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How the Anglo-Saxons built England Back in the eighth century the liberal elite was similarly obsessed with Europe

History repeating itself at Battle. Credit: Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images)

History repeating itself at Battle. Credit: Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images)


May 14, 2021   7 mins

Today if you visit Battle Abbey in Sussex, the great religious house built by William the Conqueror to atone for the bloodshed he caused, children get to re-enact the most famous event in English history by choosing to be either Saxons or Normans. What kind of monsters, I wondered when I lasted visited, would choose to be those shaven-headed grasping, quasi-French religious fanatics?

We’ve always sided with the defeated of 1066. Losing liberates you from the labours of history and allows the vast freedom of what-might-have-been and happy myth-making. And, indeed, Anglo-Saxon England has often been portrayed as a happy place of flowery meadows and rainbow skies and rivers made of chocolate.

The ideal of the Anglo-Saxons as freeborn lovers of liberty is one of the most persistent throughout English history, and long before Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. During the Peasant’s Revolt Hertfordshire villeins threatened the Abbey of St Albans with ransacking unless they handed over charters from the time of King Offa proving that serfdom had not existed in those halcyon days. In the Civil War, radicals such as John Lilburne and Gerard Winstanley railed against the Norman Yoke; Thomas Jefferson wanted Horsa and Hengist on the presidential seal, “the Saxon chiefs from whom we claim the honor of being descended, and whose political principles and form of government we have assumed”.

It is the oldest of class myths, trusty yeomen against an aristocracy who, even today, have a disproportionate amount of Norman blood. Yet a myth it was; the ancestors of the peasants of St Albans indeed weren’t serfs in Offa’s day — they were slaves. Among its many horrors, Anglo-Saxon England was rife with slavery, an institution effectively abolished by William the Conqueror.

Marc Morris is no naïve freeborn Saxon; his previous book, The Norman Conquest, brilliantly laid out the complexities of that fascinating and frightening people; rapacious, cruel and intolerant, yet often opposed to capital punishment and with a new form of politics called chivalry in which captured opponents were spared. The last decades of Anglo-Saxon England, in contrast, were like the depths of George R.R. Martin’s darkest nightmares, with numerous blindings, betrayals and brutal murders and a court culture devoid of any mercy.

Morris’s eagerly-awaited and equally enthralling The Anglo-Saxons covers the much longer preceding period, and throughout this epic narrative is the continual theme of England’s semi-detached relationship with the continent. The story begins with the destruction of one, Latin-speaking, continental empire, and ends with England’s absorption into another — this one dominated by speakers of a bastardised descendent of the Roman tongue.

In AD402 the last Roman coins appear and at some point the Romans depart, whether with the approval of the Romano-Britons we can’t entirely be sure. This Rexit proved rather unsuccessful, and here we enter the mythical origins of the Saxons, with three ships arriving from across the North Sea to Kent, led by the brothers Horsa and Hengest.

This is the traditional tale told by Gildas, a depressing sixth-century monk living in Brittany and a sort of proto-conservative newspaper columnist warning that the country was going to the dogs because of immigration (he happened to be right, though). Yet Gildas got some basic facts wrong (no change there) and Morris is confident that these are merely common tropes, three ships and brothers with alliterative names being a common theme in origin stories.

Little is known of this earlier period, but light emerges in 597 when Pope Gregory, who turned the ruined city of Rome into the beating heart of a new spiritual Roman empire, sent an emissary to convert the heathens. This began what was for a millennium a close and intense relationship between the English and the Church of Rome.

The Church brought the country back within the European mainstream, literacy re-emerged, and it proved strongest in the north. So begins that great moment in history, the Northumbrian Golden Age, where on the banks of the Tyne and Wear a new civilisation burst forth, producing some of the most beautiful artwork of the middle ages and early renaissance men such as Alcuin and, most importantly of all, the Venerable Bede.

Perhaps no one other than Shakespeare did as much to create the English narrative; this remarkable monk, who never left his native North-East and yet had a vast imagination encompassing every subject imaginable, largely wrote the first chapter in our national story, the Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

History, of course, is told by the winners, and Bede was a Christian. The greatest warrior of the time was Penda of Mercia, who killed no fewer than three kings of East Anglia in the endless tribal wars that marked the period. Yet even after pagan Mercia had defeated Christian Northumbria, the latter’s defeated king, Oswald, came to be immortalised, a saint with his image portrayed across churches as far as Germany.

Penda disappeared into historic nothingness and his son, the even more unfortunately name Peada, accepted the inevitable and became Christian. Morris suggests that Penda’s defeat in 655, at the hands of Oswald’s successor Oswiu, might be the origin story of the most exciting archaeological find of recent years, the Staffordshire Hoard, which dates to around the right time.

“If this wasn’t the war gear of Oswiu and his fellow warriors, it was exactly what their war gear would have looked like,” he suggests. As with all of this period, we have to let our imaginations do much of the work, but what a rich seam for the imagination! Perhaps, the author wonders, it was carried from the battlefield by a Mercian warlord surviving the massacre, or it was like the scene in Beowulf, when an unnamed individual, the last of a defeated race, buries their treasure in despair:

“Now, earth, hold what earls once held
And heroes can no more; it was mined from you first
By honourable men. My own people
Have been ruined in war; one by one
They went down to death, looked their last
On sweet life in the hall”.

Beowulf is a lament for an age of warriors already gone; by now it was the age of clerics, as the Church’s bureaucracy grew across the kingdoms. The most influential Saxons were now not the kings but the men and women of the church, such as Wilfrid, Hilda and Boniface. Again, England’s strange relationship with the continent would prove central; Kent had been converted by Italians, but Northumbria had been converted by the Irish, and the Celtic Church had developed its own rituals and rules, the biggest dispute being over the dating of Easter.

