Who were the Anglo-Saxons?

Roman Army abandons Saxon Shore Forts
Background: The state of Britain after 400 AD

Since the 3rd century AD the east coast of Britain had been fortified by Rome. Branodunum (Brancaster in Norfolk), was one of the earliest forts, dated to the 230s. It was built to guard the Wash approaches. Gariannonum (Burgh Castle, Norfolk), was established between 260 and the mid-270s to guard the River Yare (or Gariannus Fluvius). It was garrisoned by the Equites Stablesiani Gariannoneses. Othona (Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex), was garrisoned by the Numerus Fortensium. Other east anglian forts were set up at Walton Castle, and the twin fort of Caister on Sea, standing on opposite banks of Yare to Burgh Castle. These were just part of a chain of forts around the south and east coast of Britain, mirrored by similar forts across the Channel. The British forts came under the control of the Count of the Saxon Shore at least by the late 4th century, and maybe earlier.

After the death of the Emperor Theodosius in 395 AD the Roman Empire was divided into two parts. The western part, based in Rome, was to be ruled by Honorius, but pressure from the Visigoths and from internal feuding caused a gradual desintegration of authority. The 20th Legion from Chester was recalled to the continent to fight the Goths. In 403 through to 406 AD a vast host of Vandals, Suebi and Alans crossed the now ill-defended Rhine. They were escaping from the central European dominion of the Huns and fanned out across the interior provinces of Rome, threatening to invade Britain.

Meanwhile the British had been choosing their own local Emperors. They seem to have elected a man called Marcus, and then violently replaced him by Gratian. Gratian was also murdered. Britain now proclaimed a native emperor with a military background, called Constantine III. He crossed to Gaul and expelled the invaders but took the Roman army with him from Britain.

In 409 Britain suffered a particularly heavy Saxon assault and continuing Irish assaults. Since the army had left with Constantine III, the British had to defend themselves, and seem to have done a good job.

On 24th August, 410 AD the gates of Rome were opened to Alaric the Goth. He withdrew in a week with a waggon train of loot and prisoners. Britain became effectively an independent part of the empire when Honorius now declined to send men or money to defend the island. There was thus no imperial governor appointed by Rome. In practice Britain had been undefended by the Roman army since 406, and seriously undermanned since 383. The succession of power was broken, and for the next 200 years Britain lacked any central stable government that everyone could accept. Without a disciplined army, any invaders stood a good chance of success. More importantly, the Roman Navy no longer patrolled the North Sea, and the Saxon Shore forts on the British side of the Channel were left without units of the Roman army.

In Britain, somehow Romanised life managed to survive, but the economy and the pax romana were sinking increasingly into decay. The visits of St Germanus, an important bishop of Auxerre in Gaul in 427 and 440 to settle a question of heresy and incidentally to lead the troops against the Saxons, is an indication that Roman Britain was still recognised to be important and active enough to engage in religious controversy. But life must have been very different from the Romanised living of the 4th Century.

5th century migrations
Where did the Anglo-Saxons come from?

There are no contemporary accounts of the Anglo-Saxon invasion. The nearest narrative we have is by a British priest call Gildas, living in Wales or Cornwall, and writing about 550. He records that the ruler of Britain invited three ship loads of Saxons to defend the country against the Picts, and gave them land in the East of the country. Subsequently they rebelled and the conquest began.

Bede, writing in the early 8th Century, around 731, follows Gildas with the same story, names the leaders as Hengist and Horsa and goes on to describe the origins of the invaders as Angles from Angeln (Denmark); Saxons from Old Saxony, in the area between the Elbe and the Weser and the Jutes from Jutland. He goes on to say where in England they settled. East Anglia still survives as a recognisable area of mainly Anglian settlement. From the archaeological evidence it is clear that 'Anglian' settlement was not necessarily purely from Angeln, for at West Stow there are recognisable elements of Anglian, Saxon and Frisian people, together with surviving Romano-Britons.

Routes into East Anglia
How did they get here?

It seems unlikely that all the Anglo-Saxon people on the continent had sea-going boats that could bring families, and possibly animals across the North Sea. Is it possible that some enterprising group ran a profitable business running settlers across from the Hook of Holland to Harwich?

As to the routes the settlers took on arrival in Britain, the Thames was one major entry with East Kent and South Essex colonised in the first wave of settlement. Movement up the Icknield Way may well have followed. In East Anglia, Stanley West favours the penetration of the estuaries of the Orwell and the Waveney to the fertile hinterlands - in Suffolk along the Gipping Valley across the heavy clay of central Suffolk to the open country of the north-west and Cambridgeshire. Entry via the Fens seemed less likely to Dr West.

Some physical evidence of who they were

When we look at the artefacts from West Stow, we can see examples of the pottery with deep furrowed grooves on the shoulder like those from the Anglian homelands and from cemeteries in Norfolk; sharply angled pots with facets cut out, precisely like those from the Saxon regions of the Elbe Weser area in North West Germany. West Stow clearly does not represent straight migration of a single settlement but is part of a movement of peoples. From the outset this little village was a mixture, with various people picked up along the way.

