The departure of Rome from Britain and the Romano British society that follows is the story of many generations. After a brief overview the episode turns to consider some alternate theories of one aspect of the period – the adventus saxonum.
In this episode, we are going to concentrate on the period we might describe as late Antique Britain – I mean equally we might just push the boat out and call it the Dark Ages, but I think that is now illegal. I’d like to briefly set the scene about the end of Roman Britain, the closing of the door and the click of the light going off – or maybe a new light dawning, who knows; and then we can have a full and frank exchange of views about the basic theories of how a large part of the North Atlantic Archipelago come to speak English and enjoy warm beer, open toed sandals and reality game shows. What used to be called the Adventus Saxonum. Part of my motivation is that I get to quote one of the finest pieces of polemic known to English history, by the Mad Monk. I speak not of Larry Hagman, but of the British monk Gildas.
Before we get to that, and the foundation myth of the English if you can call it that, the theory that I learned at school in my shorts. We should have quick reprise and summary of the environment in post Roman Britain in which it took part.
The story of Late Antique Britain has been very much revised, and I should briefly cover it – very briefly. The picture is one of a classical colonial economy of the 1st and second century, driven by a vast army and massive imports of good to feed the Roman war machine and of two worlds – military Roman and civilian local. There would have been significant differences between highland and lowland; in the latter, a greater degree of integration may have taken place, and certainly a network of roads developed; this network of roads will be the absolute backbone of getting around England, way beyond the survival of the roman surface, it’s crazy. There was a recent survey which recorded that blokes think about the Roman Empire about 3 times a week – on average, women think about the think a lot less but I don’t think it was a rigorously scientific thing, it appeared not in the New Scientist, but on t’internet. Anyway, I can vouch for that, since whenever I hit a straight bit on a country road, I wonder if it’s Roman. It’s just like clockwork, can’t stop it. The use of Latin may have spread through lowland zones, and may have started to replace British Celtic, or at least amongst an increasingly educated elite. There are successful towns but especially London, which even after some decline in the 3rd and 4th centres remains impressive, and will fascinate and scare the Anglo Saxons, will take quite a while to get used to the idea of urban living and crushed avocado on rye sour dough.
The economy saw continuous and increasing change in the 3rd and 4th centuries, that once had been also seen as catastrophic, with the reduction in the size of the army and the largely alien populations of the towns the colonia and it does seem that without this massive inflow of goods and bullion, the British economy was smaller. But the change is now rather viewed as having compensations and being more of a development, leading to a better integrated economy, a genuinely Romano British culture and a recovery of local production, albeit on lower production values. The Roman Villa of the countryside was an increasingly common component, although the vernacular roundhouse remained the most common building. Much government is based on local towns, administrative areas or civitas. Much more manufacturing production was now locally produced rather than imported, although local industry remained very focussed on local markets. Life was hard, but the yoke of Rome rested less heavily on British shoulders. By the end of the 4th century, Britain was probably quite heavily Christianised; an imperial decree banned urban temples in 341, paganism was effectively outlawed in the 390s, and yet temple complexes survived. The presence of Christianity would have been a very mixed picture.
Into this world, though, came a period of barbarian invasion – barbarian in the Roman sense of the word; well adjusted ambitious business development teams with an eye to a business opportunity and differing cultures, in more acceptable parlance. The big ticket item was the Barbarian conspiracy of 367; obviously the conspiracy meant what it normally does – a conspiracy to pretend there was a conspiracy, but nonetheless a whole load of barbarians attacked at the same time – Picts, Scots, Saxons. The imperial response at the start is effective, with the building and maintenance of the Saxon Shore forts; but the military presence in Britan became less and less, as trouble at the centre intensifies and the Empire is plagued on its borders, bullion leaves the empire and inflation rockets. Public money was scarcer, what there was found its way into military coffers, trade was disrupted and urban centres are progressively deserted, to the extent that in many of the smaller regional centres, it’s basically squatting.
