When the Romans left Britain to its fate in around 410 CE, the Romano-British culture they left behind was in decline but largely intact. But, within two centuries, the native Romano-Britons would find themselves overrun by a new group of settlers. The newcomers arrived in the east and quickly spread out to occupy most of what is now England. They brought with them strange foreign customs, spoke alien Germanic languages and worshipped strange pagan gods. We now call these people Anglo-Saxon.
“Then all the councillors, together with that proud tyrant [Vortigern], the British king, were so blinded, that, as a protection to their country, they sealed its doom by inviting in among them (like wolves into the sheepfold), the fierce and impious Saxons, a race hateful both to God and men”Gildas, De Excidio Britanniae
The civilised Christian world of the late Roman Empire was gone.
The age of pagan Anglo-Saxon England had dawned. Some would call this time the Dark Age. But, for all that, it also heralded the start of the Middle Ages.
The sun sets on Roman Britain
Historians are addicted to drawing lines in the sand, and one of those lines is the year 476 CE. This particular line marks for many the time when the western Roman Empire fell, and the new Medieval world began.
However, in the case of Britain, the Roman world effectively came to an end over half a century before. For the Romans had abandoned Briton, never to return, around the year 410 CE. The deteriorating situation on the continent, wars and the threat of wars with Goths, Alans and Suebi, had forced the already over stretched Roman military to finally abandon Britain.
The Britons were left to fend for themselves in a world that was becoming increasingly hostile. In the north, Pictish and Scots raids were becoming an increasing problem. In the west, permanent Irish settlements were beginning to appear along the Welsh coast. But, in the end, it would be a new group of Germanic invaders that were destined to change Britain forever over the coming century.
Fire and Brimstone!
One of the reasons people refer to the period that followed as the Dark Ages, is because we know so very little about what happened. We have no contemporary Romano-British written sources to tell us about what was happening in Britain during the C5th. The only real source we have that is anywhere near contemporary is a British monk by the name of Gildas.
We only know a little about Gildas himself. He was a monk and he wrote in Latin. We know he wrote “On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain” about what happened to Britain after the Romans left. However, there is a lot about Gildas that we don’t know.
We don’t really know for sure when he wrote this. It could have been anytime between around 490 CE and 570 CE, but was most likely sometime between 515 CE and 550 CE. However, since Gildas does not specifically mention the Justinian plague, which would have been a major event, it is likely he was writing before the plague arrived (i.e. before 541).
We don’t even know exactly where Gildas was when he wrote it. In later life, it is said that he settled in Brittany and may have been writing there. However, we only have much later accounts to tell us where Gildas lived and where he may have written and worked. The truth is we do not know for certain.
Gildas’ account tells us that imediately after the Romans left in 410:
“the terrible hordes of Scots and Picts eagerly come forth”Gildas, De Excidio Britanniae
In response to such threats, Gildas informs us that the British ‘tyrant’ (a leader known now as Vortigen) invited in Saxon mercenaries to fight the northern invaders.
However, the Saxons proved to be a worse bunch than the enemies they’d been brought in to fight. Within a few years, more and more Saxons started to arrive until such time as they had become a real threat to the Britons. From this time onwards, Gildas tells us, the Saxons killed, enslaved, or drove out the Britons, until they had conquered most of eastern and central England.
The Fifth Century Apocalypse
Religious fervour fills Gildas’ account of what happened. He sees the triumph of the Saxons as God’s judgement on the Britons for foolishly inviting them in in the first place. As a result, he writes of the Saxon invasion in apocalyptic terms. His descriptions of the conquest are graphic, sometimes lurid, and heavily laden with religious polemic.
“For the fire of righteous vengeance, caused by former crimes, blazed from sea to sea, heaped up by the eastern band of impious men; and as it devastated all the neighbouring cities and lands, did not cease after it had been kindled, until it burnt nearly the whole surface of the island, and licked the western ocean with its red and savage tongue. In this assault, which might be compared to the Assyrian attack upon Judaea of old.”Gildas, De Excidio Britanniae
Gildas is clear that the wars between the Saxons and Britons were bloody and catastrophic.
“Some of the wretched remnant were consequently captured on the mountains and killed in heaps. Others, overcome by hunger, came and yielded themselves to the enemies, to be their slaves for ever, if they were not instantly slain, which was equivalent to the highest service. Others repaired to parts beyond the sea, with strong lamentation.”Gildas, De Excidio Britanniae
In many ways, what Gildas describes, was nothing short of the end of the Britons in the eastern half of the island.
