance to us, since they are all that remained of our past. Valuable as they are, they must be treated with esteem and utmost care.

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