For two whole decades, King Oswiu and his wife Eanfled celebrated Easter at different times of year, and this situation obviously couldn’t last. The nationwide dispute was resolved at the Synod of Whitby where Bishop Wilfrid made a very Remainer-sounding argument for following Rome. “Do you think that a handful of people in a corner of the remotest island is to be preferred to the universal Church of Christ which is spread through the world?” The liberal elite won the day and England fell in with the continent.

The most influential priest was Theodore of Tarsus, a Greek from what is now Syria who had been appointed to this utterly distant, alien, barbaric land well into his sixties. As Archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore more than anyone established the hierarchy of the English Church, much of which still stands today, and cracked down on such strange local customs as mothers putting their daughters on rooftops to cure fevers. When one of his clerics, Bishop Chad, refused to get on a horse because he wanted to show (a rather impractical) humility by walking everywhere, the 69-year-old Greek cleric heaved him into the saddle. Bede said Theodore “was the first of the archbishops whom the whole Anglo-Saxon Church consented to obey”.

The mid 8th century saw an uptake in international trade around the coasts of northern Europe, an inkling of the North Sea area’s future economic takeoff. Yet the cities evacuated by the Romans had been left untouched by the Saxon invaders, who called them the enta geweorc – the work of the giants. Even the largest, Londonium remained empty, and yet a couple of miles to the west the Saxons had set up a trading post – a wic – which became Lundenwic. Bede in 731 described it as “an emporium for many nations, who come to it by land and sea”.

Trade flourished, as did the monastic economy, but the monasteries would also prove to be vulnerable to a darkening presence in the distance; in 793 horror came to northern Christendom when Lindisfarne was raided by “heathens” — Vikings.

Norse armies were able to attack coastal towns at will, and in 851 even stormed the old Roman walls of Canterbury. But the crisis became a catastrophe in 865 when the Great Heathen Army overran the kingdom of Northumbria, killing its king, and then doing likewise to East Anglia. When Mercia collapsed, the story of the Saxons may well have ended. The last kingdom was ruled by the old king’s youngest son, a man of 20 who had been destined for the Church, and even sent to Rome as a child. His three elder brothers had died in succession and the young man, plagued by — possibly psychosomatic — illness now faced terrible odds. His name was Alfred.

For all the propaganda involved — Alfred wisely employed his own biographer, Asser — his epitaph is certainly justified; he defeated the Vikings in battle, made literacy a national priority, built the burhs that would become many modern towns and in 886 re-founded the Roman city of London, where he was accepted as king by those Anglo-Saxons not under Danish rule, with the approval of “all the counsellors of the English race” — ealles Angelcynnes witan.

When Alfred’s children and grandchildren forced the submission of Viking rulers further north, the kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria would not return. Instead, after his grandson Athelstan united the country in 927 it was said that “this Saxon-land [was] made whole” — ista Saxonia perfecta. Athelstan, defeating a coalition of Scots, Welsh and Viking rulers at “The Great Battle” at Brunanburh, now went by the title “King of the English”.

And yet the glorious triumph of the House of Wessex was not fated to last forever, and a series of disasters in the following century led to foreign conquest — in 1016. Unlike the more famous invader of 50 years later, the Danish Canute did not decapitate the country’s elite, and ruled justly; chroniclers also observed approvingly that with his North Sea empire, Canute was able to remove tariffs for English traders on much of the continent.

The conquest of 1066 was, in contrast, catastrophic for the natives: of 1,000 major landowners recorded in William’s 1086 Domesday Book, only 13 were English. And yet the same record showed that the unfree population had already fallen by a quarter and by 1150 slavery was effectively gone. A chronicler of 1130s recalled that “In this respect the English found foreigners treated them better than they treated themselves”. Many such historical cases!

The Normans destroyed much of Anglo-Saxon culture although they conserved the works of Bede, Asser, Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and the lives of English saints like Oswald and Ethelwold. Yet they also brought England again into the continental mainstream; we all meet plenty of Williams and Henrys in our daily lives, but not many people called Ethelwold or Oswiu and certainly not Peada.

“And yet,” as Morris says: “although their buildings are mostly gone, and their myths have been dispelled, a great deal of the Anglo-Saxon inheritance remains. The head of the English Church is still based at Canterbury because it was the principal city of King Ethelbert when he welcomed St Augustine over 1,400 years ago. Westminster is the political heart of the kingdom because Edward the Confessor added a royal palace when he rebuilt its ancient abbey. The shires of England, although tinkered with in the late twentieth century, are essentially the same as they were at the time of their creation more than 1,000 years ago… Roman Britannia, despite the grandeur of its ruins, lasted barely 400 years, and was over by the mid-fifth century. England is still a work in progress.”


Ed West’s book Tory Boy is published by Constable

edwest

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Giles Chance
Giles Chance
3 years ago

Thank you Mr West for drawing readers’ attention to this wonderful and essential part of English (British ?) history. At a conference at Dartmouth College, USA about Magna Carta in 2015, not one of the learned speakers, all historians of the period, from Harvard and similar seats of learning, made any reference to the pre-Norman period as an influence in 1215 on that famous document. They were very surprised – taken aback – when I, an economist teaching at the business school, made the comment that the origins of Magna Carta reach back beyond the Angevin dynasty, and beyond the Norman invasion, to the Saxon community awareness and the Saxon sense of fairness, even democracy of a sort, seen in institutions like the “witangemot” – the group of earls and important men who advised Edward the Confessor, and took decisions on important matters. This consciousness and dislike of Norman-style autocracy was still strong in Angevin Britain – only 150 years after the Norman invasion. We can see this could be the case when we look back today to 1870, 150 years ago. Did the ideas of Mill and Bentham, and the speeches of Disraeli and Gladstone, affect our consciousness today ? I would say they did. My other point is that examination of the Saxon period reveals that society was in some ways just as rich, varied and civilised as today – just that the fruits were spread amongst a smaller proportion of a smaller society.