But how literally can we take Gildas? Did things really happen exactly as he claimed?
Late Roman decline
It is tempting to overestimate the significance of Roman withdrawal in the early C5th. The Romano-British world of 409 was not an idyllic civilised world of sophisticated stone-built cities and high Roman culture. Neither did it suddenly descended into barbarian ignorance, illiteracy, mud huts and chaos after 410.
During the C4th, the late Roman world had suffered a great deal of turmoil and chaos. There had been problems with corruption, barbarian incursions on the continent and a draining war with the Sassanids in the east. Things came to a head when the Roman army was disastrously defeated by the Goths in 378 CE at Adrianpole.
If this was not enough, civil war followed. A Roman commander stationed in Britain by the name of Magnus Maximus saw an opportunity to grab power for himself and rebelled in 383. He stripped troops from Britain, declared himself Emperor and invaded Gaul. A civil war ensued and, although Maximus was ultimately defeated, his rebellion had significantly weakened Roman military strength in Britain.
By the end of the century the Goths had become a major threat to the stability of the entire Empire. The crisis would culminate in the sacking of Rome itself in 410 CE.
The deteriorating situation in the Empire led to economic and social decline in Britain itself. After 350 CE many British towns and settlements show signs of contraction (and hence population decline). Stone construction, which had been a key feature of life in the Roman Empire, became increasingly difficult. Some would argue that such construction started to go into decline as early as 350.
The late C4th saw raids and conflict with northern invaders such as the Picts. Although the Roman military was still strong enough to fend off these attacks, they were a portent of things to come.
The Saxon Threat
Gildas’ account gives us the impression that the Saxon threat started in the mid-C5th when they were first invited into Britain to fight northern invaders. However, his account hints at the fact that the Saxons were already considered a threat before this time.
Gildas writes of the moment the Britons decided to invite in Saxon mercenaries as follows:
“The men whom, when absent, they feared more than death, were invited by them of their own accord”Gildas, De Excidio Britanniae
If the Britons already feared the Saxons ‘more than death’ then they must have been familiar enough with the Saxons to fear them.
But how were the Britons already familiar with the Saxons?
In fact, the Saxons, had probably been a threat to Britain for a while, as there is evidence of Saxon raiding going back to Roman times.
Chain of forts
A late Roman document called the Notitia Dignitatum provides details of Roman administrative organisation in the late C4th. At this time, the document tells of a chain of forts that existed along the southern and eastern coast of England and the northern coast of France. This network of forts is referred to as part of the ‘Saxon Shore’ command. In England, these forts stretched from Portsmouth on the south coast, around the south-eastern corner of England, all the way along the East Anglian coast as far as the Wash.
Many of these forts were built in the period between 270 CE and 300 CE. It is not certain why these forts were built, but their name suggests there was a link with the Saxons. Either they were built to defend against Saxon sea raids or Saxon mercenaries were being used to garrison them by the end of the C4th (or both). Certainly, there is some material evidence to show that at least some German mercenaries served in Roman Britain in the south east.
The construction of these forts indicates that they were certainly intended to defend against a threat from the sea. Not only that but it appears that this threat had been present for more than a century prior to Roman departure.
Post Roman Collapse
However, the departure of Rome undeniably brought with it urban decay and collapse. Whilst the period prior to 410 had witnessed decline, this decline clearly accelerated once the Romans were gone.
Some settlements were abandoned, others reduced in size. Building in stone effectively ceased and, after 410, buildings of wooden construction became the norm. Bartering appears to have replaced the use of coinage to a great extent. However, these changes started happening before the Saxons started arriving in any significant numbers.
Some have wondered how ‘Roman’ the Romano-Britons truly were. Abandoned by Rome, the old Roman way of life began to disappear quickly. Invasion and conflict with peoples such as the Picts and Saxons may well have accelerated this decline, but were not, in and of themselves, enough to fully account for it.
Gildas tells us that at first only a small number of Saxons – ‘three ships of war’ – arrived in c.449 CE. A later Anglo-Saxon writer, the Venerable Bede (writing around 731), tells us that the leaders of the earliest Saxon mercenaries to arrive in 449 were brothers – Hengist and Horsa. More mercenaries quickly followed them.
