New God for Old 2: what happened when the Romans left

Grendel, the monster Beowulf has to destroy.

In the first part of New God for Old, we looked at the traditional story of how Christianity returned to England following its extirpation after the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons. At least, that’s how Bede tells it in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

We now know it wasn’t quite like that. But Bede was writing more than a century after these events took place. Without him, we would know almost nothing about what happened in Britain in the years after AD 410 and the withdrawal of the Roman legions. In the fifth and sixth centuries, the east and central regions of Britain had been settled by pagan peoples of Germanic origin, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes (with other tribes such as the Frisians also likely arriving). The culture and people they displaced were Romano/Celtic and Christian.

According to Bede, these Christian Britons were displaced by the incoming Anglo-Saxons. Also according to Bede, during the centuries of conflict between the ethnic groups, the Britons made no effort to share their Christianity with the Anglo-Saxons. It’s now clear that both of these are exaggerations.

While in some areas, particularly in the east, the native Britons were clearly displaced, in other areas there is evidence for settlements of Britons and Anglo-Saxons existing in close proximity, although with considerable barriers existing between the two communities and little mixing: think of Northern Ireland during the Troubles. In these cases, though, warbands of Anglo-Saxons often displaced the Britonnic rulers, thereby imposing their language and culture on the villages and hamlets under their rule.

Similarly, while there is some evidence that Britons under pagan Anglo-Saxon rule in some places retained their faith, there was little incentive for the new rulers to adopt the religion of the people whom they had defeated. This was an age when warriors were above all pragmatic in their religious choices: they worshipped the gods that could provide them with victory on the battlefield.


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