Last edited 3 years ago by Giles Chance
Johnny Rottenborough
Johnny Rottenborough
3 years ago
Reply to  Giles Chance

Did the ideas of Mill…affect our consciousness today?
We’re affected more than Mill could ever have imagined.
‘Free institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of different nationalities. Among a people without fellow-feeling, especially if they read and speak different languages, the united public opinion, necessary to the working of representative government, cannot exist. The same incidents, the same acts, the same system of government, affect them in different ways; and each fears more injury to itself from the other nationalities than from the common arbiter, the state. Their mutual antipathies are generally much stronger than jealousy of the government.’
Considerations on Representative Government, Chapter 16

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Giles Chance

The barons and King John were far more Frenchmen (if I can use that term) than Anglo-Saxon (AS). They ruled over AS peasants, spoke French and married their children to each other. Unless there was a single AS lady with huge inheritance (Lady Rowena), there was very little AS influence on the Normans up to Runnymede (and beyond).
Even Magna Carta (idolized by latter generations) was the product of military defeat (Battle of Bouvines) and the new taxes imposed on barons by John (and his lecherous behavior toward the daughters and wives of his barons didn’t earn him much love).
The document for all intense and purpose was utterly ignored by kings and barons as they waged war on France (100 years) and each other (War of Roses) until 17th Century.

Last edited 3 years ago by Jeremy Smith
Giles Chance
Giles Chance
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

I think that at least part of Magna Carta’s stellar reputation is down to the Americans. The document itself, the island of Runnymede and all things MC are mentioned with awe and in hushed tones across the pond, where MC is thought (rightly or wrongly, probably the latter) to mark the foundation and starting-point of Western democracy. Of which, it is believed, America today stands as the exemplar. .

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Giles Chance

Later. The Magna Carta was the beginning.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Giles Chance

Western Democracy started in Athens not Runnymede. There is certainly an aspect of proto-democratic tradition of Germanic tribal culture but Athens/Rome was the home of Western Democracy/Civilization.

Last edited 3 years ago by Jeremy Smith
Giles Chance
Giles Chance
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

I don’t think that the English burghers who granted taxes to Edward 3 for his wars in France, or who summoned William of Orange to become William 3 of England in 1688, knew much about Pericles. English democracy was an English product, born of Angevin and Plantagenet tendencies to autocracy, and of the king’s need for money.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
3 years ago
Reply to  Giles Chance

Absolutely!

James Slade
James Slade
3 years ago
Reply to  Giles Chance

Italian civic humanism of the 14th century certainly did include Cleisthenes and Solon but the emphasis was more on Circeo. The oligarch communes were interested in the Roman Republic. There was a direct link between Edward III and Italy. Florentine banks lent the money for Edward’s campaigns. When he defaulted it caused a banking collapse . Much of the English wool was trade underwritten by Italian banks. So the Burghers had direct contact with the heart of civic humanism. It’s highly likely that did know about Circeo at least.

Henry VIII was educated by Erasmus and by the time of 1688 the humanist syllabus was standard amongst those that had more than a basic education.

Last edited 3 years ago by James Slade
Giles Chance
Giles Chance
3 years ago
Reply to  James Slade

Pushing it, I would suggest. Since when has a borrower (in this case King Edward 3 of England) become interested in his lenders’ culture? The case of Henry 8th is not relevant, for obvious reasons, when one is discussing the evolution of parliamentary curbs on royal behaviour.

Last edited 3 years ago by Giles Chance
James Slade
James Slade
3 years ago
Reply to  Giles Chance

Why do think it’s about Edward III. His envoy to the Viscounti court Geoffrey Chaucer, wrote an English version of the Decameron. Boccaccio was in resident at the Viscounti Court. There was direct and sustained contact between Italy and the English Burghers. There is a reason why the all the Banks used to be in Lomard Street. The Florentian banks had branches in London and Brugge. The wool trade connected them. English sheep generated the wool, the low countries and Florence turned if into textiles. The Lawyers in the administration of the late Yorkist and Tudor period didn’t appear from nowhere.

Giles Chance
Giles Chance
3 years ago
Reply to  James Slade

Still pushing it, I suggest humbly (as a layman).

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

I respectfully disagree. Despite its stellar reputation, there is no historical continuity at all between Athenian democracy and modern representative government. The latter evolved very slowly on medieval foundations, the division of power between church and state etc.

Classical Athens is a very remote and distant civilisation from ours, with a religious basis that makes almost no sense to us. Ironically, one legacy of Athens’ fractious society – which had several breaks in its system of government – was to anathematise the whole idea of ‘democacy’ in Europe for over two thousand years.

Solon, Cleisthenes and the rest introduced a series of conscious radical reforms to Athens in the 6th and 5th centuries BC. In that respect, they have more in common with say, the innovations of the French revolutionaries, say, than anything that happened in England (or Britain).

Mark Gourley
Mark Gourley
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

Was it Tony Hancock who asked “Did Magna Carta die in vain” or am I thinking of 1066 and All That ?