In 410 the last soldier leaves. Or at least that’s what the story used to be, but the point about all of this is that the Roman departure from Britain is not a single year event, but something that covers 2 or 3 generations. And the 5th century is very, very interesting, because this of course is when the invasion story is supposed to start. And there are more dramatic images and a few iconic quotes of which this is the most famous to 429 to Aetius, a Roman General in Gaul asking for help
The Barbarians push us back to the sea, the sea pushes us back to the barbarians; between these two kind of deaths we are either drowned or slaughtered’
The thing about that someone points out is that yes it sounds desperate; but look, the author is bidding for more troops so it’s unlikely they’d have gone for well things and a bit awkward, so if you’ve got a few spares idling about send them over, but no worries if there’s a problem…no, a bit of hyperbole was only to be expected. And reading against the text, the note suggests that in 430 there was still some central guiding authority. The story seems to be that people try to carry on, but that the coinage stops, investment stops, towns are deserted, society flattens as the economy capable of supporting rural villas collapses. Yes sure, it’s variable; in many localities people keep some public authority going, people remain loyal to the idea of Rome for a generation or two. But the economic, military and political basis of the Roman British society has gone, and the society is close behind it.
The one that really hit me most, was the news that the settlement flees back to the old Iron age hilltop forts. Isn’t that quite an image? Let’s say you were a prosperous Villa owner and farmer in the 350s. over time you find it impossible to get manufactured goods, markets for your products are disappearing; you used to have large numbers of estate workers because the low lying land had drainage channels – you can’t find those workers anymore, or pay the, so the channels clog up, and you stop working half your land – and examples have been found of that specifically. Eventually you are no more than a squatter, no longer part of an elite because an no longer exists. One day when some settlers park themselves on your land you pack up whatever you can carry, and head up into the old hill fort where others have gathered for mutual protection, a hill fort that used to be nothing more than a remind of old, barbarian days. Possibly I am getting all Victorian on you – but do you know what I mean? Poignant.
People hang on an keep things going for a while, becoming less and less Roman through the generations. There’s a quote from the 6th century historian Procopius about Gaul which probably reflects what was going on in Briain too, and it is rather heart rending:
Roman soldiers stationed on the frontiers of Gaul to serve as guards…handed down to their offspring all the customs of their fathers…even today they are clearly recognised as belonging to the legions to which they were assigned in ancient times, and they carry their own standards when they enter battle…and they preserve the dress of the Romans in every particular, even down to their shoes.
OK, so that is the world we are dealing with; it is a country under enormous pressure, the collapse of the economy, life changing drastically, wealth disappearing overnight, enormous dislocation. At best, by the mid 5th century a series of local strongmen and petty tyrants running poorly resourced minor kingdoms.
Which brings us to those stories of what happens with the arrival of the Saxons. And to be fair, it s lot more cinematic than the current academic favourites. When I was a nipper, the theory I heard was one which still owed a lot to Geoffrey of Monmouth, let along Bede. I mean it did and it didn’t; by 1970, everyone knew full well that The History of the Kings of Britain was a work of fiction, but it still fills our world with stories of British tyrants, mysticism, Saxon invaders, King Arthur, Hengest and Horsa. More importantly, it is not irrelevant that this is the story that many centuries of English believed about their origin. And before that, in Anglo Saxon England, it is significant to the values of their society that they liked to view their past as one of heroic leaders, followed by faithful warriors, seizing territories. They would see their society as a result of invasion and conquest. Whatever the real story. We’ll come back to that
I am told though that it was Edward Gibbon – the of the Decline and Fall of Reginald Perrin fame – that began to put the origin story into some kind of defensible structure. The story goes that with the withdrawal of Roman troops and civil administration, Post Roman Britain was heavily traumatised and dislocated, and beset by dangers on all sides – Picts, Scots, and Saxons.
So, Saxon auxiliary units were raised for the defence of Britain in 449, and we have the arrival of Hengest and Horsa in Kent. However, word got back home that this was a country ripe for the plucking, and fleets of Anglo Saxons followed looking for conquest. For a while they were contained in Kent, until eventually the Saxons broke through and over the next century spread like a flood throughout England. These Germanic tribes were mainly Angles, Saxons and Jutes, as identified by Bede, from northern Germany. At which point I should remind you that we don’t really know whence the Jutes, because Jutland, the obvious candidate, is a name derived from a Swedish word Jotar. Jus sayin’.
