The Invasion Hypothesis

The problem with the sources that talk about the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons as an invasion is that almost all of them, barring Gildas, were written hundreds of years after the events which they purport to record. But nevertheless, the story they told, of an Anglo-Saxon invasion that pushed the native Britons west until they were confined to Wales and the West Country, was generally accepted by scholars until recently.

The strongest proponents of the invasion theory were scholars who specialised in place names. The simple fact is that, in what we today call England, there are very, very few place names that derive from the language of the Britons. Where names are not English, they come from Norse, reflecting the later Viking settlement in Yorkshire. But if there was still a substantial population of Britons living in areas which Anglo-Saxon warriors had conquered, the expectation is that some of the place names would reflect that. Think of the new Anglo-Saxon lord, riding up to a group of his idling peasants to tell them to cut some logs from the wood to build his new hall. While he wouldn’t deign to learn their language, some form of communication would be necessary and to give orders the use of familiar place names would be the only way of conducting business otherwise the native inhabitants would not know where they were being sent. So by this view, the native Britons must really have been expelled from their lands by the invading Anglo-Saxons.

The Birth of Anglo-Saxon England

We have only the faintest of outlines of what occurred in the two centuries following the withdrawal of Roman forces from Britannia. Our one contemporary source, Gildas, a Romano/British priest who lived in the second half of the 5th and into the 6th century, wrote what is perhaps the most frustrating book ever penned. His De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain) is a jeremiad against the corrupt rulers of his time. Gildas calls down calumny on the Britonnic rulers that he holds responsible for the tribulations facing his people. But unfortunately, he does all this without mentioning a single date and many of the kings he labels by their attributes rather than their names, making working out who he’s talking about a matter of educated guesswork.

However, Gildas is clear that the tribulations faced by the Britons, a Christian people still bearing the dignity of Rome, came in the shape of barbarian invaders: the Saxons.

According to this story, the two centuries following the end of direct Roman rule were a time of strife. Seafaring Germanic raiders, against whom the Saxon Shore forts had been raised, continued to raid but their raids turned into full-scale invasions. The traditional story, which is compiled from Gildas and Bede, tells of how the Britons invited Germanic mercenaries to settle in the country. Gildas does not name the protagonists; it is Bede who names the Britonnic king as Vortigern and the mercenary leaders as the brothers, Hengist and Horsa.

Gildas’s laconic account has the Saxons attempting to gouge more money for their services and, when this is refused, deciding to take payment directly. In one of those details that Gildas slips in which makes historians, on the point of despairing at finding anything of value in his account, decide that there might be something in what he says after all, he records that the first party of Saxons arrived in three cyulis (‘keels’), the name they gave their war boats. Cyulis is probably the first recorded word of English. Bede records that Horsa died in battle against the Britons, a burial mound being raised over him in Kent that was still extant in his time.

Later accounts, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the History of the Britons, put the brothers’ landing at Ebbsfleet and their first base on the Isle of Thanet, from which they gradually wrested control of Kent.

Book review: The Happy Prince and Other Stories by Oscar Wilde

The Happy Prince and Other Stories by Oscar Wilde

There was once a man who became famous throughout the realm for his wit. He played with words, leavening them into the lightest of souffles such that they tripped off the tongue of the players, or wrought them dark and hard as people read of the corruption of innocence. He became a byword for world weary cynicism and any man might quail upon whom the writer turned his tongue.

Yet in his other works, this apostle of abandon and philosopher of despair told tales of the purest innocence, with not a hint of irony nor a soupcon of cynicism; tales of the purest, self-sacrificial goodness, tales to make the hardest man cry and the bitterest woman weep.

Which was the real man? Read them and weep, weep tears of a joy so sharp it hurts.

The End of Roman Britain

Although an integral part of the Empire, Britannia required a large Roman garrison throughout its centuries under Roman control, firstly to deter attacks from the tribes north of Hadrian’s Wall. As Imperial might waned, barbarian raiders became bolder. The south and east coast were lined with forts to protect against sea-borne raiders, its commander bearing the title of Count of the Saxon Shore for Britain (comes littoris Saxonici per Britanniam), one of three military governors of Britannia, the other two ruling the central and northern regions of the diocese.