At first the Saxons did what they were hired to do and fought Pictish and Scots invaders. This they did very successfully. However, once established in England they began to make more demands for supplies and concessions until eventually they began to raid, plunder and conquer. As more Saxons arrived, so the pattern repeated. Eventually, the Saxons began to overrun much of eastern and central England.
Both Bede and Gildas relate a story of ongoing war between Saxons and Britons from 449 onwards. Gradually, in both accounts, the Saxons win, pushing the Britons further and further to the west.
In fact, things were somewhat more complicated than this. The people who migrated to eastern England in the mid-fifth century were not one homogenous group of ‘Saxons’. In reality they were a mix of different Germanic groups – Saxons, Jutes and Angles (and possibly others). They originally came from Denmark, Holland and the north-western part of Germany. Different groups settled in different regions and, although they all spoke Germanic languages, they may not even have spoken the same language as each other.
The Britons, in the late C5th, found themselves squeezed on all sides by invaders, raiders and migrant settlers. Germanic migration into the east compounded pressure from Picts and Scots in the north, and Irish in the west.
The Germanic settlers brought with them their own distinctive style of construction. Their buildings were wooden huts (sometimes quite large) with thatched roofs of a very different style from those used by the indigenous population. However, the Romano-Britons of the fifth century were also building in wood; the only real difference was that the they were constructing in a Roman style.
Interestingly the Archaeology shows a gradual pattern of change. During the latter half of the C5th we see the landscape of England is in mid-transition from a Romano-British world to an Anglo-Saxon world.
A survey of 28 settlements from this period (by Gavin Speed) shows some interesting patterns:
- Around 18% of settlements failed – showing that the overall population declined.
- 18% of settlements (mostly but not exclusively found in the west of England) show sub-Roman development. This means that new buildings display Roman-style housing (albeit in wooden construction). Also, the people living in these settlements displayed Romanised material culture and burial customs.
- 46% of settlements (mostly but not exclusively in the east) show distinct features of Anglo-Saxon rural development.
- 18% of settlements display what we might call ‘shifted’ urban development. London is a good example of this. In the early C5th, Roman London was mostly abandoned. However, by the late C5th we see an Anglo-Saxon settlement emerge slightly to the west of the old Roman city. Interestingly the new Anglo-Saxon inhabitants seem to have continued to respect an old Roman sacred site in the area. So, in this sense, we see both continuity and change.
By 600 CE, however, we see that this process of transition is more or less complete. By this time the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria, Kent, Sussex, and Essex are emerging. An investigation of 23 sites from this period also shows 18% settlement failure providing evidence of ongoing population decline. However, every single other settlement investigated in this survey displayed Anglo-Saxon features. The old Romano-Britain disappeared. Anglo-Saxon England was born.
We should not fall into the trap of assigning too much precision to these figures, however. Samples of 28 and 23 settlements are small samples. They are also ‘convenience’ samples – those sites archaeologists have been able to access and excavate rather than a true random example. We can use this work to give us a qualitative indication of change but not to the extent that we should be too definitive about the numbers.
Apocalypse or Transition?
The Archaeology of this period does however present us with a few problems.
If there was widespread apocalyptic conflict and destruction, why don’t we see widespread evidence of settlements being pillaged and burnt? Why don’t we see a widespread effort to re-fortify existing settlements? We do see a few old iron-age forts re-occupied at this time, but it is not entirely clear who re-occupied them or why.
So perhaps the wars Gildas described were nowhere near as cataclysmic as he’d have us believe. For all we know Gildas may have been a fire and brimstone cleric who greatly exaggerated the events of the C5th. We have no other written source of the period that we can use to verify his account.
The disappearance of the ‘British’
On the other hand, the English language that emerged in Anglo-Saxon England is a Germanic language. It is no doubt a synergy of the different Germanic languages and dialects spoken by all the different Saxons, Angles and Jutes who migrated to England during the C5th. As a language it borrows surprisingly little from any native Brittonic language.
All that remained of the native languages would, by 600 CE, be confined to the west. The Welsh language, the Cornish language and a now extinct form of Brittonic in Cumbria.
Why would that be? We can only speculate.
Was it because there was little or no interaction between Britons and Anglo-Saxons beyond raiding and war? Was it because, as the Anglo-Saxons spread inland, they killed or drove west all or most of the Britons? But if that was so, why don’t we see more evidence of it in the archaeology?