This story is one of genocide, and this gives me the opportunity to read one of the most magnificent pieces of writing in our history by the British Monk Gildas, called, on the Ruin of Britain, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae. These might be described as sermons; the earliest time to which they have been dated is to the 470s or 80s, normally they are dated to somewhere between 500 and 545. This is a piece that needs to be read not as a piece of history, but as how it was intended, as a terrible, apocalyptic peon of rage and fury that the sins of the Britons had called down on their heads the fury of the Gods in the form of invaders. Here we go then, pin back your ears.
For as the just judge ordained, these heathen conquerors devastated the surrounding cities and countryside, extended the conflagration from the eastern to the western shores without opposition and established a stranglehold over nearly all the doomed island. Public and private buildings were razed; priests were slain at the altar; bishops and people alike, regardless of rank, were destroyed with fire and sword, and none remained to bury those who had suffered a cruel death. A few wretched survivors captured in the hills were butchered wholesale and others, desperate with hunger came out and surrendered to the enemy for food, although they were doomed to lifelong slavery, even if they escaped instant massacre. Some fled overseas in their misery, others, clinging to their homeland, eked out a wretched and fearful existence among the mountains, forests and crags, ever on the alter for danger.
I hope you all found that suitably cathartic, and I hope it helped Gildas feel a little less bilious. The Germanic culture of the new arrivals was pagan by religion, and the society participatory, a theme we should pick up on with the tradition of folk moots and participation in the delivery of justice. But just like the Celtic culture of the Iron Age, it was also a culture of kinship, of the warrior and of lordship. It was one where the way of warrior was exalted in an exultant way. Devotion and loyalty to the lord was all, and the responsibility in return of the lord to reward. Here let us use a quote from Beowulf to paint the picture
“Scyld Sceafing often deprived his enemies, many tribes of men, of their mead-benches. He terrified his foes; yet he, as a boy, had been found as a waif; fate made amends for that. He prospered under heaven, won praise and honour, until the men of every neighbouring tribe, across the whale’s way, were obliged to obey him and pay him tribute.”
The story is set against the background of a Romano British which has been devastated by the end of the Roman Administration, a story of catastrophic collapse. Towns were utterly deserted as folks fled to the countryside and hill forts, the economy collapsed and the use of coins almost completely disappeared. The devastation was so great that a population of maybe 4 million fell to something like 1 ½ and the trees had recolonised the land, which was therefore seriously under exploited. The invaders would transform this land by clearing the forests and implementing their new agricultural methods. Militarily, the Romano British society was one where military and civil life had been separated, so this is also a story of the military superiority, hence the failure of the Romano British to keep the Saxons in Kent. The Germanic tribes therefore spread out over the land like a flood, drowning the British as it flowed into every nock and cranny.
The story then is one of a complete replacement of the existing Romano British culture by the new, militarily superior Anglo Saxon one. This theory is now heavily criticised, and in the tone of revisionism, sometimes in none too friendly language, with an undertone of good lord what a bunch of idiots how could they be so stupid?
In fact there were many things to commend the theory. There were the few texts we had, and most especially the Venemous Bede, writing in the 8th century, who’s very competent and clear work build on Gildas’s theme and imposed a reasonably coherent chronology. Then there was the matter of placenames and of language, where the British placenames were almost entirely removed; ooh, and the arrival of paganism, and the apparent disappearance of a religion and religious structure that had been thriving when Germanus visited in 429. Archaeology also seemed to partly confirm this, or was used to confirm this, with new styles of broaches and ornamentation found in graves which seemed to share styles with the culture of North western Europe, and so was styled Anglo Saxon. There was the undoubted desertion of the towns, and manufactured pottery seemed to disappear also, to be replaced by homemade pottery. And if you have had small children and they have brought any pottery home from school well, you have an idea of just what that does for quality of artwork in the home, imagine that on a national scale.
Also the idea that Germanic auxiliaries were brought into lowland England to help fight off invaders is very believable, and entirely consistent with the experience and response around the empire. Although a military tradition would have survived in the highlands, lowland society had become thoroughly civilian. All around the empire the response is the same -let’s hire some expert consultants in here to do a business critical job.
However, a whole load of mud has been thrown at the wall of this traditional story, and much of it has stuck. Let us start with the end of Roman Britain, so we can build on that.