Having under command powerful legions stationed far from Rome, the men tasked with guarding Rome’s border had a powerful temptation to get involved in the power struggles that wracked the Empire at the end of the fourth century. Magnus Maximus stripped Britannia of its troops when he made a bid for the purple in 383. His rebellion began in north Wales and for a time he ruled half the Empire: Britannia, Gaul, Spain and Africa. According to later Welsh traditions, Magnus handed power over to local rulers when he left the country and early Welsh genealogies list Magnus as the founder of later Welsh kingdoms, including Gwent and Powys.

After the last attempted usurper, Constantine III, left Britannia in 407, effective Roman rule in the diocese came to an end. But it was not an abrupt end. While political power had drained away from the Empire, many of the inhabitants of Britannia still thought of themselves as Roman and they continued to live, as far as was possible, as Romans should. While urban life declined, the Romano/British elite built themselves rural villas within which a version of Roman life continued in many places well into the 5th century. Although some cities were abandoned, Carlisle, Wroxeter, Winchester and Gloucester continued as functioning towns throughout the 5th century and even into the 6th century. However, Roman coinage pretty well ceased coming into the country after the first decade of the 5th century. Without fresh coinage arriving, it probably took twenty or thirty years for the money-based economy to collapse. At roughly the same time, the pottery industry in Britannia, which had produced pottery utensils in industrial quantities, also declined precitipitously.

Economically, the country collapsed. But in any such collapse, some people are affected more than others: wealth can insulate from many of the tribulations of the world.

But alongside the economic collapse, there was political disintegration.

Sails or Oars?

Did the Anglo-Saxons cross to Britain in ships with sails or did they row across the Channel?

It might seem obvious that they had masted ships – can you imagine rowing across the North Sea? – but the problem remains that the ships we have excavated dating from before the Viking Age are all mast less. The ship buried at Sutton Hoo had rotted away but its ghost marks left in the soil told of a ship 89 feet (27 metres) long, tapering to high posts at prow and stern. It would have been a magnificent vessel, built clinker fashion (which means the hull planks overlap each other) but with a shallow keel that did not descend significantly lower than the hull. There was no sign of a mast step in the impression left by the keel in the sandy soil. There were, however, distinctive oar rests, indicating that the boat was rowed up the River Deben.

Other boats dating from before the Viking Age, such as the boat excavated from the Nydam bog in Denmark and dated by dendrochronology to between AD 310 and AD 320, are also clinker built and oared.

On the other hand, the Romans had sails on their boats and it seems strange that the Germanic peoples, who were in contact with the Romans through trade and war, would have ignored the fairly obvious benefits of sails for their own vessels. So the argument runs on how strongly we weigh absence of evidence as evidence of absence.

The First Pilgrims Take Ship

None of the sources say where Biscop and Wilfrid sailed from when they set off on their pilgrimage to Rome. But they were already in Kent and they were both young men with a sense of history. What they were embarking upon was something historic in itself: the first pilgrimage by Anglo-Saxon Christians to Rome.

To acknowledge that history, and because it was a good place to find a ship sailing to France, a likely site for their embarkation was Richborough, the old Roman port and fortress of Rutupiae. It stands at the origin of Watling Street – in itself a plausible route to the coast – and at the mouth of the Wantsum Channel where the River Stour drained into the Channel. There was a good harbour near the fort and although the fort had been abandoned following the Roman withdrawal, there’s no reason to suppose that the harbour was no longer in use since it follows maritime logic to anchor there while waiting for the tide to help push the boat out into the Channel.

Advice for the Road

Northumbria was a long way from Rome. For young Biscop, set on travelling as a pilgrim to Rome, the obvious place to find advice on how to make the journey was Canterbury. The archbishop of Canterbury at the time was Honorius, the last survivor of the original Augustinian mission to the Anglo-Saxons that had arrived in 597. Traditionally, Honorius succeeded to the archbishopric in 627 (although it’s possible the date was later, around 634). By the time Biscop arrived in Canterbury, Honorius had ruled over the church for 26 years. He most probably met the young Northumbrian in the spring or summer, for Honorius died on 30 September of that year. Alongside Honorius’s own knowledge of the best routes for a pilgrim to Rome, there was continued contact between Canterbury and Rome, allowing the clerics there to advise Biscop as to his best course.