Aaron Kevali
Aaron Kevali
3 years ago

Fascinating, I love Ed West’s historical articles – he’s in his element.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Aaron Kevali

I am not sure I like the flippant bits of PC tossed in, like

“a sort of proto-conservative newspaper columnist warning that the country was going to the dogs because of immigration (he happened to be right, though).”

Andy Paul
Andy Paul
3 years ago

The Norman Conquest undertaken by the Usurper was such a delight; as the ghosts of those harried to their deaths in their thousands in the North will doubtless attest.
Gregory may have sent Augustine to convert Kent, but it is curious to note that bishops were in the party that met him which suggests Christianity already had roots in that kingdom.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Andy Paul

Without the Norman bureaucracy the Saxons would have not made the wealth and order needed for Britain to have succeeded in Europe as id did.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
3 years ago

Great article!

Yet they also brought England again into the continental mainstream; we all meet plenty of Williams and Henrys in our daily lives, but not many people called Ethelwold or Oswiu and certainly not Paeda.

Yes this is true, and it’s wise to point out that Anglo-Saxonism has often been overstated (not least by the Victorians, who wanted to emphasise the Germanic heritage).
However 300+ years after the Norman Conquest English and not French was not only the common tongue, but also the language of court.
In place names and institutions, an Anglo Saxon core remained and outlasted the Norman/French hegemony. That is quite impressive given the timescale involved and should not be underestimated, as Ed quite rightly points out.

Last edited 3 years ago by A Spetzari
Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

Modern English is heavily influenced by the French language. if it wasn’t for Normans today’s “English” would have sounded more like the Dutch/Flemish.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

It is not really heavily influenced at all – it shares none of the grammar, syntax, cadence or intonation. In terms of linguistics English is is very much in the Germanic camp from a phonetics and phonology standpoint.
It shares a good deal of vocabulary (at least latinate words in their origins) but it is not a similar language in the slightest

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

It share a vocabulary but it is not heavily influenced at all?

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

Yes. Vocabulary is only a part of what makes up a language. See the rest of my comment.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

I never said it was a Romance language. I said it was heavily influenced.

Mark Epps
Mark Epps
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

And you’re right. It is. Take a page of English and count the Germanic and Latinate words. Even in terms of grammar English no longer “looks” Germanic. Where’s the word order, where’s the case?

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago
Reply to  Mark Epps

Some of that was lost even before the Norman conquest under a kind of creolisation with Old Norse that occured in areas behind the Danelaw.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Mark Epps
Mark Epps
3 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

Middle English is a pretty balanced fusion of the English spoken by the Anglo Saxons in 1066 and the Norman French spoken by the invaders. We should beware of implying that the plucky English tongue shrugged off its defeat and reasserted itself as the language of the ruling classes. Edward III’s English was very different to Edward the Confessor’s.

pauline.k
pauline.k
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Epps

You are right. Middle English retained its Germanic structure but imported thousands of Norman French words. Despite this vocabulary, English is still classed as a Germanic language, and rightly so.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

How would Shakespeare have dealt with that?

Giles Chance
Giles Chance
3 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

I think I’m right in saying that the first king of England to use English in his documents and at court was Henry Bolingbroke, IV, from 1399.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  Giles Chance

Correct, but the Plantagenet court still looked to the Valois Court for inspiration..
After all the French invented ‘Chivalry’ and, let’s face it, did it best.

Mark Melvin
Mark Melvin
3 years ago

Something which they are keeping alive today…. oh sorry, they’re not.

David Brown
David Brown
3 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

It still took until Henry V for an English king to write home from his campaigns in English, rather than Norman French.

Frederick B
Frederick B
3 years ago
Reply to  David Brown

Yet Henry’s attempt to seat himself and the Plantagenet line on the French throne failed, and despite all the glory of Agincourt it was a blessing that it did. A blessing for the French of course, but a blessing for England too – had it succeeded England would have become little more than a province of France.

pauline.k
pauline.k
3 years ago
Reply to  David Brown

All these kings represent the elite establishment ie the descendants of the Conquerors, so yes they spoke Norman French for a long time after 1066. The plebs though spoke Old English, increasingly borrowing Norman French vocabulary. English emerged the official language in the Middle Ages, admittedly with Norman influence (Danish and Latin too.)

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

Strangely the author’s name is an exception due to the strength of the cult of (St) Edward the Confessor in the 14th century.

omorgans
omorgans
3 years ago

Tom Holland’s podcast suggests the genetic evidence is that few angles / jutes and saxons came over. Instead an elite integrated and cross married the indigenous Britons. I struggle with that analysis since i dont see how the language would have adapted to the germanic languages so easily, and how the Celtic fringe would maintain linguistic and cultural separateness.

jandhhorgan
jandhhorgan
3 years ago
Reply to  omorgans

The Nature paper on British genetics disagrees completely. The vast bulk of English genetics is Anglo-Saxon.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  jandhhorgan

Were there perhaps German speakers already present long before Horsa & Co turned up?

How many of the Roman Army of Occupation, particularly the Auxilia for example, were native German speakers?

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago

But would they still speak german instead of Celtic or Latin?

Last edited 3 years ago by Jeremy Smith
CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

German colloquially, Latin officially so far as we can gather from the Vindolanda tablets.

John Standing
John Standing
3 years ago
Reply to  jandhhorgan

About thirty per cent, actually.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  John Standing

It must have a small percentage of Englishmen who made English the dominant language in Ireland after the Tudor conquest.