The unreliability of Gildas’s text has received a lot of attention, or at least subject to re-interpretation; it’s noted that Gildas never wrote with any intention of creating a text of history, and contains no clear chronology. Furthermore, underlying the chaos are some assumptions – it refers throughout to a fully operating Roman system of justice, with judges, courts and jails. He often refers to the actions of the Saxons in ways which are simply standard procedure of Roman auxillary cohorts, and therefore could be describing unruly behaviour by Roman auxiliary troops under a Romano British general in Easter England. Gildas describes the main authors of the chaos not as the Saxons who are rather bit part players, but on Picts and Scots. He describes military command structures based on Roman lines. So, a re-reading of Gildas suggests we could be looking that it could indicate civil war among a number of Romano British kingdoms, rather than mass invasions
Even the Venerable Bede comes in for a bit of stick. One historian called Sims Williams concluded that Bedes’ chronology was simply an attempt to impose order on Gildas rather than being based on any separate or more authoritative knowledge; therefore has no intrinsic value at all. Imagine saying that to Bede, your chronology has no intrinsic value, he’d had hit you hard with a long anecdote about Sparrows and the meaning of corporeal life. His biases are pointed to also – he was writing with the objective to discredit Romano British Celtic Christianity in favour of the orthodoxy of the Roman rites, as adopted at the Synod of Whitby in 664. So, treat with caution the versions of all these conversions – was he simply branding Celtic Christian practice as pagan?
Rackham took the ‘return to wilderness and forest’ thing and dispatched it firmly and efficiently to the boundary, sending it rattling firmly into the boards behind the boundary to a ripple of polite applause and the chink of tea cups. The lime and hazel wildwoods of lowland England and the Oak and Hazel wildwoods of highland England had been tamed over 2000 years or so after the arrival of people, who first arrived in the British Isles around 4,000 BC. Over that period, the great forests were cleared and converted into farmlands. By the time Roman Britain came to an end, England was a patchwork of villas and farmland. That doesn’t mean there was no woodland, but there may have been no more than was in existence at the end of the first world war; better than today, after the massive grubbing up of ancient woodlands after the second world war, but lowland England would have been a patchwork of farm and managed woodland, others largely empty of woods. There is very little sign of this changing outside of a few specific areas such as the Weald of Sussex; and this is despite the fact that according to Rackham, woods can thoroughly reclaim agricultural land in a relatively short period of time, less than 30 years. The Anglo Saxons would make changes and some of them we’ll talk about here, but essentially, they inherited a landscape which was well settled, organised and productive.
There are incidentally sone survivals of really ancient trees; apparently according to Rackham, England despite the horrors of the 1950s, still has Europe’s greatest collection of ancient oaks. But they are not really old enough to go as far back to the Roman world, even if pollarded and managed. Yew trees are of course the thing, they go way back, I think there is a national register of them. To start off my local history focus, there is a lovely chapel at Rycote, near Thame in South Oxfordshire – Elizabeth I went to church there while she was held in captivity by her sister. The Yew tree was planted there in 1135, though the bloke from ancient-yew.org – because there is of course, an organisation called ancient Yew.org – he claimed it was way earlier, 9th century he thought. It is a remarkable thought when you lay your hands on the bole of such a beast.
Anyway, back to the story…and the story of economic collapse also seems to have been rather sexed up. The death of urban life indicates a substantial change and dislocation, but since the vast majority of economic activity and life went on in the countryside, maybe that’s not as bad as it might have been thought. Many more coins used in the period have now been discovered, so that it’s clear silver and low value bronze coins continued to circulate, though in short supply. It’s also been shown that wheel thrown pottery from specialist centres also seems to have continued to a degree. So not exactly a clean bill of health, but a modification from collapse to dislocation and change. Population estimates have been increased also to around 3 million – so maybe a fall, but again, the word catastrophic is thereby removed from the lexicon of the period.
Those broaches and ornaments have been thoroughly examined under the microscopes as well, and rather than a distinctive and completely new style, an opposing view is that they could simply reflect a re-alignment of culture away from Mediterranean towards the North Sea; and so surviving Romano British styles combine with north German and Scandinavian.
