How the Anglo-Saxons Emerged in the 5th Century

Craig Bessell

3 mins

18 Jan 2015

At the turn of the 5th century AD much of the known world was in a state of upheaval as the Roman empire began to splinter and recede. Its outermost borders were neglected as troops were withdrawn from the frontiers to help defend Rome from ‘barbarian’ invasion.

Britain lay at the very edge of the Roman Empire and it was one of the first to suffer from the loss of its imperial defenders. Just over the channel several tribes eyed Britain’s green and now almost completely unprotected shores. It wasn’t long before the first raiders landed.

The End of Roman Britain

The Angles, Jutes, Saxons and other Germanic peoples of north-western Europe began to assail Britain in increasing numbers, the Britons reportedly fought off a sizeable Saxon incursion in 408 AD, but the attacks grew more frequent.

By 410 AD, the native Britons were facing invasions from the north, as the Picts and Scots took advantage of the now unmanned Hadrian’s Wall and all along the eastern and southern coasts from tribes of mainland Europe. More and more invaders landed to pillage or to settle Britain’s fertile lands. The Britons appealed to Emperor Honorius for aid, but all he sent was a message which bid them ‘look to their own defences’. Many historians mark this as the official end of Roman Britain.


A bust of emperor Honorius (384-423) the last Roman Emperor to control Britain.

The Arrival of the Saxons

What came next was a new period in the county’s history, the reign of the Anglo-Saxons, but how this came about is still subject to disagreement by historians. The traditional assumption was that, without the strong military presence of the Romans, Germanic tribes took swathes of the country by force and behind the invading armies came a massive migration.  However, the theory that has become more widely accepted in recent years, due to more comprehensive evidence, is of a more gradual and peaceful merging of the two cultures to form a Germanic, Anglo-Saxon Britain.


A map indicating the patterns of migration in the 5th century that shaped Anglo-Saxon Britain

Forming a New Identity

There was already a permeation of Germanic culture in many of the trading ports of the south-east of Britain. The prevailing theory now is that a gradual cultural shift occurred in the place of a dwindling Roman presence. The stronger and more immediate Germanic influence, coupled with a gradual migration of smaller groups of mainland Europeans, led to the eventual formation of an Anglo-Saxon Britain, divided into the kingdoms of Mercia, Northumbria, East Anglia and Wessex along with other smaller polities.


A map showing the kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England in the 8th Century

That is not to say that there were not skirmishes fought. Records show that some enterprising Saxons, like the aforementioned group in 408 AD, who aimed to take land by force rather than set up a life more peacefully. Some of these raids did succeed, creating a foothold in certain areas of the island of Britain, but there is no evidence to suggest a full scale invasion.

The Anglo-Saxons were therefore a mixture of many different peoples. The Angles and the Saxons, of course, but also other Germanic tribes and Britons. The culture that arose from this eclectic mix predominated in Britain for almost half a millennium.