Biscop sought secular as well as religious advice, seeking out Eorcenberht, the king of Kent. The Kentish royal family had long-established links to the Merovingian kings in France, so gaining Eorcenberht’s help for his pilgrimage would ensure Biscop a welcome when he crossed the Channel.

But at Eorcenberht’s court, Biscop met another young man who was also set on going to Rome. He was named Wilfrid and he would become a turbulent priest five hundred years before Thomas Becket earned that soubriquet from Henry II. Wilfrid was about five years younger than Biscop, so 20 to Biscop’s 25, and from a similar social background.

With letters of introduction safely tucked away in belt pouches, the two young men set off to one of the Kentish ports to find a ship to take them to France.

The First Pilgrim

Let us programme our time machine to appear in Kent in the year 653. We want to meet a young man named Biscop before he sets off on his travels. Given that Biscop was a Northumbrian, Kent might seem a strange location but we know that Biscop was there in 653.

Biscop was about 25 years old. He came from a family of Northumbrian nobility, the Baducinga according to Stephen of Ripon. Nobility at the time was mainly a measure of ability with weapons and utility to the king. In one sense, these men were not dissimilar from the enforcers of a Mafia capo. But while they shared with gangsters a propensity for ultra-violence, the warriors of early-medieval Britain were different in an important respect: they were poet warriors. The culture of the mead hall demanded of them a facility and appreciation of words that you won’t find among mafiosi or narcos (transcripts of their conversations reveal a level of verbal banality that would make reality-TV viewers blanch).

This is a characteristic often shared among martial cultures. Woven through the violence is a thread of exquisite, often delicate, beauty. It’s there in the lament of the exiled Wanderer, one of the few Anglo-Saxon poems to have survived. It’s there in the jewelled intricacy of the sword hilts uncovered in Staffordshire and the glitter of garnets in the buckle discovered at Sutton Hoo.

It’s likely that that love of words was even more pronounced in the young Biscop than it was among his fellow gesith, the men who made up King Oswiu’s warband. For the young Biscop, having been one of the king’s men, decided to give up the life of arms, the company of his kin and his warrior brethren, and go on pilgrimage to Rome.

Empty Cities

As for towns and cities, there were none in the 7th-century Britain. The old Roman towns remained but they had for the most part been abandoned, although some form of civic life had lingered on in places up to the 7th century. Carlisle was one of the last outposts of Roman life: its aqueduct still worked and its council met into that century. Londinium, the capital of Roman Britain, had been abandoned. Its basilica, the largest north of the Alps, had been the centre of civic life for 230 years until, around AD 300, it was systematically demolished. There are no records saying why such a magnificent building was destroyed so we’re left to speculate that it might have been some form of punishment for the support the city gave to an imperial pretender of the time, Carausius. The city was gradually abandoned during the new two centuries until, by the 7th century, it was a place of ruin and legends of giants to the Anglo-Saxons.

However, life and commerce was returning to the area, although not to the Roman city. The new Anglo-Saxon trading settlement stretched upriver from the old city walls. Merchants drew their ships up on the beach, or the Strand as it was called, to sell their wares. But even at the height of a market, there would only have been a couple of thousand people living in the new London. Elsewhere, population centres ran to a few hundred. England was all but empty.

7th-century Farming

Philip Halling / Medieval Ridge and Furrow above Wood Stanway

Even where the land is cultivated in 7th-century Britain, it does not look like the hedgerow fenced countryside that we think of as quintessentially English. The fields are strip farmed, ploughed in ridge and furrow, without demarcation between the different fields beyond the knowledge of the men who work the land.

Ridge and furrow was a method of agriculture taken over from the period of Roman Britain but adapted by the people who came afterwards. Fields were dug into long ridges with furrows each side of the ridge, so that they looked like straight waves running towards the horizon. The ridges and furrows each foster a different microclimate, with the ridges draining faster and being more exposed, the furrows pooling rain water and being more protected. Thus a crop could be planted along the ridges and in the furrows with insurance against drought or flood: if either condition prevailed, at last half the crop should still survive, while in good years it could all be harvested.

In some quieter parts of the country, where fields have been turned to pasture for generations and not mechanically ploughed, it is still possible to see these earth waves, slowly subsiding back to the level but revealed when the sun is low or a thin dusting of snow collects in the furrows.