Archaeologists have pointed out the lack of physical evidence of violence, or charred British settlements for example. They have pointed to the DNA evidence, which points to the survival of the existing population; and it’s been pointed out that chronology is very difficult to apply to DNA evidence. So the DNA evidence does show an increase in North West European DNA – but confirming this happened between 400 and 700 is deeply problematic. And the most important point is that vast majority of DNA derives from the ancient settlers of Britain, not the new arrivals.
All of this emphasises much more continuity rather than change. A good example of this are that the outline of British civil administrative regions, the civitas, often remain unchanged – so it seems that the new settlers became part of the old regions. This is an idea that has form, as it were; because it seems that many of these regions are not only pre Anglo Saxon, but pre Roman Iron Age – the Romans were a pragmatic bunch, and they also realised it was a darn sight easier to take over a going concern than indulge in all the hurly burly of making up your own boundaries. Many of these boundaries survive because they reflect the local landscape – a river, hill valley and so on. That in itself is also suggestive of local survival of the Romano British rather than a holocaust.
Where does this leave us then? No doubt the 5th and 6th centuries were indeed marked by much violence, and they were certainly accompanied by a change in the cultural identity, but the story is no longer one of wholesale slaughter, and that seems reasonably agreed now – the idea of a mass genocide lies in the dustbin of history, although you know, it’s a fluid area and everyone makes the call for more research. But the lack of much archaeological evidence of sustained and widespread violence sort of sinks it, and then there’s the fundamental question – how many Anglo Saxons invaders would it take to complete genocide of a state of 3 million people? Could it really have been done at that time?
So, replacement theories have come along, 3 of them as far as I can see. One of them is that what we are seeing is a process of acculturalisation rather than widespread conquest. The story has parallels with the 9th century disappearance of the Picts in Scotland; whereas it was once thought that the Gaels of the west invaded and wiped out the Picts, it’s now thought that under the pressure of the Norse invasions and leadership of Gaelic kings, a new identity was formed, which Picts adopted, willingly or unwillingly.
The story in England then is of groups of settlers coming to settle during the 5th and 6th centuries, in increasing numbers. It might be pointed out here that Bede’s categorisation of 3 groups of invaders has been expanded, with good evidence of Franks settling too. There’s also evidence of Frisians settling, folks from what is now the northern low countries. This is the time for me to roll out the story my Yorkshire Grandfather would quote constantly about a proper Dalesman being able to understand Dutch. That is a Crowther family anecdote for you, right there.
All these incomers might establish entirely separate settlements within a region. There is marriage and interchange between the groups of Germanic and British people, largely peaceful. As time goes by, not only do the two become indistinguishable, but they even begin to invent their own foundation myths – Ethnogenesis to use a handily long and impressive sounding word, consciously creating a new tradition and history, all about the invasions and creation of Anglo Saxon kingdoms.
Theory two, then is a variation of acculturalisation; this is the elite replacement theory, a situation very similar to the Norman Conquest. So, over time then, due to numbers maybe or some local violence and thuggery with small bands of Anglo Saxons following their warlord, settlements get taken over, and the locals try to fit in with the new realities and styles. The cultural fusion again takes place though rather more at the point of a sword, and over time, Britons cease to look like Britons, because they have adopted Anglo Saxon customs and dress and burial habits. Estimates of the actual numbers of invaders are rather difficult but a mid range seems to be around 250,000 in a population of maybe 3m; but it’s hard because in the light of the idea of acculturalisation, it’s not always possible to know the difference between Briton and Saxon.
Final theory, then, Susan Oosthuizen goes even further in asking whether there were significant numbers of incomers at all – she’s produced a really interesting book, nice and short as well as invigorating, which is on the bibliography. She articulates issues with all the above theories, essentially. She points out the weaknesses of the elite replacement theory – that actually we can’t confidently find a definitive difference been late Romano British and Germanic culture, only an evolution, so how do we know who is replacing whom or is any replacement happening at all? It’s notable that kings from the 5th to 8th centuries continue to emphasise their position as heirs of Rome, which suggests they reach back to a Romano British past rather than a Germanic one. And you might remember that some of the earliest individuals, such as Cerdic and Cynric in the story of Wessex famously had British names. She points to the survival of ancient land structures and units of government, as I have mentioned, so yet more continuity rather than dislocation, and she also points to the very late survival of the Church.