Something similar, if earlier, seems to have occurred in ‘Jockland’, particularly in the flat eastern side where stuff actually grows.

pauline.k
pauline.k
3 years ago

The Normans invaded Ireland much earlier than the Tudors – not long after they invaded England. They were a small conquering elite in both countries.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
3 years ago
Reply to  jandhhorgan

Indeed – Frisian too

Rog Tallbloke
Rog Tallbloke
3 years ago
Reply to  jandhhorgan

The paper says 20-40% of half the population, not “the vast bulk”.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
3 years ago
Reply to  omorgans

Didn’t the Belgic tribes of the Iron Age speak a Germanic language? Sourse, Openheimer, and my memory of history lessons at school.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  Anna Bramwell

The Batavi certainly did.

Frederick B
Frederick B
3 years ago
Reply to  Anna Bramwell

Probably not as their personal names – those that were recorded by the Romans – were Celtic. But at least one British god, believed to have been introduced by the Belgae, had a Germanic name – Gwydion (Woden/Wotan/Odin).
Caesar was uncertain whether the Belgae were Celts or Germans, and modern scholars are no clearer. They presumably had influences from both, but they may have been part of a distinct branch of the Indo-European family, the proposed “nordwestblok”.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago
Reply to  Frederick B

That kind of tribal ambiguity occured a lot in the era before well defined national groups. For example in Iron Age Spain, according to archaelogical evidence, there were Celtic speakers in the north, pre-Indo European Iberian speakers in the south – who traded with Greek and Phonecian colonists. In the middle there were Celtiberians who spoke Celtic languages but used Iberian script unlike their illiterate cousins further north.

As for the Anglo-Saxons, there is evidence from legal codes and also some evidence from tombs that many of the old British population lived in a form of slavery or lower status. It strikes me a plausible explanation of why few traces of Brythonic language remain even if perhaps the Anglo-Saxons made up an elite of 20-40% of the population – depending on area – is because the old British population had an incentive to Germanicise to escape a lower status and oppression. A consicious decision to change culture and not reveal words that mark you out as part of a helot class can finish off a language quickly. Notably places that only became integrated into England later when these dynamics were less strong – as a more centralised and dynastic rule took over from tribal rule – such as ‘North Wales’ in Cumbria retain traces of Brythonic language such as in dialect and the sheep counting system.

Something like this process albeit more religiously based occurred in say Mesopotamia, the Magreb or the Levant after the Arab conquests due to legalised oppression of Islam under dhimmi laws. So now we consider these people as Arabs as they speak Arabic and are Muslims even if only a small elite really has ancestry in the Arabian pennisula.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  omorgans

Like the Young men migrating West today, without women, the Saxon men invaded, and had the Celtic women (although they almost exterminated all the Celtic men)

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Nice idea, but no longer historically tenable I’m afraid.

Frederick B
Frederick B
3 years ago
Reply to  omorgans

Quite right. An elite conquest, like the Norman conquest, could never have effected the complete change in language, place names, religion etc. For evidence look at France, Italy, Spain – all conquered by a Germanic elite, all still Latin countries.
I believe that DNA evidence points to the modern English (properly so called) being on average about 25% Germanic by ancestry. That would be a sufficient proportion to effect a complete cultural change when the survivors of late Roman Britain were demoralised, leaderless and reduced to servitude.

pauline.k
pauline.k
3 years ago
Reply to  Frederick B

Spain and Italy were not conquered by a Germanic elite. France was.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  pauline.k

Really ? What about the Visigoths & Lombards, in addition to Alaric & Oadacer?

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago

The Ostrogoths in Italy also.

The Visigoths were originally settled as a client kingdom inside the Roman empire around Aquitaine and were pushed across the Pyranees by the Franks. They ruled Spain until tye Arab invasion which the kingdom of Asturias survived at Covodonga and became the germ of the reconquista. Thus at least forming a thin thread between modern Spain and the visigothic kingdom.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago
Reply to  Frederick B

Also Hispania and Gaul were far more throughly Romanicised with miles of interconnected Roman villages all run by Roman elites who were useful to any would-be invader. Britain outside the castra and London was only partially so and the old Roman elite left.

In contrast in France and Spain the Roman literate elite took control of administration in the sub-kingdoms. Through monasteries and social prestige they Latinified the new elite who wanted to seem successors to the rulers of the Roman empire that people didn’t really think had ceased to exist but was just dormant.

By contrast the Britons was isolated and weak with little cultural capital beyond monks who were primarily Latin and British proto-romance (yes such a lamguage existed, attested by Bede) speakers anyway.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Douglas McNeish
Douglas McNeish
3 years ago
Reply to  omorgans

Linguistic and genetic evidence suggests an incompatibility between the Romano-Celtic and Anglo-Saxon cultures, such that the former migrated west and left the field to the more aggressive Germanic population.

Nigel SPRINGHALL
Nigel SPRINGHALL
3 years ago

The period of the roman – saxon transition is being re evaluated. The recent discovery of a late 5th century mosaic at Chedworth roman villa has confirmed that some form of sub Roman civilisation persisted into the 500s ad in western England and work in Tintagel shows contact with the East roman empire continued. It was to these people that Gildas addressed his ermon in erudite sophisticated Latin.

In Eastern England the situation is unclear due to the continuing occupation of most urban sites. It is now accepted that there was no anglo saxon mass migration or invasion, but a major cultural shift towards n w Europe following the collapse of the empire. This may have started before 400ad as Britain was part of the Western diocese ruled from Trier.
As to who the saxons were no one knows, Eastern England was called the saxon shore by the romans in the 4th century, and Susan Oostethuise’s recent book has postulated (as have several others, including oppenhiemer) that a form of English may have been widely spoken in Eastern England in roman times.
What seems certain is that the vasr majority of the people in early ‘saxon’ were of direct lineage from the inhabitants of roman Britain and not bloodthirsty genocidal immigrants.