Was it because Anglo-Saxon culture became so dominant that those Britons who remained adopted Anglo-Saxon culture and language to survive? Or perhaps they adopted it because it held appeal for them in some way? Perhaps because it was impossible to get access to the new elite unless you learnt to speak their language?
We don’t even really know what language(s) the Britons in the eastern parts of England spoke during the C5th originally. They spoke native Brittonic languages, almost certainly. But did they speak a wide mix of different Brittonic languages or a handful of fairly homogenous ones? Were they, in fact, bilingual? They had, by 410, been part of the Roman world for over three centuries. It is not at all unreasonable to suppose than many of them could speak a low form of Latin.
Whatever the situation, the one thing we know for sure is that Anglo-Saxon culture and the English language emerged as dominant by 600 CE.
The triumph of the Anglo-Saxons
I think there clearly was conflict between the Germanic settlers and the native Britons, but it is far from clear how extensive this conflict really was. Some Britons were killed and others migrated west but many may well have remained.
Anglo-Saxon culture clearly became dominant. How dominant in terms of sheer numbers of actual Anglo-Saxons is difficult to say. There is no real way to tell exactly how many Anglo-Saxons migrated to Britain in this period. Much depends on what kind of ships the Anglo-Saxons had. If they only had primitive vessels, powered by oars alone and only capable of coast hugging voyages, this would suggest smaller numbers of migrants. If, however, they had sailing ships, capable of deep-sea voyages, this would suggest a much larger influx.
The only early Anglo-Saxon ship found is of the former kind – lacking in sails and incapable of deep-sea voyages. According to Gildas, however, Saxon ships did have sails. He tells us that the first Saxon ships that arrived in 449 were “ships of war under full sail”. If this account is accurate, that would mean that significant numbers of Germanic migrants could have settled in Briton during the late fifth and six century.
If we are unsure of the numbers of migrants, we are also unsure about the demographics of the native population. We cannot really say how many Britons were killed during conflict with the newcomers. Nor can we say how many fled west (except that any refugee influx in to the west does not appear to have led to any population increase). Nor can we say how many Britons remained in Anglo-Saxon controlled England – whether as slaves, serfs or simply as neighbours.
A new elite
Certainly, the social structure changed. A new Germanic elite swept aside the old British rulers and replaced them. If you wanted to get on, it would have been necessary to fit in with their way of doing things.
People often adopt new languages through choice. It is not always necessarily about military dominance or even about coercion. A key consideration is the cultural appeal of the language itself and the perceived benefit people feel they get from being able to speak it.
Perhaps the appeal of the Anglo-Saxon way of life was not simply their martial prowess. Perhaps it was at least partly down to the fact that these migrant people came from a rural culture that knew how to live well without stone cities, without urban comforts and, perhaps more importantly, without Rome.
In a world in which the old Roman way of life was in inexorable decline, the appeal of a new, vibrant, successful (and mostly rural) culture may have been a key factor in the ultimate triumph of Anglo-Saxons.
The Dark Age?
Of course, the reason why we have so many unanswered questions about how exactly Roman Britain transitioned to Anglo-Saxon England is because we have such limited evidence. We are, to a great extent, in the dark. After all, this is why this period gets called the ‘Dark Ages’.
However, what we are looking at here is the early Medieval history of Britain and Britain was just one part of the old Roman world.
What happened elsewhere in Europe and the Middle East after the fall of the Roman Empire in the west was by no means universally ‘dark’. Nor was the period that followed the fall of Rome necessarily a period of collapse and decline for everyone.
Or the Golden Age?
To illustrate this, the next time I write about early Medieval history I’ll be taking a look at a completely contrasting civilisation. The period between 400 CE and 600 CE may have been a poorly documented period of decline in Britain.
Between 400 and 600 CE, Sassanid Persia did not experience a collapse, or even a decline. On the contrary, it flourished. During the C6th CE, the Sassanid Empire entered a golden age of Persian culture and civilisation. Life, for the Persians at this time, was very far from dark.
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References & further reading
Saxon Minstrel: wiki commons, Joseph Ratcliffe Skelton
Gothic Warriors: wiki commons, therontherod
Anglo-Saxon Settlement: wiki commons / Paul Watts
Saxon House: wiki commons, Anglo Saxon House at West Stow, Betlic
Nydham Boat: wiki commons, Matthias Suessen