There is a rather fascinating Artefact from the 8th century called the Repton Stone, which supposed to be Æthelbald, king of Mercia from 716 to 757. You can see it on the episode page. Oosthuizen points out that the horse, saddle, and horseman’s stance, his full-face portrait, skirt and hairstyle are all based on a roman Imperial tradition. The moustache comes from British and Germanic traditions, his hose shirt and seax are Germanic. The Repton stone suggests another possible solution, a more fluid one. Oosthuizen proposes a gradual evolution which is rooted in the Roman British community where long term, medium term and short term changes shape Romano British into English over the 5th to 8th centuries. Long term trends might be the evolution of cultural styles on broaches influenced by both traditional home styles and foreign imports from North West Europe. They might be the adoption of new languages – she points out that the use of multiple languages – Latin and Brithonic survive quite late into Romano British society, driven by immigration and trade; her point is that the population is used to being multi lingual, and the needs of trade might have encouraged the adoption of English. Other long term factors include the continuity of landholding patterns and the agricultural economy. Medium term influencers might be climate change which encouraged prosperity, or a shift to North Sea trading patterns. And then into all of these come short term shocks, things like the withdrawal of Roman administration; the attacks by Picts, Saxons and Scots; the plague of Justinian in the 6th century.
It’s a flamboyant theory which synthesises many of the components of both continuity of land settlement, with a more manageable and credible level of immigration. But it has its own problems; why the widespread revival of paganism and the need for Augustine and the reconversion? The idea that invaders looked back to Roman past is hardly unusual – the Imperium held a deep fascination, and will continue to, and since we are looking at a change with occurs over several generations, rather than one dramatic hooley, the inhabitants of England in the 7th or 8th centuries were probably descended from multiple traditions anyway. Critically, there seems insufficient reason in the theory for such a dramatic change to Old English from Latin and Britthonic; an example given of how the previous inhabitants might have acquired English is in the modern Netherlands, where 70% speak good English; but a modern education system is hardly a good comparison. In addition, artefacts like the Repton Stone may simply reflect that the Anglo Saxons recognised that they had a mixed heritage – of Romano British and Germanic traditions.
The dominant theory seems very much one of a steady migration. The fundamental change of language and religion is inexplicable without a reasonably large scale influx of people, who in some way acquire a level of supremacy, therefore enforcing a cultural change, or making it important to fit in. And in such a process it would also be remarkable for there to have been no violence involved at all. Much of that violence though was in all probably not necessarily of the type that left much record.
I’m quite prepared to accept that it might have been specific, and local, rather than a general burning of the country for which there is no archaeological evidence. So the idea for me is one of limited invasions, with the incomers acquiring local supremacies which drove the adoption of English and Paganism, and a new combined culture melding both British and Germanic traditions and ethnicities seems to be the best fit solution.
May I also add a snippet to this, as Ellen of this parish alerted me, from Marc Morris’ book on The Anglo Saxons, there are a few other points that should stiffen the sinews of this argument. Because it could be argued that despite survivals of people and some ancient administrative structures, the complete take over of English suggests that the indigenous culture was not strong enough to absorb and assimilate these invaders. Morris makes the point that French words for the days of the week derive from Roman tradition; England Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday are taken from Germanic Gods. In addition the 6th century, still in the migration period, there are a series of catastophes that will have made a take over easier. In 536, 540 and 547 there is a vast volcanic eruption in Iceland which causes havoc with the weather; the decade was the coldest for 2,000 years. Crops failed, famine struck; many sites with high status artifacts were suddenly abandoned.
On the heels of this catastrophe, just like in the 1350s, came the Black Death – or the Plague of Justinian. Although there’s no certain evidence it reached Britain, it did reach Ireland where the trouble kept coming until the 570s;it would be extraordinary had it not swept across England too.
The point of all this is that while we may have over emphasised the extent and speed of the collapse of Roman Britian, the 5th and 6th centuries had a lot going for them if you were looking to effect a takeover.
But I am merely a podcaster, not a professor at one of the world’s leading universities so you know, take that for what it’s worth. But it is the assumption on which the rest of this mini-series is based.
Next time, I would like to get specific if you don’t mind, and we start talking about these new settlements, and I’ll use South Oxfordshire as a bit of an example. We’ll talk about how new identities and regions begin to emerge…