Giles Chance
Giles Chance
3 years ago
Reply to  Andy Paul

thanks, v interesting

Claire D
Claire D
3 years ago
Reply to  Andy Paul

Thanks so much for this, very interesting.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago

So Boudicca may have spoken a teutonic tongue?

The Boxford Villa Mosaic (Berks) may also be fifth century, which is interesting as it is about 30 miles further east than Chedworth.

Rog Tallbloke
Rog Tallbloke
3 years ago

As to who the Saxons were; one of the incoming bands were Jutes, from Jutland (central Denmark) another was the Angles. It all started out as minor incursions and became legitimate and peaceful trading stations. The ‘invasion’ was really an expansion of these groups already established in the East of England. Plague which ripped through the British population in the 350s was brought in by a trading ship from Aquitaine. The Angles and Jutes were unaffected because they did their trading with their countrymen around the Baltic. Having become crowded in the enclaves they were penned into under agreements made in Arthur’s time, they took the opportunity to expand into southern Britain, displacing thousands who took to boats and escaped to Armorica, turning it into Brittany.
Some of the Bretons later came back with William the Conqueror to reclaim their birthright, forming a third of his invading force.

Last edited 3 years ago by Rog Tallbloke
Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago

Also it is entirely possible they may have already been in the east coast as small numbers before the 5th century as Roman mercenaries that could have encouraged more to come.

Frederick B
Frederick B
3 years ago

England began when the English created it amid the ruins of Roman Britain. Now, after some 15 centuries it is passing from their descendants into the hands of others. A sad end for such a distinguished people.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago

You might have mentioned that this was a ‘three dog fight’ and had *Harald of Norway (Hardrada) won, we would now be living in a Scandinavian wonderland, worshiping trees, and indulging in the fabled Danish hygge! (Covid permitting).

(* Of the three contestants Harald had the most impressive CV………just).

James Slade
James Slade
3 years ago

Harald Hardrada was a Christian. Christianity was becoming dominat from the 1030s onwards in Scandinavia.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  James Slade

Scandinavians became nominally Christian, as you say by the mid 11th century.
However it took much longer for Christian beliefs to establish themselves among the common people. Old beliefs die hard, (perhaps never really).

Norway established its Archdiocese in 1154, which illustrates the sluggishness of the process.

Off course, rather like Constantine somewhat earlier, one must always wonder how really Christian, an out and out thug like Harald of Norway really was.

James Slade
James Slade
3 years ago

There is archaeological evidence of Christian practice in Denmark going back to the 7th century and central Sweden was largely Christian by the 11th. Denmark had been under pressure from the Holy Roman Empire since the Ottonian revival. Nor were the Vikings unaware of the growing wealth and organisation of Anglo-Saxon England. Hardrada had personally seen the advantages of organisation and the wealth that it brings from his time serving the Byzantine Empire. His time in the Viking founded and now Christian Kievan Rus, would have shown him the advantages of a more central administration. His personal experience would have shown him the power and wealth generated by Christian kingship supported by a literate administration. The only way to get that was from the church. Yes there was a cynical aspect to his religion but the Normans were another Viking founded Christianised group.

John Standing
John Standing
3 years ago
Reply to  James Slade

Christianisation is racial universalisation.

David Cockayne
David Cockayne
3 years ago
Reply to  John Standing

What utter tripe. There were Chrsitians in Tang dynasty China, and in India from the 3rd century at the latest.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago

St Magnus Cathedral in Orkney, I think the last working Norse Cathedral in UK, was built 1137 by the Vikings. They were pretty Christian by then.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Yes, by then the rot had set in I’ll grant you.

And off course one of the very few Medieval Cathedrals to survive in Jockland thanks to ‘nutters’ like John Knox & Co.

Last edited 3 years ago by CHARLES STANHOPE
David Cockayne
David Cockayne
3 years ago

Much good it did him though, eh?

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  David Cockayne

Well he did get his seven foot of the East Riding as promised.

Douglas McNeish
Douglas McNeish
3 years ago

Hardrada was without contest the most cosmopolitan ruler of his time. Before becoming king of Norway, he served as a mercenary in Russia and then advanced to Constantinople, where for 10 years he was commander of the Byzantine emperor’s personal (Varangian) guard, and saw action in Asian Minor, the Balkans, and throughout the Mediterranean.

James Chater
James Chater
3 years ago

Lovely. Even now I can smell, as an 11-year old, the freshly mimeographed copies of History lesson notes. Of course, in those days British History began with Julius Caesar – the Ancient Britons were all repulsed – and his under-floor heated baths. The waves of ‘barbarians’, Angles, Jutes, Saxons, Danes & Vikings rather ‘spoiled’ things until the rational brutal Normans sorted it all out, once and for all, having resumed where the Romans left off.
I am half a smith (Anglo-Saxon) and half a caterer (‘acatour’ Anglo-Norman). European through and through.

Last edited 3 years ago by James Chater
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  James Chater

Bodecia played a part of the old British History lessons, although maybe not a glorious part, still….

James Chater
James Chater
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Yes, I ommitted her and Caratacus. Not on purpose, honestly.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Who?
Surely you mean Boudica or Boudicca, even known as Boadicea or Boudicea by those educated in old school?

