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The Anglo-Saxon Settlement of England

David Capps

Vortigern Studies

To understand the Anglo-Saxon settlement of England three important issues must be considered:

  • As the early Anglo-Saxon settlers were pre-literate there are few contemporary written sources until the conversion to Christianity which began in the late 6th century but was not finalised until 686.
  • The main written sources we have available (Gildas and Bede) were both compiled by clerics and their accounts reflect their own agendas and biases.
  • Until quite recently, historians tended to accept the Gildas/Bede view that the coming of the Anglo-Saxons resulted in the cataclysmic end of Roman Britain[1] followed by a period of barbaric darkness until the St. Augustine led conversion to Christianity began to achieve success.

The third point above is consistent with Victorian notions of the virtues of empire, classicism and Christianity although J.M. Kemble’s ‘Saxons in England’ (1849) challenged this interpretation[2]. Despite this, the conventional wisdom prevailed and evidence from elsewhere, generally archaeology and place names, was used to endorse, rather than challenge the popular view. However, the interdisciplinary approach to history that Colin Renfrew believes came about in the late 1960s[3], created a less prescriptive and more open-minded climate for the interpretation of evidence by utilising concepts from anthropology, sociology, geography and economics in addition to the traditional use of documented and archaeological sources. This essay attempts to show why it is necessary to use a variety of sources of evidence when considering the Anglo-Saxon settlement of England.

The monk Gildas is believed to have written ‘De Exido et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Fall of Britain or The Ruin of Britain) in the mid-6th century. It has been described as a homiletic work[4] and is more concerned with the sins of the Britons than history.

Gildas’ language borrows much from the Old Testament comparing the misfortunes of Britain (which had become largely Christian under Roman rule) with those of the children of Israel who flourished while following God’s will but who were punished when they transgressed. His is largely an attack on the rulers who came to power after the end of Roman-Britain and the subsequent treachery of the (pagan) Anglo-Saxon warriors invited to act as mercenaries by a ‘Proud Tyrant’. During the period of incursion there was resistance from the Romano-Britons still occupying the West, but despite their defeat at Mount Badon, the barbarian invaders prevailed. Bede largely accepted Gildas’ version of events in his Ecclesiastical History although there is more clarification of the identity of the principle players and their ethnic origins i.e. Angles, Saxons, Jutes and others e.g. Frisians, Franks.

Other written sources that confirm or challenge the writings of Gildas and Bede include the works of the Greek historian Zosimus (early 6th century); Constantius’ ‘The Life of St. Germanus’ which includes accounts of Germanus’ visits to Britain in 429 and the 440s; the Welsh monk Nennius (‘Historia Britonum’- early 9th century) and various charters and legal documents such as the ‘Tribal Hidage which provides information on the early political structure of England[5]. Further insight can be gained by projecting forward earlier accounts such as the 1st century reports of the Roman historian Tacitus who, in ‘The Germania’, describes the essence of the comitatus system and by examining social and architectural aspects of epic poems, e.g. Goddodin (6th century) and Beowulf (date disputed).

Until quite recently archaeologists looked for evidence to substantiate Gildas but his writings are now considered to be factually unreliable in some respects. Gildas maintained that the Anglo-Saxons had destroyed the Roman way of life and the finding of widely distributed Anglo-Saxon material at a number of Roman sites, mainly near the East coast seemed to endorse this, e.g. Anglo-Saxon graves were found within the walls of Roman Colchester- a practice disallowed by the Romans. However, more recent evidence shows that there was a decline in Roman built infrastructure from the late 4th century, i.e. before the Anglo Saxon incursions and this is also true of those sites in the West which remained under Romano-British control until the 7th century. There are finds that support the notion that some Roman towns underwent a change of purpose during the 5th and 6th centuries, e.g. Wroxeter and York[6] and Richard Hodges has demonstrated a continuing building tradition in the structures of Later Roman cottages and Early Anglo-Saxon timber dwellings[7]. Thus it is evident that the Anglo-Saxons were not necessarily guilty of the wanton destruction of Roman buildings as Gildas claimed and may well have adapted some for their own purposes.

In defence of Gildas, there is evidence of Romano-British resistance, survival, organisation and control as shown by the existence of Bokerly Dyke which lies between Anglo-Saxon Hampshire and West Briton Dorset. Further support of Gildas is shown in the archaeological investigation of Iron Age hill sites that were re-fortified by the Western Britons e.g. South Cadbury in Somerset.

