Saxon Settlement of Britain Begins Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Saxon settlement of Britain began, bringing an end to Roman occupation and establishing the origins of English language and culture.

Summary of Event

Three separate tribes make up what is now referred to as the Anglo-Saxons. Beginning in about 250 c.e., three disparate but racially and culturally similar groups—the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes—invaded and settled in different parts of Britain. The Angles (whose name serves as the origin for the word “English”) settled in the north of Britain. A similar tribe known as the Saxons settled in the southern part of the island, and the Jutes, whom some scholars believe originated in Jutland (Denmark), settled in the middle. Although these were the major invading groups, there were also a small percentage of Frisians from the northern part of what is now the Netherlands, Swabians from the innermost parts of Germany, and very likely some smaller tribes that had originally inhabited Sweden. The causes for this geographical migration were overcrowding, poor farmland, and the constant battles with nature in their homelands in Northern Europe. At this point in history, the land held by these groups was literally shrinking as sections of the northern German coasts sank into the sea. Vortigern Hengist Aurelianus, Ambrosius Artorius

The first Anglo-Saxon raids began around 259 c.e. with small raiding parties that also invaded the opposite coasts of Gaul. These raiders surprised the native Britons and carried off plunder and captives. Although its hold was weakening, the Roman Empire, which dominated Britain at this time, was still strong enough to fight back. The real invasions, however, started about 449 and lasted for more than one hundred years. First called Saxons, the German invaders were later referred to as Angles. By 601, the pope referred to the leader of southern Britain, Aethelbert of Kent, as rex Anglorum (king of the Angles).

Arriving without warning in their long boats, the Saxons first landed on the southern and eastern coasts of Britain and then moved to the island’s interior. Some of the boats that the Saxons used to invade Britain have been preserved in peat bogs. The Nydam boat, named for its place of discovery, was 77 feet (23 meters) long and up to 11 feet (3.4 meters) wide. It used oars for propulsion and resembled a long rowboat. These invaders carried thrusting spears, bows, swords, and Roman-made armor. Their shields were round and made of wooden planks with a large metal spike in the center.

In the year 400 c.e., Britain was still a Roman province, with Roman-style towns, villas, roads, and armies. Unlike the Romans, who had earlier invaded Britain with strong and highly trained armies, the Saxons carried out their invasion of Britain more slowly with wave after wave of invaders. Also, unlike the Romans, who desired to overthrow the native Celtic Britons and absorb them into the vast Roman Empire, the Saxons wanted to stay, cultivate the earth, and prosper in a new land. When the Saxon warrior-adventurers first arrived, they were repelled by the Roman army. By the early fifth century, however, Roman Britain had reached the point of collapse. By 410, the British people found themselves without Roman protection on an isolated and vulnerable island at the edge of the empire. Emperor Honorius, who was under attack from the Goths, was unable to send Roman military forces. Slowly, the Saxons made their way up the British rivers, plundering and taking captives all the way, but always returning to their native country.

The first permanent Saxon settlement was not established until about 450, when the British warlord, Vortigern, presented a tract of land to a group of Saxons in return for protection from other native warlords. Although the Jutish leader, known as Hengist, provided protection for awhile, he soon turned against Vortigern and quickly conquered Kent for himself. Soon after, the next wave of Saxon invaders were made up of farmers and their families intent on seizing rich farmland, instead of warrior-adventurers and plunderers. By the second half of the fifth century, the Saxons had gained settlements along the rivers and coasts without much opposition from the native British people. They wanted peace and were intent on gaining land and farming it well. They were prepared to fight only if necessary. Although the native Britons traditionally farmed on the lighter soil found on hill slopes, the newcomers preferred the clay soil, similar to that found in their native land. In many parts of England, the two peoples were able to coexist peacefully for a time.

At the end of the fifth century, however, the Britons rallied around a leader, a survivor of the Roman ruling class named Ambrosius Aurelianus. Some scholars believe Aurelianus held the Anglo-Saxons at bay for forty years. His successor, Artorius (thought to be the model for the mythical King Arthur), is said to have replaced Aurelianus as leader of the Britons. Riding into battle in Roman-style chain-mail armor, Artorius defeated the Saxons at Mount Badon. To the Anglo-Saxons, who fought only on foot, the Britons, who sometimes fought in Roman-style cavalry units, must have seemed quite formidable. It is said that Artorius halted the Saxon invasion for fifty years. However, the British people, who were broken up into at least five separate kingdoms, could not unite under a single leader. By the middle of the sixth century, the temporary British revival had ended.

The fair-haired Anglo-Saxons eventually claimed victory and rapidly moved inland, erecting their timber huts many times among Roman ruins. They lived side by side and intermarried with the darker-haired Celtic-speaking British peasantry. Although the Celtic language was eventually replaced by the language of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, it continued to survive in various forms in Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. By the seventh century c.e., there were seven Saxon kingdoms in Britain: Kent, Essex, Sussex, Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia, and Northumberland.

Early Anglo-Saxon society was built on families and clans, or tribes, and centered on the warrior and a method of reciprocity that was to lead to the medieval feudal system known as the comitatus. The lord (earl) expected the service and loyalty of his thanes (similar to the later feudal knights), who expected the reciprocal protection from the lord. The West Germanic language of the invaders has been always referred to as English, whether spoken by Angles, Saxons, or Jutes, but it was not until about 890 that the name “Engla lande” (the land of the Angles) became popular.

The Saxon culture maintained a strong oral tradition rich in poetic form. Saint Bede the Venerable, who completed his famous Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (731 c.e.; The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, 1723) in Latin, is chiefly responsible for preserving in written form the legends of England reaching as far back as the Roman occupation. In addition, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (assembled 871-899 c.e.), written in Old English, has provided scholars with many incidents of Anglo-Saxon life and history. Although the famous epic Beowulf (c. 700-750 c.e.; first printing 1815) is set in Scandinavia, it is written in English and gives modern readers a glimpse of Anglo-Saxon life.

Significance

The decline and fall of the Roman Empire ensured the success of the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain. The geographical movement of the Anglo-Saxons from what later became Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands to the British Isles was only part of the general upheaval that affected Europe for generations. With the introduction of Christianity in 597 c.e., the Anglo-Saxons began using the Latin alphabet. By the end of the seventh century, the Saxons had been converted to Christianity by Saint Augustine of Canterbury and other missionaries from the European continent.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bazelmans, Jos. By Weapons Made Worthy: Lords, Retainers, and Their Relationship in “Beowulf.” Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1999. An examination of Beowulf and what it reveals about relationships between lords and retainers in the Anglo-Saxon world.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bredehoft, Thomas A. Textual Histories: Readings in the “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.” Buffalo, N.Y.: University of Toronto Press, 2001. An analysis of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that examines it as literature and as a historical document.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ellis, Peter Berresford. Celt and Saxon: The Struggle for Britain, a.d. 410-937. London: Constable, 1993. An examination of the relationship between the invading Saxons and the Celts in Britain. Bibliography, index, and map.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Higham, N. J. Rome, Britain, and the Anglo-Saxons. London: Seaby, 1992. An analysis of the end of the Roman period in Britain and how the Saxons came to settle there.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hines, John, ed. The Anglo-Saxons from the Migration Period to the Eighth Century: An Ethnographic Perspective. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press, 1997. A collection of papers presented at a conference of the Center for Interdisciplinary Research on Social Stress, in 1994. Focuses on the Anglo-Saxons from their migration to England to their settlement there.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Karkov, Catherine E., ed. The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England: Basic Readings. New York: Garland, 1999. A collection of essays on the archaeological findings regarding the Anglo-Saxon period.
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