Last edited 3 years ago by CHARLES STANHOPE
Dave Bowman
Dave Bowman
3 years ago

You still hear about the whole “sheriff” thing being a Norman import by way of Malta, but I believe this relationship is nowadays thought to be a false friend — the shires are from the Anglo-Saxon scire and the Normans anyway renamed them to “counties”

pauline.k
pauline.k
3 years ago
Reply to  Dave Bowman

How can sheriff be a Norman import from Malta when the very word means shire reeve?! Reeve being a government official or representative.

pauline.k
pauline.k
3 years ago
Reply to  pauline.k

Should add that shire and reeve are Anglo-Saxon words, thus well before the Norman Invasion.

Rog Tallbloke
Rog Tallbloke
3 years ago

Nice article, but it omits an important fact that changes the complexion of the Norman invasion of 1066. Fully a third of the invading force were not Normen, but Bretons! Who were they? They were the descendants of Britons pushed out of what became England by the Engles and other north sea invaders towards the end of the Roman period in the 350s, after a plague brought in by a ship from Aquitaine debilitated their defences.
They took over the coastal farmlands of the Armorican peninsula and consigned the Gauls to the forests of the interior. Another wave of refugees from Britain joined them in the 650s, keeping the oral tradition and race-memory alive.
When they returned to Britain with William in 1066, they knew they were fighting to reclaim their ancestors birthright from the Saxons, and fought strongly for it at Hastings. William rewarded them with lands and titles. Some of them rose in revolt against the Norman Yoke not long after, see for example the Bride-Ale of Norwich.

Claire D
Claire D
3 years ago
Reply to  Rog Tallbloke

Interesting, thank you.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
3 years ago

A good summary however the Normans were not French or even “quasi French” they hated and were hated by the real Frogs, very much as today. When the Northmen (Scandinavian nations who the story calls called Vikings) found England too tough a nut to crack after Athlestan had united the four former Saxon Kingdoms (which did not expel the Danish and Norse settlers but forced their conversion to Christianity though many already had prior to that) as described, they took and held that bit of what is now France and that is the origin of the name Normandy – where the Northmen settled, just like Brittany is where some ancient Britons settled when pushed out by the Angles (German like the later Saxons) – Williams “Norman” Army was made up from Normandy and Brittany. It was from this foothold that the English (now a mix of Norman and Saxon) waged the 100 years wars in 14th and 15th centuries. The key factor in the “English” success was the longbow, which when properly handled (it was not easy as it was longer than a man is tall and you cannot look along the arrow to aim it but instead needed years of practice to master it by instinct) could out range any other weapon and still penetrate armour. The archers were both English and Welsh and indeed many of the other arms also came from Wales. All the while the Jocks sided with the Frogs.
So where are our genetic origins? Basically from what is now Germany, Denmark, Netherlands and Scandinavia and of course the original Celts. We have never liked the Frogs and we have never been beaten by the Frogs. We have stood together effectively with the Welsh many times (the Asser in the article was Welsh) and have had mixed relationships with the Irish over the centuries. The ones who never belonged were the Jocks, but when we did form the Union, the first King was a Jock (James VI of Scotland was James I of England). Of course the Stuarts effectively caused the end of the old Monarchy under Charles I when he was defeated by Oliver Cromwell and his new model army. In between that was of course the Wars of the Roses – York (Red Tudor Rose) Vs Lancaster (the Queen is the current Duke of Lancaster) which ended the Plantagenet (descendents of William the Conqueror – White Rose) rule, but in the hearts of many up there it is still going on.
We have a rich and fascinating history but sadly kids of the future will only be taught a version of history that tells them how all white people were evil oppressors of non white people.

Last edited 3 years ago by Adrian Smith
Giles Chance
Giles Chance
3 years ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

Regarding our origins: I suggest you have a look at this article (posted below by a reader Andy Paul), which contains a DNA chart of the UK, based on a thorough study done recently.
Ancient invaders transformed Britain, but not its DNA | New Scientist
It indicates a number of distinct groupings, the largest of which covers south-east and parts of east and central England, and which bears a close relation to the Belgic and north German DNA. Not much Viking DNA, and that only really in Orkney. There are a large number of other distinct types and groups – for instance, a unique non-Viking group around Cumbria – where did that come from? . As you indicate, though, no signs of Roman or Norman DNA, presumably because they did not intermarry with the British population.

Rog Tallbloke
Rog Tallbloke
3 years ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

Good summary, but Yorkshire has the white rose!

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

“The real Frogs”, who are they? Based on your thesis there can’t be very many.

The ‘Normans’ arrived in the Seine Valley with very little culture bar the art of superb shipbuilding.

By the time of Hastings they had been totally assimilated by Frankish future, in language, religion, administration (the feudal system) and Salic Law. They had also been ‘breeding like bunnies’ with local women from Day 1*.

The rest of you essay seems to be a rather inaccurate nationalistic rant. For brevity’s sake I shall take but one example, the ludicrous claim that “we have never been beaten by the Frogs”. O that that was true, but it isn’t!

It may come as a profound shock to you but we LOST the so called 100 Years War. The vaunted Longbow was defeated by French field artillery!
Look up it, the Battle of Castillon, 1453, artillery provided by the ‘Bureau’ brothers blew our army under Talbot into the Dordogne, thus ending our somewhat underfunded 100+ years attempt to conquer France.

We have a rich and fascinating history as you say, but it’s no good teaching our children mythology in place of facts, they will not thank us when they discover the truth.

(* William the ba****d was the result of such an encounter was he not?).

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago

Sure, England lost half of France but it has Wales.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

What an utterly absurd comment. Charles below has more detailed response.

Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor
3 years ago

It’s amazing how the so-called Dark Ages have been given short shrift at school. We learned a lot about Rome (and did Latin), and the Norman Conquests (and did French) onwards, but in the guts is this great black hole where the two eras are all but unconnected.
At least, this was the case in the 1960s and 70s when I was at school. Who knows what revisionist gibberish is taught today.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Tony Taylor

Every history course has to emphasize a period while downplaying another one. I don’t see how you can not spend more time on Rome (and classical greek) instead of Anglo-Saxon England.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  Tony Taylor

Although the term ‘Dark Ages’ was dreamt up by the Church*, it is an apposite description of what actually happened.

May I recommend “The Fall of Rome & the end of Civilisation “ by Bryan Ward-Perkins?

( *one of the instigators of the catastrophe.)

Andrew D
Andrew D
3 years ago

Quite the opposite! The term was dreamt up by the humanist Petrarch. In fact Enlightenment thinkers used the term specifically against the Church, characterising the period from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance as an age of ignorance and superstition led by clergy.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Petrarch was an Ordained Priest (among other things).

Matt B
Matt B
3 years ago
Reply to  Tony Taylor

At a school named after St Bede it was taught even at primary level.

Last edited 3 years ago by Matt B
hugh bennett
hugh bennett
3 years ago

I am sorry but this piece seems to be written just for the sake of filling copy. i have noticed this is increasingly the case on Unherd and dilutes…

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  hugh bennett

I agree it is a rather obvious superficial filler, which excluded much of the ‘story’, with very detrimental results,

Stephen Griffiths
Stephen Griffiths
3 years ago

The Norman barons were willing to risk a rupture with Rome, and thereby with Europe, by asserting the rights of the English Church in Magna Carta. This resulted in a ban on the sacraments not seen again until COVID19.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago

No they were not! Stop projecting modernity (Brexit) to a historical event 1000 years ago.

Last edited 3 years ago by Jeremy Smith
CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

On much firmer ground with the incomparable Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex. The original Brexiteer!

Claire D
Claire D
3 years ago

Thank you Ed West, I cannot condone the “liberal elite” parallel, that’s a bit daft, but otherwise not a bad summary. It’s always good to see a reasonable history article up there, or anywhere – the more the better.

Last edited 3 years ago by Claire D
James Moss
James Moss
3 years ago

So there was a liberal elite in 8th century England! Did they have a variety of conspiracy theorists too or did the Church monopolise this activity?

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  James Moss

“So there was a liberal elite in 8th century England!”

And not a scrubbing brush between them! No hot baths, no central heating, no rule of Law, just the rule of the fist, no decent vino,
no gladiatorial Games, no Circus races, no Theatre, no Odeon recitals, no straight roads, and virtually no culture bar the overwhelming terror of a monotheistic necro- cult from the far off Jordan Valley.

Today it is possible to revisit this era by going to the reconstructed Anglo- Saxon village of West Stow and to Sutton Hoo, both of which are in Suffolk, and only about an hour apart.

Simon Newman
Simon Newman
3 years ago

Fun stuff.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
3 years ago

Now I know where Tolkein got the ents from.

Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
3 years ago

Great article!! So interesting to read something not focusing on victims and oppressor narratives in history.

Kremlington Swan
Kremlington Swan
3 years ago

That was great, thanks. Unherd is turning out to be a bit like the Guardian of old – liberally sprinkled with wordsmiths.

eugene power
eugene power
3 years ago

That picture. How did the Saxons fight in Battle ? long sword as in pic or sillier still long battle axe legend needs two hands…no shield.
How do you swing in a shield wall without killing your mates \?
Seax was after all short sword…? useful for stabbing once shield walls locked . like Roman Gladius ??
Spears handy against horse..but no phalanx and no archers/ slingers/peltasts ..only one result.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  eugene power

I they hadn’t kept breaking ranks and falling for the ‘oldest trick in the book’ by charging downhill things may have been different.

Or if Harold* had controlled himself and not offered battle, William would have had an unpleasant winter ahead of him.

(* unlikely given Harold’s impetuous nature & reputation for ‘celeritas’).

Mike Feilden
Mike Feilden
3 years ago

Great article Ed or should I be formal and say Edward, that most English of names.

Dominic S
Dominic S
3 years ago

Many people hanker after Alfred, but he was also a pro-European at heart, wedded to Rome. What we need today is an Athelstan, who will help us prove the truth, that a country can exist outside the EU.

Caroline Galwey
Caroline Galwey
3 years ago

It’s not ‘Paeda’, you idiot, and to call Bishop Wilfrid and his like ‘liberal’ reveals a rare level of idiocy … although I can see it’s rhetoric, based on the assumption that readers can’t take an interest in history unless a crude template of contemporary controversy is laid over it.

Giles Chance
Giles Chance
3 years ago

I think, Caroline, you should be less intolerant of laymen like ourselves who want to understand this period, but may lack your focus.

Matt Spencer
Matt Spencer
3 years ago

Not really neccessary.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
3 years ago

Tough crowd Caroline! 🙂

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

Surely you don’t condone her vulgarity?

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
3 years ago

No – just trying to add some levity

Johnny Sutherland
Johnny Sutherland
3 years ago

What vulgarity?

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago

Perhaps up in Dounreay “You idiot” is a friendly greeting?

Down here in Arcadiai it is regarded as vulgar* or rude. Odd isn’t it?

(*Vulgarity is the quality of being common, coarse, or unrefined).

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago

All quiet in Dounreay then?

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago

I condone her post 100%, his trying to make history a mirror on today fell flat with me
““a sort of proto-conservative newspaper columnist warning that the country was going to the dogs because of immigration (he happened to be right, though).””
Good for you Caroline.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

That sort of language is inexcusable, although I grant you she does have a point.
She needs to learn to express herself without such venom.