Shield bosses, spearheads and knives from graves
When did the invasion take place?

Not all of Britain was settled immediately by the Anglo-Saxons. It took more than 200 years for the borders of Saxon England to be pushed to the far west.

The Anglo-Saxon great settlement took place around 449 AD according to Gildas, who was the first person to write any history of this period. His story was later amplified by Bede, then by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which largely repeated the same story.

The full picture of Anglo-Saxon settlement is complex and probably covers a longer timespan than Bede had envisaged. Basically, Roman Britain, cut off from the Empire, could not survive in a recognisable form and even central authority in Britain gave way to a series of local war lords who struggled, with some success, against the encroaching Saxons. One of these war lords may have been the man we now know as King Arthur.

Some people who we might recognise as Anglo-Saxons were undoubtedly in Britain with the Roman Army in the late 3rd century, employed as mercenaries or auxiliaries. After 410 AD the British themselves hired Germanic soldiers to defend them from other invaders from northern Europe. Several shiploads arrived here in that way. Eventually hostilities broke out between the two sides, and reinforcements began to pour into Britain from abroad. By 450 we can believe that large numbers of Anglo-Saxons were in control of the eastern part of the country. It took another half century for them to get control of the rest of the country.

What languages did they speak?

The invaders and settlers would have brought their own dialects into the land known to the Romanised locals as Britannia. Once they had established themselves in the east of England, the Anglo-Saxons named their country Englaland or "land of the Angles". Their language thus became called Englisc. It is the modern historian who refers to them as Anglo-Saxons, and their their language as Anglo-Saxon. It is also known as Old English. Suffolk is full of Anglo-Saxon place names, most names coming from Old English words.

By about 470 the British resistance in the west inspired a new sense of local identity, which was no longer Roman. They called themselves Combrogi or 'fellow countrymen', whose modern form is Cymry or Cumbri, names which survive today in Wales and Cumbria.

The English knew them by both names, and also called them foreigners or wealh or wylisc in Old English, and Welsh in today's English. The English saw the British as part of the old Christian world, based on Rome.

The beleagured British Latin writers referred to the Anglo-Saxons as Angli and were doing so before the middle of the 6th century. By the 7th century King Ine called himself King of the West Saxons but described his subjects as Englishmen or Welshmen, but not as Saxons.

Saxon was a term used by non-Saxons, and survives in modern Welsh as Saesnag and in Irish as Sasenach. The name Saxon is thought to be derived from the fact the invaders habitually carried, and fought with, a short sword or long knife, called a seaxe. Until about 650, the Saxons were Pagan, and the Christian British also called them the Heathens or Barbarians.

Latin was still the written language of the British, although the need for it rapidly diminished as contact with the Empire declined.

What were the causes of the great settlement?

Various theories have been put forward to account for the Anglo-Saxon migration. Certainly they had been raiding Britain for 200 years and were aware of rich pickings to be had and were familiar with the geography of much of the Eastern sea-board. By the beginning of the 5th Century pressures from other tribes in Central Europe and beyond, although directed at the Roman Empire across the Rhine and the Danube, doubtless had an effect on the Anglo-Saxon homelands in North Germany and Denmark. As those pressures mounted, the Anglo-Saxons must have been aware of the withdrawal of the Roman Army and the collapse of the economy. The time was right for a takeover.

Other contributory factors may well have included devastating epidemics such as plagues which reduced the population in parts of Britain and a worsening of the climate in Northern Europe. This was so bad that in 407/8 the Rhine froze over allowing the Vandals to swarm into Gaul.

What happened to the Romano-Britons?

In Britain late Roman towns and the dense population in the countryside is not reflected in the apparent size of the population in Anglo-Saxon England of the 5th-6th Century. There is no evidence of wholesale slaughter or of refugees fleeing to Wales, so there is a problem here.

There is some evidence of Romano-British survival in agricultural practices with the cultivation of spelt wheat at West Stow. Some of the Romano-British people were assimilated into Anglo-Saxon society as slaves.

Eastern Britain from the Thames to Lincolnshire seems to have been rapidly colonised, further west resistance increased and battles are recorded. 'Roman survival' continued in a diluted condition for another 200 years.

How many people were there in England at this time?

Unfortunately, population numbers are impossible to calculate accurately as so few cemeteries of the period have been totally excavated. A nationally important Anglo-Saxon cemetery has just been excavated at Eriswell, within the site of RAF Lakenheath. The excavations took place in 1997 and the site is believed to date from AD500 - 600. A major find has been a warrior buried complete with his horse and all its harness. Around 200 burials were expected to be excavated.

Originally adapted for the St Edmundsbury website from
Dr Stanley West's book "Understanding West Stow", published 2000
Saxon Shore material from Wikipedia, map by C Plakidas

Go to Anglo-Saxon Homepage Updated 22 December 2006
Revised 24 September 2009
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