Gildas also accurately describes a Christian society with continuing presence in West Britain despite pagan Anglo-Saxon settlement elsewhere. Uncovering of cemeteries is a significant source. Anglo-Saxon burial sites include the presence of grave goods but this was not a feature of Christian burials. Monuments bearing Latin inscriptions, Roman pottery and Celtic forms of dress and decoration found in the West are further endorsement of Gildas’ claim for a continuing Christian presence.

Place names can provide clues to the Anglo-Saxon settlement. A recent study of names of rivers shows a tendency for the survival of British names in the West while there is a prevalence of Anglo-Saxon versions in the areas that they occupied. However, James Campbell cautions against assuming too much in this respect[8].

Useful data can be obtained by studying the social environment of European areas from which the Anglo-Saxons originated. Denmark is particularly apposite as it did not fall under Roman rule and thus experienced continuity undisrupted by occupation and/or religious change.

Artefacts disclosed by archaeology are revealing too. These have generally been found in the form of grave goods. They show not only the areas settled by the Anglo-Saxons but provide indicators of individual wealth and status, artistic influences, trading patterns and religious beliefs. The Sutton Hoo ship burial site is of particular significance with its rich mix of artefacts which indicate Roman, British and Continental influences and contacts as well as individual wealth, status and religious predilections[9].

Far from seeking to eliminate all traces of Roman influence the Anglo-Saxons often sought to emulate them.  It is likely that Anglo-Saxons mercenaries served with Roman armies during their occupation of Western Europe and would have been aware of the components of their military and organisational success. A military(?) standard and weapons and accoutrements found at Sutton Hoo display Roman influence and the Franks casket depicts scenes from classical history as well as from biblical and Anglo-Saxon sources.

Other influences are apparent too. The Sutton Hoo excavations have revealed Swedish, Frankish, Byzantinium, Celtic and Mediterranean sourced items of jewellery, religious symbolism- both Christian and pagan and household utensils. The existence of a ship burial, rare in Britain but common in Scandinavia, is in itself indicative of the variety of cultures from which the Anglo-Saxons drew. Grave goods found at Finglesham[10] indicate both wealth and established trading links with Europe with funerary items from Francia and Jutland found amongst items of Kentish manufacture.

The existence of links with Francia are further endorsed by the marriage of Aethelbert of Kent to the Merovingian princess Bertha in about 560, with Aethelbert thereby accepting Frankish hegemony[11] and the benefits of involvement in existing trading connections between the Franks and other territories around the North Sea[12]. Bertha was accompanied by her own chaplain- Bishop Liudhard and this raises the possibility that Aethelbert was predisposed to Christian conversion before the arrival of the Augustinian mission which reached England in 597. However, Aethelbert did not convert until after the arrival of Augustine and Barbara Yorke has suggested that this may have been a deliberate gesture to assert independence from Frankish control[13]. Whatever the reason behind Aethelbert’s decision, there is evidence of a subtle and diplomatic mind at work.

One of the fascinations of the period under review (sometimes known as the Dark Ages) is the relatively small amount of material (particularly contemporary literature) available when compared with other periods. By employing and combining analytical techniques and philosophies from other disciplines it is now possible to re-examine the views of earlier historians and challenge or endorse them. Certainly this approach, allied with new finds shows that the early Anglo- Saxons were a pragmatic people, aware of other cultures and prepared to adapt and use what was useful to them. While the value of the legacy of Gildas and Bede is beyond doubt we now have a more detailed and better rounded view of the Anglo-Saxon settlement of England.


[1] Richard Hodges: The Anglo-Saxon Achievement, Duckworth 1989, p 1.
[2] Ibid, p 10.
[3] Ibid, p 8.
[4] Barbara Yorke: Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England, Seaby, 1990, p 2.
[5] Ibid, p 9
[6] James Campbell: The Anglo-Saxons, Penguin, 1991, pp 39-40.
[7] Hodges, p 35.
[8] Campbell, p 38.
[9] Campbell, p 32-3.
[10] Campbell, p 24-25.
[11] Hodges, p 40.
[12] Hodges, p 41.
[13] Yorke, p 29.

The Anglo-Saxon Settlement of England is Copyright 1998, David Capps. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Comments to: David Capps

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