How the Anglo-Saxons Emerged in the Fifth Century

Craig Bessell

Middle Ages
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At the turn of the 5th century much of western Europe 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 Its outermost borders were neglected as troops were withdrawn from the frontiers to help defend Rome from ‘barbarian’ invasion.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.

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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, the native Britons were facing invasions on multiple fronts. To the north, the Picts and Scots took advantage of the now unmanned Hadrian’s Wall; to the east and south, tribes from mainland Europe had landed – either to pillage or 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’. This marks the official end of Roman rule in Britain.

sack of rome alaric
Honorius as a young Emperor of the West. 1880, Jean-Paul Laurens.

The arrival of the Saxons

What came next was a new period in the county’s history: the epoch of the Anglo-Saxons. 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 which was soon followed by 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 showing the numerous invasions of the Roman Empire – including the Germanic invasion of England after 410 AD. Map by “MapMaster” via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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This does not mean that the Saxons never clashed with the Britons. Records show that some enterprising Saxons, like the aforementioned group in 408, who aimed to take land by force, encountered fierce resistance. 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 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.

Craig Bessell