The Beaker people, the Celts, the Romans, the Saxons, the Danes, the French: The British Isles have seen wave after wave of newcomers over the centuries.
Yet what we think of as “English” traces its origins back to the Saxons and Angles who came here from modern Germanic territories. They began as refugees from a Europe in turmoil and remained embattled for much of their history. But they also laid the foundations for one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen.
The largest upheavals in history don’t appear out of thin air. They’re usually the result of many different, smaller pressures combining into one giant sea change.
So it was with Dark Ages Europe. The decline and eventual fall of the Western Roman Empire stemmed from a mix of migration, disease, and even climatic shift, which led to unpredictable weather patterns.
When the Western Roman Empire fell, it took with it the cultural heart of Europe. Britain was always a frontier territory, so was one of the first places to feel the effects. The Romans withdrew from Britain, taking much of their culture with them — bringing on a Dark Age.
The Britons, once under Roman rule, reclaimed control of their land. But Great Britain became a pressure-release valve for the turmoil in Europe, attracting settlers from abroad.
Faced with the chaos of post-Roman Europe, a mixture of Germanic peoples from the shores of Northern Europe crossed to the British Isles. They’re remembered as the Anglo-Saxons, but they included a number of other ethnic groups, such as the Jutes.
The Anglo-Saxon migration to England was a mix of invasion, settlement, and cultural assimilation, beginning in the 5th century. It’s not clear how much of each took place, but the Anglo-Saxons soon established a firm foothold in the south-eastern areas of modern England.
In the early days of Saxon settlement, there was relative peace. The Saxons offered protection to the locals, and the locals gave them land in turn. But this peace didn’t last, and soon the Saxon confederates clashed with the Brittonic peoples.
The Battle of Badon Hill in the late 5th or early 6th century seems to have turned back the encroaching tide for a time. If there ever was a King Arthur, he was likely one of the British warlords leading — or at least involved in — the resistance against the Saxon invaders. Some traditions place him at Badon Hill, but the account of Gildas, made closest to the time, leaves him out.
By the middle of the 6th century, the Anglo-Saxon population had displaced or absorbed the local Brittonic people. Those who were displaced moved west or south, where they settled in modern Brittany and what would become the modern Celtic nations of Britain.
Over the next few centuries, the first true Anglo-Saxon kingdoms appeared on British soil. Even surviving Brittonic kingdoms, like Elmet in modern Yorkshire, were swallowed up.
The balance of power shifted many times between these Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Some, like Hwicce in Worcestershire, were absorbed into larger domains. We still remember many of these kingdoms. Essex, Sussex, Wessex, Kent, and Northumbria are all former Saxon territories.
The British natives lost much of their land. Their holdouts in Great Britain roughly map to modern Wales, Cornwall, and Scotland. King Offa of Mercia constructed Offa’s Dyke to set the border between his kingdom and Wales, reinforcing this divide. Wansdyke may have been built for a similar purpose, but its exact origins aren’t clear.
The Anglo-Saxons were still consolidating their power when the next wave of migration hit Great Britain. These migrants were the Vikings.
The Anglo-Saxons had found great wealth and success in England. But the Vikings, attracted by this success, came to plunder England, including many of its new Christian churches.
Viking presence in Great Britain began in the form of raids, most famously the raid on Lindisfarne. In 850, Viking raiders wintered in England for the first time.
The Dark Ages were on the wane. Britain had escaped the lion’s share of Europe’s post-Roman chaos so far, but that soon changed. The Vikings had established an area of control — later consolidated as the Danelaw — on English soil. This Danish “Great Army” continued to raid Anglo-Saxon holdings.
The clash between Anglo-Saxons and Vikings came to a head at the Battle of Edington, which divided territory between the two powers in the Treaty of Wedmore. With this, Viking presence in England became a fact of life.
The Anglo-Saxons found new strength under King Æthelstan, regarded as the first king of England. Over the following decades, the modern kingdom of England began to take recognisable shape.
But the new English peoples didn’t keep their land for long. A Dane, Cnut the Great, conquered much of their territory and established an empire straddling the North Sea. Control of England only returned to the House of Wessex by succession, thanks to intermarriage between Saxon and Danish lines. Edward the Confessor became king, returning the throne of England to the Saxons.
1066 AD is a date even British schoolchildren can recite. It marks the final significant conquest of England, adding the last component that makes up modern English culture: French.
By 1065, claimants to the Saxon throne included Harald Hadraada of Norway (through Cnut’s line) and William, Duke of Normandy. In this same year, the Saxon king Edward the Confessor fell ill.
On his deathbed, Edward indicated that Harold Godwinson, a Saxon, should be the next king. Yet historians believe both Edward and Harold were on the record as supporting William’s claim to the throne.
Tostig, estranged brother to Harold, would instigate much of what was to follow. He sailed first to Normandy to entreat William to invade. When that failed, he travelled to Norway, where he convinced Harald to take up arms.
This set the stage for a two-pronged invasion of Great Britain, leading to the Battles of Stamford Bridge and Hastings. King Harold’s march up and down the length of the British Isles might have ended up one of the most impressive military feats in history — had he not been defeated at the Battle of Hastings and killed.
The throne of England passed to William the Conqueror. England experienced an influx of French culture and nobles. This is why the English language retains elements of both Romantic and Germanic languages to this day. The remaining Saxon nobility was purged, but the invaders naturalised over time, leading to the hybrid English culture we recognise today.
England emerged from the Middle Ages with a fresh national identity and Anglo-Saxon still remains the touchstone of English culture. It’s clear the migration of the Anglo-Saxon peoples changed the course of the British Isles forever. The modern form of their language now reaches every corner of the globe.
The black lines on the map represent Hadrian's Wall, Wats Dyke, Offa's Dyke and the Wansdyke.
|Mercia||Myrce - People of the border|
|Northumbria||Norþan-hymbre - People North of the Humber|
|Wales||Wealh - Stranger or Foreigner|
|Dumnonia (Cornwall and Devon)||Dumnonia - Kingdom of the Celtic Tribe Dumnonii|
|Lindsay||Lindesege - Island of Lincoln|
|Kent||Cent - Corner Land - Jutes|
|Wessex||Westseaxna rīce - Kingdom of the West Saxons|
|Sussex||Suth-sæxe - Kingdom of the South Saxons|
|Essex||Ēast Seaxna Rīce - Kingdom of the East Saxons|
|East Anglia||Ēast Engla Rīce - Kingdom of the East Angles|